While thousands travel to the country of Turkey every year and visit the same sites and hear the same sounds, I am here to share with you my story of Turkey through my eyes…
Istanbul and my spiritual self
It’s only appropriate that I started my journey in the magical city of Istanbul, which offers a glimpse into an ancient past while being able to enjoy the pleasures of the modern world.
In a city with a population of 15 million people, its bustling streets are filled with commotion, friendly smiles, cafes, and Turkish Delight – all surrounded by an untouchable beauty that can’t be found anywhere else. As a city dedicated to the Islamic religion, Istanbul proudly displays its many mosques, elevated above the city’s skyline, with their minarets reaching high into the sky. For me, a beautiful reminder of Turkey’s strong faith.
My curiosity led me to the historic Gulhane Park, a stop in a local shop for Baklava and Chi (tea), window gazing at what seemed to be an infinite amount of Turkish Delight, a walk along the Bosphorus Strait, which divides Turkey into the Asian side and the European side, a visit inside several mosques, a shopping excursion to the Grand Bazaar, which is not so “grand”, a taste of local street food at the spice market where I had my first taste of Kunefe – a traditional Middle Eastern desert – which instantly became one of the best things I ate during my trip.
One of the more notable mosques I visited was the Blue Mosque, or Suleymaniye, which rivals the great mosque in Mecca. Named for the many blue tiles used to decorate the building, this behemoth of a building was built with a large courtyard entrance, six minarets, and an extraordinary interior for praying and gathering.
I have always considered myself more spiritual than religious and I expect that what intrigues me the most is watching others’ dedication and love for something they have put 100% of their faith into. It’s the kind of faith I try to have in myself, which I work to grow every day of my life.
Day of healing
Hitting the road first thing in the morning, I left the hustle and bustle of Istanbul behind to head to the popular Pamukkale, or rather “cotton castle.” Known for its mineral-rich thermal waters that cascade down white travertine terraces, the pools are said to have intrinsic healing powers. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, for thousands of years people ventured to bath in these hot springs and mineral pools. Today, visitors walk along the pools for a chance to dip their toes in the mineral-rich turquoise colored waters.
Resting above the thermal pools is the ancient Roman spa city, Hierapolis, founded in 190 BC. A fragment of what this city used to be is left behind in ruins that include the well-preserved Hierapolis Theater. Resting above the travertine terraces, the theater overlooks the modern town of Pamukkale and offers panoramic views of mystic mountains in the distance. A small hike up to the top of the theatre made me feel like I was standing amongst greatness, which undoubtedly I am sure I was. With 45 rows of seats, holding roughly 15,000 people, its commanding size offered me something to marvel at, for which I was grateful.
While I often love traveling alone, there is a particular joy I get out of traveling with others and sharing in the experience. For this trip, I joined with a travel group of like-minded adventure seekers, through the company Intrepid Travel. We kicked off our adventure together in Istanbul and within just a few days we all became instant friends. Now I don’t mean the best of friends (because well, it had only been two days) but there was an instant connection between everyone. We were all there to learn a little bit about the world and ourselves, which I think lays the groundwork for sociable connections.
I bring this point up because after visiting Pamukkale we headed into town for dinner, well my birthday dinner! The evening was spent enjoying delicious kebabs, meze, and excellent conversation amongst friends. But the highlight of the evening was the surprise of a traditional Turkish birthday cake! I soon found myself at a table with strangers I had just met, singing happy birthday, making me feel instantly at home, despite being 6,500 miles from everything I knew. It was an evening I will forever be grateful to my travel mates for making so memorable.
Unfortunately, later that evening back at our hotel, I woke up quite ill. Maybe too much Turkish birthday cake. I don’t know. It wasn’t the first time I have gotten sick when traveling and I am sure it won’t be the last. I often think its the burden you bear when visiting a foreign country, no matter where you travel. But I wasn’t going to let it keep me from our travels the next day.
Next on the list was the famous Ancient Greek city of Ephesus. Built in the 4th century B.C. during the Classical Greek era, it was home to an estimated 300,000 people at its peak and eventually was consumed by the Roman Empire and became an important city for the Romans. Despite its vastness, only 15% of the city has been excavated, leaving you to wonder what else still remains?
The library, the third largest of the Roman Empire, is the highlight of this ancient city. Towering above all, its walls are filled with ornate carvings, multiple statues, and delicate scriptures, for which I could not read.
And of course what Roman city would be complete without a theater. The grand Ephesus theater is estimated to have sat 25,000 people.
To fuel our bodies after several hours of touring Ephesus we headed to a nearby restaurant to try handmade Gozleme. We were invited to watch as a local cook prepared our meal. Gozleme is a traditional Turkish street food made with flour, salt, and water and some sort of the desired filling. This simple meal was anything but, with incredible taste and freshness, it perked my spirits right up.
Having to skip the visit to the St. John Basilica, I was determined to finish the day with a walk through the town of Sirince. A quiet blend of a traditional Turkish village and a traditional Greek village, it was a great place to enjoy Turkish ice cream, a Turkish coffee demonstration, and wine tasting.
Best known for its bountiful vineyards, Sirince is the perfect place to grow and produce fruit wines. Flavors include peach, orange, mulberry, strawberry, and apricot.
Next stop was the coffee demonstration. Here in this small village, the coffee is brewed using a pan filled with sand that’s heated over an open flame. The sand lets the cups on the surface stay warm, using the heat for brewing. The method is local and traditional, making the coffee taste strong and delicious. To me, it seemed like a lot of work for some coffee but it was fun to watch!
Water is life
Our continued travels then took us to the beautiful seaside town of Kusadasi. Located on the western Aegean Coast, Kusadasi is a popular resort town that offers a beautiful seafront, marina, and harbor.
We spent the morning visiting the local bazaar, Pigeon Island, and walking along the beach. To continue my recently-established tradition of getting my feet wet wherever I travel, I, of course, had to dip my toes in the Aegean. For me, water is an instant connection to Mother Earth and to the source of all life. From the Colorado River in the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the coasts of Turkey and Morocco, my connection with the world continues to grow.
Traveling by Train
The remaining part of the afternoon was spent traveling back to Izmir to board our overnight train to the central Anatolian city of Konya. The 13-hour ride brought us through the beautiful countryside of Turkey – filled with green rolling hills and the occasional small village. As a sort of novelty for me, traveling by train is one of the best ways to see a country.
Our Turkish first-class sleeper cars were a great way to kick off the next adventure in Karatay, a town in Konya Province, the Turkish city that is closely linked to the whirling dervish sect of Islam developed by the 13th-century philosopher and poet Rumi.
A message of love and unity
Our main reason for the stop in Karatay was a visit to the Mevlana Museum, the mausoleum of Rumi. Both followers of Rumi and curious travelers make the pilgrimage from all over the world to visit the tomb of the Islamic philosopher who preached a message of love and unity – a message for which I firmly believe in. Beyond the viewing of his tomb, the museum houses his writings, books of poetry, and historic copies of the Quran.
Traveling even further inland through Turkey’s countryside we visited the underground city of Kaymakli. Located in the central Anatolia region of the country, the city was built to house small communities of Christians who lived underground to escape persecution. The city included small living quarters, kitchens, communal areas, and of course wine cellars. As I made my way through this underground fortress, I couldn’t help but think if we all followed Rumi’s message of love and unity there wouldn’t have been a need for these underground cities.
High on Life
From here we made our way to the highly-anticipated city of Cappadocia. For me, this was a town in Turkey I had longed to visit and explore. Cappadocia is best known for its unusual geological formations called “fairy chimneys” or rather, hoodoos.
One of the best ways to admire the unique landscape is from above, in a hot air balloon. Every morning (when the weather permits) 150 hot air balloons rise from the ground and soar high over Cappadocia’s notorious pinnacles offering visitors the ride of their life.
Our 3:30 AM wake up call was a distant memory as we arrived to watch our 30-person balloon inflate, ready to lift us high into the sky. As we gracefully took off and slowly made our way up towards the clouds, we watched as the sun rose on what can only be described as a magical moment.
For what seemed to be an effortless landing, we all celebrated in traditional style by popping a bottle of champagne and toasting to the good life…and a safe landing!
A Local Experience
After coming back down from my high, we gathered for a hike through the Valley of Love. The relatively flat and easy trail led us through the unique rock pinnacles in Pigeon Valley. Named for the pigeon homes built into the rock formations, local farmers use them to gather the pigeons for the purpose of using their poop as a natural fertilizer.
Having built up an appetite after our hike we were invited via Intrepid Travel to enjoy a traditional meal at the home of a Turkish family, who have occupied the same home for over 200 years and four generations.
Intrepid Travel prides itself on having a local experience and supporting local communities they visit. For this family, the mother is working to put her two daughters through university, so as a way of making money she provides and cooks for us Intrepid travelers. Inviting us into her home, we enjoyed a traditional Turkish meal that took her days to prepare, yes days.
Winning awards for her cooking, I would also suggest she win an award for her hospitality as well. Her warm and welcoming nature sparked a pleasant and refreshing conversation that was met with much gratitude and appreciation for the life she leads.
We quickly got moving after lunch and headed up the hill to the UNESCO – Goreme National Park. A monastic compound composed of churches and chapels – all built into the rock. There are a total of 15 that can be viewed throughout the site. Each one requires a duck down into the cave-like structures, revealing colorful frescos and drawings dating back to the 12th century.
Most did not allow pictures of the inside, there were only a few I was able to capture a picture of.
Continuing to soak up the local culture in Cappadocia some of us attended the live ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes at the historical Caravanserai. Followers of Mevlana, or rather Rumi, are known as Dervishes. Mevlana Dervishes whirl themselves into a meditative trance in order to connect with God. It is said that as the Dervish whirls, he becomes a conduit between the love of God and his creations. The dance they perform is called a sema – a religious dance aimed to reach the source of all perfection.
To cap off the day, the group gathered at a local family-run restaurant known for its Testi kebab. A meat and vegetable dish slowly cooked in a sealed clay pot, for which you must “crack” open before eating. The evening was filled with laughter, chatter, and of course excellent food and wine. We could not have asked for a better way to end our time in the enchanting city of Cappadocia.
How to bond with other women
The next day we hopped on a quick flight back to Istanbul, where it all began. The afternoon was free for us to explore more of this vibrant city, but a few of us wanted to relax after a long week of travel and what better way to do that than with a visit to a Turkish Hamam. So a few of the other women and I solidified our bonding experience by stripping down naked (almost naked, still with our panties on) and partaking in the traditional skin treatment and bath.
Upon entering into the bathhouse, we were greeted with other women sprawled out on the marble floor getting vigorously scrubbed down by the attendants. Traditional style usually means the attendant spends about 15 minutes exfoliating your entire body with a slightly-harsh scrub, then pours puffy clouds of soapy water all over you to wash away your dead skin. Enhanced with a nice massage, I left leave feeling cleaner than I ever have in my life.
Sorry no pictures of this….
It has to end sometime
Our last evening together began with a walk to the riverside along the Galata Bridge for the traditional Balik Ekmek, which is basically fish on bread. Typically cooked mackerel, it was not my favorite meal. I would not recommend, other than to say you’ve tried traditional Turkish street food.
Then a walk across the Galata Bridge brought us to the “new city” of Istanbul where visitors can find a more modern, hip, fresher side of the city. I instantly got the sense, this is where the younger more hip crowds socialized. To end the evening we stopped in a bakery known for its fresh Baklava and enjoyed quite the sampling of this favorite Turkish dessert, capping the evening off with drinks at a local bar.
With an early flight the next morning I had to say goodbye to my new-found friends and travel mates that evening. It is always hard to leave, as you have spent the last week together, bonding over the experiences you’ve shared and learning about the lives they lead and what motivates them to travel.
I always end my travels feeling inspired, charged and ready to explore the rest of the world. It’s an infectious disease that I am happy to carry. To be “intrepid” means to be fearless and adventurous and I believe that is what travel has done for me in my life. I continuously seek to be intrepid with everything I do, letting it take me far from where I first started.