I had originally decided not to blog about my August holiday to Turkey and Greece for a few reasons; one reason being that a recollection of a trip across three countries and eight towns/cities would probably be quite difficult to capture but as the co-author of Spruce, it would be quite stupid to not recollect on a trip of a lifetime, and ultimately because one day I might be able to look back on this travel diary and remember the things which memory may not.
My darling husband, Sean, and I planned this trip for close on two years; we knew we wanted to take a month’s holiday during August to Greece and Turkey to celebrate my 30th birthday. It was my gift from him – and quite honestly the best birthday, or other, gift I have ever received in my life. In reality I could probably write a blog post for every place – each unique and special in its own way – so in order to condense this into one [long] blog post, I have themed this post: “if you do one thing” which will narrow down this post into one highlight for each place we visited in Turkey.
Included here and there are the names of a few hotels and restaurants – if it is named in here it means it is a “cannot miss” place. I may have mentioned this before but I am completely fanatical in my hotel decisions, it needs to be luxurious, small and service-oriented so if they are in here know that it is pretty-bloody-fabulous!
Turkey has always been on the top of my travel list – the intrigue of spice markets, thick coffee and ornate mosques immediately came to mind when I thought of the country. After a weekend in sunny (and hellishly-expensive) London we boarded our flight to Istanbul. I was not entirely sure of what I expected of it, but was captivated from the moment we entered the city.
Besides its incredible history, Istanbul’s location straddling Europe and Asia results in a city filled with marvel. To see the old city – the Sultanhammet – is breathtaking; the Blue Mosque and Haggia Sophia: well-known, well-loved and resplendent in their opposing positions; the ancient ruins (city walls, the remnants of the Hippodrome) fascinating and imagination-captivating. One should not leave the city without at least doing a full day tour of the area- even in 30+ degree heat – it is too rich in history not to!
But if you do one thing – trust me – it would be to make the area of Beyoğlu your base. The new city lies across the Golden Horn from the old city, running from Galata through to Taksim (sight of the infamous riots of 2013). Based upon the recommendation of our guide book, we based ourselves in Beyoğlu which was an outstanding choice. The area felt vibrant and real… and by that I mean not littered with tourist traps. Most travelers will end up staying in one of the hotels in the old city, and while the choices there are fantastic, I cannot recommend enough staying in part of “living” Istanbul.
Our hotel – the incredible Soho House – was almost too good; rooftop breakfasts and afternoon sundowners with views across the shimmering Golden Horn, one thousand minarets scattering the old city skyline, making it almost impossible to venture out. When we did eventually drag ourselves away from the cool respite of the rooftop pool, we were rewarded with buzzing streets, bars, tucked away restaurants, art and shopping. The rest of Istanbul was as magical: upmarket and chic Bebek, Sunset restaurant at dusk with a glass of champagne (what I would call a Hollywood dining experience), cruising up the Bosporus river, the Grand Bazaar’s beautiful arches (although boring wares). Our visit to Istanbul was incredible: four days enough to get a taste for it, enough to want to return one day.
Travellers visiting Turkey usually end up touring Cappadocia, between Istanbul and Ephesus – an early flight in, two days of touring, followed by a flight out to either of the aforementioned areas. Intent on organizing on our own holiday, I planned our visit of Turkey to include Cappadocia but not on a tour schedule. I did end up conceding whilst in Cappadocia given the ease of visiting the multiple attractions and various transfers needed – and besides the decidedly mid-range blandness of the hotel included – it was a great decision as we did not need to worry once about any arrangement. I am certain most people who have visited Cappadocia have done the early-morning balloon ride but if you do one thing visiting here it would be to take the 4.30am wake-up call and get into the basket. Yes, eeeerrrrybody does it, but the moment you are gliding over fairy chimneys and the unique landscape of region you will quickly forget that two hundred other people are experiencing it, too.
I mentioned in my Instagram post of Cappadocia that I was fascinated by the idea of a hot-air balloon form a young age (“Around the world in 80 days” was the catalyst) – so to finally experience it across a magical landscape, at sunrise, was bucket list tick-worthy. Instead of rushing off at the end of our second day in the region, we booked a further night, this time at the Museum Hotel. Perched on the ridge of Uchisar, this glorious cave hotel allowed us to unwind and take the experience of seeing underground cities, primitive cave churches and the incredible scenery of the area. We woke up early (again) the following morning to take in the view of the balloons firing up and gliding across the skies – it was (yet again) another magical experience.
From Cappadocia we began our journey down to the coast. Although I had not wanted to stay in Bodrum, our decision to travel onto Greece a few days later dictated it as really the only choice along Turkish coast line. Our travel book (somewhat) bemoaned Bodrum: it called the small area of Yalikavak (our base) as “middle-of-the-road tourism with an unspectacular beach, hillside scenery blanketed with housing projects”. Let me just say, I was probably as excited as I would have been for a holiday to Durban. Turns out (thankfully) the guide book and my preconceived notions were completely wrong! The coast line of Bodrum was magnificent and our decision to stay in Yalikavak (not in Bodrum town itself) an even better one. I would suggest hiring a car: the area is really quite large and not very accessible on public transport, and will also allow you explore a few other towns in the peninsula.
If you do one thing however, I would recommend a sailing adventure on a Turkish gullet. Despite the fact that our holiday lasted three-and-a-half weeks, we were a touch tight on time so were not able to do a multi-day excursion (Blue Voyage), thus settled for a day trip. There are plenty of options available but all seem to be in the region of 60- 80 lira (approx. 250-350 ZAR) per person, which was actually incredible value given that the amount paid for transfers to and from the Bodrum harbour, lunch and the day of boating. I have heard that Bodrum can be overrun with British package tourists (which in fairness, probably what people say about South Africans in Phuket) so was quite surprised to find our boat was made up of young Turks and locals celebrating a teenager’s birthday.
We sailed in and around beautiful spots – places where the water was so clear and such an exquisite turquoise that my iPhone and camera did little justice to the true depth of the colours. Our cellphone signal hopped from Turkey to Greece – the two countries sharing a ridiculously close marine border – as we alternated between the baking sun on the open deck and naps under shade. While Bodrum, and specifically Yalikavak’s new marina, can be about the display of material wealth our day abroad the gullet felt like the ultimate contrast to that.
People always say Turkey is an intriguing country, and I can add my vote to that. It is a country rich in history but also one not defined by it. Most fascinating, is the secular nature of the country; I have visited a couple of Muslim countries before (which as a Western woman) means behaving a certain way. While the country is still conservative in some ways, the fact that Turkish girls wear bikini’s and not birkinis (not a joke – I saw these in Dubai) says an immense amount about the way Attaruk established his principle of modern Islam. From the bustle of Istanbul and its 16 million people to the majestic coast line of the Bodrum – I peeped into a country so wonderful, vibrant and full of life that it becomes close to impossible to not want to return one day!