Turkey: highlights and lowlights

Yesterday, I arrived in Athens, Greece, after a two week tour of Turkey with Globus. I’m having some down time before the next tour starts in a day or so, and am lying in bed, listening to the sounds of Athenian traffic, blogging. Thank the Lord for free hotel wifi!

Turkey is an expansive country: it has a rich and diverse history, and some spectacular scenery. The tour was generally very good, and Izzet – our Tour Director – was exceptionally knowledgeable, as well as generous and clear with information. He is very experienced, but towards the end, I could see he was tired (he kept nodding off on the last day’s drive) and a tad stressed. This was very obvious when we landed in Istanbul, and had to fight traffic to get the hotel in the old part, not to mention dealing with the hotel’s reception area, which wanted all our passports to photocopy (they couldn’t find mine for a while when I went back to pick it up – you should have seen me freak out!). He had just finished three back-to-back tours, and was about to start another, so I am empathetic. How anyone stays fresh and passionate as a tour director/guide is beyond me!

However, Izzet also fed us a few (defensive) lines about the hotels, food and outlet shopping, which I didn’t buy for a second and I’ll talk about later in this post.

Highlights

So, having said all that, for me the highlights of the tour are as follows:

Atatürk mausoleum

Having visited Uncle Ho’s mausoleum in Vietnam, and Chairman Mao’s in China, I understand that these things are often a vehicle for propaganda. However, while Atatürk’s mausoleum certainly had elements of that, I found the architecture and vibe of the place almost spiritual. I want to learn more about this amazing man.

Cappodocia

This area was both visually stunning and historically rich. While I didn’t do the dawn balloon ride like some other passengers, I felt blessed to have seen this beautiful volcanic landscape.

Hieraoplis and the travertines

As far as ruins go, I could have wandered around this site for a day, rather than a few short hours. While it was quite crowded, the area didn’t have the claustrophobic feel of Ephesus. And the travertines were just stunning.

Gallipoli

I was incredibly moved by my Gallipoli visit. Walking among the graves, along the beach and then more graves at Lone Pine was an emotional experience. Funny how something that happened so long ago – that I had no part in – resonates as part of my genetic fabric.

Cities

My favourite big cities were Istanbul, Ankara, Bursa and Izmir. Istanbul was crazy full of people: a whirling chaotic mass of people and vehicles. The cruise along the Bosphorus was a highlight, and a haven from the madness. Ankara was genteel, pretty and understated, while Izmir – as a coastal city – had the loveliest of vibes. It truly was a “feel good” city. Bursa was where I experienced the charm of Turkish men, so I will always have a soft spot for this city.

Antalya

I celebrated my 50th birthday in a luxury hotel on the Turquoise Coast. It was awesome.

Ferry crossings

We had two ferry crossings on the trip: one to get to the Asia Minor part of Turkey (which makes up the bulk of the land mass) and the other was via the Dardanelles to return to the European part of Turkey, where Gallipoli is located. The ferries are big enough for buses and trucks.

Tüz Gölu

This massive salt lake on the way to Cappodocia is visually stunning in an alien kind of way. It’s the second largest lake in Turkey, is quite shallow when filled with water, and supplies 60% of Turkey’s salt. It has 33% salinity, making it one of the saltiest in the world.

Truck stops

I was expecting more Turkish food on this trip than we actually had. I’ve found experiencing local cuisine is one of the best ways to get to know a country. Instead, we had hotel buffet after hotel buffet after hotel buffet. Urgh. The only places we really got authentic food was at truck stops, which are almost a Turkish version of the Autogrill. While some stops seemed dodgy in terms of cleanliness, I really liked eating at them. The beans, rice and veggies were my favourite dishes.

Not getting sick

A lot of the other passengers got quite sick with stomach issues (vomiting and diarrhea) on the trip, but somehow I managed to escape. What was worse for them was once they got it, they couldn’t seem to shake it. Other (ill) passengers said I had the constitution of an ox, and were going to follow me around and eat and drink what I did! FYI I drank tap water rather than bottled water, stuck to mainly eggs, dairy, protein, salads and veggies and had a couple of glasses of wine at night. I’ve been very lucky when I’ve travelled – I’ve never really been sick.

Lowlights

And here are the lowlights:

Hotel food

As mentioned earlier, I was expecting to eat Turkish food. Unfortunately, it was all hotel buffets. The food was mostly westernised, and I didn’t buy it for a second when Izzet said that’s what Turks are preferring to eat now. I think it’s more about logistics: finding restaurants that can cope with 40+ people is difficult.

I got so tired of hotel food, I lost my appetite for a few days. It has resurfaced in Athens, thanks to awesome food (I had the best pork yiros last night for dinner!). I also think the hotel food was also responsible for the high incidence of stomach issues among my fellow travellers. Flies buzzing around buffets is not good for anyone’s health.

Tired hotels

We stayed in some fabulous hotels (Surmeli in Istanbul, the Hilton Garden Inn in Konya, Marmera Beach Resort in Antalya, and the Crowne Plaza in Izmir) but also in some dodgy ones that were old, tired and noisy. The dodgy ones (Peri Tower in Cappodocia, Lycus River Thermal and Spa in Pamukkale, and Tusan near Troy) were the ones where people experienced tummy troubles. Coincidence? I think not. And I didn’t buy for a second Izzet’s line that these are the best hotels in the area.

Optional excursions

I usually do the optional tours, but of the four that were offered on this tour, I only did one: the cruise along the Bosphorus on the last day in Istanbul. Belly dancing and dinner was one, whirling dervishes was another, and visiting ruins near Antalya was also offered. None of them interested me, so I opted out and saved my cash.

Big tour group

I didn’t mind the size of the group on last year’s tour of Italy, or this year’s tour into former Yugoslavia, but for a number of reasons, the size of the group got to me a bit in Turkey. I was painfully aware that we were not eating at local restaurants (in Italy, this was part of the optional tours), and there was no stopping the bus for pictures of the scenery (logistically difficult). And because I didn’t get a seat to myself, I seemed to always be with people, albeit mostly nice ones. I craved more alone time.

Bus seating

There were no spare seats on the bus (well, there would have been if Izzet had sat in his allocated spot near the driver!), so I was forced to share my seat when I really didn’t want to. For most of the journey I sat with a Greek American lady who was very nice and quite chatty. But she got to me by the end of the trip when a) she’d nudge me to tell me something when it was clear I was dozing and b) got sick on the last day. I sat as far away from her as humanly possible on shared seating, praying that I didn’t get what she had (I’m pretty sure it was something she ate, but still).

Very early starts late in the tour

The first part of the tour – up to Antalya – was very civilized: wake up calls at 7am, leaving the hotel at 8.30ish for the day. The second part had us waking up and on the road an hour earlier, and because this was coupled with long road trips, was punishing and quite exhausting. By Troy, we were all so over it, we’d built a bridge. Getting there late in the day (5pm) only to be herded through a less than exciting site was akin to torture for most people.

Souvenir crap

I don’t think I have seen so much souvenir crap in all my life, all made in China or Pakistan. At each stop, the crap there out-crapped all the other crap we had seen at previous stops by a weighting of at least 100%. I bought absolutely nothing in Turkey (apart from a pretty scarf and some Turkish Delight at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul for my daughter). There was nothing unique or different that inspired me enough to want to dip into my wallet.

Pushy salesmen at leather outlet

I was totally unprepared for how pushy – bordering on aggressive – the salesmen at this particular outlet were. I ended up being quite rude, and even telling one dude how pushy and unpleasant he was. He shrugged his shoulders and moved onto a more vulnerable target.

Free time

I know there has to be a balance to suit everyone’s interests as well as there being a schedule to maintain, however, I felt that places like Hierapolis weren’t done justice because the time spent there was minimal. In other places – like the chapel area of Göreme in Cappadocia – we were scratching to fill our time there. And some cities like Izmir and Ankara would have been awesome to spend more time in.

Overall

I’m glad I visited Turkey, but by the time I reached Ephesus, I was pretty much over it. Yes, the scenery was stunning and the history rich and vibrant. Yes, the men are handsome and charming and I met some really nice people on the tour. Yes, I’ve got some fabulous pictures that I can’t wait to go through and edit. And yes, I can now say I’ve been, particularly to Gallipoli. But all-in-all, I was happy to be flying to Athens, Greece the day I did.

1 Comment

  • Land tour of Greece: highlights and lowlights | The Travelling Homebody October 6, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    […] Well, the land part of my tour has all but finished. A two nighter in Athens, then I’m boarding the Louis Olympia for a four day cruise around the Greek Islands. Greece has been a welcome respite from Turkey, where I think I suffered from a case of “tour burnout“. […]

    Reply

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