A Cultural Tour of Turkey

—by Steve Emmett, Solano Beach, CA

It was already May of 2006 and time for another trip abroad, so after perusing issues of last year’s International Travel News and sending several e-mails to three different companies, my wife, Yuki, and I elected to use Cultural Folk Tours (San Diego, CA; 800/935-8875, www.boraozkok.com) for a trip to Turkey.

As you can imagine, it’s not possible to visit all of Turkey in 18 days or so, so we had to make some choices. Western Turkey, bordering the Mediterranean, is lovely and seems to have more Roman ruins than Italy and Greece combined, but as we had seen many such ruins on other trips, Cultural Folk Tours’ staff quickly came up with a private tour to eastern and central Turkey for us, with a visit to the absolutely-must- see Istanbul.

Incidentally, the company’s owner himself, Bora Özkök, conducts group tours. The folks on one such tour whom we met in Turkey had been traveling with him for as long as a month, and some had been on two or three trips with him in the past. All were nice, easy-to-get-along-with, intelligent people, so don’t think that arranging a private tour as we did is necessary, as it clearly isn’t.

A complicated beginning

Getting an upgraded ticket from American Airlines proved to be impossible, so we used our mileage to purchase first-class tickets from San Diego to Turkey and back. We had to stop in Chicago, Boston, Zürich and Istanbul before we reached our destination of Ankara, and actually only the Boston-Zürich flight was first class; on the rest we were in business class.

In addition, if you buy first-class tickets using your mileage, you cannot use the American Airlines lounges, which is both annoying and petty. Another caveat is, and this surprised me, the airlines’ computers can only print itineraries with up to four stops, so if you are flying to a fifth city, you have to pick up your bags yourself in the fourth city and take them to the airline’s check-in counter for the last leg of your trip.

American Airlines’ business class on flights within the U.S. was barely acceptable, but first class aboard SWISS was fabulous, with excellent food and very comfortable sleeper beds. Within Turkey, we flew Turkish Airlines, whose business class (they don’t have first class) was, for the short flights, okay. As always, security outside the U.S. was more relaxed and friendly.

As promised, our bags were waiting for us in the international section of the Ankara airport, and with a casual wave of the hand we cleared Turkish Customs. We took a $50 taxi ride to Hotel Etap Altinel (06570 Tandogan, Ankara). There is a bus that will transport you for about $15 for two, but we had a lot of suitcases and were tired, so we decided to use it the next time.

The hotel has nonsmoking rooms and a business area with free WiFi connections to the Net. I would rate it as acceptable, perhaps four stars.

On to the east

The next morning we taxied back to the airport. Our flight to Van, in eastern Turkey, took but an hour, and when we landed the weather was warm with bright blue skies and nary a cloud. The mountains around the famous Lake Van were still capped with snow and there are almost no buildings or hotels along the shore, which made it extremely scenic and lovely.

Our hotel, Otel Akdamar (65100 Kazim Karabekir cad 9, Van), was old and smoke-filled, but we were kindly given a newly renovated room and it was, all in all, a comfortable 3-star experience. There is a newer hotel around the corner, the Tamara (which I did not investigate), and the lovely new Merit hotel is on the lake, but from there one would need a car to get to town.

Our guide, Ozgur Cangulec (cangulec-ozgur@hotmail.com), spoke excellent German and passable English and, as a native of Van, was quite knowledgeable about the area. The highlights included the 15th-century Akdamar Church, built on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Van; the famous Van cats, white with eyes of different colors; the Hosap Castle, and lots of nice people.

Also recommended is the Urartu Hali carpet store (www.urartu.com.tr) on Lake Van. They have carpets from all over the world at excellent prices, and the owner speaks fluent English.

We ate breakfast at the Sütçü Fevzi restaurant (Cumhuriyet Cad. Esk., Sumerbank SK #9) and would highly recommend it. They offer lots of local dishes, all excellent and each more than one person can eat.

As Van is near Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq and Syria, some have suggested that it is dangerous to visit. When we were there, it was absolutely safe as well as bucolic, with locals eager to have tourists. I would love to own a house on Lake Van!

In and around Ankara

Before boarding our flight to Ankara, I realized that I had to personally identify our luggage. Any luggage that is not identified won’t be put aboard the plane, so be sure to claim yours.

Upon arrival in the city, we had some free time. We first went to Atakule, a very tall tower in the heart of Ankara. As it overlooks all the embassies, they tell you not to take pictures from it. It also houses a wonderful new shopping center complete with a modern supermarket, so you can stock up on anything you might have forgotten.

After dinner in the same Etap hotel we stayed in on our first night in Turkey, we both had a relaxing massage (about $20 each) before alternating among the wet-heat and dry-heat saunas and the cool pool and “shock” pool. The dry-heat sauna was HOT!

The next day we met our new guide, Mustafa Gulec (mustafa gulec@hotmail.com), a fascinating gentleman who speaks fluent English, Dutch, German, French and even Flemish! Having finished two master’s degrees, he was working on a Ph.D. in Linguistics (in English) at a Dutch university. Needless to say, we were not limited to simple declarative sentences, and we liked him so much that we arranged for him to accompany us on the rest of our tour.

Our driver for central Turkey, Yusuf Arslan, was also a gem, and he soon learned what we wanted to see and photograph and would pull over to the side of the road before we could even ask him to. He too is highly recommended (cell 90 0 544 226 5091/92 — in Turkish).

Our first stop was north of Ankara at the city of Safronbolu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with old buildings. A friend there arranged for us to stay at Cinci Han, a caravanserai from 1640 that was both picturesque and comfortable.

The overcast skies diminished our chances of excellent photos, so after a nice dinner with my friends there, we left early the next morning for the famous Museum of Anatolian Civilizations back in Ankara. Visitors often spend days enjoying the excellent antiquities of many civilizations on display there, but as we had many miles to travel we spent but an hour or so before continuing to Anit Kabir, Ataturk’s mausoleum.

Be careful when you visit this site. There are grassy areas between each of the bricks on the climb to the mausoleum and it would be easy to catch a heel and twist or even break an ankle.

After a brief stop at the tomb of Hacı Bektas¸ Veli, the revered leader of the Alevis, a Muslim sect comprising about 20% of the Turkish population, we arrived at the Cappodocia Cave Suites (www.cappadociacave suites.com). The accommodations, in man-made caves mirroring the famous caves of Cappadocia, were 5-star, with wonderful food, interesting rooms and attentive service.

Sightseeing, above and below ground

Next it was off to the Göreme Open-Air Museum, which is neither in the open air nor a museum but instead is a collection of caves with some lovely frescoes and mosaics of Christian scenes on the walls.

Each cave is identified as to whether it was a chapel, church, refectory, etc., but one doesn’t need that amount of detail to appreciate them both from a religious or a photographer’s viewpoint. (The two of us took 3,500 photos on this trip, so you can understand that there are many chances for fascinating photos.)

In the morning, we took a balloon ride over Cappadocia. Costing about $300, it was well worth it, so don’t miss out. Later we went seven stories underground in the Kaymakli caves. They are well lit and well marked, so they weren’t as scary as I thought they might be, but I can understand how generations of people living in Cappadocia safely hid from various invaders there. I certainly wouldn’t want to be wandering around underground with at most an oil lamp to light my way.

The temperature in the caves is so ideal, both in summer and winter, that some people still live there and/or use them to store perishable items.

Farther south are the famous 2,000-year-old statues atop Mt. Nemrud. Knowing how tired I was after climbing the last half hour to the top, I couldn’t imagine how they got the statues up there. (See www. adiyamanli.org/mt_ nemrut.htm for a nice discussion of the statues.) The best times to see them are at sunrise and sunset; we were there at sunset.

We stayed at the Zeus Hotel (Mustafa Kemal Caddesi #14, Kahta, Adiyaman), which was clean and offered WiFi connections to the Internet — all in all about a 3_-star stay. No-smoking rooms were not available, but the rooms were clean and odor free.

Heading back to Istanbul

After a brief stop at the small but pleasant bazaar at S¸anlıurfa, we found ourselves at the border with Syria, clearly having missed the turnoff to Harran, so we backtracked to this town with the famous conical-roof houses. This site is mentioned in the Book of Genesis; Abraham is said to have stayed there.

The houses, with their tall, beehive-shaped roofs, are cool during the hot summer days, and locals use similar construction techniques even now. There are only a few stones left of the nearby 1,500-year-old university, but the fort, also just a few minutes away, is still a dramatic image.

Our next evening was spent in Gaziantep at Hotel Tilmen (Inönü Caddesi #168), which was clean, with excellent Internet service, but the hot water was just adequate. At Imam Cagdas (Eski Hal Civari, Uzun Carsi #14) we feasted on the best baklava that I’ve ever had in my life (it literally melted in my mouth and it was hard to stop devouring it) and excellent pistachios, which make a great gift.

We then drove to Adana, where we caught a brief flight to Istanbul (there is only one flight per day from Gaziantep to Istanbul, so if you miss it you’re stuck for another day), then motored to the Barceló Eresin Topkapi Hotel (Millet Caddesi 186), nominally five stars.

While it has an excellent location, directly on a tram line to the heart of Istanbul (useful during rush hour), the folks working there were, by and large, rude, the phones and toilet needed repairs several times, and I thought $24 for two local calls was a bit much. (When a representative of Cultural Folks Tours contacted them, someone did call me and said he would e-mail an apology, but that, too, did not arrive.) There was a Holiday Inn across the street which looked new and was similarly convenient, so it might be worth investigating a stay there.

Speaking of convenient hotels, Istanbul’s Four Seasons (Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1) is within walking distance of the Grand Bazaar, Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and I understand it has won some travel awards.

Across the street from the Four Seasons is the Seven Hills Hotel (Tevkifhane Sok #8/A 34122 Sultanhamet). The restaurant on the roof is superbly placed for photos of the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, so plan on visiting there midday and at night. The AND Hotel (Yerebata Cad. Cami Cikmazi #40, Sultanahmet), near Aya Sofia, also has a restaurant/coffee shop that is perfect for close-up photos of that famous site.

Must-see sights

Istanbul is a city with a long and magnificent history, providing a plethora of pleasures for visitors. Besides the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia and the Grand and Spice bazaars (the latter two attractions alone are worthy of a week’s stay), there are some less-well-known-but-must-see sites.

The Islamic Arts Museum, housed in the Ibrahim Pasha Palace (Meydan 46), has lovely gold plates, old rugs and wonderful Korans on display and a nice, quiet, cool garden in which to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown Istanbul.

A few minutes away is the Kariye Museum, formerly the Church of the Chora Monastery. The bright gold, red and blue 600-year-old mosaics in this 1,500-year-old church/mosque will take your breath away.

Topkapi Palace is deservedly famous but was so crowded the day we went that it was hard to connect with the antiquities there. The palace contains lovely examples of Baroque architecture for those who like that style.

Also, throughout Istanbul delicious food is available. Recommended eateries include the Cemal Restaurant (Capariz Sok #27) for fish. This restaurant is on a street in the Kumkapi quarter that is closed to traffic and filled with diners in the evening.

We had a tasty and leisurely, though not inexpensive, lunch at the Borsa Restaurant at the Istanbul Convention & Exhibition Centre (Lütfi Kirdar Uluslararasi Kongre ve Sergi Sarayi; phone 90 212 232 4201/02). It had a nice view of Istanbul.

We also ate at a restaurant for tourists, the Darüzziyafe. The food was terrible and the water, suspect — a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

To learn more

For those truly interested in the history of Istanbul, I highly recommend contacting Kate Drummond. We caught the last 45 minutes of her lecture on Istanbul while sitting at the AND Hotel and were fascinated. I don’t ordinarily like to sit through such talks but was soon entranced by her amusing and educational teaching style. She can be reached at kated@intrepidtravel.com.

Our time in Turkey passed quickly, and too soon it was time to leave. One final surprise was finding excellent pottery and other souvenirs in the airport in the area after passport control. We hadn’t seen such high-quality pieces in the Grand Bazaar or in stores along the streets, so I’d recommend leaving some space in your carry-on for handmade coffee and Turkish coffee cups, among other pieces.

The Turkish Airlines business-class seats were moderately comfortable, the food, moderately good and the service, actually quite attentive, on our direct flight home to Chicago.

Our private tour arranged by Cultural Folk Tours cost about $5,200 for the two of us, including all hotels, guides, breakfast (and dinner if eaten at the hotel), entrances to museums and a small Mercedes van; it did not include the international airfare. Do arrange for a van or small bus — far more comfortable than a car.

We made a lot of new friends on this trip and realize that we’ve seen only a small part of a huge and wonderful country. We highly recommend travelers consider visiting Turkey in the near future.