Exuberance in Turkey
Dale Zurawski | June 20th, 2017
Istanbul’s Sultan Hamam Turkish bath may look like a mosque from the outside, but inside awaited a simple pleasure that all babies love and most adults have forgotten. My husband, Geoff, and I were separated into areas for men and women. We were then bathed by a personal assistant in loose traditional clothing. After being washed and rinsed with a stream of water, we laid on a slab of warm marble under a beautiful white-marble dome while our assistants scrubbed us with fragrant, oily bubbles and rinsed us with cool water. It was invigorating yet relaxing.
Our delightful bath illustrates the sort of exotic experiences Turkey offers in abundance. Despite current political tensions, we found tolerance deeply imbedded in Turkish culture. Our travels in Turkey began with a week of sipping double gin and tonics on a luxury yacht known as a gulet. But following that, we were anxious for a taste of real life in this 99% Muslim country located between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Our yacht dropped us off in Kalkan on the southwestern coast; from there we drove a Hertz rental north to the Pamukkale Travertine, a geological site in central Anatolia. Our two-lane highway, winding along the central coast, passed through numerous small towns with restaurants at every stoplight. With patience, we found lunch at a restaurant that met our criteria: lots of people, outdoor seating with greenery for shade, and available parking. Even small restaurants served an incredible variety of fresh, delicious Mediterranean dishes.
Tourism is down, so though we arrived in Pamukkale late in the afternoon, we found a hotel directly across from the Travertine with air-conditioning and a pool. Staying in small hotels proved perfect for getting to know Turks. The friendly owner manned the check-in and tourist-information desk. A waiter served up his wife’s cooking while his grandfather observed all the action. The family had lived in Pamukkale since before the Travertine was developed into a tourist attraction 50 years ago.
The Travertine is a mountain of white chalky mineral deposits from warm, odorless spring water. It rushed down channels splashing into large pools carved into the soft deposits. Dotting the site were Europeans in bikinis, Arab women in burkas, and local Turks dressed between those extremes. Some simply waded. We, like many others, used the seductive pools as lounging spots and exfoliated with the fine salts. Soon after stepping out, the desert air left us cool and refreshed. At the end of a delightful hike, we were rewarded with shaded seating, beer, ice cream, and homemade yogurt as well as the Roman ruins of Hierapolis.
Greeks, Romans, Jews, Christians, and, finally, Muslim Turks, all attracted to the healing powers of the thermal baths, had settled this site. Hierapolis was not alone in seeing multiple cultures come and go. During our week at sea, we dropped anchor at Mira, a town in Anatolia’s Lycia region. Lines of Christian tourists visited the church and burial site of St. Nicholas. Turks hawked wares near the Roman amphitheater and burial tombs. Turkey’s diverse cultural history helps explain the religious tolerance still enjoyed today.
A guide we hired for several days provided insight on this mysterious country. Though inhabited since about 6000 BC, the ancestors of today’s Turks, moving southwest from Mongolia, first settled the area in the 900s. Following World War I, these formerly Ottoman-ruled lands were briefly attached to Greece until modern, secular Turkey was formed in 1924. Though mostly Muslim, Turks are not Arabs and speak a language similar to Iran’s Farsi.
Leaving Pamukkale, it took us five hours to drive the 118 miles to Ephesus, the granddaddy of Turkey’s ancient ruins. Though the highway was marked with two and, in places, four lanes, we drove politely and didn’t pass trucks. The Hertz agent never mentioned that the word “DUR” on a red octagonal sign doesn’t exactly translate to “stop,” as Google informed us. Rather Turks, like Brazilians, treat stop signs as a suggestion to yield. But driving felt safe, even though we skipped Hertz’s insurance option. We saw no roadblocks or security forces toting machine guns, though we did avoid areas near the Syrian border to the southeast. The Turkish flag was widely flown to protest extremism.
The ancient ruins of Ephesus were impressive despite the rain and our guide’s unwillingness to expand on his overused script. Even though the Romans built the city a century before Christ, the toilet seats were heated. Piping carried sewage five miles away from the port. When it clogged with silt and malaria from resulting swamp hit Ephesus, inhabitants built a new city farther away than a malaria mosquito could fly. Early Christians, including the Apostles John and Paul, also settled here, an illustration of Turkey’s multi-religious history.
Turks drink loads of tea in thin glasses too hot for us to hold, but they also drink raki, a clear distilled liquor that tastes like licorice but isn’t sweet. Restaurants and bars also serve wine and Efes, a local beer similar to Budweiser. Not being a wine connoisseur, I can’t compare the Turkish wine to California fare, but it isn’t expensive. A bottle costs around $7 in a fine restaurant. I’ve suffered through worse in Santa Monica.
After two weeks in rural areas, we headed for cosmopolitan Istanbul, a regional hub—Turkish Airlines’ magazine boasts that it flies “to more countries than any other airlines.” The Bosporus Strait slices through Istanbul, connecting the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. This is a key trade route for Russia and Ukraine, including the peninsula of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. We stayed in a boutique hotel in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu area, a young, hip neighborhood away from the tourist crowds. Restaurant tables lined the streets. Locals were friendly, with diners and shopkeepers frequently welcoming us into conversations.
We expected Istanbul to resemble its Grand Bazaar, with streets packed with peddlers haggling over prices for exotic goods. But it was mostly quiet and free of heavy traffic. Government workers had traveled to their home villages for a nine-day holiday to celebrate the Slaughter Festival. That sounded ominous, but the tradition includes giving part of the slaughtered sheep to the poor, similar to our Thanksgiving tradition of giving slaughtered turkeys to the needy.
The Grand Bazaar was closed, but mosques and the Topkapi Palace, a home for sultans, were open and mostly free of visitors. In Ottoman times, the Sultan and his entourage of some 4,000 lived in this walled 160-acre park full of riches. The Sultan’s harem lived safely inside, attended by eunuchs. Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace was pleasantly inviting with light, airy rooms, intricate tile work, courtyards, and greenery.
Our Istanbul guide, Osman, explained the call to prayer heard in all Muslim countries. When not giving tours, he uses a mat to pray. Only a tenth of Turks go to a mosque to pray for 10 minutes five times a day. His college-educated working wife wears a colorful headscarf out of modesty and respect for Allah; headscarves are less common in Istanbul and western coastal regions than in rural areas. In the multigenerational groups of women we saw, the youngest were those most likely to be in Western clothes. As Osman pointed out, the Koran does not instruct women to wear burkas. Those we saw were on women visiting from Arab countries.
To enjoy Turkey, it helps to like cats. Turks let cats roam freely through restaurants. More than once I wanted to give a little kitty a forceful swipe off our table. Asked to reveal Islam’s most-important teaching, Osman told me a good Muslim would never leave a mosque and kick a cat.
Turkey is about exuberance. Lunch on Istanbul’s Asian side turned into a feast so good we could barely contain our excitement. We rode atop a sleek ferry down the Golden Horn inlet, crossing from Europe to Asia’s westernmost city in less than 30 minutes. Relaxing at an outdoor cafe with hookah smokers across the street, we chose from a menu offering ten types of salad, six pages of kebabs, and a buffet with Mediterranean dips, a delight typical in Turkey but rare in the States. As part of a haircut after lunch, Geoff’s nose and ears were waxed to remove hair. It was a blast like nothing we had experienced.
Turkey sits between a turbulent Middle East and a resurgent Russia. Turkey’s president is becoming disturbingly more powerful. Yet judging the country by Recep Erdogan’s actions is like assessing America by reading Donald Trump’s tweets. Turkey still offers a brand of tolerant Islam, educates women, and treats visitors to the simple pleasures of good food and conversation, not to mention bathing assistance. Besides, American tourists in Turkey put a human face on our country. So come have a drink and let your hair shine.
Turkish Airlines flies nonstop from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York, and Washington DC. Nonstop flights start around $750 from LA and $650 from NY. Major rental car companies service airports and cities.
Telephones and internet:
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (international dialing code), 90 (country code for Turkey) and the local number. Internet available at all hotels listed.
Where to stay:
Witt Hotels Istanbul Suites, Defterdar Yokusu No. 26; 212-293-1500, www.wittistanbul.com. Boutique hotel in trendy Cihangir neighborhood, 18 suites and citywide views from the garden roof. Double rooms begin at $100, including breakfast.
Koza Cave Hotel in Goreme, No: 49 Goreme/Cappadocia; 384-271-2466, www.kozacavehotel.com. Ten rustic elegant cave rooms, centrally located, spectacular views. Double rooms begin at $85, including breakfast.
Hotel Hal-Tur, Mehmet Akif Ersoy Bulvan 71; 258-227-2723, www.haltur.net. Family-owned with 11 rooms, best Travertine terraces view in town, restaurant and pool. Double rooms begin at $85, including breakfast.
Sirince, near Ephesus:
Nisanyan Houses Hotel, Sirince Koyo; 232-898-3208, www.nisanyan.com. Located in a rural village 5 miles from Ephesus, 20 units split between historic cottages and two inns. Double rooms begin at $100, including breakfast.
Where to eat:
360 Istanbul, Istiklas Caddesi 163, Beyoğlu; 212-251-1042, www.360istanbul.com. Rooftop bar and restaurant visited by glamorous Turks and jet-setters. Entrees from $20.
Çiya Sofrasi, Caferağa Mahallesi, Güneşli Bahçe Sk. No:43, 34710 Kadıköy; 216-330-3190, . Eatery Asian-side of Istanbul, large selection of regional mezes and kabobs. Entrees from $10.
Akarsu Yokusu Sokak has many street restaurants in the Beyoğlu district that are visited by trendy locals and serve Turkish and international dishes. Entrees from $5.
Fat Boys Cafe, Turgut Ozal Meydanı, Göreme;
536-936-3652. A central spot for viewing the action from comfortable cushions on the terrace, considered the best food in town. Entrees from $3.
Hotel Hal-Tur Restaurant, 20280 Pamukkale/Denizli;258-272-2723, . Hotels, in general, provide the best home-cooked meals in the village. Entrees from $3.
Sirince, near Ephesus:
Nisanyan Houses Hotel, Sirince Koyo; 232-898-3208, https://www.nisanyan.com. Local food and fine wines served at cozy tables overlooking the village. Entrees from $30.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY- September 25, 2015: Crowds milling in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district shows Western dress and lack of head scarfs. Mosques require men wear long pants and women cover their heads, arms, and legs to enter.
PAMUKKALE, TURKEY-September 10, 2015: Tourists strolling on human-made walkways at the Travertine can bathe in pools or hike up the hill to Hierapolis. Many pools retain fine, exfoliating salts.
PAMUKKALE, TURKEY-September 10, 2015: Examples of swim attire at the public swimming pool allows for a variety of suits.
SELCUK, TURKEY-September 22, 2015: Dating back to the 10th century BC, the Greeks designed advanced technology at Ephesus. At this public latrine, toilet seats were air warmed, and a trough carried wastewater five miles away from the port.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY- September 26, 2015: Restaurants provide plenty of options to dine while relaxing with a cigarette, a beer, or cup of hot tea.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY- September 25, 2015: Open to the public, the mosque inspires prayer and provides a place to reflect. Women pray in the back of the mosque.
BODRUM, TURKEY- September 10, 2015: Turkish breakfast served on our gullet exhibited a variety of cheeses, yogurt, fruits, and vegetables. Turks enjoy a Mediterranean diet that is both delicious and healthy.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY- September 25, 2015: Visitors to the Sultan Ahmet mosque encounter signs requesting them to cover themselves. Once inside men and women remove their shoes and store them in cubby holes.