BY: Theresa Tan
The hospitality started even before I arrived in Turkey.
On the connecting flight from Doha to Istanbul, a fellow passenger told me all about his hometown of Yalova, an hour's drive from Istanbul.
He spoke proudly of the hot springs and lush forests, and offered to show me around if I decided to visit Yalova.
I mentally brushed his offer off and didn't even bother to glance at the telephone number which he had written down for me, thinking he was yet another of those trying to hit on women travellers.
Perhaps I was mistaken.
In my two idyllic weeks in Turkey earlier this year, not a single day went by that I was not astounded by the Turks' warmth.
From busy executives offering to lead me to sights I couldn't locate in Istanbul, to villagers offering their food in Cappadocia, everyone was friendly and welcoming. One night, on a long bus ride across the country, I realised why.
A fellow passenger and a total stranger, who bought me a cup of tea, said: "You are our guest. You are visiting our country."
I was blown away by this generous hospitality, bowled over by charm.
And it's hard not to be charmed by a country that has so much to offer - a wealth of history, a stunning and varied landscape and good, unpretentious food.
Situated at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, the Greeks, the Romans and later, the Ottomans all left their imprints on Istanbul.
This unique blend of cultures, both Western and Eastern, fascinated me.
Take the Blue Mosque, named after the mostly blue tiles that line its walls. Perhaps the most famous sight in Istanbul, it was built by Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century, reportedly to rival the Aya Sofya (Church of the Divine
Wisdom) in grandeur and beauty.
To drive the comparison home, Sultan Ahmet built the mosque opposite Aya Sofya, which was constructed by Emperor Justinian about 1,000 years before the mosque came into the picture.
It was said to be the greatest church in the Christian world until the 15th century when Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city and converted it into a mosque.
On entering the church for the first time, Emperor Justinian was said to have exclaimed: "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon, I have outdone you."
|Pencil-shaped: One of the six minarets
of the mosque.
My travelling companion and I took the six minarets of the Blue Mosque as a landmark on our first night in Istanbul.
But we found ourselves quickly lost.
We discovered a few things at the end of an exhausting walk trying to find our hotel, about a 10-minute walk from the Blue Mosque.
First, there are dozens of mosques in Istanbul. Don't assume every minaret you see from the distance belongs to the Blue Mosque.
Second, wear a pair of good walking shoes. Istanbul is built on seven hills and walking up and down its streets can be very tiring.
But getting lost is part of the fun. If we did not get lost, we would not have chanced upon the amazing fried and grilled fish in a coffee shop at Beyazit. The mackerel I had there was nothing short of breathtaking. The fish was so fresh (like most of the food I had in Turkey) that it probably was having a chat with its mates before it landed on
my plate. Its juicy flesh was infused with a seductive smoky flavour.
It was so good that we ate in silence, savouring every bite deliriously. And the mackerel cost only three liras (S$3.20). What a steal.
Surrounded by four seas - the Black Sea to the north, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Aegean Sea on the west and the inland Sea of Marmara, which connects the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea - the people of Istanbul love their fish. No wonder, it is so fresh and in such abundance. Every fish dish I tasted in Istanbul was good.
If you have an afternoon to spare, take a ferry over to Kadikoy, on the Asian side, and explore its markets and fish restaurants.
I ate dinner twice, at two different restaurants in Kadikoy on my last night in Istanbul. The food was so good and time was running out, so I just stuffed myself until my jeans protested.
A few friends who visited Istanbul said they got sick of the ubiquitous kebabs. I guess they did not do their homework. Yes, there are plenty of mediocre kebab stalls but ask around and you will find some really good ones.
For me, Hamdi Et Lokantasi redefined my idea of kebabs. Its lamb kebab stuffed with pistachio was sublime and the eggplant kebab where a giant eggplant is filled with minced lamb got me wanting more.
To work off the calories, take a walk to the Spice Bazaar with its shops touting all manners of spices, Turkish delights (a jelly-like sweet) and teas.
If you have the time, head for Cappadocia. It may just be a 90-minute flight away from Istanbul but the two places are very different.
Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city, packed with buildings and pulsating with life. Cappadocia is an area carved out by nature, stuffed with bizarre rock formations.
Just imagine, a surreal landscape of volcanic rocks carved into cones, pinnacles and other indescribable shapes. I thought I had stepped into a movie set when the bus pulled up in Goreme, a picturesque village in Cappadocia.
And what better way to appreciate the rocks than to build homes and villages among them?
Today, Cappadocia is dotted with little villages filled with cave hotels, cave churches, cave restaurants and cave everything.
Despite the increasing number of tourists flocking there, Goreme retains its charms. It has that small village feel where people greet one another and you feel safe even walking alone late at night.
And locals such as the hilarious Rezak, a cafe boss, never failed to pop by our table to crack a joke or two. Ali, our guide, shared with us his childhood memories of growing up in Goreme.
And "Fred Flinstone", who manages the excellent Kelebek Hotel and Pension, came to the rescue by taking us to the bus station when our so-called travel agent providing transfers did not show up.
Our last night in Istanbul, on the ferry back from Kadikoy, I asked my buddy to come up with a word or phrase to describe Turkey. I started the ball rolling and said: "Turkey has been a real delight."
She concurred. We couldn't find a better word to describe the country.
|5 things to do
1. Do head down to Ephesus to explore what is perhaps one of the grandest ancient cities in the world. Walk through the 25,000-seat theatre and marvel at the stunning Celsius Library.
2. Do spend an afternoon at the picturesque village of Sirince if you are near Ephesus. Besides its scenic hilltop location, another attraction is its fruit wines, such as apricot and mulberry wine.
3. Do try a Turkish bath or Hamam. It is likely to be an experience you wouldn't forget in a hurry. One vital tip: If you are shy about being seen in public in your birthday suit, carry swimwear with you.
4. Do hop onto a Bosphorus Cruise and take in the Istanbul sights from the famous Bosphorus straits.
5. Do visit the bazaars. Most visitors go to the Grand Bazaar for its multitude of shops selling all kinds of souvenirs and curios, but do not miss the Spice Bazaar, too, as you can sample the Turkish delights, teas and cheeses here.
1. Don't bother with the bus when travelling from Istanbul to Cappadocia. It is a long 12-hour ride and costs about 40 liras (S$44). You can catch a short flight (about 90 minutes) for about 100 euros (S$215).
2. Don't change all your money at the airport. As most money-changers in Singapore do not carry Turkish liras, the temptation is to change all your money at the Istanbul airport. But you will get better exchange rates in the city, so just change enough for your cab fare into the city.
How to get there
Singapore Airlines and Turkish Airlines have direct flights to Istanbul. Turkish Airlines flies there four times a week.
For accommodation in Istanbul, there are plenty of hostels and hotels to suit all budgets. I stayed at Kafkas Hotel, which is within walking distance to the tourist district of Sultanahmet. Don't expect five-star luxury but it is comfortable enough for 40 euros (S$86) a night during low season.
But if money is no object, treat yourself to the Four Seasons in Istanbul (www.fourseasons.com/istanbul).
In Cappadocia, I recommend staying at the Kelebek Hotel and Pension (www.kelebekhotel.com) in Goreme. It is a delightful place to stay without burning a hole in your wallet. My cave room cost 80 liras (S$88) a night.
This article was first published in Life!, The Straits Times on July 1, 2008.