Historical, hip and vibrant, Turkey is still a land of plenty

As a world traveler, I had put a destination on hold until three things lined up: finances, timing, and motivation. But with rumors of a travel ban on the horizon, I accepted the reality that money burns, time melts and memories are the only impressions we can stamp on our minds.

Before masked smiles and nudges became a form of international communication, my husband, Benjamin, and I got our hands on Turkey, going on what would be our last trip in 18 months. We wanted the sub rosa side of Turkey by dividing our trip into three parts: city, countryside, coast. It was our own geographic version of “Eat, Pray, Love” without the introspection.

From LAX, we flew nonstop with Turkish Airlines, offering free city tours and hotel rooms for layovers longer than five hours. For us, part of going ‘all-inclusive’ meant it would be a trip of firsts (and possibly last), including a business class flight. I had to try everything including Turkish delights, turn down service and Versace amenities. Fifteen hours later we landed at Istanbul Airport – the largest in the world at a cost of $12 billion.

We arrived at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, adorned with marble columns and chandeliers bigger than my truck. As the only Ottoman palace transformed into a hotel on the Bosphorus, it made us discover this narrow strait between Europe and Asia.

The best water views were from the hotel restaurant, Tugra. Black-tie waiters, candle-lit tables, and Fausto Zonaro paintings scared me and my wide-eyed husband financially.

Ottoman and Turkish dishes of lamb shank and duck tandir were served with olives bathed in oil, hummus, eggplant, feta and other meze. Benjamin leaned over and whispered, “Exhale. A dish costs less than $30.

Living big without regrets, we decided to go into full-Sultan mode. By day we were sightseeing and by night we would sink into tasselled pillows while devouring household desserts: dried fruit, flaky baklava, and cubes of chewy pomegranate, orange, and honey lokum.

Calories were burned during our four days in Istanbul with Sea Song Tours. From the meditative Süleymaniye Mosque to the Column of Constantine of the Byzantine Hippodrome, history is brought to life in this tangible textbook.

As Benjamin absorbed ideas about religion and architecture, I found myself charmed by some of the 250,000 stray dogs and cats that roamed the city. These healthy-looking fur babies were everywhere, passed out on the sidewalk with their bellies up in the sky. The local government provides food and medical care, so technically they are “home” at the gates of a 16th century mosque.

How could they not be? Between the mosaics and domes of Hagia Sophia, we too felt the comforting reverence of this architectural masterpiece. Built in 537 AD, this Orthodox cathedral-turned-Ottoman mosque honors both the Christian and Muslim religions in homage to one of the most important Byzantine structures created.

Religious freedom seemed almost celebrated in Istanbul, transforming my preconceptions of a turbulent nation into a nation of peace. On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the craft district of Kuzguncuk – known for its colorful townhouses with gingerbread balconies – had mosques, synagogues and churches virtually sharing walls. English worship belted out Christian churches as the Islamic call to prayer rang out in 3,000 mosques afar.

In a city of 15 million people, this testimony to religious pluralism and multicultural identity has sparked a sense of coexistence and prosperity. The waterfront mansions framing the Bosphorus put Beverly Hills to shame, but despite the crowds, the locals were unassuming and inviting, especially in Bomonti.

This Brooklyn of Turkey has a community vibe where everyone knows their neighbor. At the House Hotel we met some locals who invited us for Turkish coffee at Halisunasyon and dinner at Batard. We stumbled across the Farmers Markets, Ara Guler Museum and Glories Chocolate to sample some lemon rose hip truffles.

Devoid of burkas, brawn and bluster, Istanbul was brilliantly alive, poised in an urban posture with the European game. I was addicted to Karakoy, a center of maritime commerce turned into a trendy district of art, fashion and food. The cobblestone lanes framed were funky cafes and hookah bars tucked under grand old apartments veined with ivy and graffiti, as if the hipster offspring of Marseilles and San Francisco.

The paradoxical Istanbul calmed us down in the Serefiye Cistern and woke us up in the Grand Bazaar. Among the merchants haggling over copper and carpets, there were courtyards offering respite from the chaos. Pungent aromas of leather, coffee, tobacco and spices were laid out by a vibrancy that dismantled false perceptions of a dark, monochromatic city.

Our second hotel certainly helped. In the Zorlu Center of the Besiktas district, Raffles Istanbul is the hub of some 3,000 shops, restaurants and galleries. This cosmopolitan establishment boasts an impressive art collection, Michelin-starred chefs and Istanbul’s largest spa.

From hand-blown chandeliers to custom murals in each room, design is in the detail with Byzantine silks, Turkish textiles and golden mosaics. After the pan-Asian fusion in Isokyo, we headed to the spa for a traditional hammam treatment.

If lying naked on a marble slab wasn’t alien enough, we then had our hair washed, our bodies scrubbed, and buckets of water poured over our thighs. With shifting sandpaper gloves, I turned to find Benjamin buried in a mountain of moss. “I think I’m missing a mole,” I whispered.

After the exfoliation, my skin felt like butter and my hair felt like silk. However, once was enough to launch us into the “countryside” part of our trip to Cappadocia.

The Anatolian steppes of central Turkey were carpeted with hoodoos, dovecotes carved into the cliffs, and Dr. Seuss-like rock formations sculpted by centuries of wind and rain. Beneath this lunar landscape are 36 underground cities, including Kaymakli, dating back to 3000 BC.

To maximize our experience, we relied on Ismail from Travel Atelier. From the rocky shrines of Göreme National Park to the tandir lamb of Aravan Evi, Ismail delivered on all fronts, including a last-minute hot air balloon ride at 4am.

Floating 1,500 feet above Rose Valley, we were one of 100 hot air balloons dotting the sky.

Perhaps the most impressive view of the balloon colony was from our hotel, Argos in Cappadocia. In the hilltop village of Uchisar, this ambitious transformation project transformed 51 caves into luxury rooms with reading nooks and plunge pools in suites.

From their Seki restaurant you have a breathtaking view of Pigeon Valley with its vineyards, apricot orchards and stone spiers rising from the ground. It is in this historic cradle of silence where the monks withdrew into solitude, and today travelers enter a monastery of silence, stirred only by the songs of nightingales and pigeon wings.

Our trip could have ended there, but heading east we went to Alacatı on Turkey’s Cesme Peninsula. This seaside playground near Izmir is famous for its beaches, vineyards, and stone houses, but it was the Alavya boutique hotel that won us over.

Six historic homes face an open courtyard of white mulberry and olive trees, where a lap pool, garden restaurant, and yoga pavilion find shade under awnings. Sleek rooms have wood-beamed ceilings, linen bathrobes, patchwork rugs, and Carrera marble bathrooms. Our breakfast was almost a sin, with heaps of figs, plums, olives and cheese drenched in honey.

We would never have left our hotel if the city hadn’t been our winning temptress, luring us in with whitewashed storefronts draped in bougainvillea. Lazy dogs posed under Grecian blue shutters in Instagram-worthy moments, perfected only by kissing couples, yellow sundresses and shiny Vespas.

That evening, we dined at Asma Yaprağı (Vine Leaf), where chef Ayse Nur invites diners into her kitchen. Among the pyramids of Mediterranean and Turkish dishes were braised artichoke, stuffed zucchini flower and baked pumpkin with sun-dried tomatoes.

Despite our morning desire to laze on the beach, we couldn’t leave Alacatı without visiting the wine region. Home of vitis vinifera (vine), Turkey’s Aegean Coast accounts for 20% of the country’s wine production. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Urla, where we traced seven vineyards pouring award-winning blends like Urla Vourla and Nero D’Avola.

Finally, we had our day in the sun in Bodrum on the southwest coast of Turkey. This gateway to beach towns and five-star resorts landed us at the Mandarin Oriental. Golf carts propelled guests through nine restaurants, a private beach, and rooms with views of Paradise Bay.

As hot air balloons are for Cappadocia, so are sailboats for Bodrum. Joining the masses, we cruised the mesmerizing peninsula to lulled coves, where we sprang from the upper deck into the turquoise sea. I must have been snorkeling for five hours gliding over fluorescent corals and chasing schools of chaff. We had lunch on roast octopus, tuna tartar and lobster tagliolini. And then I lay on the bow, asleep and dreaming of Turkey.

In my dream were utopian visions of a unified, many-faced metropolis. There were mysterious caves, satin pillows, and dogs and cats living in harmony. I saw a coastline splashed with five shades of blue. There were hundreds of hot air balloons floating above the time etched stone walls. And in the distance was the resounding cry of prayers echoing through the valleys and canyons.

My reverie ended with a familiar voice. “Wake up, sleepy one,” Benjamin said. “It’s time to go home.”

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