In July of 2019, I had the opportunity to travel to Turkey and visit Istanbul, Cappadocia, Izmir, and Bodrum. I had heard Turkey was a dream destination that offered culture, ancient history, wonderful food, and legendary Turkish hospitality. I knew little about Turkey and had sent a few clients to Istanbul and Bodrum, and everyone raved…you must go so I added it to my bucket list.
I was excited as I booked my plane ticket but 3 days later the US Department of State changed the warning level to 3 (reconsider travel), causing me to question whether I really should go. I registered with the STEP program (a website you fill out to notify the US government where you will be traveling), kissed my family goodbye and hoped I would make it back home. Pretty dramatic, but I go so you know.
I was met on arrival at the New Istanbul airport by VIP arrival services to help expedite my arrival into Turkey, which meant no lines, no waiting and I was through customs in 5 minutes. This service also includes a golf cart, so you can avoid the very long walk to get to baggage claim and on to customs from your arrival gate. The new Istanbul Airport is one of the largest and busiest airports in the world so without this service it’s likely I would have walked at least two miles.
Once through customs I was greeted by my English speaking guide. In Turkey, most drivers do not speak English so there is always an English speaking guide to accompany you. Once we had gathered the other travelers in my small group tour we headed out to our van. Our guide gave us some information on Turkey being a secular nation – meaning while it is a Muslim majority country – there are Christians and Jews and everyone is free to worship how they wish. He also advised us not to drink the tap water. While it was fine for brushing teeth and bathing, bottle water was what we should drink. I learned more about Turkey’s culture on our short ride from the airport which started to put me at ease about my safety concerns.
One of my early concerns about how to dress was quickly addressed on my ride from the airport. Pretty much anything goes from shorts and tank tops to Burkas. Personally, I dressed a bit more conservative while in Istanbul (sleeveless dresses, capri pants, etc) than I usually travel as I was unsure what would be acceptable. By the end of the trip, I was wearing shorts and tank tops because it was hot!
Upon arrival at our hotel on the Bosporus, I was surprised that we had to go through a security gate where our vehicle was inspected before being allowed to pass. After that, we had to pass through a metal detector and our bags when through the x-ray machine, just like at the airport, before being allowed to enter the hotel. At first, I was alarmed by this and then I realized these procedures were for my safety. This is a routine we would go through at every hotel and tourist sites.
Our first full day in Turkey was spent taking a cruise along the Bosporus where our tour guide discussed the history and culture of the Turks. We also discussed politics and religion and it was interesting that Turkey and the US have very similar political climates. I learned that the majority of Muslims in Turkey are Sunni Muslims, which our guide compared to reformed Jews, meaning they are a bit more relaxed in how they worship and most women typically do not wear a Hijab (head covering) unless they are praying. Any fears that I had prior to my arrival were put to rest during this open and honest conversation.
After our cruise, we headed to an underground cistern, Hagia Sophia, and Topaki Palace. I was blown away by this city that has been around for centuries. Hagia Sophia, as known as St Sophia, is the only place in the world you can see both Jesus and Mohamad side by side. In the Muslim religion, a house of worship can never be destroyed, so when the country converted to Muslim religions the church was turned into a mosque. That’s the reason why you will see many mosques in Muslim majority countries. Never at any moment did I feel unsafe in the old city, but I was also very aware of my surroundings and had an expert guide with us.
Our second day was spent visiting Süleymaniye Mosque and then stops at the spice bazaar and grand bazaar. We also visited a rug store where I was treated to true Turkish hospitality and offered apple tea, water or my new favorite – Turkish Coffee! This became a routine when we entered places where we were learning about the arts and crafts that are produced in Turkey. There was never any pressure to buy anything. In fact, while at the spice bazar we were encouraged to try the nuts and sweets at the shops we visited. Can you imagine doing this in the grocery store in the US?
After a few days in Istanbul, it was time to continue on and explore more of this great country, so we headed to Cappadocia. We were met at the airport by our guide Ur, who gave us some history and background on the region we had just entered. During the early AD years, Christians were persecuted for their beliefs and to escape such persecution many lived in hidden caves. Later these caves were used by Greeks and some are still used today by locals. If that wasn’t enough Cappadocia has some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen and it’s the hot air balloon capital of the world! The region offers several cave hotels and there is an underground village that was used for centuries for locals to hide from marching armies such as the Romans and Byzantines.
From Cappadocia, we headed to Izmir, which if you didn’t know was the wedding capital of the world. For those wanting a custom wedding gown, you can have one hand made in Turkey for around the same price you could get an off the rack one. The Swissotel we stayed at had one of the best art collections I have ever seen. We also visited the agora from 40 BC. Izmir is also the gateway to Ephesus and for me one of the highlights of the trip.
Ephesus was the last home of the Virgin Mary and one of the most complete ancient ruins that I have ever visited. I learned visitors place notes in a wishing wall to Mary, since I only had my boarding pass to write on – I made do. It is also where one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelations (all seven mentioned are located in Turkey). It is also where St John the Apostle is buried. Our tour guide knew more Christian history than the Christians on the tour.
After our day in Ephesus we headed to the Turkish Rivera town of Bodrum on the Aegan Sea. Bodrum has for many years been a playground for Europeans and Americans. Currently there is much development going on with a Four Seasons being built and several new resorts opening. From Bodrum you can also hop a quick hydrofoil over to Kos which is part of Greece. While I only spent a short time in Bodrum, I did have the opportunity to see the Bodrum Castle and spend the day on a Gulet in the Aegan.
Bodrum Castle (aka Castle St. Peter), is a UNESCO world heritage site and was built in beginning of the 15th century by the Knights of St John (aka Knights of Rhodes). The location of the castle is on a peninsula that has been inhabited since ancient times. There are also some ancient sites in the surrounding province of Mulga, but alas we did not have time to visit any during my short stay. I did see the amphitheater from a distance which was built in the 4th century BC!!!
Our day spent on the Gulet in Aegan Sea was perfect. Whats a Gulet you ask? It is a traditional wooden sailing yacht with two or three masts and can only be called Gulet if it was built in Turkey. Gulets come in many different sizes and can be rented daily, for a few days or even weekly. Our Gulet was fully staffed with a bartender/waiter, chef as well as a sailing crew. Our gulet also had all the toys you would expect on a yacht, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and more. It also included several cabins, with full bathrooms and felt like a roomy villa. There was lots of space on the top of the Gulet to soak up some of the Aegan sunshine. The Gulet also had a roomy platform to get in and out of the water as an outdoor shower. After some water play in we were treated to an incredible lunch that was prepared on our Gulet. Even on a ship we had some of the best food I have ever tasted in my travels. Not to mention the wonderful wines they produce in Turkey that were enjoyed with our meal. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous trip.