Turkey: Ephesus, Pergamon, Troy and Istanbul - 2012
Despite over two decades of travel worldwide, we had never visited Turkey before. I had, in my ignorance, regarded it as a poor country on the fringes of Europe with little to offer the western traveller but holiday resorts and a hot climate. How misguided I was. It is a huge country several times the area of Britain with a rapidly growing population of almost eighty million. It has a vibrancy about it which seems to combine the best of both east and west; a profound respect for its remarkable cultural history with the bustle and endeavour of a modern commercial society. Sitting as it does across the boundary of Europe and Asia, there is a palpable conflict of values as secular European society and traditional Asian religion attempt to cohabit. However, the country has benefited enormously from the foresight of Kemal Atatürk, who recognised in the 1920s that Turkey needed to reconcile European values with the diverse indigenous cultures of the old Ottoman empire. Our short visit suggests that much has been achieved since then.
We entered Turkey at Istanbul airport and took a local flight to Izmir on the west coast. A modern regional airport with speedy and efficient formalities, a fast transfer to fine hotel, and welcoming and friendly staff gave all of us newcomers an impressive introduction. During the next six days we enjoyed a taste of this hospitable nation, its remarkable history and surprising achievements.
After a night in the pretty coastal resort of Kusadasi, we began our tour with a visit to the nearby ancient city of Ephesus. It is a huge site which took us several hours to walk through, but with fascinating sights at every turn. Founded over 2,500 years ago, it began as a Greek city and later became a significant city of the Roman Empire, and a remarkable amount is still standing today. I particularly enjoyed the terraced dwellings, the grand library and the magnificent amphitheatre.
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Our next port of call was the city of Pergamon, where we explored the healing centre of the Asclepion Sanctuary which once offered therapies to the poor and needy, and rode a modern cable car up to see the Temple of Trajan. The adjacent amphitheatre is the steepest of the ancient world. After lunch in Bergama we followed the scenic coastal route to Canakkale for a night overlooking the Dardanelles.
Next on our itinerary was a visit to the site of the famous city of Troy. There was little to see here beyond tourist attractions and our visit was somewhat disappointing, but it did give us a feel for the lay of the land, and the development of the city as it changed hands over the centuries. I can remember little of the details given to us by our knowledgeable guide, but I became increasingly aware that Asia Minor had been the centre of power in the known world for hundreds of years - Greek, Roman and Ottoman.
The Dardanelle Strait is only a kilometre wide at its narrowest point, so we were able to cross from Asia to Europe by ferry in less than thirty minutes. A glance at the map shows that controlling this sole maritime access from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea is of crucial importance in time of war. During the First World War over 35,000 Australian, British and New Zealand troops died attempting to take it from the Turks. Today there is an emotive group of memorial cemeteries scattered across the Gallipoli Peninsular where the fighting took place. The sight of so many graves, especially for those aged just sixteen, cannot fail to move you.
Our long drive finally brought us to the great city of Istanbul, sitting astride the Bosphorus separating Europe from Asia. With a rapidly growing population of over 13 million it is second only to Moscow in Europe, and although not the capital it must surely be the most significant conurbation in Asia Minor. We were struck by its vibrancy, modernity and reconciliation of the old and the new. I could have spent the whole week here, given the stamina and the legs!
On our final morning we visited the Blue Mosque, the symbol of the city and once the biggest religious building in the world. Its interior is breathtaking, mainly due its scale and colour, but heaving with people in socks or bare feet. It reputedly can accommodate ten thousand people for state occasions. Surprisingly, entrance is free.
We ended our trip in style with a visit to the Topkapi Palace, the imperial residence of the Sultans for over 400 years, and sought out the dagger made famous by the eponymous film, followed by a boat cruise along the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea. The waterfront properties are an expensive mix of public buildings and elegant private houses, many recently constructed as hubris homes for wealthy oligarchs. The waterway was teeming with craft of all sizes, from tiny working boats to massive ocean-going tankers, all jostling with the tourist cruisers. It would have been fun to travel all the way north to the Black Sea, but our time was limited.
Finally, a word or two about Turkish cuisine. Every meal we had was at least good, and sometimes excellent. Lamb, salads and fish predominated, prepared in typical Mediterranean style. The hotel breakfasts were better than most, and the quality and diversity of evening buffets were well up to standard. There were a few powerful flavours which surprised our palates, but I'm sure that given a little time we would have learned to appreciate most of them.
On our last evening, at the suggestion of a fellow traveller, we dined at the Agatha restaurant in the Pera Palace Hotel; it was outstanding. Recently refurbished, the hotel named its restaurant after the author of 'Murder on the Orient Express' because Agatha Christie wrote the book in their writing room, and it is located near the terminus of this former icon of deluxe rail travel. The meal was wonderful, the wine expensive but superb, and the service second to none we have encountered anywhere else on our extensive travels. When I offered the quality pen I had been given to sign the credit card voucher back to our waiter, he smiled and invited me to keep it. A small gesture, but a fitting end to a memorable experience.
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