For my now yearly I go somewhere with my buddy Robert, we decided on visiting Turkey. It came down to Turkey, Thailand, or UAE and the deciding factor was airfare costs, as Robert lives in Salt Lake City now so we had to figure out what worked best for both of us. Turkey was the cheapest for both of us to fly to, so off to Turkey we were!
Let me first state that I had no prior experience with Turkey, my only conception of it being the Turks in the medieval ages, so flat and dusty.
My flight was from Louisville to Chicago, Chicago to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Istanbul on United, and then Lufthansa. No issues with the flights and I upgraded to Economy Plus for the Chicago to Frankfurt route, which was more than worth the cost. There were only two seats in the row and the seat was significantly larger and more comfortable. I was surprised how bare the Lufthansa flight was – I was under the impression Lufthansa was high end but that was not the case, at least for this flight.
Once Robert arrived, we got the rental car (outside of the airport located next to a chicken farm) and attempted to get to our hotel, which was in the heart of old Istanbul. I say attempted because we completely failed at it – a mix of long flights, culture shock, traffic, and being unfamiliar, so after spending a decent amount of time we said never mind and drove out of Instanbul to Bursa. The bustle of Instanbul was a little too much at that time and we actually got a ticket in the mail months after our trip for not stopping for a police officer.
Attempting to pay for the hotel in Bursa was a bit difficult, as they kept running my credit card and it asking for a PIN, which I don’t have on the card (since it’s a credit card, not debit card). This actually was a reoccurring theme here and the only way to get the credit card to run was by using a tap-to-pay system. After doing some light research, it seems that America is a little unique with our credit cards not having PIN numbers (or at least knowing that PIN number). The whole tap-to-pay was not an issue in Instabul during our trip, but the further we got from there, the harder it was to pay for things, especially trying to communicate that we needed tap-to-pay.
The first stop Sunday was about three hours south of Bursa, the ancient city of Pergamum, which overlooks Bergama.
During the Hellenistic period, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon in 281–133 BC under the Attalid dynasty, who transformed it into one of the major cultural centres of the Greek world. Many remains of its monuments can still be seen and especially the masterpiece of the Pergamon Altar. Pergamon was the northernmost of the seven churches of Asia cited in the New Testament Book of Revelation.
The city is centered on a 335-metre-high (1,099 ft) mesa of andesite, which formed its acropolis. This mesa falls away sharply on the north, west, and east sides, but three natural terraces on the south side provide a route up to the top. To the west of the acropolis, the Selinus River (modern Bergamaçay) flows through the city, while the Ketios river (modern Kestelçay) passes by to the east.
After visiting the ruins, we made our way to the Ephesus Museum, which contained ancient artifacts excavated in the area. While the museum was small, it was worth the visit. I want to note that if you are visiting Turkey, BUY THE MUSEUM PASS!!!! It is more than worth it.
Next up on was visiting the Ancient City of Ephesus, which was about another hour drive south from the museum. The rental car A/C actually stopped working as we pulled into the parking lot, so talk about timing. Anyways, the ancient city is a must if you are visiting Turkey. The ruins are preserved and you get the feeling that you are actually in a city versus just visiting a select few buildings.
The city of Ephesus was one of the largest and most important cities in the ancient Mediterranean world, lying on the western coast of Asia Minor (in modern day Turkey). It was one of the oldest Greek settlements on the Aegean Sea, and later the provincial seat of Roman government in Asia
the Imperial era, Ephesus became the seat of Roman government in the new province of Asia, while Caesar Augustus’ reforms improved the city economy and initiated a time of peace and prosperity which would last down to the third century AD. Many of the great ruins in Ephesus today were completed during the reigns of Caesar Augustus (r. 27 BC – 14 AD) and his successor Tiberius (r.14-37 AD). These include, for example, the town-hall (the Prytaneion), a hippodrome stadium, and new aqueduct lines. Throughout the Pax Romana (a time of prosperity and stability roughly spanning from Augustus to 180 AD,) civic development continued in Ephesus on a grand scale
The city still features many intact ruins, such as the Library of Celsus (typically the photo comes up when you google Ephesus). Supposedly the Bible was written in Ephesus, along with the Church of Mary (and her death place).
Finishing the day up, we drove to the seaside city of Kuşadası to dinner and rest. There is an ancient castle on a small island connected to the city called Güvercinada, which was worth the walk. The city has tons of restaurants and was a great place to end the day.
Waking up bright and early Monday, the six-hour road trip was started to Pamukkale, famously known for the hot springs. I have mixed feelings on Pamukkale – was it neat? Sure, but was it worth a dedicated visit? Ehhhhh
Pamukkale can be separated into two parts – the ancient ruins and the springs. We visited the ruins first and enjoyed that. There are ruins of latrines, a giant cemetery, and a large amphitheater. The amphitheater is huge, one of, if not the, largest one we visited during the trip. The springs are definitely an Instagram spot – very pretty and unique sight to see. With that said, the water isn’t actually very warm, it’s super crowded, and once you are there it’s a feeling of “oh, I’m here….”
Turkey also has a weird mix of ultra-conservatism and liberalism, specifically on show at the springs. In one spring, people fully clothes in burqas and in another models taking photos for their Instagram dressed very minimally. One thing I had an issue with was determining what to wear – I wanted to be respectful but could never really find that line (so I didn’t wear any short shorts).
Tuesday was an eight hour road trip with a stop in Fethiye, eventually making it to Finike. In Fethiye, we visited the Lycian Rock Tombs, which are carved into the side of a mountain. The tombs are like a mini Petra, but aren’t kept up very well and are full of graffiti. Finike is a seaside city, so of course a walk thru it was also done.
Just outside Fethiye are beautiful beaches and seaside attractions. The entirety of this day reminded me of my time in Greece, just cheaper and full of Russians. In retrospect, I do wish we would have spent more time in this area.
Another long road trip day, we covered 350 miles on a journey to Aksaraym with the end goal to make it to Cappadocia on Thursday. During the road trip, we stopped at the Ancient City of Phaselis, took a cable car to the top of Tahtali Mountain, and stopped at road side restaurants.
Breakfest was a road side stop at a restaurant that overlooked the mountains. We had a what was basically a wrap filled with cheese and freshly squeezed orange juice, which may have been the best orange juice I’ve ever had.
Phaselis was next, with its ruins being surrounded by forest and overgrown. I really enjoyed this area because it was not as manicured as the previous ruins visited, nature had taken some of it back so it felt like going back in time more.
Phaselis changed hands numerous times during its history. The city was ruled by Persia on several occasions, being ‘liberated’ by Athens in 469BC, albeit against the wishes of its inhabitants who enjoyed the benefits of Persian rule. After returning to the hands of the Persians, Phaselis was then conquered by Alexander the Great in 334BC. In the second century BC Phaselis became a member of the Lycian League, before falling victim to attacks from pirates, notably Zeniketes who was eventually killed by the Romans in 78AD. By then however, Phaselis had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory.
The city recovered under Roman rule and on into the Byzantine period and enjoyed several hundred years of stability and growth. In 129 AD the Emperor Hadrian visited the city and several monuments were erected in his name. In the 7th and 8th centuries, like much of the region Phaselis suffered due to the turmoil of the period and repeated attacks from the Arab armies. The struggling settlement was eventually abandoned in the 13th century AD after earthquakes destroyed the area.
Next up was taking a cable car to the top of Tahtali Mountain, which stands 7,762 feet above sea level. The cable car ride was neat, however they shove up to 80 people in a car and it gets pretty packed. The view at the top is pretty cloudy and not really special if you’ve ever been to the top of a mountain (Mt. Teide was a much cooler view)
On the way to Aksaraym, we made an impromptu stop at Aspendos Theater, a restored ancient amphitheater that still has shows today.
The theater was built during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (160 to 180). Thanks to inscriptions on its walls, we know exactly who designed it: Zenon, son of Theodorus. The inscriptions also tell us that the Greek architect, who was born in Aspendos, was funded by two rich brothers, A. Curtius Crispinus Arruntianus and A. Curtius Crispinus, who gifted the theater to the city.
Despite being built during Roman rule, the theater displays many Greek characteristics. As was tradition, the spectator tribune is dug out of the eastern slope of the acropolis. The rest—the stage, rear wall and flanking towers—are constructed from a system of stone-built arches and vaults.
The sheer scale of the Aspendos Theater is impressive. The overall width of the theater is 315 feet (96 meters), with other elements following general proportions: the width of the stage is half the width of the building, and the diameter of the orchestra is half the width of the stage.
Thursday: Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia
We woke up early Thursday morning to make the hour drive to Cappadocia and make it in time for a pickup by the air balloon operators. There were some issues determining the actual pickup location, but we made it just in time and were whisked away to the balloon takeoff spot in a van.
The balloon itself held two pilots and in each section of the basket, there were around four to six people. Robert and I were split and he was in a section with a group of tourists from Germany and I was in a section with a very angry couple from Iraq… The couple was upset that they had to share a basket, so not mad at me rather the balloon operators, but nonetheless still awkward to be in the middle of an argument.
Ascending into the air was like a slow elevator ride, very smooth as it went up. While the air was cold, you would get some of the heat off of the balloon power source. The balloon floated around Cappadocia for maybe an hour, along with hundreds of other balloons.
After spending some time exploring Cappadocia, we started on the 10 hour drive back to Instanbul. This journey was pretty much a straight shot with no stops, outside of attempting to visit the castle in Ankara – I say attempts because traffic was so bad and intense we stopped the attempt and hopped back on the highway.
In Istanbul, we stayed in a home that was converted to a hotel, deep in the heart of what I would call old Istanbul. From here, we walked all across the city, stopping in shops and restaurants as we went. While doing this, we visited the Sultan’s Palace, Topkapı, and the surrounding museums.
Topkapı Palace was not only the residence of the Ottoman sultans, but also the administrative and educational centre of the state. Initially constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and expanded upon and altered many times throughout its long history, the palace served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. In the early 1850s, the palace became inadequate to the requirements of state ceremonies and protocol, and so the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the Bosphorus. But despite this move, the royal treasure, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Muhammad, and the imperial archives continued to be preserved at Topkapı, and since the palace was the ancestral residence of the Ottoman dynasty as well as the place where the Holy Relics were preserved, Topkapı continued to play host to certain state ceremonies. Following the abolishment of the Ottoman monarchy in 1922, Topkapı Palace was converted into a museum on 3 April 1924, on the order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Topkapı is 100% worth it, as some of the historical artifacts alone are worth a flight halfway across the globe. I mean I’m talking they have religious artifacts from the Prophet Muhammad and Abraham and historical artifacts from all the Ottoman conquests, it’s worth the trip alone to see these. Unfortunately, you cannot take photos of the high-end artifacts (such as Abraham’s staff).
Saturday: More Istanbul
The second day of Istanbul involved walking around the city, visiting the markets, and taking in the sights. As part of that, we visited the Hagia Sophia. I don’t have much to say on it, other than you need to visit it.
Later in the day, we did a Turkish Bath, which was at a 17th-century building built by the sultan. The bath started with getting changed into a towel, then sitting in a massive sweat-lodge type room that had traditional Islamic music playing with only natural light shining thru the dome. While in the room, you sit on a massive marble “bed” for around 15 minutes, then a person has you lay down and the bath begins. The actual bath has the person pouring soap water on you and then scrubbing very hard for some time. Once this is completed, the person “slaps” your back, grabs cold water, pours it on you, and repeats. All I can see is I’ve never been cleaner.
Sunday was more or less a recovery day and a packing day for the journey home. Saturday night we did a pub crawl that got a little out of hand. Not much to say about Sunday.
Monday: Returning Home
With COVID tests being required to come back home (and transit thru Germany), I needed a COVID test before leaving. The airport in Istanbul offers them at a 24-hour facility in the airport outside of the ticketing booths. We went on Sunday afternoon that way we didn’t need to wait around, rather swinging by Monday morning to grab the results, which was an easy process (scan your barcode). The test was $35 and rather painless. There are three security checkpoints in the Istanbul airport that had to be gone through before the gate, but it was organized and had no real long waits. The airport is new and has lots of amenities. Be careful with some of the airline agents – I had issues explaining that my small bookbag is a personal item (under the seat) versus a carry-on.
In Germany, I had to show my COVID test at least four times before I could get to my plane. The airport, Frankfurt Airport, isn’t a particularly great airport. The side I was on did not offer a lot and to get to the areas with more food options, you had to leave and come back through COVID checkpoints. The lounge provided by Priority Pass is landside, so forget about it.
Arriving in D.C (IAD), it was a breeze. With Global Entry, it’s a quick trick to a kiosk and then right through passport control. There were no COVID checks and the Turkish Airlines Lounge was very pleasant.