Merhaba and greetings from Turkey! Although unintentional, I saved the best for last. My five weeks in Turkey have been phenomenal. It is the perfect end to an amazing year of travel, and a dream come true.

Friends of mine who have traveled in Turkey told me wonderful things about the country and people, but this still didn’t prepare me for how awesome it would be. The Turkish people are more warm, friendly, helpful and sincere than in any other country I’ve traveled in so far. The helpfulness was almost overwhelming at first, especially after coming from Greece, the least friendly and least helpful country I’ve experienced.

The delicious Turkish food brought back a flood of wonderful memories of meals with my Armenian grandparents. And, as my grandfather was born in Kayseri (central Turkey), and lived there as a young child, this stimulated a great deal of interesting discussion with people who asked about my background. It also brought very sad faces upon the realization that he left Turkey under terrible circumstances – war between the Turks and Armenians – a war that no one wants to remember. The people today really seem to promote peace among all nationalities and appear genuinely sad and hurt to be reminded of the terrible wars in Turkey that occurred years they were born.

There are many visible reminders that Turkey is a Muslim country, but in the west, the young people are far more liberal in their religious views and practices than I had expected. I didn’t meet any that go to prayer or follow the strict religious practices, but instead they say they just believe in being a good person and just doing the best they can to be kind to their families, neighbors and communities. I saw and felt these beliefs acted out daily.

One of the most wonderful aspects about Turkey is the “soft sell” approach the vendors have. They often seemed more interested in helping me find my way somewhere, or just talking with me, than selling another carpet or getting me to eat in their restaurant. This made the overall experience of exploring a town or shopping in a market very pleasurable.

In addition to my fantastic experiences with the people and food, there are many other memories that I will always have of Turkey… apple tea, backgammon, carpet shops, barber shops, tea houses with colorfully patterned pillows to sit on, Turkish baths, ancient ruined cities, warm blue seas, gorgeous coastlines, unusual landscapes, large women in loose patterned clothes wearing scarves to cover their heads, smiles, farms, tractors, mosques, and the loud prayer calls five times daily in every village, town and city.

The only thing I will not miss about Turkey is the constant chain smoking. I’ve been shocked at how prevalent smoking is in most countries, but I’ve never been anywhere as bad as Turkey. I constantly wondered how much this contributes to their short life spans and aged faces. Many young people told me their parents were on their “last legs” at age 60 or 65 and that the average person lives only this long. I don’t even think they believed me when I told them how healthy and physically fit my parents are, that my Armenian grandfather lived to age 90, and that my great-grandmother is going to celebrate her 100th birthday next spring. I was also surprised many times when the subject of age came up because I found that the men almost always look more than ten years older than they are. Twice I was in conversation with a man thinking he was somewhere between 45 and 55 only to find out he was 34 or 35. It was amazing, and sad. Both had a pack of cigarettes in hand.

Arrival to the Aegean Coast

My brother Steve traveled with me for the first two and a half weeks of this trip. From the Greek island Samos, we took a ferry to Kusadasi, a pretty seaside town, but overdeveloped as a tourist resort and cruise ship port. But even here, in “package-tour central”, every person we came in contact with was so friendly and helpful! Immediately after getting off the ferry and paying for our visa, one man tried to direct us to his hotel. We declined, but asked him where we could find a cash machine. He practically walked us there (the first instance of many like this during my next five weeks). He seemed to forget about the hotel proposition and just wanted to be sure we found the cash machine that actually worked. I took out 50,000,000 Turkish lira before I realized what the exchange rate was. It was only worth $77.00. Steve thought that was pretty cool to be a “millionaire” in an instant.

The next person we met offered to drive us the 20 minutes to his pension in Selcuk, which was where we wanted to go. We asked “what if we decide not to stay there?”, thinking that he might charge us a fortune for the ride (as we experienced very recently in Santorini, Greece). He didn’t even understand what we were asking! He said of course we didn’t have to stay there if we didn’t like it. We were embarrassed for asking and apologized, explaining that we had just come from Greece where obviously things were quite different. From that point on, we started letting down the guard we had built up in Greece and just enjoyed the wonderful people, conversation and apple tea that was constantly being offered. We were also continually grateful for the assistance everyone gave us in our travels without our having to ask. My bag was always being picked up and carried by someone and when we approached a new town or bus station people would ask us where we were going or how could they help us, and then point us in the right direction. Everything was easy and enjoyable.

Selcuk

We really enjoyed this quaint town with so many outdoor cafes, carpet shops and barber (berber) shops. Oh, and they are so clever – free Internet access in many of these carpet shops. We didn’t actually go for that, but it was funny to be sitting at an outside cafe within a couple of hours of our arrival and look over my brother’s shoulder to read “Internet access” on a carpet shop window. I couldn’t help but smile. Steve and I were hopeless nonetheless. We had both purchased small carpets within three days of our arrival to Turkey. Now I’m pleased we did as we knew it was the one souvenir we wanted from Turkey and we really liked the woman who owned the shop. At the time, however, I wondered if we should have waited a while.

Steve had the “berber” experience in Selcuk and said it was fantastic. He got a perfect haircut, a neck and arm massage and complete knuckle cracking. So many of the men just go in for a shave several times a week and now we understand why! In addition to enjoying the newness of being in Turkey and the pleasant town of Selcuk, we visited the ruins of St. John’s Basilica on the hill just outside of town (it is believed that St. John came to Ephesus at the end of his life and wrote his gospel here). Selcuk was also our base for day trips to Ephesus, Pamukkale and the ancient settlements of Priene, Miletus and temple complex of Didyma.

Ephesus

This site is phenomenal. It is considered to be the best-preserved classical city on the Eastern Mediterranean. I think it is probably also among the top places in the world to get a feel for what it was like to live in Roman times. Unfortunately, it was also like Disneyland. High season is not the time to visit. I’ve never been to a place with so many people touring it. It seemed like 10 cruise ships must have dropped off 1000 or more people each. This made it difficult for me to fully appreciate it. We later heard it is better to go at the very end of the day just before it closes or on a Friday afternoon when the cruise ships are usually gone. I also recently met someone who was there in October and said he felt like he was the only visitor! That would be incredible.

Pamukkale

Pamukkale is a three hour bus trip inland from Selcuk. This is the first time we discovered how modern, comfortable and service oriented the buses are in Turkey. There is an attendant that often serves water, coffee or tea, and small cakes. He also comes around once in a while with an alcohol-based liquid and pours it into the passengers’ hands. It has a wonderful strong lemon scent and dries almost instantly when you rub your hands together. I guess it is just like our version of a dry-wash hand sanitizer. It is especially nice because it helps mask the body odor that can get bad on the buses.

Back to Pamukkale…its name means “cotton castle” and it does resemble that. Actually, my first thought was that I was looking up from the bottom of a small ski resort in late spring when the base is thin, dirt is showing through in places and snow melt is flowing down in small rivers. Even knowing that it wasn’t snow, I was still surprised when I took off my shoes and began walking up this “whiteness” barefoot. Rather than feeling a cold slippery surface, the ground was fairly rough and warm milky-white water flowed over my feet. Pamukkale was created by thermal springs that left calcium deposits all over to form white ledges with small pools cascading down a hill. It is so unusual – a natural wonder – although a bit disappointing after seeing the postcards with photographs taken years earlier when it was more beautiful. All the feet trekking up and down the hill have certainly taken away from its splendor.

Priene, Miletus and Didyma

I read that Didyma is one of the world’s most impressive temples and it was my favorite of these ancient sites. Its massive marble columns are spectacular. Miletus has a well-preserved theater and Priene has some interesting ruins that are fairly spread out. It was nice to visit these sites after being at Ephesus. They can’t be compared, but at least they weren’t crawling with people. It was peaceful to walk around and explore them.

Ilica

We stayed in Ilica because we wanted to windsurf in nearby Alacati. It’s a fairly quiet town and I especially liked it because it has a very local feel compared to many of the towns we visited. It’s in a pretty seaside location with several hotels, but it doesn’t have lots of shops and tourist restaurants, and most of the people on holiday there are from other parts of Turkey. It was easy to take a mini-bus to the windsurfing area and also to nearby Cesme, much more of a tourist town. (They call this type of mini-bus a dolmus, which means “full bus” and they are almost always more than full!) I enjoyed this town enough to return here at the end of my trip and do some more windsurfing before returning home. Unfortunately the wind let me down, but I still really enjoyed my stay.

Alacati

The windsurfing area is about five kilometers outside the town of Alacati. It is a dry area with very a blue bay, and pretty in a unique way. The water is very flat with a side shore wind. The reach is only one or two kilometers, but at least that forced me to practice jibes. When there was wind it was great and a perfect place for practicing skills. It is also a fantastic place for beginners because there is about 500 meters of shallow water. There are three windsurfing centers, and I chose one of the two German centers by the advice of a Turkish windsurfer who I met in Greece. The staff and equipment were great, but sometimes I felt more like I was in Germany than Turkey. I think I learned as much German as I did Turkish. We met a generous man who owns a bar in Ilica and he took us on a tour of the entire area on a day when the wind was bad. We visited several ruins, a small fishing village, and the town of Alacati, a well-preserved village of old stone houses populated by Ottoman Greeks a century ago. Between the town and windsurfing area is farmland. There are as many horse-drawn wagons, loaded down donkeys, and men walking their goats, as automobile traffic on these roads.

Warm Water Windsurfing in Alacati (Jun – Sep)

Alacati ranks up there as one of my favorite places although water temperatures are about 10-12 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than the Caribbean. I recommend a shorty or thin full wetsuit. Alacati (pronounced Alachati) is along the Agean Coast of Turkey, one hour from the Izmir airport. It is wonderful for sailors of all levels, including beginners because it has a fairly shallow area that extends 200-400 yards from shore with side shore winds of 15-30 mph. Combined with flat water, this makes it the perfect place to improve technique and for slalom sailing. The other side of the bay is only about a mile away (great for forced jibe and tack practice) with several small beaches. The wind is typically strongest in the afternoon. There are a couple of options for staying right near the windsurf centers, but it is much more interesting to stay in one of the towns because the Turkish culture is wonderful. One option is the interesting old town of Alacati. A great option is Ilica (pronounced Ilija) which is a nice, small town with a local feel and very convenient with a shuttle service to the centers. Another option is Cesme (pronounced Cheshme), a bit further away and more touristed with a louder nightlife and a larger selection of hotels and restaurants. All are within a 10 to15 minute shuttle from each other. There are three windsurf operators in Alacati. I recommend the German Surf and Action Center .

Cesme

From Ilica I made a few trips to Cesme for a change of scenery, and to find books and a cash machine. It is only six kilometers from Ilica and is a cute seaside town full of shops and restaurants with a lively atmosphere. It would be a fun place to stay for those who prefer some night life. I enjoyed the local feel and tranquility of Ilica with short visits to Cesme.

Canakkale

This is also a pleasant town and a perfect base for exploring the Gallipoli battlefield. I didn’t know much about this war and I’ve never even seen the movie Gallipoli staring Mel Gibson so it was great that our pension showed us a documentary before we took the tour. If we had stayed longer we could have watched Mel Gibson’s performance too, but I’ll have to catch that at home. In addition to the battlefield, we visited the graves and memorials to the Turkish, Australian and New Zealand soldiers, many still teenagers when they died. It was heartbreaking to think about it, but the seaside locations are so beautiful and peaceful I had a very difficult time even imagining a horrible war happening there 85 years ago.

Istanbul

I typically dislike spending a lot of time in big cities, but Istanbul is awesome! We primarily stayed in Sultanahmet, the heart of Old Istanbul, and I absolutely loved it. It’s a beautiful area and there are so many fantastic sights. My favorites were the Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) with its intricately painted and mosaic tiled walls, and Aya Sophya, the most renowned Byzantine cathedral. The smells of the Egyptian Spice Market are incredible and the Grand Bazaar is huge and fascinating. Although, we spent almost a whole day at the Bazaar and it does get kind of old hearing over and over (like a parrot) “Yes please, hello, can I help you, did I hear you say carpet?”. I also thought it was unique to take a small boat up the Bosphorus and realize that we were between two continents, Europe on one side and Asia on the other. Everywhere we went, people wanted to sell their wares, but they were still so nice and used the same “soft sell” technique we found everywhere else. Even in such a big city, people were especially friendly and constantly helping us find our way around.

We owe the majority of our amazing experience in Istanbul to the pension where we stayed. We were served a wonderful breakfast each morning on the upper terrace, which had a great view of the Marmara Sea, and the owners went above and beyond any service level I’ve ever seen. One took Steve and me to his friend’s wedding and then out with his family afterwards. That was a great experience and a lot of fun. Another took us shopping for a entire day to help us make final decisions on the backgammon tables we were buying and to ensure we weren’t paying too much and buying them from an honest vendor. He also introduced us to one of the most famous Turkish delight factories, which has been in business since 1777. Steve also really loved Istanbul, so for him, this was a great note on which to leave Turkey. From here he flew to London to spend a week with his best friend and girlfriend before heading home.

Cappadocia

From Istanbul I found an inexpensive flight to Nevsehir in the Cappadocia region, which is almost in the center of Turkey. Unlike Pamukkale, the postcards of Cappadocia cannot quite capture what a unique and amazing place this is. It’s famous for its amazing natural rock formations. A thick layer of volcanic ash poured over the region about ten million years ago and was eroded by weather throughout time, turning into huge fantastic shapes (most memorable are the “fairy chimneys” which amuse visitors because of their phallic appearance; they even point straight up into the air). Throughout the centuries, people have carved homes, churches, hotels, shops and even complete underground cities into the soft volcanic rock.

I made my base in Goreme, a small town that I really enjoyed and hope to return to sometime. This was one of my favorite places in Turkey. The weather was relatively cool and the landscape was fascinating and beautiful. The pension I chose was on a hill, built into the rocks, and I slept in a cave open on one side with a window. My room was awesome! It would have been any child’s dream room and was certainly mine for the time I was there. The food was also awesome and the owner showed me how to make mercimak, the lentil soup that is eaten throughout the country. From Goreme I visited a great deal of the region including other towns such as Avanos and Urgup. My favorite places were Rose Valley, Ihlara Valley and the underground cities, which are almost unbelievable. One of these cities has eight different levels going deep into the ground. I had a difficult time leaving and procrastinated for a couple of days because I loved being there so much and probably a bit because I dreaded taking an overnight bus to get to the Mediterranean Coast.

Arrival to the Mediterranean Coast

Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast has some gorgeous coastline, beaches, and bays with very clear water. It is also sprinkled with ruins. By this time in my trip, however, I had visited enough ruins and castles for a while. I just wanted to relax, read, enjoy the serenity and beauty of the coast, swim in the wonderfully warm sea, and think about how to maintain a more balanced life once I return home! Although my bus from Goreme arrived in Antalya, which is supposed to have a very beautiful harbor, I immediately sensed “big city” and decided to move on right away. I took another three hour bus trip west to the turn off to Olimpos, where there are “tree houses” that sounded like fun. However, it also sounded like a very young Australian party spot and I learned from some of the locals of a very quiet and still fairly untouched place called Cirali. So, I joined two Turkish women and we hitchhiked a ride down the steep windy road to the beach.

Cirali

Cirali isn’t quite a village. It is mainly inhabited by farmers and fisherman, who have recently started building pensions and restaurants near the beach. There is a market, a couple of shops, and no Internet access or cash machines. It is extremely quiet and beautiful. This land is protected from big hotel development as the beach is a nesting spot for the sea turtles to lay their eggs. The beach is long and wide with nice waves. A short walk down the beach brought me to Olympos and I did enjoy wandering through its ruins. I also met several young Australians there that morning, all very hung over. I think I made a good choice. I hope to return to Cirali. It was awesome.

Kas

From Cirali I traveled west along the coast to Kas, a fairly lively town with colorful fishing boats in its harbor, a large town square and lots of teahouses, restaurants and pensions. The tourists seemed to be from Turkey and a variety of European countries. There are quite a few really nice beaches within walking distance and short bus rides. My best memories of Kas are sitting on the rocks just outside of town, fishing with two very funny Turkish guys and watching the sunset from there each night. I also took a really fun boat trip of the area that went to some beautiful spots.

Fethiye and Oludeniz

traveled west along the coast again which had spectacular scenery, especially from Kas to Kalkan. Fethiye seemed somewhat interesting, but I decided to stay a few kilometers away in Oludeniz so I could be right near its very popular beach. It is a fairly busy beach but fun to hang out on because throughout the day there are paragliders landing there. It’s pretty watching them come down with the colorful spread of their parachutes. I heard that ten years ago Oludeniz was a lot like Cirali is today. It is now a very touristed spot full of hotels and restaurants. It is still nice though, and fortunately I was there in September, when many of the summer visitors had already left.

I found a great “backpackers haven” that was inexpensive, with fun places for hanging out and a restaurant with fantastic food. From Oludeniz I did another fun boat trip and tried paragliding (tandem) for the first time. It was pretty cool, although it was just very peaceful. I thought there might be some kind of adrenaline rush that I hear you experience when skydiving, but it wasn’t like that at all. The jump is from 1760 meters, which is supposedly one of the highest paragliding jump spots in the world. There are also good thermals there, ensuring a long ride. I talked my pilot into taking me at sunset, so while the thermals weren’t as good, the views were excellent! The ride down was still nearly 30 minutes.

Dalyan

From Oludeniz I traveled west again to Dalyan, another very nice small town, partially on a river, with awesome Lycian rock tombs all along its cliffs. It’s a destination popular with Germans, so as in Ilica, at times I felt more like I was in Germany than Turkey. My pension had gorgeous gardens and a wonderful patio with tables along the river where we had breakfast and afternoon tea. One day I took a boat to the beach, about 10 kilometers down the river. This beach is another nesting site for the sea turtles. I also joined six Turkish women on a boat trip and enjoyed laying on the roof, visiting pristine quiet bays and swimming in the very clear, warm water. Well, I definitely had lots of time to relax, swim, read and think! Although I especially missed Chris at this point, I enjoyed this part of the trip a lot as I was constantly meeting interesting people and finally learning some Turkish.

Return to Ilica

After all the relaxation, I was ready for some stimulation so I went back to Ilica with the plan to do more windsurfing in Alacati. I couldn’t believe the warm welcome I received from the staff at my hotel in Ilica and the windsurfing center in Alacati! Although the wind was non-existent on some days and marginal on others, I still had a great time with the locals I met and the other people who were also there twiddling their thumbs on the beach.

My last memories of Ilica, and Turkey, will be sitting several nights at a small “eatery” that sells Turkish pizza and Lahmacun (a very thin layer of very fresh dough the size of a plate, covered with a mixture of finely ground meat, tomatoes and spices, and toasted in a pizza oven). The Lahmacun was wonderful and tasted exactly like I remember when I often ate this with my Armenian grandparents. My grandfather was still making it with tortillas when he was 90! The two cooks, waiter and I managed to have conversations talking in our own languages and using hand signals (like charades) and drawings on napkins to communicate. It probably would have looked hilarious to anyone watching. I was fairly used to this type of communication at this point because throughout my travels in Turkey, I was constantly amazed at how people (usually the women) would still want to carry on a conversation even if we couldn’t understand a word each other was saying! Smiles, nods and hand signals go a long way. This time, the napkin drawings were a huge improvement. What a perfect way for me to leave and remember Turkey. I couldn’t ask for a better ending to this fantastic year.

*Visit Karen Chakmakian’s website www.chakmakian.com for her travelogues around the world.