By David Barclay | April 19, 2023
Today’s blog post focuses on my recent two-week trip to Türkiye (also known as Turkey). The trip was divided into a week on land and a week sailing the Aegean Sea. Because of the length of the trip and the very different travel experiences, I am sharing this vacation in two separate blog posts. My post today will focus on the land itinerary and my next blog post will focus on the Turkish gulet we chartered. While you wait for the next blog post, feel free to also read my blog post “Chartering a Turkish Gulet”.
Before I get to our adventures for our first week, I’d like to take a step back to explain why my wife and I picked Türkiye for this trip. It hadn’t been our original plan, but in today’s crazy world of leisure travel you sometimes need to be flexible and pick an alternate travel option. In our case, it wasn’t that our first option was in high demand with associated high prices, as I’m seeing these days for popular countries like Italy and Iceland. Our initial trip was a 15-day cruise on Silversea that sailed into the Black Sea and visited 6 ports and 5 countries bordering that body of water. I put the deposit down for that cruise on Wednesday, February 23, 2022, and woke up the next morning to hear the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although it took Silversea a few weeks to officially cancel our cruise, I knew that morning what would happen and started looking at alternative travel options.
We had liked the cruise itinerary because it would take us to places we hadn’t visited before and that were more exotic than Western Europe. We also liked that as the ship was to sail up the Bosporus Strait, it would overnight in Istanbul. We had visited a few locations in Western Türkiye on a prior trip, specifically the port city of Kusadasi, the historic ruins of Ephesus, and the city of Izmir. But we hadn’t visited Istanbul and it was high on the list of places we wanted to explore. So we decided to pivot and see if we could pull together an overland vacation in Turkey that would provide a similar blend of exotic experiences but with some similarity to travel in Western Europe.
I reached out to one of my best partners in Turkey to discuss our evolving travel thoughts and to find out what a Turkish vacation could deliver. I had expected we would spend 2 weeks fully on land, exploring Istanbul, traveling into central and maybe even eastern Turkey, and spending some time on the Aegean coast at a seaside resort. I was pleasantly surprised and delighted when my partner suggested a 4-day gulet charter as part of our two weeks. As I mentioned, I’ll describe our experience on the gulet in my next post, but one decision we made which impacted our overland travel was to charter a gulet for a full week. This meant limiting our overland travels to a single week and maintaining a sharp focus on where to visit in our somewhat limited time.
My partner’s initial itinerary had us in Istanbul for 5 nights, Cappadocia for 3 nights, two nights in Bodrum and then the 4-night gulet charter departing from Bodrum. On the travel day from Cappadocia to Bodrum, they proposed having us fly into Izmir to the north and drive along the coast to Bodrum, visiting Ephesus, the House of Virgin Mary, and a few other sites along the coast. With the increased nights for our gulet charter, we removed a night from both Istabul and Cappadocia. We also changed to flying directly to Bodrum and removing the two nights there since we had seen Ephesus before & didn’t need to stay in a seaside resort if we’d be sailing the Aegean for a week.
Week 1: Türkiye by Land
Istanbul is an incredible and storied city, literally where Europe meets Asia and steeped in the history of many empires and religions. With only 3 full days to explore the city, we were very focused on hitting the highlights. We knew we could always return and both revisit some of our favorite sites and see some of the areas and neighborhoods we couldn’t squeeze into this trip.
For our hotel, we considered several options. Generally, when we are in a large city, we prioritize location over the highest luxury experience. In Istanbul, many of the best luxury hotels, including the Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus and the Shangri-La Bosphorus, are several miles up the Bosporus from the entrance to the Golden Horn. We wanted to be able to walk to neighborhoods like Karakoy and be near the Galata Bridge so we could easily access the two main parts of the European side of Istanbul. To meet our desires, we decided to stay at the wonderful Bank Hotel, which delivered the right level of service while providing a great location for exploring Istanbul on foot or by private car. The building was constructed to house a bank but was later converted into a hotel with a unique ambience. In the future, we may try the newly built Peninsula Istanbul, which was under construction during our visit and is located near the Bank Hotel. But even knowing the Peninsula combines a great luxury experience in a prime location, I will still happily recommend the Bank Hotel to my clients as another great option.
Our first day was spent seeing the architecturally significant sites. Our guide, Sinan Yalcin, was a former schoolteacher and an extremely knowledgeable guide. We had Sinan for our first two days, and he was equally adept at explaining the history of Istanbul as he was directing us to the best stalls and stores to buy our souvenirs (more below).
We started at St. Sophia (pictured at the beginning of this post). Originally built as the largest church of its day, it was converted into a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. In 1935 it was converted into a museum and in 2020 it was converted back into a mosque. Nearby is the Blue Mosque, which we saw from the outside but was unfortunately undergoing major interior renovations and therefore not open to the public.
Next we visited the Topkapi Palace, prior home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and now a museum.
After lunch, we visited the location of the Constantinople Hippodrome. Although most of this grand stadium for horse and chariot races was destroyed over time, a few components, such as the Obelisk of Theodosius, remain. Standing in the area, one could imagine what the great structure looked like as thousands of fans cheered on their favorite riders.
We ended our day with a visit to the Serefiye Cistern, one of hundreds of cisterns built in the 1600 to capture rainwater for the growing city of Istanbul. It is one of the largest of these cisterns and had recently undergone major renovations before reopening to the public in 2018. It’s a marvel of engineering and an amazing experience to walk between the columns on the raised walkways (only a little water is retained in the cistern today).
Our second day was our boating and shopping day. We started with a private motor yacht cruise on the Bosporus, cruising up the European side and back down the Asian side. Not only was this a fun way to quickly see both sides of the Bosporus, but it also let us better appreciate the amount of boat/ship traffic on this major waterway.
After our cruise, we walked through Istanbul towards the Spice Market. We could have driven (we had a car and driver reserved for the day) but the weather was beautiful, the Istanbul traffic was snarled as usual, and our guide was more than willing to get some exercise with us. I’m glad we did as before reaching the Spice Market we walked through a few local neighborhoods and “people watched” as visitors from the countryside shopped in the neighborhood stores. At the Spice Market, we selected a shop with a good selection of spices and a very energetic shop owner who asked us to sample an incredible number of spices. I’ll say that shopping for spices in the Spice Market is more of an experience than a shopping trip and after probably 20 minutes we were loaded up with about 10kg of bulk spices (the shop owner even gave us a nice zip up tote bag to carry our haul). While it may sound like we over-bought spices, our intent was to repackage them into smaller glass containers and give them as gifts to family & friends. I’m happy to report that the spice gifts were a big hit, so much so that we probably didn’t buy enough!
Then we were off to the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is huge, stretching across 61 covered streets and containing over 4,000 shops. Daily, 250,000 to 400,000 shoppers visit the Grand Bazaar and it seemed like you could find anything your heart desired here. Jewelry and watches were popular items, as were textiles, ceramics, and fashion accessories such as silk scarves. I’m glad we had our guide, otherwise we would have become completely lost. We only traversed a small portion of the Bazaar, it’s so large I doubt you could easily see it all in a single visit. But Sinan deftly navigated us through the Bazaar to stores selling the items we wanted to purchase. We picked up many silk and cashmere scarves for my wife and as gifts for friends, and a nice watch for each of us. We later regretted we didn’t buy more, the prices at the shops Sinan took us to (after he negotiated for the “Turkish price”) were incredible.
After the Bazaar, Sinan took us to a traditional rug store. We were escorted to the top floor (this was a huge store that must have contained thousands of rugs) where the proprietor and several of his employees performed a traditional rug display, unrolling and laying out an incredible number of one-of-a-kind rugs. The rugs were hand made in various villages throughout Turkey and the ones we were shown could take over a year to assemble. If we had needed a rug we probably would have bought one (stores in Turkey can even help with shipping to the US) but we didn’t and had informed the proprietor at the beginning. There was no obligation to buy, so it was simply a nice 30-minute show for us and I think a “must do” activity for anyone visiting Istanbul. My wife even got to try her hand at weaving a tapestry rug (meant to be used as wall art, not as a floor covering) that would take the weaver 18 months to complete!
Finally, we asked Sinan to take us to a few higher end stores where he again worked miracles. Many of the Turkish made luxury goods were extremely well made and our credit cards were used frequently that afternoon!
For our third day, we had an unplanned day. On our vacations, we like to include a day without any activities or tours. This provides a lot of flexibility, allowing us to explore on our own, revisit places we want to see again, or relax and recuperate before continuing our journeys. We did break our rule a little, as I had scheduled appointments at the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Turkish Bath, one of the most famous Turkish baths in Istanbul and located in the shadows of St Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We both opted for the almost 2-hour, Ab-i Hayat (Elixir of Life) bath experience. The bath is divided into men’s and women’s sections, so my wife and I said farewell to each other and went in through our separate entrances for our separate baths. I’ll have to say I was a little unsure about taking a Turkish bath as I went in, but I always like to experience the cultures of the places I visit, and a Turkish bath is definitely a very cultural experience. Having now experienced a Turkish bath, I think it’s another “must do” activity for visitors to Istanbul. Unfortunately, the baths don’t allow pictures of the inside, so I can’t share what the baths look like, but I encourage anyone visiting Istanbul to make an appointment at Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Turkish Bath and see for themselves.
The rest of the day was spent exploring other parts of Istanbul, including walking to the new palace, strolling along the very popular shopping street of İstiklal Caddesi, and seeing lots of local cats (the Turks love cats).
The next morning, we flew to Cappadocia, known for its unique geography and cave homes/cities. Since we flew in the morning, we were able to squeeze in a short tour on our way to our hotel. We visited Zelve Valley, Pasabag Valley, and Devrent Valley as they all lay between the airport and our hotel. Pasabag Valley is known for the unique geological formation called “fairy chimneys”, formed when different densities of volcanic ash eroded at different rates. Zelve Valley is known for the Zelve Open Air Museum, which is the remains of an early Christian city that was carved into the valley walls. Devrent Valley is famous for formations that look like animals.
Our hotel was called the Museum Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property in the heart of Cappadocia. It was built by combining several adjacent cave homes. It’s a wonderful hotel, where each room is different and has a different theme. While you can book a specific room category, they won’t confirm your exact room until you arrive (though you can make requests). Our room was the Harem Cave Suite, the only room without windows, you literally sleep in a very nicely appointed cave (and yes, I requested this room!). Some of the perks of this room included a very large bathroom with a large jacuzzi tub and red/white wine spigots in the wall (that dispense the house wine, compliments of the house). The restaurant at the hotel, Lila Restaurant, was very good and very popular. Most of the diners we saw were staying at other nearby hotels but came to Lila Restaurant for dinner.
The next morning, we got up very early for our hot air ballooning experience. This is very popular in Cappadocia, each day 150 balloons fly in the morning sky over Cappadocia (weather permitting). It’s a fabulous activity and a very calm ride. I suffer from acrophobia and was initially concerned how I would tolerate a balloon flight, but my research showed that people who suffer from acrophobia usually don’t have issues in a balloon and this was the case for me. On our flight, I had no issues and felt comfortable leaning over the basket side to take pictures. My greatest fear was dropping my phone, so I was paranoidly careful while taking my pictures! Our pilot, Tolga Eke with Royal Balloon, was incredible. If you visit Cappadocia and book a balloon ride, I highly recommend Royal Balloon and I highly recommend asking for Tolga. He was a great pilot, very skilled and he explained how he flew the balloon on the various air currents to take us to the major aerial sites (including dipping into Zelve Valley which we had visited the prior day). He was also very funny and provided comical entertainment throughout our full 75-minute ride. We did a “King Flight” which meant a little longer and fewer people in the balloon. Our balloon only had 8 passengers (2 passengers in each of four separate compartments at the corners) and I think is a great option for couples. Some of the less expensive flights could have as many as 32 people in the basket (larger baskets of course, we saw a few and they looked crowded). My recommendation is to splurge if you book a flight, it’s well worth the memories.
After being returned to our hotel (the balloon ride included hotel pickup and return), we met our guide and driver for the day and headed off to the Kaymakli Underground City. This was an underground city (dug from the rocks) that could house hundreds of people. It was used as a place of safety where citizens of a nearby village could retreat to if hostile forces approached. It was purposely built with small narrow passages to slow invaders. My 5’2” wife was fine, but my 6’2” frame was not happy with several of the passageways! This was an incredible feat of human engineering, the city occupied many levels (and there are still parts of the city that haven’t been excavated and opened to the public).
Cappadocia (as well as Turkey in general) is known for pottery, so of course our day included a visit to a local artisan pottery center. We even received a lesson from a master potter (apparently this is a serious job and you have to apprentice for many years before you are allowed to create the nicer pieces) and had a chance to try our own pottery skills. Needless to say, my wife was better at this than me, so I’ve excluded the pictures of my misshapen attempt to make a pot! We purchased a beautiful piece of handmade painted pottery which is now hanging on our kitchen wall in our second home, a wonderful souvenir from our visit to Cappadocia.
With that, our brief visit to Cappadocia was over. The next morning, we boarded our flight to Bodrum (via Istanbul, where we met up with friends flying from the U.S. to join us), ready to begin the second half of our trip on a Turkish gulet. But that story will have to wait for my next blog post…
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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