My initial thought of Turkey was that it is a country with many deserts, camels and oil rigs. A well-travelled colleague, however, told me that Turkey is one of his favourite places to visit in the world. He has been there many times and still wants to visit the place!
So perhaps there are a lot of things for me to discover about Turkey during my first trip there then. A group of us, many of whom are from the media, were to explore the cities of Cappadocia and Istanbul.
Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Istanbul took 11 hours; once we got there we took a domestic flight to Cappadocia. We were lucky enough to travel in Business Class, courtesy of Turkish Airline. One of the many premium services I enjoyed was having an in-house chef taking customised meal orders from passengers on board. Of course, the spacious leg room was also a plus during the flight.
Local guide Erdem Alagoz of Renk United Travel gave us an overview of his country as well as a quick lesson on its history and cultural background.
Turkey is a country located between Europe and Asia, so that itself presents many interesting facts in terms of culture and food. It has a population of 80 million, and is among the world’s biggest producers of pomegranate, hazelnuts, pistachios and figs.
It goes through four seasons in a year, with temperatures dropping to as low as -20˚C during winter, and going up to as high as 40˚C in the summer.
To my surprise, Turkey is not an oil producing country after all, and the price of petrol is not cheap as it is over 6 Turkish Lira (RM5.32) per litre.
Cappadocia is 1,930m above sea level, so the place felt a little chilly when we got there. This semi-arid region in central Turkey is an interesting place surrounded by hundreds of rock formations. These are actually hardened lava from a great volcanic explosion a long time ago.
There are at least three volcanoes surrounding Cappadocia.
It was such a marvel to see Cappadocia’s “fairy chimneys” – tall, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley and Goreme Open Air Museum. These clusters make up historical monasteries, with ancient cave churches and impressive Byzantine biblical frescoes.
In ancient times, people would carve soft volcanic formations and turn them into homes. These include building underground cities to escape persecution during the Roman era some 2,000 years ago.
Some of these cities, a few of which were at least 10 storeys below ground, had between 3,000 and 5,000 people living in them.
They were meticulously built, too. Each family had their own living space, and there were centralised kitchens for cooking, places to make and store wine and even churches.
According to Erdem, people lived in these caves right up to the 1970s when the government decided to relocate the residents after a few of the structures collapsed.
Kaymakli Underground City is another good place to check out these amazing structures.
Meanwhile, Uchisar Valley is the highest point in the region, making it a great place to take pictures. It was also once a fortress.
On a personal note, make sure you pack a pair of comfortable walking shoes if you plan to visit Cappadocia as you will be doing a lot of walking in the city.
Hot air, great views
The highlight of our trip in Cappadocia was the hour-long hot air balloon ride.
Sure, we had to wake up really early in order to be at the take-off site by 5.30am. But all that trouble was worth it when we saw the sunrise from our balloon, floating about 250m high up in the air. There were at least 150 balloons dotting the skyline that morning, making the view all the more glorious.
Each balloon can fit between eight and 30 people, depending on the size of the basket. Ours had 16 people in it.
Our pilot Cemal Yildirim, who has clocked hundreds of hours piloting balloons, said that it is a safe activity and is regulated by the Turkish aviation authority.
“If it is too windy or anything, they will order everyone to cancel,” he said.
After our balloon flight, we all joined in a special toasting ceremony and was awarded a certificate each.
During our stay at Cappadocia we stayed at the Cappadocia Cave Resort & Spa, which was perched on a hill. The rooms were spacious and each one had a fantastic view of the surrounding area. Every day you get to see the balloons hovering nearby too.
We also enjoyed local dishes at a cave restaurant, where, apart from being served delicious food, we were entertained with traditional Turkish belly dances and other cultural performances.
Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents – Asia and Europe. It is a picturesque city with beautiful palaces where powerful world leaders, emperors and sultans alike, once ruled.
We stayed at the Isfanbul Suites, located next to an outdoor theme park and shopping complex.
One of the more popular places to visit in Istanbul is Topkapi Palace, the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled from the 15th to 19th century.
Perched on the tip of a land where the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus meet, Topkapi is a maze of Moorish buildings centred around a series of courtyards so complex that it would take hours to properly explore.
You may also want to visit the Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known to tourists as the Blue Mosque.
If you’re looking for good bargains then head to the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, where you can get your hands on Turkish cookies and spices.
The street where the market lies is a beautiful sight to behold. Shops on either side sell handicrafts, garments, leather products, carpets, decorative crockery, pottery, colourful lamps, Turkish Delight and baklava. The Grand Bazaar actually houses more than 3,000 shops so it’s impossible not to find at least one thing that you will like.
Restaurants serving Turkish food are also plentiful there. For coffee lovers, don’t forget to try Turkish coffee which is served in tiny cups.
There’s no need to worry about safety as security is tight in most of the tourists spots in Istanbul – the Turkish government has deployed armed police personnel with metal detectors at most of the public places.
Other highlights in Istanbul include a private cruise on the Bosphorus waterway, which allowed us to enjoy the sights both in Asia and Europe!
Some of the most expensive mansions belonging to Turkey’s elite, as well as palaces, fortresses and luxury hotels, are situated along the Bosphorus.
We also visited Taksim Square, Bagdat Street, Ayyoub Sultan Al Ansari Mosque and Pierre Loti Hill, where we took the cable car.
Turkey is where the old exists together with the new. Eastern traditions thrive alongside Western culture, and religious freedom honoured among the pious.
Visiting Turkey was really an eye-opening experience, and although I did not go to any deserts, at least I managed to get a glimpse of several camels.
Turkish Airlines flies seven times weekly to Istanbul from Kuala Lumpur. For enquiries, contact Apple Vacations and ask about their promotions on Turkey: Wonder Turkey and Mesmerizing Turkey. For more information, head to applevacations.my or call 03-2143 3939.
Eight things to splurge on in Cappadocia and Istanbul
1 Go on a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia – pray for good weather!
2 View the ancient monasteries at the Goreme Open Air Museum.
3 See how ancient people lived up to 10 stories underground at the Kaymakli Underground city.
4 Enjoy belly dancing performances and other local folklore – as well as delicacies – at a cave restaurant.
5 Go on a bosphorus scenic cruise in Istanbul.
6 Enjoy great views at the centuries-old residence of former Ottoman rulers at the Topkapi Palace.
7 Eat some Turkish delights and coffee or dine on seafood at the Spice Bazaar.
8 For the superstitious, buy the famous all-seeing protector, also known as the “blue eye”.