New cruise itineraries from Turkey
New for summer 2010: Thomson Celebration will offer four exciting new itineraries from Turkey. Jeremy seal, who has long been hooked on this fascinating country, reviews a few of his favourite ports of call
My, how people are talking Turkey just now. With Istanbul being Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2010, there’s never been a better time to discover the land at the world’s historic crossroads.
I was hooked from the moment I sat on the rear deck of an Istanbul ferry heading for Asia, and watched Europe recede. It was those ten minutes between two continents, and that sublime skyline of domes and minarets, palaces and tottering tenements that did it.
No question that Turkey has a dizzying wealth of sites Greek and Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, not to mention two of antiquity’s Seven Wonders, but this fascinating place is more than merely the world’s first open-air museum. Pampering the senses is something that Turks – and I don’t just mean the belly dancers – truly understand. The country’s world-renowned cuisine, far from being restricted to refined restaurants, is truly a street phenomenon. Try, for example, a portion of lahmacun (thin pizza-like bread topped with spicy minced lamb) at a humble roadside stall or treat yourself at an outdoor café to a plate of the honeyed pastries called baklava, perhaps with a side order of Turkey’s fabulous ice cream. Nor need you worry about piling on the pounds since you can always sweat them off at the nearest hamam, or Turkish bath – the traditional marble steam rooms of the Byzantines. The trick with Turkey, given you can rely on the locals for their native courtesy, is to participate, and your hands-on approach is sure to pay dividends.
And so to Istanbul. The vexing question, once you’ve recovered from the views, is what part of the city’s immense surface – museums, mosques, palaces, shrines, towers, baths, markets, castles, shopping streets and so on – to scratch. After all, this huge city was the capital of world empires for over 1,500 years. Do find time, however else you spend it in the city, to stand beneath the magnificent dome of the St Sophia Basilica. And, moving from sacred to profane, be sure not to miss the Grand Bazaar, an Aladdin’s Cave (credit cards accepted), where vaulted passages house thousands of shops selling carpets, fabrics, leather goods, backgammon sets, jewellery, slippers, rose oil and a very great deal more.
You’re back in Asia at Izmir. Turkey’s third city is unabashedly modern, and its pleasant seafront on to the Aegean, the Kordon, is just the place to enjoy a glass of sweet tea (cay) or a beer. It happens that the national beer, as those itching for somewhere with a few more kilometres on the clock may well have worked out, is named after the best-known classical and early-Christian site in all Turkey. Efes or Ephesus, an easy transfer from the nearby port of Kusadasi, offers a 2000-year glimpse into a world of unsurpassed elegance, with splendid baths, fountains and temples, and a library world-renowned for the beauty of its colonnaded façade. Don’t even begin to let the credit crunch dissuade you from the separate entry ticket required to gain entrance to the hillside terraced houses. The astonishingly intact floor mosaics, marble panels and wall frescoes of these opulent interiors, only opened recently, are perhaps the highlight of the visit. Drop in, since you’re here, on the nearby Temple of Artemis. What once boasted 127 columns, the greatest building of its time, has since been mortally reduced; a single column topped by a stork’s nest and poking from a marsh is all that remains of this particular World Wonder.
Those seeking a break from the cultural onslaught will be glad to know that Turkey is no slouch when it comes to beaches. In fact, the country has some of the great unspoilt strands of the Mediterranean. Boat trips are a great way to reach the best swim spots, especially from the Riviera-style resort of Marmaris. Legend has it that the sand on the delightful island beach at nearby Sedir Adasi was shipped there from Egypt by Mark Antony to impress Cleopatra.
Little has changed at Sedir Adasi, except for the sun loungers. At Bodrum, however, the former fishing town has boomed in recent years. Not that you would know down by the harbour, with its Crusader Castle, its low whitewashed houses and lanes overhung with bougainvillea. It’s in such corners that Turkey retains all its old charm. You might spend your time in Bodrum being blissfully pummelled beneath the marble dome of the Bardakçi Hamam, or adventurously sampling an ayran, a salty yoghurt drink, in a waterfront café, or checking out Turkey’s other World Wonder, Bodrum’s tomb of King Mausolus.
Even now, 25 years after my first trip on that Istanbul ferry, this history-stuffed halfway house between Greco-Roman culture and Arabian exoticism refuses to let go and I’m drawn back, year after year. Chances are that one such experience will have you hooked too.