This year's Turkish visit was a bit different as it involved a friend on their first visit to Turkey joining us for a few weeks and a medical emergency.
First a suggestion: Get travel insurance! At 49, I suffered a heart attack and had to have emergency surgery to discover that my insurance (from the U.S.) did not cover any costs overseas. Fortunately the cost was very low by U.S. standards while the level of care at "one of the best" private hospitals in Istanbul as well as the public hospital where I sought emergency service was excellent. Again, GET TRAVEL INSURANCE!
We took a quick (10-day) road trip with our friend on their first visit with me playing tour guide and attempting to balance the popular, crowded sites with less popular (at least for foreigners) places. A bit to my surprise our friend seemed to enjoy the "Turkish" places like Safranbolu, Amasra, İznik and Beyoğlu more than the "standards" like Ephesus and the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul.
If you go to the expense of renting a car for all or part of your time in Turkey, I repeat that your best value rental will have a turbo-Diesel engine and by in the Ford Focus/Renault Megane class. This class of car is reasonably roomy and comfortable for long distances and the turbo-Diesel engines give amazingly good fuel economy on the highway while still having reasonable power. The cheapest rentals (I again rented one in Cappadocia for local use) are severely underpowered, noisy, uncomfortable and do not have particularly good highway fuel economy.
Turkish drivers are improving along with the improving roads, but there is still MUCH road construction and many inexperienced, "crazy" drivers.
Another suggestion I will make should you rent a car is to use secondary roads as much as possible. Get some good Turkish road maps, bring a GPS unit with up-to-date Turkish maps. Your speed on secondary roads will be somewhat slower but in general you will enjoy far nicer scenery and are likely to stumble upon very interesting stops. This is true even in the central highlands where nice scenery is rather scarce to begin with. In some cases the major route is the only practical route, but there are alternatives in most areas. Turkish road atlases mark "scenic routes" and in most cases they are on secondary roads in very good condition. Don't be overly afraid of small roads in mountainous areas. You can often find beautiful short-cuts that save many kilometers using them. GPS systems seem especially fond of finding these short-cuts While our friend was closing his eyes when big drop-offs were on his side of the car he also enjoyed the scenery as well as stops in the little villages you find on such roads.
My "discovery" for this trip was İznik at the SE corner of a lake of the same name about 150 km (by road) S of İstanbul (significantly less if you use a ferry across the Marmarıs Sea). We visited İznik last year but just as a drive-through to see the ancient and massive defensive walls. This time we stayed the night and spent about 24 hours in the town. Great shopping for traditional Ottoman style ceramic tiles; an excellent, ancient hamam and especially friendly local people made the visit highly enjoyable and I hope to return there for a few days in a later visit. İznik sees a fair amount of tourism that is almost exclusively Turkish. There is a broad range of accommodation at every level except ultra-luxury. As it was the Ottoman-era capital city for some time, İznik is steeped in history. The huge defensive walls definitely speak to that history as hundred (or thousands) of years of destruction and rebuilding are evident in their construction.
Our second visit to Safranbolu was as nice as our first. The "Kristal Terrace" (a glass-floored observation platform over a canyon) that was under construction last year is now finished. While difficult to visit via public transportation it is a beautiful place. Unfortunately the nearby ancient, functional aqueduct is now blocked and you can no longer walk across, but there is now a series of staircases leading down into the canyon where you find a nice park/picnic area at the end. Both the canyon and terrace visits have a modest fee. Our first visit to Yoruk Koyu (a few km NE of the town) was very enjoyable. I can best describe this Ottoman era town as a "living museum". Yoruk Koyu was obviously a wealthy place at one time as the town is filled with extremely large and elaborate homes. Many of them appear vacant, and a few are open to tours.
We took a quick trip to Amasra for lunch, shopping and to show our friend the Black Sea. A big storm was blowing in and the unprotected shore certainly demonstrated the power of the Karıdeniz. The woodworking bazaar in Amasra is truly the best place I have found in Turkey to do shopping for inexpensive, practical, truly Turkish items and gifts. While I enjoy the Turkish sport of bargaining at times, I also enjoy the no-haggle prices in Amasra! The locally made wooden kitchen implements are the best I have seen anywhere in the world. If you are anywhere near Amasra and have a few extra hours or perhaps an extra night in your itinerary take the time! Like nearby Safranbolu, Amasra is a place very popular with Turkish tourists, so especially during the high season avoid weekend visits.
Another pleasant surprise was Akçakoca on the Black Sea coast about 30 km due north of Düzce. The secondary road valley/mountain route between Düzce and Akçakoca was quite nice and passed through an area with much rafting/floating/canoeing. The surprise was a huge, beautiful sandy beach that was essentially deserted in early October. Storm passed, the weather was beautiful and we enjoyed an impromptu swim in light surf and cool but not-too-cold sea. Given the huge number of holiday homes/holiday rentals we saw I suspect it is a very busy area in the summer.
If you are in the area I can recommend Sapanca (on the southern coast of a lake of the same name) as a great place to stop for lunch. If you are passing through Sakarya, be certain to stop for ayran (the extremely popular yoghurt/water drink). They serve it fresh, thick and frothy and it's the best place to acquire a taste. Once you enjoy ayran, even the commercial stuff in cartons is good
Our visit to Pamukkale (my third) was OK. I still love swimming in the ancient pool and will suggest that to enjoy the swim, get there EARLY and make the pool your FIRST stop! Once the tour busses arrive en masse it becomes hopelessly crowded. There were some sensitive and excellent restorations made to the theater since my last visit but I also found far more of the ancient city blocked to exploration. If you have private transportation I highly recommend Pam Thermal hotel in nearby Karahayıt. It is the only big resort-type thermal hotel in Karahayıt that has kept its standards despite the fact that the town never became the one- or two-week holiday destination that was expected when the town was built in the 80s. The cost for a triple room with half-board (buffet dinner and breakfast) was about what I pay for two people at a mid-range U.S. motel chain not in a tourist area.
Early October still found huge crowds at Ephesus. At least the weather was pleasant. Even if this involves the added expense of a taxi, I suggest getting to the lower gate at about 7:30 a.m. and immediately heading to the terrace houses. We were the first to enter the terrace houses and by the time we emerged about 45 minutes later it and the streets were filling. By the time we made it to the top the streets and popular points of interest along the way were already overcrowded with tour groups. It was only because of my previous visits that I was able to show our friend the "off-the-main-drag" sites of the city as we at times were forced to barge our way through tour groups. I know this will sound crazy to some, but I have zero problem recommending visits to Aphrodiasis and Pergama as an alternative to Ephesus. We enjoyed the night in a sea view suite at Derici Hotel in Kutahaya (instead of nearby Selçuk) as I believe that any Turkish holiday deserves at least one night in a nice room with a view...
My second visit to Pergama was decent. As before I very much enjoyed taking secondary roads into the town (before from the NW, this time from the NE). Unfortunately the castle was closed as it is undergoing stabilization/renovation. Our previous visit did not involve an overnight stay. This time we spent one night and had some difficulty finding reasonably priced accommodation. We finally bargained down the price after showing receipts from highly comparable hotels we had visited.
Scheduling problems reduced the four full days in Istanbul I had planned with our Turkish virgin friend to three plus a half-day on each side. Since I wanted to show him the "best" sites of Istanbul we bought the Istanbul Museum Pass. How do I say this nicely? The place I believe we all most enjoyed was the smallest and most out-of-the-way--Chora Church. The litle map supplied with the pass was hopelessly out-of-scale and thinking it a "major" site we just starting walking northeast from Eminönü. A few kilometers and hours later we finally found the place after asking directions many times to mystified residents. We had to resort to a taxi for a short distance and even the driver had to telephone to determine where we wanted to go! Anyway, the site itself was very nice and we enjoyed walking along the Golden Horn and into the surrounding neighborhood. Crazy hills in the area so be prepared for some hiking if you go by foot!
Now mid-October Istanbul was still filled with innumerable shore excursion groups from the mega cruise ships. Topkapı Palace was utterly overwhelmed and truly impossible to enjoy! We made three attempts at different times of different days to find the same problem. Only once did we go through the turnstiles to wait at least 20 minutes just to walk through the main gate as we heard tour guides hopelessly imploring, "Let people out so we can get in." Once inside the lines for every interior space were hideously long and knowing their size and layout froom a previous visit I knew they would be hopelessly crowded inside. While I did not complain, our friend made said, "Let's go--it can't be worth it." In subsequent visits I asked guides leaving the site, "Is it still impossibly crowded inside?" to hear "Yes!" While extremely busy at least the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia were reasonable. Only the Basilica Cistern (not part of the Museum Pass) was not terribly crowded and our friend, like we, found it an incredible place. While I respect my fellow travelers/tourists and understand that many places are popular and crowded I must also express a great dislike for the mega ships that truly overwhelm sites that cannot handle their numbers!
I notice that a great many travelers/tourists visiting Turkey want to enjoy the "real" Turkey. The following is addressed to them with the provisio that private transportation will be highly useful and that they should be willing to stay in one spot for at least four full days. In no particular order I can recommend these places:
Rize/Üzün Göl/Coastal towns between Trabzon and Rize
Feedback from travelers recently returned from Turkey: what's good, what's bad, what they found
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