When I tell friends that I’ve just come back from my second trip to Turkey, they often look puzzled and ask, “Why Turkey? Isn’t it dangerous?” Too many people are under the impression that because it is by and large an Islamic country, Americans would not be welcomed there. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is one of the friendliest, most fascinating countries I’ve ever visited, with a wildly diverse population. On a beach in Bodrum, I saw a muscular, dark-skinned Adonis striding the beach, and I thought of gladiators and Trojan heroes. In a tiny village far to the east, I spotted a striking blue-eyed girl, blonde as any Scandinavian, herding her family cow. There simply is no “average” Turk.
We marveled at how easy it is to be a tourist there. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere. Their airports and public transportation are impressive, with gleaming new streetcars and buses. The hotels are first-rate, the liquor is plentiful, and nightlife in Istanbul is as lively as in any European city. And as for crime, all I can say is that every time I’ve visited Paris, either I or my companions have been pick-pocketed.
It hasn’t yet happened to me in Turkey.
If you’re into archaeology as I am, you’ll find Turkey a treasure trove of ancient sites. My husband and I joined archaeologist Peter Sommer, who took us on a 2-week sail to Hellenistic sites along the western coast. We were joined on the tour by several friends, including sister crime author (and real-life archaeologist) Dana Cameron. Dana’s one of my favorite people, and she’s an absolute hoot to hang out with. Here we are, posing as nymphs in front of the library at Ephesus.
As we sailed the Turkish coastline, I immersed myself in the area’s history by reading The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Odyssey. Looking out to sea, I imagined those thousand Greek ships sailing to Troy. I imagined clashing swords and flying spears. While anchored off a national wildlife preserve, we spotted wild white horses, and I wondered if they were the descendants of ancient battle horses.
… to the village markets, where the produce is unlike anything I’ve tasted in the the U.S. I will never forget the explosion of flavors when I took my first bite of a sugary ripe fig, still warm from the sun. And the sweet melons, the pomegranates, and the tree-ripened peaches! Few Americans will ever enjoy fruits so luscious at home.
A mother emerged from the door, bringing out a snack for them, which they happily pounced on. It wasn’t potato chips or candy; it was simply a bunch of red grapes. Lucky them.
After two weeks of touring along the coast, my husband and I flew east and rented a car to independently tour the strange and surreal landscape of Cappadocia. Our first night in the town of Goreme, around 3:30 AM, we were awakened by another surprise: the noisy pounding of a drum outside our hotel. It was Ramadan, and the village drummer was making his nightly rounds, awakening families to rise and eat their last meal before sunrise, when the daily fast begins. Strictly observant Muslims go all day without eating or drinking, but they’re happy to serve meals to tourists. (As long as the tourist doesn’t mind dining while hungry locals look on.)
Cappadocia is famous for its caves, ancient underground cities, and bizarre geological formations, and we saw hordes of backpackers from Japan and Korea — but almost no Americans. Which is a shame, because there’s so much to amazing scenery to enjoy.
The whole area is riddled with man-made caves, carved into the soft tufa landscape, used both as shelter and — during times of war and invasion — as hiding places.
In the town of Kaymakli, I visited an underground city that goes down seven stories, which once housed up to 5,000 people. That’s when I discovered, to my shock, that my husband is severely claustrophobic. He scurried back to the surface in a panic while I continued all the way down, squeezing through tight tunnels to view an astonishing honeycomb of chambers. The city even had its own prison, with the shackle holes still carved into the walls.
Although the Cappadocia soil looks barren, it is in fact rich in volcanic minerals and is wildly fertile. Irrigate it, and Eden-like gardens spring up. Cappadocia may be the cradle of winemaking, and everywhere we saw vineyards like this one. They don’t use trellises, and the vines are simply allowed to sprawl across the ground.
It’s probably the way they’ve done it for thousands of years. And hey — it works.
What continues to draw us back to Turkey is the people, who make it such a friendly place for travelers. Driving down back country roads, my husband and I got lost and ended up in a little village. Dozens of local men watched with mouths agape as we somehow managed to run our car straight into the only rock in the town square. As they surged forward for a closer look at the idiot Americans, I managed to screw up my courage and stepped out to ask for directions. No one there spoke English, and I know a grand total of about 25 Turkish words, but with a lot of waving and hand gestures, they managed to send us on our way with a smile.
Yes, as a tourist, you’ll have to deal with the ubiquitous carpet and trinket sellers, who’ll never leave you alone. But even as they try to talk you out of your cash, they have a wry sense of humor about it. It’s all a game to them, and you have to laugh at their tactics, their utter creativity as they try to draw your attention. “Hello, senorita from Hong Kong!” was the outrageous greeting one man called out to me. “It’s a good day to buy a carpet!”
“I bought one already,” I told him.
“Ah, but that was yesterday.”
Then there was the scarf seller in in the Grand Bazaar, who tallied up all the scarves I was interested in and quoted me his price.
“Is that the best you can do?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he answered, looking offended. “You’re supposed to bargain. It’s the Grand Bazaar!”
And so the bargaining began.