I’ve just returned from two amazing weeks in Turkey! It’s somewhere I never gave much thought to visiting before my flights were booked, but I’m so incredibly happy that it found its way onto my travel radar. I was a little apprehensive about visiting a Muslim country for the first time and was also slightly concerned about the political climate, but what I came away with is an appreciation for the simple life most people live in Turkey, their incredible friendliness, amazing food and wine, and the historical significance of this gateway between Europe and the middle east.
There will be many blog posts to come on the subject of Turkey, but I thought an introductory post was necessary. First things first, I have to say that I went in thinking I would be put out of my comfort zone at every turn, that I would stick out like a sore thumb, and that being woken up by the call to prayer at 4am would be annoying, but I was wrong about all of these things. I also was concerned about safety after traveling predominately in northern Europe. But honestly, I felt safer walking around Istanbul at night than I did in Paris, and yes, people try to take advantage of tourists and sell you crap you don’t need or want, but if you ignore them (which you’ll get good at) you almost stop noticing them.
Our Turkish adventure started at midnight when we landed at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul. Normally we take transit to our destination when we travel, but the Metro was not running so we were forced to take cab (our first ever after many trips to Europe). Thankfully our airbnb host had given me directions in Turkish to print because our cab driver didn’t speak a word of English. We walked right past the hustlers inside the airport, outside into the sticky night air to the legit taxi stand, and were promptly put into a Fiat taxi that looked like it had been to war. My seat belt didn’t work (we were lucky that there were even seat belts) and after a minute of mild panic over his terrible and fast driving I decided to just go with it and give myself over to the organized chaos that defines Turkey.
We spent the next two weeks falling in love with this wonderful country, its food, animals (and their noises) and beautiful landscapes. Our itinerary included a good mix of sightseeing, city time, country/beach time and active pursuits. We did agree that one more beach day would have been nice though. This trip was different than the others we’ve been on for two key reasons. First, you do have to just give up worrying about your physical safety in the North American sense, and second the fact that people might think you’re rude or disrespectful if you ignore them, wear a tank top, or show your knees just becomes an afterthought. Obviously you want to respect their culture, religion and traditions, and by no means should you enter a mosque dressed inappropriately, but along the coast and in other touristy areas you can dress as you would in California.
On the topic of safety, Turks really don’t seem overly concerned with it. Honestly I’m sure most of the rest of the world is similar. In addition to not having seat belts and over using their car horns, Turkish drivers will not stop…for anything. They may pause briefly at a red light, but the car will be rolling slightly forward the entire time. As a pedestrian it is your responsibility not to get hit by a car, moped, tram, bike or cart. Even if you have the little green walking man in your favour be careful! But if you’re too patient you wont’ get anywhere, so sometimes you have to just commit and go, which is scary at first.
When you walk along the sidewalks off the main thoroughfares you’ll find that you get about 2 meters and then will be forced into the street for some reason. Usually it’s a set of stairs leading down into a basement apartment, a pile of rubble or construction debris in the way, or a herd of stray cats just hanging about. So eventually you just get used to walking down the centre of the street until you hear a car coming and then you scamper back to the supposed safety of the sidewalk as quickly as possible. It’s like a constant game of road hockey, except no one yells “car”. You wouldn’t last a day if you were deaf in Istanbul.
Driving is an entirely different animal that my husband handled like a champ. I guess once you’ve mastered driving in Italy you’re good? We picked up our little Fiat at the airport in Izmir, and not 10 min later on the highway we encountered a cement mixer that had t-boned an SUV, just stuck in the middle of the highway, no flares or anything directing you around it. In addition to driving very fast (especially around corners on seaside roads) and not being shy about flashing their lights when it’s time to get over, Turkish drivers have decided that even if two lanes of traffic stop at a light, there’s usually room for a third lane to be created. This causes a bottleneck once the light turns green, and invariably people end up back in the same position they were in before, but they feel like they’re getting somewhere faster I guess. We didn’t understand it.
Parking is no problem. Basically you just throw your car wherever it will fit and walk away. But be careful though, if you happen to park in someone’s lot they will probably approach you to buy something from them. You may or may not feel obligated to do this as a tourist. We did not as we had gotten over the whole ‘we’re being rude thing’ by the time we got our car.
Food and water are also interesting topics in terms of safety. After some research we decided not to drink the tap water. First of all, it’s heavily chlorinated most places and tastes absolutely terrible, second, apparently it can make you sick, although I doubt that (I brushed my teeth with it no problem), and third, you can buy a 1.5L bottle of cold water at any corner store in the country for $0.50, making it not worth it to even attempt tap water.
The food we had was consistently delicious, with the worst meal of the trip being had in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist centre. And even then it wasn’t that bad (just greasy). We ate at all family run one off places and found that the vast majority of people were actually concerned about your experience, thus providing excellent service, and the quality and value of the food was outstanding. We ran the gamut. eating at mehanes (pubs), market stalls, chic bistros, beachside cafes, and even inside caves. Our typical evening meal was a shared meze plate with bread, a couple of vegetarian mains to share (or lamb once in a while) and a couple large bottles of Efes, or a nice bottle of Turkish wine. Outside of our splurge meal in Istanbul at Meze by Lemon Tree our meals never cost more than $50 CAD. We had one dinner (without booze) cost as little as $12 for two.
And the last thing that made a big impression on me was how lovely, friendly and generally kind the Turkish people are. Even when they’re trying to rip you off they’re pretty nice…which makes it harder to say no of course! From our first encounter with Idil, our airbnb host in Istanbul, to our final stop at the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel in Goreme, the people of Turkey were keen to share honest information about their local area, country and culture. For example, we learned that in Goreme, since the 70’s when tourism overtook the local economy they have seen a crisis develop. Families who had farmed the land for hundreds of thousands of years suddenly stopped and began operating restaurants and hotels. Within a generation the skill of farming has been lost to many. At Kelebek, they are trying to raise awareness on this issue by hosting an ‘organic breakfast’ for their guests in the family’s valley close by, stay tuned for that post!
When staying in the Kaya Valley, just above Fethiye, we thought the British couple whose B&B we were staying at were nuts when they told us to walk into down for dinner at Cin Bal, and then ask the restaurant to drive us home. But sure enough a nice young guy scooped us up in his truck and drove us right back home, knowing exactly where our hosts house was. Didn’t even give us the opportunity to tip him!
We had car trouble one day (note to travelers, do not put your car keys with a remote fob in your swim shorts and go into the water) and I thought ok here we go. It’s going to cost us an arm and a leg to get help. But to my dismay within minutes of our car not starting we had two guys helping us (neither spoke English). I was also shocked when I went to a hotel to use the phone that the girl at the front desk said ‘of course you can use the phone for free’, and that it was no problem to have the car rental company ring me back at the hotel if I wanted to wait there.
There are countless examples of kind people, delicious food, and unexpected surprises (the good kind) in Turkey. Yes, we did encounter people who tried to scam us and sell us useless junk. No, I don’t want to buy a nice carpet (t-shirt, purse, fill in the blank as you see fit) No, I don’t want an English guide to skip the line with, I don’t want to eat or drink something in your restaurant as I already ate, and oh, you know someone who lives in Canada…your cousin, friend, brother…what? Nope, I still don’t want to buy what you are selling me, but thanks!
There will be individual posts to come on various aspects of my recent trip, but if you read this and are thinking about possibly going to Turkey, my advice to you is do not hesitate. Do it and you will not regret it. The exchange rate to the Turkish Lira makes is incredibly affordable, meaning you will spend infinitely less than you would in Croatia or Greece. It’s a food and wine lovers paradise (yes, Turkish wine is actually really good!), and there is a wonderful mix of historical sights, places to relax, and activities for all ages and fitness levels. I don’t have kids, but it’s a way more appropriate place to take your kids than say Italy (just be warned that Turkish people love kids and will pinch your child’s cheeks at every opportunity).
We are so preoccupied with the idea of our safety in North America, and this trip really highlighted that. We also are incredibly focused on earning a good living to buy a home or a car or other seemingly meaningless material possessions (often times, lots of them). In Turkey many people don’t have this opportunity, but they make do with what they have, and in the end seem happier than we are for it. There is something very appealing about a simpler life. After this trip I feel like I am a better traveler, have truly experienced a different culture, and my desire to continue exploring continues to grow every day.