Updated: Oct 29, 2018
Featured in Wanderous Affair in Volume 1, Issue 2, William Ju's article exploring the incredible beauty of Turkey has left readers excitedly wanting to book their next trip to this incredible country. See why below...
In 2011, I had the pleasure of going to Turkey and staying in three places in the southwestern region, as well as making a stop in Istanbul. Even to this day, it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve been to, and it has left a lasting impression on me. Turkey was a place so different from anywhere I’d been at the time, and it instantly sparked a desire to know more about the country, and to experience as much of it as I could.
I vividly remember the first time I heard the call to worship; I was relaxing on the beach in Bitez, our first stop in Turkey, and a melodically hypnotic voice sounded. It was as if it filled the air around me…and I found out later that it literally did. It turned out that there were speakers mounted to posts all over town. I think it was at that very point that I instantly fell in love with Turkey – with all of its complexities, history, and cultural identities.
Bitez was close to Bodrum, which was the closest major urban area, and was the place that had all the restaurants, lounges, cafés, and nightclubs. It was good to stay in Bitez because we had a beach, it was a little quieter (with fewer people), and you could get to Bodrum pretty easily with a rented motorcycle, car, or taxi/shuttle. In Bodrum, you could find everything: from history, to tons of pedestrian-only streets, and even a party on a glass-bottom Catamaran, if that’s your thing.
If one got bored of Bodrum and Bitez, they could go to the nearby city of Gümbet to unwind on the beach or get something to eat while admiring the sunset at ‘the windmill’, a popular hillside spot to watch the sun settle beneath the horizon for the evening. I loved riding around a motorcycle with my wife and admiring all the white buildings capped with blue rooftops. It’s not unlike what I imagined Greece to be like. In Turkey, more specifically in Bodrum and Gümbet, the white buildings were coloured to keep the insects away, while the blue rooftops were to ward off the Evil Eye described in Turkish mythology.
After Gümbet, our next stop was Pamukkale. We boarded a bus in Bodrum and headed there to see one thing and one thing only: the travertine thermal pools. We arrived late in the afternoon and debated whether we should immediately go to the pools, or instead go first thing in the morning. We came to the conclusion to go right then and decided that if we really liked it, we could always opt to go twice. The first thing that caught my eye was the sign at the entrance; I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I guess I wasn’t anticipating Disneyworld-like branding at the entrance of a location where ancient civilizations once bathed.
After paying the entry fee, you had the option to wade in the water, either in your socks or barefoot. You definitely couldn’t go all the way to see Pamukkale without fully immersing yourself in its stunning pools. That being said, to this day, it is still one of the most incredible things I’ve experienced.
The water was lukewarm and the travertine was both hard and soft, leaving a milky residue in the water. The one thing that really left me awestruck about it was that after all the tour groups left, you could watch the sunset over the pools. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip. For the remainder of our time in Turkey, we had so many uninterrupted experiences to revel in the natural world and its deeply rooted history. Unfortunately, I’ve heard many of the pools have since been destroyed by too much tourism, so be sure to ask around before you plan your excursion.
After Pammukale, we boarded another bus to get to Ölüdeniz. When we arrived in the evening, I won’t hesitate to admit that I was not entirely awestruck. In fact, I was extremely disappointed, as it seemed like Ölüdeniz was created solely to cater to British tourism. Every place we encountered had ‘football’ and served a ‘traditional English breakfast’. Though of course I don’t hold anything against either of those things, many travellers want to experience the authentic local culture. For me, it had felt no different than what I experience back at home.
When we woke up the next morning, I couldn’t believe how different Ölüdeniz looked. There was a mountain right in front of our guesthouse, hiding under the cloak of night. At that moment, it suddenly appeared as if it wouldn’t be so bad, after all. That being said, Ölüdeniz was really only best for the beaches and beachside restaurants. There was a place called the Blue Lagoon, which you had to pay to enter. Otherwise, you could opt instead to go to the free beach right in town.
If you were the adventurous type, you could take a knuckle-whitening drive along a mountainside road (complete with amazing views). This wasn’t for the faint of heart however, with cliffs looming above you on one side, and a steep drop off with no guard rails on the other. I have a fear of heights, so I found the road a bit jarring to travel by motorcycle. If you’re like me, it would be prudent to find someone to direct you to one of the more secluded beaches. For the really adventurous however, there was also a beach accessible only by walking along a cliff’s ledge.
Just a few minutes up the mountain from Ölüdeniz was a town called Hisarönü. Now, when I thought Ölüdeniz catered to British tourism, I hadn’t seen Hisarönü yet. Ölüdeniz actually seemed very refined and classy by comparison. At the time, you could find an eatery called Whiteman Restaurant in Hisarönü; I’m not sure what the intention was, but it was hilarious, nonetheless. Hisarönü wasn’t the kind of place you’d want to go to unless you had a penchant for getting drunk and being surrounded by equally intoxicated British tourists. It was still worth visiting though, as about twenty to thirty minutes from Hisarönü was a ghost town called Kayaköy.
Kayaköy, like Pamukkale, was one of the places that really put Turkey on the map for me. Not only was it a literal ancient ghost town, but when we went in the middle of the day, the place was actually empty. It was just me and my wife, without a single person in sight. You could easily spend a couple of hours there, exploring all the defunct homes, or climbing to the top of the hill to see the church and take in the view. All the while, you are immersed in the town’s history, completely uninterrupted.
If you continued a little further back down the mountain from Hisarönü (about thirty minutes from Ölüdeniz), you will reach a place called Fethiye. This is a place I fell in love with instantly.
Fethiye was a small portside city that seemed more like an authentic urban center designed for living in, rather than simply being built for tourists. It was known as a popular spot for retired British expats and was once again the kind of place where you could find anything. You could go clubbing if you wanted to, or just take a walk by the waterfront. One could even go to the market to buy fresh seafood from a vendor, where they prepare it and have it served for you at any of the surrounding restaurants. We loved it so much that we went there every evening, spending our days at the beaches near Ölüdeniz, and our evenings in Fethiye.
The real showstopper of Fethiye for me was the Rock Tombs. These ethereal rock tombs were carved out on the side of a mountain in the fourth century B.C., and it was reported they were crafted for aristocrats of the day. The cost to walk up to them at the time was around five Turkish lira (TL).
The walk was easy and once you reached the top, you could take in the breathtaking views of Fethiye below. This was another instance where we had a near uninterrupted experience and were able to just sit there for what seemed like hours, watching the sky shift into different shades of yellow and orange as the sun went down.
Our last stop before returning home was Istanbul. It was great, but by that point, I felt like nothing could outshine what I’d already seen and experienced. In many ways, this was a correct assumption.
Don’t get me wrong, Istanbul was equally incredible in many ways, but it also felt like any other major city. For many people, Istanbul is the first and only stop in Turkey, but you really are missing a lot of the country’s splendor if you don’t go on to see a few different cities along the countryside, simply for how vastly different they all are.
For me, the Blue Mosque was a little anti-climactic, along with the Grand Bazaar. Sure, the Grand Bazaar truly was as grand as its name suggests, and it’s also deeply rooted in history, but each turn, each corridor seemed identical to the last. It was easy to get lost within its walls, but it was also easy to feel redundant.
For me, the most amazing things in Istanbul were Aya Sofia and the Cistern. Aya Sofia was a favourite because of its grandeur, as well as the fact that you could explore everywhere within it and admire the mosaics and murals all over the building. The Cistern was incredible for how mysterious and ominous it looked. İstiklal was a great pedestrian street to get lost among with its multitude of secret corridors, or just to relax at a café during the day while taking in the nightlife in the evenings.
One of my favourite things to do in Istanbul was hanging out in front of the Blue Mosque at dusk. After all the tour buses left, there was a tranquility that made it captivating, and with dozens of benches out front, there was no shortage of places to sit. I can still remember the faint tune of Turkish music at the restaurant across the street, while watching Turkish families and young couples enjoying some quiet after the chaos.
Even after all these years and going on to visit seven more countries, I still haven’t found a place that has successfully dethroned Turkey as the most incredible country I’ve seen and experienced. I’ve envisioned returning there ever since.