June 23, 2024

Following our aerial tour of Cappadocia, it was now time to see one of the underground cities up close and personal. For centuries, these intricate network of caves protected inhabitants from natural calamities and war. It was an eye-opening experience to wander around the different caverns and try to imagine how people managed the various spaces and dark surroundings.

Another treat was getting to visit Avanos where pottery has been a 4,000-year-old tradition. I loved all the vibrant colors and very detailed patterns of the various hand painted products at the workshop. I would’ve purchased more than just the trivets I got for family and friends if I wasn’t too concerned about the weight of my luggage. Plus, I would’ve been so stressed out wondering if they would survive the trip home since most of the items I wanted are very fragile.

Early the next day, we departed for Ankara, the capital of Türkiye. We made a stop at Tuz Gölü (Salt Lake) which is the second largest lake in the country and according to Wikipedia, one of the largest hypersaline lakes in the world. The white, glistening surface spread out as far as the eye can see. It was almost like walking on a frozen lake as we ventured further out across the expansive salt bed.
Back on the road, we proceeded to the Ataturk Mausoleum, the final resting place of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. It is an amazing complex on a hilltop in the country’s capital. Travertine blocks laid in the courtyard, a flight of steps made from Cappadocia’s volcanic rocks, a mix of marble and concrete on the floors and walls are just a few of the features of this colossal architectural masterpiece. It was a sight to behold and one I will remember because of its imposing qualities.We arrived at our hotel in Istanbul late in the evening. My friend, Noi, and I had to stay up to pack and make sure our luggage was just the right weight. Exhausted from the constant movement the past week, I collapsed into bed after taking a hot shower. After an early breakfast at the hotel the next day, we went to the Old City (Sultanahmet), which is the heart of Istanbul’s historical peninsula. This area is famous for being home to Turkey’s Ottoman-era structures namely the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, to name a few. I was in awe at each and every one of these majestic buildings. They were all striking and just beautiful to look at.

Unfortunately, we were unable to enter the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia because there was a very long queue to enter both buildings. Apparently, a number of cruise ships had docked and these were passengers scrambling to make the most of their sightseeing that day. I made another mental note to explore these places further when I return.

We did get to walk through the halls and grounds of the Topkapi Palace. This was the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottomans for almost 400 years. The stained glass windows and exquisite mosaic tiles echoed the opulence of one of the most powerful empires in history. This sprawling home of the sultans is perfectly perched on a hillside which gives it one of the best views of the Marmara Sea and the Bospherus Strait. The palace is now a museum which boasts grand pavilions and a jewel-filled Treasury.

Our lunch that day was at Sarnic Restaurant, situated inside a 1,500-year-old cistern. We were treated to a very unique dining experience. The ambiance was extraordinary. The domed ceilings and massive columns were made even more mesmerizing by the purple and yellow lights that reflected on the restaurant’s walls. The food wasn’t bad either. I remember skipping the baklava at this point because I had too much of it the past few days.
After a quick walk to Sultanahmet Square, our guide showed us the Obelisk of Theodosius, within what’s left of the Hippodrome grounds. This was originally erected in Alexandria, Egypt but was later transported to Constantinople. This towering structure is one of twenty nine in the world and is remarkably in very good condition despite being 3,500 years old. The Hippodrome was a public arena for chariot races, gladiatorial games, executions, celebrations and official ceremonies. This was notably the sporting and social center of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.

The highly anticipated shopping spree at the Grand Bazaar did not disappoint. This ancient covered market has more than 4,000 shops that sell everything from clothing, bags, jewelry, spices, ceramics, lamps, teas, sweets and so much more. I thought the Spice Market was confusing but it pales in comparison to this. You could get lost in its myriad of streets and lanes which made roaming around so exciting. The haggling was enjoyable and quite frankly, an essential part of the experience. I loved every minute of it. I purchased a small carpet which wasn’t as fancy as the ones we saw at the carpet factory in Cappadocia but it was a Turkish carpet nonetheless.

As a first time visitor to Türkiye, I appreciated how well-planned and timed our tour was. It felt great to be able to wander and explore without the masks required at the height of the Covid-19. Kudos to EcoZone Travel & Tours for making the experience of a lifetime educational, exhilarating and fun. Mitch, our very charming and patient tour escort was the epitome of grace throughout the trip. It’s not easy having to cater to 32 individuals who are all vying for your attention and assistance. She handled everything and everyone so well. Good job Baby Spice!

Of course, I want to give special thanks to our Turkish friends, Ziya and Izza, who not only did an excellent job but who were also very helpful during our time together. Ziya would always go the extra mile to accommodate our special requests even if some of them were ridiculous at times. I remember one of my friends asking to stop at a gas station so she could purchase an adapter from the adjacent convenience store. We actually saw more gas stations on this trip than the points of interest. I admired how knowledgeable and dignified Ziya was as a tour guide. He described events and places with impressive detail and could actually pass for a professor of sorts.

I have to give a big shout-out to our driver, Izza, who was an absolute rockstar. He drove approximately 2,500 kms during the entire tour and took care of everyone’s luggage like the pro he is. Mind you, this is a man past middle age and he was like the Energizer bunny that just kept on going. He did not show the slightest sign of exhaustion from driving the distance. He was always in good spirits up until he dropped us off at the airport. I have the utmost respect for this man and will remember him with fondness.

Our companions on the tour played a huge role in making sure we would all have great memories of this epic journey. Just like Turkish delight where you can mix different nuts, fruits and just about any flavor, all these personalities blended so well together and the result was one of the best experiences of my life. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of individuals to travel with. (EcoZone Travel & Tours (0917) 109 0118).

There was so much to discover on this trip that it felt like we only scratched the surface in the few days we were there. Türkiye is so rich in history, stunning architecture, gorgeous scenery and lovely people. Who wouldn’t want to go back for more? A deeper immersion into the Turkish way of life has been added to my bucket list because I am not done exploring Türkiye yet. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience that left me wanting more. I can’t wait to make another trip to this extraordinary country in the near future. You shouldn’t miss the chance to go see it for yourselves because believe me, you will thank me for it. With that, I wish everyone the best of 2023. Cheers to more travels and even more meaningful experiences this New Year!