By Sujata Rajpal
When husband suggested Turkey as a destination for our family vacation, my first reaction was ‘Is it safe to visit Turkey?’ Interestingly, no matter who I talk to about our holiday, their first reaction is the same as mine. Now, after a twelve day holiday in Turkey, I can confidently say that Turkey is as safe as any other ‘safe’ country. Turkey is a country straddled between two continents. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with a population of 15 million, lies partly in Europe and partly in Asia. The European part of Istanbul is separated from the Asian part by the Bosphorus River, a 31-km waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and forms a natural border between the two continents.
Islam is the largest religion in Turkey. I expected to see women wearing hijabs and burqas, so I wore a scarf to avoid looking weird on foreign soil, but during my entire trip, I only spotted a few older women in hijabs. A country with 98% Muslim population. Hijab and burqa are banned in public places in Turkey. Women in Turkey wear western clothes like other western countries. Turkey is a secular country. Polygamy was abolished and officially criminalized in 1926 with the passing of the Turkish Civil Code. Education up to secondary level is free and compulsory.
Istanbul: Not enough for one
Oman Airways arrived at Istanbul Airport at 7pm local time. An hour’s drive in a luxury van organized by our hotel, a quick check-in and we were ready to explore Turkey. There are hotels to suit all budgets, but rates have skyrocketed post-Covid. We are advised to stay on the European side of Istanbul as most of the tourist attractions are in this part of the city. Our hotel is located on the banks of the Bosphorus River and bang opposite the tram station.
Istanbul has so much to offer that at least a week is needed to see everything at leisure. An Istanbul Tourist Pass purchased online provides access to nearly forty tourist attractions in the city. The next morning after breakfast, we headed to Galata Tower. Stretching 63 meters into the sky, the medieval stone dome was used as a watch tower in ancient times. Overlooking the Bosphorus River, it offers a 360-degree panoramic view of Istanbul. A fusion of European and Asian sides can be clearly seen.
An hour later, we were walking towards the Topkapi Palace Museum. This magnificent palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years. Turkish culture has distinct oriental and European elements and has been influenced by Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Georgians and Kurds. The palace houses unique weapons of the Ottoman Army, beautiful fabrics, jewelry and art.
After a quick lunch, we queued up to enter Hagia Sophia, the most visited monument in Turkey. In mosques, women are expected to cover their heads and wear decent clothes. So carry a scarf if you are going to a mosque, but if you forget to take it, scarves are kept for use outside the mosques, like in gurdwaras in India. Hagia Sophia was first the cathedral of Constantinople and later the imperial mosque of the Ottoman Empire; Here 1,500 years of Christian and Islamic history can be seen side by side. In July 2020, it was reclassified as a mosque and opened for prayers. There are 4,000 mosques in Istanbul and tourists, including non-Muslims, are allowed into all mosques. We took the tram back to our hotel and prepared for the Bosphorus dinner cruise that came bundled with the Istanbul Tourist Pass.
Since the first day was hectic, we decided to make the 2nd day more relaxed. First stop is the Basilica Cistern. After an hour and a half at the basilica, we followed our guide’s red flag and walked through the crowds to the Blue Mosque.
Dolmabas Palace is a thirty minute walk from the Blue Mosque, we decided to take the tram and tagged along with our guide who was very keen to belt out information about Turkey. She said that if you want to become a certified guide, you have to study for four years. The Grand Dolmabahce Palace was the last and most expensive residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Set along the beautiful waters of the Bosphorus, it has 285 rooms, 44 halls, 68 toilets and six hamams (Turkish baths). On display are many exotic household items, artefacts and other priceless treasures. Whenever we visit any palace, the similarities with our own Mysore Palace are evident. Not trying to be biased but the grandeur and beauty of the Mysore Palace surpasses the magnificence of all the palaces I have seen around the world.
Driving on Turkish roads is a breeze
Traveling in Turkey is not difficult as there is air connectivity, excellent roads and good public transport. In Turkey, only hire a metered taxi, otherwise you will likely get run over. Taking a taxi was cheap even by Indian standards.
Cappadocia from Istanbul is an eight-hour journey with two stops. Air connectivity is also available. Cappadocia is famous for its enchanting cave dwellings. Throughout the region, there are rock faces where communities lived in these caves until 1952. In the part of the city where we stayed, there were only cave hotels. It is believed that due to volcanic explosions many years ago, the eruptions were scattered everywhere and hardened over time due to oxidation to form cave-like structures. Not just the cave hotels, the entire region has a rustic environment attached to the caves. If Cappadocia is on your itinerary, you must stay at these cave hotels. It is also said that in the dim past of early centuries, barbarians came and plundered villages. Therefore, people lived underground.
We woke up the next morning and rushed to the roof top to see the sky with colorful balloons flying above the rooftops. It is a sight to behold. Cappadocia is famous for hot air balloon rides. We did not travel in Cappadocia; Instead we decided to take one at Pamukalle, our next stop was cheaper there. Just like the cave hotels, a hot air balloon ride is a must in Turkey.
We only had one day in Cappadocia, but ideally two days. There are various options. On popular recommendation, we opted for the Green Tour. Our guide was a young Turkish girl named Elf (her short name for easy pronunciation) who was very excited to tell us about her country.
We were picked up from our hotel and taken to the UNESCO site and the must-see Underground City. The underground city was expanded and deepened during the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) era, when it was used for defense against Muslim Arab attacks during the four centuries of Arab-Byzantine wars (780-1180).
An unforgettable hot-air balloon ride
We were all excited to see the balloons in Cappadocia. The experience exceeded our expectations. The balloon rides start a little before sunrise. The process of inflating the balloon, turning the basket of blocks to let the passengers inside, was as exciting as the balloon’s rise in the sky. Each balloon carries 14 people along with the pilot. Around 20 balloons are ready to take off in the field. It was still dark and the wind was like fire. If I could hold one moment in my heart from the entire trip, it would be this moment. We entered the balloon and it soared over the city, above fields of pomegranate orchids, sugarcane and pumpkins.
Cats in Turkey: There are plenty of cats on the streets of Turkey. They are everywhere — on the streets, in the lobby of hotels, restaurants, stores, sitting at your table in a restaurant, they sneak in. People are their food and pets.