I’ve spent nearly 30 years travelling in luxury coaches, dodgy taxis, Dolmus buses, army helicopters, by boat and on foot and never fail to be thrown by the sheer diversity of a country that’s more like a continent.
Hip, cultural Istanbul is where many travellers start their voyages of discovery. Like New York isn’t America, Istanbul isn’t really Turkey, but a state in it’s own right. Unlike New York, Istanbul has 3,000 years of civilisation to inspire herself with. On the same latitude as Rome (and also built on seven hills), this was the perfect capital for the Emperor Constantine to establish the Eastern Roman empire from, just when old Rome was tearing itself to pieces.
The Byzantines came next. They were Greek-speaking Christians that were nonetheless mullah’d by thuggish crusaders, who carried off her many treasures (check out the golden lions in St Mark’s Square, Venice, for example), leaving the door open to the (Muslim) Ottomans, whose empire stretched from the gates of Vienna all the way round the Med to Mauritania. Istanbul is still the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox church. Awe-inspired pilgrims thought Haghia Sofia’s great dome was suspended from heaven by a golden chain as even you might today. Gorgeous churches, chapels and synagogues are yours to happen upon in her huddled quarters.
Check out the sixth-century Kuçuk (or, Little) Haghia Sofia around the corner from the crowds at the Blue Mosque. Properly known as the church of St Sergius and St Bacchus, its fresco’d and mosaic’d saints look so sharp and fresh, they could have been dressed by Vivienne Westwood.
Boating 10 minutes over to Asia for a cup of tea, or taking the slow ferry to the traffic-free, bougainvillea-crazy Princes’ Islands for a seafood lunch or hilltop picnic you may well be the only British traveller, but you’ll still be amongst friends, for the Turkish welcome is as genuine as it is legendary.
A meander up the Bosphorous brings you to the Black Sea with its shoals of anchovies and wild waves. Within an hour of Istanbul you’re in an Alpine land of tea gardens, hazelnut coppices and Laz-speaking, line-dancing locals who trace their roots back to Jason and his Argonauts.
Turkey’s north east, bordering Georgia and Armenia, is little visited, but the Kaçkar mountains are the intrepid walker’s paradise, with lost valleys, endless vistas and rare wildlife. The village of Yaylayar is home to 130 types of butterfly alone. Englishwoman Kate Clow has previously established two spellbinding walking trails in the Taurus Mountains; her latest is here in the Kackars.
Inland from here is Ankara with its art deco embassies, established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as Turkey’s modern capital; from here Çatalhüyük, is an easy drive. This is where wheat was first cultivated: Neolithic people lived here in organised towns about 9,500 years ago.
At school, I was rubbish at history but in Turkey, history is easy to read, and worn on everyone’s face. Turk’s ancestors were once subject to those great colonising, civilising empires, so you see pale-skinned Slavs; ginger-haired Syrians; grizzly Alpine mountain villagers; oval-eyed horse-riding farmers; triangular-faced Mongolian steppe-dwellers; flashing Arabs; proud beautiful Kurds; faded, haunted Thracians; boat-bound Aegean islanders. You see history also in every town and village.
Cappadocia is established on the tourist trail, but its pastel-painted underground churches are definitely worth the visit. Cut from the soft tufa rock, this is where early Christians hid from marauding Romans – a case of true faith made concrete.
Van, near where Turkey meets Iran, was the capital of the Urartu people in the ninth century BC, and is also famous for its swimming cats. Further south is Upper Mesopotamia, where the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers rise. Urfa is by legend where Abraham was born and Job learned his patience. Gaziantep is where baklava was invented, and Malatya is where your supermarket’s dried apricots come from. In Mardin, people speak Aramaic, just as Jesus did, and if you carry on west to the Mediterranean, you fetch up in ancient Antioch and Tarsus, where St Paul was born.
Turkey’s coastlines are beautiful, and her waters, er, turquoise. The Datça peninsula is as rocky, bird-loud and gorgeous as anywhere in the Med. As you follow the Aegean north, there’s Ephesus, of course, which is beautiful in the late afternoon after the tour buses have left. Meryem Ev is where the Virgin Mary is said to have spent her last days, and when the sun’s setting over these graceful Grecian ruins, you might want to stay here forever, too.
Izmir is olive oil and wine country – Turkey is one of the world’s largest grape producers, and Turkish wines can now take their place with the best of the New World. Even if they’re really from the Ancient one.
Before you hit Troy there are the tiny Aegean islands of Bozcaada and Gökçeada, famous in Greek mythology and also as where Allied troops waited before wasting their lives at Gallipoli. Gallipoli, like neighbouring Trakya (Thrace) is wild, weird and possessed of a hauntingly empty beauty. This is where the Persian king Xerxes had the Dardanelle Straights whipped because their currents would not obey his majesty when he so badly wanted to invade Greece. This is also where I love to eat garlicky clams and salads of sea vegetables, and drink cold Truva beers.
Along the Marmara Sea you’re back in Istanbul, having travelled thousands of miles and through ten thousand years of history. Turkey’s climate ranges from snowy Alpine through wind-whipped steppe, waterless desert and balmy Mediterranean. You’ll have eaten some of the most delicious food in the world, and the Turks you’ve met will have treated you with kindness and joy. The truth is, Turks just love having visitors.