Turkish Delights: Discovering a cultural bridge between Asia and Europe
French writer Alphonse de Lamartine famously said, "If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul." Spreading enticingly across the border of Asia and Europe, this fascinating country has so much to delight the traveller. Olympian swimmer and Arjuna Awardee Rehan Poncha lists his top 3 places to visit for the first time traveller to Turkey.
1) Cappadocia: This is definitely one of the most magical landscapes in the world where volcanic eruptions and erosions over millions of years have left behind rock and stone shaped into spindly stems that rise mushroom like out of the earth. Even the name of these structures - fairy chimneys - has a magical ring to it. The arid, beige landscape is bizarrely reminiscent of a scene out of George Lucas' Tatooine (minus its two suns) and I wouldn't be surprised to see Anakin Skywalker ambling around! Take a walk through history and visit the open air museum at Goreme, just 15 minutes' walk from the city centre. A UNESCO World Heritage property, you can look back to a time centuries ago, when Christian monks fled Roman prosecution arrived in Cappadocia and lived and worshipped in secret in caves carved into these fairy chimneys. Scores of monasteries and churches are placed side by side, with beautiful frescoes that still retain their freshness. You too can have the cave experience by opting to stay in a cave hotel with choices ranging from the ultra-luxury to budget. If you like active holidays, Cappadocia offers some of the most scenic trails for a bike ride or hike through the unusual surroundings. But the best way to view Cappadocia is certainly from the air in a hot air balloon. The rides are scheduled at dawn, with spectacular views of the unique Mars like landscape below, a stunning sunrise above and hundreds of colourful balloons in between. Mark this for your bucket list!
2) Antalya: Part of the Turkish Riviera, Antalya is a beach lover's paradise with 300 glorious days of sunshine in a year. The spectacular pine-clad Taurus Mountains sweep down to the sea and tourists throng to see the waterfalls that make beautiful rainbows as they tumble from the cliff into the sparkling blue Mediterranean. There is lots to do in and around Antalya. Unwind with a game of golf at one of the championship golf courses that are found aplenty in Antalya. I enjoyed my morning playing 18 holes at the scenic Titanic Deluxe Golf Belek Course that is flanked by the ocean and Besgoz River. 18 km east lie the ancient cities of Aspendos and Perge where you can walk through the remains of Roman colonnaded streets, agora, aqueducts and theatres that seem to litter Europe. Stop by little villages on the way, to pluck fresh oranges and have juice or buy locally made Turkish scarves. The historical old town, Kaleci is a must do. Surrounded by medieval walls the town offers beautiful views of the harbour with quaint shops selling lamps, pottery and lots of evil eye products. Enjoy a boat cruise through the harbour or just enjoy the view as you sip a cup of Turkish tea or coffee at one of the many pretty coffee shops. An old Turkish proverb describes Turkish coffee as "Black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love." Brewed in a very distinctive way, a small cup is stronger than your average espresso. More so, a local fortune teller even will tell you what your future holds, by looking at the remnants of the coffee in your cup once you’ve drained your cup!
3) Istanbul: Byzantium-Constantinople - Istanbul, the changing names of this great city remind one of its fascinating heritage spanning thirteen successive civilisations. The capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the city dates back 3,000 years. From a Roman-era hippodrome to Egyptian Obelisks, the influence of the many empires that ruled here are reflected in cultural influence of its Old City. The magnificent Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel where one can observe a historical synthesis of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Built in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was repurposed as a mosque, as part of the Turkish conquest, in 1453 by Mehmed II, with the addition of a wooden minaret. In 1934 Turkish President Atatürk secularized the building, and it was made into a museum. Art historians consider the building’s beautiful mosaics to be the main source of knowledge about the state of mosaic art in the time. The famous blue hand painted tiles from Turkey, give the Sultan Ahmed Mosque its popular name of the Blue Mosque. A popular Istanbul attraction in the Sultanahmet area, this mosque was built in the 1600s, and continues to be an active mosque with prayers offered five times a day. The lanes of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar close by, are reminiscent of an Aladdin movie. From Turkish carpets, scarves and shawls, sweets, dry fruit and coloured glass lamps, gems and jewellery, pottery and souvenirs, this colourful bazaar is sure to entertain. My favourite time though was taking in the panoramic views from the medieval Galata Tower and cruising down the down the Bosphorus strait that divides the city into two parts, one in Europe and the other in Asia. The city even has a swimming pool located bang in the middle of the strait, so you can start a lap in Europe and finish it in Asia! However you choose to spend your time, Istanbul will be unforgettable.