A local agency delivers with a fabulous tour of Turkey

This article appears on page 34 of the May 2011 issue.
Visiting the ruins at Ephesus.

by Fran Marshack; Walnut Creek, CA

Over the years, I’ve heard friends talk about how fabulous Turkey is, but I never gave a visit there much thought. After my travel buddy, Kathy, happened to suggest it when we couldn’t decide where in the world we wanted to go next, we began searching out any information we could find. The more we discovered, the more excited we got, and soon we knew we had to take a trip to Turkey.

Planning the trip

We spend a tremendous amount of time contacting many agencies but never found what we wanted until we came across Argeus Tourism & Travel (Istiklal Caddesi No. 47, 50400 Ürgüp, Nevsehir, Turkey; phone +90 384 341 4688). This was the luckiest find ever!

Argeus outdid themselves in helping us plan our trip. We knew that we wanted a small-group tour with a driver and a professional guide. We had traveled that way in Argentina and Chile a year before and found it the best way to go. It had been difficult to find such a tour in Turkey that also included all the locations we wanted to visit. Argeus had exactly what we wanted.

The Spice Market in Istanbul.

Mehmet, our agent, was beyond fantastic. From the moment we started asking what seemed like a million questions, Mehmet (mehmet@argeus.com.tr) counseled us about the details and we were hooked. Sometimes we e-mailed him once or twice a day and, remarkably, he often answered right away!

We took the 14-day “Classical Turkey” tour. Priced at $3,970 per person, it included all internal transportation, meals and entrance fees. International airfare was extra. Tour groups have a maximum of 10 passengers traveling in a private minivan, but we found out that ours would have only six. From the start, the six of us bonded, and we remained like a family for the entire two weeks. We still correspond quite often. That’s so much a part of traveling: making new friends from around the world.

City sights

We began our journey in Istanbul and stayed at the most fabulous small hotel, the Blue House Hotel, located in the Sultanahmet section of the Old City center. It was very quaint and had a rooftop restaurant with the most amazing view from atop the fourth floor. The hotel is right next door to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

During our three-day comprehensive tour of Istanbul, we visited the famous 17th-century mosque known for its blue tile work and its six minarets. Our guide made arrangements for us to enter just before closing and we were able to enjoy its beauty without hordes of tourists. It is truly a sight to behold.

At Hagia Sofia, a former Byzantine church that is now a museum, we were treated to a magnificent patchwork of Christian and Islamic art. Later, we went below the Old City into the sixth-century underground Basilica Cistern that once held 100,000 tons of water.

We also visited Topkapi Palace. Seeing the harem quarters and hearing the stories that I only knew from history books was a highlight, for me. Another highlight of our city tour was floating on the Bosphorus River on our own private boat watching the spectacular views of both sides of the city.

Of course, no trip to Istanbul would have been complete without going to the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar. The colorful spices were displayed in elegant fashion and we got lost in the smells and hustle and bustle of the market.

Roman theater in Aspendos.

The Grand Bazaar was just that: grand! Prices were a bit high, so we were advised to purchase the same things outside the bazaar instead. We found much better prices in a little market across the street from our hotel.

We met Charlie of Charlie’s Classics (Sultanahmet, Arasta Çarşisi No. 169) in the Arasta Bazaar, and he went out of his way to make sure we loved what he made. We had leather jackets made within 24 hours at a good price (about $127).

We ate at some amazing restaurants as well. Our guide would always take us for lunch to places where tourists rarely go and where the food was authentic Turkish cuisine. Everything — from the eggplant to the salads and kebabs — was totally delicious!

We frequented a wonderful outdoor restaurant/bar called The Metropolis, located about two blocks from our hotel. Sitting outdoors and watching the locals walk by was a wonderful treat at the end of a long day.

Kuşadası and Pamukkale

It was time to leave Istanbul, so we flew on Turkish Airlines to I˙zmir. We were picked up by a new private driver who took us to Kuşadası, on the western coast of Turkey, where we stayed for three nights at the Charisma Hotel. Located right on the Aegean, it had a tiny private beach and a gorgeous pool with an amazing view of the sea.

From there, we toured Ephesus, the most famous of the ruins in Turkey, dating back to 2000 BC. Our extremely knowledgeable guide, Erkut, got us to Ephesus before any tour buses arrived, which allowed us to imagine what it was like to live there. He continued to schedule our site visits like that throughout our trip, which made the visits to the ruins that much better.

Upon leaving Kuşadası, we drove through many diverse agricultural areas heading to Pamukkale, one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in the world. Rich calcium oxide in the water there has created the most amazing geological formations of white travertine.

We stayed one night at the Richmond Pamukkale Thermal Hotel, a nice hotel with thermal pools both inside and out as well as a huge outdoor swimming pool. Unfortunately, we arrived when staff was setting up for a huge wedding, so we were not able to make much use of the outdoor facilities.

On to Antalya

The next day we made our way south through beautiful landscapes to the city of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea. The city is surrounded by breathtaking mountain ranges and clear, blue water.

Travertines drape a hillside at Pamukkale.

We stayed two nights at the Marina Residence Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel with a pool and small restaurant located within minutes of the shore. It is situated in the old section of Antalya on an adorable small street leading to many pedestrian pathways to the colorful local bazaar and the sea.

One evening we were taken to the Urcan Fish Restaurant on the Mediterranean. The surrounding walls were glass, which allowed for a magnificent view of the sea and the surrounding mountains. The food was fantastic. It happened to be our guide’s birthday, so the celebration with delicious food, friends and fine wine continued late into the evening under starlit skies.

Before leaving Antalya the next morning, we visited the famous Antalya Archaeology Museum for several hours. Antalya is one of the country’s richest historical areas, and this museum certainly does it great justice.

Whirling Dervishes and fairy chimneys

Back in our minibus, we headed northeast to Konya. The most important spot to visit in Konya is the mausoleum of Mevlana, the mystic poet who was the founder of the Whirling Dervish order. Now a museum, it is a beautiful piece of architecture. There was an incredible display of mini Korans, and the sound of a flute flowing down from the domes above added to the strong feeling of peace and devotion I felt here.

Leaving Konya, we headed with great anticipation toward Cappadocia. Along the way we made a stop at Sultanhan Caravanserai, where medieval merchants used to stay overnight. There is talk that Marco Polo may have stayed there on his way to the Orient.

As we neared Cappadocia, the terrain began to change; suddenly, craters and tabletop rock formations seemed to dominate the landscape. This, by far, was the most awe-inspiring area I had ever been to! Whatever direction I turned my head, I was met with the sight of red sandstone in a lunar-looking landscape.

Here we stayed at the most unique hotel I have ever been in, Yunak Evleri, a luxury hotel carved into a mountain cliff. It contains six cave houses with a total of 30 cave rooms dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries. Just imagine living in a cave surrounded by a magical landscape of fairy chimneys.

Compared to the other hotels in the area, this one is a must, Luckily, we were able to stay there for three nights.

After our arrival in the afternoon, we headed to the Devrent Valley and on to the Zelve Open Air Museum, one of the earliest-inhabited and last-abandoned monastic settlements of Cappadocia. This amazing cave town was truly an enchanting place.

Continuing in Cappadocia

We were treated to more unbelievable sites as we entered the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is composed of many monasteries, all with their own rock-cut churches with magnificent 10th- to 12th-century frescoes inside that still retain their bright colors. It is not to be missed!

We took a wonderful hike through the Red Valley, with wooden ladders compelling us to descend into the lower part of the canyon. The Red Valley is one of the most spectacular valleys of Cappadocia, with rock formations in a variety of colors. The hidden rock-cut churches in the valley added to our enjoyment.

The unusual landscape of Cappadocia.

There were still so many stunning areas to visit, but our time in Cappadocia was getting short. We were lucky to be able to visit the extraordinary Underground City of Kaymakli. One of the largest of the underground cave cities, it was carved out, in part, around 2000 BC. With eight stories below the surface (of which only four levels can be visited), it was a city that could accommodate 5,000 people, with labyrinths of tunnels winding past wineries, churches, kitchens and large rooms — all built around incredibly elaborate ventilation chimneys.

Our meals in Cappadocia were in amazing restaurants, including The Old Greek House (Sinasos Village) in Mustafapasa. In a private room upstairs, we sat on the floor with pillows around a huge wooden table. It was as if we had stepped back in time, and the food was fantastic as well. It was certainly an experience to remember.

Another incredible place our group went for dinner was Ziggy Café (Yunak Mahallesi Tevfik Fikret Caddesi, No. 24). Don’t let the name fool you — in no way did it resemble what I would call a café. It is a gorgeous restaurant made of stone, where we climbed up a set of outdoor stairs to be seated in an open, rooftop setting. The food was fantastic and the owners made sure to come around to check that we were having a good time.

After we finished eating, the owner directed us down to her shop below, where she had a plethora of jewelry and handmade gift items, all at very reasonable prices. We had a ball shopping before returning to our cave hotel about a half a block away.

Sadly, our most amazing Turkey trip with Argeus Tourism & Travel had to come to an end. I must admit that it would have been marvelous to be able to stay longer in Cappadocia, but that will just have to wait until I can return someday.