Beautiful Beyond Belief
An amazing country with rich history, beautiful natural landscapes, and friendly, helpful people, Turkey is a country that we thoroughly enjoyed and that you would too! This guide details some of our experiences for:
- Mosques (and not much else) in the big city of Istanbul
- Our high-speed chase and the ancient city of Ephesus
- The cotton castle of Pamukkale and the ancient city of Hierapolis
- The coastal paradise of Fethiye and Öludeniz
- The ghost town
- The Lycian Way and Butterfly Valley
- Scuba diving in Kaş
- The resort city of Antalya
Our first “big” trip
Only a couple of weeks after first meeting each other, Elliott, with all the wisdom of his then 23 years, thought it would be a great idea to ask Lisa to come with him on a two-week trip to Turkey. Lisa, with 21 years of experience sorting out the crazy men from the sane men, thought that her travel style matched well with the travel style of this not-quite-so-crazy man. And so we both bought tickets for our first “big” trip together in Turkey!
Little did Elliott know, however, that Lisa bought her plane ticket to Istanbul with with a distinct “Plan B” in mind in the event that Elliott turned out to be just a little too crazy. Luckily we both stuck with our Plan A and had an absolutely amazing time in an amazing country that too few non-Europeans ever spend the time to check out.
Constantinople, East meets West for hundreds of years, the famous ancient city! What did we find when we got there? … Mostly just a big, busy city.
We’re being a little unfair of course. Istanbul is an awesome place, but despite all of the great sights and tastes and sounds of Istanbul, it still paled in comparison to the rest of Turkey, which is really just that much more awesome.
There are tourist sights abound- the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the crumbling old walls of Constantinople, and they certainly satisfy one’s taste for sightseeing. Probably one of the most interesting things for us was couch surfing with a local from couchsurfing.com. He kept quail and rabbits on his balcony as a mini “farm” and gave us advice on where to find the best chow in town.
All in all it’s a decent city to visit, but we had no idea what we were in store for when we got on our night bus from Istanbul bound for the coast…
When to go
We travelled through the southwest of Turkey in late March/early April. There were hardly any tourists and the weather inland was fine with just a t-shirt and light jacket. At the coast it was certainly hotter, but the Mediterranean was not quite hot enough to swim on most days. Nonethless, it was a great time of year to visit.
Oh the night bus. Even after we’ve had awful experience on night buses we just can’t seem to stay away from them. After all, you’re not wasting a valuable day of travel time PLUS you’re not spending money on accommodation that night. Will you sleep? Well, that’s a different question entirely.
On this particular night bus from Istanbul to Selçuk/Efes, there just so happened to be a baby crying right beside us the entire night, so no, we didn’t really get much sleep. The bus stopped at a little bus station next to the highway around 6 AM and the two of us stumbled out half awake as the bus then continued on its way.
A few minutes later we realized that Elliott had forgotten his bag on the bus, and as that bag contained both his laptop and our food for the day, we then proceeded to freak out. We ran to the little bus station and tried in vain communicating with the old men hanging around with coffee and cigarettes. We tried calling the bus company to no avail. We were lucky enough to then meet a young man who spoke some English and explained to him our situation. He explained it to the old men who all got out their phones and started calling cousins, brothers, and friends to help us solve our problem.
After a few minutes of this we decided to take some more extreme action and had the young man ask the old men if any of them had a car. One of them did, we offered him about 20€, and next thing we knew we were piling into his tiny yellow car and flying down the highway after the bus. About twenty minutes later the bus actually came into view, the driver got out his phone to call some unknown angel, the bus pulled over, somebody held the bag out the window, Elliott got out and grabbed it, and everything was right in the world!
As an added bonus, our driver then took us to the ancient ruins of Ephesus. After a hectic morning, the rest of the day was a serene blessing. That night we also walked a long mountain road to an old Greek town famous for its wine. We partook.
Buses in Turkey: cheap, easy, and efficient!
After arriving in Istanbul we got around Turkey solely by public buses. We can honestly say that we have never been to a country with a bus system as fantastic as the bus system in Turkey (the tourist buses in Thailand are a close second). The buses are clean and comfortable, and you hardly even have to look for them- they’ll drive around town hanging out the door and shout at anybody who might want to hop on!
Next up on our trip was Pamukkale, the “cotton castle.” After some weird bus-switching at the behest of the drivers, we arrived right to the front door of a local hotel where we were naturally offered the “best rates in town”. Something seemed fishy, so we used their wifi to find out where exactly we were… and it turns out we were at the hotel we had read about and already planned to stay at! Sometimes things are indeed what they seem.
Pamukkale is home to the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis, which served as a health spa of sorts in ancient times. It seems tourists have been coming to check out Pamukkale’s hot springs for quite a long time, which have left countless layers of deposits over the years which have accumulated to form the rather impressive structures one can see today. As the water cascades down it forms and is caught in pools, which range from rather chilly at the bottom to pleasantly warm at the top.
While the hot springs and pools were certainly impressive, the almost unhindered access to Hierapolis at the top of the mountain was unprecedented in all of the travel we had done up to that point. At the top stands a huge and fairly well preserved ancient city, complete with fragments of statues and etchings all over the place, and one can simply wander around and got lost amid these ancient stone walls, columns, and arches. We wandered through Hierapolis for several hours, the two of us far removed from the rest of the tourist horde, and imagined what life would have been like in this ancient spa town.
After Pamukkale we headed straight to the coast, and when we got there Lisa headed straight for the sea. The water wasn’t exactly warm, but we couldn’t help renting a little scooter and heading for the nearest beach we could find.
… and the Ghost Town
On arriving in Fethiye we went to the hostel we had pre-booked online (we don’t usually bother doing that anymore). When we got there, however, they were under construction! We chatted with the owner, who then called his “cousin” who picked us up in his van and took us to his guest house instead. We were the only ones there, but our room was more than adequate. Despite the language barriers we then informed him that our other booking also was supposed to include breakfast. His response? “Breakfast? I’ll cook you breakfast!”
And what a breakfast it was! Fresh eggs from his chickens, fresh honey from his bees, fresh feta from the neighbour, all washed down with hot Turkish chai tea. He even joined us for some company! One phrase he could certainly express was “ghost town,” and he was able to give us basic directions there. He asked us every morning if we had been there yet and insisted we needed to go, so eventually we headed there on our little rented scooter.
That ghost town was absolutely amazing, and we had never read a thing about it in all of our research! It just goes to show that listening to locals is key!
It turns out the ghost town is called Kayaköy, and after a “population swap” in the early 20th century all of its Greek inhabitants were sent back to Greece and the town was simply left to fall apart over the decades since. Around 500 houses still stand in the town, and we were awed by its beauty and the thought that it was once a thriving center of life for so many people. Two large churches with high vaulted ceilings and intricate stone-mosaic floors still stand centuries later. The stone shells of houses now lack the wooden floorboards that would have supported families, but the domes of the hearths remain, betraying Greek flare with their flaking blue paint.
Kayaköy was truly an amazing place, and deserves to be visited by every adventurous traveler and ghost town aficionado headed to Turkey.
Food isn’t always at the top of our list of things we look for when traveling, but we know it’s definitely one of the first things of interest to other eager travelers. Some of the best food we had in Turkey was the type of breakfast we had with the guest house owner- hot chai, fresh honey, pita bread, feta cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and eggs- divine in its simplicity, and absolutely best when fresh. Other typical food included beans and rice, fish dishes, shaved meat wraps and sandwiches, pizza, and of course- coffee!
The Lycian Way and Butterfly Valley
Believe it or not, but Fethiye offers even more awesomeness to the adventurous traveler. Some of our prior research piqued our interest in the Lycian Way, a long distance hiking trail along the coast of ancient Lycia. Hiking guide books are available and probably recommended for longer trips, but we limited our hike to two nights checking out the beautiful Butterfly Valley.
The hike starts in Ölüdeniz and makes its way up a broad trail that turns into more of a goat path, eventually providing a spectacular view of the beach below.
Some more uphill hiking brings you to a modern castle that appears to have been half-built but left to crumble… maybe the construction permits fell through? From the castle you can look waaaay down into Butterfly Valley.
After hiking down some little trails and roads and between the stone walls dividing little farm houses, you get to the town at the top of Butterfly Valley. The people in the town told us they weren’t sure if accommodation was available yet that season in the bottom of the valley, and that climbing down is very dangerous, and that they have hotel rooms for affordable rates…
But of course we decided that we weren’t going to let a 1 km vertical rock cliff or a lack of accommodation get in our way of checking out that tantalizingly beautiful blue valley down there!
Away we went! Somebody was nice enough to dab the “correct” way down with red paint splotches and to tie some questionable ropes on the particularly difficult parts of the trail. Some stretches weren’t easy or for the faint of heart, especially when wearing big heavy backpacks, but the view of the valley below was a constant reminder of the reward that awaited us.
We made it after about an hour on that cliff, and it was indeed truly worth it.
There was even a nice dog there to meet us… and rifle through our bags to eat our snacks while we were in the water.
We hung out with the dog and played backgammon until it was time to turn in for the night in the little wooden cabin we rented from the family living down in the valley.
The next morning after breakfast there was also a bit of exploring to do at the bottom of the valley.
Followed by the climb all the way back up…
… and our triumphant arrival at the top! Followed of course by a cool drink of water compliments of the local mosque.
The rest of the day was spent hiking to the next stop on the trail where we assumed we could find somewhere to sleep, but the day also included a bit of swimming in the still-not-quite-warm-enough sea.
We then got lost, took a giant detour, and eventually stumbled across some beautiful little bungalows just as the sun was setting for a well-deserved sleep, followed by a magnificent breakfast with a view!
When we were ready to head out that next morning, the bungalow owners told us that the bus only comes once a day, and that we still had a few hours before we had to head out. We went down to the beach, enjoyed ourselves, came back, and found out that the bungalow owner had forgotten about the daylight savings time switch, and that the bus had already come and gone… great!
Not to fear! Lisa and I then undertook our first of what would eventually be many hitchhiking journeys. Lisa stood in front of the first car to come down the highway. They stopped, and then gave us the most hair-raising ride we’ve ever had. The driver looked constantly in his rearview mirror to engage us in conversation as he swerved back and forth on narrow roads with steep cliffs on one side and a long fall to the ocean on the other. And that was BEFORE his friend broke out the Jack Daniels… oh boy.
A word of caution…
A couple of years after we had this amazing experience in Butterfly Valley, a couple of female friends of ours also headed there on their trip through Turkey. Unfortunately they had an unpleasant experience with a group of young men on their way down the steep path into the valley, which culminated in a confrontation that easily could have been deadly had somebody fallen down the cliff.
This isn’t to say that people should avoid going there, just be careful and remember that there is strength in numbers!
Before we left for Turkey, we had both arranged to take PADI scuba diving lessons in Kaş, including several hours of online courses before we got there. Elliott has the tendency to eat… “unwisely” at times when traveling, and fully expected to get food poisoning at some point during the trip. “Just so long as it doesn’t interfere with scuba diving, I’m fine with it.” Well, it just so happens that while waiting for the bus from Fethiye to Kaş Elliott got realllllly hungry, and it just so happens that he found an old hard boiled egg in his backpack.
Normally hard boiled eggs are a great budget travel food (they double as a hand warmer in your pocket in the winter!), but apparently the boiling process removes the natural layer that protects the porous shell from bacteria. Elliott found this out the hard way and spent the entire night before scuba diving in the bathroom. Luckily at this point Elliott was already a self-proclaimed “food poisoning pro,” and a mere twelve or so hours later with no rest and no food in his stomach, he was ready to show up for scuba diving lessons! For added assurance, he researched whether vomiting into a scuba mouthpiece is problematic, and apparently it’s not- right on!
Advice for dealing with food poisoning while traveling, from the self-proclaimed food poisoning pro
First of all, it happens. Even if you’re not as stupid as me in what you eat, sometimes you just get unlucky. But you can still improve your chances of not getting food poisoning by:
- Avoiding old-looking food (duh).
- Asking unbiased locals what to look out for (the snails in Istanbul can be particularly nasty, for example).
- Avoiding meat and seafood.
- Avoiding uncooked vegetables.
- If you can’t resist and are going to eat something potentially sketchy, do it while you know you are going to have solid access to a bathroom for the next 24 hours.
If you do get food poisoning:
- Cheer up! If you make it into a big disgusting joke, everybody will remember it as a funny experience rather than an awful experience.
- Pray you have access to a bathroom and that you’re not stuck on a night bus.
- Get your travel partner to go to the local pharmacy and mime vomiting and diarrhea actions in the hopes of obtaining medication.
- Buscopan is great for quelling nasty stomach cramps while your gastrointestinal tract does its thing. Buscopan PLUS includes ibuprofen and is even better for dealing with the pain you are inevitably going to experience.
- Hydration salt packets taste awful but are essential.
- Stay hydrated and eat little bits of gentle food (I like rice) if you can.
- Keep warm, rest, and tough it out while your travel partner goes to explore without you.
- Keep all of the awesome foreign pills and powders you got at the pharmacy with you from now on when you travel. You or somebody else will need them again.
- If it’s lasting several days or getting really bad (like blood in the toilet. Been there, done that), get your money’s worth out of that medical insurance and go to a doctor- another fun foreign experience!
Showing up at the dive shop exhausted and faking like we had energy, we met our instructor, got on the boat, suited up, and went straight into the ocean for our private lesson! In other countries you usually spend a day in the pool first… but not in Turkey!
The first thing Elliott did once everybody descended to the bottom was to knock Lisa’s breathing apparatus out of her mouth- oopsies! He then turned around, noticed she was without air, and helped her get it back- what a nice guy!
Diving was good, although there wasn’t a ton to see, especially at that time of year. The water was also still evidently too cold in April, even with thick wet suits. The wind picked up the next day and prevented us from completing our lessons, so we ended up leaving Kaş a bit early and headed to our final destiation.
Much like Istanbul, Antalya is a well-established tourist destination. Especially for Europeans, it is known for its hot weather, holiday condos, and beaches.
It is certainly a nice place to visit, especially if you’re into more mainstream travel. But for Lisa and I it served mainly as a place to regroup for a couple of days before our flights back home.