Discover some hidden parts of Turkey and Cyprus
Turkey was going through some tough political times whilst we were there. Whilst we were in central Anatolia, amongst the infamous fairy peaks of Cappadocia, we heard that there had been a military coup. There has also been a bombing at the Istanbul Airport recently which meant that we kind of had Cappadocia to ourselves! Great for us but not so good for the locals or for tourism. Hot air-ballooning, exploring, hiking, weaving in and out of houses that looked like they had once belonged to regal fairies were part of our daily routine for a week or so. We met great people and made lots of new friends.
“Lots had changed but nothing, absolutely nothing can take away from this (Istanbul) visually spectacular and culturally rich city.” – Ombi Zanetti
Whilst Cyprus had not been on our immediate ‘to do’ list, we were heading south and it seemed such a shame to not ‘rack up’ another county … just because we could! Awesome choice, it really is a fascinating country and the third largest island in the Mediterranean. It was July and the continent was warming up very quickly. So downwards we went to Mersin, from where we caught a ferry to Cyprus! By this stage, the daily temperatures were hovering around 40 degrees Celsius. In the ad hoc manner of travelling for which we have now become known, we booked an overnight ferry to leave that same night, and again, met some great people along the way. This is always the highlight of our travels.
We stayed on the ‘Turkish’ side but ventured over to the Greek side on many occasions. We spent around ten days on the island in total. Nicosia (or Lefkosia) is the last standing divided capital on earth; half speaks Turkish and the other half speaks Greek, but neither part belongs to Greece or Turkey! Its history is long and complicated so I suggest consulting with Dr Google here! What I will say, however, is that both sides have a totally different vibe. We stayed in the Turkish side but oscillated to and fro. The Greek side felt positively European, whilst the Turkish side still felt like it had some old-world charm. The port we landed in, Kyrenia, felt very luxurious and 5-starish, which is not our gig, so we almost immediately made our way to the capital from where we to-ed and fro-ed.
Famagusta, on the Turkish side, was an unusual highlight. As people lazed and relaxed on the beach, directly behind was the area known as Varosha. Prior to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 it was the modern tourist area of the city. Its inhabitants fled but it has remained abandoned, and under control of the Turkish Armed Forces, ever since. It’s still uninhabited today and entry is totally forbidden. Effectively a ghost town, it’s eerie to see people lying on the beach on one side of the fence and on the other, a town stuck in a time warp … a place frozen in time … in 1974 to be exact! The Troodos Mountains, on the Greek side, afforded us both great hiking and spectacular scenery.
Meeting Eun was another highlight. Eun hails from South Korea. We met her in the pension (hotel) we were staying in. A fun-loving and happy person, Eun had been travelling for close to a year and was doing it well and truly off the beaten track. Eun is deaf but that absolutely made no difference to her desire and capacity to travel the world. We hit it off immediately! Meh, I am of Italian extraction, I excel at sign language! She helped us see things that we would never see; her eyes were her ears as well, and she picked up on so many things that we never did!
Time to go back to mainland Turkey. Where to, where to? We chose Olympus, 60 kilometres away from Antalya. It was relaxing enough, but quite isolated so hard to get groceries and a tad pricey. It is surrounded by ancient Roman ruins, however, and its beach setting makes it pretty enough. A couple of days were certainly long enough for us. As it was getting hotter and hotter we decided that we would not visit Greece and Italy on this trip; too hot, too expensive, too many tourists! A little more of Turkey and then on to somewhere cooler.
As the Mediterranean coast of Turkey was getting busier by the day, we decided to change plans. We pulled out a map and chose Pammukale and then Pergamon (or Bergama). Nobody that has been there can deny that the mineral-rich thermal waters flowing down white travertine terraces on a nearby hillside is not physically spectacular! It neighbours Hieropolis, an ancient Roman spa city dating back to 190 BC. We spent a day walking around (in the searing heat!) and eventually finding some hidden pools far away from the congested and maddening crowd!
I had visited Ephesus years ago and given its huge popularity these days we bypassed it in a bid to avoid the masses. Loved, loved, loved Pergamon. Only 26 kilometres away from the Aegean Sea the ancient city’s most remarkable monuments and buildings date as far back as 197-159 BC. The Hellenistic Theatre is jaw-dropping! The Asclepion is also world-renowned as the most valuable medical city in ancient times. A mix of medical centre and spa it included recreational activities that took place in a 350-seat theatre.
Last, but most certainly not least, was Istanbul, which we ummed and aahed about doing, given that a lot was going down. We had to leave from somewhere, and a really good friend of ours, whom we’d met in Cambodia all the way back in 2007 was living there, so we decided to play roulette and go! If we have learnt one thing on our travels it’s that if something’s going to happen, it will. Although walking into the face of adversity is not our thing, we refuse to live our lives in fear!
We spent two weeks in Nisantasi in Istanbul with our gorgeous friend Nadia. It really is a beautiful area. On the morning of our arrival, we walked through Taksin Square, greeted and surrounded by a multitude of Turkish flags. The feeling was sombre. Something was clearly going down in Turkey, we could feel it! The coup had only just happened. Alack and alas, we had a wonderful stay in this vibrant, cosmopolitan town that I had first visited in 1995. Sure things had changed but I was having a blast showing Alex around. Lots had changed but nothing, absolutely nothing can take away from this visually spectacular, culturally rich city, oh and with such magnificent food! It was most certainly more touristy than I remember it, but hey, that’s kind of what happens during twenty-something years.
We walked lots and lots, entered mosques, ancient churches, monuments, sprawling fruit and veggie markets, the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar (where you can’t even rotate your head one degree without someone trying to coerce you into buying something), walked along aqueducts, visited random neighbourhoods (as we tend to do!), checked out the nightlife, the funky neighbourhoods … there is no stopping Istanbul. It engulfs you, embraces you, squeezes and hugs you!
Istanbul, Turkey, thank you for a wonderful stay! Don’t let anyone steal your spirit, that is what makes you so special!
Turkey is 3% Europe and over the Bosphorous River 97% Asian. Cyprus is European but has a Turkish and Greek side.
We rarely book ahead, and in these countries, we stayed in a mix of family-run pensiones, Couchsurfing and Airbnb (Get your FREE gift from us when you sign up). There are also a number of other hotels and hostels you can stay in. Also, check out bookings.com.
We took local buses with absolutely no problems whatsoever. The long-distance buses in Turkey are safe and of an exceptionally high standard. They are also relatively cheap. Taxis and car rentals are also an option in both countries.
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Photo Credits: ©Alex Benavides & Ombretta Zanetti Photography for very itchy feet.