Turkey: Turkish delights

By Pamela Wade

Beyond the war graves and remembrance is a vibrant land with a rich history, writes Pamela Wade.
Poppies soften more ruins.
Poppies soften more ruins.

If Barcin's traditional circumcision ceremony had taken place at the more usual age of 5, instead of when he was 9, it would have made for a much less detailed, and entertaining, account. As it was, however, a good 30km passed under the wheels of our coach as he told the story, from schoolyard scaremongering beforehand, through the ritual itself, to his disappointingly inadequate treats afterwards.

It's not the sort of thing you'd share with strangers, but after 10 days together and over 2500km of travel in a grand circuit around Turkey, we all felt like friends. There were 39 of us, Kiwis and Aussies, on this Insight Vacations tour and although it was the Gallipoli centenary and Anzac Day services that had brought us all together, the bulk of our time was spent exploring an older history.

Fortunately, as well as a refreshing candour about the more intimate details of Turkish life, tour director Barcin has a university education that gives him an effortless command of not only the seven complicated centuries of the Ottoman Empire, but thousands of years of Greek and Roman history before that.

Literally thousands: five, in fact, at Troy, where nine levels of settlement have been excavated down to its beginnings in 3000BC. Wandering around the site, past walls, ditches, foundations, columns both standing and tumbled, and a theatre of tiered seats, the age of the place was hard to grasp, despite Barcin's best efforts. What was obvious, however, was the sheer beauty of the ancient stone, softened by feathery fennel and bright red poppies against a background of the distant Dardanelles.

Remains of the Temple of Trajan at Bergama. Photo / 123RF
Remains of the Temple of Trajan at Bergama. Photo / 123RF


Some on the tour were deeply into history and the literary and religious connections, and everyone was impressed at Ephesus to be walking on polished marble pavers once trodden by Cleopatra, Mark Anthony and St Paul. For many of us, however, the visits to such sites, including Pergamon and Assos, were more about appreciating what remains rather than studying their origins. Pictures rather than words, perhaps, and no less legitimate for that. After listening to the explanations about what we were seeing - temples to Athena, Artemis, Dionysus, a towering library, a 10,000-seat theatre on a steep hillside, Roman baths, an Acropolis, the home of modern medicine, statues and so much more - the temptation was irresistible to use it all as the most glorious photoshoot ever.

The cats helped. Turkey has more cats than the internet: stray, but fed and watered by the locals, and perfectly content as they bask photogenically in the sunshine on the ancient stones, curl up in quiet corners of mosques, sit in doorways in the cities. Dogs live equally free, registered and neutered, but then left to themselves, to co-exist peaceably with the cats and, with them, adding life and homeliness to the ruins.

The tour isn't all archaeology, legend and history. There was shopping, too. Astute stall-holders, knowing their market, shouted "Kiwi! Cheaper than The Warehouse!" as we walked past; others went for flattery: "Beautiful rugs! Like you!" or pathos: "We have everything but customers."

Few, in the end, held out against the pretty scarves, the "genuine fake watches", the evil eye pendants or the tapestry bags; but the serious shoppers waited for the visits to the factories. Fabulous fine lamb's leather made into truly stylish jackets displayed in a catwalk fashion show; dozens of colourful wool and silk rugs unrolled with a flourish as we drank perilously strong raki; gorgeous decorated plates at a pottery visit that began with a mesmerising kick-wheel demonstration.

Yes, it was obviously a mutually beneficial arrangement; but the quality was indisputable.

Then there was the culture: an evening of traditional dance in an underground theatre began deceptively low-key, but wound up to an exciting climax that sent us away buzzing. We saw real Whirling Dervishes spinning unfathomably long and fast; and met a friendly lady who lives in a house burrowed into the rock, where Helen Clark's signed portrait hangs (at least during our visit) in pride of place.

This was at Cappadocia, the scenic high point for most of us, which is saying something in this country of bays and beaches, forests and farmland, white terraces and snow-capped volcanoes. Pillars of sculpted tufa capped by gravity-defying slabs of basalt make for a fantasy landscape, and to see it in low sun as a hundred hot-air balloons float overhead is unforgettable.

A pottery factory kick wheel in action.
A pottery factory kick wheel in action.


Actually, it was all unforgettable: Gallipoli, the poppies and tulips, the cats, the food, the friendly people. There were mosques, markets and museums; a cruise, calligraphy and coloured glass lamps; sacks of spices, pyramids of Turkish delight, tiny cups of atrocious coffee. I had a wonderful time.

CHECKLIST

The tour
Among Insight Vacations' year-round Turkish holidays is the 15-day Treasures of Turkey regional journey, priced from $3375 per person twin share with highlights including a cruise on the Bosphorus and a cultural dinner in Cappadocia.

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