UPDATE: Turkey was in turmoil after a failed coup (if it really was one) July 2016 and due to the drastic retaliatory measures unleashed by the government the country is still in a worrying state, politically. In addition there is the ongoing conflict in Syria south of eastern Turkey.
For tourism, all this has also brought a degree of general uncertainty and security issues. Some of the country's eastern and south-eastern parts are currently not accessible to travellers at all, or at least no longer so easily as they were when I travelled there in 2007. This applies especially to the area around Mt Ararat and the southern border regions.
Most people think of tourism in Turkey as seaside resorts on the Med or classic ancient ruins from antiquity. Yes, it has both in abundance, but it is also a fascinating country of Asian-European contrasts and overlaps, including its dark bits.
As far as dark tourism is concerned, these are mostly related not so much to the modern troubles (esp. the Kurdish resistance and its suppression in the south-east) but to the times when the crumbling Ottoman empire gave way to the new Turkey that emerged from it.
As a modern state it wasn't founded until 1923, but the process leading to it started roughly around the time of World War One
, and Gallipoli
is Turkey's major WW1 site with several memorials to this great slaughter.
Around the same time, the Armenian genocide
took place esp. at the other end of the country, and along the current border with Armenia
there are sites relating to the Armenian legacy, esp. Ani and the Armenian "national" mountain: Ararat
, both now on Turkish territory.
In the heart of Turkey, in its modern capital Ankara, you can find the great mausoleum
of modern Turkey's founder: Kemal Atatürk – an enormous place beating even some of the great communist
Turkey has become one of THE most popular tourist destinations in the world (on a par with Spain or Italy). Hence the tourism infrastructure is accordingly very good – at least in the areas favoured by mainstream tourism. The latter means either historical relics from antiquity (of which Turkey has no less than Greece
) or the beach-sea-sun-party kind of tourism that I personally couldn't run away from fast and far enough. Since I accordingly avoided those latter bits altogether when I went to Turkey I cannot say anything about its seaside holiday sector, but otherwise I travelled through most of the country, including the far east.
The main attraction other than the sea that is drawing large numbers of foreign visitors is Turkey's main city Istanbul (it's not the capital, though – that's Ankara). One of the great centres of culture and imperial power for millennia, it is steeped in history like few other cities of this size. Once called Byzantium, then Constantinople, it was at a time rivalling Rome as an imperial capital, namely of the Eastern Roman Empire. While it became an important outpost of Christianity then, it was later taken over by the Muslim expansion and became the centre of power for the Ottoman Empire. And even though this empire, like all empires, eventually faltered too after several centuries, it remains modern Turkey's centre of economic and cultural gravity. It's one of the largest conurbations in Europe (and the world) with an official population of ca. 13 million (but unofficially many millions more). It's crazy, hectic, chaotic, stressful – but also absolutely magical. This is not the place to list all its sights and virtues – but I can only wholeheartedly recommend spending a few days, or better a whole week, in this great metropolis. It's welcoming and the tourism infrastructure is top-notch. Despite the reputation of persistent touts and intimidating bazaars and haggling and all that, I actually found it a very friendly place. Yes, you do get routinely hassled by traders that prey on tourists – but as long as you remain friendly and smile when saying "no, thank you", they will also remain friendly and wish you a good day (and "maybe next time"). With regard to accommodation, the vast range includes some of the most charming hotels I have ever stayed in.
Away from the big cities and the sea, tourism gets much more low key. One notable exception is Cappadocia in the heart of the inland landmass, near the city of Kayseri. Its main feature is a fabulous array of "natural sculptures", shaped by erosion from soft tuff rock and harder layers on top, giving rise to the famous "fairy chimney" formations. Some tuff towers are carved out for housing, more housing was dug underground, including extensive subterranean cities. It's also a culturally ancient place – including some of the world's oldest relics of Christianity (rock churches, in particular). In fact, this is recognized in the unique feat of being listed both on the UNESCO's cultural and natural world heritage lists. Taking balloon rides over the otherworldly landscape is a particular treat here (worth the high prices charged … as long as you go with an established and well recognized ballooning company such as Cappadociaballoons).
Further east travelling in Turkey becomes more adventurous and off the beaten track, especially in the furthest reaches of eastern Anatolia along the borders with Syria, Iran, Armenia
. Since two of the main dark tourism destinations picked out here are in that remote part of the country, determined dark tourists in Turkey will have to brave that challenge. It can be done, though, and isn't actually all that difficult or risky. You just have to be well prepared and observe a few important rules of conduct. The latter applies in particular to driving in those parts of wild and rugged eastern Anatolia (see below).
The further east and rural you get, the more the language barrier becomes an issue. Few people out in eastern Anatolia will speak English or any other foreign languages. German is somewhat more likely to be encountered, thanks to the large number of Turkish expatriates in Germany
with strong family ties back home. It was often the case when checking into hotels or at police checkpoints along the roads out in the east that on seeing my German passport, young Turkish men would happily and easily switch into German. But English will only rarely get you anywhere in rural Turkey.
For that reason I actually invested some time in learning the language to a degree – just so that I'd be able to ask for directions and such things. It was quite an experience tackling a non-Indo-European language (for those with a passing knowledge of language typology: Turkish is an agglutinating Altaic language). But on the plus side, its grammar is unusually regular, with few exceptions to rules, which is helpful. I found that the effort paid off, even though I hardly attained any degree of fluency, but it was enough for practical purposes, and the positive surprise of a Central European making an effort of speaking a little Turkish (however badly) is a huge advantage in breaking the ice with the locals … until you reach Kurdish territory, that is. One of my craziest experiences in Dogubayazit in the farthest eastern Anatolian corner near Mt Ararat
was when I stopped at a petrol station to fill up my car and the attendant gave me a lesson in Kurdish. All those lines I had laboriously learned to say in Turkish he tried to teach me in Kurdish instead. That was too much for me – I cannot recall a single word from that crash course in Kurdish. It wasn't in any way an act of anti-Turkish sentiment and had no trace of aggression. Don't get me wrong. But it was quite an experience.
In general, I have to say that practically everywhere I went people were exceedingly friendly and helpful. Of course, the tradition of hospitality is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture, and I knew that, but I was still surprised how far that extended beyond actual hostelries, restaurants and shops. No really, a very pleasant country, people-wise.
I only had one rather more tricky situation of "oriental-ness" to master, namely when I picked up my hire car in Kars (see Ani
). I had this booked in advance from Kayseri, but when I got there, there must have been some sort of cock-up with the paperwork. Anyway, I was invited into the office and sat down on a sofa, a young boy fetched a tray of tea (the customary thing to offer in Turkey), while the main guy behind a big desk shouted down the telephone in what sounded like a fierce argument. Whenever I asked if there was a problem, the group that had by now gathered in the office denied it in unison. Then the shouting over the telephone continued. Eventually, the Big Boss appeared with yet more entourage in tow (I presume he was the boss – he was dressed in a suit and white shirt in dusty, dirty Kars, so he must have been a big shot of some sort). At that point there were about 12-15 people in the small office. Then suddenly, with a few nods on the part of the big boss, whatever problem there may have been was suddenly sorted and I was handed the car keys. I still don't know what caused the hold-up. All the while, my wife, who had been totally ignored by all those men, was left in the car parked outside in the blazing sun. Fortunately she managed to open the windows and doors to get some air after I had been walked off into the office.
On the subject of hire cars. Once the initial hassle was dealt with, the vehicle served me just fine. Driving on rural overland roads in eastern Turkey, though, does take some nerves. For one thing, there are the other drivers. The proportion of totally suicidal drivers in Turkey is stunning – nothing short of what I encountered in Georgia
. The main rule here is: drive as defensively as possible – don't copy others' lunatic-style antics. The other thing is: never take your eyes off the road and watch the road ahead with extreme care. Huge, deep potholes regularly appear out of nowhere. Cattle and other animals on the road are another danger. Extreme care is paramount, but then it can be done. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed driving in Turkey's "Wild East". But it may not be for everybody …
When I did it, I was still without the now ubiquitous little SatNav (GPS) helpers, and navigating was occasionally tricky. Out in the expanse of the eastern Anatolian plateau there aren't many rods, so it should be relatively easy to find one's way. Mostly it is, but I still managed to miss a turn-off and found myself on an unintended route to Kars – which turned out to be a lucky mistake, because the scenery was much better than on the intended route. Signposting is a bit quirky in Turkey. At one point I found myself driving back and forth, following contradictory signs and eventually had to ask for the correct way at a police checkpoint. In the end I always found my way. When I arrived in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, however, I got so seriously lost that I nearly gave up – but after about an hour of erratically going around in circles and asking for directions I found my destination in the end. But it was stressful.
Otherwise, getting around in Turkey to cover the vast distances in this big country is doable by public transport too, within reason. The single most popular means of overland travel is by bus. That's how the Turks mostly travel, as it is often the cheapest way of getting from A to B.
On some routes, trains are an excellent alternative. Superb modern comfortable sleepers connect Istanbul and Ankara. And even on the routes out towards the east, decent two-berth sleepers are available – and at quite affordable prices. I took the train from Kayseri to Kars (which took nearly 24 hours) and it was a cool way of making that journey. Although 'cool' is not exactly the correct word here – because the air-con in our compartment wasn't working properly: instead of cooling us down, it automatically, spontaneously switched into heating ever so often – and that in the heat of August. But the cool air of the night eventually helped making it bearable. The compartment came with a little hand-wash basin and even had a small fridge – excellent! Short regional train journeys usually take longer than the bus but can be super cheap and are almost always more scenic. Tickets for such shorter journeys can be purchased on the spot, but for longer, especially overnight sleeper journeys booking ahead is advisable. I used a tourism office in Istanbul for this (called Tur-ISTA), who for a surcharge purchased tickets for me when they became available and I picked them up at their office in Istanbul, as this was my first stop in the country anyway.
Where trains are no option for longer distances, the only other alternative to buses is flying. Turkish Airlines offers a good network of domestic flights at often quite competitive rates too, especially if booked early. On some routes you need to do so anyway, because tickets sell out well in advance, e.g. to/from Kars, Van or Trabzon. It can easily be done online.
As for food & drink
: Turkish cuisine has a pretty good reputation and it's mostly deserved – even though it's a bit too meat-oriented for me. Vegetarians have no trouble getting by, though. It just can get a bit repetitive after a while. I personally enjoyed the spicy food out in the east quite a lot, especially in Kars (the kısır I had there was heavenly); and in Cappadocia I enjoyed the best dolma (stuffed vine leaves) I ever had in my life. In general, meze is the best way to go if you want to stay completely veggie (or even vegan). Those who eat fish will find it readily available on the coast, and I had excellent fish dishes in both Trabzon and Istanbul. The Black Sea coast around Trabzon is famous for its hazelnuts (and supplies some 80% of the world's market in exports). A local speciality is hazelnut soup. Recommended! Meat-eaters will of course be familiar with the ubiquitous kebabs … and allegedly they can be good quality too.
Even though Turkey is an Islamic country, beer and the national spirit raki (aniseed-flavoured) are readily available almost everywhere. I suspect not many readers will be aware that Turkey also makes wines, but it does, and some are of quite decent quality too, often made from grape varieties you won't find elsewhere (which is something I personally always find especially intriguing – see also Georgia
For preparation in general: the single most valuable website for everything about travel in Turkey is Tom Brosnahan's www.turkeytravelplanner.com
– highly recommended! It has tons more information than any guidebook could ever hope to cover and is of much more practical value too, including tips on driving, mastering public transport in Istanbul, and language. In short: superb. Tom's website was in fact one of the key inspirations for me to set up my own, i.e. this website – and if I have made half as good a job of it as he has, then I shall be happy.
- Turkey 01 - Hagia Sophia in Istanbul
- Turkey 02 - minarets and chains
- Turkey 03 - home-made rocket-style minaret
- Turkey 04 - Istanbul Golden Horn by night
- Turkey 05 - Bosporus bridge
- Turkey 06 - chained Blue Mosque in Istanbul
- Turkey 07 - ballooning over Love Valley in Cappadocia
- Turkey 08 - camel ogling Uçhisar rock in Cappadocia
- Turkey 09 - ample rubble from antiquity
- Turkey 10 - Ephesus
- Turkey 11 - sunset over Pamukkale
- Turkey 12 - a stork re-using Artemis in Selcuk