TURKEY: A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY
In May of 1997, my wife and I spent a most interesting month in Turkey and this is a journal of our trip --but first some basics:
We found the Lonely Planet guide book to Turkey an excellent source for planning our trip as well for day to day information once you are there. The edition that we used was September 1996 and although prices quoted in the guide were somewhat lower than we experienced, for the most part it was accurate and right on target in respect to hotels and restaurants.
We have all read that the Turkish lire was 70,000 to the US dollar and now is 140,000 but do not be mislead. Prices in the larger tourist centers are often quoted in US dollars and those that are not, are pegged to the dollar. Inflation is a very serious problem for Turkey which affects the exchange rate but don't go to the more popular spots expecting to find bargains because you won't. I am not saying that Turkey is an expensive country but it is not as cheap as some may lead you believe. Here is an average day for us (two people):
Food: $40 (including wine at dinner)
Misc.: $ 8(coffee, cold drinks, etc.)
I am sure that I will get many comments from people who have been to Turkey and paid a lot less but we are middle aged, retired and our camping days are long past over
Although we did make some hotel reservations by fax before we left, this was really not necessary since we were traveling in the "shoulder" season-- May is definitely not "off" season judging by the hundreds (and in some cases, thousands) of tourists we met at the more popular tourist sites. All the hotels that we stayed in had rooms available and I suspect that the prices were subject to last minute negation. We did rent a car before we left (see below).
The guide book suggested using only internationally recognized car rental agencies rather than a local one. Taking this advice, we did make a reservation with Avis to pick up a car in Izmir and drop it off 10 days later in Antalya. Because we were dropping it off at another location, they insisted that we rent a larger car than we wanted at a cost of $1200-- we thought a $120 per day very expensive but then we were warned that rental cars in Turkey cost more than other parts of Europe. When we got to Izmir, we contacted Europcar office in that city and the next morning they delivered a new Fiat 121 to our hotel at a total cost (including all waivers and insurance except for personal injury) of $56.00 a day. You may want to make reservations from the States if you are going during the high season but I really don't think this is necessary. You may want to do this as a backup just in case you cannot find anything cheaper locally but of course be sure that you do not have any financial obligations if you cancel at the last minute
Driving Conditions In Turkey
Before we left, we were warned about the difficulties of driving in Turkey. We certainly did not find this to be the case and , except for a few places in isolated mountain areas, the roads were wide, well paved, and very well marked. (we did not get lost once). We drove for 12 days along the Western Coast of Turkey and had no problems whatsoever. I found the Turkish drivers to be most courteous and civilized and I would certainly recommend to anyone to drive in Turkey I cannot speak about driving in the other parts of the country. We found that eating lunch n the smaller towns was difficult so we picnicked almost every day. I did get an international drivers license and would suggest that all do. (Bring two passport size photos to any AAA office and for $10 they will issue you a license on the spot.)
Turkey requires all US citizens to get a visa. You can do this ahead of time by a complicated process involving sending an application and your passport to a Turkish consulate in the United States or you can get a visa upon arrival in Turkey, which is what we did. If you are arriving in Istanbul, the Visa Desk is to your right. This is a VERY fast operation: no application is required just a $20 ( I have read that it is now $40) bill and a visa will be placed in your passport in 20 seconds. A lot easier than trying to do this by mail in the United States.
Because I am 62 and a senior citizen (my wife is not) both of us got tickets New York-Istanbul-New York for $565 on Turkish Air. They use all new Airbus 340s (my favorite plane) but it is a long 10 hour flight so try to get the Exit Row seats 26 A and B or 26 G and H--plenty of leg room here! We flew from Istanbul to Izmir for about $110 and from Antalya to Istanbul for $125 on Turkish air and made the reservations in the USA. This was a mistake because travel agents in Turkey were showing fares 1/2 of what we paid so my advice is that if you are not traveling in the high season (July and August) wait until you get to Istanbul to get your inter air tickets.
Selecting a Cruise
In making our choice for a cruise along the famous (and , in my opinion, overrated) Turquoise Coast, there were three importance considerations for us: comfort, itinerary, and price. I spent a lot of time searching the Internet for information about touring Turkey and particularly this cruise. There were many boats listed and all very cheap-- as low as $300 or so for a 7 day cruise.
I had read discouraging reports about the age and conditions of some of the gullets and we were hesitate to just select one from a company about which we knew nothing. We were also concerned about the itinerary of the cruise. We have learned that there are four main cruising ports: Marmaris. Bodrum, Fethiye, and Anataya. Cruises from the first three ports visit various islands with scenic beauty but not of any historic interest (also these waters are heavily traveled and I heard that overnight ports can be crowded and noisy). All of the cruises were cheap so for us this was not an important consideration. After a lot of thought , we decided to go with Pacha, a New York based tour company specializing in tours in Turkey. For $500 each, we got a cruise on a new gullet, with all food and guide service included. The gullet cruised along the southern Mediterranean Coast visiting some very beautiful, isolated places (see below). Once in Turkey, we were able to check out other gullets and we were very happy that we selected Pacha. (If you are going to Turkey in other than the high season , and can cruise with a group of four or six, then I suggest that you wait until you get to Fethiye or Antalya and go down to the docks, select the most comfortable gullet around , and negotiate the price.) Once on the gullet, if you have a choice of rooms get one in the front away from the engines (the gullets do not use sail) and make sure your toilet has an outside window-- take it from me that this is important). You should be aware that the toilets are difficult to use for those of us not brought up on yachts (be sure to push rather than pull!) and the showers have only cold water.
We are retired and therefore had a lot of time to explore Western Turkey. We looked at many organized tours, some of them inexpensive, but decided that we would rather travel on our own. Our trip was in three parts: a week in Istanbul, 12 days driving in Western Turkey visiting archeological sites, and 7 days cruising off the Turquoise Coast in a gullet. We stayed mainly in three to five star hotels which ran from $65 to $130 a night: all of them overpriced, in my opinion. We ate in nice restaurants (Turkish cuisine is not one of the world's top three, in my opinion, regardless of what Ernest Hemingway said) with an average price of about $40, including a bottle of surprisingly good Turkish wine. The total cost of our trip, all inclusive was about $5800 for the month. We thought that overall, this was a good price for what we saw and did.
The old section, known as Sultanahmet, of this large city is very interesting and we spent 5 days wandering around taking in the sights and sounds of this exotic city. We stay at the Hotel Avicenna for $130 a night--this is one of those converted Ottoman houses that you have heard so much about. It was pleasant and comfortable but nothing special-- should have cost $85 or so. But it was quiet and the staff was most cooperative. Our room had no A/C but in early May, Istanbul is rather cool. On our return to the city after our driving tour and cruise, we stayed in the famous Ayasofya Hotel for $100 a night. This room was small, dark, and. again, overpriced, but right next to the Tokapi Palace.
Restaurants? The best meals we had, not too surprisingly, were in the new Four Seasons Hotel in the old section of the city and within an easy walk of the hotels mentioned above. An excellent meal for two ran about $100 including wine-- perhaps you would not to eat here every night but it was a nice change from shish-kebobs. Most of the restaurants we ate in, along Divan Road, were plain and simple with a good solid food for two without wine running around $25. We particularly enjoyed the cafeteria-style Vitamin Restaurant which is crowded, noisy, but cheap.
There are many things to see in Istanbul but by all means, do not miss the Archeological Museum-- it's the best in the country, which is saying a lot.
Our main interest was visiting Greek and Roman ruins, of which there are many along the Western Coast of Turkey. We flew to Izmir, overnighted at the Grand Hotel Efes (at $160 it was less than grand) and the next day we drove north for a very comfortable two hours to Bergama (ancient Pergamum). Here we stayed in a very noisy hotel, Hotel Berksoy, for $55 a night. I cannot recommend this place and suggest you stay at the modern Iskender, getting a room in the back. We had perhaps the best meal of local Turkish food of our entire trip in Bergamum). The ruins at Bergama are very beautiful and not to be missed-- one full day should do it, including a tour of their rather disappointing museum. It was a rather long drive from Bergama to Ephesus where we had planned on staying in the recommended Otel Kaleham in Selcuk but found this small hotel much too noisy so we headed for the popular and very crowded seaside resort of Kusadasi. Here we stayed in the very comfortable 5 star hotel, Imbat Oteli, for $88 a night . We stayed three days here using this comfortable hotel as a base for visiting Ephesus, Priene, Miletus. and Didyma. I guess Ephesus was an interesting place but there were thousands of tourists there and it was so crowded that it was difficult to get a sense of the place. I suggest you get there at 8:00AM when the gates open. Be sure not to miss the very interesting museum at Selcuk. Next we got an early start and spent one long and extremely interesting day visiting the ruins at Priene, Miletus, and Didyma. This was one of those rare days in traveling that are truly memorable. These ruins are not to be missed.
From Kusadasi, we headed inland on excellent roads to what I thought was the most spectacular Roman ruins of them all : Aphrodisias. You should plan on spending a full day here, including a visit to the beautiful museum. Although we unfortunately did not stay here, I did notice that there were several attractive hotels just 1/2 a mile from the site (Belle Vue Pension looked very pleasant). We made the mistake of making a very long drive to Pamukkale (Hierapolis). Perhaps we were just getting a little tired at this point, but after Aphrodisias, we found this place disappointing and not worth the effort of getting there. The site was filled with tourist and we had trouble finding a decent hotel. My advice is that your time would be better spent visiting other Grecco/Roman sites that this.
From here, we traveled through beautiful mountain scenery to Fethiye, a small and very pleasant port, quite different from the tourist hot spots farther north Here we stayed in the Hotel Purianta for $55 for a very comfortable room. There are many good simple restaurants along the port and we particularly enjoyed the Gunes Restaurant. The next day we continued south along a cornice that at times was rather difficult to drive to the port of Kas, another very attractive town. We stayed at the Hotel Club Phellos for $55 in a noisy room with an air conditioner which had two settings: tropical and arctic. I would suggest another hotel. The restaurants here are excellent and not too expensive: we ate in the Derya for about $35 with wine for both of us. Continuing our drive south we visited the ruins at Myra along with busloads of other tourist-- this ancient Roman city is now famous for Lycian tombs and a Roman theater. There is also the Church of St. Nicholas in the center of what is now the new town. Our next objective were the ruins of Olimpos which were rather disappointing (much better visited on the cruise--see below). We stayed at Olimpos at the Olympios Lodge for $80. This was an attractive place but the owner grew peacocks: very pretty to look at but noisy as hell. I would not recommend this hotel.
From Olimpos, we had a very comfortable trip to the very fascinating city of Antalya. As with most cities around the world, one has to drive through the newer, congested part of the city in order to reach the Old Town. In this case, it was well worth it because we found the Old Town a very interesting place, mostly filled with authentic Turkish houses still lived in and not yet converted into hotels. We stayed a converted Ottoman house, the Argus, for $90. I cannot recommend this hotel . I suggest you stay at the Tutav Turk Evi Otelleri which had small but very nice rooms for $85. We called Europcar and they came to the hotel and picked up the car (we have since gotten their credit card charge and there were no surprises). We spend three days in Antalya mostly in the Old City but we did visit the Archeological Museum which was absolutely outstanding and not to be missed. We ate in a number of simple restaurants, all good and cheap-- again about $35 for two with a bottle of Turkish wine.
All in all, the driving tour was a wonderful experience and far more enjoyable than going with a tour group. If you can drive a car you can drive in Turkey and, at least along the Western Coast, there was no need to speak Turkish. I would recommend this trip to anyone with an adventurous spirit!