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Turkey, Land of Contrasts - with Tauck

Turkey, Land of Contrasts - with Tauck

Wow!  The name befits this amazing tour.  I could never have imagined the myriad of information we would learn on this country which has such a fascinating history, and is a melting pot for new history to be made, and see such a diversity of scenery.  Funny – always imagined Turkey to be a barren land, but was I in for a surprise!!

Turkey shares it borders with either other countries, has a population of 75 million and straddles two continents – Europe and Asia, hence being described as a Eurasian country.  However, it is not my intention to write about the geography, history, politics and religions of Turkey as it would become a book, but as these all form such an integral part of the tour experience, it is difficult to talk without bringing some of these points into it.   This is what makes Turkey such an incredibly interesting destination. 

Having just got off Tauck’s French Riverboat cruise which was sensational, this was the perfect accompanying tour because of the vast contrasts of experiences but still done in fine Tauck style.

I flew from Paris to Istanbul on Turkish Air and was impressed.  It is worth noting Turkish Air have won the best airline in Europe award two years running.  It is efficient, reliable, and  a proper service is given in-flight regardless of the duration.

As we descended into Istanbul, I was amazed at the green countryside with vast areas of agriculture – so already my intrigue was spiked!  Landing at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport was not the most positive experience.  I had already been warned about the long queues and waits to go through Customs and Immigration, and you can expect a wait of up to an hour and half.  The airport itself is modern.  Despite the queues, the customs officials and staff at the airport are very pleasant and do not seem to be phased by the aggravated and tired tourists.  My concern was whether my luggage would be safe on the other side, and whether my Tauck driver would have the patience to await my appearance.   However, the luggage was there and so was my driver holding his “Tauck” sign – always a good sight for a tired traveller.  The luggage was quickly taken  by him and I was put into a luxury vehicle with sumptuous leather seats. 

The drive from the airport was a feast for the eyes with thousands and thousands of tulips in flower along the middle of the roads and my driver was quick to point out I had arrived during their annual tulip festival, in which 11 million bulbs are planted every year.  “Tulips in Amsterdam”????  Forget it – come to Istanbul instead.

My arrival at the very lovely Intercontinental Hotel, situated atop an elevation which gives magnificent views of the Bosphorus Sea – a busy stretch of water on which ferries carrying their citizens and tourists, plough the waters and on which has a shore line dotted with beautiful old palaces (many of them now hotels), and historical homes – and amongst all that some colour from the trees which were in spring flower.  It is at this point where one side of the Bosphorus is Asia and the other Europe.  A bridge across this expanse of water means you can stand with one foot in Asia and one in Europe!! 

I knew from the outset our Tour Leader, Armin was going to be a true enhancement to the tour experience – his energy, joviality and efficiency was evident right from the start – and he never let us down.  Although he was from San Francisco, he had lived a period in Turkey so was very familiar with all aspects which would affect his group, and he anticipated all obstacles long before they arose.  That’s what makes a Tauck Director what they are!

On the morning of our first day of touring Istanbul, Armin introduced us to Hakam who was to be our Tour Guide for the next few days.  With this city being a major cruise port, Hakam and Armin refer to the passengers from the ships as “locusts” – thousands of them arrive and depart most days in season in swarms – all wanting to experience the fascinating sights.  They line up in hideously slow moving long queues in direct sun and high temperatures, waiting for their entrance.  What a thrill it was to be taken directly to the turnstile at each attraction, ticket in hand for our speedy entry.  It almost made us feel like special guests of the long-ago deceased Sultans when we entered the Topkapi Palace!! 

Hakam brought every sight we saw to life – his knowledge of everything created stunned silences from us as he filled our heads with so many historical facts.  Oh my god!  I couldn’t get enough of it.  I quickly decide I need to do some homework at the end of each day and write facts down to be able to digest.  The Grand Bazaar was a feast for the eyes, with 3000 shops, and is a teeming mass of humanity from all parts of the world.   My friend and I quickly found a charming little tea shop where we drank tea out of beautifully coloured china cups on little trays, complete with little Turkish sweet cakes – and around us the madness of the Bazaar infected us even more.    The shop owners kept us amused with their “original” methods of trying to get us to view their wares, and we had fun haggling with them.  For two full days we were kept busy in Istanbul, we viewed the magnificent jewels of ruby, diamond and emerald encrusted items which were used on a daily basis by the Sultans,  and the 83 carat diamond at the Palace.  The Blue Mosque – which dominates the skyline of Istanbul was a feast for the eyes, and the Hagia Sophia where Christians worshipped before Muslims arrived was fascinating.  In between all this, Tauck were taking us to beautiful places to eat where we would continue to experience the atmosphere of being in this incredible city.

I had very little knowledge of the geography of Turkey so each day was an adventure.  While we flew down to Izmir, our luggage was taken by road and in true Tauck efficiency, was in our rooms before we arrived.  This was typical of what we experienced for the entire tour.  You literally do not have to carry your suitcase one meter from the time you land at your starting point until you are dropped at the airport. 

The real reason for visiting Izmir was to visit the ruins of Ephesus.  To be honest, I thought I had seen enough ruins in my travels, but the journey Hakam took us on while there left us gob smacked.  To see the ingenuity of these amazing architects, engineers, stone-masons on what was a city of 300,000 people seemed impossible, but here we were.   The city was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in AD17- often the case in Turkey as it lies on a major fault line.  With meticulous unearthing of these ruins, we were even able to go into what were the luxurious homes of people that long ago – with mosaics and murals still being visible.

Our journey continued and by this time Hakam had left us and we had a new guide, whom I thought could never equal Hakam.  How wrong I was.  The well educated Eylan joined us and from the moment he uttered his first sentence, his passion, knowledge and sense of humour added to his fascinating oratory wherever we were.  He is also very concerned about what is happening in Turkey these days and due to our great interest, spoke extensively about it.  It would seem Turkey is going to have some very challenging times ahead of it in years to come.  Turkey is a Muslim country, but there is a subtle (or not so subtle) trend  to make it into an Islamic country – two very different worlds!

Imagine my surprise when we landed in Antalya  – a gorgeous Mediterranean coastal town with little old streets, beautiful beaches and directly behind this the soaring snow-capped mountains – and the hotel we stayed in the Kempinski Dome – so named for the massive coloured dome in the foyer.  A stunning pool set amongst the grounds with Turkish inspired architecture completed the visuals, and this would be our home for the next two nights.  We especially loved our visit to the Old Town, a myriad of winding alleys, small boutique hotels in typical old Turkish buildings centuries old, and with small character filled restaurants serving modern and traditional fare –not to  mention the cocktails!! We could not stop smiling!!

The end of our stay in Antayla had us driving across the snow-capped mountains towards the centre of Turkey, where the geography changes and becomes plains – and known as the “bread basket” of Turkey.  Vast areas of fruit trees, vegetables, and honey are grown.  Unfortunately we were too early for the peaches, apricots and cherries which are supposed to be the best you can get.   This area also forms part of the “the cradle of civilisation” dating back to 6500 BC. 

As the tour progressed, the experiences just kept getting better.  Our arrival in the town of Goreme, we could see in the distance two extinct volcanoes.  In years gone by, their eruptions have created the very unique formations known as the Fairy Chimneys which rise from the landscape in profusion like phallic symbols, in which people created homes – known as cave homes.  In typical Tauck fashion, we were able to visit a family who have resided there for generations.  With three levels, the bottom where they slept, the middle with kitchen and all modern conveniences, and a large lounge covered with Turkish rugs and cushions, as well as  television, and the top for storage, we felt really privileged to have been their guests.  They had made tea and Turkish cakes for us.  It was quite  bizarre  to see their brand new Toyota car parked outside.   And of course, our hotel was a collection of these chimneys – luxurious – and each guest having a chimney with a different layout.  Ours was on three levels and just fabulous!!  How weird to be watching CNN in a cave!!  I wanted to stay there forever!

Often, we would hear the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning, from the Miniarets close by, by Imrams with no singing ability.  In the stillness of the very early morning, their voices would boom across the town.   I found this mystical and exotic.  It was a great way to be woken up to be taken to the launching site for over 70 Hot Air Balloons.  With hot tea and coffee in hand, we were able to watch as the huge flames engulfed the balloons from their crumpled state, and were a feast of colours.  When our  balloons were ready, we floated across this huge fascinating landscape, but we also sunk down into valleys being able to just about reach out and touch the chimneys .  We were all in awe – who wouldn’t be, and this culminated with an Al Fresco breakfast outdoors in Fairy Chimney country – another thumbs up for Tauck!!  The town was a fairy land at night as the caves lit up –  and sitting with a glass of wine in hand looking at this was a perfect way to end a perfect day.

Back in Istanbul, Eylam recommended we go to the Spice Markets – much smaller than the Grand Bazaar.  Spices were displayed in perfect pyramids, fresh Turkish Delight in all colours and flavours, pashminas, furs, fake handbags and a fine traditional lunch close by, enhanced by yet another Imram testing his vocal chords!!  I am just loving this – cant you tell!!  A short drive had us arriving at our hotel for the night – the beautiful and historical Pera Palace which dates back to 1892.  It has a real Persian charm and is where Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” – the station for which was across the road.   With real Persian atmosphere due to its architecture inside and its adornments, it was the perfect way to end this perfect tour.

Well done Tauck – you have done it again!!

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