Ancient temples, bazaars and amphitheatres, key military and archeological sites, yacht-studded bays and wonderful food and wine: Turkey has much to reward the curious visitor. Words: Don Townshend.
High on the list of the world’s top cruise destinations, Old Istanbul seems to float on the water like an exotic theatrical backdrop, its dramatic skyline pricked with elegant minarets and studded with monumental mosques. Stroll its twisting, narrow thoroughfares and you’ll discover teeming bazaars, atmospheric old hamams (Turkish baths) and an attractive underground Roman-built cistern lined with more than 300 elegant columns.
A key attraction is magnificent Topkapi Palace, former residence of the Ottoman sultans for about 400 years. You’ll need at least half a day to tour its sprawling quarters and its celebrated harem, once a hotbed of palace intrigues. Here, eunuch guardians watched over hundreds of captive women who provided successive sultans with comfort and offspring.
Other highlights include sixth-century Aya (Hagia) Sofya, originally a Roman-built church but later used as a mosque under Ottoman rule. It’s now a grand museum. Nearby stands the serene Blue Mosque and a short walk away is the entrance to the labyrinthine 15th-century Kapaliçars ı (Grand Bazaar).
One of the best ways to see the Bosphorus is to ride the ferry to the village of Anadolu Kavag i near the Black Sea. En route, you’ll pass opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, the Bosphorus and Fatih bridges and, on the European shore, the conspicuous 15th-century Rumeli Hisari, a robust fortress built to control movement through the narrowest point of the Bosphorus. Later, after a fish lunch at Anadolu Kavag i on the Asian bank, you can return by ferry or bus to downtown Istanbul.
Gallipoli day tours can be arranged by local tour operators (www.gallipolidaytour.com) or, if time permits, you can take a bus to the small town of Exeabat, overnight in the Aussie-friendly Crowded House Hotel on the Dardanelles and join its excellent Gallipoli tour the following afternoon (www.crowdedhousegallipoli.com).
It is the portal to the ancient city of Ephesus, so it’s a pity the environs of Kusadasi’s cruise terminal have degenerated into a rather brash marketplace. Fortunately, shore excursions from here generally exceed expectations.
Ephesus, which reached its heyday under the Romans between the first and fourth centuries AD, once had a population exceeding 220,000. If you enter by the Magnesia (southern) gate, you can stroll downhill along winding streets lined by partially restored temples, elaborate fountains, various statues, a marketplace and a grand 25,000-seat amphitheatre. Even though the city brothel is directly opposite the spectacular library, you don’t need much imagination to appreciate that this was once a city of considerable refinement and splendour.
If you visit Ephesus by taxi, it’s worth stopping off in the nearby town of Selçuk. Unlike Kusadasi, little Selçuk is virtually hassle-free and its souvenir stores sell everything from Turkish carpets to local bric-a-brac. It has a number of quality restaurants as well as a first-class museum that showcases a selection of archaeological treasures from Ephesus.
You could also visit tiny Sirince, a former Greek village that’s tucked away in the hills behind Selçuk. It’s a captivating little nook that still echoes with the sounds of bleating goats and the occasional horse and cart. It has a couple of churches, a mosque and a small bazaar, where village women sell nicely crafted handmade clothes and soaps made with local olive oil and a variety of flora.
Sirince may be noted for its fruit wines and generous tastings but some visitors still neglect to factor in the wine’s alcoholic content. As a result, we encounter some cruise passengers singing arias to penned goats and others who have to be assisted back to their ship.
In summer, girls in short shorts and sailors in jaunty caps far outnumber the odd headscarf as yachtsfolk congregate to enjoy Bodrum’s buzzing nightlife and great sailing.
The town is dominated by the imposing medieval Castle of St Peter (confusingly, built by the knights of St John), which towers over the waterfront at the confluence of two serene bays. Its Roman heritage includes a partly-restored 2,000-year-old amphitheatre that occupies a high slope behind the town and offers great panoramas.
The castle was erected in the 1400s by conquering Crusaders and now incorporates The Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology, which has superb displays of wrecks and relics from ancient shipwrecks. You can amble along its high protective wall and towers, and visit a little chapel-cum-mosque, a Turkish bath, dungeons and a display of weaponry.
It’s a pleasant stroll along the waterfronts of both bays, though the western bay – Salmakis – is arguably the prettier, as it curls past a flotilla of gulets (traditional Turkish boats) towards the well-patronised yacht club. Kumbahçe Bay has a popular pebbly beach where visitors sip cocktails as evening descends on the landmark castle.
Clustered around a picturesque Roman harbour, this charming port’s stylish ‘old town’ – Kaleiçi – shelters cosily behind the remnants of once-formidable walls.
Like Bodrum and Kusadasi, Antalya throbs to the beat of a long tourist season. Its steep, maze-like streets showcase magnificent Ottoman buildings as well as cute hotels and pensions, excellent restaurants and cool boutiques. Reminiscent of Andalucia, Kaleiçi is beautified by verdant courtyards and high-walled private gardens dripping with citrus trees and flamboyant blooms. High cliffs and paths overlook the Roman harbour where gulets, fishing boats and pleasure craft are secured.
Antalya also has fine beaches, good diving and a range of sailing options, from daytrips to week-plus cruises. In town, at the border of the old and new cities, you’ll pass under Hadrian’s Gate – an arch within the Roman wall that commemorates the Emperor’s visit in 1830. There are also a couple of ancient hamams, a 13th-century clock tower and the superb sculpture display at the Antalya Museum.
Nearby, you can visit the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in Turkey: spectacular Aspendos, which once seated audiences of up to 20,000. Opera and ballet are held here in summer. Also close-by are the ruins of the once-grand city of Perge, which, though interesting, cannot match the experience of visiting Ephesus.
Major cruise lines calling in to popular turkish ports include: Celebrity Cruises, Costa, Crystal Cruises, HAL, MSC Cruises, NCL, Princess Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Swan Hellenic, The Yachts of Seabourn, Silversea Cruises, Star Clipper, SeaDream Yacht Club, Windstar Cruises.