Turkey – A Million reasons to visit

Shahrukh Khan, Shahrukh Khan!”, go the bellows of the vendors behind you, competing fervently for your attention with the strong wafts of the spices on display, the aromas of Turkish coffee & apple teas flowing from all directions and with the spectrum of the colours of lamps that hang from the ceiling. You’re baffled, taken by the deluge on your senses in the Grand Bazar of Istanbul. Far off, in another continent & yet in Turkey, in Konya, a ney (flute) plays a soulful tune and a group of dervishes dances to the tune in the sole anticipation of unison with the Beloved. As the tune reaches a climax, and the hem of the white robes of the Dervishes sways in harmony with it, you are once again baffled, at the stark contrast in the varied experiences in Turkey. Turkey is an enigma, a land where kebabs are accompanied by salads, where Anatolian rock and Sufi music are sold on the same music shelves, where Cappadocian wine and Efes beer have as much an ability to give you a hangover as the çai (pronounced ‘chai’) and Turkish kahve to help you get over it & where the coffee is not prepared in a punch but in a Cezve. If there’s one reason to visit Turkey, then it is for its culture that embodies all of this enigma. The good part is, as an Indian you can fully appreciate the treasures of an enigmatic country. (Oh, and did I tell you, if you listen closely, perhaps, you’ll also be able to appreciate a little bit of their language. Çai, meydan, peynir, dunya, don’t you already know the meanings of several such common words?)

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace

View of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace

Like the generations of Romans, Greeks and Turks before, you too land in Istanbul, every bit of which talks of history. A blue mosque, a museum, a church converted into a mosque, a bridge connecting two continents, a sea whose calm ironically expresses the tales of the swarms of civilizations and kingdoms that ruled it and the exchange that occurred at its waters. And then there’s the present. The meyhanes & bars of Beyoglu that sizzle in the evenings, the stadiums of Beskitas and Fenerbahce that roar of a football fascination unsurpassed, the trendy cafes of Sultanahmet with their hookahs and the swarm of tourists and the Dervish Houses of Galata which lend a much required serenity to this mind-boggling city. Istanbul has so much to offer it’ll not only charm you through your journey but also continue to haunt for long, even after it’s over. 

The vistas from a hot-air balloon flight above Cappadocia

But oh, what a mistake it’d be to stay back only in Istanbul. For Turkey & its culture extends far beyond. Into the caves of Cappadocia and the comfort of its charming cave hotels, in a hot air balloon flight above the Goreme valley and the views of snow-capped mountains from the flight. It extends into the monasteries perched on mountains in the Black Sea region and the valleys that straddle it. It preserves itself in the scenery of the far off town of Van and its meshur breakfast culture, Van Kahvalti, whose breakfast spread is as much a treat for the eyes as for the stomach.

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

Head south and you’d discover the origins of the word ‘turquoise’, in the waters of the Aegean, where, in the resort town of Fethiye, a glide above the waters will be as gratifying as a dip in the lagoon of Oludeniz. And then as you take a bus to the towns of Selcuk and Ephesus in the west, take some time off the gratis food and drinks (and ice-cream!) served, to marvel at the scenery around you. At Ephesus, the Roman ruins would take you back several centuries in time (perhaps even bring out the thespian in you!) and at Selcuk, the alfresco cafes and the vine all over them make you wonder if Greece would be anything similar. And if you can’t get rid of this curiosity, just board a Dolmus to the nearby town of Serince and where slurps of multiple fruit wines will hopefully lay your confusion to peace.

Discover your inner Thespian in Ephesus!


The ruins at Ephesus

And when in Turkey, the burps can hardly be far behind the slurps. What would Turkish culture be without talking about its cuisine? The ustas of Anatolia, and Gaziantep and their kebabs, Iskendar, Testi, and the Doners in Istanbul, the stories wrapped in the vine leaves of Dolmas and Sarmas (stuffed vine leaves & vegetables), the assortment of over 100 kinds of peynirs (& you thought there was only one!), and the competing tastes of butter and syrup in a Baklava, perfected over generations of Ottoman kitchens, as it melts inside your mouth, will all give you the favouor of a culture proud of its cuisine. And even though Turkish hospitality doesn’t really let you miss home, do come back and tell your mom that you remembered her parathas each time you had a bite of the ‘Gozleme’, her chhaas with each sip of the ‘Ayran’, her shira with a scoop of the ‘helwa’. Don’t be surprised (Spoiler Alert!) if you discover cousins of your very own Jalebi and Gulab Jamun at unexpected places, even at an Otogar (Bus Station). Let the Kaymak and yogurt served with these foods remind you of your childhood days when hung curd in a cloth used to adorn the balconies of the house. And if the child in you takes over, then head to the alleys of Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul and let it chuckle at the tantrums of the Dondurma vendor & all the fanfare that the local ice-cream comes with.

Maras Ice cream seller in Istanbul

A Maras Ice cream seller in Istanbul

 Phew! So much and we aren’t done yet. For, a nation (and a destination), and its culture are all made by the attitude of its natives. Ask a stranger for directions in Turkey and you’ll probably end up being accompanied by the good soul all the way to your destination. For once, skip the taxi and give yourself the chance to interact with these wonderful people. They’d love to know you came from Hindistan and are probably as much in love with the çai as them (Hint Hint Hint!!). Pick up a conversation with the little boy at your hotel to discover his passion for his favourite Istanbul football club and talk to the local restaurant owner in a village to learn he’s as much in love with his grandmother’s food as you. Sit in a coffee house in the smaller towns and play Okey with the old men. Come back with a thousand pictures each worth a thousand words to give you a Million reasons to smile. And as you reminisce each of them to write a post like this, play some sizzling Turkish music, like that which accompanied all your breakfasts, lunches and dinners throughout Turkey or simply play a Maris Banco to hear a baritone calling you back with an old Turkish song that goes

Nazar eyle, Nazar eyle..

Gel yanima pazar eyle..

 (Look at me, O Look at me

Come to me and let’s make a lively bazar)

Nazar Eyle.. nazar eyle

Nazar Eyle.. Nazar eyle

This post is an entry in the “Million Stories” Contest sponsored by the Turkish Embassy, India





Turkish Delight!

The Bosphorus Bridge

‘Shahrukh Khan!’, exclaims the man, sporting a smile, at the sweet shop at the Ataturk Airport. As he tries to sing a Hindustani song and even though you know it’s the same age-old trick to garner every Indian’s attention, you still can’t avoid but smile back at him. Even here they watch bollywood, you think. Little do you know that during the next one week, you’ll end up humming Turkish music yourself, eating more Turkish food than you’d have eaten on a normal day back at home, drinking more Cappadocian wine than you’d have in Sula and perhaps praising more folks than you’d have abused on a regular day in Mumbai.
Indeed, Turkish delight is more than just Baklava and Lokum.

Roman ruins at Ephesus

The Roman ruins at Ephesus

You don’t know where to begin. Like the several generations of Byzantines or Greeks before you, you too land up in Istanbul, the mystical cosmopolitan city that is the bridge between the east and the west, both geographically and culturally. How else do you explain the presence of oodles of salad in the same plate as a pottery kebap? Or that of Turkish rock and Tarkan’s pop music CD’s in the same shelf as the famous Sufi music ones? As you roam around more of Istanbul and Turkey, you realise it’s a tad similar to your own India, with a pot-pourri of cultures, music, food and architecture. And to your amusement, they literally sound similar as well. Chai, duniya , zameen, sabun are just few of the several words common between Hindi and Turkish.

Pigeon Valley - Goreme

Pigeon Valley – Goreme

Someone’s told you that the one place to go to in Turkey apart from Istanbul has to be Cappadocia. Well.. terrifically right and terribly wrong! It is indeed one of the best landscapes in Turkey with weird rock formations, and even weirder (but amazing) cave hotels to live in and a wonderful opportunity to take a hot air balloon flight at the most competitive prices in the world (a bigger price to pay for it is waking up at 5 in the morning to make it to the take off location, but totally worth it). But your next stop, Fethiye makes you realise what you’d have missed had you followed the earlier advice and stopped at Cappadocia. With a visit to the Oludeniz lagoon, that can make even the waters of Thailand look colourless, you are sure to return back with a golden (if not black!) tan. And the simple, yet tasteful Gozleme (Turkish handmade pastry), which will keep coming back to you wherever you are in Turkey, but you’ll find them really good here.

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

The beautiful lagoon at Oludeniz

And then, you take another scenic bus to the west, to Selcuk and Kusadasi and Ephesus(or Efes), all in the same neighbourhood but drastically different. One of them, a cute, small town, with even cuter and smaller cafes, the second, a happening beach town and the third, an excavated ancient city with majestic ruins of the Greek and Roman times ( and a beer named after itself!). Each of these, a captivating experience in its own way.

A lazy morning in Kusadasi
A lazy morning in Kusadasi
And a lonely one..
And a lonely one..

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

The library of Celsus at Ephesus

And by this time, you have fallen in love with Turkey!

You still end up asking WHY? The answer lies in the loads of pottery kebaps (they’ll bring steaming hot Turkish stew – vegetables, chicken, etc. in a pot, and crack it open right in front of you) or doners that you or your friends have gobbled up in the last one week, the Gozlemes that have so reminded you of the aloo and paneer parathas back home, the bottles of Ayran that have been gulped down every day (and no, it’s not alcohol.. just a refreshingly richer version of India’s chhaas), the Raki – the aniseed flavoured drink that changes its colour the moment you mix chilled water in it and the baklava( a honey or syrup sweetened pastry filled with nuts), halva, lokum (confectionary with small cubes dusted with sugar or coconut), sekarpara, kemalpasa (something like a gulabjamun), name it and you have it sweets – that taste as awesome as they sound :), the Turkish Maras icecream that just doesn’t melt – and comes with its own fanfare of bells, sounds and mischief – it’s a task to get it from the ice cream seller ( Try it, and you’ll know why I say this)- but deliciously worth the effort :). To your delight, even the buses you travel in serve you free cold drinks, snacks, coffee and even ice cream (in our bus, the man came back for another serving and we happily obliged).

The answer lies in the sizzling Turkish music (sometimes live) that has accompanied each of your drinks, your breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It lies in the amazing scenery that you have witnessed alongside all your bus journeys. But most pleasantly, it lies in the amiability of the people you met along the way, in the conversations with little kids who are as gripped by Fenerbahçe’s football as by their fathers’ booming hotels, in the honesty and the warmth that greets you everywhere you go in the countryside, the help that’s coming your way even before you have asked for it. It makes you believe that for once, you did the right thing by not taking a direct taxi but three different buses to reach your village cave hotel from a small town airport. Only then you realise how the helpfulness of the countryfolk makes the phrase ‘language barrier’ lose all its meaning here. Quite frankly, it seems difficult to get lost in turkey. You’ll always find someone to tell you the right way :).

If you ever go to Turkey – remember to learn one word before you go- ‘Teşekkür Ederim’.
It’s Turkish for Thank You. You may end up using it far too many times.
Because, Turkish Delight is indeed more than just Baklava and Lokum!