Travelling in Turkey, a country of contrasts

Sitting between Europe and Asia, the nation is an intriguing mix of urban chic and village life, religious devotion and modern secularism

Lone Pine is one of the many cemeteries in Gallipoli where Australian and New Zealand servicemen who died during World War I are buried. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Lone Pine is one of the many cemeteries in Gallipoli where Australian and New Zealand servicemen who died during World War I are buried. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
View the ruins of Troy, which date back 4,000 years, and imagine the battles that took place there. Also drop by the Spice Bazaar (above) in Istanbul and browse stalls selling souvenirs, fresh seafood and, of course, spices. -- PHOTO: TRAFALGAR
View the ruins of Troy (above), which date back 4,000 years, and imagine the battles that took place there. Also drop by the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul and browse stalls selling souvenirs, fresh seafood and, of course, spices. -- PHOTO: TRAFALGAR
Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district (above) is the location of the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, which was home to sultans from 1453 to 1852. -- PHOTO: TRAFALGAR
Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district is the location of the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mosque (above), the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, which was home to sultans from 1453 to 1852. -- PHOTO: TRAFALGAR

I am a guest in the house of a very warm elderly couple in the village of Demircidere, in the Izmir province of western Turkey, and we have just finished a scrumptious home-cooked lunch.

The husband, Mr Ibrahim Ozden, is a retired jandarma officer, a military branch that polices outlying rural areas in Turkey.

His wife, Sanem, a housewife dressed in the local multicoloured sequinned blouse and headscarf, has lovingly and meticulously prepared a little rustic feast.

There is tarhana soup, a traditional probiotic made of yogurt and cracked wheat that has been sun-dried for days. It is served with bread freshly baked in the communal oven shared by all villagers.

We also have borek, a delectable pastry with a potato filling; cigirtma, a robust eggplant dish; and savoury dolma or grape leaves stuffed with rice.

The visit to the village, with a population less than 200, is certainly something off the beaten path for travellers. It is one of the revealing, multifarious experiences on my week-long visit to the country.

Anyone with a remote interest in travelling to Turkey would surely be aware of its appeal as the nexus between East and West, a country that bridges Europe and Asia.

My travels cover only the western part of the country, yet on our few stops, I marvel that many worlds and eras coalesce in Turkey - ancient Greek ruins in Ephesus, majestic mosques dating back to the Islamic Ottoman empire, a Catholic pilgrimage spot believed to be the Virgin Mary's last house, poignant World War I monuments and a breathtaking night yacht trip down the Bosphorus strait that separates the two continents.

The population is predominantly Muslim, and beautiful, multi-minaret mosques dot the landscape, towering among buildings with modern, Byzantine, Genoese and Ottoman architecture. I hear the muezzin's azan, or prayer call, amplified all around five times a day, but many of the people are also fiercely protective of the government's secular stance.

As in Singapore, some women go around wearing hijabs, but many do not.

For Muslim travellers, it is noteworthy that while the food is predominantly prepared halal, alcohol is served freely in many eating establishments. Indeed, our guide, travel director Yesim Guris, tells us that raki, an anise-flavoured alcoholic beverage, is considered a national drink. "What we do is between us and God," she reasons.

The country's secular stance can be traced to the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a revered figure among the population.

His likeness is found everywhere - on T-shirts and posters, and a statue of him stands in the middle of most Turkish cities. There is even a gigantic sculpture of his head on one side of a hill in Izmir, like a mini version of the American presidents on Mount Rushmore.

It was Ataturk who turned the Hagia Sophia, in Turkey's largest and best-known city, Istanbul, from a place of worship into a museum in the 1930s. It is a 1,477-year-old former Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedral that became a mosque in the 15th century.

Ms Yesim tells us Ataturk insisted that the building's breathtakingly beautiful interior be appreciated by everyone, hence his decision.

There are long queues to get in, but a special arrangement gets us in the express lane.

Inside, the eye is immediately drawn to the ceiling - the massive central dome, 31m in diameter and 48.5m high, is surrounded by Quranic scriptures right next to Christian mosaic works.

Turkey's most famous architectural icon, the Blue Mosque, located across the Hagia Sophia, is still a place of worship though, and it is closed to tourists five times a day for Muslims to pray in. The locals prefer to call it by its official name, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, named after the 17th-century Ottoman sultan whose tomb lies within the compound.

Considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture, there is a good reason why its image is used in all the tourism collateral - it really is majestic and beautiful in real life.

The massive, multiple domes and the six towering minarets are not blue, but a lot of the interior, which counts more than 200 stained glass windows and Quranic verses by calligraphy great Seyyid Kasim Gubari, is.

Also in Istanbul's Sultanahmet district - together with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia - is the Topkapi Palace, home to sultans from 1453 to 1852.

You can easily spend several hours here, going through the exhibits and displays in various buildings or admiring stunning views of the city from various vantage points.

The sultans who presided over the vast Ottoman Empire lived large - the place housed 4,000 at its peak - and there are separate buildings for libraries, kitchens, harems and more. Today, the significant ones are open to the public as the palace is now a museum.

Within walking distance is the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest of its kind in the world. Comprising 60 streets and 5,000 stores peddling everything from carpets, scarves, handmade ceramics, leather goods, jewellery and more, the 553-year-old bazaar can get overwhelming.

Our guides give us a tip - always haggle. Slash the initial price sellers quote by half.

Here is another tip - the souvenir shops outside the Blue Mosque sell a lot of the things found at the bazaar, but at much lower prices.

While the Grand Bazaar obviously has a wider range, you do not have to haggle at the souvenir shops and there is less pressure to buy. We can even pay with credit cards at some shops.

At the city's Fatih district is the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar, the second-largest bazaar in Istanbul, built in the 17th century and a place of business for more than 80 stalls selling souvenirs, jewellery, fresh seafood and, of course, spices.

No trip to Turkey is complete without experiencing a genuine Turkish bath. While one can opt for modern spas around the city, I go to the 430- year-old Cemberlitas Hamami in the Sultanahmet district.

It is quite an experience to receive a vigorous scrub-down in a public bath, while lying on the hard marble platform, wrapped in a pestamal, a traditional cotton and silk wrap. While looking up at the dome roof, sunlight streaming in and my muscles rejuvenated and my skin tingling, I can imagine Istanbul residents from 400 years ago going through the same treatment.

Leaving Istanbul, our coach travels to Gallipoli, then crosses the Dardanelles strait for Canakkale and Izmir.

I am very excited to visit Troy, located in the Canakkale province, having read stories about King Priam and his sons, mad priestess Cassandra and the Trojan war when I was a child.

Then there is the 2004 Hollywood movie, of course, starring Brad Pitt as the dashing Achilles and Peter O'Toole as Priam.

Unearthed by 19th-century archaeologists Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeological site has been acknowledged as the city Troy in Homer's epic poem Iliad, and is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

Spread over 158ha, there is quite a bit to take in and it is intriguing to imagine the day-to-day life and battles that have taken place among the ruins dating back 4,000 years.

There is a re-creation of the famous Trojan Horse near the entrance although, personally, I find it a lot less majestic that I have imagined the real thing to be.

From Troy, we make our way to the Izmir province's capital city - also named Izmir and Turkey's third most populous city - where we spend two nights.

While the city centre sees a lot of its student and young adult population hanging out by the picturesque bay, enjoying picnics in the day and socialising till the wee hours at the long row of restaurants and cafes, the rural areas, such as Demircidere village a few hours away, have a laid-back charm.

The contrast between the city and the villages is among the myriad experiences that Turkey has to offer, and one week is certainly not enough in this beautiful country.

I make a silent promise to myself - I will be back and maybe even drop in on the Ozdens to see how they are doing.

The writer's trip was sponsored by Trafalgar.

This travelogue first appeared in The Life multimedia magazine, where more photos can be viewed.

Gallipoli, where war heroes lie

During World War I, they were enemies. More than 100,000 soldiers from both the Turkish and the opposing Allied forces died at the Gallipoli battles.

Today, the hatchet has been buried and a moving quote by Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who was a commander during the battles, is inscribed on a monument at Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now living in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours.

"You, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

I visit the infamous Anzac Cove, named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that landed there in 1915 and who made the place their base during the eight-month-long Gallipoli fight.

Our guide is Mr Kenan Celik, a local expert on the Gallipoli battle who rattles of statistics on the war from memory.

He shows us one of the many cemeteries there, Lone Pine, which also has a memorial to the Australian and New Zealand servicemen who died there.

We also visit the Turkish memorials, most significant of which is The Ataturk Aniti (Memorial) at Conkbayiri, where a giant statue of Ataturk stands.

The gorgeous view of the turquoise sea and the rolling hills at Gallipoli is a profound contrast to the horrific battles that took place a century ago.

This year is significant as April 25 marked the 100th year of the first landing.

That day was commemorated as Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand, and thousands of visitors from these two countries made a pilgrimage to the Turkish site for a dawn service.

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