As a world traveler, I had put a destination on hold until three things lined up: finances, timing, and motivation. But with travel ban rumors on the horizon, I accepted the reality that money burns, time melts, and memories are the only impressions we can leave on our minds.
Before masked smiles and elbows became a form of international communication, my husband, Benjamin, and I got our hands on Turkey and took part in what would be our last trip in 18 months. We wanted the sub rosa side of Turkey by dividing our trip into three parts: city, country, coast. It was our own geographic version of “Eat, Pray, Love” without soul searching.
From LAX, we flew nonstop with Turkish Airlines, offering free city tours and hotel rooms for layovers over five hours. For us, part of the “all in” meant that it would be a first trip (and maybe even a trip), including the business class flight. I had to try everything including Turkish delicacies, turndown service, and Versace amenities. Fifteen hours later, we landed at Istanbul Airport, the largest in the world, costing $ 12 billion.
We settled into Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, adorned with marble columns and chandeliers bigger than my truck. The only Ottoman palace-hotel on the Bosphorus, he introduced us to this narrow strait between Europe and Asia.
The best views of the water were from the hotel’s restaurant, Tugra. The waiters in black ties, the candlelit tables and the paintings by Fausto Zonaro made me open my eyes to my husband who was afraid of finances.
Ottoman and Turkish dishes of lamb shank and duck tandir were served with oil-drenched olives, hummus, eggplant, feta, and other meze. Benjamin leaned down and whispered, “Breathe out. One entry costs less than $ 30.
Living in style with no regrets, we decided to switch to full sultan mode. During the day we were sightseeing, and at night we sank into tasseled pillows while devouring the household desserts: dried fruit, flaky baklava, and fluffy lokum cubes of pomegranate, orange and honey.
Calories were burned during our four days in Istanbul with Sea Song Tours. From the meditative Suleymaniye Mosque to the Constantine Column at the Byzantine Hippodrome, history has come to life in this tangible handbook.
As Benjamin absorbed ideas about religion and architecture, I found myself charmed by some of the 250,000 stray dogs and cats that roamed the city. These healthy-looking furry babies were everywhere, passed out on the sidewalk with their bellies skyward. The local government provides food and medical care, so technically they are “at home” at the gates of a 16th century mosque.
How could they not be? Between the mosaics and domes of Hagia Sophia, we also felt the heartwarming reverence of this architectural masterpiece. Built in 537 AD, this Orthodox cathedral turned into an Ottoman mosque honors both the Christian and Muslim religions in homage to one of the most important Byzantine structures ever created.
Religious freedom seemed almost celebrated in Istanbul, turning my preconceptions of a turbulent nation into one of peace. On the Asian side of the Bosphorus, the craft district of Kuzguncuk – known for its colorful townhouses with gingerbread balconies – had mosques, synagogues, and churches virtually sharing walls. English worship was surrounded by Christian churches as the Islamic call to prayer rang out from 3,000 mosques in the distance.
In a city of 15 million inhabitants, this testimony of religious pluralism and multicultural identity triggered a feeling of coexistence and prosperity. The waterfront mansions framing the Bosphorus brought shame on Beverly Hills, but despite the wealth, the locals were unpretentious and welcoming, especially in Bomonti.
This Brooklyn from Turkey has a community vibe where everyone knows their neighbor. At House Hotel we met some locals who invited us for Turkish coffee in Halisunasyon and dinner in Batard. We stumbled upon the Farmers Markets, Ara Guler Museum, and Glories Chocolate to sample rose hip and lemon truffles.
Empty of burkas, muscle and swagger, Istanbul was brilliantly alive, balanced in an urban posture with European play. I was addicted to Karakoy, a maritime trade center that became a trendy district of art, fashion and gastronomy. The cobbled alleys framed trendy cafes and hookah bars, tucked away under old apartments veined in ivy and graffiti, as if they were the hipster offspring of Marseille and San Francisco.
The paradoxical Istanbul calmed us down in the Serefiye Cistern and woke us up in the Grand Bazaar. Among the merchants trading in copper and carpets, there were courts offering a respite from the chaos. Pungent aromas of leather, coffee, tobacco and spices were brought in by a dynamism that dismantled false perceptions of a dark and monochrome city.
Our second hotel certainly helped. In the Zorlu Center in the Besiktas district, Raffles Istanbul is the nucleus of some 3,000 shops, restaurants and galleries. This cosmopolitan property has an impressive collection of art, Michelin-starred chefs and Istanbul’s largest spa.
From mouth-blown chandeliers to custom murals in each room, the design is in the details with Byzantine silks, Turkish textiles and gold mosaics. After the pan-Asian fusion at Isokyo, we headed to the spa for a traditional hammam treatment.
If it wasn’t enough to lie naked on a marble slab, then we would have our hair washed, our bodies scrubbed, and buckets of water poured over our thighs. With sandpaper mittens moving, I turned to find Benjamin buried in a mountain of moss. “I think I’m missing a mole,” I whispered.
After the exfoliation, my skin was like butter and my hair was like silk. Yet once was enough to get us started on the “country” part of our trip to Cappadocia.
The Anatolian steppes of central Turkey were carpeted with fairy chimneys, lockers carved into cliffs, and rock formations resembling those of Dr. Seuss carved by centuries of wind and rain. Beneath this lunar landscape are 36 underground cities, including Kaymakli, dating back to 3000 BC.
To maximize our experience, we relied on Ismail from Travel Atelier. From the rocky sanctuaries of Goreme National Park to the lamb tandir in Aravan Evi, Ismail delivered on all fronts, including a last minute hot air balloon ride at 4 a.m.
Floating 1,500 feet above Rose Valley, we were one of 100 hot air balloons that dot the sky.
Perhaps the most impressive view of the balloon colony was from our hotel, Argos in Cappadocia. In the hilltop village of Uchisar, this ambitious transformation project transformed 51 caves into luxury rooms with reading nooks and plunge pools in the suite.
From their SEKI restaurant you have a breathtaking view of the Valley of the Pigeons with vineyards, apricot orchards and stone spiers sticking out of the earth. It is in this historic cradle of silence that the monks retreated into solitude, and today travelers enter a monastery of tranquility, stirred only by the songs of nightingales and pigeon wings.
Our trip could have ended there, but heading east we went to Alacatı on the Cesme peninsula in Turkey. This seaside playground near Izmir is famous for its beaches, vineyards and stone houses, but it was the boutique hotel Alavya that won us over.
Six historic houses face an open courtyard of white mulberry and olive trees, where a lap pool, garden restaurant, and yoga pavilion find shade under canopies. The elegant rooms have beamed ceilings, linen bathrobes, quilted rugs, and Carrera marble bathrooms. Our breakfast was almost a sin, with mounds of figs, plums, olives and cheese dipped in honey.
We would never have left our hotel if the city hadn’t been our winning temptress, enticing us with whitewashed storefronts draped in bougainvillea. Lazy dogs posed under Greek blue shutters in Instagram-friendly moments, perfected only by kissing couples, yellow sundresses and shiny Vespas.
That evening, we had dinner at Asma Yaprağı (Fig Leaf), where Chef Ayse Nur invites guests into his kitchen. Among the pyramids of Mediterranean and Turkish dishes were braised artichoke, stuffed zucchini flower, and baked pumpkin with sun-dried tomatoes.
Despite our morning urge to stroll on the beach, we couldn’t leave Alacatı without visiting the wine region. Cradle of the vitis vinifera (vine), Turkey’s Aegean coast accounts for 20% of the country’s wine production. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Urla, where we traced seven wineries serving award-winning blends like Urla Vourla and Nero D’Avola.
Finally, we had our day in the sun in Bodrum on the southwest coast of Turkey. This gateway to seaside towns and 5 star resorts brought us to the Mandarin Oriental. Golf carts transported guests between nine restaurants, a private beach, and rooms with views of Paradise Bay.
Just as hot air balloons are for Cappadocia, so are sailboats for Bodrum. Joining the masses, we sailed the fascinating peninsula to cradled coves, where we sprang from the upper deck into the turquoise sea. I had to dive for five hours, hovering over fluorescent corals and chasing shoals of glitter. We had lunch on roasted octopus, tuna tartare and lobster tagliolini. And then I lay down on the bow, fell asleep and dreamed of Turkey.
In my dream were utopian visions of a unified metropolis with many faces. There were mysterious caves, satin cushions, and dogs and cats living in harmony. I saw a coastline splashed with five shades of blue. There were hundreds of hot air balloons floating above the stone walls etched in time. And in the distance, the resounding cry of prayers echoed through the valleys and canyons.
My reverie ended with a familiar voice.
“Wake up asleep,” Benjamin said. “It’s time to go home.”