Aegean Turkey is a treasure trove of big tourism destinations and of ancient Greek and Roman history, almost too much of both to mention here. Scattered casually around you will find such historically weighty names as Troy, Aphrodite, Ephesus, Athena and Assos, and you can walk on ground that such figures as Aristotle, Plato and Alexander the Great once walked on long before.
And if such thoughts makes you feel unworthy, a hot summers night spent with the masses in resort cities like Bodrum, Marmaris or Kuşadası might just make you feel a lot less bothered by such issues.
Much of the Aegean coast has been horribly built up in to a package holiday monstrosity that fills to the brim in summer, or maybe used to fill to the brim in summer, with tourists from all over Europe. And though it is getting increasingly harder to find a place to call your own, some areas are so far relatively untouched. A lot of the Datça Peninsula for example is beautifully rugged, wild and sparsely populated. If you have your own transport you can explore its windy mountain roads, swim at its hidden beaches and coves and wonder sadly to yourself how long exactly it can remain this way.
In the north of the region, just above Troy and Assos, there is Kazdağı or Mount Ida and its corresponding national park, a ruggedly beautiful escape that has some great hiking and used to feature strongly in ancient Greek legend as a sacred mountain. It was from here that, according to Homer, the Olympian Gods looked upon the Trojan War and where Hera tricked her husband Zeus to help the Achaeans conquer Troy.
The coast around the major metropolis of Izmir, Turkey’s third biggest city, can be nice too. Çeşme has been on the tourist trail for the rich and famous, and people who want to look rich and famous, for years now and though a nice enough place if you want to fit in you may find your face gets a bit sore from all the pouting.
On the way to Çeşme from Izmir a right turn will take you up around Karaburun, a much more low key area with maybe a more alternative vibe. There you’ll find some nice quiet beaches and good hiking. Karaburun (And not Çeşme surprisingly!) is famous for its Narcissus flowers, named after the Greek legend of the same name, with a big flower harvest happening there every January. You’ll find a few small organic crop farms and farmers markets around that area too and as far down as Urla on the way back to Izmir.
The interior of the Aegean region is very much less visited apart from the thermal waters of Pamukkale and the historical Greek ruins of Hierapolis. Outside of there the interior is un-touristy and strongly agricultural, and can give a nice insight into ordinary village and farm life. A lot of olives are grown here as well as tobacco, figs, grapes and cotton.
Farther south around Muğla is where the Aegean region meets the Mediterranean and is another hot tourism area, though you can find some nice, very rural areas too. The town of Akkyaka is very well known for wind surfing and especially kitesurfing and it is around there too that the world famous Lycian Way hiking trail begins.
Moving south with the Lycian Way you will pass by tourist towns like Fethiye and smaller more secluded places like Ölüdeniz, Kabak and the Kelebek Vadesi or Butterfly Valley, and all around there you’ll find yourself amongst some really spectacular scenery as the Aegean is left behind and the Mediterranean region begins.
Mediterranean Turkey, land of the ancient Lycians, has in modern times transformed itself into a tourism monster. Up until Turkey’s political woes started to affect visitor numbers its capital, the city of Antalya was stuffing a staggering 20 million tourists through its airport every year, most of whom would be picked up and dispached to all inclusive resorts along the coast especially the stretch from the city east to Alanya. The scale of development along the Mediterranean coast can be quite extreme, and even if these days the tourist numbers are down, you may be disappointed by the lack of natural beauty until you make the effort to explore off the beaten track. Once done you will find the region also has a lot to offer those who seek a quieter more rural holiday. The world famous Lycian Way hiking trail runs all through here after all, and you’ll find rock and mountain climbing in abundance.
And if you are looking to stay in a city or town but Antalya or Alanya don’t appeal there are other choices too. Kaş for example, to the south west of Antalya, is a laid back small city with a good nightlife that has somehow insulated itself from mass tourism, while smaller villages like Patara and Çıralı, though they too are fairly full of tourists, are peaceful, relaxing places that didn’t require the total destruction of the local environment to make you feel at home.
Beside Çıralı in the slightly larger Olympos, you can wander for hours around some very inspiring ancient ruins, the remains of a 2nd century BC Lycian city that are scattered out around rocky hills that overlook the sea. The towns popularity has increased enormously in recent years though and it seems these days it can’t decide whether it should be some kind of cultural oasis or a semi formulaic backpacker party town and so now it seems to sit uncomfortably between both.
All around the area the sea moves through shades of blue and green and with the tall other worldly mountains behind, some of the views can really stop you in your tracks. And the Lycian history is never far away, you can see the ruins of their ancient capital Xanthos in the Eşen Çayı river valley, and that of their most important sea port of Patara just down the river by the village that still shares its name.
East of Antalya city has long stretches of cotton and fruit farms and much package tourism along the coast. But as you go east again from Alanya the Taurus Mountains run down to the sea in spectacular fashion putting an end to easy hotel development and from there on the terrain is wild and rugged until it breaks around the resort town of Kızkalesi whose beaches have been entertaining Turkish holiday makers for years under the shadow of two Byzantine castles, and with another legend filled 12th century castle standing guard out at sea.
Further east is the flat fertile delta of the Ceyhan river around and beyond which lie the cotton plantations, fruit farms and various industries of the Çukorova region and then the cities of Mersin, a popular seaside resort, and by the banks of the Seyhan River, Adana, a prosperous, busy city which is one of Turkey’s most important, and famous for amongst other things; oranges, and having probably the entire country’s best kebabs.
The Mediterranean region then turns a corner towards the Syrian border at the province of Hatay, a fertile agricultural area with a long and deep connection with the Arab world. It sees few tourists these days but throughout the ages many cultures, not only Arab, have came and left their mark, like at the ancient Roman resort of Daphne near the modern town of Harbiye. Or in the little village of Vakifli, reputed to be Turkey’s last surviving Armenian village.
BLACK SEA REGION
The region starts to stretch out as a series of plains and low hills just east of Istanbul that runs eventually through great mountains and remote valleys that for centuries were almost impassable, and which in some parts left the people and the culture relatively isolated and preserved from some of the great empires that came and went over the centuries, from the Genoese and the Ancient Greeks (It was here that the legend of Jason and the Argonauts originated) to the Seljuks and the Mongols.
Though generally low on tourists, especially foreign tourists there are some places that get most of the visitors. Number one has to be the stunning Sumela monastery outside the city of Trabzon, but there is also the Unesco World Heritage listed city of Safranbolu, the ancient Greek Pontic capitals of Sinop and Amasya, and Amasra with its 14th century Genoese fort.
But beyond that the major attraction are the landscapes; Karadeniz is an area where you can lose yourself in miles and miles of untouched nature and get a sense of tranquility that is a distant memory in most of the tourist trampled South and West. The eastern part particularly is spectacularly isolated around the Hemşin Valley and the Kaçkar Mountains.
It’s not all wild country though, various forms of farming are strong here too, with the Black Sea region being especially famous for feeding two of the Turk’s most hopeless addictions; tea and nuts. So much of the country’s best tea comes from the province of Rize, while the mixed nut mafia are especially strong in the Trabzon area.
And on the subject of food, if you leave the region or indeed the country without tasting some of the very famous hamsi; Black Sea sardines, you may be stopped by customs at the airport and asked to explain yourself…Be warned!
Overshadowed by one of the world’s most important and iconic cities, the rest of the Marmara region really has a hard job even to remind people that it is there. And being honest, for the most part it is an unremarkable, unexciting area, but it is also big enough to contain some very nice places that savvy Istanbulites know to escape to when the big city threatens their mental health.
North of Istanbul, all along the Black Sea coast, is in many areas surprisingly un-spoilt with some nice beaches, forest areas, and small villages with a richly rural character. The beach towns directly above Istanbul can be quite built up though, and can get fairly busy in the summer but farther to the west coastal villages like Kıyıköy and Limanköy are more laid back alternatives, also popular, but not that popular that they are too over run with crowds. While to the east, from the popular resort of Şile towards Kocaeli the area is also beautifully rural with long stretches of typically Black Sea green hills and fertile farm land that continues all the way east to the mountains and eventually the Georgian border.
On the plains of Thrace, where Turkey meets Greece and Bulgaria, the city of Edirne was, before the conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and, even up the 1700’s, it was still one of Europe’s largest cities, with a cosmopolitan population that reflected its great importance as a trading centre. Today Edirne has stopped caring about all that and is a pleasantly unassuming city with a nice historical feel that still offers hints of its grand past.
The area around, Thrace, is generally flat and strongly agricultural with acres of farmland producing, amongst other things, much of the country’s sunflowers and rice. The Thracian coast though generally short on nice beaches, has the village of Erikli and its surrounds which have some very nice beaches, along with what is reputed to be the cleanest water in the region. In the middle of the sea of Mamara too the island of Avşa is fairly popular for swimming.
The area below the Sea of Marmara, from the peninsula of Gallipoli and Çanakkale south towards the Kazdağı mountains is a great area to explore, with some beautiful coastline and in the less visited rural interior, rolling farmland, small villages, forests and mountains. A large amount of, almost exclusively local, visitors make their way to the island of Bozcaada every summer which despite the tourists is a laid back and relaxing destination that, having been Greek for centuries, has much in common with its neighbours just across the sea. It has a nice old town and a few good beaches, though be warned the water is ice cold.
To the south east of the Marmara Sea, hidden among the forests, the extremely popular tourist resort of Yalova struggles to maintain its composure as hordes of visitors both Turkish and foreign make the short ferry trip from Istanbul to enjoy its thermal springs and then to walk around in circles eating ice cream while trying not to bump into each other.
South of there again, Bursa is one of Turkey’s major cities and is a fairly pleasant place with an important history. And it is guarded to the south by the Uludağ mountain, the region’s highest mountain and its corresponding, very popular, national park where there is skiing to be had in winter and some good climbing and hiking at other times through its many forests and meadows. Though on Summer weekends if you have a phobia of other people’s extended family barbecues you might want to plan your route carefully.
In terms of outside visitors Central Anatolia might have been an almost completely overlooked stretch of semi arid land were it not for Turkey’s founding father Atatürk’s decision to build the capital of the new Republic in Ankara and the fairies decision to build their giant chimneys in Cappadocia.
From all the millions of visitors to Istanbul if they are going somewhere else in Turkey a big proportion will make the journey to Cappadocia to see how wind, water and volcanic lava can with time create unique, eerily beautiful, natural art forms.
And it is a place where human hand has, for a change, at least in ancient times, only added to the beauty, with a striking series of churches and monastic dwellings, dating back at least a thousand years, blended carefully into the rocks by early Christians.
Just outside Cappadocia and the city of Kayseri is the towering ex-volcanic mountain of Erciyes, one of Turkey’s highest, and as well as being a popular climbing spot, is also a major winter sports centre.
Outside of that Central Anatolia is surprised to see any tourists at all though some might visit the city of Konya, a byword for the conservative and religious heartland of Turkey, but also with a rich history; Once the capital of the Seljuks it was also the home of the 12th century Sufi mystic Rumi, (Mevlana in Turkish) the inspiration behind the famous Whirling Dervishes (Mevlevi) a performance of which is usually the highlight of a trip to Konya.
Others might make the journey to the very much under appreciated former Hittite capital of Hattuşa, with temples and forts dating back well over two thousand years, which, though technically in the Black Sea Region, is just a short drive north from Ankara.
Tourist attractions may seem to be lacking if we need to steal Hattuşa from the Black Sea but overall Central Anatolia isn’t a place where you should travel with an itinerary. It is generally an unassuming, deeply rural, traditional region where you might meet with more sheep and goats than with the area’s always welcoming people. And though travel in some places is difficult, and distances are long, the joy is in the journey.
Eastern Anatolia is one of those corners of the earth that appears in news stories a lot more than travel stories. As of 2017 some parts of the south east are quite volatile so a bit of advance planning is required. But other than that most of the region is safe, the locals friendly and helpful and it makes for an interesting and rewarding experience.
And the whole region is rich in archaeology, having once being the home of such long forgotten civilizations as the Urartians, the Hurrians and the Hittites, and in later years a complicated series of other empires and peoples, from Romans, Ottomans and Armenians to Georgians, Russians and Kurds. Today the area, and especially the south east, is predominantly Kurdish.
The city and lake of Van to the east would be a relatively popular destination for modern day backpackers and indeed for centuries it was a stop off point for traders along the Silk Routes. The saltwater lake itself, long revered by the dispossessed former Armenian residents of the area, is a spectacular sight, more of an inland sea than a lake, and is surrounded by towering snow capped mountains, the biggest one of all also being Turkey’s highest mountain, the very historical Mt. Ararat. The city itself is more lively than you might imagine, with a passable nightlife and a sadly neglected but atmospheric old town.
High in the mountains of the north, 1760 meters high in fact, Kars feels as isolated and remote as any city in Turkey and with a climate to match. It can get bitterly cold here in winter but it does see the odd visitor in summer, mainly people on the way to see the ruins of the old Armenian capital of Ani about 40km outside the city, as well as the many other random old churches and monasteries that dot the surrounding region.
The south east, around what is known as the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, has an enormous sense of history too, being once the northern edge of the ancient kingdom of Mesopotamia, and since then has seen the coming and going of so many other equally important ancient, and more modern, empires, from the Romans and the Mongols, to the French after WW1. There are many sites of interest like the spectacular riverside ruins at Hasankeyf, the even more spectacular old town of Mardin, and to the east the many old Syriac Otthodox churches and monasteries scattered around the Tür Abdin plateau.
By the River Tigris, the city of Diyarbakır is also relatively well known for its sturdy medieval walls, bazaars, ancient buildings and atmospheric cobblestone streets. It is well known too for being the modern day unofficial capital of the northern Kurdish people. The culture, language and identity is very strong here and that, plus the enticingly medieval feel to the place, makes it a uniquely interesting destination.
Outside the major cities the great, underpopulated hinterland of Eastern Anatolia is a lonely arid place with sometimes great extremes of temperature. Due to the altitude even in summer a baking hot day can be replaced by a very chilly night and every winter much of the region is blanketed by snow making travel by land difficult and time consuming. Though on the flip side you can find some good skiing there; Palandöken near the city of Erzurum for example, or Cibiltepe near Kars.
Farther south, the arid land that was once a poor and difficult place to farm has been made more fertile and productive with the Southeastern Anatolia Project, an irrigation project that diverts water from the Tigris and Euphrates to water the otherwise barren land. Today, all over the area you can see huge stretches of olive groves, vegetable farms and cotton plantations that were once unimaginable. So productive agriculture has returned after possibly millennia, though it might not have been without cost. Many claim it has caused damage to the natural environments of native wildlife plus the areas archaeological heritage, with some, as yet un-excavated sites now possibly buried forever under water. And it is rumored for example that the above mentioned ruins at Hasankeyf will be flooded forever with the next local Dam project around 2019.