This is part 1 of a four-part review of a tour to Turkey with Flotours. Moreover, this is an older article that has been updated. While Turkey has been having some challenges of late it is still one of the most rewarding travel experiences I have ever had. — the editor —
Turkish hospitality is world famous, and for good reason. The people of Turkey welcome visitors with open arms, a ready smile, and usually some sort of treat to nibble on. I was recently offered my first taste of Turkey at the LA Times Travel Expo in Long Beach, literally and figuratively, at the booth of tour operator Flotours. The woman at the Travel Show offered me Turkish Delight, a delicious gelatin-like treat covered in powdered sugar, and introduced me to the owner of the company. I was immediately impressed by the quality of the information included in their brochure, and the rich history that I realized I had not heard much about since high school history class. The Turkish Delight was delicious as well. I decided then and there to take the plunge and discover the wonders of a culture I knew little about.
Based in Florida, Flotours organizes tours of all kinds to Turkey, including historical, religious, and specialized locational tours. They offer trips that are affordable, with first-rate hotels, modern air-conditioned buses and English-speaking guides that are top notch.
I have not taken many bus trips before, and the few I have attended were less than stellar. Cramped, hot and often overbooked, my memories of Western European bus tours were filled with crowds, tourist-trap junk shops (with appropriate kickbacks to the guides, of course) and a general lack of enthusiasm or professionalism. Hence, I tend to go my own way, buying smaller tours a la carte. This could not be further from the case with Flotours. Not only were they professional, but the guides were like an endless fountain of history, culture and interest in the richness of their homeland.
OK, lets get this over with. The risks in traveling to Turkey are roughly the same as anywhere else in Western Europe in the recent past; this includes pick-pocketing and petty crime as well as the ever-present dark cloud of terrorism, a threat anywhere you travel these days. The bottom line is this: Turks do not hold individual Americans responsible for the war in Iraq. In general, they are an open-minded, secular country and in general, life is good. They have survived centuries of war, both cases of bird flu (yes, only two!) and continuing upset along the Southeast borders of their country (currently, there are State Department warnings about traveling to the Kurdish areas of Southeastern Turkey—please check with your tour operator and plan wisely). Risks aside, I was eager to immerse myself in the rich culture, tradition, hospitality, food and history of one of the world’s most diverse and awe-inspiring travel destinations.
So What is Turkey all About?
In Turkey, you are not just welcome to visit, you are “Most welcome”. It took a while for me to fully understand this cultural phenomenon, as we are conditioned in the West to be friendly, but wary of strangers bearing gifts and value our personal space. In Turkey however, there is a genuine, deep-seated desire to be hospitable, whether you are meeting someone for the first time, sharing a meal or buying a carpet. Our guide for Flotours used this term often, and over the course of our 11 day journey through the country, it became more apparent that “most welcome” is not her saying, but that of the Turkish people.
And We’re Off!
Forward a few months, and I was staged and ready to go out of JFK in New York, bound for Istanbul via Turkish Airlines. I have traveled extensively through Western Europe and parts of Central and South America, Mexico, Scotland, and all over Canada and the United States, but never had I ventured into Asia. Istanbul was to be my first stop, and the beginning of the tour I was about to embark that, in 11 days, would take me all over Western Turkey. It was a relatively fast trip with a lot to cover. The flight was booked as part of a tour package from Flotours; I literally had nothing to do but show up at the appointed time at JFK and board the plane—all else was taken care of by the tour operator.
Seven hours later, I was in Istanbul, a bit bleary but excited to meet up with the tour group. As I walked out of the airport I immediately noticed a young woman standing with a sign for Flotours in prominent, red-white-and-blue colors. I waved, she smiled and I wandered over to the side of the mass of tour operators and cab drivers holdings signs and names to the crowd. I met Yesim, who introduced herself in excellent English. She pointed out a small group of people standing near a snack stand, and mentioned that FLO-USA would be grouping there and leaving as soon as everyone was accounted for. This was a great intro into the thoroughness and organization of Flotours; as the trip progressed, Yesim and the other guides were very careful to account for all of us, counting and herding the group from place to place. I noticed a few people I had seen on the plane, and we said hello to one-another. I was introduced to another guide, Fuat, a polite man with an almost British sounding accent. Once we were all gathered together, we loaded into a large, high-quality tour bus and we were off to the Akgun hotel in the Old Istanbul.
Upon arrival at the hotel, we were greeted by a huge Flotours banner, and two young women at a desk were standing by to welcome us with drinks. Our guides proceeded to announce our itinerary: a meeting to get us all organized followed by dinner at the hotel. The Flotours staff took very good care of the slightly dazed, exhausted group, assigning rooms, keys, and even scheduling wake-up calls for the next day.
After more welcome cocktails, we were introduced to the working staff that would be traveling with us, and given the times and necessary info for the following day. Dinner was fantastic, replete with traditional Turkish fare: mezes, soups, meats, rice and salad. This was my first full Turkish meal, and it was excellent: the foods of Turkey tend to be lightly spiced, with delicious yoghurt sauces and rice dishes balancing out the heavier lamb or chicken. Sated and happy, I closed my eyes and it was morning.
Day 1: Istanbul
Our first day took us to many famous Roman sites including the Hippodrome, where chariot races and other athletic events were held in a long oval. The Byzantine Hippodrome was the heart of Constantinople’s political and sporting life, and the scene of games, riots, and sport through 500 years of history. Not far away is the grand Hagia Sophia, one of the most impressive and important buildings ever constructed. Its wide, flat dome was an engineering masterpiece in the 6th century, and architects still wonder at the building’s forward-thinking innovations. Built on the site of Byzantium’s acropolis by Emperor Justinian (527-65 AD) in 537 AD, Ayasofya was the greatest church in the Christian world until St Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome over one thousand years later. Converted to a mosque almost one thousand years later, and then into an open museum 500 years again, it is hard to believe the incredible history that is saturated within the walls of this ancient church. It is cool and ancient, while just outside the stone walls modern Istanbul is filled with traffic, cellphones and insistent salesmen. What must it have been like in its day?
Across the way, we marveled at the Egyptian obelisk removed from Egypt in the early centuries of the Christian era. Just a short distance away, there is the scarred “Constantinus Obelisk” made of stones, the brass decorations ripped from its surface long ago by thieves.
One of the most interesting aspects of this area of Sultanahmet Square has to be the underground cisterns, gloomy, drippy structures left over from the days of Constantine. The Sunken Palace Cistern is located near the Obelisks, covering some 2.4 acres of space while 336 marble columns holding up the modern city above.
We then traveled to the Sultanahmet Mosque, or “Blue” Mosque. There is not much blue about the blue mosque, most of the blue tiles that give it the name being located high up where it is difficult to see them. Nonetheless, the Sultanahmet Mosque was built in 1603-1617, a marvel of Ottoman architecture located on the site of the former Great Byzantine Palace. The most striking feature are the six minarets and amazing cascade of domes, all decorated in intricate patters and tile work.
Next up on our itinerary was a visit to Topkapi Palace, the former private residence of the great Ottoman Sultans. With hundreds of rooms, four courtyards and an incredible treasury, Topkapi Palace is a destination all its own. The Harem tour was especially interesting: 200+ rooms just for the mother of the sultan and concubines, with heated marble floors and incredible domed roofs and architecture everywhere. Gilt gold covered nearly every available surface, in between the rich tilework and wrought iron done in the kaleidoscopic tradition of the Ottomans.
Our last location in Istanbul was the Grand Bazaar, an indoor “mall” comprised of miles of passageways, 4000+ shops, vendors and men hawking their wares. Not a place for the timid, the salesmen in the Bazaar were attentive, catching my name as I spoke with one of my tour guides. “Jesse, please, thank you, come to my shop. You have not seen any carpets like mine, not until you have seen my shop. Please sir this way.” This occured all over the bazaar, with men seemingly appearing out of thin air next to you, asking you to visit their shop, take a look at their jeans/carpets/jewelry. To a non-shopper like me, it was a bit disconcerting, but there were a few in our group that absolutely love the energy and buzz that you could feel in the air of the bazaar. It was an experience, bested in my opinion by the Spice Market, a lively outdoor section of streets filled with all manner of other stuff. Spices of all colors and flavors were piled high like technicolor sand castles, nuts and fruits stacked next to barrels of olives. All of this was available for sample as well: you simply stop and point, and a scoop is immediately offered to you to taste anything you see. Traveling further down the cobblestone streets, the piles of spices and fruits gave way to meats, then hardware, then clothing and electronics. I joked with my bus mates that you could show up in Istanbul with nothing but some cash and literally buy everything you need, including luggage, right here in the Bazaar and Spice Market.