Things to see in Turkey

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque – Two of Istanbul’s Greatest Treasures

Two not-to-be missed spots in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia (also spelled Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. They are conveniently located near each other in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, which was the heart of ancient Constantinople.

The Hagia Sophia. Without a doubt, this nearly 1,500 year old building is one of the greatest structures ever built. The great Byzantine Emperor Justinian consecrated the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in 537 AD. It was originally a Christian church (the center of the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox church), and became a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

Byzantine Emperors were crowned here for centuries.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The Hagia Sophia became a museum in the 1930’s. Having read some of the history of the Byzantine Empire it was a thrill for me to stand in a place that has witnessed so much history and to take in the massive open space under the dome. It has undergone some modifications over the centuries to help fortify and stabilize the walls due to the weight of the dome over the nave. The main dome is 185 ft high and 104 ft in diameter. Imagine building something like this in the 6th century…

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

The Venetians pillaged the Hagia Sophia in 1204 as part of the very strange 4th crusade, which ended up attacking Constantinople (center of the Eastern Roman Empire) rather than defending the Holy Land. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, you will recognize that the Hagia Sophia plays a role in the story.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

There are a number of beautiful mosaics, a few from the 6th century and many from the 10th century onwards, many of which are on the 2nd floor. I was surprised at how the crowds visiting the Hagia Sophia thinned out when we ventured upstairs into the surrounding gallery.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

Since this is THE sight in Istanbul, the lines can be long. To avoid the lines, get the Museum Pass, which is sold in the plaza near the Hagia Sophia. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the Hagia Sophia and many other attractions.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor's entrance is on this (western) side.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor’s entrance is on this (western) side.

The Blue Mosque. This mosque is another common image of Istanbul and is located just to the south of the Hagia Sophia.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

It is called the Blue Mosque due to the stunning blue tile work in the interior.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

This is a “working” mosque, and therefore visitors are only allowed at certain times of the day around the Muslim worship services.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 – 1616. If you visit, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the Islamic faith by following the guidance/rules (taking off of shoes, women wearing a head covering, etc.). There is no cost for visiting the mosque. Take time to appreciate the artwork and architecture of this huge building.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

Ancient Pergamum – One of Turkey’s Most Dramatic Sites (and the seat of Satan)

How I love going to a new location and seeing another great ancient ruin! As we drove into the modern city of Bergama, we looked up high on a hill behind the city and the first thing we saw is ancient Pergamum’s theater, dramatically situated on a very steep slope. For a map of sites visited in Turkey click here.

The theater at Pergamum. It could seat 10,000 people.

The theater at Pergamum. It could seat 10,000 people.

Exploring the theater at Pergamum.

Exploring the theater at Pergamum.

As usual, the Greeks picked an excellent natural setting for a theater, with a view that extends for miles. The acropolis of Pergamum covers a steep hilltop, and a lot of Greek and Roman civil engineering work went into creating a level building area.

These archways are part of the hillside infrastructure to support the Temple of Trajan and other buildings at Pergamum.

These archways are part of the hillside infrastructure to support the Temple of Trajan and other buildings at Pergamum.

Ruins of the Temple of Trajan, started during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, 98 - 117 AD.

Ruins of the Temple of Trajan, started during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan, 98 – 117 AD.

Another view of the Temple of Trajan.

Another view of the Temple of Trajan.

Pergamum was settled by the Greeks in the 8th century BC, and ruled by one of Alexander the Great’s generals around 320 BC. It became part of the Roman Empire in 133 BC. Pergamum was a great center of learning, and had a huge library of 200,000 scrolls that were (probably unfortunately) given to Cleopatra by Marc Antony as a wedding gift in 41 BC.

Although it doesn't look like much now, these are the ruins of the magnificent library of Pergamum that once held 200,000 scrolls -rivaling Alexandria as one of the great ancient libraries.

Although it doesn’t look like much now, these are the ruins of the magnificent library of Pergamum that once held 200,000 scrolls – rivaling Alexandria as one of the great ancient libraries.

Pergamum (Pergamos) is mentioned in The New Testament, in Revelation 1:11 as one of the seven churches in Asia and as the “seat of Satan” in Revelation 2:13.  Let’s just say he picked one heck of a spot. The reason for the label is probably due to the horrific martyr of Antipas, the bishop of Pergamum in 92 AD (he was roasted to death inside a bronze bull or ox at the Altar of Zeus).

The Altar of Zeus was located where the big tree is. The amazing friezes and other parts of the Altar structure are now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The Altar of Zeus was located where the big tree is. The amazing friezes and other parts of the Altar structure are now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

The ancient city walls of Pergamum, dating at least to 159 BC.

The ancient city walls of Pergamum, dating at least to 159 BC.

Another of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation, Smyrna, is located in modern Izmir. We did not have time to explore Smyrna opting for Pergamum instead. Izmir is more of a “working” city and does not receive a lot of tourists. We found a good restaurant along the harbor front and enjoyed the feeling of being in a “real” Turkish city.

A view along the seafront in Izmir.

A view along the seafront in Izmir.

Practicalities: Pergamum is a pretty easy day trip by car from Izmir, about 2 hours (100 km) north.  Since Pergamum is at the top of a very steep hill, there is a tram that will take you close to the top, or you can drive through the town and up the hill on a narrow road to find a small parking lot near the top. The entry fee is 20 TL per person and parking was 3.5 TL (about 2 TL to the USD as of July 2013).

Red Basilica

In addition to Pergamum, in the town of Bergama is the Red Basilica (Temple of the Egyptian Gods), which dates to the 2nd century AD and was once covered in marble – it must have been quite a sight then and it still is now.  It is huge, and pictures cannot do its immense size justice.

A view of the Red Basilica.

A view of the Red Basilica.

The Red Basilica ruins, still standing from the 2nd century AD.

The Red Basilica ruins, still standing from the 2nd century AD.

Later on, the Byzantines built a church inside the basilica. This was a place where the Romans worshiped the Egyptian Gods. The entry fee was 5 TL.  It’s worth a quick stop here. In addition to these sites, the Asclepieum (or Asklepion, dedicated to the serpent-god Asklepios) an ancient medical center ruin is about 8 km from the acropolis. Time didn’t allow us to stop here either.

References: Signage at Pergamum, DK Eyewitness Travel Turkey and Lonely Planet Turkey.

Ephesus and Kusadasi –Avoiding the Crowds

Temple of Hadrian (123 AD) in Ephesus, built to commemorate the Emperor's visit.

Temple of Hadrian (123 AD) in Ephesus, built to commemorate the Emperor’s visit.

A swastika at the Temple of Hadrian, a common symbol in classical Mediterranean times.

A swastika at the Temple of Hadrian, a common symbol in classical Mediterranean times.

The most popular tourist destination in Turkey (along with Istanbul) has to be Ephesus, located near the western Aegean coast port of Kusadasi. Due to Ephesus’ proximity to the coast, it is a popular cruise ship day-excursion. Be prepared for hordes of tourists. (For a map of major sites we visited in Turkey, click here).

Kurets (or Curetes) Street, a major thoroughfare anciently and today in Ephesus.

Kurets (or Curetes) Street, a major thoroughfare anciently and today in Ephesus.

If you’re lucky enough to have your own transportation you can have the site nearly to yourself by visiting in the late afternoon.  In September of 2012, we had the most famous sight of Ephesus, the Library of Celsus, practically to ourselves around 4:30 pm, what a pleasure!

Robyn and I at the almost deserted Library of Celsus.

Robyn and I at the almost deserted Library of Celsus.

A different view of the Library of Celsus.

A different view of the Library of Celsus.

Detail of the stone work at the Library of Celsus.

Detail of the stone work at the Library of Celsus.

Harbor Street.  At the far end of this street was the seaport, which long ago silted up. This view is from the theater.

Harbor Street. At the far end of this street was the seaport, which long ago silted up. This view is from the theater.

The huge theater at Ephesus, which dates from the 2nd century BC, but most of what we see is from the Roman era.  It could seat 20,000-25,000 people.

The huge theater at Ephesus, which dates from the 2nd century BC, but most of what we see is from the Roman era. It could seat 20,000-25,000 people.

Ephesus in its prime (about 100 AD) was a major seaport (population of about 250,000) and the capital of Roman Asia Minor.  This was an important city of the early Christian Church—the Apostle Paul lived here for about 3 years. He also wrote his famous letter to the Ephesians, as documented in the New Testament. It’s very likely that the Apostle John lived here (the isle of Patmos is about 105 km or 60 miles away) and he may have brought Mary (Jesus’ mother) here. About 18% of the city has been excavated, and the main accessible ruins run along two main streets. For a reasonable visit, plan on at least 2-3 hours.

Another way to avoid the crowds is to visit the Terrace Houses (enclosed to protect the fragile frescoes), right near the Library of Celsus. The Terrace Houses require a separate entry fee (a barrier for many visitors). These ruins were homes of the very wealthy and they reminded me a bit of the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy.

View of the frescoes and mosaics in the Terrace Houses.

View of the frescoes and mosaics in the Terrace Houses.

Another view in the Terrace Houses - note the mosaic floors.

Another view in the Terrace Houses – note the mosaic floors.

The houses had hot and cold running water (amazing), numerous frescoes and mosaics.  They are still doing excavation work on these houses. This separate area was a fascinating part of Ephesus and we were practically the only people visiting these ruins.

Part of Ephesus' plumbing system - must have taken some engineering to get hot and cold water to those wealthy people!

Part of Ephesus’ plumbing system – must have taken some engineering to get hot and cold water to those wealthy people!

The Government Agora, near the "top" of Kurets (or Curetes) street, where many of the sights are located.

The Government Agora, near the “top” of Kurets (or Curetes) street, where many of the sights are located.

Cost:  Car parking at Ephesus was 7.50 TL, the main entry fee was 25 TL, and the Terrace Houses cost another 15 TL. (1.9 TL per USD as of July 2013). Keep in mind there are other places to visit near Ephesus – the reconstructed House of Mary (mother of Jesus), as well as other tombs and ruins.

Since we were on our own driving tour, we spent a couple nights in Kusadasi at a pretty good hotel (Mr. Happy’s Liman Hotel) next to the port and then drove out to Ephesus (only about 19 km).  The area around the port of Kusadasi is quite nice, and we enjoyed wandering around and visiting the local shops, restaurants and a little island fortress just off the shore.

This little island fortress is near Kusadasi's harbor. Nice views from the island, and it can be reached by foot from the shore.

This little island fortress is near Kusadasi’s harbor. Nice views from the island, and it can be reached by foot from the shore.

The port of Kusadasi from our hotel terrace.

The port of Kusadasi from our hotel terrace.

One of our favorite restaurants in Turkey was in Kusadasi.

One of our favorite restaurants in Turkey was in Kusadasi.

There is pretty good beach south of the harbor a couple of kilometers. Don’t rush your visit to this part of Turkey!

References: Lonely Planet Turkey, DK Eyewitness Travel, Turkey.

Pinara – A Lycian Gem

If you enjoy visiting ancient ruins without throngs of people everywhere, check out Pinara, located northwest of Kaş, not too far from Fethiye. This part of Turkey (known as the Lycian Way) is very scenic. (For a map of sites visited in Turkey, click here).

Kalkan Beach, one of the “postcard” images of Turkey. This stunning beach is just west of Kaş, right where the road turns north and inland towards Pinara.

Kalkan Beach, one of the postcard images of Turkey. This stunning beach is just west of Kaş, right where the road turns north and inland towards Pinara.

Pinara was one of the six major Lycian cities (beginning about 7th century BC). The better-known ruins of Xanthos, which was the capital of Lycia, are nearby as well as the ruins of Letoön.

A view of the theater at Pinara from the agora.

A view of the theater at Pinara from the agora.

A free-standing tomb at Pinara.

A free-standing tomb at Pinara.

A view of Pinara from the theater.  The hilltop in the middle of the picture is round, giving Pinara it's name. The hillside is covered with tombs cut into the rock cliffs.

A view of Pinara from the theater. The hilltop in the middle of the picture is round, giving Pinara its name (Pinara means “round”). The hillside is covered with tombs cut into the rock cliffs.

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A closer view of the hillside – note the rock-cut tombs into the hillside. How did they do that?

Pinara is a large site and we moved our car a couple times to different locations to save some hiking back and forth. A short history of the site is posted at the entrance but no map was available. Signs point the way to some of the main ruins, but be sure to hike beyond the area around the first parking lot, since there are numerous hidden ruins along faint trails.

Practical Information

Pinara is about 6 km off the main road (D400). The last 2 km of road is dirt/gravel, which is passable by autos.  There were two caretakers at the site, and basic restrooms.  Bring your own water and snacks. The entry fee was 5 TL (1.8 Turkish Lira per USD). The easiest way to visit is by rental car; a brown sign on the main road marks the turnoff to the site, as with other tourist sites throughout Turkey.

One of the house tombs at PInara.

One of the house tombs at Pinara.

The "Bull-Headed" sarcophagus (note the top of the tomb), near the agora.

The “Bull-Headed” sarcophagus (note the top of the tomb), near the agora.

Allow at least two hours for your visit. A variety of ruins can be explored—a theater, temple foundations, tombs carved out of rock and free standing, an agora, and baths.  We also went up a steep dirt road a few kilometers behind Pinara just to explore the countryside.

I loved this place—the ruins are extensive and interesting, the countryside is scenic, and the fact that there are almost no tourists makes it a great stop.

The temple foundations at Pinara - note the fine stone-fitting work.

The temple foundations at Pinara – note the fine stone-fitting work.

Termessos – A City That Defied Alexander the Great

A view of the theater at Termessos.

A view of the theater at Termessos.

A visit to the ancient city of Termessos is a great half-day trip from Antalya, Turkey.  We visited Termessos in the morning and then took a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean Sea at the Konyaalti Beach Park near Antalya in the afternoon. The ruins are about 35 km inland and sits in a narrow and high mountain valley—the road up to the site is good, although winding and somewhat steep. Anciently, this region was known as Pisidia, and due to the fierceness of the people and its strategic defensive location, Alexander could not conquer Termessos (in 333 BC). The Romans who came later chose an alliance with Termessos rather than risk war in 70 BC.

Part of the gymnasium ruins at Termessos.

Part of the gymnasium ruins at Termessos.

The ruins include a large theater in a dramatic setting, an agora, temples, tombs, a gymnasium, necropolis and remnants of houses.

The Tomb of Alcetas - note the figure on the horse above my shoulder.

The Tomb of Alcetas – note the carved figure on the horse above my shoulder.

A dramatic backdrop for the theater at Termessos, which held 4,000 people.

A dramatic backdrop for the Termessos theater, which held 4,000 people.

Some of the rock-carved tombs at Termessos.

Some of the rock-carved tombs at Termessos.

Practical Information

There are some interpretive signs at the site and also a small map available at the entrance. The ruins are inside the large Termessos National Park, which is known for its abundance of wildlife. At the entrance to the park is a restaurant and small botanical museum.  From the entrance, a 9 km paved road takes you up to the parking area at the base of the ruins. You will see ruins of some buildings and the massive walls on the road up to the site, giving a feel as to how large this city was.

There are toilets at the ruins but no water or snacks, so bring these items with you. It is a bit of a hike from the parking lot up to the main site, which is large, and mostly hidden from view from the base. The trails are fairly steep, so be prepared with good hiking shoes.  I suggest a loop route, going from the parking lot up to the left of the Artemis-Hadrian Temple (as recognized by the large doorway arch) and returning on the trail to the right (or behind the Artemis-Hadrian Temple). This return trail passes a number of interesting tombs in the rock hillside (see picture above).

The Temple of Artemis-Hadrian near the parking area. The trail behind this temple goes up to some tombs.

The Temple of Artemis-Hadrian near the parking area. The trail behind this temple goes up to some tombs.

Due to the climb from sea level, Termessos is definitely cooler than Antalya and was very comfortable in September. The entry fee was 5 TL per person (1.8 Turkish Lira (TL) to 1 USD in 2012).

Konyaalti Beach Park. On your way back to Antalya, stop at this great beach. There was a 4 TL parking fee, but the beach is free. The water and beach were very clean.

Konyaalti Beach - a great way to spend the afternoon after hiking around Termessos.

Konyaalti Beach – a great way to spend the afternoon after hiking around Termessos.

Antalya – The Gateway to the Lycian Way

A view of the old town of Antalya with the blue Mediterranean and mountains in the distance.

From Cappadocia we flew to Antalya (via Istanbul). Antalya is on the southwestern coast of Turkey, and has a beautiful setting, centered on a small scenic harbor with pebbly beaches and mountains nearby. It would be easy to spend a week here, by making Antalya your base for exploring this part of Turkey. We spent two nights at the Atelya Hotel in the heart of the old city (parking is tight in the old town, but the hotel had a smal enclosed parking area). For a map of our locations visited in Turkey please click here.

The beautiful coastline of Antalya. We ate at an excellent restaurant overlooking this beach.

The beautiful coastline of Antalya. We ate at an excellent restaurant overlooking this beach.

Anciently, there were six major cities that made up the Lycian League. The Lycian Way is a pathway that more or less follows the coast from Antalya west to Fethiye, connecting these ancient cities and wandering through the forests and along the coast. We were lazy and made this trip by car.

The interior courtyard of the Atelya Hotel, in the old part of Antalya.

The interior courtyard of the Atelya Hotel, in the old part of Antalya.

Antalya was founded in 159 BC and prospered in the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods. There are remnants from these historical eras scattered around the town including walls, towers, mosques, minarets and gates still standing.

The 13th century Fluted Minaret - a major landmark of Antalya.This minaret was once covered in turquoise tiles.

The 13th century Fluted Minaret – a major landmark of Antalya.This minaret was once covered in turquoise tiles.

Hadrian's Gate - built to honor the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD. Located at the eastern edge of the old city.

Hadrian’s Gate – built to honor the visit of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 130 AD. Located at the eastern edge of the old city.

The Hidirlik Tower in Karaalioglu Park, a Roman lighthouse.

The Hidirlik Tower in Karaalioglu Park, a Roman lighthouse.

Take time to explore Karaalioglu Park, set on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean just to the east of the old town.  This side of town is quieter than the western side and has some good restaurants and interesting streets to wander. Antalya is a pretty big city (with a very nice modern airport), but once you’re in the historic area it feels more like a quaint town.

Near Karaalioglu Park. In September, it felt like Spring in Antalya.

Near Karaalioglu Park. In September, it felt like Spring in Antalya.

Antalya's old town shopping area.

Antalya’s old town shopping area.

A house in Antalya's old town - in need of some siding repair!

A house in Antalya’s old town – in need of some siding repair!

Nearby are beaches, waterfalls, and many historical sights. Inland (about 35 km) up in the mountains is the massive ancient Pisidian city of Termessos (which we’ll cover in another post). From Antalya you can work your way westward along the coast (the Lycian Way mentioned above)—with numerous ancient ruins and stunning natural scenery, and of course eastward to the grand restored Roman theater of Aspendos and the city of Side. I would seriously consider returning to Antalya and exploring more of this beautiful part of Turkey.

The Ihlara Valley– A Canyon with Byzantine Rock-Cut Churches

The Cappadocia region of Turkey is full of amazing sights and one of them is the Ihlara Valley, located about 80 km southwest of Göreme, Turkey, which was our home port in Cappadocia.

The entrance to the Ihlara Valley.

The Ihlara Valley is 80 km southwest of Goreme.

Since there is so much to see in Cappadocia, we almost bypassed this valley and I’m very glad we didn’t.  A great day trip from Göreme is to go to Derinkuyu (one of the underground cities in the area) in the morning (about 35 km south of Göreme), and then visit the Ihlara Valley in the afternoon. We beat the crowds to Derinkuyu (see my separate post on Derinkuyu) since they stop at Kaymakli underground city first. We then drove out to Ihlara, and had the valley and rock-cut churches pretty much to ourselves.

There are numerous churches cut into the canyon walls (note the opening in the lower right of the picture).

The churches cut into the sides of the canyon walls date from the 11thcentury, carved by Byzantine monks.  There were originally 60 churches in the valley. Many of the churches contain frescoes, but some are badly damaged (not surprising given the 1,000 years of history and open access to tourists). The DK Eyewitness guidebook says that there are only 10 or so churches open, however, it appeared to us that at least 15 were open.  We visited 6 churches in just a couple hours working our way up one side of the river towards Ihlara and back towards the stairway on the other side of the canyon.

The entrance to Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

The large main chapel of Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

Ceiling detail of Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

Another large room in Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

The frescoes of Kokar Church, Ihlara Valley.

Another room, Kokar Church, Ihlara Valley.

The landscape driving out to Ihlara in September is pretty brown and dry, reminding me a bit of the Wyoming landscape with rolling hills (but with more farming fields and no sage brush!). As we arrived at the small town of Ihlara, the canyon all-of-a-sudden appeared below us with green foliage and the small Melindiz River running through it. It’s a completely different world from the surrounding area, and the beauty of the canyon with the availability of water is probably why the Byzantine monks a thousand years ago chose this spot. Even though the official name is the Ihlara “Valley,” “canyon” is a much more appropriate term for this narrow gorge.

Walking along the green, shady valley floor–Ihlara Valley.

The rooms of Egritas Church (note the tombs in the floor), Ihlara Valley.

Tomb in Egritas Church, Ihlara Valley.

The canyon is 15 km (about 9 miles) long and runs from the town of Ihlara on the south end to the town of Selime in the north. We entered from the midpoint entrance on the west side where there is a large parking lot, a ticket office and snack shop. A good stairway (360 steps) winds down into the canyon from the rim. From the canyon floor, one can either walk along the dirt path on the near side visiting the churches or cross the bridge over the river and visit the churches on the far side going north and south.  The churches are sign-posted on the main trail and most are just a short scramble up side paths a hundred feet or two up into the cliffs. There is a restaurant about midway between the two ends of the canyon, on the valley floor, to the left after you descend the stairway.

Entrance to Purenliseki Church, Ihlara Valley.

Some of the churches and rooms on the canyon walls are not accessible, such as these.

It cost 3 TL per car to park and 8 TL (1.8 TL per 1 USD) per person to visit the valley. Selime Cathedral area is included in the ticket and should not be missed (see my separate post on Selime Cathedral).

Ten Things That Make Turkey a Great Vacation Destination

We just returned from two weeks in Turkey and had a fabulous time. Our vacation was really three separate trips: Cappadocia, Southwest Mediterranean Coast, and Istanbul. Here are some things to know before you go.

Our primary destinations in Turkey (two week trip). We flew to Kayseri (near Goreme), then to Antalya on the south coast and drove west around the coast up to Izmir. Then, flew from Izmir to Istanbul.

  1. So Much To Do. We could have stayed a week in each location we visited rather than a day or two. Between the natural scenery and historical sights, it would be easy to spend a week in one spot. In some cases we spent a couple nights, and in others just one night. Especially along the coast, with the multitude of beaches, possible boat trips and islands, there is a lot to see and do. I don’t’ regret our itinerary, I just wish I’d had a month instead of two weeks for this trip. It’s just a trade off as to how much ground you want to cover in one trip.

    The tour boat docks in Kas. The boats go to islands, coves, sunken ancient cities for half or full day trips.

  2. Amazingly Friendly People. The Turkish people were some of the most helpful and friendly people we have met anywhere. In Göreme (Cappadocia), we arrived very late at night via a car rental from Kayseri, and Google Maps failed us in finding our hotel. We met a couple gentlemen and they had us follow them to our hotel to make sure we knew where it was. In another location, people gave us fresh vegetables from their garden, as we stopped for gas and visited with them for a few minutes.

    Our friend in Herakleia with my mother-in-law showing us around the ruins (and selling nice scarves).

  3. Taking the Road Less Traveled. It’s easy to get around Turkey by rental car. Historical/tourist sights are well marked with brown signs (like many in the US). Roads and directions in general are well-marked. Many roads are being upgraded, so be prepared for some construction. I had heard stories about crazy Turkish driving habits, but didn’t find it much different than Italy, for example. Having your own transportation will allow you to visit many sights before or after the crowds. We had the Library of Celsus (Ephesus) pretty much to ourselves in the late afternoon. Gasoline and diesel are expensive, however, around $10 US/gallon. While there aren’t many toll roads, don’t get on them without first getting a toll card available from gas stations. I learned the hard way, paying a $25 US fine for a $1 toll.

    Typical road construction in Turkey

    Road signs in Turkey – easy to follow, and sights were well-marked.

  4. Blow Your Socks Off Scenery. How about mountains, pine trees, picnic areas and Roman ruins all nestled around three perfect bays with turquoise clear water and perfect for swimming? Phaselis Beach and ruins (about 60 km west of Antalya) was one example of the incredibly scenic Turkish coast.

    One of the scenic bays at Phaselis.

  5. Excellent Food and Restaurants. The Turks love grilled meats and fish dishes. In addition to good Turkish cuisine, we ate some excellent Indian dishes and pastas. We found restaurants open from about 11 am throughout the day, making eating whenever you want very easy. Salads were fresh and most dishes were served as an art form.

    Another gourmet meal in Pamukkale.

  6. Accommodation Options.  Our accommodations averaged about $75 US per night for two people for decent rooms. Breakfast was included everywhere, no additional charge. Most locations had beautiful terraces where one could enjoy breakfast or dinner taking in the beautiful  scenery.

    The view from our hotel in Kas on the south coast of Turkey (the island in the left side of the picture is part of Greece).

    Typical breakfast spread–fruits, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, cheese, breads, some sliced meats, hard boiled eggs, and chocolate cold cereal – not sure why chocolate is so popular!

    Our comfortable room at the Venus hotel in Pamukkale.

  7. Religious Tolerance & Moderation.  We often get asked “is it safe?” Short answer:  Yes! While Islam is the predominant religion (be prepared to get woken up every morning a 5 am for the call to prayer), the people are very tolerant of other religions. One sees a variety of dress on the streets—from very conservative Muslim dress to very Western styles.

    A popular style in Turkey–head scarves and long trench coats–even in 80 degree F weather!

    A woman in more traditional Islamic dress.

  8. A Turkish Bath.  We got our first (and only) Turkish Bath experience in Kuşadasi. It was a mixed bath (men and women), and pretty modest. It is a multi-part process—sauna, exfoliation, soaping and rinse. Some baths have separate facilities for men and women. The person doing the scrubbing works you over pretty hard—be prepared for some bruises as they work the muscles! It was a fun experience.

    A Turkish Bath house in Kusadasi.

  9. A Balloon Ride in Cappadocia. I’m thinking that most other balloon rides would be boring now. Our balloon ride over the unique Cappadocian landscape was a never-to-be forgotten experience. I will say more about this adventure in a separate post. Save your pennies, the ride is not cheap, about $130-150 US/per person.

    The stunning landscape of Goreme, Cappadocia seen from our balloon.

  10. Awesome Weather. We visited in September. Every day was perfect—sunny and clear. While the Mediterranean coast was warm (mid-upper 80’s F) the humidity was low, and the water was perfect for swimming. We read in our travel books about mosquitoes and were prepared with repellant but didn’t notice any mosquitoes (and few bugs of any kind).

Also, Turkey is not a cheap country, many prices are stated in Euros, especially in Istanbul. There are entry fees at almost every historical and tourist site and those add up over time. It would be great if the Turkish government created some sort of membership pass for the historical locations for tourists, since they have a pass for nationals. Please note that there is a pass available (“Museum Pass”, good for 72 hours once activated) in Istanbul that covers the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Harem, Chora Church, and two museums. In addition to saving a little money, it allows you to bypass the ticket and entry lines and go right into the site. There is a booth to purchase the pass right next to the Hagia Sophia, it costs 72 TL (1.8 TL = 1 USD).