Having always travelled independently, group touring was a new concept to me. I must admit I had preconceptions of shuffling along behind a guide with a big red flag and following a structured itinerary...I'm happy to say that I was proved very wrong! It was all so relaxed. My group was made up largely of solo travellers with a few couples. They were all like-minded, friendly and ready to delve into a new country. Travelling in a group meant I never once felt unsafe and it allowed me to try things I would never have experienced on my own - a table laden with every meze you could dream of, an evening of relaxation with a nargileh pipe, or taking home pictures of Pamukkale as my camera failed to work that day!
Travelling with a local guide was priceless. There were no language barriers to overcome and our itinerary ran flawlessly. Our tour leader had 5 years of experience, was on the ball, very knowledgeable and good fun. As he understood both Turkish customs as well as our own, he was able to advise us with respect to local etiquette. For example, don't clap at the end of a Whirling Dervish ceremony! His organisation meant that everything connected together beautifully so we could all enjoy our experience. Plus he always knew the best spots to eat at!
'Turkey Adventure' travels from Istanbul to Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus, the seaside town of Ayvalik, Gallipoli and back to Istanbul using a combination of private minibuses, public buses and one rumbling overnight train. The public buses were comfortable with plenty of leg-room. There was a 'bow-tied' host who would wander up and down the aisle handing out snacks and drinks. Our itinerary ran smoothly due to the bus driver's very strict time keeping! The night on the train was spent in lockable cabins - four to a cabin. The conductor provided each passenger with bedding and a pillow, and each carriage included a washroom and toilet.
All our hotels were ensuite, well located and only a short walk from the main attractions. Travelling on a grassroots adventure holiday, I expected to stay in basic accommodation so I was pleasantly surprised to find my room equipped with hairdryer and TV when I arrived in Istanbul!
There is nothing like Istanbul on a sunny day! It is an exciting place to be and there are sites and activities to keep you occupied for a lot longer than the one day I had here - I would definitely recommend a little extension. The hotel was located in Sultanahmet just a 5-10 minute walk from the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar. The ferry port is even closer, if you feel like a cruise across the Bosphorus and into Asia. I could people watch through the labyrinthine winding streets in the Bazaar district all day and ended up getting so lost that it didn't matter!
At Pamukkale we took off our shoes and set off up this dazzlingly white calcite formation. The sun-bleached hill looks like exaggerated cartoon snow. But far from being cold, you will splash through hot pools and streams as you wind your way up! At the top is Hierapolis, a ruined Roman settlement that has been taken over by nature. Walking through the tumbled buildings, now covered in lichens and surrounded by patches of yellow and red flowers, is a surreal experience. You can even see the eroded pathway where Roman chariots would course down the main street.
We arrived early at this incredibly well-preserved Roman city and had the entire site to ourselves for an hour before the bulk of the tourists arrived and took away its mystical atmosphere. It has been taken over by playful cats since its Roman occupation and is so stunning I could not stop taking photographs!
For me the highlight of the trip was Cappadocia. Its bizarre and beautiful landscapes were formed due to the cooling effects of a huge volcanic eruption. A 9km hike allowed us to view this scenery in all its glory including 'Fairy Chimneys' (tall pinnacles of rock), a honeycomb shaped castle, inhabited caves, vineyards and valleys. Göreme, the main town, is a traveller's paradise. There is so much to do, the most popular activity being a dawn hot air balloon ride, which is an absolute must. Otherwise the open air museum, quad biking, horse riding, mountain biking and endless valleys to explore could keep you occupied for days! And in the evenings you can relax in some of Göreme's tempting 'bean-bag' bars.
Before I'd even left the airport on arrival in Istanbul, I had built a strong impression of the Turkish people, which was only enforced throughout my stay. The Turkish people have strong family values, with children at the centre of their lives, which was very refreshing and touching to see. They are an open, friendly, extremely hospitable people, and always happy for a chat. You will be invited to for tea and stopped in the street by curious locals offering help if you look even remotely lost.
It is so important to preserve the environmental and cultural heritage of the countries we visit. Our guide gave us tips to minimise the negative impact of travellers, including refilling larger water bottles in favour of repeatedly purchasing small ones, to reduce plastic waste. We were also advised to ask permission before taking photographs of people, and guided on etiquette and dress, for example, when visiting religious buildings. We used public transport for the bulk our travel and ate and slept in local, family-run establishments that were a good reflection of the places that we stayed in. I loved this way of travel and as a result, I felt I'd had a really authentic Turkish experience.
The general consensus throughout the group was that this trip was a culinary delight. For lunches we were free to sample local choices from street stalls or cafés. At times we would be travelling during lunch, in which case we would take a break at one of the many rest-stops where a quick bite could be purchased from a bain-marie of traditional Turkish dishes. Our tour leader would often give us a few options for dinner, in family-run restaurants where it was possible to sample the regional dishes. Dinner would generally start with a selection of mezes and fresh bread. It was always a challenge to save room for the main course which would usually involve fresh fish or one of Turkey's famous kebabs, which came in so many styles: şiş, döner, köfte, testi, iskender and other local forms. Turkish cooking classes were booked, recipe books were purchased and we all gained a little weight!
All entrance fees to the itinerated highlights were included, accommodation was great and the ground we covered in only 10 days was incredible. Plus our group number meant that we could negotiate good deals in restaurants. If I had tried to arrange such a trip on my own in the same short amount of time, I'm sure I would have failed miserably. There would have been miscommunications, missed buses and unfortunate touting experiences galore. 'Turkey Adventure' gives you a chance to see some of Turkey's major highlights in a limited time with a good mixture of set activities and free time. It is fast-paced and bursting with activities. For these reasons I would rate 'Turkey Adventure' highly and definitely good value.
Overall, the activities and sights were amazing and everything that I wanted them to be, but apart from these, the surprising little discoveries we made along the way really completed this trip: Drinking Salate from a vendor while taking in the sounds of Sultanahmet at night; chatting to locals in a café over hot black çay; watching fishermen playing backgammon in the sleepy town of Ayvalik. These were the moments that made the trip memorable and really let us get under the skin of the country. Overall we had a blast, and I would definitely do it again.
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