The first image that came to my mind when thinking about Turkey was a blue sky filled with hot air balloons flying over the beautiful valleys and fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. I was itching to go and see this spectacular scenery with my own eyes. Luckily I did and even managed to book a balloon flight and seeing one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life (pictures below!). Despite all the beauty the country has to offer, unfortunately for the past few years tourism in Turkey has decreased following the attempted coup and terror attacks of 2016. When telling other travellers I met in Morocco that Turkey was my next step the most common reaction was: “Yeah it looks lovely but I would be a bit scared about going there right now.” Well here’s your first takeaway from this post: Turkey is safe, beautiful and welcoming. The only risk I encountered was food coma, because resisting the delicious Turkish eats is hella hard.

My Itinerary

My Initial plan was to stay in the country 21 days and then fly directly back to Italy. As usual I didn’t plan too much ahead and I’m glad, because I met some amazing people and we ended up travelling together, ditched our plans, decided to cross the country and go to Georgia afterwards. This is how I eventually spent my time in the country:
1. Istanbul (6 Days)
2. Pamukkale (1 Day)
3. Cappadocia (6 Days)
4. Tuz Golu and Ankara (1 Day)
5. Dogu Ekspresi (1 Day)
6. Kars (1 Day)

To see the itinerary in detail visit my Polarsteps

Istanbul

Hands down The. Most. Beautiful. City. I’ve. Visited. When I got off the bus in Sultanahmet, saw Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque I was in awe. You know how in Rome you have something marvellous at every corner? Well same! But Istanbul is also transcontinental, so you can go from Europe to Asia in a heartbeat and on top of being capital of the Roman/Byzantin empire was also capital of the Ottoman Caliphate, so the mix of Islamic, Christian, Ancient Roman/Greek, and modern architecture means your jaws are going to constantly drop as you walk around the city. No wonder Napoleon said: “If the Earth were a single state, Constantinople would be its capital”. The greatest example of the mix is Ayasofia: former Orthodox Cathedral, then Mosque and now a museum:

Ayasofia
Ayasofia
Ayasofia

Opposite to Ayasofia you can find the Blue Mosque, the culmination of two centuries of Ottoman Mosque development:

Blue Mosque
Blue Mosque

Another must see is the Galata Tower. I was lucky enough to climb it right after sunset and had the chance to see a 360° view of the city at dusk, whilst hearing the calls to prayer coming from the speaker of every Mosque. Definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Galata Tower
Galata Tower

Another area that in my opinion can’t be missed is Ortaköy: Locals told me it’s become more and more popular with tourists and for a good reason. An afternoon walking around the shores, grabbing an ice cream or a Turkish tea (Çay) there is surely time well spent. The Ortaköy Mosque is a beautiful example of Neo-Baroque style and borders the waters of the Bosphorus, one of the most important waterways in history. The view of the Mosque with the bridge behind sums up the beautiful juxtaposition of traditional and modern of the city and a reminder that you are right in between Asia and Europe:

Ortakoy Mosque
Ortakoy Mosque
Ortakoy Mosque
Ortakoy Mosque

Istanbul is HUGE. 18 million people live there, some of my friends who grew up there told me they haven’t visited all the areas, however at least for me 6 days were enough to visit the main landmarks, try the delicious food, soak up the vibes of beautiful neighbourhoods like Kadıköy and Beşiktaş, have a night out in Taksim, explore the beautiful and colorful Balat, visit Topkapi park and palace, Dolbahmace Palace, get lost in the Grand Bazaar, try the delicious Iskender, Baklavas, Piddaj and as much street food as I phisically could. My advice is to focus on one or two areas a day to make the most of your time. I was always carrying my 35mm and had my camera ready to shoot, be it a detail of a beautiful building or an everyday life scene, looking at some of my pictures takes me back to this pulsating metropolis that exudes life, where Europe and Asia meet. Unfortunately images alone can’t really bring back the vibes, smells and sounds that you can find only there, so you should definitely go and visit yourself

Islamic Architecture
Islamic Architecture
Wudu
Wudu: Ablution ritual performed by Muslims before prayer

Pamukkale

The word Pamukkale translates to “The Cotton Castle”. This little village close to the town of Denizli takes its name from calcium carbonate travertines filled with blue hot spring water. The landscape really is staggering: these white formations stretching for 2.5 km really stand out against the Turkish green countryside. I arrived in Pamukkale on a Saturday night and since I visited at the end November it was low season and it felt like a ghost town. I had the whole hostel for myself and the only people I’ve seen at night were the staff of Kayas wine house (which I highly recommend, since unlike most places in town, it’s not a tourist trap). After grabbing a delicious dinner there, I got up early the following morning to visit the Travertines and the nearby Roman ruins of Hierapolis. I was glad it was so quiet, because for a few hours it wasn’t too busy and had time to shoot without worrying about having crowds in my frame. The white of the travertines, the vapours and the deep cerulean of the pools offer a very unique scene. Some of the other few tourists in town booked a paraglide ride, I don’t know who they are but I must thank them for this shot, as I love the composition with the paraglide in it:

Pamukkale
Pamukkale
Pamukkale
Pamukkale

You won’t really need more than a day in Pamukkale as the travertines and Hierapolis take only a few hours.

Cappadocia and Tuz Golu

Pamukkale: “I’m such an unique and strange place”
Cappadocia: “Hold my beer.”

After a long night bus from Denizli I finally made it to Göreme. This little 2000 people town is used as a base by tourists to visit this fairytale region. I arrived at around 6.45 in the morning, so I immediatly got off the bus and started hiking up to Love Hill, the most famous viewpoint to watch the balloon flights at sunrise. Only when I made it there and watched the hot air balloons flying over the beautiful fairy chimneys I realised how magical this place is.

Hot Air Balloons over the Fairy Chimneys
Hot Air Balloons over the Fairy Chimneys
Hot air balloons
My Ecstatic Self, Forgetting I just spent 8 hours on a bus. Happy AF

As soon as the balloons stopped flying everyone else left the hill but I decided to hang out there a bit more and I’m glad I did. Once the sun went up, the light got harsher and added a lot of contrast to the valleys, making the landscape and the rock formations way more dramatic. Fun fact: People live inside those chimneys. Most hotels and restaurants in Göreme are carved inside them.

Fairy Chimneys
Fairy Chimneys
Fairy Chimneys
Fairy Chimneys

After a couple of coffees and a delicious Gozleme up in the hill, I went straight to the hostel to have a nap and get ready for a bit of hiking.

Göreme is surrounded by a few valleys, each of them is unique in its own way for the different strange formations. In half day you can easily start in Göreme, hike in the Love valley, get to the close village of Uçhisar (the highest point in Cappadocia, with a beautiful castle on top) and go back to Göreme through the Pigeon valley

Uçhisar Castle
Pigeon Valley

After all the hikes, is worth spending a few hours to go and visit the underground city of Kaymakli, one of the 36 underground cities in Cappadocia, the ancient inhabitants of Kaymakli were able to literally hide the city when the enemies would get closer and disappear inside a mountain to keep safe.

Underground City
The communal city Kitchen, -3rd floor in Kaymakli

It’s on the way back from Kaymakli that one of my favourite things about backpacking happened: The other guys I met in Istanbul and reunited with in Cappadocia decided to ditch their plans and come to Georgia. They were going to leave that same night, so we decided to meet again in Ankara to make our way towards the border the following days.

Once back to the hostel I decided to book a balloon ride for the next day. It’s fairly expensive for a backpacker but every place has a “thing” and sometimes you just want to do “the thing” while you’re there, because you don’t know if you’ll ever get the chance again. So I booked the balloon ride and I was in for the most beautiful sunset of my life, at 1000m in the air:

Cappadocia
Balloons flying over Cappadocia
Cappadocia
Balloons Flying Over Cappadocia

On the way to meet up with the guys in Ankara I stopped at Tuz Gölü (the salt lake), dubbed Turkey’s best kept secret. It’s the second largest lake in Turkey and yet doesn’t really get much love from tourists as other more popular destinations. It was raining, windy and cold, walking to the middle of the lake and getting my feet wake to catch a decent long exposure and reflection was rather uncomfortable but I couldn’t help myself.

Lake Tuz
Lake Tuz

Doğu Ekspresi

Once reunited with the others in Ankara we jumped on the Doğu Ekspresi, a 24h train that crosses the whole country (approx. 1300km in 24h). There are 2 different variants of the same ride: One is the touristy train, which stops at a few places and is generally more comfy (Costs around 75€) and the cheap one for locals (less than 10€), we chose the second one and although it was a very uncomfortable ride the sceneries and landscapes the train goes through are definitely worth it. It’s a spectacular, cheap adventurous way to cross the country and get to the city of Kars if you’re planning to cross the border and go to Georgia afterwards.

Dogu Ekspresi
Dogu Ekspresi

After we arrived in Kars we tried to make our way to Georgia.

Turkey is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries the world has to offer. Despite the media and western governments scaremongering, the picture painted by people who’ve visited is one of a safe, hospitable country. Go see its otherwordly beauty and spread the word. It’ll be worhty.

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