Trekking through Turkey: Cappadocia, Ephesus and Kusadasi

A Turkish bath sounded like the perfect antidote for our 12-hour flight from Houston to Istanbul. Luckily, our guide had booked one that very afternoon at one of the oldest hamams in this ancient city. Ayasofa Hurrem Sultan Hamam is a 16th-century temple of bubbles.

After I sit in the sauna on a well-worn marble bench, a masseuse pours cool water over me and gives me a good bubbly scrub. She leads me to the fountain in the center of the room, where I lie down on a marble slab. Then she pours a mountain of bubbles over me before my massage. It’s heaven. After a good rinse, I’m ready to head back to the hotel — my jet lag banished.

Did I mention that everyone at the hamam is naked? It’s uncomfortable at first, but it’s worth a little embarrassment. (And at Hurrem Sultan, men and women are divided into separate baths.)

Our tour group gets acquainted as we venture out for our first dinner in Istanbul, walking through centuries of history in the few blocks between the hotel and the restaurant

Outfitter: Exodus Travels, exodustravels.com

Premium adventure: Nine days from $3,999 (excluding flights); moderate activity; guided group; premium hotels, meals included

Regular walking tour: Eight days from $1,599 (excluding flights); 3-star hotels, meals included

(Update: After a terrorist attack in November, the U.S. State Department has issued a Level 2 travel advisory for Turkey: Exercise increased caution.)

There’s no better way to bond than over a meal — better even than relaxing in the hamam together.

Hamdi Restaurant overlooks the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Asia and Europe. We sit down to a beautiful dinner, starting with a mezze plate of roasted eggplant, yogurt with garlic and mint, hummus, vegetables and muhammara, a spread made of crushed walnuts. Then comes the meat festival — kebabs and köfte. In Turkey, or Türkiye as it is now branded, more than 100 types of kebabs are served. At Hamdi, the lamb and pistachio is my favorite.

Our trek of Turkish treasures via Exodus Travels — Istanbul, Cappadocia, Ephesus, Magnesia and Kusadasi — is off to a promising start.


In Istanbul, we walk the streets of Sultanahmet, the Old City, stopping to imagine the chariot races that once took place in the Hippodrome and the crowds that had once gathered at the Blue Mosque, named for its intense blue Iznik tiles and stained-glass windows. The Hagia Sophia, built circa 532, served as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople, as this ancient city was originally known. The church’s Byzantine dome set new architectural standards in its day. The Orthodox basilica was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years, changing hands as empires came and went. After the fall of Constantine in 1453, the Ottomans converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Our guide, Hande Tumber, explains the history and architecture, pointing out that sitting directly in the center of the dome and looking up is said to bring positive energy. We are feeling it.

From the street, we could hear competing chants from nearby minarets, or “beacons.” Istanbul has 3,000 mosques, many have four minarets; the Blue Mosque has six. The call to prayer, coming from the top of the minarets, reminds Muslims to pray to Allah.

We stop in at the Topkapi Palace, now a museum, to see the Sword of King David, the staff of Moses and Joseph’s turban and to wander through the Sultan’s Garden. In the nearby Grand Bazaar, we score souvenirs, pottery and jewelry on our trip through the maze of shops. (This is where you’ll find high-quality knock-off bags, if you’re into that.) Then it’s off to the airport for our one-hour flight to Cappadocia.


If you’ve seen the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon in Utah or Tent Rocks in New Mexico, you have an idea of what’s in store in Cappadocia. Otherworldly rock formations are a big draw to this ancient area of Anatolia, the peninsula that makes up the Asian portion of Türkiye.

The earthen pyramid shapes are eerily beautiful on their own, but when hundreds of hot air balloons fly over them, the scene becomes breathtaking. I view it from the ground, as the rest of my tour group hits the skies. At the Local Cave House Hotel at dawn’s first light, Instagrammers gather in their gowns to have their photos snapped against a backdrop of balloons. The fairy castle rocks are bathed in shades of pink as the sun rises.

After a safe landing, we head off to a picnic breakfast in Göreme National Park. When we crest the hill behind Wish Cappadocia, a little food trailer tucked in the nature preserve, a blooming field of lavender greets us. The blooms are a soft purple in the foggy morning light. Linens cover cafe tables topped with flowers. Wish serves cherry juice and a mezze plate of breads, spreads, cheeses and vegetables — just what we need before our hike through Rose Valley.

Wild roses and geraniums bloom along the path. The trail travels right through volcanic cone formations with cave dwellings carved into them. Most of the carved spaces along the trail were used to house pigeons, beehives, ovens and kitchens, our guide instructs. Farmers would collect the pigeon droppings for fertilizer.

At the Göreme Open Air Museum, we tour the caves that served as painted churches and monasteries. Many of the faces of the saints have been erased, due to Islam’s prohibition of making images, but some can still be seen in these dark cave churches.

Cappadocia is also home to the historic Saruhan Caravanserai, which served as a hotel for merchants traveling on the ancient Silk Road. Here, we catch a mesmerizing performance of the Whirling Dervishes. The holy men in circular skirts and turbans twirl themselves into a trance, staying in perfect formation as they travel around the stage.

That night, we head back to our boutique hotel, Yunak Houses, which is built into the side of the mountain. My room is cave-like with stone walls that are naturally cool, but it’s impossible to get a signal through the thick stone.

The hotel’s restaurant has several levels with lots of tables outdoors. The deck has an expansive view of Cappadocia’s cone formations, many of which have been turned into cave hotels and homes. Our dinner out on the deck, with flame heaters warding of the cold breeze, feels magical, surrounded by stars and castle rocks.

Although we have signed on for a walking tour, our adventure is limited to about 3 miles a day. Looking back, it feels like we spent twice that time eating.

One of the most memorable meals is one we helped prepare ourselves. Chef Tolga Duran runs a cooking school out of his home in the village of Ayvali, sharing his mother Havva’s recipes and secrets. We chop up onions, peppers and tomatoes for meat-stuffed eggplant. It’s Havva’s version of imam bayildi, an iconic Ottoman dish whose name literally means “the imam fainted.” As the story goes, an imam fainted over the pleasure of the dish.

Havva has been working all morning to prepare the rest of our lunch. We feast on dishes such as chickpea salad, grilled eggplant, red lentil soup, fava beans in tomato sauce, dolmades, spanakopita, baklava, almond cookies and dolaz (goat’s cheese) with honey. The Duran family’s cooking is an art form.

It’s not the only art Cappadocia is known for. We visit Avanos, a town known for its perfect clay and stunning pottery. Master potter Chez Galip demonstrates his pottery wheel, making a vase in a matter of minutes. His gallery is filled with plates and vessels — it’s impossible to leave without one of his signed pieces.

The most popular souvenir? Turkey, of course, is the place to buy rugs. The artistry is incredible, and the government underwrites shipping fees, so you can get a bargain.


The beach resort town of Kusadasi sits on the western Aegean coast. From its restaurant-lined promenade, you can see the Greek islands in the distance over the water. They’re past Pigeon Island, which holds Byzantine castle that once guarded the town. The aquamarine waters remind me of Greece, but we aren’t here to relax on the beach. We’re headed to the most famous ruins in Turkey, Ephesus. History awaits.

After a morning swim in the sea, we board our coach for the 30-minute drive. Ephesus is such an archaeological treasure that you hardly have to use your imagination to envision the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans who occupied the land. It was a prosperous port, a cultural center and home of the Temple of Artemis, which dates back to the Bronze Age, and the Celsus Library whose magnificent façade is fortified by Corinthian columns. Cleopatra and Marc Anthony paraded down the Arcadian Way, which is now packed with tourists. Apostles Paul and John preached in the Grand Theater, trying to convert Artemis’ followers to Christianity. During our visit, an Italian opera company tried out the acoustics of the well-preserved theater, filling its 24,000 seats with song.

Nearby Seven Sages Winery is a beautiful place to sample Turkish wines — as well as artisanal cheeses, breads, dolma, fish and desserts.

After a trip to Ephesus, you would think any other archaeological site would fail to impress. But the ancient city of Magnesia is a fascinating excavation site, sponsored by the Karavan Turkey travel company. We have it all to ourselves. Sitting in the stone seats of the huge stadium, it feels like chariots could charge out at any moment.

Perhaps our guide saved the best for last. Back in Kusadasi, we stroll along the promenade to Kazim Usta Fish Restaurant. Here, seafood takes center stage. We fill up on beautiful mezze plates; grilled calamari; plump sardines; shrimp; and fresh sea bass, called levrek — and that tangy yogurt that goes with everything. As we sit harborside, sharing stories and laughs, as well as dishes, I’m treasuring the taste of Turkey.

Source link