IstanbulDominick MerleBy Dominick A. Merle

If space travel is out of your range, try here. This is probably as close as it gets to the lunar surface, an “unearthly” setting worthy of anything that Speilberg or Lucas ever brought to the big screen.

We are in central Turkey, in the region known as Cappadocia where Mother Nature has created a vast wonderland of conical “rock towers” that form a bizarre skyline. Some formations look like huge tents, others like space rockets about to be launched, and still others like Whirling Dervishes – those mysterious dancers who spin themselves like tops for up to an hour – and who actually come from this region.

It took millions of years to form this spectacular and eerie landscape, and it all began with three volcanoes perched atop the three highest peaks. Numerous eruptions as far back as 10 million years ago covered the area in ashes, which hardened into a soft, porous rock called tuff. Over the centuries, high wind and water eroded the tuff into the free-standing cones, domes and other geological freaks of nature that we see today.

Perhaps the most outlandish formations appear where boulders seem to balance precariously at the very tips of the rocks. The hat-like boulders, along with adding yet another distinctive touch to this strange land, also protect the soft platforms underneath from erosion.

Cappadocian legend has it that fairies or angels carried the huge rocks to the top, and these structures are now commonly referred to as “fairy chimneys.”

But it is fact, not legend, that the first settlers, among them the Hittites, created shelter out of these formations by hollowing out the soft rock, and the Byzantine Christians were using them as hideouts back in the 1st century when they were fleeing the Romans.

GoremeTurkish Tourism and Culture OfficeThe Christians also carved a large religious community out of these rocks and it is perhaps the most amazing attraction of this amazing land. It is known locally as the open-air museum and is situated on the outskirts of the village of Goreme.

There were once 356 churches in this monastic complex, one for each day of the year. About 30 are still open to the public. It is a staggering sight to come upon from the narrow roadway, and takes the better part of a day to explore.

In addition to the natural oddities on the surface of Cappadocia, what lies beneath the soil is just as intriguing, although man made. A few miles away from the open-air museum, where the land flattens, more than 50 cities have been discovered that were dug directly out of the stony underground. The Hittites are believed to have dug the first levels, while the Byzantines once again added the lower levels as hiding places during times of war.

The underground cities contained chapels, schools, communal kitchens, wineries, wells and ventilation shafts, which were often sealed when discovered by invading armies.

Leaving Cappadocia, we drove back to Ankara and visited some of its attractions, including the famed Attaturk Mausoleum, before boarding the train back to Istanbul, which to me is one of the most under-rated cities in the world.

Straddling the continents of both Europe and Asia, Istanbul’s main tourist attractions continue to be the great palaces of the Ottoman Sultans, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the vast marketplace known as the Covered Bazaar with its more than 4,000 shops, the colourful and aromatically intoxicating Spice Market, the Hagia Sophia Museum and, of course, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) with its distinctive six minarets.

IstanbulDominick MerleBut Istanbul is much more. It is a boat ride down the Bosphorus between the two continents, hopping off and having a fresh fish lunch. It is walking through any of the six or seven downtown areas (there is no one central core) and waiting for the next surprise. It is visiting one of the colourful residential-business areas underneath one of the bridges, and never knowing it was even there.

This new and old city of 10 million people can fascinate you for a week or more – with clean air to boot, because of the strict anti-pollution laws on vehicles.

EphesusTurkish Tourism and Culture OfficeFrom Istanbul, we flew to Izmir on the Aegean Coast to visit Turkey's No. 1 tourist attraction, the awesome ruins of Ephesus. “Is there any city larger than this?” wrote Saint John the Evangelist, who, it is said, came to Ephesus with the Virgin Mary after Jesus had been crucified.

At the time, Ephesus was the second biggest city in the Mediterranean, surpassed only by Alexandria. By the 5th century A.D., however, silt had completely filled the harbor, and disease and pillage turned Ephesus into a ghost town.

But during the last half-century, archaeological teams have been at work uncovering this once great city of 300,000 people, beginning with the well-preserved 25,000-seat theatre, the remnants of an avenue of pure marble and, the star of this restoration project, the majestic library (2nd Century A.D.) which is still intact.

On a nearby hill (Mt. Nightingale) is a small home where Christians believe the Virgin Mary spent the last days of her life. Today, it is a pilgrimage sanctioned by the Vatican and visited by Christians from all over the world.

FastFacts
• Visas are required and can be obtained at the nearest Turkish Embassy or Consulate, or on arrival in Turkey. The fee is about $50.
• A service charge of 15 per cent is included in most hotel and restaurant bills, but an additional 10 per cent is customary for good service.
• Bargain, but politely, at all shops. It is a way of life here.
• The Turkish lira is about par with the U.S. dollar.
• From November to March, temperatures can be near freezing during early morning and late evening. Dress in layers. Throughout the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant and sun-filled.

More Turkey
For more information, visit the Turkish Tourism and Culture Office at www.tourismturkey.org or www.goturkey.com.


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