Travels in Turkey

by Steve Bragg

"Do you speak English?"

"Oh yes sir!" said the car rental clerk.

Thank goodness.  I sagged against the counter in relief.  This trip to Turkey was not planned, and I did not speak Turkish.  Greece had become boring, so I had turned in the rental car and taken a 737 flight to Turkey.  The plane landed at Yesilkoy, located in the province of Thrace, about thirty miles west of Istanbul.

I rented a shiny green Renault, loaded several dirty duffel bags into the trunk, and got on the highway.  Turkey has the highest per capita automobile death rate in Europe.  I found out why the rate was so high; many vehicles were trucks, and the truck drivers acted as though cars were only allowed on the road at their sufferance.  On the highway into Istanbul, several trucks crowded me into the emergency lane as they roared past, belching choking clouds of exhaust fumes.

Turning off the highway, I puttered down a broad boulevard.  On either side rose the legendary walls of Constantinople (now renamed Istanbul).  These ramparts are four miles long, twelve feet wide, and 43 feet high.  Unfortunately, the walls have been blasted aside to make room for the boulevard I was driving along, as well as for several other streets.  A multitude of garden plots clustered under the walls; earthquakes had heaved up the foundations, forcing open crevices in the sagging stone, through which vines crept.

I needed to convert money into Turkish Lira and stopped at a bank.  Banks are easy to find; for some reason, half of all advertisements are for banks.  Exchanging money took lots of time.  A clerk peered closely at my passport, trying to pronounce "Massachusetts."  Giving up, he passed me along to the inner sanctum, where I filled out several forms.  I then retired to the waiting area, where another clerk copied the forms with an antique mimeograph machine.  A young boy moved slowly through the bank, offering small cups of Turkish coffee ("Kahve") to customers.  I assumed that it would be impolite to refuse, so I accepted a cup.  The brew was pungent enough to curl my nose hairs.  I smiled politely at the little fellow, who stood waiting to take the empty cup.  Realizing that I was stuck, I took a tiny sip and handed back the rest.  Still trying to smile, I choked down the vile concoction while a single tear rolled down my cheek.

After receiving a large wad of Turkish bank notes, I jumped back into the car and followed signs to Taksim Square.  This is the location of the "foreign" luxury hotels.  After two weeks of camping in Greece, I was determined to spend a few nights in luxury.  I checked into the Sheraton.  The desk clerk suppressed a smile at the sight of a tourist wearing a dirty tee shirt, dirty blue jeans, and carrying dirty duffel bags.  I found that he was a capitalist, so we understood each other.

"I would like to have a room for the night."

"Do you have a credit card?" He asked.

"Yes, several," I replied.

His smile was wide and toothy.  "Good.  I hope you will be staying with us for a long time, sir."

My room overlooked the Golden Horn.  I pushed aside the drapes and stepped out onto a small balcony.  I was far above the hotel grounds.  The hotel was located on a hill that dropped down to a waterway, beyond which lay the Golden Horn.  The Horn is a peninsula jutting out from the European shore, pinching the Bosphorus waterway that allowed shipping to pass from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and thence into the Aegean.

Dozens of minarets from the city's 450 mosques pierced the sky.  A Soviet freighter chugged through the waterway.  A long, ululating cry pierced the air from a nearby minaret, calling the faithful to prayers.  I grinned to myself.  This was going to be a good time.

I called room service and ordered a filet mignon and a bottle of Turkish wine.  When it arrived, I took the platter onto the balcony and settled into a chair.  The sun set behind me, drawing a cloak of shadows over the Golden Horn.  Floodlights blinked on, illuminating the Blue Mosque.  Freighters trundled down the intervening waterway, the national symbols on their smokestacks illuminated by their internal lights.  Below, heavily cowled women hurried through Taksim Square.  I sipped the cold white wine as darkness enfolded the square.

The next morning, I drove to the Golden Horn and walked into Saint Sophia.  It was originally a Christian church, the second largest in the world.  The Moslems added four minarets when they conquered the city.  The building was cavernous on the inside, with tarnished walls and echoing corridors.  Large gilt disks, containing writings from the Koran, were mounted on the walls.  No one worshipped there.  I loved to read about the history of Istanbul, and Saint Sophia was mentioned frequently in the histories.  Unfortunately, the tarnished reality did not measure up to the legends.

I stopped at a roadside cafe for lunch.  While eating, a pair of young Turkish men approached and asked if they could escort me about the city and translate for me.  The service would be free, since they just wanted to practice their English.  Right.  Having traveled a fair amount, I had adopted a high degree of skepticism.

There was an easy way to scare them off.  I was young, had a short haircut, and was wearing a white tee shirt and blue jeans.  To complete the military picture, I put on aviator sunglasses.  The leader of the two looked at me suspiciously.

"Excuse me, sir," he said.  "Where do you come from?"

"The NATO base at Izmir.  The rest of my Special Forces unit should be here soon."  I glanced around, looking for the mythical platoon.

They hastily bid me "Good Day" and departed.  The simple disguise worked so well that I kept it for the remainder of the trip.

The Blue Mosque was a short walk away.  While strolling to it, I nearly jumped out of my skin when the call to prayers occurred.  The sound had blared down on me from directly overhead.  I looked up and saw a large loudspeaker attached to the underside of one of the Blue Mosque's six minarets.  A man was standing in the the walkway at the peak of the minaret, screeching into a microphone.

I entered.  A forest of massive columns confronted me.  They supported a soaring dome that disappeared into the gloom above.  On the floor below, a central section was roped off.  Within it, the ground was covered with carpets.  On them, many men were praying.  Their shoes were left at the edges of the carpet.  The Moslem religious code stresses cleanliness; removing one's shoes is necessary, for the worshipper's forehead touches the carpet when he prays.  Also, women are expected to pray at home.

I walked through a nearby park to reach Topkapi Palace, which occupied the tip of the Golden Horn.  The locals gazed at me curiously while I hastened through the trees.  Very few Americans must pass this way.

Topkapi is a sprawling fortress of courtyards, fountains, lawns, and harems.  Nowadays, the harem no longer has its complement of 200 concubines; instead, a portion of the palace has been opened to the public as a museum.  The most precious exhibit was a heavily guarded room containing relics of the the prophet Mohammed, including his sword, a lock of his hair, and various household objects.  The arm of Saint John was much less heavily guarded -- after all, he was only a Christian.

The Asian side of Istanbul was dominated by a large hill, surmounted by some kind of radio or television tower.  It was dinner time, and I was hungry; there must be a cafe somewhere on that hillside.  I drove over the Bosphorus Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in Europe, and puttered through the side streets at the base of the hill, looking for a road leading up.

While heading along the shore, I spotted a lighthouse on a tiny island in the Bosphorus.  This was the Tower of Leander.  It was built by Constantine the Great in the 330s.  The legend about the tower says that Leander was imprisoned there by her protective parents, but was visited at night by Hero, who swam across the Bosphorus to reach her (all of a hundred yards, from where I was standing).  He was lost one night in a storm, and she found the body lying on the beach the next day.

I found a road that mounted the flanks of the hill. There was a cafe halfway up.  The car ground through a pebbled parking area, and was reverently taken away by a servant.  The headwaiter scurried out to meet me and escorted me within, fluttering his hands excessively and shooing away errant staff, in the manner of all good headwaiters.  He seated me at a premium table on the patio, overlooking the Bosphorus.  The view was phenomenal; freighters trolled below, colored lights played over the hundreds of minarets, and the Bosphorus Bridge was covered with flickering lights from passing automobiles.  I knew I could not afford this place.

I was the first American ever to visit the cafe.  The owner came out to greet me, and reverently placed the wine list before me.  I nearly choked at the prices -- so cheap!  I gravely pondered my selection while the owner, headwaiter, and a waiter breathlessly awaited my decision.  Since reading Turkish was not my strong point, I simply selected the most expensive bottle, which cost five dollars.  The headwaiter bobbed his head like a duck and propelled the waiter into the wine cellar, pushing the hapless subordinate in the back with a corkscrew.

The bottle arrived instantly.  I sniffed the proffered cork suspiciously, relented, and allowed the waiter to pour.  I raised the goblet to my lips, and noticed that every person in the cafe was staring at me.  I raised the glass to the light and swished the liquid about, frowning.  Then I sipped a tiny amount and held it in my mouth. My three servants looked on in silence, awaiting my judgment.  I held it for as long as possible, and then allowed the hint of a smile to touch my lips.  The owner exhaled in relief, and signaled for the waiter to fill my glass.

The menu arrived, and I picked the most expensive item.  While waiting for it to arrive, I haughtily stared out over one of the best views in the world while the staff crept about like mice, not wanting to disturb the American.  The wine was superb, and so was the dinner.  When I was done, I extracted a wad of banknotes and put the smallest denomination on the table, which constituted a forty percent tip.  I stood up, and realized that I was tipsy.  Again, the headwaiter cleared a wide zone before me as I advanced through the exit, somewhat less regally than before.  The parking attendant stood at attention by the Renault.  I nodded slightly to him, and condescended to allow him to open the car door for me.

While motoring down the hill, I realized that the headlights were not functioning.  I was drunk.  I parked the car, turned on the dome light, and pulled out the owner's manual.  After a half hour of trying to read Turkish, I concluded that the headlights must be broken.  I drove back to the cafe and asked the attendant if he could figure it out.  He had no idea what I was saying, but offered once again to open the door for me.

Feeling stymied, I drove back down the hill and reached the bottom before finding that one extra twist on one of the knobs activated the headlights.

The Sheraton parking garage was closed for the night.  I found a parking spot on the street and weaved over to a fellow drunk, who was supporting a street lamp.

"Ish thish shpot OK?" I asked.

He nodded amiably, and sank down into a pile on the sidewalk.  I stared fixedly at the Sheraton entrance and headed determinedly for it, fighting an inclination to lean to starboard.  The hotel was larger than I remembered, and it took a long time to find the correct room.  I passed out on the bed.

I woke late the next morning, ambled to the window, and leisurely glanced at the scenery.  I looked down at the hotel pool, thinking about a refreshing morning swim.  Next to the pool was the streetside parking area, which was -- empty!  Swearing profusely, I threw on some clothes and sprinted for the elevator.  The desk clerk regretfully informed me that all cars were towed from that lot after 5 a.m.  It was now 9 a.m.

I did not like the idea of telling the local Avis representative about this, nor the thought of asking for a replacement car.  I was halfway to the neighborhood car rental shop before I realized that sixteen rolls of film were locked in the Renault's glove compartment.

I found the Avis store and stood hesitantly in the doorway.  A young clerk looked up and said something in Turkish.

"Er...do you speak English?" I asked.

"But of course!  I went to school in Cambridge.  Please, please, come in.  Have a seat.  Would you like some coffee?  No?  A car, perhaps?"

I shrugged diffidently.  "No, thanks.  No, I already have a car.  Well, I did.  I don't anymore.  It's been towed."

"Ah!" He exclaimed.  I'll bet you're staying at the Sheraton. The police tow cars from that lot across the street all the time.  Didn't the hotel staff tell you about that?  No?  No matter, I'll get you a new car right away."

"Ahhh...hmmmmm...well -- it isn't quite that simple," I explained.  "All of my film is in the glove compartment of the car they towed.  I'd like to get it back."

"Nothing could be simpler to fix -- except that there are more than a dozen spots in Istanbul to which the police may have taken your car.  Let me call a few people and see what I can find out."

He was back in a moment.  "Found it.  Please, follow me.  We'll drive there in my car."

We climbed into a battered Fiat and drove to a nearby police station.  Inside, a stern female officer glared at me while the Avis clerk explained the situation.  I did my best to look meek, contrite, forlorn, and several other expressions that only come to me with difficulty.  The charade worked.  She muttered explosively in Turkish and jerked her thumb over her shoulder.

My companion grinned at me and led the way through a side door and into a parking lot. Inside it was my Renault, and inside that was the film.  I retrieved it and we drove back to the Avis shop.  He produced a Fiat for me.  The Renault would be in police custody for a few days, so this was my replacement.  I wrung his hand gratefully, and drove out of Istanbul with all possible speed.

My goal was to go south and then west to the Aegean, find the ruins of Troy, and then follow the shore, looking for Greek and Roman ruins.  First, however, there was a short side trip to take.  The Black Sea was twenty miles to the north.  A side road led to the town of Sile, which fronted on the Black Sea.

On the way to the coast, I was stopped at a military road block.  The government had been taken over by a bloodless coup two years before, and road blocks were common.  Two youngsters in ill-fitting uniforms ambled over, trailing their rifles.  They were deeply impressed at meeting an American, and loudly pointed out the route to Sile on my road map.

The seacoast looked like the coast of Maine.  The air was brisk and wind rustled the pine trees on the steep hillsides.  Dark waves crashed on the stony shore.  I was cold.  It was time for the warmth of the Aegean shore, so I drove back to the road block, waved at the excited soldiers, and got on the road to Izmit.

Turkish roads are clogged by large trucks with no pollution controls.  Since a truck's exhaust pipe is located at nose level, the stench is overpowering.  Also, there are few multi-lane highways, so passing is difficult.  All I remember of Izmit is passing through its outskirts quickly in a vain attempt to find regions with fewer trucks.

South of Izmit, the region was mostly agricultural.  Farming employs sixty percent of the Turkish population.  In several fields, the husband lolled beneath a tree while his wives labored in the hot sun.  Mechanized farming has not come to this part of the world.  Several farmers plowed fields with teamed oxen, and horse-drawn carts were common.

The road stayed close to the Sea of Marmara, which connected the Bosphorus to the Aegean Sea.  At one point I glanced over at the water, glanced again, stared hard, swerved around a cart, and stopped.  With water foaming from its hull, a submarine surfaced a few hundred yards offshore.  There was no insignia to show its nationality.  It was headed north, and passed from view in a few seconds.

The road headed inland slightly to reach Bursa, a squalid city at the foot of another Mount Olympus.  Then the road swooped back to the coast.  I stopped at Canakkale briefly to look across the placid Dardanelles Straits at the shores of Gallipoli.  A ferry could have taken me across to the World War I battlegrounds, but I was in search of something else -- Troy.

I was brought up on Troy.  I read the Iliad as a child, and several times since.  A high school teacher named Mr. Canepa used to read the bloodiest passages to us and then look up, flash a toothy grin, and exclaim, "Good stuff!"  The Turkish road map showed "Truva" at the mouth of the Dardanelles Straits.  I was drawn to it.

It was difficult to find. The first clue was a weather-beaten sign pointing the way to Hisarlik.  I remembered that Heinrich Schliemann had found Troy beneath a mound near Hisarlik.  Turning off at a "Truva" sign, I bounced down a rutted road to the site.  A large and very new Trojan horse looked down on a small parking lot.  A bus pulled in behind me, and a throng of German tourists clambered out.  I eagerly looked around for the city; it wasn't there.  One must remember that Troy was hidden for centuries.  Schliemann didn't just wander into a farmer's field and find a fully functional city sitting there.  He dug for years to uncover it.  Most of Troy is still underground.

The best way to describe Troy is a large field that has been pounded by artillery shells for a long time.  There were many pits, showing tantalizing fragments of walls, homes, and streets.  However, there was no open thoroughfare, no palace, and no completely uncovered set of battlements.  A small Roman theatre was located to one side of the ruins, but that was the only completely uncovered structure in sight.

Troy's walls have been estimated to be only 2,000 feet in circumference, hardly worthy of the stories that have been told about it.  However, the wide plains between it and the Aegean are quite real, and it is easy to imagine the swirling battles on those fields, of Hector, Agamemnon, Ulysses, Ajax, and Achilles doing battle.  I was not sorry I had come.

The NATO base at Izmir was a short distance down the coast.  I was here to look at ruins, not war planes, and passed through the place swiftly.

Turkey's Aegean coast is covered with Roman ruins.  One of the biggest is the city of Pergamum.  It is located on top of a steep hill.  I drove up an excellent road to the top and picked up a couple from California on the way.  Pergamum was most famous for its library, which contained at least 200,000 scrolls.

Pergamum was the best example of the Turkish government's aggressive policy of restoring ruins -- and I mean "aggressive."  The policy seems to be, "If it's broken, fix it.  If it's not there, build a new one.  If it's there but not looking too good, tear it down and build a new one."  Under this policy, the altars to Zeus and Demeter had been substantially rebuilt, and a fancy new row of arches was going up at one end of the site.  Would the government haul in some Romans to populate it, too?

The archaeological prize of the coast is the city of Ephesus.  It is the site of the Temple of Diana, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (only foundations are left now).  It also has the Basilica (and tomb) of Saint John.  These, however, are nothing compared to the ruins of the city.  A marble walkway leads past dozens of columns and monuments to the three-story facade of the library of Ephesus.  Just past the library is a 70,000-seat stadium; whoever came up with the 70,000-person seating capacity must have assumed that the Romans were very narrow people - the place wasn't that big.  From the top of the stadium, I could see portions of the Byzantine walls that encircled the city.  Most of the stonework was gone, but some substantial piles were still visible.

I ignored the Virgin Mary's house (resting as it does on somewhat dubious historical foundations) and drove to the third of the great Aegean archaeological sites. -- Sardis.  It lay 62 miles inland, on a crag.  There was much less of it left than Pergamum. I headed south to look for a camping spot.

The sun set, and shadows crossed the road.  Hills rose on either side, and a large lake materialized out of the gloom.  It was Bafa Golu Lake, and it had a campground.  It was early in the camping season, and I was the only camper.  The warden and his family welcomed me cordially (as did nearly every Turk I met).  I set up my tent in a corner of the campground, and then walked back to his house for dinner.  Since we had no common language, I was escorted into the kitchen (and thence into the freezer) to select my dinner.  I pointed at a large fish and various other items.  The warden's wife shooed me out of the kitchen so she could prepare the meal.  The grandfather took me into his care and set up a table for me on the shore.

I was carefully seated at the table.  The warden brought out a small black-and-white television, set it on a corner of the table, and dialed in a local soccer match.  The rest of his large family arrived and settled themselves about me in the sand.  The young girls wore "salvers," (long baggy bloomers) and shoes with long, pointed toes.  They alternatively stared at the television and me.  The warden gave me a large bottle of wine.

I felt both at home and in another century-- except for the television.  Without being excessively intrusive, this family had made me feel as if I was one of them. I poured a glass of wine and smiled at the kids.  A bird hooted, far away across the lake.

The soccer match ended, and the children went to bed.  I thanked my hosts as best I could, and strolled back to the tent.  Again, I was drunk. It took a long time to find the tent in the dark.  Once there, I decided to take a shower.  I wandered around in the woods until I bumped into the shower shack, and then leaned against its door frame for support.  Rusty water leaked from a soiled shower head.  I stripped and tolerated a stream of freezing water, then stepped outside and toweled off.  Being drunk, the thought of putting my clothes back on never entered my mind.  Instead, I picked up the heap of clothes and wandered through the darkness, completely lost.  The campground was a large one, and there were no lights.  I bumped into many trees, stubbed my toes, and finally tripped over the tent.

The next morning, I went to Bodrum. It was better known as Helicarnassus before the Turks changed all the names.  Helicarnassus was the home of another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World -- the Mausoleum of (predictably) King Mausolus.  The building is long since gone, carted away to shore up surrounding buildings.

Bodrum is located at the end of a peninsula that juts out into the Aegean.  A large castle guards the harbor, and many sailboats crowd the quays.  I had lunch in a cafe by the marina, along with most of the male population of Bodrum. Women are discouraged from going to cafes, since these are traditional gathering places for men, where they discuss secret man-things, such as soccer scores.  At the end of the street was a mosque with a decapitated minaret.  Many of the minarets I saw in Turkey were truncated by lightning strikes.

I continued south down a lonely stretch of road that paralleled the Aegean.  A few small coves concealed beaches, but most of the coastline was steep and rocky.  The water was turquoise-colored and deep enough for fishing boats to come in close to the shore.  Pine forests carpeted the steep hillsides, and the Taurus Mountains bulked up behind the hills.  At the village of Demre, a small sign pointed out the tomb of Saint Nicholas.  Father Christmas?  Here?  Our Christian saints certainly pick some interesting places in which to die.

I camped outside Antalya, a seaside resort city.  The prominent hump of Bey's Mountain rose behind the city.  It was time to go back to Istanbul for the flight home, but there were a few more ruins to see.  The next morning, I drove 31 miles past Antalya to Aspendos, the site of a very fine Roman theatre.  The stonework was intact and had not been excessively harmed by a few thousand years of weather.  Plays are still held there for audiences of 15,000.

Eighteen miles further away was Side, where a 25,000-seat theatre was surrounded by a dirty seaside town.  I clambered over the ruins, jumped back into the car, and drove away.  Nice, but not Aspendos.

My flight left Istanbul the next morning, and I was a long way from Istanbul. To get back, I took a road inland to the high steppes region.  The road swept across hillsides in great sweeping curves, mounting the foothills.  Once on the central Turkish plateau, I pushed the Fiat hard, and was soon motoring along at 80 miles per hour.  Ahead, a bridge spanned a deep gorge, where a cement mixer was being passed by a school bus.  The two vehicles clogged the bridge.  I stomped on both the brakes and horn with equal vigor, and screamed past the bus.  The bus driver leaned out the window and shouted imprecations at me.

The steppes are dull, since there is little vegetation and few towns to break the monotony.  I passed sandy hills, dry lake beds, and a few camels.

It was late when I reached Istanbul.  A vast lightning storm raged over the city.  I sped over the Bosphorus Bridge while streaks of white light flared and crackled overhead.

I was late in getting to the airport the next morning for my flight back to Greece.  While waiting in line at the ticket counter, I noticed armed guards hustle four young boys to the front of the line.  The guards argued with the ticketing clerk, papers passed, and then the four boys were escorted away.  When I reached the clerk, he told me that my seat on the flight had been taken by the government, which was deporting four Iranian terrorists.  The clerk was most apologetic, and put me on a flight to London instead.  Oh well.  At least everyone spoke English there.