A solo traveler without a guidebook is like a far-sighted person without glasses. You feel lost if you can't read maps, menus or directions. I was on a Turkish bus nervously searching my handbag for my Lonely Planet guidebook when I realized I had left it, and my glasses, back in Pamukkale.
Not that there was any need for panic. The Turks had everything under control, including me. I did have a rudimentary plan in mind when I arrived (via ferry from Venice, Italy) in Izmir, a port city on the Aegean coast of western Turkey. But my own agenda always took an unscheduled shift to a more Turkish agenda.
For instance, at Pamukkale (Cotton Castle), my first stop, I planned to stay in a hotel high on a ridge overlooking cascading, calcium-rich hot springs that have carved, over the eons, sparkling white terraces into the hillsides. Instead, a sweet-talking Turkish youth by the name of Erdan found me at the bus stop, and the next thing I knew I was unpacking at his sister's pansiyon (guesthouse) on the outskirts of town.
I missed the view, but why complain? Erdan's sister, Senay, cooked up a scrumptious güveç (stew), and Erdan took me on a personalized (and free) backroad tour of the impressive Roman ruins at nearby Hierapolis. But good food, charming company, and even the attraction of camels living next door didn't keep me from growing anxious to move on.
Checking my guidebook, I made plans to go to Kusadasi, a beach resort nicely situated for side trips to the extraordinary archaeological treasures of ancient Ephesus and several other ruins in the vicinity. The next day, however, I boarded a bus bound for Selçuk, not Kusadasi. Not a big change of plan – both towns are equidistant to Ephesus – just a slight shift to the Turkish agenda.
Unlike Kusadasi, however, Selçuk is inland, and without a seaside location to recommend it, I went there only because a less-than-sincere dolmus (minibus) driver had promised me his 9:25am trip would go direct to Selçuk without a bus change in Denizli, which I wanted to avoid. It wasn't true. I did have to change buses in Denizli. And because the bus arrived at the guesthouse five minutes early and sat in front honking, I had raced away from the breakfast table, leaving behind my guidebook and eyeglasses.
So it was with frazzled nerves and a longing for a soothing hot shower that I stepped off the Selçuk bus and into the hands of Stefan, proprietor of the Bolero Pension, otherwise known as Stefan's Place.
Free ride to Ephesus! Free book to Ephesus! Turkish dinner! All for 300,000 Turkish Lira (C$12.00 in 1999), said Stefan.
Skeptical of all that, I asked about hot water, but Stefan ignored the question. "I have many Canadian visitors," he replied. I have photos. You will like. Stay two nights and come to Turkish wedding!"
Turkish wedding! How could I refuse? Stefan even had hot water . . . on occasion. To get the free ride to Ephesus you had first to stop for çay (tea) at his friend's carpet shop, but that was cool, no pressure to buy. And the wedding!
The wedding – a French bride to a Turkish groom – was a happy, boisterous affair with dancing and singing, lots of food and drink, especially bira (beer) and raki, (a grape brandy similar to the Greek ouzo), and hundreds of guests, families with children, young people, old people, and a few lucky tourists. It was a day fit for my treasure chest of memories.
Fortunately, the waylaid eyeglasses were returned to me by bus the next day, thanks to arrangements made by the helpful Stefan. However, the Lonely Planet guide had been commandeered for duty elsewhere, and I had to move on without it, southward to Antalya, the main crossroads for a myriad of resorts and historical attractions along Turkey's Mediterranean coast.
Here, Turkish weather caused a shift in my plan. Rainy season, normally not due until November, arrived in full force in mid-October. Instead of vegging somewhere beach-side for a few days, I settled for purchasing a new Lonely Planet guidebook and a ten-hour bus ride to Cappadocia, a region of Central Anatolia where time and men have worked the landscape into fanciful rock formations, cave dwellings and underground cities.
I wanted to go to Ürgüp, the heart of Cappadocia and "fairy chimney" country. My bus ticket said Ürgüp, but the driver, much to my dismay, put me off in Nevsehir for some reason that got lost in translation. Still, why complain? A waiting taxi driver delivered me, not to the hotel I selected (closed for the season) but to a quite good two-star selection of his choice.
And, had I not been dropped in Nevsehir, I would not have had the pleasure of getting lost and found in Derinkuyu (deep well) where I went by local bus to spend an afternoon poking about a spooky eight-level underground city. The site at Derinkuyu is among several built, in centuries past, by Cappadocians escaping invaders.
I got lost looking for the bus stop back to Nevsehir but found, instead, the local school band, outdoors practicing. Two words – dolmus and Nevsehir – combined with plaintive gesturing, and I soon had a laughing entourage of half-a-dozen band members escorting me to the correct bus stop.
Finally, after one last, long, overnight bus ride I arrived in Istanbul, excited to be in this venerable and storied city, home to emperors and sultans and scores of lavish monuments they left behind. Here I decided to stay in the old Sultanahmet district near the famed Blue Mosque, which was first on my sightseeing list. I selected a restored Ottoman mansion listed in the guidebook as Küçük Ayasofia Hotel. The driver who found me at the chaotic Istanbul bus terminal dropped me off. I registered at the desk, and, feeling very pleased with my choice, went to rest awhile in my room. For a change nothing had interfered with my plan, or so I thought.
Later, out walking in the maze-like streets of the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, I came across a building whose sign declared it to be the Küçük Ayasofia Hotel. Odd, I thought, can there be two hotels with the same name? No, not even in Turkey. My hotel, I discovered on returning, was called, simply, the Ayasofia Hotel. Not a big change of plans. Just a slight shift, as usual, to some Turkish agenda.
During two weeks in 1995, I covered a few thousand kilometres by bus, spent about eighteen million Turkish Lira ($700 or $50/day) on transport, food, lodging and entertainment. Three weeks would have been more relaxing, but even a year wouldn't be enough time to see Turkey properly. [Editor's Note: Turkey transformed it's currency in 2005. Currently, in 2011, US$1.00 US dollar = 1.767 Turkish lira.]
City bus (Otogar) stations in Turkey are huge, chaotic but somehow highly efficient places. Often tickets can be bought at conveniently located kiosks. Competition is rife between companies, so it's worth shopping around for a deal.
Transport: Roads were good. Bus travel was inexpensive, $10 to $12 covered [$25 to $35 in 2011] a full day's journey.
Without exception, I found buses were well maintained. Wayside stations were usually pleasant, and toilet facilities acceptable, even if they were sometimes the hole-in-the-floor style.
Though I could seldom converse with my seat mates, they often shared whatever picnic provisions they had, a sandwich (the bread is wonderful), a cookie, once a generous slice of cucumber.
Lodging: Good and abundant accommodation is available for all categories, ranging in price, depending on location, from $10 to $15 [$25 to $50 in 2011] for decent but sparse guesthouse (pansiyon) lodging with private toilet and shower, $20 to $60 for two and three-star hotels, $90 to $250 for four and five-star, full-service, luxury hotels.
Pansiyon owners who have space available (or their touts) meet buses. You simply go with whomever you feel a rapport. Expect very basic rooms. Showers may be a simple, hand-held attachment with a water drain in the floor. Towels may be flimsy. No washcloths. You may have hot water only at certain times.
Major credit cards are accepted at larger shops and hotels.
Climate: The weather is most comfortable for travel from April to June, or September to October.
Before arriving in Turkey my preconceptions included images of veiled, demure women, and men with conservative, possibly even disapproving attitudes toward women traveling about alone.
I hoped to be as inconspicuous and inoffensive as my own pride and self-image would permit by dressing modestly and trying not to be judgmental of cultural differences.
Day one in Turkey was a pleasantly warm October afternoon, but not so warm that I felt uncomfortable layered from ankle to neck in a long denim skirt and a long-sleeved shirt topped by a lightweight jacket.
My goodness, I thought; things must really be changing in Turkey. Then, in a moment, I heard a voice with a Cockney accent say "Travlin' on your own, are ya then?" I realized the young woman was speaking to me. A Londoner through and through, she said she was in Izmir, with her parents, visiting Turkish relatives.
Her dress habits, she admitted, had caused quite a stir in the family, but she intended sticking to her guns. "This is how I dress in London," she said, "And I'm not covering up here, "'specially on warm days like this."
Good for her, I thought, but she is braver than me. During my travels, however, I was to see women dressed in a variety of fashions, from heavily veiled and pantalooned country women to stylishly suited business women. Turkey after all, had a female Prime Minister at that time (Tansu Çiller served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 1993 to 1996 and as Vice Prime Minister between 1996 and 1997.)
As for a seasoned single globetrotter like myself (50s), I say three cheers for attentive men wherever you find them. But common sense reminds me that bridging gender gaps is not likely to be any easier in foreign lands than it is right here at home.