“When we get to Turkey I want to ride bikes and drink wine with you,” he said a few weeks before we were set to fly across the globe in a global pandemic, having never met each other in person. We knew we’d be friends but we also thought perhaps we’d be something more. I flew to Turkey from California for a whirlwind two week long romantic tryst with someone I’d never met, which is both completely in character and out of character for me at the same time. The primary problem with this is that I’m the least romantic person you’ll ever meet. Regardless, I love a good story and I knew this adventure was going to shape up in one way or another to be an exceptionally good time.
We were in Antalya, a fairly large city on the southern Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and had rented squeaky poor excuses for mountain bikes from a man who spoke so little English that he used his phone to translate prices to us ($8 for the entire day). Either we are very trustworthy or the bikes aren’t worth the hassle because he let us take them and the bike locks without any sort of exchange of money or IDs.
Antalya has a set of twin waterfalls connected by a river that runs on the outskirt of the city. The plan was to ride bikes to both falls in one big loop. The 6 miles to the lower falls was pleasant: there was a gorgeous park most of the way, a paved and separated bike path dotted with coffee shops, restaurants, and charming neighborhoods. The lower Duden falls cascades from a green city park into the Mediterranean, looked upon by a man trying to convince you take photos with his pet parrot and hoards of people viewing from the safety of their extravagant yachts, clearly wealthier than the likes of us. Unlike them, we were drenched in enough sweat to spend a long swath of time standing in the stream of the sprinklers running in the midday heat and humidity like bums.
The ride to the second waterfall wasn’t as idyllic: 11 miles along highways and heavily trafficked roads adjacent to large swaths of agricultural farms. The trucks were large and domineering, the heat oppressive. A little more than halfway to the second waterfall, we stopped out of frustration to double check the map, strangely next to an inexplicable watermelon stand overseen by two Turkish men in the middle of nowhere on the side of a freeway. Like our bike rental man, they spoke no English but started cutting watermelon for me to savor. It was cold. It was sugary. It was delicious. It revived me.
Either they were confused about why two Americans were on bikes in the oppressive heat of the middle of the day, or they thought my travel companion was Turkish (which happened often this trip), but they fed me half a watermelon, instructed me to fill up all my water bottles, and refused any efforts to pay them even a dollar for their generosity. It was one of my first lessons in the abundance of Turkish hospitality: they are magnanimous and, in a way that I found very similar to Colombia, extremely proud to share their country and culture with you, despite any language barriers.
There’s a scene in the finale episode of Succession, the HBO drama loosely based on the Murdoch empire, where Tom and Shiv are having a captain drive them around to find the “perfect cove.”
“Next cove, please, Julius!” declares Tom, as supercilious and pompous of a command as it reads. “What’s wrong with this one?” Shiv asks frustrated. “We have to find the perfect one!” Tom says emphatically. “Too many crabs! It’s not good enough!”
As I watched this scene for a second time recently, I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience in Turkey: we spent most of our time on the Mediterranean coast looking for the perfect coves and beaches. We found them, many of them, but we also drove straight past quite a few after peering over the cliff edges into the turquoise abysses and discovering hoards of people. Why settle for the crowded beach when you could turn the next corner and find an empty cove?
After spending our day biking 26 miles in crushing heat only to discover that there was NO swimming at the second waterfall as we had presumed, we were desperate to put our bodies in water. Walking on the concrete wasn’t helping. The watermelon we had consumed and grapes I had produced magically in the afternoon to lift spirits had long worn off. The Turkish pide (pizza) we had wolfed down, while alleviating our hunger didn’t do quite the same for our spirits.
After a couple of wrong turns, we found the “locals beach.” There was no sand (his favorite) and large cliffs to jump off of (my favorite). The self professed keeper of the beach was a man named Burak, who at the age of 28 had already been in the military and had 2 children. When I enticed him to lead me up the largest of the cliffs to jump from it’s expanse, he spent a portion of our time together in disbelief that I was 40, single and had no children (Turkish people are not afraid to ask personal questions) and then the rest of the time attempting to convince me to jump of lower shelves.
I was not persuaded.
We had originally flown into Istanbul to rendezvous for the first time, languidly (and sweatily) exploring the streets of Byzantium and Constantinople. A few days later, we fled to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean coast, flying into Antalya. Out of convenience and the sheer fact that two of us made it budget friendly, we rented a car and worked our way up the coast stopping wherever our hearts, fancy, or tips from others led us. We spent days hiking mountains to see fires that never go out, exploring ruins among beach coves, reading books on pristine (mostly uncrowded) beaches, and gazing at mountains that felt like they dwarfed the Sierra Nevadas. There’s a reason the Greeks thought the Gods lived here.
I had arrived in a foreign country for a first date, but, as always, accompanied by my endless thirst for adventure and travel. I didn’t end up with a two week romantic tryst, but I did end up with an indelible friend that I will keep for life, who will never fail to challenge or be direct with me, and whose desire for wander supersedes my own. I left with an epic adventure and some stories to tell. In Turkey I found a relaxed travel companion that I always felt incredibly at ease with, and a love for a country and a culture that is open, generous and overly hospitable.
We had consumed one too many American-style hipster-esque cocktails at the fancy, but charming, bar on a cobbled street just off the square in Kas. “Do you want to go clubbing?” he chided me as a gaggle of Brits in platform heels and sequined miniskirts hobbled by. The answer, of course, was emphatically no. Pandemic or no pandemic it actually didn’t sound that appealing but as we fled the barstools we’d kept warm for 4 too many drinks, he grabbed my hand and yanked me into another bar. House music was playing and out of nowhere I remembered what it was like to dance into the wee hours of the morning. I would’ve ordered five more drinks and stayed there forever but just as quickly and spontaneously as we arrived he yanked me back out the door and we left. That’s what Turkey felt like during Covid: like someone snatched me into a wonderland, spun me in circles for a bit, and then with a smile gleaming across my face, sent me on my way.
Traveling Internationally During COVID
For me, it was a fairly easy travel situation, pandemic or not: a direct flight out of SFO leaves for IST every day on Turkish airlines. Turkey is doing COVID correctly: they conduct over 100,000 COVID tests a day and have tested over 12 million people thus far, which is about on par with California’s current testing capacity and metrics. Although I didn’t know this before departing, Turkey has set up a rapid testing site in the Istanbul airport. The cost is about $15 USD and you get your results back within two hours in both Turkish and English. If you are flying in or out of IST, for reference, the testing center is located in the Arrivals Hall at Level -1, adjacent to entrance 14. It is after passport control or customs, so you must be entering or leaving internationally to have access to it.
I get tested for COVID every 4-6 days in Tahoe because California has set up widely available, free and easy testing for the state. Despite this, I wanted to make sure I was being responsible and purchased and over the counter Everlywell test to use and send in when I arrived at the Reno Airport. I had my results from them 6 hours after arriving in Istanbul so the timing worked out perfectly.
Flying is incredibly safe, provided that you do not take your mask off. In a recent study by infectious disease doctor David O. Freedman, in combination with United Emirates that took place over 3 weeks, five flights with a total of 58 infected passengers flying on 8 hour trips yielded zero infections transmitted to the other passengers. Emirates mask policy is EXTREMELY rigid and highly enforced. If you have qualms about flying my suggestion to you is this: wear a mask and do not take it off unless absolutely necessary. Do not eat when anyone else is eating. Do as I do: take a xanax, hunker down and go the fuck to sleep.
TURKEY TRAVEL GUIDE
Although I’m pretty good at slumming it in between, I generally prefer to start and end my trips with a bit of luxury to take the edge off transoceanic flights. The Pera Palace Hotel is steeped in tradition, history, and glamor. The service is impeccable. The Pera Palace was built as Istanbul’s first luxury hotel, servicing customers who arrived on the Orient Express. It opened in 1895. Ernest Hemingway, Greta Garbo and Agatha Christie were frequent guests.
Just down the way, make yourself a reservation at Aheste, whose charming interior, fantastic tasting menu, great wine list and modern twist on Turkish food delighted me so much I went there twice. Splurge with a reservation at Mikla and if for some reason you are there on nights without dinner service, at least head up to the rooftop bar, which provides an exceptional vantage point for all of Istanbul.
Wander the Sultanahmet and the Old City, where you’ll find the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sofia, and the Basilica Cistern (I enjoyed wandering in here – worth the entrance fee). About a 10 minute walk from here you’ll find the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest bazaars in the world.
Just past Hadrian’s Gate, built in 130AD, are the steps of Antalya’s old town, also known as Kaleiçi. It is filled with narrow cobblestone streets, old stone and wooden houses that I could have wandered forever. Ride bikes to the Lower Duden Falls. You’ll find the locals beach by following the directions to Antalya Hamitbey Plaji, but there is also a European Style beach for a moderate price in the Old Town marina. If you head outside of Old Town into the neighborhoods just adjacent, you’ll find a plethora of traditional Turkish street food to feast on that will run you $2-4 a meal. There’s plenty of kokoreç, doner and pide to be had in this town.
Due to COVID, most of our times spent in small cities along the coast were without the abundance of summer tourists that Turkey is used to. As such, we were able to book places to stay along the way with ease, often just walking in and offering cash at small hotels. Most of them, regardless of our location, were $30-40/night total. Booking.com works better in Europe than other options to look at availability and compare prices.
From Antalya you’ll want to head to Çıralı, whose tiny charming town takes up a few square blocks along side a crystal clear beach overlooked by the imposing green Taurus mountains. Hike up to the eternal flames of the Chimera, which features natural gas escaping from small holes in the rocky landscape with never-ending flames. The site inspired the Greek Myth of the Chimera, a creature that breathed fire and had the body of a lion, goat and snake.
Just a short drive from Çıralı is the Lycian ruins of Olympos, hidden among a forested cove adjacent to the water. On the day we were there it was a holiday and the beaches were filled with families lounging on the beachside with tumblers full of kay despite the warm temps. Once an ancient city in Lycia, the city is believed to take its name from the neighboring Mount Olympos that was abandoned
by the 15th century. Today, you can swim in crystal blue waters in between wandering the remains of the ruins.
One of my favorite stops was the charming fishing town of Kaş, which is picture perfect in every way. It has a distinctly Greek feel to it with stunning sea views, narrow cobbled streets with whitewashed houses, charming restaurants, cafés, and outdoor bars that just invite you to spend way too much time there, all shrouded in bougainvillea. Climb to the top of the Kaş amphitheater with some wine for sunset: it overs expansive overlooks of both the sea and the city. Kaş is known for its textiles so leave plenty of space in your luggage (or bring an entire empty one) to fill up on towels for souvenirs and gifts here.
On the way there, however, you’ll want to make a stop off in Demre to wander the ancient ruins of Myra, whose Lycian tombs for the dead are carved into the expansive cliff faces over looking an amphitheater built to hold 13,000 people. They were some of my favorite ruins along the Antalya coast and the best preserved.
Patara is known for its long sandy beach which is allegedly “never crowded,” though we found quite the opposite. The nearby town of Gelemiş, however, I found to be charming in it’s incredibly languid and unspoilt way. It is clear that travelers rarely stay in Patara, preferring to come in to explore the expansive ruins adjacent to the beach by day alone. Due to some low travel spirits that day, relentless
sun, and unyielding heat, we didn’t explore the ruins of this impressive city as I would have liked to. They are some of the largest and most expansive in the region and offer plenty to explore.
I found our stay in Patara to be memorable in the end. An incredibly quirky Airbnb housed us that evening (though I’d recommend securing one with a pool if I were you), run by a woman who spoke no English, who kept feeding us fruits from her garden, and that owned a kitten named Peter that bothered you constantly. Make sure that you wander into the square of Gelemiş and have gözleme, the savory hand rolled crepes made to order by most of the restaurants in the town.
ÖLÜDENIZ AND FETHIYE
In between the tourist-centric beach towns of Ölüdeniz and Fethiye you will find the abandoned ghost town of Kayakoy, which was one of my favorite adventures in Turkey. It feels shrouded in mystery, eerily quiet and honestly, and completely off the beaten path despite its proximity to the nightclub filled and heavily British trafficked nearby cities. Kayakoy features the skeletons of hundreds of houses that once made up a thriving community of 10,000 Anatolian Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians. In 1923, at the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War, the citizens who had lived peacefully and happily together were expelled from their homes. In 1957, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake destroyed most of the remaining buildings in Kayakoy, leaving it in its current state of dilapidation.
Out of all our stops along the Mediterranean coast in Antalya and Mugla, Dalyan was one of my favorites and I’m incredibly thankful that I ended my trip on such a wonderful note. The sleepy fishing village on the river attracts a different kind of tourist: a laidback crowd and a much slower pace. Lycian tombs in the cliff edges overlook the fishing village and plenty of boat operators are available for day trips. I’d recommend booking with our pal Mert at Dalyan Boat Tours. For a reasonable price per person, you’ll get a full day private boat charter, a tour of the river and sea, the opportunity to go cliff jumping, see sea turtles, go crabbing and feast on mezze made by his mom.
If you’re there in the off season, or during a global pandemic, there’s no need to make plans ahead of time. Crawl the coast and stop along the way as your heart desires. There are regional flights on Turkish Airlines all over the country that are inexpensive ($35-80 one way depending on the destination). If you’re traveling solo, you can take regional buses in between locations, but if you have companions, rental cars are easy to come by and relatively inexpensive. Stay away from the tourism based restaurants for the most part and eat street food – you’ll feast for $4-8 pp. Hotels and Airbnbs will run you $30-40 a night. There is a visa ($50) required to get into Turkey and you can apply online in minutes.
Want more travel? In recent years I’ve also written up travel guides for many places in Europe, including Budapest, Vienna, Porto and Lisbon, along with New Orleans and Colombia. A small selection of my travel photography can be found here and as always, prints are available for purchase. Just fill out the contact form if you’d like to see the full Turkey gallery.