13 "UNESCO world heritage" sites. Two of the seven "Wonders of the Ancient world". The cultural heritage and scenic beauty that led to Istanbul being the tenth most visited city last year. The recent discovery of the oldest known religious structure dating back to 10,000 BC. A stunning coastline that feels more European than Europe. A wonderfully layered landscape that distinctly changes character as one travels from the west to the east. Great tourism infrastructure. A proud, multi-ethnic, friendly population, which loves its history as much as its football. Fabulous food that rivals any other cuisine in spread and richness. Culture and history permeate every nook and corner of Turkey. So much so that a running joke among the local guides reads "Throw a stone in Turkey and it will unearth another historical site. Wonder why we need those all those archaeologists!". 35,000 such sites, at last count, spread all across the country. But the best part was starting a conversation with the locals. Mention football, politics or the economy – all three elicit strong opinions, especially over a cup of the aromatic, delightfully light Turkish tea, that the locals seem to gulp through the day. And they are an emotional flock, full of stories and notoriously opinionated. Try for instance "Miracle of Istanbul" – that heart-stopping 2006 Champions league final that is Stevie G's finest hour, or Galatasaray's recent foreign recruits, or Istanbul's rising rents, and you are likely to be entertained for a long time.
At the heart of Eurasia, and straddling two continents, with 97% of its land mass in Asia and 3% in Europe, Turkey's location is its single biggest attraction. And as one of the locals said, both its gift from the heavens and a curse. From the deserts of Syria and Iraq in the South, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the East, Georgia in the North East, Bulgaria to the North-West and Greece to the West, its relations with its neighbors have been, through the ages, tempestuous. People have invaded the land, and have in turn been invaded. Movement of people and customs through the ages has resulted in a eclectic, unique culture, reflected in the plethora of ancient towns and sites, spanning almost all ages of human civilization. Western Turkey, the european region has been found to have traces of habitation going back 40,000 years. The Anatolian peninsula, the cultural and geographical mid-land is regarded by historians as one of the oldest settlements in world history, with the discovery of the 10,000 BC temple at Gobekli Tepe making it the oldest known religious structure to date. Not surprisingly, the region has a rich cultural legacy, and a history to die for, starting with the the Bronze age in 3300 BC, through the kingdoms of Greek, Persian, Sumerian, Hittite, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, Mongol, and the Ottoman empire, till the republic gained independence in 1923.
17Mn out of the country's 77Mn population crowd into greater Istanbul, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The geographical landscape of Turkey is astonishing, and owes primarily to its location, none as charismatic as Istanbul by the Bosphorus. The central highlands of Anatolia are dominated by grasslands and low mountains, the narrow coastal plains are hemmed in by high mountains ranges in the north and south and by various water bodies, the Black sea to the north, Mediterranean to the south and Aegean sea to the west, while the less visited mountainous Eastern turkey is home to the historically important rivers of Euphrates and Tigris. As I traveled from the West to the East, Coastal plains and European weather gave way to the high central grasslands of Central Asia, and finally to the rugged mountain ranges of East Asia. Earthquakes and wars have shaped the history and civilizations that lived here. Ancient towns were built, destroyed and rebuilt either by massive earthquakes, such as Ephesus and Troy, or by invading armies like Alexander and Ottomans. The entire Cappadocia region is dotted with magnificent remains of ancient volcanic eruptions. Natural and man-made disasters, acting in unison give rise to the landscape and history.
It was here that I would spent two weeks wandering around, in a series of group tours, via land, air and water, organized by the wonderfully patient Kamal from takeabreak (http://takeabreak.in/). I met 17 nationalities, was part of 9 different group tours, and visited 13 cities, ancient and current, but came back convinced I had barely scratched the surface. As my guide in Perge said, when in a rush of misplaced enthusiasm I boastfully described my itinerary, "I have been a tour guide across the country for 33 years brother, and I have probably seen half of it". Here is my story. Good luck Emily. And thank you Truoung.