Backpacking in Turkey

Istanbul, the silhouette of the Yeni Cami from the Galata Bridge
Istanbul, the silhouette of the Yeni Cami from the Galata Bridge

Backpacking is the best way to discover the beauty of a country on a low budget. Sometimes it may be hard, challenging and stressful, but you will be compensated with a personal adventure, that nobody else can have. And Turkey is certainly one of the best places for a backpack trip.

Turkey is big and diverse. You can enjoy the nightlife in Istanbul around the busy İstiklal Caddesi, or if you prefer you can go back in history and visit thousand-year-old archaeological sites, enjoy thermal baths in Pamukkale, or you can fall into total contemplation in the pilgrimage city of Şanlıurfa. As I am mostly interested in the history of Islamic art, I tended to concentrate on Ottoman monuments, but of course there’s much more to see.

The inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul - © Massimo Tartaro

The inner courtyard of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul – © Massimo Tartaro


Istanbul, Bursa, and the Ottoman legacy

Istanbul simply represents the greatness of Turkish history. From the Byzantine to the Ottoman monuments, it is a city you cannot forget. The most famous monuments are packed within the Sultanahmet district and its surroundings. Here you find masterpieces of Ottoman architecture such as the Blue Mosque,  the Topkapı Palace, the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) and some of the many complexes (külliye) designed by the great architect Sinan: the Sokollu Şehit Mehmet Paşa mosque, the Rüstem Paşa mosque and, of course, the Süleymaniye mosque. Ottoman mosques are quite unique, both outside and inside: harmonic, elegant and decorated with calligraphic masterpieces and İznik tiles.

 Inside the Yeni Camii (the New Mosque), Istanbul - © Massimo Tartaro

Inside the Yeni Cami (the New Mosque), Istanbul – © Massimo Tartaro

Anyway, overwhelmed by Ottoman beauty, people sometimes forget that Istanbul was not only an Ottoman city. Before, it was the Byzantine capital. In some monuments the stratification of different cultures and religions is clearly visible. The Aya Sofya was built as a Christian church in 537; nearly nine centuries after it was converted into a mosque and in 1935 eventually became a museum. The minarets on the outside deeply contrast the Byzantine-type plan. The mosaics that decorate the interior, representing Christ Pantocrator are at odds with the calligraphic panels bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad and the two rightly-guided Caliphs Abu Bakr and Ali. But this is not the only case in Istanbul of a church converted into a mosque: today’s Fethiye Mosque was originally an Orthodox church, and again, the Byzantine and Ottoman decoration inside and outside create a spectacular encounter.

Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Aya Sofya, Istanbul – © Massimo Tartaro

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Aya Sofya, Istanbul

Christ Pantocrator mosaic in Aya Sofya, Istanbul – © Massimo Tartaro

Encounter is actually a word that perfectly suits the essence of Istanbul: there you’ll find ancient and modern packed together, religious and secular, East and West, Islamic and Christian, Europe and Asia. Many visitors never leave Istanbul, but they cannot be blamed for that: the city is so big and rich in monuments and attractions that you are completely absorbed.

Even if you don’t feel like embarking on a grand tour around the whole of Turkey, you don’t have to travel too far to find other treasures. For instance, not far from Istanbul there’s Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, earlier this year, it was included in the Unesco world heritage list. There’s the great Ulu Cami, an early Ottoman mosque still influenced by previous Seljuk architectural styles. If the mosque is already wonderful from the outside, inside you will be speechless in front of the enormous calligraphic masterpieces that decorate the white surface of the walls. The city also features the Koza Han, a typical caravanserai from the Ottoman period. Being on the Silk Road, Bursa was certainly important for international commerce as well, and this caravanserai was devoted to the silk trade. Nowadays, it is wonderful to chill out in the beautiful inner courtyard of the Han, in the cafés around the little mosque built right in the middle of the court.

The courtyard of Koza Han, Bursa

The courtyard of Koza Han, Bursa – © Massimo Tartaro

Not only Ottoman history

Turkey is not just Ottoman history of course, nor just Byzantine history. If you are willing to take a coach towards the interior, and travel for hours and hours through the middle of nowhere, you will be rewarded with incredible atmospheres.

In Göreme you may take a hot-air balloon and fly over the fairy chimneys, you can sleep in rock-carved hotels and discover Byzantine monastic life in the Open-Air Museum. Nearby, in Derinkuyu, you can descend into the bowels of the earth to visit an underground city where the local population used to seek refuge during wars, incursions and raids, from ancient times (8th century BC) to the modern era (beginning of the 20th century).

Göreme valley

Göreme valley – © Massimo Tartaro

Göreme valley - © Massimo Tartaro

Göreme valley – © Massimo Tartaro

If you are interested in history and your travel mate only wants to lie down in the water, then Pamukkale is your place. The so-called ‘cotton wool castle’ consisting of travertine pools of thermal water overlooks the city. Located on top is Hierapolis, a Greek-Roman city, now an open-air museum. The site is usually overcrowded, but at sunset, when most tourists return to the city, it is terrific.

The white pools of Pamukkale

The white pools of Pamukkale – © Massimo Tartaro

If you feel brave and are tired of the crowds of tourists, you can go further east, and enjoy Nemrut Dağı. Waking up at 2 am is stressful of course but you will have the chance to enjoy a spectacular sunrise at the top of the mountain, where the mausoleum of the local ruler Antiochus I Epiphanes (r. 64-38 BC) was erected.

Practical information – travel and stay

Travelling in Turkey is quite easy: almost every city has at least a bus station (otogar) where you can find all the information you need to reach your next destination. From Istanbul there are  plenty of bus services to potentially everywhere and even when you think you are in the middle of nowhere, there will always be a bus heading to a bigger and better-served city. There are a lot of companies, covering different routes.

I loved Turkish buses: the seats are comfortable, the drivers nice, your fellow travellers helpful, and the landscapes are simply stunning. In many buses you also have your personal tv, for long trips. And long trips are pretty common. Many buses travel during the night, and this is a nice solution to save time.

Turkish flag - © Massimo Tartaro

Turkish flag – © Massimo Tartaro

As for accommodation, usually I never book hostels in advance, mainly because when I start to travel I never have a clear idea of where I’m going and how many days I will spend in a city. In Turkey I’ve never had big issues finding a good and cheap place to sleep. Only in Göreme it was somewhat more difficult, and prices are quite high compared to other cities. Finding a hostel in Istanbul can be quite complicated too: the city is big and walking around with a huge backpack is not nice. Since I was certain I would start my trip there, I booked a nice hostel near the Galata Tower, Chillout Galata Hostel: good location, friendly staff and amazing views from the roof terrace.

If it’s that easy, it’s time to get ready: let’s book a flight and pack some clothes.

All the pictures are taken by Massimo Tartaro. See more of his work here.

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