Driving through the West of Turkey was one of the most wonderful travel experiences – without knowing much in terms of what to expect from the landscape, we saw the earth rising up to snow-capped mountainous peaks, dip low into fertile valleys, open up to reveal beautifully placid lakes, and sink into the cyan-blue of the mediterranean sea. All of this intermittently occupied by Roman and Byzantine ruins, dusty little Turkish towns and the wonderfully warm Spring sun, often bathing the landscape in golden hues. Turkey is just a gorgeous country, and a road trip is the best way to see just how diverse and gorgeous it is.
We had lived in Istanbul for a couple of months last year during the off-season and while tourists gradually started wandering up our street looking for the Museum of Innocence towards the end of our stay, we packed our backpacks and took the road when it was still relatively quiet in the rest of the country (which is perhaps one of the best parts of the road trip).
DISCLAIMER: Our quirky cats get to stay at my mom’s house when we do cool things, but for this road trip my mom and her fiancé actually joined us allll the way from South Africa, so they got handed over to a friend. So technically not “two cats at mom’s”, but this itinerary still made the cut.
Day 1: Into the Woods
Istanbul – Bolu
We picked up our car and fought our way into Asia and out of Istanbul (a seriously crazy city to drive in or out of) until we found the open road hugging the narrowing East end of the Marmara Sea, mountain peaks with with snow hugging the opposite shore. We were barely out of Istanbul and it was the first taste of the beauty of the Turkish landscape that we would soon encounter in abundance.
A few hours later we arrived at Yedigöller (‘Seven Lakes’) National Park – a beautiful, mountainous area covered with lush forests and wildflowers and lakes and rivers. We followed our noses up the mountain, where it got greener and greener, higher and higher, colder and colder, until we were driving into a magical white flurry. Even higher it started snowing just a bit harder and we felt like this must be the road to heaven. We stopped to admire the freshest, softest, whitest snow, and eventually made our way down the mountain while the snow covered everything we just saw under her veil.
Day 2: The Cotton Castle at Sunset
Bolu – Pamukkale
A very long drive ended in the Denizli district, with the white travertine of Pamukkale glistening against the side of a mountain in the distance. We arrived there just before sunset, at about 18.30, which happened to be just perfect, because all the buses had already left with all the other tourists, it was the perfect time for photographs (the sun reflects very harshly on the white surface of the travertine), and it was open for three more hours.
Pamukkale, meaning ‘cotton castle’ in Turkish, is a site where natural hot springs and travertines were formed against the side of a mountain. It cascades down in naturally-formed terraces, each filled with pleasantly warm water, appearing brilliantly blue against the white of the limestone. It has been used as a spa ever since the ancient city of Hierapolis was built above it over 2000 years ago. We wandered through these ruins and the wildflowers that grow around them, all bathed in sunlight, and then we dipped our feet in the milky warm waters of the Cotton Castle.
Day 3: Secret Turkey
Pamukkale – Fethiye
We set out to visit Kaklık Caves the next morning (all the while giggling because it sounds a lot like ‘shit’ in our native language), understanding it to be like a small Pamukkale in an underground cave. We arrived at a tiny gravel car park (again, the only car), found some lone person who issued us 5 lira tickets (less than 2 USD!) and we followed the slippery wooden steps downstairs. By downstairs I mean we followed them under the earth. Before we even submerged into the cave we could see the brilliant, aquamarine-blue water glistening in the sun. And then it felt like we had stepped into a sauna as we traversed what seemed like an other-worldly terrain. It was wonderfully maintained and spectacularly beautiful, we were the only people there and we all agreed that Kaklık Caves can definitely hold its own next to its much more famous sister-site.
We then headed over to Laodikeia, still in the Denizli area, which is another significant ancient city – it’s claim to fame is that it is home to one of the ‘Seven Churches of Asia’ mentioned in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. It is an enormous site – its excavated ruins sprawled over hectares of green grass, framed by snow-capped mountains and overlooking a lush valley dipping into a river below. We roamed around, welcoming the hot Spring sun, before we hit the road again.
It was a short drive to Fethiye, but one of the most scenic legs of the trip. We followed the windy road through the mountains, stopping halfway at a roadside pitstop to drink some tea on a somewhat rickety porch overhanging yet another breathtaking valley with snowy mountains looming before and behind us.
Feeling lucky and happy.
Day 4: Mediterranean Blue and Abandoned Villages
Fethiye & Kayaköy
After a scenic drive around Fethiye’s coast, which is as zigzaggy as it is beautiful, we headed over to the ruins of a Greek village abandoned after the Greco-Turkish war in the early 20th century. Tucked away in between steep mountains, the romantically overgrown, roofless houses sit like ghosts on the mountainside. But we were also greeted with the sounds of live folk music and laughter, the wafting smell of grilled lamb burgers and aubergine, and the sight of families picking herbs and flying kites amid the fallen homes. This is a place where a community gets together and we happily joined in, strolling in the bright sun through weeds and wildflowers, with the mediterranean blue in sight from the top of the hill. The memories of this afternoon has become one of my happy places where I escape to from London’s gloomy weather (read a blog post just about our afternoon in Kayaköy).
Day 5: Good food and great AirBnB hosts makes up for terrible tourist traps
Fethiye – Ephesus
It was a leisurely drive with a lot of kodak moments, before we ended up at ‘Mary’s House’ in Ephesus. This is supposedly where Mary lived out the last days of her life – a little Catholic shrine tucked away in the mountains around Ephesus. We went because we were there and it was in a guide book. But they make you pay a ton (mandatory ‘donation’) for seeing the tiniest little shrine, and we were all grouchy about it and would say that it is definitely not worth it. All our good-weather luck had also run out, so we mumbled something like ‘screw mary’s house’ and got out of there.
Our spirits were lifted when we arrived at our AirBnB home – a beautiful, cozy cottage with friendly dogs and cats and a wonderful host. So, with a new cheerier disposition we headed off to explore the tiny, picturesque town of Şirince, whilst eating Dondurma in the rain (the chewiest, bestest, most delicious kind of ice cream ever). Şirince is said to have been occupied after Ephesus was abandoned in the 1400s, supposedly by freed Greek slaves, who named the town Çirkince (‘Ugly’ in Turkish) to deter others from following them. It was renamed in 1926 and it means ‘Pleasant’ instead!
After picking up some wine in Şirince and Turkish pizza in Selçuk (bigger town closer to Ephesus) we had a cozy night in, already reminiscing about our roadtrip.
Day 6: Not being able to believe our eyes
Ephesus – Bursa
We approached Ephesus tentatively and with much expectation. Apparently the world’s most complete ancient city, with only something like 12% excavated after 150 years of excavations. It is really difficult to fully understand its colossal, ancient magnitude when you’re there, and even more difficult to really relay what it feels like.
Ephesus did not disappoint. It was really an unforgettable couple of hours under the sun. It’s a very rare and special place, and we would highly recommend it.
Also. There are cats. Everywhere.
Just chilling on ancient things like they’ve been there for ages.
I am not even kidding when I say we saw a cat giving birth right in front of a gift shop. A truly eye-opening and terrifying experience which I try to not think about to much…
It was also the first time we actually felt like we were encountering tourists (probably because lots of mediterranean cruises stop at Ephesus). So being there in off-season was definitely one of our finest moments.
Day 7: Home Sweet Home
Bursa – Istanbul
After a quick trip up to the ski resort on Uludağ (‘Sublime Mountain’ in Turkish) into thick fog and deep snow, we headed home to Istanbul, ending our road trip on high note with a game of pool at our local Billiard place in Cihangir.
After nearly 2000kms, roughly 30 hours of driving, and a week of on and off-road adventures, we can confidently say that not only is Turkey as beautiful, diverse, and friendly as everyone says it is, it is also a perfect place for an unforgettable roadtrip.