Azara Blog: Observations on Turkey

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Date published: 2006/04/04

Turkey received a welcome fillip for its tourist industry because of the total solar eclipse on 29 March (normally the season doesn't start until a bit later in the year). Side, on the south coast, and the neighbouring area, was perhaps the best spot to view the eclipse. Apparently normally Side is a resort for Germans (the Brits apparently normally go elsewhere up the coast). And indeed, German was the most understood second language, but with English also fairly widely understood. Being a resort area, it is bound to be not very Turkish, until you head a few miles inland.

The day of the eclipse was perfectly sunny. The crowds gathered early in Side old town. Some group set up in the theatre with telescopes so that the show could be covered on the internet. Lots of people wandered up and down the ruins next to the Theatre. Even more people were crowded along the shore. The Temple of Athena was the main focal point. First contact arrived around half past noon. Second contact was around 2 PM. The eclipse lasted around three minutes forty seconds, and provided a fantastic view. It's all very anti-climatic as soon as third contact happens. By fourth contact people have long since moved onto other activities. It was fortunate all around as the next day it was extremely cloudy, as if Mother Nature also felt let down by the end of the show.

Around Side there are loads of Hellenistic/Roman ruins, so those too got a healthy visitation from all the tourists. (There are perhaps even more tourists in the summer, but presumably the standard German tourist is not that interested in the ruins.) Aspendos has a marvellously restored Roman theatre. Perge has a whole slew of remains. Termessos is perhaps the best ruin of all, perched 1600 m on top of a mountain. A 9 km road winds up the mountain, leaving a few hundred meters more of climbing on foot. Views are no doubt best on sunny days, but in fog the mystery of the place only grows. In particular, the necropolis, with giant rock tombs all tumbled about, is out of this world. Other more minor sites worth visiting are Seleukeia (Lyrbe) and Sillyon (Silyon on some signs), but both involve navigating rather poor roads near the end.

There is a main coastal road leading from Antalya to Side (and beyond). The ruins are mostly reasonably sign-posted from that road, in brown signs with white lettering. Only the signs are often only given on the junction itself, which is a bit late if you are speeding past (and no speed limits seem to be posted on any roads on the coast, and the alleged speed limits stated elsewhere seem to bear little relation with actual speeds, in common with the rest of the world). And the sign posts for Termessos are actually rather lacking until the one main road that leads up to the site. You can buy maps of the area but they are not very good (and one map can easily contradict another). So navigation is often reduced to gut feel.

After the eclipse, people left the coast mainly in the following few days. Many headed for Istanbul, so that also saw an influx of tourists. Istanbul of course is best known for its ancient sites, including the Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. And it is a bit of a dull city otherwise. In particular, post-war buildings seem to dominate and they are almost universally drab. But the ancient buildings are so great that Istanbul is definitely worth a visit.

Turkey is not the richest country in the world (although it used to be, once upon a time). It's a bit odd given that everybody seems to be hustling, and that kind of salesmenship has put the US at the top of the world. The south coast around Side is bad enough, with everybody wanting to either sell you a carpet and get you to eat in their restaurant. Istanbul is far, far worse. You cannot walk ten feet without getting hustled. The upside is that at least they do it with a smile. The downside is that they seem to be inveterate liars, in trivial ways that are easily found out, or at best embellishers, so of course you end up not believing anything they say, even if most of it is true. The Grand Bazaar is just the culmination of all of this.

Interestingly enough, the traders seem to be perfectly conversant in many currencies (even British pounds). (And the exchange rate offered is good.) But the currency that seems to be king is the Euro, not the dollar (or the Turkish lira).

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