TURKEY

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Turkey’s ter­rain, peo­ple and his­tory make for a colour­ful trip. Norma Meyer writes on how warm and hos­pitable Turk­ish peo­ple are, es­pe­cially when they find out she is Amer­i­can

I’ve ei­ther been pixie dusted or turned into Bar­ney Rub­ble. Ev­ery­where I look, tow­er­ing rock“fairy chim­neys” dot Turkey’ s fan­tas­ti­cal won­der­land of Cap­pado­cia. I’ll also ex­plore mys­ti­cal age-old cave churches, sleep in a “cave ho­tel” that en­tombs guests and drinks, and scoot­duck-gasp my way through a spooky an­cient un­der­ground city, one of dozens bur­rowed here. And wait un­til I dream­ily loat over it all in an Oz-like lame-breath­ing bal­loon.

“A prince fell in love with this beau­ti­ful fairy,” be­gins my guide, launch­ing into a tan­gled tale meant to ex­plain this sprawl­ing sur­re­alscape. The truth is, over mil­lions of years, Mother Na­ture eroded soft vol­canic tuff into ma­jes­tic “fairy chim­neys” vault­ing up to 130 feet high and shaped like cones, spires, obelisks and mam­moth mush­rooms. Just as ex­tra­or­di­nary, me­dieval monks and other troglodytes chis­eled out still-ex­ist­ing cave chapels, cave dwellings, cave cas­tles and sub­ter­ranean cave hide­outs.

I so dig Cap­pado­cia. Al­though it’s just one high­light of my colour­ful, cul­ture-rich trav­els in Turkey, which be­gin in ex­otic, mosque-graced, spice-hyp­no­tiz­ing Istanbul and end near the Aegean Sea in the fa­bled an­cient ru­ins of Troy (where, his­tory buffs will remember, He­len’s face launched a thou­sand ships).

But you ask, is Turkey safe? Tourism is slowly re­bound­ing fol­low­ing a series of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and an at­tempted coup in 2016. I go with a friend in Au­gust and feel as se­cure as any­where else. Ofi­cial US and Turk­ish re­la­tions may re­main strained, but I can’t stress how warm and hos­pitable Turk­ish peo­ple are, es­pe­cially when they ind out I’m Amer­i­can — be­sides beam­ing smiles, I re­ceive cus­tom­ary kisses on each cheek and have a con­tin­ual buzz from ac­cept­ing non­stop of­fers to drink cute demi­tasse cups of thick Turk­ish cof­fee.

CAP­PADO­CIA

In Cap­pado­cia’s Imag­i­na­tion Val­ley, rock conig­u­ra­tions en­chant­ingly re­sem­ble an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a camel, a co­bra and seals. No imag­i­na­tion is needed in Love Val­ley — for­ma­tions look like hu­mon­gous phal­lic male or­gans.

At dawn one morn­ing, I spec­tac­u­larly soar in a 12-pas­sen­ger hot air bal­loon, sur­rounded by an­other 100 rain­bow-hued bal­loons, as the neon or­ange sun­rise awak­ens these UNESCO-listed hoodoo hin­ter­lands. It’s way-out-of-this-world mag­i­cal.

“You know, peo­ple think my favourite movie is ‘Top Gun,’ “says my pi­lot, Hakan Yildiz. “But it’s re­ally ‘Ti­tanic.’ “

Over an hour (and more jokes) later, we smoothly land and toast with drink. Then I ly the coop to Pi­geon Val­ley, an­other bizarre realm where hu­mans whit­tled holes into wavy cliffs to house thou­sands of birds for cen­turies. Bun­yamin ear­lier spins the doomed love story about the prince and fairy, which (spoiler alert) in­ishes with un­sus­pect­ing sprites be­ing changed into pi­geons.

Ear­lier, we trek around the Goreme Open Air Mu­seum, an as­tound­ing Byzan­tine vil­lage of rock-cut chapels and monas­ter­ies with mys­te­ri­ous names such as the Snake Church and painted fres­coes of Je­sus. Or­tho­dox Chris­tian monks hand-hewed these cave churches and lived in­side as her­mits roughly 1,000 years ago.

The next day, I have one thought: panic. Some­how it’s stiled while crawl­ing through parts of Kay­makli Un­der­ground City. Eons ago, thou­sands of Chris­tians hid from Ro­man per­se­cu­tors in these hon­ey­combed sub-earth cav­erns that in­clude a small sta­ble, com­mu­nal kitchen and liv­ing quar­ters. Fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory, only for seem­ingly eons, I’m at a sin­gle-file tourist-jammed standstill, all of us crouch­ing nose-to-stranger’s rear in a sunken-ceilinged one-per­son-wide rock tun­nel. Whew, am I glad to gulp oxy­gen and a glass of the lo­cal Emir va­ri­etal drink back on the fresh-air ter­race of Ar­gos, my hill­side monastery-turned-bou­tique cave ho­tel with a knock­out view of Pi­geon Val­ley. There are a lot of cave ho­tels in this re­gion; mine has mod­ern, spacious suites in Old World stone vil­las and a se­cret un­der­ground pas­sage­way — only this one leads to a well-stocked drink cel­lar. Yabba dabba doo!

ISTANBUL

Cap­ti­vat­ing, bustling Istanbul is East-meet­sWest, cos­mopoli­tan-meets-an­tiq­ui­ties, and a bevy of street carts sell­ing Turk­ish sesame­coated “simit” pret­zel bagels. Here’s where my en­tire trip starts, af­ter a non­stop 13-hour light on Turk­ish Air­lines from Los An­ge­les. Is­lam is the pre­dom­i­nant reli­gion in Turkey, but the coun­try has a sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment and its peo­ple out­wardly re­flect that mix — some women don sum­mer shorts and tank tops; oth­ers don hi­jab head­scarves and long dresses. Fun­nily, I keep see­ing Turks wear­ing T-shirts that read “Cal­i­for­nia Surin,’ ““Venice Beach” or sim­i­lar hang-loose themes.

“Hello, you need saf­fron, cheap price, come in please, where are you from?” ask var­i­ous ven­dors in­side the cav­ernous 350-year-old stall-lined Spice Bazaar, a psy­che­delic feast for eyes and nose. Vi­brant mounds of count­less sea­son­ings (red pa­prika, yel­low curry, or­ange “chicken spice”), lower-bud loose teas (Ana­to­lian shadow rose), tra­di­tional treats (al­mond-stuffed dried apri­cots, yum!) and gelati­nous Turk­ish Delights can­dies are heaped next to scads of good-luck “evil eye” sou­venirs. Prices are so low — the plum­met­ing Turk­ish lira has made the dol­lar worth more — you need not hag­gle.

Mon­u­men­tal mosques are plen­ti­ful in Istanbul (the azure-tiled Blue Mosque, the or­nate cathe­dral­turned-mosque Ha­gia Sophia), but I pre­fer serenely grand Su­ley­maniye Mosque, built on or­ders of Sul­tan Suleiman the Mag­ni­icent and com­pleted in 1557. Mainly I’m in­trigued by his back­story: Suleiman wed red­head Rox­e­lana, a for­mer slave from his harem, “who kept nag­ging and nag­ging him that his son was go­ing to de­throne him,” says my guide Yaman Yaka of KD Tours. “Suleiman did many great things.” Ex­cept par­ent­ing; he had his son stran­gled to death.

I’m pam­pered like a (non-mur­der­ous) sul­tan at the ex­quis­ite Ci­ra­gan Palace Kempin­ski ho­tel, the mar­bled, chan­de­liered one­time home of Ot­toman Em­pire rulers and dat­ing back to the 17th cen­tury. How cool is this: Turkey strad­dles two con­ti­nents, so I re­lax on my bal­cony in the im­pe­rial ho­tel, which is lo­cated in Europe, and stare across the glis­ten­ing Bospho­rus Strait at Turkey in Asia. Bill Clinton, Madonna and Sophia Loren are among past VIP guests. In the classy restau­rant, I lap up the fa­vorite dessert of Sul­tan Mehmed the Con­queror — choco­late “Palace Pud­ding” em­bel­lished with gold leaf.

CANAKKALE

Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad” fa­mously memo­ri­alised the Tro­jan War. I just remember see­ing spear-ling­ing Brad Pitt and his sculpted abs in the 2004 swords-and-san­dal block­buster movie “Troy.”

That helps when we set out from Canakkale, a town near the north Aegean Sea, to ex­plore the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ru­ins of the lore-rid­den an­cient city of Troy. Leg­end has it that more than 3,000 years ago, the bloody, decade­long Tro­jan War was fought here to res­cue gor­geous mar­ried Greek Queen He­len, who was ei­ther kid­napped or ran off with Prince Paris of Troy. Ul­ti­mately, the Greeks pre­tended to re­treat with their ships, leav­ing a gi­ant wooden Tro­jan Horse as a “gift” — but sur­prise! Sol­diers were stashed in­side and Troy was sacked.

From Canakkale, one day we ride a ferry to the haunt­ing World War I bat­tleields of Gal­lipoli, where mil­i­tary stat­ues and graves pay homage to Turk­ish sol­diers and then-en­e­mies Aussies and Brits. An­other morn­ing, a ferry brings us to fes­tive beach­goer-packed, turquoise-wa­tered Boz­caada Is­land. But it’s our 170-pas­sen­ger, 64-ve­hi­cle-car­ry­ing ferry to Gokceada Is­land that grabs news head­lines (“STRANDED”) when it runs aground a peb­ble’s throw from the des­ti­na­tion’s dock. Re­ports claim ei­ther the steer­ing or en­gine failed and the cap­tain stopped us from crash­ing ashore. Any­way, 2½ hours later (I calmly await res­cue with a grilled cheese sand­wich), the Turk­ish Coast Guard ar­rives and evac­u­ates us to their boat. Maybe this is when I need a “fairy.”

The Su­ley­maniye Mosque is an ar­chi­tec­tural land­mark in pic­turesque Istanbul. Be­low: The arche­o­log­i­cal ru­ins of Troy in­clude the an­cient leg­endary city and eight other civil­i­sa­tions built on top of each other.

A friendly ven­dor in Canakkale sells simit bread rings, a favourite street food in Turkey.

The Goreme Open Air Mu­seum is a com­plex of rock-carved churches and a UNESCO her­itage site.

Up, up and away at sun­rise in Cap­pado­cia, where hot air bal­loons drift over a su­per­nat­u­ral land­scape.

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