A taste of two cities, with a slice of Turkey

The frenzied pace of Istanbul makes it feel like a capital city, but it isn't. Penny Young passed through and headed for the real thing - Ankara

THE battered old train shuddered to a halt. It had reached the end of the track and there wasn't anywhere else to go - except splash into the sea at the bottom of the street. The first leg of my journey across Turkey to Syria - on the old Orient Express line into Istanbul - was over.

The train ride from the suburban railway station close to the Sea of Marmara a couple of miles from Istanbul airport costs the equivalent of about 20p. But taking the train is not just a cheap ride - it is a chance for a do-it-yourself history tour on your way into Istanbul. The train rattles through the Turkish back streets with their 19th-century dilapidated wooden houses and roars by the battlements and towers built by the Byzantines in the 5th century. There's a glimpse of the raki-rollicking fishing village of Kumkapi as it lurches around the corner before the rumbling underneath Topkapi Palace, the power seat of the Ottoman sultans. The ride is a way of slipping in to Istanbul through the back door. It gives you time to prepare for the shock.

Because Istanbul is a shock. It is a huge, slap-in-the-face tumble of a city. The best way to deal with it is to walk straight down to the sea, lean against the railings (ignoring the stares of the fishermen) and take it smack on the chin: look north up the straits of the Bosphorus linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara - which divides Europe and Asia.

It will probably take you a week or two to work out whether you are in Europe or Asia. The rest of the time will be spent in a frenzy of sight- seeing, bargaining and eating. But although Istanbul feels like a capital city, it isn't. The capital of Turkey is nearly 500 kilometres away in the middle of Anatolia - and that was where I was heading.

Around 70 years ago, Ankara was a small village cluttered around an ancient citadel, renowned for its Angora sheep's wool. To general surprise, the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, chose it to be Turkey's first city. These days, it is worth a few days to visit the sights including the mausoleum of Ataturk which looks like an Inca palace and the citadel which is lived in by extended Turkish families who hang out their washing and white vests over the battlements.

Ankara is built on a flat plain in between hills; the highest hill is Cankaya where most embassies are, but the guide books don't tell you that you can go up there at night for stunning city-scapes. The guide books also don't mention NET Piknik, a restaurant in a street behind Kizilay frequented by Ankara's workers, intellectuals, lovers and friends. I found it the most egalitarian restaurant in the world with waiters happy to serve a lone female tourist mind-blowingly strong "cin ve toniks" (costing about 30p) without flinching.

You can get to Ankara from Istanbul by bus along the new motorways in about five hours. But I took the train (which takes double that) because I wanted to take a bicycle. In the event there was no guards' van so I attached the bike to the back door of the last carriage and the ever-accommodating Turks accepted the arrangement with a shrug and a smile.

The pipes under the seats, which pulled down as beds, belched out hot air all night and it was like sleeping in a Turkish hamam. But the views at the crack of dawn as the train crossed over the Tauros mountains were worth it: grey jagged peaks, plunging sheersided valleys, rivers like slivers of mirror at the bottom, red poppies, wild hollyhocks and yellow gorse.

I reached the city of Sanliurfa after catching a bus from Adana, the bicycle travelling upright in the snug luggage compartment. Urfa is the gateway to the south east of Turkey. The city is built in a hot dusty bowl on the edge of the steppes of Mesopotamia. Legend has it that Abraham, a revered prophet for Muslims, was born here and in the middle of the city is a graceful complex of mosques and Islamic schools built in a series of green parks around sacred carp pools.

As I cycled around Urfa hunting for hotels, the male youths of the city couldn't contain themselves. They pelted after me, a hooting, yelling, laughing throng on bicycles and motor bikes. I pretended to ignore them (difficult) and took refuge in the Guven Hotel, opposite the tourist- class Hotel Harran. For around pounds 3 I had a double room of my own with a clean shower and endless hot water.

Just down the street from the hotels are Urfa's bazaars, a world of alleyways, chambers and ancient khans, doorways, cool secret courtyards, blinding pools of light and deep shadows. You can buy Aladdin carpets and bulging sacks of white cotton and wool, tins, plastic bowls and enormous balls of rope and string, sacks of green henna and rich red Urfa pepper, copper and gold, fur-lined jackets, lentils, peas and tea. I admired the fluffy sheepskin rugs until I practically fell over the carcasses lying in pools of blood, hanging up to air or being chopped up and shaved.

"Hello, do you speak English," shouted a little boy who grinned with delight when I said yes. Down one back street, I stumbled across a vaulted cellar full of Arab horses and little donkeys chewing hay in the gloom. The owner of the stable offered to make me a glass of tea. But I headed off to climb up to the citadel to wave to the children playing on the roofs of their houses and to admire the spectacular view over the city in the bowl of the barren hills smoothing out into the steppes which disappear in the distance down to Syria and further over into Iraq. I was off to Syria by bike. It looked a long way.

FACT FILE

turkey

GETTING THERE

Return flights to Istanbul cost from pounds 200 with Istanbul Airlines. Turkey tour specialist Allegro Holidays (tel: 01625 520777) has late deals departing 31 August to Altinkum, Bodrum, Gumbet or Marmaris for pounds 299 per person, for 14 nights b&b or self catering. Price includes return flights and transfers. Flight-only (charter) from pounds 209 return.

GETTING AROUND

Guide books are unenthusiastic about train journeys in Turkey because they take twice as long as buses but I prefer them. Trains leave for Ankara from Haydarpasa Station on the Asian side of Istanbul throughout the day. The Baskent Express leaves at 10am and arrives in Ankara at 5.15pm. Tickets are just pounds 5. From Ankara to Adana, you take the Cukurova Express, which leaves Ankara daily at 8.10pm and arrives in Adana anytime after 9am the following morning. Tickets cost pounds 4.

WHERE TO STAY

Most visitors to Istanbul stay in the Sultanahmet area where there is a wide selection or hotels, pensions and dormitories. If you have plenty of cash, Yesil Ev, an Ottoman house, exquisitely restored with sumptuous period furniture, rents rooms from pounds 75 (single) to pounds 110 (double). (tel: 00 90 212 517 6785). If you are on a tighter budget, the Interyouth hostel, behind St Sophia, rents out bunk beds in a dormitory for pounds 5 a night (tel: 00 90 212 513 6150). The Pera Palas Hotel in Beyoglu, over the Golden Horn, was the first of Istanbul's grand hotels and guests have included Agatha Christie and Kemal Ataturk. Rooms from pounds 100 (tel: 00 90 212 251 4560). In Ankara, there are lots of cheap hotels around Ulus, below the citadel hill, including Hotel Kale (tel: 00 90 312 311 3393). In the heart of the modern city, Kizilay, Hotel Old Ertan is on Selanik Caddesi (tel: 00 90 312 418 4084).

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