Turkey: Pillars of wisdom

A family holiday to Turkey is a chance to explore ancient remains and fairytale landscapes, but it can also prompt some awkward questions from your children

"Daddy, what's a brothel?" asks my seven-year-old daughter, as I lead her over the threshold into the den of iniquity. "Oh, it's just a big house," chips in my wife, brightly, while I dither over euphemisms. "It's where some men, sort of... relax."

Thankfully, the men in question have long since taken their relaxation elsewhere. More than 2,000 years ago, in fact. And now, as we step among the fallen columns, there is nothing but the word of our guidebook and the tell-tale engraving of a female foot to betray the shenanigans that once took place inside these crumbling walls.

Not, it seems, that there was much coyness about this establishment during its heyday, back when Ephesus was the busiest Roman port in the Aegean. The brothel sits directly opposite the library, now the tallest structure still standing. Its services, clearly, were a very public part of life.

By now I have grown used to my daughter's interrogations, and how they zero in unfailingly on history's more delicate areas. It started a week earlier in Istanbul where, amid the blue-tiled solemnity of the Topkapi Palace, I took a deep breath, adopted my best facts-of-life voice, and blustered through harems and eunuchs.

This school-trip dimension to our adventure has exposed some embarrassing parental ignorance. Turkey has taken us aback in the sheer multilayered density of its history. Did the Ottomans conquer the Byzantines or vice versa? How do you tell your Doric from your Corinthian? And who or what was a Hittite?

From the Topkapi Palace, Ottoman HQ for four centuries, we moved on to the Byzantine grandeur of Aya Sofia, where we peered up at the ornate dome and down into our guidebook. Next came the immense Blue Mosque, where – slipping shoes into plastic bags – we filed past kneeling worshippers and marvelled in stage whispers at the 20,000 tiles that had reputedly "exhausted the kilns of Iznik".

It was impressive. Mind-boggling, even. And soon it all became too much. Information overload and the vastness of the cityscape brought on tourist panic. How could we possibly "do" Istanbul in three days? Exhausted, we retreated to the calm of the Empire Palace Hotel, whose rooftop restaurant offered a more manageable window on the city.

But no such anxieties afflicted our daughter, Florence. While cherry-picking the odd morsel from our commentary, she was equally enthralled by the sea of tulips nodding in the palace grounds, the tattered stray cats that darted beneath kebab stalls ("Don't stroke that one!"), and – naturally – the ice-cream sellers, who spun their glutinous confection from tub to cone with such panache that it seemed only a courtesy to part with a few more lira.

So, taking our cue from a seven-year-old, we cast cares and guidebook aside and began simply to meander, popping on a boat up the Bosphorus, strolling down the pedestrian parade of Istiklal Cad and even braving the frenetic labyrinth of Kapali Carci, the world's biggest covered bazaar.

And when legs grew weary, we sat and sipped sweet cay from tall glasses, watching the anglers on the Galata Bridge while the call to prayer reverberated over clanking trams. Gently we were marinating in the city's rich spices.

Our final night in Istanbul found us in the station's old ticket hall, watching whirling dervishes spinning in gyroscopic serenity to the haunting strains of the ayin. The seats were plastic, the traffic blared outside and the musicians were clamped to their mobiles during the interval. Yet as we spilled out on to the platform afterwards, the city's fabled romance – all that "gateway to the East" stuff – was palpable.


The next morning was a little less serene, as we collected our hire car downtown and edged out into the white-knuckle anarchy of Istanbul's traffic. Finally the city spewed us out through its high-rise suburbs on to a westbound highway. We followed the shore of the Sea of Marmara, across that northern nugget of Turkey that qualifies as Europe, towards the Gelibolu Peninsula – or Gallipoli.

Now the guidebook proved its worth. With one of us driving, the other could read out choice passages about what lay ahead. And so we learned, as we approached the cluster of cemeteries, how the ill-fated invasion in 1915 had cost more than 52,000 Allied lives and perhaps more than twice that number of Turkish, and yet had gained just 800m of Aegean hillside – metres that were immediately surrendered with the evacuation in January 1916.

"If so many people died," piped up our back-seat inquisitor, "why do people have wars?" I claimed driver's prerogative and passed on that one.

In the Gallipoli museum we filed in sombre procession past assorted weapons and uniforms. Outside, climbing above Anzac beach to look down at the rows of neat white crosses, we found the scrubby hillside heady with wild thyme and the explosive song of hidden nightingales. Had nightingales sung back then over the whine of bullets and thud of artillery? Probably.

Gallipoli had been a failed attempt to wrest control of the Dardanelles, gateway to the Black Sea and Russia. Crossing these disputed straits proved easy enough for us, though, as we drove on to the car ferry from Eceabat. Lined up with the locals at the stern, we watched Europe recede in our wake and 30 minutes later were bumping up the slipway into the bustling port of Canakkale. This, we explained, was Asia – continent of the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China. Not that we could see any immediate difference.

Our destination was Assos, a fishing village on the Aegean coast. But first we made another brief diversion into history, taking an unassuming turning some 20km south of Canakkale signposted to Troy. Yes, the Troy.

This most legendary of ancient cities is not among Turkey's top tourist sites, largely because there's so little of it left. We scampered a quick circuit before the gates closed for the evening. Troy, it turns out, had enjoyed at least nine incarnations between 3,600BC and AD300, with each built upon the ruins of its predecessor. What remains today is a jumble of different eras, littered with reconstructions and archaeological digs. But as we gazed out west towards the sea, from where those pesky Greeks would have marched their armies, the golden late-afternoon light suffused the ruins with an appropriately mythical glow.

And the wooden horse? Happily, we found it near the car park – or at least a version of it, built by Turkish artist Izzet Sememoglu in 1975. We clambered up and down the steps and in and out of the beast's belly, firing off a barrage of silly snaps. Homer, we imagined, would be turning slowly in his grave.

Istanbul, Gallipoli and Troy all in one day? Historic Turkey was coming at us thick and fast, and it was with some relief that we collapsed into our hotel that night. We awoke the next morning, however, to find Assos a delight. Its sleepy cobbled harbour, once home to Aristotle and now a bolthole for the Turkish literati, is tucked into a steep hillside. Swallows dashed in and out of our hotel lobby as we glooped our breakfast yoghurt and honey on the terrace, while a gendarme re-arranged geraniums on the steps of the customs post next door.

Assos has its ruins, too. High above the village, these Roman remains have been plundered for their stone over the centuries and now seem a part of the geology. We scrambled up between limestone crag and crumbled necropolis, searching for history but again finding ourselves distracted by nature: a tortoise munching on wild flowers; shiny dung beetles trundling their burdens across the track.

It was the same story at Bergama, the next stop on our route south, where the ruins of ancient Pergamon overlook the modern town. Below the towering acropolis of the tyrant Eumenes II is a scarily precipitous amphitheatre, whose eighty rows once accommodated 10,000 spectators. We picked our way down the terraces, more mountaineers than archaeologists, sending gorgon-faced agama lizards dashing for their crevices.

Ancient ruins, however, are hot and dusty work, despite their hide-and-seek potential, and a seven-year-old rebellion was brewing. Our next stop was Ephesus – the big one – but first we needed a break. Thankfully Selçuk, where we had booked into our hotel, was a 10-minute drive from a sandy beach. History was put on pause for a day as we splashed in the tideless Aegean and consumed our own weight in mezze at a beachfront café.

So, batteries were fully recharged as, the next day, we entered that ancient brothel. And just as well, because Ephesus – arguably the world's greatest preserved Roman city after Pompeii – is huge. We wandered from temple to theatre and water palace to gymnasium, each turning bringing yet more turnings. It was like tramping around a good-sized English town.

Tour groups trailed behind their guides, snapping away and slapping on sun block. I grumbled at the crowds – as you do. But then it clicked that, of course, this is exactly how it should be. The city was once home to a quarter of a million. These streets would have been mobbed then, as now.

Meanwhile there were wonders to discover: the terracotta water pipes; the ancient wheel ruts; even the row of latrines, over which there was much squatting and giggling. Florence loved it, snapping away with a small digital camera, peeking from behind fingers at a relief of the Medusa and rolling a fig the length of the main street – just as, no doubt, figs were rolled by local urchins thousands of years before. It helped, of course, that we had promised ice cream and beach for afterwards. But it was a triumph, nonetheless.

Two days later and we were clinging to the rim of a large wicker basket in the chilly pre-dawn and rising slowly above the volcanic moonscape of Cappadocia. As our balloon gained height, with each dragon-roar of the burner, we joined a flotilla of similar enormous fluorescent globes, their colours glowing in the half light like some silent alien invasion.

Cappadocia lies at the very centre of Turkey – we flew here after dropping our car in Izmir – and its apparently barren landscape is a far cry from the verdant Aegean coast. Now we could believe that we were in Asia. The weird terrain rolling out beneath us was formed from compacted volcanic ash called "tuff" that smothered the land some 30 million years ago. Natural forces have since sculpted a wonderland of ridges, canyons and bizarre phallic protrusions known – perhaps a little kindly – as fairy chimneys. Ballooning gave us, literally, the perfect overview of this Dr Seuss landscape.

Back on terra firma, in the open-air museum of Göreme, we discovered that there have also been other forces at work here. Civilisations dating back to the Bronze Age have made a living from Cappadocia's fertile soils, and carved out their dwellings and refuges among its natural hideaways.

In the resulting honeycomb, where Byzantine monastery overlies Hittite labyrinth, it can be hard to tell geology from architecture. We clambered up pinnacles, through holes and along passages like mice investigating a mountain of Emmental. Narrow apertures led into soaring caverns, where frescos adorn vaulted ceilings and rock-hewn tables sprout like mushrooms from the floor. Tiers of recessed pigeon houses, the source of guano for generations of farmers, pattern the outer walls like bite marks. And Cappadocia's culture clearly did not die out with the ancients. At a local ceramics gallery we spun the potter's wheel with moustachioed master Galip and afterwards sampled the local guvec, a paprika-scented stew baked in a terracotta pot that was smashed open at our table.

We also enjoyed our own taste of troglodyte dwelling. In nearby Urgüp we were delighted to find that our charming family guesthouse – the Assiana Cave House – lived up to its name, with our bedroom carved like a fairy grotto into a cliff. Cubbyholes in the rock walls served us just as well for storybook and sunglasses as they once served others for axes and oil lamps. For fresh air we simply stepped on to the terrace with dazzling views of snowy peaks beyond.

Our last day saw us exploring southwards. At Derinkuyu we ventured into an eight storey-deep underground Hittite city, where I banged my head repeatedly – and crossed fingers against power cuts.

And then, to defeat any lingering claustrophobia, we hiked down the glorious Ihlara Valley, where canyon walls hid painted churches and the village of Selime boasted fairy chimneys so improbable that they once featured as a Star Wars location.

Cappadocia may be a World Heritage Site but – just like Ephesus – it also makes for a fabulous playground. And this was the lesson I took from Turkey: traipsing around the British Museum in quiet reverence is one thing, but for the non-historian – this one, at least – there's no better way to immerse yourself in the wonders of the ancient past than by treading it under foot and clambering around its contours in the sunshine. That way you get nature, too. Take your itinerary from a seven-year-old and you won't go far wrong. It might even sort out your Doric from your Corinthian.

Travel essentials: Turkey

Getting there

*The writer travelled with the Turkey specialist, Anatolian Sky Holidays (08448 757681; anatoliansky.co.uk).

The company can organise a tailor-made tour through Turkey, beginning in Istanbul and travelling to Troy, Ephesus, Bergama and Cappadocia from £1,869 per person.

The price includes 11 nights' accommodation with breakfast; flights with Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; thy.com) from Gatwick to Istanbul; internal flights from Izmir to Cappadocia and back to Istanbul; five days' car hire ( budget.co.uk); and a hot-air balloon excursion in Cappadocia.

*Istanbul is served by Turkish Airlines from Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester and Birmingham; by Pegasus Airlines (0845 0848 980; flypgs.com) from Stansted; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton; and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow. BA also flies from Gatwick to Izmir.

More information

*Turkish Tourism Office: 020-7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk

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