In Turkey, the past is everywhere. Not only was it part of Ancient Greece, it was also a powerhouse province of the Roman Empire. As a sightseer, you are following in the footsteps of historical giants, like Achilles and Alexander the Great; the Roman emperors Trajan, and even Hadrian and Constantine.
Embarking on this historical tour with On The Go Tours, I was prepared to see some ridiculously awesome ancient ruins. What I hadn't expected was to be so wowed by the country's natural diversity. Travelling through Turkey, you take in not just the balmy Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea coastlines, but also wind-whipped steppes, barren deserts and alpine highlands.
Troy and Pergamum
Troy (as in the Troy of the Trojan War and Homer's Iliad) made for an exciting opening act of my journey – not least because I was familiar with its epic past having watched the 2004 Hollywood movie. Troy was in fact a stronghold from 3,000 BC, and archaeological digs reveal the houses, palaces and defences of not one but nine Troys. Each new city was built over the ruins of the other – the top (most recent) layer is Roman.
But it is the Homeric ghosts of Priam, Hector and Paris; Menelaus, Agamemnon and Achilles – and of course Helen – that linger. The oversized Trojan horse guarding the gate is a slightly tacky tourist attraction, but you can see why the present-day Turks had it built.
Next stop, lofty Pergamum, which once housed more than 100,000 ancient Greeks. The summit offers up the ruins of columned marbled buildings that must once have rivalled those of Athens. Taking in the splendid vistas, we went out on to a platform where the Altar of Zeus used to stand.
Considered one of the best preserved ancient cities in the eastern Mediterranean, Ephesus is ruin rich – you can explore its baths, temples, theatre and library. In its heyday during the Roman Empire, it had a population of over 400,000 which made it one of the largest cities in Roman Asia Minor. Ephesus is one of the big tickets of Turkish tourism, and you'll want to wake early to avoid the crowds. The Library of Celsus, which you'll have seen in travel books, is probably the site's most beautiful structure.
Pamukkale, meaning 'cotton castle', is aptly named. The ancient city sits in a totally arid landscape but offers up bubbling hot springs and ice-white travertines, terraces of carbonate minerals left by the flowing water. You can take a dip in the hot springs, believed since Greco-Roman times to have rejuvenating powers.
Cappadocia with its fabled 'fairy chimney' landscape of tall cone-shaped rock formations. An all-natural phenomena, resulting from erosion, Cappadocia's fairy chimneys are straight out of a Disney movie. I'd advise anyone to get their first real glimpse at sunrise, from a hot-air balloon. This was such an incredible experience. Our balloon rose with the sun, and as the fairy chimneys glimmered into being, they were bathed in a glorious orange glow. It's the stuff of psychedelic daydreams.
Probably the most visited archaeological site in Cappadocia is the Goreme Open Air Museum, a cluster of cave churches hewn out of the soft tufa rock. Beautiful murals and frescoes line the walls. You can also explore Cappadocia's underground cities, where early Christians hid from the Romans. There are around 200 known underground cities, some large enough to accommodate over 30,000 people.
On this trip, I travelled thousands of miles, through 10,000 years of history, taking in some mind-blowing natural scenery along the way. It's an experience I'd recommend to anybody. Returning to the present, to hip and happening Istanbul, actually came as quite a shock.
Read about my experience in Istanbul.