Turkey's Hot

By Rick Steves

Turkey is even tastier, friendlier, cheaper, and richer in culture and history than its more popular neighbor, Greece. But the average Turk looks like a character the average American mother would tell her child to run from. If we're able to look beyond our visual hang-ups, we'll find some of the friendliest people in the world. 

Turkey is a proud new country. It was born in 1923, when Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, rescued it from the buffet line of European colonialism. He divided church and state, liberated women (at least on paper), replaced the Arabic script with Europe's alphabet, and gave the battle-torn, corrupt, and demoralized remnants of the Ottoman Empire the foundation of a modern nation. Because of Atatürk, today's 66 million Turks have a flag — and reason to wave it. For a generation, many young Turkish women actually worried that they'd never be able to really love a man because of their love for the father of their country.

At the same time, Turkey is a musty archaeological attic, with dusty civilization stacked upon civilization. The more they dig, the more they learn that Turkey, not Mesopotamia, is the cradle of Western civilization.

Today, Turkey is on the move. It's looking West and getting there. You can travel cheaply throughout the country on Turkey's great bus system. Telephones work. Hotels have email. Internet cafés are common in tourist areas. A few years ago I had a forgotten plane ticket expressed across the country in 24 hours for $5. Fifty percent of Turkey's 42,000 villages had electricity in 1980. Now all do. Does all this modernization threaten the beautiful things that make Turkish culture so Turkish? An old village woman assured me, "We can survive TV and tourism because we have deep and strong cultural roots."

Even the Turkish lira, once worth fractions of the dollar or euro, has recently been reborn. In 2005, the New Turkish Lira (YTL) entered into circulation, trimmed of six zeros and sporting fresh new designs.

Travel in Turkey is relatively cheap. Vagabonds order high on menus. And buses, which offer none of the romantic chaos of earlier years, take travelers anywhere in the country nearly any time for a great value.

Europe's most exotic city is Istanbul. In the bazaars, you'll hear the wailing call to prayer as merchants call to you, inviting you in for a look and a cup of tea. Istanbul has been a busy tourist center ever since it was Constantinople, the capital of the Roman empire. Still a major crossroads between East and West, it's the only city in the world that straddles two continents. And it does so gracefully.

Turkey knows it's on the fence between the rising wealth and power of a united Europe and a forever-fragile-and-messy Middle East. Surrounded by Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Greece, Georgia, and Bulgaria, Turkey isn't exactly in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Turks know the threat of the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. On Independence Day, stadiums around the country are filled with students shouting in thunderous unison, "We are a secular nation." While the country is 99.8 percent Muslim, they want nothing of the Khomeini-style rule that steadily blows the dust of religious discontent over their border. But fundamentalists are making inroads. As veiled women walk by, modern-minded Turks grumble — a bit nervously.

Many visitors are put off by Turkey's "rifles on every corner" image. Turkey is not a police state. Its NATO commitment is to maintain nearly a million-man army. Except far to the east, where this million-man army is dealing with the Kurds and Iraq, these soldiers have little to do but "patrol" and "guard" — basically, loiter in uniform.

Much of Turkey is scrambling into the modern Western world, but the traditional way of life is richly dyed and woven into the land like a Turkish carpet. In the cities, you'll see women on hands and knees washing rugs in the streets, and in the villages, cars share the road with donkey carts. Wander into the countryside. You'll still find sleepy goats playing Bambi on rocks overlooking a nomad's black tent. High above on the hillside, the lone but happy song of a goatherd's flute plays golden oldies. "Why do you play the flute?" I asked the goatherder. He said, "So the goats know they are loved." Down the hill, in the tent, his wife bakes unleavened bread and minds the children, knowing her man is near.

Leave the cruise ports far behind. To tour Turkey with abandon, go east, using Ankara as a springboard. Find a town that has yet to master the business of tourism, like Kastamonu (5 hours northeast of Ankara). Business hotels are comfortable, but not slick. I handed a postcard to the boy at the desk, hoping he could mail it for me. He looked it over a couple of times on both sides, complimented me, and politely handed it back. As I left, he raised his right hand like a cigar store Indian and said, "Hello." While changing money, I was spotted by the bank manager, who invited me into his office for tea. I was his first American customer.

Turkish villages seem unchanged since the time of St. Paul, who made his missionary journeys through this land nearly two thousand years ago. Entering a village, we were met warmly with friendly smiles and callused hands. A man with a donkey cart wheeled us through town. Each house wore a tall hat of hay — food for the cattle and insulation for the winter. The mountains of cow pies were neatly stacked promises of warmth and cooking fuel for six months of snowed-in winter that was on its way. Veiled mothers strained to look through our video camera's viewfinder to see their children's mugging faces. The town's annually elected policeman bragged that he keeps the place safe from terrorists. Children scampered around women beating raw wool with sticks a rainbow of browns that would one day be woven into a carpet to soften a stone sofa, warm up a mud brick wall, or serve as a daughter's dowry.

Complicated and ancient, exotic and down-to-earth, Turkey beckons. Those who haven't been to Turkey wonder why anyone would choose to go there. Those who've been dream of returning.