West Turkey

We visit spectacular Greek ruins at Ephesus and Aphrodisias and ancient hot springs at Pamukkale before traveling up the Meander River and steaming in a Turkish bath. Rick provides tips on staying healthy in foreign countries, and makes exotic Turkey feel more familiar, showing its devout Muslim beliefs and compelling blend of ancient and modern nomadic life.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves. In this series we’re exploring the best of Europe’s offbeat nooks and back door crannies. Glad you’re with us. This time we’re spicing things up, leaving Europe for the more exotic charms of Turkey.

This time we’ll explore western Turkey. After a traditional Turkish bath, we’ll team up with my Turkish tour guide friend and see the Roman ruins at Ephesus, then we’ll soak in the exotic mineral springs at Pamukkale, see some of the latest finds at the dig in Aphrodisias, munch lunch in a Turkish pizzeria, learn why the dervishes whirl in their holy city, Konya, and sip tea with nomads in their home, a tent.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey links Europe with the Middle East and Asia. Starting in the port town of Kuşadası, we’ll explore ancient Ephesus. Then we’ll travel up to Pamukkale, visit Aphrodisias, and finish in Konya.

I remember when I was in my 20s, for eight years in a row my European trip would finish in Turkey. I didn’t plan that way. It was the natural finale, the subconscious cherry on top of every year’s travel adventures.

Travelers to this Muslim country find a fascinating cultural mix of ancient traditions and western ways.

The cruise port of Kuşadası is a good, low-stress place to start our Turkish adventure. Right off the boat you get the distinct feeling — you’re no longer in Europe.

I find Turkey every bit as tasty, friendly, and rich in history as Greece and my money goes about twice as far.

Turkey is being discovered. While most visitors find that it is a safe and friendly place, it still feels exotic.

Some women may be more comfortable traveling with a partner. But with a spirit of adventure and applying your common sense, I think anyone can find Turkey as intriguing as I do.

The friendly charm of Turkey makes it clear: Life’s a festival and visitors are welcome.

I relax and get into a Turkish mood by taking a Turkish bath, or hamam. Because of the Islamic emphasis on personal cleanliness, the baths has been an important part of daily life since medieval times.

After the sauna, the cleansing process crescendos into an exhilarating ritual of washing, scrubbing, and sudsing that literally deep-cleans the pores of the skin.

Along with the steam-cleaning, the hamams are a place for socializing.

Now I’m off to the nearby barber shop for more socializing and a shave I’ll never forget. And this young man has decided to go with just a haircut.

Colorful Kuşadası is fun, but I use it as a springboard from which to dive deeper into Turkey. Just a few miles away is Ephesus, the ancient home of the Ephesians. If you can’t find the bus stop don’t worry; between stations you can flag down a minibus. This one’s heading for Ephesus.

This is a dolmuş — kind of a cross between a taxi and a bus. You hop on one heading in your general direction, tell them exactly where you’re going, then relax; they’ll tell you when to jump out.

Ephesus was made famous from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, found in the Bible. This is one of the best ancient sites anywhere.

This is my friend Mehlika Seval. She wrote the guidebook on Ephesus. She’s agreed to join us as we cover Turkey’s greatest hits. With Meli’s expertise, we can resurrect some of this Ephesian rubble.

Meli: Ephesus was one of the biggest metropolises of the Roman Empire in the time of Christ, It had quarter of a million population — 250,000 people lived here. Can you imagine only 15 percent of it has been excavated?

Once a thriving seaport, Ephesus was sacked by the Goths in the third century A.D. It was finally abandoned after the harbor silted up. It now lies five miles inland from the Aegean Coast.

Meli: This temple was built in the second century A.D. and it was dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian. They put Medusa up there to scare off the evil spirits. She’s apparently doing her job right — the temple survived.

Just off the main drag, we found some public toilets.

Meli: Two thousand years ago in Ephesus, they took so much pride in their toilets; they had mosaics on the floor, frescoes on the walls. They even had a musician on the platform there — the music was not for aesthetic purposes, it was to compete with the noise going around here, with 48 people using it at the same time!

This was the third largest library of its time, after the one in Alexandria, Egypt, and Pergamum, Turkey. Not only were they able to build such a beautiful building, but they had gorgeous architecture; double walls surrounded the library, air ventilated through it, so insects and humidity wouldn’t deteriorate the scrolls of papyrus and parchment.

Through the pair of columns you can see four women. They stand for knowledge, friendship, understanding, and wisdom.

It was in this theater that Paul planned to give his talk, instructing the Ephesians to stop worshipping man-made gods. In the case of Ephesus, that was the goddess Artemis.

The local crafts people produced these little statues of Artemis. When they realized Paul’s message would ruin their businesses, they started a riot. Can you imagine this theater filled with 25,000 people shouting in one angry voice for two hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians”? Paul was driven from the town. He had to give his message by letter and because of that, we’ve got Paul’s letter to the Ephesians in the Bible.

At just about any ancient Mediterranean site, the art treasures, such as this magnificent, eight-foot-tall statue of Artemis, are kept on display in a museum, safe from the polluted air and vandals. Artemis is draped in symbolism. Some people believe these are rows of breasts. Many disagree. Whatever they are, they seem appropriate for a goddess of fertility.

Artemis was a popular goddess and her temple was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

I’ve always traveled through Turkey by its fine public bus system. But Meli offered our TV crew the use of her car. For our shooting, it’s a worthwhile luxury.

We’re driving up the Meander Valley. Our destination is the city of Konya via the mineral spa of Pamukkale. The river wanders through the Valley and that’s where it derives its name and gives us the origin of the word “meander.”

The Meander Valley is known for its fertility. They enjoy four harvests a year.

The locals, proud of how nature has blessed the Meander Valley, are famous for giving travelers a car wash. For many Turks, this abundance of water is quite a treat.

Now we’ve come to the ancient city of Hierapolis. For 3,000 years the curative waters of the local mineral springs and the tranquil setting have attracted the rich and frail. In Roman times, people came here to spend their last years and to die. The result is this necropolis, or city of the dead.

Meli: The remarkable thing about this necropolis is people of different religions — they were buried side-by-side in their own tombs — a mound, a sarcophagus, or a home-shaped megarow…unique…very unique.

Just a short walk from Hierapolis are the ancient mineral springs of Pamukkale. They’re still a popular play area for today’s Turks. A modern hotel surrounds this pool that is littered with a spectacular assortment of ancient roman columns that sparkle beneath the crystal-clear water. It’s like bathing in hot Champagne.

Outside of the hotel are the wondrous white cliffs. They create a never-to-be-forgotten scenic backdrop for bathers. The waters flowing over the rocks leave a calcium residue that whitens and solidifies, creating these pools and troughs that become water a playground.

Tomorrow, in the cool of the morning, when the colors are warm and the tour groups are still sleeping, we’ll visit Aphrodisias.

But tomorrow can wait. Right now I’m going to lean back and enjoy the beauty of the sunset over Pamukkale.

Aphrodisias is the ancient city of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. It’s a relatively new excavation. The more they dig the more many archaeologists believe that Anatolia, rather than Mesopotamia, is the cradle of our civilization.

This is a proper stadium — one “stadion” long — that’s about two football fields. It could seat 30,000 fans and was used for boxing, animal fights, and racing.

We’re on the road to Konya and hungry. Time for some Turkish fast food. A Turkish pizza is called pide. Meli’s having vegetarian, I’m going with the carnivores. It’s a popular dish.

Meli: Here’s your favorite drink. Ayran — would you like some?
Rick: I’d love some, you know I like the ayran. You know, everybody likes the Turkish pizza, but we have to encourage a lot of travelers to try the ayran. Ayran is made out of yogurt with water…
Meli: And salt.
Rick: And salt. It’s very refreshing, but most of all it keeps you healthy. Oh, yeah.

Anyone planning a trip to Turkey will understandably be concerned about their health. I protect my health with good traveler’s common sense — such as using bottled water. With appropriate cautions in mind I enjoy diving heartily into the local cuisine.

This is Konya, one of the most orthodox towns in Western Turkey. For a modern woman like Meli, the town’s a bit conservative, but I’m looking for Turkey in the extreme and this is a good place to start.

This city of half a million people is one of the oldest in the world, with known settlements dating back over 5,000 years.

In the first century, when Konya was called Iconium, Saint Paul visited three times. And during its heyday in the 13th century, Konya was the capital of the Selçuk sultanate of Rum.

I’m looking forward to strolling the streets, visiting the open-air market, and experiencing the contrasts of the old and the new in this city which rocks to the rhythm of workaday Turkey.

Konya is the home of Mevlana, a thirteenth century Muslim philosopher who preached a message of love. His tomb is the focus of many pilgrims.

The ancient museum explains his teaching with a display of significant writings, artwork, and other objects associated with his life and teachings.

Mevlana attempted to distill the Koran into a pure and simple anthem of love. His sect is a mystical expression of mainstream Sunni Islam and his followers, called dervishes, have dedicated their lives to living out his message of love.

Mevlana focused on connecting the powerful love of God with us on Earth. He said, “I looked for God in all the temples, mosques and churches, and found him in my heart.”

Mevlana’s dervishes whirl themselves into a meditative trance. While raising one hand toward Heaven, the other toward Earth, they plant one foot upon the Koran…the Muslim word of God…while the other symbolically walks through all the world.

Whirling dervishes are not just another cultural cliché kept alive for tourism. And a thoughtful visit to Konya, the city of Mevlana, can leave you with some powerful mental souvenirs.

For years I was disappointed in the ugly unfinished townscapes of Turkey. Then I learned that any local in need of a hedge against Turkey’s hyper-inflation keeps a building under construction as the family savings account.

Whenever there is a little extra cash, rather than watch it evaporate in the bank, Meli, for instance, invests it in the next stage of construction for her family’s building.

Meli: I know it looks unattractive, but it will be a future home for a family. In Turkey we say, “rebar holds the families together.”

The energetic and lively atmosphere in this country village is typical of the change that Turkey is experiencing as it scrambles rambunctiously into the modern Western world.

But the Turkish way of life is painted onto this land with an indelible cultural ink. If you put your guidebook aside, follow your wanderlust, and stop long enough to notice, you’ll find it…in places like a nomad’s black tent.

Like many modern nomads, our new friends are camped just out of the village along the highway. A generation ago, many Turks led a pastoral life. Now only a few still follow their flocks.

The shepherd’s little daughter Yazmin is our enthusiastic hostess.

Rick: Goat city?
Yazmin: Goat city!

The goats provide food and the wool for their “black tents”…These are the “black tents” spoken of in the Bible. Almost 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul made tents very similar to these.

The dark goat hair is naturally rain-proof and cool under the summer sun. And it’s easy to move when it’s time to find a new place to graze.

The friendly hospitality of this family as they proudly share their home and their nomadic traditions reminds me what travel is all about.

Living close to nature, close to God, and close to their family, our new nomadic friends have shown us ways to be content in a tent.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our adventures through western Turkey. Its vivid and vital traditions, its evocative ancient sites, its unique natural wonders, and its beautiful ways of worship, with some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet everywhere in between. Join us next time for more travel fun.

Until then, this is Yazmin and I’m Rick Steves, wishing you Happy Travels.

Yazmin: Happy Travels.