Soak up the soothing ambience of the Turkish Riviera
Golden rays beat down on the long beach, towels flutter in a gentle breeze and waves lap on the sandy shore. The Mediterranean Sea shimmers like a turquoise jewel.
I stretch out on a comfortable deck chair shaded by a wide beach umbrella, sipping a cocktail and soaking up the soothing ambience of the Turkish Riviera.
Sand & ruins
Located in the provinces of Antalya and Mugla on the southwest coast of Turkey, the Turkish Riviera is a fast-growing hotspot for Mediterranean beachgoers. It’s a sundrenched coastal region with more than 300 sunny days a year, so it’s not surprising European beachgoers are beginning to discover the region in droves.
For Aussies and Kiwis, travelling to the Turkish Riviera is a little further than hopping on a flight to Bali or Thailand. But, fortunately, the region has a rich history and plenty of fascinating archaeological ruins to justify the long flight.
There are Greek and Roman historic gems. The remains of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus dates back to 650 BCE and was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The theatre’s grey stone steps reverberate with centuries of history and it’s not difficult to imagine gladiators clashing swords.
Most of the seaside resorts are located in an area called Belek, which during Roman times was known as Pamphlyia. Belek is a visually appealing region sandwiched between the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Taurus.
Archaeological sites in the area include the ruins of Perge, originally settled by the Hittites around 1500 BCE and where most of the statues displayed in Antalya Museum were unearthed, and the ruins of Aspendos, which was an ancient Greco-Roman city constructed during the reign of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE). At Aspendos, there’s an aqueduct and remains of an agora, basilica and stadium, but the main drawcard is the Roman theatre — one of the best preserved in Turkey.
The theatre’s grey stone steps reverberate with centuries of history and it’s not difficult to imagine gladiators clashing swords. Fortunately for culture lovers, Aspendos is used as a venue for starlit ballet, opera and classical music concerts.
The city closest to the Riviera is Antalya, which has an atmospheric old town with a holiday vibe at its core. Its cobblestone streets are filled with bars, clubs, restaurants and leather shops. Antalya is also a popular port for ships cruising the Mediterranean.
Golf & spa
When it comes to golf holidays, Turkey is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Turkey’s low cost of living means a Mediterranean golf vacation can cost a lot less than in other places in Europe.
The seaside region of Belek is a major golfing destination. There are 15 professionally designed golf courses in Belek, including the challenging PGA Sultan course at the Antalya Golf Club, which has long fairways, gentle slopes and strategic water and sand hazards.
I’m staying in the area’s newest star on the strip, Club Med Belek, a resort that was built in 2008 but renovated and reopened in June 2012. It’s a four-trident (equivalent to stars) resort with 16 luxury villas. For golfers, the location is ideal: right next door to Turkey’s top-ranking golf course. The prestigious 18-hole Lykia Links course has a golf club, training bunker, chipping green, driving range, pitching green and putting green.
The golf club offers introductory lessons for beginners, group classes for all levels and golfing for kids through Mini Club Med (for little ones under eight years old); children 11 years and older get to join adults’ group lessons.
Aside from golf, Club Med Belek is a good place to base yourself for an active resort holiday. Various sporting programs are available, including a Flying Trapeze Academy with energetic circus activities such as tightrope, juggling and trampoline, coaching lessons at the Tennis Academy and a host of water sports such as sailing, windsurfing and jet skis.
The Wellness Centre, Club Med Spa by Carita, helps guests unwind and detox in one of its 12 treatment rooms, whirlpool, sauna and body scrub rooms. The focus is on relaxing and unwinding around a series of steam baths and saunas. Programs are organised around the themes of anti-ageing, Beauty, wellness and slimming. These baths borrow themes from cultures around the world.
There’s a Finnish-style sauna heated at 90 degrees Celsius and a Russian sauna heated at 105 degrees Celsius, designed to exude dry heat that will sweat out toxins. The Japanese pool is a tranquil area with a tranquil Zen Garden space.
The Turkish bath is popular and offers benefits such as sweating out toxins as well as inducing relaxation. The temperature in this steam bath is set to around 50 degrees Celsius.
Turkish bathing traditions
Turkey has a tradition of public bathing that dates back thousands of years. Characterised by wall-to-wall marble and a high dome above a heated slab on which bathers sweat and chat, many hamams cater for foreigners and offer a range of treatments. Experiences vary from inexpensive do-it-yourself baths using your own soap, shampoo and towel to the luxurious “sultan treatment” of bath, massage and exfoliation.
Popular Turkish bath houses in Istanbul, which is the gateway to Turkey and where most travellers enter the country, include: the historic Cagaloglu Hamami, in which King Edward VIII, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Cameron Diaz are said to have scrubbed up; Çukurcuma Hamami, the city’s famed gay hamam; Süleymaniye Hamami, a tourist-oriented mixed hamam where both genders bath together naked (it’s generally customary for men and women to observe strict segregation when bathing); and ÇemberlitaÅŸ Hamami, which is housed in a building designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan, dating back to 1584.
In a typical Turkish bath, the experience is communal and rather public. Reception areas are filled with men wearing towels wrapped around their waists. You lie naked in a vast marble hall filled with noisy strangers while being kneaded and scrubbed by a hefty Turkish masseuse.
For a more private experience, head for a spa in a luxury hotel such as the Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton and Çiragan Palace Kempinski. Here guests are treated in small marble hamam rooms decorated with quality designer fittings with all the trimmings expected in a luxury hotel spa such as thick terry-towelling bathrobes, scented aromatherapy oils, designer toiletries, herbal teas and luxuriously furnished post-treatment lounge rooms.
Centuries of Byzantine and Ottoman history have left Istanbul with a legacy of dreamy, curved-domed mosques and majestic churches, grand palaces and bustling souks.
Istanbul is mysterious and romantic. It has centuries of Ottoman history layered over Byzantine history, giving the city an air of fantasy. The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya will still take your breath away.
Aya Sofya was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years, until Mehmet II converted it into a mosque in 1453. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (founder of the Turkish republic) turned it into a museum.
The excesses of the Byzantine Empire left a legacy of ancient Roman walls, Byzantine churches, columns, public baths and aqueducts while the Ottoman Empire left hundreds of mosques and curved domes, wooden mansions, palaces and bazaars.
Sailing along the Golden Horn (which is the section of the Bosphorus separating the European and Asian sides of the city) at dusk provides alluring vistas of domes and minarets silhouetted against a pale orange sky. It’s a setting worthy of a scene from a One Thousand and One Nights Arabian fairytale.
The Topkapi Palace conjures images of harems, sultans and royal riches. Its marbled, mosaic courtyards, corridors and harem echo with stories and characters from another world, such as Selim the Sot, who drowned in his bath after drinking too much champagne, and Ibrahim the Mad, who lost his mind after being locked up for four years in the palace kafes, or cage.
The palace was built in 1453 by Mehmet II (who conquered Constantinople in 1444) and was home to the Ottoman rulers right through to the 19th century. The treasury rooms leave no doubt that the Ottomans were a force to be reckoned with. Most impressive is the bejewelled sword of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Topkapi Dagger (with three enormous emeralds on its hilt) and the KaÅŸikçi (Spoonmaker’s) Diamond (an 86-carat teardrop rock surrounded by a glitter of smaller stones).
At the Spice Bazaar, I stroll past rows of cheese vendors selling Turkish kaÅŸar and white peynir cheeses. Thick slabs of cheese are piled on top of each other behind glass cases. The air is heavy with the aroma of exotic spices. There are stalls piled high with stuffed apricots, figs, dates and cubes of Turkish delight. These stalls do a booming trade with tourists and locals. Some have been around for over 100 years.
A few alleyways away, in a traditional Turkish medicine shop, an entire wall is lined with rows of glass jars filled with mysterious oils. A young man called Enzer tries to sell me teas, herbs, tinctures and oils that cure everything from haemorrhoids to impotence. He lifts a pear-shaped bottle with luminescent straw-coloured liquid — labelled Night of Istanbul — from a shelf and dabs some perfume on my wrist. According to Enzer, it’s the herbal love potions (or Turkish Viagra) that is the top-seller in his shop.
Not far from the Spice Market, the Grand Bazaar is a shopaholic’s Mecca and a labyrinth of domed-roofed laneways. The oldest part of the building dates back to the 15th century. I follow the maze of alleyways past rows of shops selling leather coats, jewellery and carpets. There are other shops with pretty glass lamps, replica Ottoman weapons, mother-of-pearl mirrors, water pipes and hand-painted ceramic bowls.
After wandering around for several hours, I stop to chat with a local carpet dealer. His eyes light up at the prospect of a sale. It’s a slow day for the merchant and when he learns I’m not in the market for a carpet, he is equally as happy to oblige in one of Istanbul’s popular pastimes, sipping tea and talking about life.
ANZAC Day in Turkey
April is a popular time of the year to travel to Turkey because of ANZAC. On April 25, 1915, soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force landed at Anzac Cove, marking the start of a bloody eight-month campaign. Around 130,000 Allies and Turks were killed in the battles that followed, including more than 8700 Australians, 2700 New Zealanders and over 80,000 Turks.
To mark the centenary of ANZAC Day, 2015 has been named the Year of Turkey in Australia and record crowds are expected at the 100-year commemoration at Gallipoli.
Here are some tours that retrace the footsteps of the ANZACS:
- Insight Vacations’ 12-day Battlefields of the Western Front escorted journey provides the opportunity to experience the region with Australian military history experts. 1300 727 767
- Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours is headed by Australian war historian, author, journalist and media commentator Mat McLachlan, who combines extensive wartime knowledge with storytelling. 1300 880 340
- Tempo Holidays has been organising Anzac Day tours to Gallipoli for over 20 years. The tours have been specially designed for Australians and New Zealanders and take travellers to sites of historical significance to both countries. 1300 558 987
- Flight Centre has a 13-day package combining a dawn service at Gallipoli with a selection of Turkey’s touring highlights. 1300 939 414
Club Med Belek is located on the Turkish Riviera, 55km from Antalya. 1300 855 052
What to do
In the Turkish Riviera: Attend a concert at Aspendos Theatre
In Istanbul: Historic baths include Cagaloglu Hamami in the old district near the underground cistern; ÇemberlitaÅŸ Hamami near the Grand Bazaar; Süleymaniye Hamami; and Çukurcuma Hamami in the Beyoglu district. Expect to pay AU$20–50 (NZ$21–52/US$17–43), depending on the services requested.