At the Crossroads of History

“Marlboro cigarettes, alcohol, women?” the cop asks, his jovial smile framed by the omnipresent symbol of Turkish virility—a brimming mustache.

We are six friends packed into a Toyota minivan on an adventure through Turkey’s rugged western landscape. The guidebook puts the speed limit on the motorway as 120 kilometers per hour (about 75 mph), and we’ve been sticking to it.

“Yes, yes, but on this section,” explains the officer in charge, peeling himself lazily from a lounge spot in the shade, “here, on this part, it is only 80.”

Likely story, but when we suggest he charge the fine to the rental car company rather than take cash, another officer offers an alternate solution: “Marlboro cigarettes, alcohol, women…or photo?”

Photo? You bet. I break out the camera. The cops pose with pleasure. And off we go. When it comes to ripping off tourists, the Turkish police have a lot to learn from their Mexican counterparts.

Pirates of the Aegean

Our Nikon moment happens during the daylong drive from Istanbul to Izmir, a midsize port on the Aegean where we’ll board a 40-foot gulet boat (Turkey’s version of a Pirates of the Caribbean ship) for four days of coastal cruising and village hopping.

“It’s Europe, no, it’s the Middle East, no, it’s Europe!” my friend shouts as we drive south on the way to meet our boat. Everything is a contrast of East vs. West — ancient fishing villages brimming with bountiful farm markets abutting shabby high-rise apartments, monuments to concrete and rebar. We can never quite grasp where we are and we like that.

The chic way to travel the Aegean is by chartered boat. We, however, are on a budget, and our fare is less than $300 apiece (on the Blue Cruise by V-Go Yachting). Once aboard, we meet our 12 shipmates, the captain, the first mate and the cook. Everyone is delightful and from a variety of countries, making for interesting conversations over meals.

The cabins are small and down below, where the swaying of the boat is accentuated. The first mate, a young shy man, suggests in halting English, “Sleep outside on the deck. There are mats.” The deck is expansive and accommodates us all. I fall asleep in the warm night on a blue pad that sucks me comfortably in like a sponge. In the morning, I wake to the captain’s voice.

 “Today you eat, you suhwim, we go town. We suhwim, you eat,” he says in an accent that is a mélange of French, Spanish and English.

And tomorrow, we ask.

“Yeeesss,” he says, pointing out our course on a tattered map, “we eat, we suhwim, we go to other town if you like, you suhwim. The map, eet doesn’t go there.”

I gaze at the sea—deep, blue, somewhere between cobalt and cerulean, gentle, the temperature of a cool bath—and think, I could get used to this.

One afternoon we make port at Kas, a small seaside town that matches Santa Barbara for boutiques, restaurants and inns. Fruit stands abound. We shop for costume Ottoman hats in a small bazaar and wrap ourselves in thick bath towels that would be the envy of any luxury spa.

In a nearby fishing village on Kale Island, a cafe welcomes us by its comedic name, I Am Here. Fresh orange juice quenches my thirst from a hike up to ruins of a nearby castle. A village matriarch, an elderly woman with the face of an apple doll, strokes one of the town’s ubiquitous cats. The cat purrs, and so do we, lulled by the languid, welcoming tempo of life here.

Istanbul, City of Many Cultures

After the boat drops us in Antalya, we return to where we began—Istanbul, a city in which Turkey’s ancient history and collision of empires is wrapped in a modern topcoat. The magic of Istanbul is the duality of old world and new, the mingling of Western culture and Eastern traditions, a tug-of-war between ancient and modern that remind you it was once the center of the world.

My grandmother used to sing, “C with an I with a Con-stan-ti. With an Ople and a Pople and that’s how you spell Constantinople.” In her generation, Turkey was wild and exotic. Today, Istanbul, like San Francisco, is urban, modern, architectural and culturally rich, and possesses a goliath structure as its landmark. The Bosporus Bridge—the Golden Gate Bridge’s transcontinental twin—traverses the Bosporus Strait, connecting Asia and Europe in a mile-long marriage of steel. Nighttime views of the city lights and gleaming Bosporus are sought after on balconies of posh restaurants such as the axiomatically named 360 Istanbul. With panoramic views, the 360 offers high-end dining and tasty libations. Cocktails and wine are taxed heavily in Turkey’s Muslim-influenced culture, but are in high demand.

Turkey is no longer the travel bargain it once was. Istanbul’s prices are on par with the euro and $8 beers or $50 cover charges in clubs are not uncommon. If you want a meal of Mediterranean and European cuisine like lamb and couscous, dates and roast duck in a polished restaurant, be prepared to pay. But there are also plenty of less expensive options if you’re willing to venture down a cobblestone alleyway and into one of Istanbul’s many hookah bars, which serve up a Turkish version of dolmas and kebabs for a few dollars.

On the Asia side of the Bosporus, which is mainly residential, my friends and I ate at the trendy Ulus 29, a bird’s nest of tables overlooking the Bosporus. The view came with a price — a jaw-droppingly expensive wine list that could rival most restaurants in Napa Valley.

Istanbul’s exotic past is best explored at the famed Topkapi Palace. This Ottoman-influenced landmark is a World Heritage site. Standing guard to one of the world’s largest diamonds and home to the Harem, a magnificent tiled ruin, the palace is a reminder of not only Turkey’s more formidable past but also its ongoing old-vs.-new paradox. Green-and-blue tiled fountains line the corridors where hundreds of ladies-in-waiting to the sultan and their children lived under the watchful eyes of barely clad African eunuchs charged with keeping the women in and the men out. It is easy to see here in the Harem how mystifying this land must have been to Western European visitors.

On my final day in Istanbul, some of my friends head out for a traditional Turkish bath, but I choose to meander through the lavish Grand Bazaar, eyeing spices, gold bangles, vibrant colored jewels and belly dance outfits. I munch on a piece of lokum, a squishy jelly candy also known as Turkish Delight.

I stroll over to the Blue Mosque and wait for prayers to conclude. A man is selling fez caps at a street stand. “It is the Middle East,” says my friend, who in our two weeks in Turkey has grown a mustache in tribute to Turkish manhood. Yes! We have decided—for now.

Later that night at Riana, an open-air Miami-style club perched under the Bridge to Asia, I mingle among the fashionista crowd of young Turks sipping raki, a licorice-flavored aperitif, and dancing to the “untz, untz” beats of DJs. My gold sequin top shimmers like the Bosporus beyond. “It’s Europe!” I declare — and head back to the dance floor.

CAPTIONS: (top, middle) Constructed in 1609, Istanbul’s iconic Blue Mosque, named for the 20,000 handmade ceramic multihued blue tiles covering the interior of the structure, is a must-see. (lower, middle) On Turkey’s southern coast, charming seaside towns line the shore. (bottom) local resident.