A bridge between two continents with one foot in Europe and another in Asia, Turkey’s cultural and historic treasures delight and inspire even seasoned travelers. Its breathtaking natural beauty, unique archaeological sites, deluxe hotels, and ever-improving infrastructure have spiked tourism numbers for the past few years. With a tradition of hospitality that’s legendary, and a weakening local currency, not only are tourists warmly welcomed, they get a lot more bang for their buck. And, with political and economic unrest in neighboring countries, Turkey is a safe, stable travel option, a modern secular country with a booming economy. It is quickly becoming the most popular tourism destination in the region, making it easier to sell than ever before.
FLO-USA, a Florida-based tour operator, is committed to bringing the glory of Turkey to the American market. A family-owned-and-operated boutique travel company, it offers small group tours, private luxury tours, and special-interest travel. Its owner, Cengiz Aras, a Turkish archeologist, and his wife, Shebby, an architect, manage their Orlando-based US office, sending groups of 12-16 to Turkey, Greece, Egypt, China, and most recently, Jordan and Israel. FLO has local offices in Istanbul and Cappadocia as well as Cairo and Athens. Whether it’s history, religion, food, golf, shopping, specialized location tours, or one-of-a-kind honeymoons, FLO offers trips that are affordable, with an eye on service and quality. The company avoids large US chain hotels, preferring five-star Turkish properties or charming, small boutique hotels. “We don’t try to save pennies and dimes when it comes to accommodations,” FLO owner Aras explained. “We book the best that’s available, even if it’s expensive beach hotels in the summer.” Tour guides are knowledgeable, licensed professionals and drivers are trained every year to operate the company’s new fleet of nine buses and eight minivans. FLO also has two S-500 Mercedes and four BMW’s for private tours. All equipment in Turkey is owned by the company, which gives them control of vehicle servicing. In fact, other tour operators rent FLO’s vehicles when available. “No one can compete service-wide with us,” explained owner Aras. Unlike many competitors, most meals are included in escorted tour packages and there are no hidden costs, no optional tours. Turkish Delight, FLO-USA’s 10-day escorted tour covers all the “must see” spots of the country.
First Stop, Istanbul
Istanbul is a mix of the exotic and the cosmopolitan. Perhaps no coincidence, it’s area code is 212, the same as New York – and despite its minarets and hilly cobblestone streets, it’s humming with the energy of a big city, with a sexy European twist. But history is what puts Istanbul on the map. Roman sites like the Hippodrome, where chariot races took place, was the heart of Constantinople’s political and sporting life. Close by is the grand Haghia Sophia, built as the greatest church in the Christian world, a masterpiece of 6th-century engineering with the largest dome constructed until St Peter’s was built in Rome a thousand years later. Converted to a mosque in 1453, it now stands as a museum, its thick ancient walls echoing with history. Across from Haghia Sophia is the Sultanahmet Mosque, or “Blue Mosque.” Its six minarets and cascade of domes light up at night giving the Sultanahmet district a Disney-like aura. But nothing comes close to the splendor of Topkapi Palace, a former residence of the great Ottoman sultans. Wandering through its hundreds of rooms and many courtyards, the palace can take up half a day in Istanbul. The harem quarters, set aside exclusively for the sultan’s mother and his concubines, are rich with tile work, mosaics, domed roofs, and heated marble floors. Nearby, the Yerebatan Sarnici, the city’s ancient underground cistern, is a must-see. Its brick vaulted ceilings and rows of marble columns rise from pools of water, dramatically lit under Istanbul’s streets. But the liveliest destination in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar, miles of aisles chock full of shops selling anything you can think of. It’s an indoor mall with aggressive salesmen playfully luring the wandering tourist in to their shop to buy carpets, leather, jewelry, pottery. When the Grand Bazaar ends, the Spice Market begins. Senses are bombarded with heaps of red saffron, yellow turmeric, and a kaleidoscope of other colorful spices. Turkish Delights, small gelatin-like candies covered in powdered sugar, are offered to entice you to buy a box, or perhaps five, at a special tourist price – just for you!
To Ephesus and Beyond
FLO-USA packs the best of Turkey’s archeological sites into their itineraries. But perhaps the highlight of any trip to Turkey is a visit to Ephesus, one of the largest and best-preserved ancient cities in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Walking the remarkably preserved wide marble streets (with chariot grooves still visible!), flanked by towering columns and temples, is an unforgettable experience. The Library of Celsus, a tiered façade decorated with exquisite statues and once holding three million books, stands at the end of the wide boulevard. Arches, statues, and carved marble is everywhere, including a carved relief of Nike, the winged goddess of victory, pointing the way to the city center. Ephesus was the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, no longer standing, though if you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of history as you walk the hallowed grounds. Other sites visited in the ten-day itinerary are the Necropolis in Pamukkale with hundreds of ancient tombs dotting the hillside; Perge, most notable for its huge marble pool running down the center of the main thoroughfare, the water source in the hillside beyond; Aspendos, with its beautiful Roman theatre; and Aphrodisias, the ancient city dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
The itinerary includes stops at the fascinating Antalya Regional Archeological Museum, home to an astounding collection of artifacts, marble statuary ,and sarcophagi; the Mevlana Museum in Konya, a 13th century whirling dervish monastery and nearby tomb of Rumi; and the historic Agzikarahan Caravanserai, where travelers on the Silk Route stopped to rest their camels and spend the night.
Nothing can prepare a traveler for the landscape of Cappadocia. Some call it lunar, I call it bewitching, especially seen from the perch of a hot air balloon. Its rocky cliffs and towering sandstone pillars stand tall, eroding over the centuries. Rocks appear to be balancing on top of high stone columns, formations known as “fairy chimneys”. Carved into the rock are scores of hidden chapels at Goreme, an open-air museum with a series of domed rooms adorned with exquisite frescoes, their brightly colored paint still visible centuries later. Descending into the warren-like subterranean city of nearby Kaymakli is entering yet another surreal world. Believed to have housed thousands of people from the 6th to the 9th centuries, it is five levels deep and covers one square mile underground. Amazing!
Oh the Food!
Whether Turkish cuisine originated in the grand kitchens of the sultans or in small villages growing an abundance of eggplant, it ranks as one of the world’s top culinary traditions. And everything delights the palette, whether high end cooking or simple street fare. Kebap, grilled cubes of skewered meat, are Turkey’s response to fast food. “Lahmacun” is its answer to pizza. “Dolma” is a popular stuffed vegetable with rice or meat and “Borek” are pies of flaky pastry stuffed with meat or cheese. There are lamb stews cooked in sealed pottery crocks and the freshest fish from the surrounding seas. Meze are small dishes of everything from creamy feta cheese to marinated mackerel. Breads abound–from flat bread to the famous “simit” – sesame seed rings sold on the streets of Istanbul. Famous Turkish desserts like “helva” (a mix of flour, pine nuts, butter and sugar), baklava, or muhallebi, popular milk puddings, are a sweet end to a meal. Olives, figs, dates, apricots, fresh pomegranate juice, local cheeses, and fresh salads are on every buffet. Any meal is enhanced with a glass of raki, an anise-flavored spirit or brought to a close with a glass of thick, dark Turkish coffee.
Committed to Serve Client and Agent
“Our Istanbul office is doing very well,” Aras told Travel World News. International clients from Europe, China, Japan, and Brazil are booking tours through local FLO offices. But, according to Aras, the American market is still timid about traveling – for economic and political reasons. With the Turkish lira so low next to the dollar, he is hoping for a banner year in 2012. “The price will be lower in 2012, even lower than this year,” Aras explained. In past years, FLO sent up to four thousand clients to Turkey a year and they are hoping to see numbers inch back up to that level. “It’s not easy to serve the American client,” owner Aras explained. To be sure he serves them well, Aras has a varied schedule of FAM trips to acquaint travel agents with FLO-USA destinations. The FLO agent site below will give dates, prices and itineraries for FAMS in 2012 to China, the Holyland, Turkey, Russia, India, Egypt, Greece, and their new destination, Vietnam.
Turkish Delight 10-day escorted tours to Kusadasi, Pamuk-kale, Antalya, Cappadocia and Istanbul start at $1799/ppdo.
Flo Tours, www.flotours.com