Travelling in Europe nowadays doesn’t have the same safe reputation as it once had. Unfortunately terrorism and poverty linked to immigration have had some negative effects on safety for travellers. Turkey has perhaps one of the worst reputations in Europe, in recent years thier tourism has dropped significantly. But is it safe to travel to Turkey right now?
Firstly coming into Turkey is a bit of an ordeal by road, borders are notoriously difficult, especially dependent on your nationality. Coming through on a Dutch coach we soon encountered some issues relating to the recent relationship between the two countries. All seemed fine when they checked our passports and saw we were mainly Australian and European but they were certainly in no rush to get us through quickly; serving locals who came along in between.
The next thing you will notice in Turkey as a woman is the distinction between genders. Anyone who has travelled to Northern Africa has probably experienced the awkward stares and men who can’t help but comment on every western woman walking by. Turkey is much the same as well as having less personal space boundaries than westerners would be used to. So long as you accept this is the culture it’s not too much of a problem.
Turkey is however more liberal than many Muslim countries, going as far as banning the Burkah in several occupations. 99 percent of women do not wear the full religious dress, but still cover thier head and body when entering the mosque (this is also applicable to any travellers visiting religious sites such as the Blue mosque in Istanbul). Women and men also have separate areas for absolution (a ritual of washing before entering the mosque) and praying. The same cannot be said for all bathrooms rather amusingly. I felt safe walking alone in Istanbul, but at night or in less urban areas it might be advisable to travel with someone.
Another welcome segregation between genders is at the Turkish baths, something you have to experience at least once in Turkey. It basically involves, for women, stripping down to just your breifs, for men it all comes off, and entering a Roman style room with several hot and cold basins of water. The idea to grab a dish and alternate between the two while scrubbing with soap to have a thorough cleanse. For the full experience opt for a traditional hammam massage, and be beaten by a rough Turkish lady/man who has little regard for your decency!
Eating in Turkey comes with the normal Eastern warnings; don’t drink the water, eat the salad or any unpeeled fruit. But Turkish food is not to be missed, it’s a collision of east meets west. Famous for it spices, kepabs and sweet treats such as Turkish delight and Baklava. Exploring the spice market in Istanbul is a treat for the senses where you can buy everything from love tea to live leeches and of course enough variations of Turkish delight to warrant buying those harem pants you’ve been eyeing up. The markets are unusually safe from pickpockets as there is a very real threat of linching if anyone is caught stealing. Many stall holders speak fluent English and are up for a bit of good humoured bartering.
With your new harem pants you may be in the mood for a magic carpet ride, Aladdin style, and you’re in the right place. One of Turkeys most famous traditions, carpet making is well represented in Istanbul. Head into a store such as the Istanbul handicraft market near the grand bazaar to get a demonstration while you sip an apple tea. You’d better have deep pockets though as one of these can set you back as much as 8000 USD.
The main attractions in Istanbul are the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in the main square (fun fact the word turquoise came from the Turk Quartz that gives the mosque its name). This is where the most notable event in the decline of Turkish tourism took place. In November 2008 whilst a guide was talking to a German tour group by the Luxor Obelisk, a well dressed stranger joined the group. The next thing the guide remembered hearing was a click, she managed to direct some of the group away, escaping with injuries but several people including the bomber died at the scene. Whilst a terrible incident this has resulted in the square being one of the most heavily policed area in Istanbul. There is still an palpable awareness from guides and tourists alike, but the city feels secure.
A bit further a field are the memorials at Gallipoli. A Turkish dedication to the events of WW1 when Allied troops landed on the beaches and were held in an 8 month stalemate by the Turkish army led by Atatürk. It is especially poignant for Australian and New Zealand travellers as it was one of the biggest battle losses in thier history and marked the beginning of thier relationship and the ANZAC forces. Gallipoli is set amongst beautiful turquoise beaches on the south Turkish coast and a stark reminder of how much war can taint any landscape.
While you’re there head down to one of the oldest continuously rebuilt cities in European history. Set beside the sea of Marmara Troy was perfectly situated between the Eastern and Western worlds and as such was the center of many battles and opposing civilisations. One of which with notable fame involved a big wooden horse, you may of heard of it!
Turkey is so full of history and cultural delights that for me more than outweigh the potential risks and occasional uncomforts reported by some travel websites. So get ready to get close and personal, increase your risk of diabetes and get out that belly button piercing you’ve been covering up since you were 16. Turkey is the place to be!