Starting out in Ankara

Turkey is vast — 84 million proud and nationalistic people in an area twice the size of California — with an incredible depth of history and natural wonders galore. It borders the Mediterranean to the south, the Aegean to the west and the Black Sea to the north. Head northeast and you’ll be in Georgia or Iran. Go southeast (or maybe don’t!) and you’ll be in Syria or Iraq. The country has lots of amazing places to explore.

We’ve been to Turkey twice, mostly to visit friends who live in Ankara, the capital, pop 5.5 million, but also to explore the rest of the country. Both times we flew to Ankara via Munich but suggest a cheaper direct flight to Istanbul instead. Ankara is not a tourist town (a good thing!) but it has its share of attractions — Ankara museums will get a separate post — and there’s no shortage of places to go or things to see. Getting around is easy. Press the green button on one of the yellow “TAKSi” call-boxes seen everywhere on lampposts, sign poles and trees, and a reasonably priced, metered cab will soon appear. A small tip is appreciated but not expected. Ankara has lots of people, dancing in the park, bagpipes, wonderful produce markets, excellent restaurants, huge malls, crazy traffic and much more.

People ask if Turkey is safe and I’m puzzled as to why this is even a concern. There was political unrest a few years ago and, while that burbles away behind the scenes, it’s not something that affects foreigners. Turkey has had its normal share of terror incidents but I expect your chances of being affected are no more (maybe less) than anywhere else. There is a strong security presence everywhere, Turks are friendly, honest and welcoming and we saw no evidence of street crime or casual violence. In short, we never felt even slightly threatened and you can travel there with confidence.

Our first trip was at Christmas and one of our first experiences was a trip to the Ankara IKEA and a nearby supermarket at the Nata Vega mall to get necessities including a turkey (a “hindi” in Turkish). The shopping centre was decked out with Christmas decorations and, though local sensibilities demand they be called “New Year” decorations, we knew them when we saw them and it got us in the spirit!

If you visit Turkey in winter, you will notice the pervasive smell of burning coal. I understand the government makes coal cheaply available and it seems all 84 million Turks use coal burning appliances to keep warm and cook. Combined with high-sulfur local coal and coal-fired power plants, the result is ugly and Ankara is badly affected. The city is in a bowl and gets covered by a thick layer of smog visible from surrounding hills. Summer air was much cleaner.

On Christmas Eve we attended a service at the St. Nicolas Anglican Church on the grounds of the British Embassy. St. Nick hailed from Demre on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey so the naming committee had an easy task. Just to make things perfect, it was snowing heavily as we trudged up the path to the church. A wonderful Christmas and a magical experience.

There’s no shortage of fine dining in Ankara — lots of diplomats and officials to feed — and we had several memorable meals. We had fish at the Trilye, high-end traditional Turkish food at the Tavaci Recepusta, to-die-for Turkish tapas at Afitap and steak at the Nusr-Et Steakhouse aka the Salt Bae. Prices are reasonable: dinner for four at Afitap cost US$57 all-in and we were stuffed with great food. Their charred eggplant is seared in my memory as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. It was very, very good.

Turkish breakfast is its own thing with cheese, olives, pickles, eggs, preserves and honey alongside endless tea and fresh bread. Bread is something Turks do well; there seems to be a wood-fired bakery on every corner. Another specialty is sweets and sampling is encouraged. Some large shops specialize in lokum aka ‘Turkish Delight’ while others focus on baklava and bakery items. It’s all very good and all very rich.

There was plenty of ordinary food too. Lots of small local restaurants, lamb and chicken doner shops with enormous vertical spits plus pizza, sandwiches and fast food of all sorts. Lots of coffee, fresh-squeezed in-season juice and very dapper pretzel/simit vendors. Some places feature lamb intestines coiled around a horizontal spit. You can try it and let me know what you think. We had a very memorable meal at Kofteci Yusuf, the biggest and best burger+ place I’ve ever seen, right next to the Burger King in ANKAmall’s food court. It’s a vast space with an immense grill, lots of choice and waiters who run to your table. Good fun!

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