Inching westward along the Mediterranean, Alanya marks the starting line for Turkey’s marathon of coastal debauchery. Swarms of Nordic tourist discovered Alanya sometimes in the 1980s, rendering the once-idyllic seaside town a maze of aparthotels, palm trees, restaurants, shops, and beautiful Scandinavians. Looking beyond the tacky facade, it’s easy to see why Alanya is so popular: miles of gorgeous blue-flag beaches, monuments of Selcuk grandeur, and nights of inebrious clubbing combine for some undiluted vacation fun.
The town’s most conspicuous landmark is the peninsula, consisting of several hundred vertical meters of cliffs, castles, and towers. The two major tourist centers are the famous Cleopatra’s Beach on the peninsula’s western side (to the right facing the water) and the harbor on the eastern side. The otogar is west of the city center, a few blocks away from the water, along Ataturk Cad., the main road running parallel to the water. The tourist office is at the peninsula end of Guzelyali Cad., the smaller street that runs along Cleopatra’s Beach. Iskele Cad. is the street that runs downhill to the harbor, the epicenter of Alanya’s nightlife. Restaurants, hotels, and counterfeit designer clothing stores are everywhere.
Most of Alanya’s sights are clustered on the peninsula. Known in recent times as Coracesium, Alanya gained notoriety as a pirate cove until the Roman General Pompey destroyed the town’s huge fleet in 67 BC. Marc Antony later conferred the city upon Cleopatra as a gift, resulting in many a souvenir shop named in her honor. Many of the city’s great structures date from the 13th century, when the city fell under Selcuk control and was renamed Alaiye in honor of Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad. Alaiye fell to the Ottomans in 1471.
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Tourism had brought many quality dining options to town but has also increased prices. European options, including decent steaks, pizza, and schnitzel, mix with the standard Turkish favorites on Alanya’s multilingual menus. Recently administered regulations shut down many of Alanya’s shabbier eateries, making meat-eating a non-hazardous activity in town. In the nightlife sector, flashy Alanya exudes its share of loud music and disco-light wattage. The most posh and worth clubs line Rihtim Cad., along the harbor below Iskele Cad.
Turkish cuisine reflects its Ottoman heritage. The ubiquitous kebap (kebab) and pilav (rice) are flavored by the cuisine of the nomadic Central Asian tribes of Asia Minor. Fans of Greek, Armenian, and Levantine food will recognize their favorites on Turkish menus. Lunch and dinner often begin with meze, which ranges from simple beyas peynir (feta cheese) to more complicated vegetable dishes. Meals often involve meat (usually lamb), and especially kofte (small spiced meatballs) or manti (tiny meat-filled ravioli). Dessert highlights include baklava (a flaky but pastry with pistachio), kadayif (shredded pastry dough filled with nuts, in syrup), tavukgogsu (creamy, made of chicken fibers), and helva (sesame paste).
Turkey’s national drink must be the strongest, black tea known as cay, served everywhere in small, hourglass-shaped glasses. Elma cayi (apple tea), which tastes like a warm cider, is a good alternative to conventional Turkish tea’s strong brew. A demitasse-jolt of pure caffeine, kahve (Turkish coffee) can be ordered sade kahve; read your fortune in the good remaining in the bottom of your cup.
Alcohol is widely available by frowned upon in the more conservative parts of the country. Restaurants that post ickili serve alcohol, while ickisiz do not. Bira (beer) is ever-popular. Efes Pilsen and Tuborg are the leading brands. The best domestic white wines are Cankaya, Villa Doluca, and Kavaklidere, made in anise-seed liquor with the taste of licorice, is Turkey’s national alcohol. Customarily mixed in equal parts with water, raki is similar to Greek ouzo or Levantine ‘araq, but even stronger. Istanbul’s local specialty is balyoz (“sledge hammer” or “wrecking ball”). It’s easy to get wrecked with this combination of raki, whiskey, vodka, and gin mixed with orange juice.
The Sufi poetry of Celaleddin-i-Rumi and Yunus Emre survived the Ottoman centuries, as did The Book of Dede Korkut, a collection of 12 legends of the noble Oguz Turks. Among these folk tales, those of Nasrettin Hoca – a friendly, anti-authoritarian, religious man – are particularly popular, plastered on ayran cups and well known by children.
Satire has always been important in Turkish literature. Poet Namik Kemal is particularly famous for his satire of the Ottoman Empire during its final years. A fervent republican and free-speech advocate, Aziz Nesin was a provocative Alevi writer. Yasar Kemal, author of Memed, My Hawk, has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He has been charged with anti-Turkish activities by the government for criticizing Turkish society and government in his work. The magical realism of Orhan Pamuk has made him the best-selling author in Turkish history. He is internationally known for his three major novels, The White Castle, The New Life, and The Black Book.
Long before Ataturk’s revolution, Ottoman painting had gradually begun to adopt Western forms. In 1883, the Academy of Fine Arts was founded by the Ottoman artist, museum curator, and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey. In 1914, the Ottoman government opened an Academy of Fine Arts for Women headed by the painter Mihri Musfil Hanim, whose work blended the world of veiled ladies in Istanbul with the Parisian flair for Levantine fashions. The two eventually merged and the Academy (as the combined institution is known) has had an unparalleled influence on the artistic movements of modern Turkey: the Calli group of the 1920s, the “D” Group of the 30s, and the New Group of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.
Turks value hospitality and will go out of their way to offer travelers a meal or a cup of cay (tea). If you are invited as a guest, it is customary to bring a small gift such as flowers or chocolates and to remove your shoes before entering. When making conversation, do not speak with disrespect of skepticism about Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and avoid sensitive subjects such as the Kurdish issue, Northern Cyprus, Armenia, and Turkey’s human rights record.
Shorts scream “I am a tourist.” Women will find a headscarf handy, an even essential in more conservative areas. Long skirts and loose pants are most acceptable (and practical), but T-shirts are fine, though it’s a good idea to cover your arms in more religious parts of the country. While topless bathing is common around the resorts, it is a bad idea elsewhere. Nude sunbathing is officially illegal.
Tipping is widely accepted and expected, and leaving a bit of change at your table after a meal or with a taxi driver or hotel porter is appreciated. Only luxury restaurants require a 15-20% service charge (servis dahil), usually included in the bill; an additional small tip is customary. Turkey has a 10-20% value-added tax, known as the katma deger vergisi or KDV, which is included in the prices of most goods and services (including meals, lodging, and car rentals). Before you pay, check whether the KDV is included in the price to avoid paying it twice. Theoretically, it can be reclaimed at most points of departure, but this requires much persistence.
Invited to dine at someone’s home? Lucky you, and welcome to Istanbul, land of legendary hospitality. Show your gratitude by bringing a small gift, such as flowers or a dessert. Play it safe and don’t bring a bottle of wine for your host (many residents don’t drink alcohol). Enjoy your meal, and make sure to let your host know how good it tastes. They’ll be sure to keep loading up your plate, so bring a hearty appetite and pants loose enough to accommodate an expanding waistline. If you’re invited to dine out at a restaurant, bear in mind that the host always pays, although an offer to pay is customary. Leaving a 10% tip in restaurants, cafes, and bars is expected.
Though some mosques are open only to Muslims, most of Istanbul’s exquisite mosques welcome all visitors, provided they are courteous and dress appropriately. Remove your shoes before entering and wear modest clothing. Miniskirts, shorts, and tank tops are definite no-nos. Make sure you have your shoulders, upper arms, and thighs completely covered. When entering, women will be provided with a headscarf to cover their hair—though if you want it to match your outfit, you might want to bring your own. Once inside, remember that this is a place of worship, so keep your voice down and be conscientious if you want to snap a picture. When you hear the call for prayer, clear out to make room for worshippers.
Remember that body language isn’t universal. Even something as simple as shaking your head might not mean what you expect. To say “yes,” nod your head downward. “No” is nodding your head upwards, while shaking your head from side to side means that you don’t understand. The hand gesture made by forming an “O” with your thumb and index finger, which means “OK” in the US, is considered very offensive in Turkey. When you enter someone’s home, take off your shoes and accept slippers if offered. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is common, but pay attention: exposing the bottoms of your feet is offensive, no matter how adorable your toe socks are. Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, so take a quick trip to the bathroom to save yourself from awkward stares.