Trip report: Turkish Delight

September 23rd 2021, 12:38 | Written by Konstantin Koll

At the end of August, I was in desperate need for a vacation. Some friends graciously volunteered to take care of my cat, so one early Sunday morning I found myself in my car heading to DUS. I didn’t have a ticket yet, and decided to deadhead somewhere warm and interesting.

Unfortunately, my options that Sunday morning were rather limited: most flights were destined to summer holiday spots around the Mediterranean. Deadheading there is actually quite dangerous: you have limited options for onward travel, and a lack of available hotels (most are either fully owned by or fully reserved for package holiday providers). Worst case, I’d be deadheading to a week or more of homelessness.

DUS-IST

The most interesting option was an A330 flight to IST with Turkish Airlines. I’ve never been to IST before, onward travel would offer lots of options to 303 destinations, and I really dig widebodies. Turkish usually deploys B737 and A320/A321 on flights to DUS, but during the summer months some are upgauged to A330 due to high VFR (visiting friends and relatives) demand. People of Turkish ancestry are by far the largest expat community in Germany.

The flight was about to depart, so I quickly got my boarding pass and was rushed through security and passport control to the gate. The purser was notified about me arriving late, and ushered me to the cockpit. I settled into the jump seat during pushback and engine startup. One minute later, and I would have missed that flight! Climbing out of DUS in an A330 cockpit was definitely a treat after being grounded for more than 17 months due to the Corona pandemic. I quickly dozed off after a great Köfte lunch, as the previous night’s sleep was much too short.

İstanbul

I woke up again on descent into IST. The new İstanbul airport is vast, but well organized and efficient. Immigration queues were a bit long, but afterwards I found my bag already on the belt. After a quick stop at an ATM (I didn’t know where I was heading that morning, so I had little opportunity to prepare anything) I took a taxi to a hotel in the Beşiktaş borough of İstanbul that I looked up online and had vacancies. The 45km taxi ride cost 160₺, which is less than $20—not too bad at all! After a much needed shower, I took a ferry to Üsküdar on the Asian side of İstanbul, grabbed dinner and called it a night.

I quickly realized that İstanbul really shines from the waters of the Bosphorus, so taking a boat tour is an absolute must. Embark on a two hour or even day tour at the piers (iskele) in Karaköy, Dolmabahçe or Beşiktaş. Here's a video of the famous Rumeli Castle (Rumeli Hisarı) passing by:

İstanbul is still organized in different boroughs with their own unique identities. From the rather conservative Üsküdar to the buzzing nightlife of Beşiktaş and Kadıköy, from the modern skyscrapers in Levent (Beşiktaş borough) to the old mosques of Sultanahmet Mh. (Fatih borough): İstanbul has plenty to offer and caters to every taste.

My personal list of things to do in İstanbul in no particular order is climbing the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) in Beyoğlu, visit the Maiden's Tower (Kız Kulesi) in Üsküdar, spend a day at Gülhane Parkı in Sultanahmet Mh. (Fatih borough), enjoy the nightlife in Beşiktaş and Kadıköy, and go shopping for some Turkish street style in Moda (Kadıköy borough). Add to this list at your convenience.

I got frequently asked about the most beautiful mosque in İstanbul. Of course I haven't seen them all, but I still give a clear answer: Ortaköy Camii! And there's a reason for that. İstanbul is home to some old and also a very modern great mosque: the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) are well-known among tourists, travellers and worshippers alike. The newly built Çamlıca Camii is dominating the skyline on the Asian side of the city. However, in my personal understanding of Islam they are flawed. While I perfectly understand that a city like İstanbul needs big mosques to accomodate a large number of worshippers, especially on Fridays, in my view mosques with more than four minarets praise ﷲ with worldly might and power instead of modesty and beauty. That is the reason why I consider Ortaköy Camii the most beautiful mosque in İstanbul. In addition, its location near the first Bosphoros bridge makes it a perfect photo spot that conveys the spirit of İstanbul like no other.

In conclusion, İstanbul is a great city that you should visit at least once in your life. You have lots of options to make your time worthwhile, including museums, mosques, shopping, partying and much more. İstanbul really shines from the waters of the Bosphorus, but I honestly cannot feel or understand why it is such a place of longing (especially for Turkish expats here in Germany).

SAW-SZF

İstanbul was unbearingly hot and humid, although it was already late August. I decided on Wednesday night to head onwards to BJV early Friday morning, as it’s a popular beach destination and I’ve been there before back in 2004. It turned out the next day that BJV was a bit too popular, though: all morning departures had full loads, so definitely no seat available for a deadhead without “must ride” status. Apparently, lots of people from İstanbul had booked BJV for a long weekend getaway.

Given the Corona pandemic I wanted to stay in Turkey, and not fly to yet another country. Available domestic morning departures from SAW with reasonably light loads were ASR, GZT and SZF. This made SZF the obvious choice as the only beach destination, in addition to some personal interest.

I woke up at 3:30am, and got into a taxi at 4:30. Another hour and an interesting ride through the Asian part of İstanbul later, I arrived at SAW and dropped my luggage off. SAW handles mostly domestic traffic and is much smaller than IST, but equally efficient and well organized. Security was a breeze, and I quickly found the waiting area for my flight on the lower level of the building. Today’s ride to SZF was an Anadolujet B737 on a remote stand, so everyone was bussed to the aircraft and had to board in pouring morning rain.

Samsun is just a short hop away from SAW, so after takeoff only beverages were served. The flight went roughly along the Black Sea coast, and then above the mountainous regions for a runway 31 approach into SZF via Merzifon TACAN—maybe one of the easiest instrument approaches ever. And I can honestly say that I have never seen such rich hues of green before, not even in South East Asia! Maybe that was the moment I fell in love with Samsun.

SZF is an extremely small airport with the bare minimum of facilities: the ramp can accommodate up to three or at most four jets at a time, there are two lounges for departing passengers (one for domestic and one for international flights), and an equal amount of baggage belts for arriving passengers. About 30 minutes after touchdown I was already in my rental car and driving to my hotel: the Sheraton Grand Samsun Hotel in İlkadım, which I can highly recommend.

Samsun

Finding your way in Samsun is extremely easy: the Atatürk Bulvarı is the main road along the coast line, and spans the boroughs of Tekkeköy, Canik, İlkadım and Atakum (as seen from the airport). Organized as so-called Büyükşehir Beledyesi, these boroughs are formally independent communities, but have very limited autonomy under the umbrella of Samsun (here referring to both the city and the entire province as one). There are 16 metro areas in Turkey organized this way, including İstanbul and Samsun.

Çok güzel bir şehir (what a beautiful city): Samsun is definitely the jewel of the Black Sea. I will not go as far as comparing it to Miami, but Samsun somewhat embodies its idea: a big and very relaxed city on the shoreline with large sandy beaches. The size of Samsun offers anything you might want and or need in addition to your typical tourist beach town: from high end shopping centers to a bowling hall, cinema, camera store, hospitals, piercing studios and fine dining. And during the winter months, you can even go skiing (Akdağ Kayak Merkezi in Ladik). Seriously.

Samsun is also quite a historic place. Known as “Amisos” in ancient times, Greek mythology claims it to be home to the Amazons (a tribe of female warriors, who are very proficient with their bows). A small archaeological site on Amisos Hill (Amisos Tepesi) is open to visitors, and there are Amazon pictures and statues throughout Samsun, the largest one with two lions in Batı Park (İlkadım). The adjacant Amazon Village (Amazon Köyü) is also worth a visit if you have kids.

Additionally, Samsun played a vital role in the Turkish war for independence: it was here, on May 19th 1919, that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk disembarked the Bandırma vessel. He defied his orders to dismantle the remaining imperial Ottoman forces, and started the war for independence. A replica of the scrapped Bandırma houses a small museum, and is open to the public. May 19th, the Turkish “Youth and Sports holiday”, is always celebrated extravagantly in Samsun. A neighboring town is even named “Ondukuzmayıs” (May 19th), and a borough of Samsun is called “İlkadım”: ilk adım, which means “first step”.

While you're in Samsun, you should definitely rent a car and explore the mountainous part of the province with its picturesque villages. Here's my suggestion for a one day road trip: leave Samsun on the D010 or E.70 and then onto the E.95 highway towards Kavak, where you'll find Turkey's largest flag besides a gas station on your side. Exit the E.95 just behind Doruk on the Samsun Ladik Yolu for Ladik. If you're lucky, you can climb the clock tower (Ladik Saat Kulesi) to get a nice view from above. Then try some pide (see below) for late breakfast or lunch, I highly recommend Ladik Pidecisi on Nalcıoğlu Caddesi, down the main road (Gaziler Caddesi) from the clock tower and then right. If you're in for desert afterwards, stop at Çiftlik Pastanesi to grab some delicious Baklava on your way back up.

Leave Ladik subsequently towards the East for Lake Ladik (Ladik Gölü) to experience the breathtaking scenery (though there's much more to come). At the far end, you'll find a car park with a small observation tower (Ladik Gölü seyir kulesi). Drive back towards and through Ladik for Havza and Vezirköprü. Take a boat tour of the even more breathtaking Kızılırmak and Şahinkaya canyon (Şahinkaya Kanyonu). Then drive towards the Derbent dam, and return to Samsun via Bafra and Ondokuzmayıs.

As for the local cuisine, Turkish food is excellent and goes far beyond the Döner Kebap widely known here in Germany. Samsun is famous for its unique pide (delicious Turkish style pizza): you have to try the peynirli-yumurtalı (cheese and egg) and sucuklu-yumurtalı (sausage and egg) variants!

I also have a challange for you: there are big “Samsun” signs located at various spots throughout the city. I found 9 of them so far (quite frankly, some of them better maintained than others), and an additional “Samsunspor” one in Atakum. Where are they exactly, and can you find more?

SZF-SAW-DUS

All good things come to an end, and vacations are no exception. Unfortunately, vacations tend to end in the middle of the night: to catch the first flight to SAW, I had to get up at 2:30am and leave the hotel an hour later. Fortunately, crew hotels are used to people doing stuff at unusual hours.

It turned out I was way too early at SZF, as the tiny airport makes checkin and security a breeze. Boarding was right at sunrise, with a runway 13 departure towards Merzifon TACAN and onwards to SAW. My flight was on an Turkish Airlines ticket, operated by Anadolujet, who in turn have wet-leased a Turkish Airlines A321 to cope with the high demand on that flight. This made me lucky, as I got a business class seat for free that morning and could stretch my legs. Inflight service was still just a cup of water, though, due to the short flight time.

My flight from SZF arrived on a remote stand, so everyone got bussed to the terminal building. Unfortunately SAW is ill-equipped to handle connecting domestic and international passengers, so I had to leave the sterile area and pass security all over again. Luckily I had some time to spare and arrived at the gate in time for my connecting flight to DUS. The second flight of the day was again operated by a wet-leased Turkish Airlines A321, but this time in an all-economy configuration for high density VFR traffic. After another great Köfte lunch (which was quite a challange because of my fresh tongue piercing) I fell asleep and woke up on approach to DUS.

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