Turkish delights
go! - South Africa|October/November 2021
On an epic overland journey from France to South Africa, Patrick and Marie Gurney take a turn through Turkey, a country of deep-rooted culture and calming coastlines.
Patrick and Marie Gurney

When we crossed the border from Greece into Turkey, winter finally caught up with us. It was December and snow had started to fall. Midday temperatures barely reached 10°C and sank to -4°C overnight.We had two sleeping bags each, plus beanies and scarves – Marie even wrapped herself in a few plastic bags to keep out the cold! The evenings were bearable; it’s the mornings that were bitter.

Camping in a rooftop tent has its challenges:We had to wipe down interior condensation before folding up the frozen tent, then we had to get Kukuza started. Our beloved 2001 Hilux has a 3-litre diesel engine that struggles to get going in the cold.We’d fire up the car’s heater and wait for water to boil on a stove so we could have coffee. Slowly, life would return to our clumsy hands, our mobile phones would warm up, we’d set the GPS and start our day of driving.

We crossed from Greece into Turkey via the Kipi/Ä°psala border post with one thing on our minds: Get the Carnet de Passage stamped to prove that the Hilux had left Europe. If we didn’t get this stamp, we would lose our R90000 deposit made to the AA in Johannesburg. After a few frantic conversations with Greek offiials, it was eventually stamped and handed back to us.

We headed over to the Turkish side where we had no issues, besides having the entire vehicle scanned while trying to explain what the large military-coloured thing – our rooftop tent – was.

We were finally free to enter Turkey and, more importantly, to find a warm place to sleep in the town of Edirne, which was a 200km drive away.

The first few days in Turkey gave us three happy moments. The first was checking into Hotel Edirne Palace where the temperature in the lobby was a balmy 28°C, the second was buying a proper winter duvet, which improved our lives considerably, and the third was discovering Turkey’s cheap and cheerful (and tasty) fast food.

After a few months on the road, we had learnt that the best way to ensure delicious local eating was to support the fullest restaurant, no matter how grubby it seemed. Turkey had dining establishments that were simple on decor but rich in the variety of food on offer, usually served as a buffet. You point to what you want and a healthy spoonful is added to your plate. Our standard became pilaf rice, beef stew and vegetables, with a bowl of lentil soup. Turkish tea – simply called“chai”– was always offered for free after a meal.

Once the capital of the powerful Ottoman Empire, Edirne (pronounced Eh-der-neh) has a rich history.We were a little perplexed about the buses full of Bulgarians we saw everywhere. “Turkey is cheap,”a shopkeeper told us. “Bulgarians come across the border on weekends and buy clothes, food, cigarettes, shoes, perfume… It’s even cheaper here than in a duty-free shop!”

We visited the stunning Selimiye Mosque, built in 1575 with its four minarets, beautiful calligraphy and famed 999 windows.We also popped into the Sultan Bayezid II Complex (a UNESCOWorld Heritage Site), originally built as a hospital and medical school. Today it houses a medical museum showcasing the progressive techniques and procedures that were taught to students in the past. This included, for example, treating mental illness using music and aroma therapy.

Pulsating Istanbul

Avoiding the highway, we drove 250km (five hours) on rural roads directly towards Istanbul. There was no mistaking that we were approaching Europe’s most populous city, however.When we were 50km out, newly built 30-storey residential apartment blocks began to appear, plus massive shopping centres and eventually, jammed highways.

We settled into our Airbnb in the suburb of Balat for a few days. Balat is next to the Golden Horn, a stretch of water that connects with the nearby Bosporus. It was the cutest, cosiest neighbourhood, crammed with antique shops, street art and trendy cafés – there was even a film crew busy shooting a local soap opera (7de Laan, Turkey-style).

Our two sons, Kai and Callum, flew into Istanbul to join us for a while. Before heading to Cappadocia for Christmas, we ticked off a few of the important nearby sites in this old part of the city.

The Blue Mosque (also called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) has six towering minarets and gets its name from the 20000 blue Iznik tiles (made centuries ago in a town called Iznik on the Asian side of the Bosporus) covering the interior floors and walls.

Then there’s the Hagia Sophia – over the course of its history, it has been used as a church, then a mosque, then a museum, and more recently as a mosque again. Huge calligraphy panels adorn the marble walls and the whole structure humbles you with its sheer size.

The Basilica Cistern is Istanbul’s largest Roman-era subterranean water tank – it has a capacity of 80 000m³! A wooden walkway took us deep into the cistern to see the two enormous stone Medusa heads, and the 336 marble columns (each 9m high) which support the spectacular vaulted ceiling.

We took a walk around Topkapi Palace, which was once home to the sultans and Europe’s largest harem. Back when dating more than 100 women was par for the royal course, it contained more than 300 rooms, nine baths, two mosques, a hospital and laundry facilities.

After visiting the Galata Tower, built in 1348 as a“Tower of Christ”and later used as a vantage point to spot fires in the city, we went to the Grand Bazaar and did some shopping for much-needed thermal gear. The bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 alleyways and around 4000 shops.

We loved exploring Istanbul.We took a tram to Taksim Square, enjoyed lokum (the original Turkish delight) and ate fish wraps on a bridge over the Bosporus, where hundreds of fishermen gather each day.

Before leaving Istanbul,we needed to have a box built for our roof rack. This storage box would hold a number of items that were getting in the way of everyday life on the road. Google recommended a fabricator on the outskirts of Istanbul. “It’s going to be a challenge,” I told a man called Korkut when we got there with our bakkie. “I need it done in six days…”

“No problem,”Korkut said. “Let’s measure what we need to do…Oh, and how do you want it to lock?”

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