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Turkey’s terrain, people, history make colorful trip

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    Up, up and away at sunrise in Cappadocia, where hot air balloons drift over a supernatural landscape.

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    The Suleymaniye Mosque is an architectural landmark in picturesque Istanbul.

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    Loose teas brighten shelves at Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar, once a stop for camel caravans traveling the Silk Road.

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    A friendly vendor in Canakkale sells simit bread rings, a favorite street food in Turkey.

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    The archeological ruins of Troy include the ancient legendary city and eight other civilizations built on top of each other.

  • SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE / TNS

    The Goreme Open Air Museum is a complex of rock-carved churches and a UNESCO heritage site.

I’ve either been pixie dusted or turned into Barney Rubble. Everywhere I look, towering rock “fairy chimneys” dot Turkey’s fantastical wonderland of Cappadocia. I’ll also explore mystical age-old cave churches, sleep in a “cave hotel” that entombs guests and wine, and scoot-­ duck-gasp my way through a spooky ancient underground city, one of dozens burrowed here. And wait until I dreamily float over it all in an Oz-like flame-breathing balloon.

“A prince fell in love with this beautiful fairy,” begins my guide, launching into a tangled tale meant to explain this sprawling, surreal landscape. The truth is, over millions of years, Mother Nature eroded soft volcanic tuff into majestic “fairy chimneys” vaulting up to 130 feet high and shaped like cones, spires, obelisks and mammoth mushrooms. Just as extraordinary, medieval monks and others chiseled out still-existing cave chapels, cave dwellings, cave castles and subterranean cave hideouts.

I so dig Cappadocia. Although it’s just one highlight of my colorful, culture-­rich travels in Turkey, which begin in exotic, mosque-graced, spice-hypnotizing Istanbul and end near the Aegean Sea in the fabled ancient ruins of Troy (where, history buffs will remember, Helen’s face launched a thousand ships).

But you ask, is Turkey safe? Tourism is slowly rebounding following a series of terrorist attacks and an attempted coup in 2016. I go with a friend in August and feel as secure as anywhere else.

IF YOU GO: TURKEY

>> Lodging: The Argos and Ciragan Palace
>> Tour guides: kdtours.com and travelatelier.com
>> Great eats: Located across from the Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie supposedly penned “Murder on the Orient Express,” Meze by Lemon Tree in Istanbul serves up Turkish appetizers (“meze”) such as stuffed zucchini flowers.
>> Awesome way to await your flight: Munch popcorn inside the movie theater of Turkish Airlines’ two-story business lounge at Istanbul Ataturk Airport. You can also race Carrera slot cars, play simulated golf, shoot pool and listen to live piano.
>> Turkey’s official tourism site: hometurkey.com

Official U.S. and Turkish relations may remain strained, but I can’t stress how warm and hospitable Turkish people are, especially when they find out I’m American — besides beaming smiles, I receive customary kisses on each cheek and have a continual buzz from accepting nonstop offers to drink cute demitasse cups of thick Turkish coffee.

During my trip, there’s just one little glitch, and it is handled swimmingly — our 170-passenger ferry runs aground and we have to be rescued by the Turkish Coast Guard.

Istanbul

Captivating, bustling Istanbul is East-meets-West, cosmopolitan­-meets-antiquities, and a bevy of street carts selling Turkish sesame-­coated “simit,” pretzel bagels. Here’s where my trip starts, after a nonstop 13-hour flight on Turkish Airlines from Los Angeles.

Islam is the predominant religion in Turkey, but the country has a secular government and its people outwardly reflect that mix — some women don summer shorts and tank tops; others don hijab headscarves and long dresses.

“Hello, you need saffron, cheap price, come in please, where are you from?” ask various vendors inside the cavernous 350-year-old, stall-lined Spice Bazaar, a psychedelic feast for eyes and nose. Vibrant mounds of countless seasonings (red paprika, yellow curry, orange “chicken spice”), flower-bud loose teas (Anatolian shadow rose), traditional treats (almond-stuffed dried apricots, yum!) and gelatinous Turkish Delights candies are heaped next to scads of good-luck “evil eye” souvenirs. Prices are so low — the plummeting Turkish lira has made the dollar worth more — you need not haggle.

Monumental mosques are plentiful in Istanbul (the azure-tiled Blue Mosque, the ornate cathedral-­turned-mosque Hagia Sophia), but I prefer the serenely grand Suleymaniye Mosque, built on orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and completed in 1557. Mainly I’m intrigued by his backstory: Suleiman wed redhead Roxelana, a former slave from his harem, “who kept nagging and nagging him that his son was going to dethrone him,” says my guide Yaman Yaka of KD Tours. “Suleiman did many great things.” Except parenting; he had his son strangled to death.

I’m pampered like a sultan at the exquisite Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotel, the marbled, chandeliered onetime home of Ottoman Empire rulers and dating back to the 17th century. How cool is this? Turkey straddles two continents, so I relax on my balcony in the imperial hotel, which is located in Europe, and stare across the glistening Bosphorus Strait at Turkey in Asia. Bill Clinton, Madonna and Sophia Loren are among past VIP guests.

Cappadocia

In Cappadocia’s Imagination Valley, rock configurations enchantingly resemble animals, including a camel, a cobra and seals. No imagination is needed in Love Valley — formations look like humongous phallic male organs.

At dawn one morning, I spectacularly soar in a 12-passenger hot air balloon, surrounded by another 100 rainbow-hued balloons, as the neon orange sunrise awakens these UNESCO-listed hinterlands. It’s way-out-of-this-world magical.

Over an hour later, we smoothly land and toast with Champagne. Then I fly the coop to Pigeon Valley, another bizarre realm where humans whittled holes into wavy cliffs to house thousands of birds for centuries. Pigeons were prized for their poop. “It’s always been an excellent fertilizer for the wine-­producing vineyards in this area,” explains my guide, Bunyamin Ozmen of Travel Atelier tours. Ozmen earlier spins the doomed love story about the prince and fairy, which finishes with unsuspecting sprites being changed into pigeons.

Earlier, we trek around the Goreme Open Air Museum, an astounding Byzantine village of rock-cut chapels and monasteries with mysterious names such as the Snake Church and painted frescoes of Jesus. Orthodox Christian monks hand-hewed these cave churches and lived inside as hermits roughly 1,000 years ago.

The next day, I have one thought: panic. Somehow it’s stifled while crawling through parts of Kaymakli Underground City. Eons ago, thousands of Christians hid from Roman persecutors in these honeycombed sub-earth caverns that include a small stable, communal kitchen and living quarters. Fascinating history, only for seemingly eons, I’m at a single-file, tourist-jammed standstill, all of us crouching nose-­ to-stranger’s rear in a sunken- ceilinged one-person-wide rock tunnel. Whew, am I glad to gulp oxygen and a glass of the local Emir varietal wine back on the fresh-air terrace of Argos, my hillside monastery-­turned-boutique cave hotel with a knockout view of Pigeon Valley. There are a lot of cave hotels in this region; mine has modern, spacious suites in Old World stone villas and a secret underground passageway — only this one leads to a well-stocked wine cellar.

Canakkale

Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad” famously memorialized the Trojan War. I just remember seeing the spear-flinging Brad Pitt and his sculpted abs in the 2004 swords-and-sandal blockbuster movie “Troy.”

That helps when we set out from Canakkale, a town near the north Aegean Sea, to explore the archaeological ruins of the lore-­ridden ancient city of Troy. Legend has it that more than 3,000 years ago, the bloody, decadelong Trojan War was fought here to rescue gorgeous, married Greek Queen Helen, who was either kidnapped or ran off with Prince Paris of Troy. Ultimately, the Greeks pretended to retreat with their ships, leaving a giant wooden Trojan Horse as a “gift” — but surprise! Soldiers were stashed inside and Troy was sacked.

Without a creative tour guide, the sweeping World Heritage-­honored ruins may seem like layers of rocks and stone walls since you can’t make out much. However, the expansive artifact-laden Troy Museum is due to open soon at the site. Back in Canakkale, the hulking prop Trojan Horse from the Hollywood film looms over the seaport.

From Canakkale, we ride a ferry to the haunting World War I battlefields of Gallipoli, where military statues and graves pay homage to Turkish soldiers and then-enemies Aussies and Brits. Another morning, a ferry brings us to festive beachgoer-packed, turquoise-watered Bozcaada island. But it’s our 170-passenger, 64-­vehicle ferry to Gokceada island that grabs news headlines (“STRANDED”) when it runs aground a pebble’s throw from the destination’s dock. Reports claim either the steering or engine failed and the captain stopped us from crashing ashore. Anyway, 2-1/2 hours later, I calmly await rescue with a grilled cheese sandwich, and the Turkish Coast Guard arrives and evacuates us to their boat. Maybe this is when I need a “fairy.”

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