ISTANBUL — The sea of Marmara shimmered to my right, a pod of dolphins played improbably in the ferry-and tankers-choked Bosporus strait, and minarets pierced my jet-lag fog on my first Istanbul evening.
Walking down the main road in Istanbul’s old city the next morning, I was pulled out of my reverie when an older, heavily mustachioed man leaned out the window of his rickety car and boomed, “American?”
Suddenly aware of my short sleeves and skirt on a trip last summer to a city where many women wear long coats even in hot weather, I smiled sheepishly.
“Ah, have a good day!” he yelled in English, breaking a wide grin, to which all I could do was reply “cok iyi,” meaning very good, the Turkish words I had learned in an impromptu lesson from a taxi driver.
And so the friendliness of Turkish strangers accompanied me for the three weeks I spent in Istanbul and along Turkey’s Aegean coast, where I found a wealth of antiquities, architecture and art with few parallels in the Mediterranean, not to mention impossibly blue seas and feasts of small plates known as mezes at non-Euro prices.
From Istanbul, I made a daylong drive to the stunning northern Aegean village of Assos. Swimming off its pebbly beach into empty green-blue waters, under cliffs studded with olive trees and humming with cicadas, near ruins visited by both Aristotle and St. Paul, was such perfection that I nearly spent the rest of my vacation there. After all, the camel I saw slurping tree leaves off a dusty road seemed happy to stay where he was.
But Greco-Roman sites, Byzantine and Islamic art masterpieces, and untouched Mediterranean scenery beckoned, and everywhere, people went out of their way to make this stranger welcome.
GRECO-ROMAN SPLENDOR: To grumble, as many tour books do, that there is not much to see at Troy is akin to calling the Eiffel Tower a jumble of iron bars. True, technically, but that is to ignore the breathless feeling of gazing at walls and columns where Homeric heroes lived 3,000 years ago.
Ancient Greek civilizations built acropolises a few hours south of Troy, none more “high city” than Pergamon, where the remains of a superb temple and a theater from the third century B.C. are carved atop a barren mountain. Not far off are ruins of three Ionian cities, including the giant theater of Miletus and the elaborately carved columns of the Dydima temple, so tall that you feel Lilliputian. My favorite is Priene, lying on the side of a pine-covered hill so off the tourist routes that the only noise I heard was the tinkle of sheep bells amid the 2,300-year-old streets.
None of these sites, nor most ancient ruins anywhere, can top the exuberance of nearby Ephesus, the Roman city halfway down the Aegean coast that dominated the Eastern classical world.
You can still walk its main marble road to the richly carved library and gigantic theater, past squares, statues, and what must have been the wealthiest Romans’ penthouse apartments.
Even in Rome there hardly is so much ancient luxury on display as in these terrace houses, with halls covered in marble panels, realistic wall paintings and intricate floor mosaics of mythical scenes.
BYZANTINES AND OTTOMANS: First the Byzantine, then the Ottoman empires gave even more impressive heft and sparkle to their capital, Istanbul, in their golden eras in the sixth and 16th centuries.
For sheer grandeur, the stunners are Byzantine Haghia Sophia and the Ottomans’ Blue Mosque.
I spent many nights contemplating them from the rooftop terrace of my small Sultanahmet hotel, as seagulls swooped in between the floodlights washing over their stadium-sized domes. Meanwhile, the concierge, Erhan Orkun, fussed to get me a 21st century luxury: flawless wireless.
You don’t even realize how extraordinarily high and wide Haghia Sophia’s gold tile-covered dome is until you climb up ramp after ramp of stairs to the gallery, and the mosaics still look far away.
The best Byzantine mosaics are hidden away on central Istanbul’s edge, in the jewel-box Kariye church. I would have never found it had a fully veiled woman I stopped on a deserted street not walked a mile out of her way to lead me up a warren of alleys.
The interior shines with 14th-century mosaics portraying Gospel stories with so much realism that you feel Mary’s hesitation as she stands outside Joseph’s house as a new bride, wringing her hands.
Similarly, while skyline-dominating giants like Suleymaniye mosque and Topkapi palace, for 400 years the sultans’ vast residence, impress with their massive play of shapes, my Ottoman favorite was a tiny mosque hidden near the Spice Bazaar, Rustem Pasa.
The dark space, cooled by a breeze off the Golden Horn, bursts into the vivid blues and greens of the precious Iznik tiles that cover it in intricate floral and abstract designs.