The first thing I do when I have booked a flight to Turkey is to buy a travel diary. I create a calendar starting with the date of departure, the date of return, and then I settle down to look at all the empty pages, so full of promise and adventure.
In March 2020, such a diary was prepared, and then shockingly, the world was introduced to the grim reality of COVID-19. Countries locked down like dominos. Would we go to Turkey or not? Two years later, Turkish Airlines announced in March 2022, that flights would resume. We booked immediately, packed the diary and flew at 17h00 from Cape Town, arriving in Istanbul at dawn the next morning. Already, the city’s seduction was working its charm. The gulls swooped in lazy arabesques over the Bosporus, and the first call to prayer reminded us to thank God for our privileges.
Our adventure was planned to include new territory: a train journey (said to be the second best in the world) on the legendary Dogu Ekspresi. Not quite the Orient Express but with a faded elderly appeal. This involved travelling by Metro under the Bosporus to emerge on the Asian side, at Sogutlucesme (that took some rehearsing!). From there, we would take a train to Ankara, from where the Dogu Ekspresi would leave. There were no hitches. All the connections worked. We boarded our train, and lurched off in our couchette.
Let me tell you about our destination. Divriği is a small town in the Sivas Province. When we arrived there it looked exactly as we had expected, situated on a gentle slope on the Caltsuyu river, a tributary of the mighty Euphrates. The valley floor was softened by drifts of willow and poplar trees, and on the hill above stands the Ulu Camii, The Great Mosque, built in 1228.
This was our reason for going so far off the beaten track. It is the only Turkish building to be given World Heritage status. The restoration is not complete, but we were able to see the famous doors. Their carvings are so delicate and intricate, that they are believed to be proof of God’s existence. Local people say: “No mortal could have achieved these works of art without Divine Guidance.” The North Door is described as being a dazzling cornucopia of floral geometric patterns and medallions; the West door has a riot of Kelim motifs.
To the side was the Sifahane, or Hospital. The octagonal pool provided a continual tinkling of water, and the nearby raised platform was for the musicians whose music would soothe the mentally ill patients. Soon, it will be invaded by tourists, but for now, we had it to ourselves.
The next day, we rattled on towards the Russian border. This part of the journey was truly magnificent. Threading our way on the narrow rails, we vanished into the darkness of many tunnels, squeezed between huge cliffs on either side, and delighted in the tumbling river swollen by the melting snow from the mountains. Patches of blood red poppies grew in among well-tended crops, while goats and sheep grazed peacefully. This was a return to the rural Turkey we loved.
On our way back to Ankara we took a bus to the faraway South where we enjoyed a very different time with our family from the UK. The love affair with Turkey continues.