ISTANBUL — The question I'm most often asked since my recent visit to Turkey is: ''So, what are the Turkish people like?'' as if they are like the nefarious prison guards in the 1978 film ''Midnight Express.''
They are, in fact, rather friendly, if reserved, and with the exception of the occasional belly dancer, rather modest and conservative. You won't see men walking around in shorts no matter what the temperature. And veiled women are commonly seen, especially outside major cities.
Turks seem to have a great passion for soccer, food (dinner groups eat late and well into the night), and, alas, cigarettes. There are probably 15 adult men in Turkey who don't smoke. Restaurants and public buildings reserved for nonsmokers are nonexistent.
The population of 60 million comprises Turks as well as Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Jews, Greeks, and Iranians. Its prime minister is a woman, Tansu Ciller, in a country that is 99 percent Muslim.
Travelers should be aware of the political situation here. Kurdish rebels have battled the government in southeastern Turkey since 1984, at a cost of 15,000 lives. Turkey recently staged a six-week military operation in northern Iraq directed at rebel camps. In March, tensions between majority Shiite and minority Alawite Muslims erupted into four days of rioting in Istanbul. (Check with the United States State Department to be sure no travel advisory has been issued before finalizing your plans.)
The country as a whole couldn't be more diverse, colorful, and interesting. The ancient ruins of Ephesus, Pergamom, Side, Troy, Aphrodisias -- the list goes on and on -- would dazzle any archaeology buff. Soaking in the cascading pools of warm calcium oxide-rich waters spilling down mountain cliffs in Pamukkale (ancient Hierapolis) is an experience from another world.
And shopping! Can we talk? This land would have even the likes of Joan Rivers spinning like a whirling dervish. (If you want to see them, they're in Konya.) In the Covered Bazaar and Spice Market in Istanbul, young salesmen with twinkles in their eyes (I saw no women shopkeepers) offer to lighten your wallets. ''Sir, you want to spend your money? Come here, I can help you,'' they tease.
Intricately hand-woven wool, cotton, and silk carpets drape many of the 4,400 shops in the Covered Bazaar. Gold, ceramics, brass and copper items, leather goods, and carved alabaster tempt passersby. You wouldn't think of offering more than half the opening price, then be prepared to settle midrange.
And would a trip to Turkey be complete without a visit to one of the many public hamams -- the famous Turkish baths? Personally, I think it would, but the experience sure makes a good story. Another time.