"So what's your favorite country?" It's the inevitable question when I'm introduced as a travel writer.
"Italy, especially Sicily," I used to say. Then it was Burma, then Fiji, and on, and on....
But a recent trip to Turkey reconfirmed my current favorite.
"Turkey? Ooof! Really? You mean, Turkey???" is often the surprised response.
What is it about that country that makes so many Westerners - Americans especially - feel a bit uneasy? Too mysterious? Too dark? Too Muslim?
Perhaps it's still the "Midnight Express" syndrome, cultivated by that terrifying, brutal 1978 movie account of an American imprisoned in Turkey for drug trafficking.
What a pity.
Turkey is, among its numerous glories, an endless, outdoor museum. A country steeped in time and buried in layers of history most of which still wait to be discovered. Some 3,500 architectural sites lay scattered like broken tiles throughout the land.
Ancient cities like Troy, immortalized by Homer in the Iliad, and Aphrodisias, dedicated to the goddess of love and fertility, and Ephesus await your discovery.
Especially Ephesus, where a wide, white marble avenue paves your way past temples, shops, and fountains to the vast amphitheater where St. Paul walked, and, more recently, pop singer Sting performed. Ninety percent of the city has yet to be unearthed.
The surreal is commonplace in Turkey. In the moonscape village of Cappadocia, fairy chimneys of volcanic rock formations poke up like eerie stalagmites.
In Pamukkale, you can simmer in hot mineral springs that spill in a series of pristine white pools down the side of a plateau, or swim among fallen ancient Roman marble columns.
This splendid land is inhabited by a courteous, friendly people, and nurtured by a cuisine inspired by Ottoman sultans. Dishes with evocative names like "Lips of a Lady," and "The Imam Liked It," served, as I was recently, under the stars in an open court in the Sleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. A performance of Whirling Dervishes preceded the feast. Turks like to boast that their cuisine is next only to Chinese and French in variety and interest. Maybe so.
Mingle with the rich and famous at the sea-side resort of Bodrum, a piece of St. Tropez without the honky-tonk and paintings of Elvis on black velvet.
Everything culminates in the mystery and magic of Istanbul, the former capital, and the world's only city divided between two continents. Here in exquisite harmony the Blue Mosque and the hulking pink St. Sophia glower at each other like unrelated bookends with only a small peaceful park as a no-man's-land between them.
Nearby, Topkapi Palace houses an emperor's ransom of jewels, religious artifacts, golden thrones, and artifacts where once sultans with their harems and black eunuchs lived in cloistered, protected splendor.
A short distance away is the Covered Bazaar where shopkeepers coil, ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists. No one leaves here empty-handed.
This is but a wink of this land, a country eagerly waiting to overwhelm you.
A friend recently returned from a trip to the Greek isles, culminating, much to his uneasiness, with a few days in Turkey.
What was the highlight of the trip I asked, upon his return. "Well, I loved the cruise, and, of course the islands, but the best part, without question, was Turkey."
Do I look surprised?