I will admit, the prospect of navigating a spotless rental car through Istanbul, a chaotic city of over 14 million people, not to mention the numerous other chaotic, but smaller cities, and death-defying high speed freeways we would be facing in the coming days did not initially sit very well with me. But alas, given the time we had, what we were wanting to get out of the trip, the added benefits and tiny difference in cost, it was absolutely the right thing to do.
We rented a car through http://www.economycarrentals.com, which is just a typical car rental agency amalgamator – ours ended up coming from Budget. We had a number of choices on how we wanted to get it, the usual array of airports, hotels, etc, we decided skeptically to try having them deliver it right to our hotel for us in the heart of Istanbul’s old town (Sultanamet), which seemed like it would never work. And of course it did, our guy Kaan showed up 15 minutes earlier than we requested!
We got a virtually brand-new Fiat Linea – A 4-door, manual, diesel version. Important things to note: apparently almost all rentals in Turkey have manual transmissions, so if you don’t know how to drive stick (well, you should probably learn because it’s not that hard!), but if you don’t have time to learn, that could be an issue. As well, we got unexpectedly upgraded to the diesel model, and man oh man, I couldn’t recommend going for that enough. In the thousands of kilometers that would follow, we filled up only four times. Note that petrol in Turkey costs about $2.50USD per litre (not gallon!), so that came as a real blessing. Also note that availability of “Eurodiesel” as its called is not an issue – unlike North America, all gas stations carry the stuff.
Driving in Turkey (…when in Rome!)
If there were only one piece of advice I would give to someone that was planning on driving in Turkey, it would be this: Drive like you are a Turk. Turkish people drive very aggressively. According to the Lonely Planet, Turkey has one of the world’s highest motor-vehicle accident rates. But don’t let that scare you! The only thing we saw happen on our 3000km journey was a minor fender bender in Instabul before we even got our car. And I was shocked at how courteous the drivers were to each other – they both got out, looked at the bumper, the rear-ender put his hand on the other guy’s shoulder (presumably apologizing), and they both got back in their cars and drove away. Something you would never see here in North America.
Drive defensively. This should go without saying no matter where you are, but I think the only reason Turkey’s system works is because everyone drives so defensively.
Turkish people drive very fast on the freeways. It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to be going around 130kph (my attempt at driving like the locals), and have a number of cars pass us like we were standing still. But don’t drive faster than the rest! There are plenty of police out there and they do pull people over. In fact I thought I got flagged over at one point, then he pulled over another, and then waved me onward to go. I think what happened was he saw that I was a foreigner and didn’t want to deal with the language barrier, but that’s just a guess (if that was indeed the case, it’s about as different as could be from our roadtrip through Mexico!).
Most important of all, absolutely do not drive in the fast line ever, unless you are actively passing someone. That is what the Turks do, and that is what you should do. Cars moving at 180kph come up very quickly behind you, and if you are doddling along at your own pace in the fast lane, you could find yourself in a real mess.
The State of the Nation
First off, the signage is very good. Much better than I expected, even not having any of them in English. There are a tremendous amount of highways you can take to get you anywhere; they are in great shape with few potholes, and they could be oddly void of traffic even at times when I thought they ought to be busy (save Istanbul, perhaps). For example we were approaching the town of Konya (pop: 1.1 million, 7th largest in Turkey) on a normal weekday around 1pm, we were well within the city limits, under 10km from the town centre, and there was hardly a sole to be seen. Things got even more desolate from there as you left the cities. There are improvements to the highways being made everywhere (I’m not really sure why to tell you the truth, given how few motorists there were using them), and I would say 90% of the time, the road was 4 lanes, divided. A few of the highways do have tolls, but they are very inexpensive compared to others we’ve had to pay in Mexico, South Africa and various countries around Europe (all were around $2 – $3) One last thing to note: side roads could be very skinny at times (perhaps Europeans wouldn’t notice that as much as I did), so something to be aware of, but worth making use of since that’s where you find all the good stuff!
Because we were wanting to spend as much time as we could on the coast of Turkey, we decided to take the more scenic highway that runs north of the Sea of Marmara and spits you out on the coast where the Marmara meets the Mediterranean. There are a number of ferries that leave from a couple different ports there, some of them as often as every 30 minutes. Loading/unloading the ferry was as easy as any other ferry I’ve ever been on. I was quite nervous at first that that highway would be quite rough and poorly maintained, but as stated earlier, like most other highways in Turkey it was really good, four lanes divided pretty much the whole way. I’m not really sure why everyone and every website wants you to go below the Sea of Marmara so badly (Google maps included!), the drive we took was really quite pleasant, I would imagine much more interesting than the drive below the sea, and probably only an extra hour or maybe two at the most. We left our hotel in central Istanbul right at noon, and caught the 5:30 ferry to Canakkale, and were in Assos for a lovely sundowner. So perhaps 7 hours including Istanbul traffic, and a 30 minute wait for the ferry.
After a night in Assos, we took our time down some really tight coastal roads that eventually hooked up to the secondary E87 highway. Made a couple hour stop in the quaint town of Aayvalik which after about 20 minutes of exploring I was convinced I wanted to live there – it had a really cool old town well worth walking through.
After some more secondary highway driving you eventually get to Izmir where it becomes a massive, tolled highway (the O31) and so it was time to get that needle up to 140kph so as to keep up with traffic. Shortly after Izmir is Selcuk and the mighty Ephesus where we spent the night.
The D550 is another nice secondary highway from Selcuk to Datca (a little hairy getting through Marmaris on the way, but not too bad). We spent the next day touring about the Datca peninsula and all of its mountainous, farming roads. The distances were all quite short (no more than two hours right to the ancient site of Knidos on the tip, and an absolutely great day of driving to get there and back (an area you’d never see by bus).
Datca to Kalkan (the D400) was another easy day of putting along at our own pace, stopping at a number of the old ruins and beaches along the way. I can’t recommend staying in Kalkan enough – though very touristy looking at first, you can quickly cut through the facade and realize there’s a lot more to it and it’s surrounding area.
The next day, the D400 continued, along the world-famous Lycian Way from Kalkan to Cirali, right beside Mount Olympos and the must-see Chimaera Natural flames coming out of the side of a mountain!). A few nice stops along the way, including the town of Kas which was a fantastic way to spend a couple of hours out on a boat tour of the islands.
From Cirali we zipped through the big and bad Antalya (quite nice in fact – traffic was a little hairy again, but nothing worth losing sleep over) and to Side. Side is the Europeans package holiday haven. Not really my cup of tea, but did have a decent set of ruins to see plus some good drinking establishments.
A big drive from Side to Goreme, Cappadocia on the D696/D300 (well, we’re from Canada… 8 hours ain’t that bad); plenty of big, mountain passes on the way, and next to no cars to contend with.
Then one last 9 hour push to get us back to Istanbul. Note that the outskirts of Istanbul pretty much start around the 7 hour mark of the trip, and then its aggressive, bumper to bumper driving the whole rest of the way into the city. We got into town on a Sunday evening around 5pm which I think was a huge blessing compared to what it might have been like in rush hour on your average weekday.
**Note: Our original plan was to turn the car in at Antalya when we got there, then take the bus or fly to Goreme, then do the same again back to Istanbul to avoid the long driving days of not seeing much. But when we sat down and did the math combined with the inconveniences of it all (you can only take a night bus from Antalya to Goreme, or to fly, you have to go through Istanbul!) it just wasn’t worth it. This also enabled us to avoid the one-way fee we’d have to pay of dropping the car off in a different city from the one we picked it up in.
What did all of this end up costing us? The car was 21 euro a day (so $27.50USD a day), plus we sprung for some extra insurance that in the end wasn’t necessary, though if I had to go back and do it all again, I would probably go for it once more just to be safe – that was another $10USD a day. For 2 weeks the final bill was $550USD plus about $300 in fuel, so $850, or $425 per person. I guarantee that you would have a very hard time seeing everything we saw for that price by taking buses, taxis, airplanes, etc, and it would be a heck of a lot more trouble…
Just Do It, You Will Love It!
What more can I say… two weeks was slightly too short to do everything we did. One more week would have been wonderful, allowing us to stay and explore a few of the highlights that we really dug, plus we didn’t get into Eastern Turkey, or up to the Black Sea, both of which we would have loved to do.
But in any case, if you are planning on travelling Turkey any time soon, go on, rent a car and go driving in Turkey!