I arrived in Istanbul, an enormous city of about 20 million people, on June 8 and was met by my very good friend Ilke Cevahir, who I got to know very well when he was a lifeguard at Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky during the summer of 2015. I stayed at his beautiful high-rise in Istanbul for five days/nights and loved every minute of it. Ilke was a wonderful tour guide and a very good sport. He took me several mornings to the university that he attends so he could take his final exams while I waited for him in the nearby cafeteria. While at Bilgi University, he introduced me to many of his classmates and good friends, many of whom recognized me immediately from the many Facebook and Instagram pictures posted by Ilke and I since 2015. After his exams, he took me on extensive walking tours of Istanbul, often with some of his or our mutual friends which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I especially enjoying dining with him one evening at probably the most famous steakhouse and restaurant in Istanbul, if not all of Turkey. It is called Nusret and is owned by the most famous chef and restaurant owner in Turkey, Nusret himself. Nusret now has more than seven million followers on social media with many famous celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio being photographed with him while dining at one of his many restaurants in Turkey, Dubai, etc. Ilke and I were very fortunate that Nusret was in the restaurant that particular evening greeting his many admiring customers. Thanks to Ilke, Nusret came to our table and we had several pictures taken with him. As we headed out the door after dinner, we passed numerous Ferraris, Porches and Lamborghinis that were parked in front of his restaurant. Feeling very full, excited and energized, we headed for the nearest subway station. No limousines or Lamborghinis for us unfortunately.
I also spent two wonderful days/nights at the home of my good friend Alper Yilmaz and his family, who also live in Istanbul. Alper also was a lifeguard at Great Wolf Lodge in Sandusky during the summer of 2015 and was Ilke's roommate. Alper and his father took me to the very old Ottoman fortress (called Rumeli) near their home which is perched high above the turquoise colored Bosphorus, the river that divides Istanbul into two parts — one part in Europe, the other in Asia. Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world that is located on two different continents, which makes it very unique, interesting and colorful. That night, Alper's family had an amazing barbecue party for me on their large open-air terrace. I will never forget the spectacular views of Istanbul, the delicious food and the fun that we had that evening.
The next three days were the only days when I did not travel with my Turkish friends. I flew from Istanbul to Izmir, Turkey's third largest city on the beautiful Aegean Sea, where I was picked up by minivan filled with foreign tourists like myself and then driven to the spectacular outdoor mineral springs and thermal baths of Pamukkale, where we spent the next couple of hours swimming and relaxing in the same outdoor pools where Mark Antony and Cleopatra swam while on their honeymoon more than 2,000 years prior. These multi-terraced, cotton white, calcified pools are found only in Turkey and are UNESCO World Heritage sites. After my swim my legs felt like jello and my skin as smooth as silk. That night I slept like a baby in my beautiful hotel room facing the Aegean Sea in the charming city of Kusadasi.
The next day was a truly amazing, interesting and spiritual day for me personally as we visited the House of the Virgin Mary, where our Holy Mother lived the last 10 or so years of her life. After Jesus' death, the Apostle John looked after Mary at Jesus' request and traveled with Mary to the city of Ephesus where he also lived for a number of years and where he died and is buried. Visiting the Virgin Mary's House (now a chapel) was an amazing experience for me.
We then spent several hours visiting the spectacular ancient ruins of Ephesus, which was the third largest city in the Roman Empire at its height. Standing in the actual amphitheater where St. Paul of Tarsus preached and converted the masses to Christianity felt almost surreal to me. Walking down the same streets that the Virgin Mary, the Apostles John and Philip and Paul of Tarsus did and where Mark Antony and Cleopatra strolled while honeymooning in Ephesus simply mesmerized me. The next day, I flew back to Istanbul feeling spiritually enlightened and uplifted, feeling very well educated and where I was then picked up by yet another one of my very good Turkish friends. But that, my friends, is another chapter of my amazing journey and story that still needs to be written. So until then, get out there and do some traveling of your own here, there and everywhere.
Gary Richards, of Norwalk, is a teacher, former community planner and world traveler.