You don't even realize how extraordinarily high and wide Haghia Sophia's gold tile-covered dome is until you climb up ramp after ramp of stairs to the gallery, and the mosaics still look far away.
The best Byzantine mosaics are hidden away on central Istanbul's edge, in the jewel-box Kariye church. I would have never found it had a fully veiled woman I stopped on a deserted street not walked a mile out of her way to lead me up a warren of alleys.
The interior shines with 14th-century mosaics portraying Gospel stories with so much realism that you feel Mary's hesitation as she stands outside Joseph's house as a new bride, wringing her hands.
Similarly, while skyline-dominating giants like Suleymaniye mosque and Topkapi palace, for 400 years the sultans' vast residence, impress with their massive play of shapes, my Ottoman favorite was a tiny mosque hidden near the Spice Bazaar, Rustem Pasa.
The dark space, cooled by a breeze off the Golden Horn, bursts into the vivid blues and greens of the precious Iznik tiles that cover it in intricate floral and abstract designs.
APOLLO'S SWIMMING HOLE: You can dive into that vivid blue in the sea off Oludeniz natural park, where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean. Surrounded by tall mountains covered in fragrant brush and pines, with wisps of clouds perched on their tops, it felt like the swimming hole of the ancient gods.
Not that there isn't competition for sea-lovers. I spent a day cruising the Bosporus on a friend's sailing boat, downing ayran, the signature salty yogurt drink, past Ottoman palaces and fortresses.
Off a tiny cove in the sadly overdeveloped Bodrum peninsula, a kid engaged me in a freestyle competition through crystalline water as his grandmother, decked out in a turquoise long-sleeved suit, blue Crocs and pink noodle, patiently tried out a few strokes.
From my terrace at one of the peninsula's many luxury hotels, Lavanta, overlooking Yalikavak harbor, I watched the sun set over Greek islands as a muezzin's call to prayer wafted over the whitewashed village up to the windmills topping the barren hills.
If Bodrum has luxe, the Datca peninsula just to the south has solitude. Near the ruins of Knidos, a seventh-century B.C. Greek town, I spent an hour floating in transparent water without seeing a soul.
A few hours south of there, in Patara, I found miles of sandy beach popular with sea turtles, past an arch and other ruins of an ancient Lycian city. It's a tough call, but I might have had the best meal of the trip in Patara, under the grape arbor of St. Nicholas restaurant. Mezes kept flowing, ranging from tangy beyaz peynir cheese (a Turkish version of feta) to grilled fish and lamb to a dazzling variety of dishes made with eggplant ("patlican," which means eggplant, is essential Turkish vocabulary).
And of course, I ended up deep in conversation with the owner's son, a young man just out of architecture school, who shared his dream of a green development in Patara so that "in five years you might read of me."
"Cok iyi," I told him, and I hoped that first Istanbul cab driver would have been proud.
If You Go...
ISTANBUL: http://english.istanbul.com/. Historic Istanbul can be seen on foot. The trip from Istanbul along the Aegean Coast is easy, scenic driving.
ACCOMMODATIONS: In Istanbul, Hanedan Hotel, http://www.hanedanhotel.com. In Assos, Kervansaray Otel, http://www.assoskervansaray.com. In Bergama (Pergamon), Akropolis Guest House, http://www.akropolisguesthouse.com. In Bodrum-Yalikavak, Lavanta Hotel, http://www.lavanta.com. In Patara, Viewpoint Hotel, http://www.pataraviewpoint.com. All hotels served complimentary breakfast spreads; in the Assos and Bergama hotels, dinner was an inexpensive feast.
ST. NICHOLAS RESTAURANT: http://www.stnicholaspensionpatara.com.
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