Poor old Turkey. So misunderstood.
Mention it as a vacation destination and most Americans look at you as if you just proposed a winter weekend in Detroit. That's partly because most people know little about the place beyond what they've seen in prison movies such as "Midnight Express." Which is sort of like basing your opinion of Northern California on a showing of "Escape From Alcatraz."
Hidden behind this bum image is a huge country with plenty of beautiful, worthwhile -- and inexpensive -- places to visit, and perhaps no region is better for acquainting oneself with Turkey than the Aegean and Mediterranean coastline, on the country's southwest corner.
Regrettably, this part of Turkey has already been discovered by bus-bound British package tours and hordes of globe-trotting Germans, and the resulting tourism boom in recent years has crowded out some of the charm from more popular spots. This is particularly true on the peninsula of the ancient port city of Bodrum, where vast, chockablock hives of apartments rise forlornly from one hillside after another.
But there are still plenty of unspoiled turquoise beaches and quiet towns to be found with local flavor intact, and along the way one comes across some of the world's finest and most plentiful Greek and Roman ruins, often in spots where hardly anyone else is around.
As for the Turkish people, forget the movie images. They're friendly and helpful, and seem especially eager to talk to the few Americans who make their way there, though they seem puzzled and painfully aware of the bad rap they've gotten in our movies. "You must try to understand us, we are not a bad people," we overheard one guide saying gently at a site of Roman ruins. "Did you know that we are a member of NATO?"
Though 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Turkey has been a secular republic ever since the national hero, Kemal Ataturk, instituted a series of reforms after he helped drive out the Greek army in 1922.
As a result, Turkey has adopted many Western ways, and this is particularly true along the coastline. Virtually all of the beaches we went to, in fact, were topless. And even though the nasal, amplified prayer calls of the muezzin ring out from mosque towers five times a day, the ritual creates no more of a ripple than does the ringing of a church bell in an American city.
Do show extra reverence and modesty if you enter a mosque, however: Remove your shoes first, and women should cover their heads and shoulders with a scarf. Shorts and skirts are bad form.
Elsewhere, the tolerance of varying styles of clothing can be summed up best by a scene we saw on a beach. A Turkish woman in her early 20s lay sunbathing topless in a string bikini. Sitting placidly next to her was her mother, wrapped from head to toe in shawls and scarves.
If anything, the relative inexperience of the Turks in the tourism business seems to make them less jaded about visitors than their Mediterranean neighbors in the more popular destinations of Greece. But if Turkey alone is not enough to entice you to fly halfway round the world, a tour of the Turkish coast does wed nicely with excursions to the nearby Greek islands.
Ferry connections are particularly easy to the islands of Samos and Rhodes. Be forewarned, however. Centuries of wars and border disputes have made the Greeks and Turks wary of each other. Don't speak too glowingly of one place while in the other, though ill feelings seem to be softening among the young.
If you're going to the Turkish coast from the Greek isle of Samos, as we did, the best starting point is the port city of Kusadasi, a little more than an hour's drive south of the large city of Izmir. Izmir, probably at the northern end of where you'd want to begin a tour of the coast, or Antalya, a good starting point from the southern side, are easily reachable by air from Istanbul. Domestic air travel is relatively inexpensive.
Unless you're touring by yacht, the best way to see the coastline is by car. A rental will probably cost you $300 or more for a week, but the extra freedom is worth it. Otherwise you'll be at the mercy of the reliable but point-to-point system of small buses, called dolmuses, that tend to be overpriced.
The northern reaches of the Aegean coast offer some of the world's finest sites of ruins. The ancient city of Ephesus, with its well-preserved marble roads (Cleopatra once made a grand entrance up one of them, on her way to a tryst with Marc Antony), the giant theater, the colonnades, a magnificent library facade and ancient public baths, is worth a whole day by itself. Entrance costs are cheap, and make sure and pay the few extra Turkish lira to tour the restored Roman apartments that have been unearthed from a hillside and covered to keep out the elements.