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Sports and outdoor activities

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Whether you want to stand alongside some of the most passionate football fans in the world, hike a long-distance trail, climb up or ski down a mighty peak, raft the rapids of a mountain torrent, or paraglide over/dive beneath the warm waters of the Mediterranean, Turkey is the place to do it.

Football

Football is hugely popular in Turkey. Most Turks, no matter where they are from, profess allegiance to one of the “Big Three” İstanbul sides – Galatasaray, Beşiktaş or Fenerbahçe (see Fever pitch). The one exception is the Black Sea coastal town of Trabzon, whose citizens support their local team, Trabzonspor, which ranks up there with the İstanbul big boys.

Turkey has produced plenty of home-grown footballing talent (some now play in England, Germany and Spain), and many Turkish teams include international players, particularly from Africa and South America. The managers of the İstanbul giants are often recruited from abroad (with mixed results; Spain’s successful national coach Arragones lasted only a year at Fenerbahçe). Although the teams qualifying for the Champions League usually fall at the first hurdle, Galatasaray became the first Turkish team to win the UEFA Cup (in 2000; beating Arsenal 4–1 on penalties).

Matches are played between September and May. There’s usually a match on Friday evening, then more on Saturday afternoons/evenings and Sunday afternoon. Obtaining tickets for provincial teams is usually both cheap and easy, with tickets available at the ground on match day for as little as TL10, but prices can rise tenfold when one of the İstanbul “giants” is in town. Many bars show games on big screens, and can be very atmospheric, especially for derby games.

Football violence is not uncommon (in 2000, two English Leeds United fans were stabbed to death in İstanbul during running street-fighting with Galatasaray fans), though the average foreigner is unlikely to get caught up in trouble. Turkish football was scarred by a big match-fixing scandal in 2012, which delayed the start of the new season and resulted in Fenerbahçe’s chairman being jailed. After big games, especially those involving the “Big Three”, expect delirious celebrations, with flag-waving fans leaning on the horns of cruising cars embroiled in massive traffic jams.

Hiking and mountaineering

Turkey’s wild mountain ranges are a treat for experienced hikers prepared to carry their own tents and food and cope with few facilities. The lack of decent maps makes mountain exploration a real adventure, but the unspoiled countryside, the hospitality of rural Turks, the fascination of the yaylas (summer pastures), and the friendliness of other mountaineers more than compensate.

The alpine Kaçkar Dağları, paralleling the Black Sea, are the most rewarding mountains in Turkey for trekking, and several companies organize expeditions there. Next up in interest are the limestone Toros (Taurus) ranges, especially the lofty Aladağlar mountains south of Cappadocia.

Aside from this, high-altitude mountaineering in Turkey consists mostly of climbing the volcanoes of the central plateau. All offer superb views from their summits. Most famous is 5137m Ağrı Dağ, or Ararat on the eastern borders of Turkey, though this requires a special permit because of its sensitive location. By contrast, 3916m Erciyes Dağı offers exhilarating climbing without any of the expense or bureaucracy prevalent at Ararat. Süphan Dağı Turkey’s second-highest volcanic peak (4058m), stands in splendid isolation north of Lake Van. Unfortunately the magnificent Cilo–Sat mountains south of Lake Van are sometimes a battleground between the Kurdish separatists and Turkish security forces so are currently closed to outsiders.

Hiking equipment and safety
Alpine huts are nonexistent, so you’ll need to carry full camping gear to trek in the mountains. It’s best to bring your own as only İstanbul and Ankara have European-standard mountaineering shops. Water can be a problem in the limestone strata of the Toros, while on the volcanoes, detailed maps are very difficult to obtain and trails (when present) are seldom marked.

Rescue services are no match for those in more developed mountain areas in Europe and the US, but things are improving. The local jandarma will turn out in an emergency, and AKUT (Search and Rescue Association; wakut.org.tr) have established eight centres across western, southern and central Turkey (though not yet in the popular Kaçkar range).

You’ll find details on specific hiking routes through the Kaçkar Dağları, and a selection of walks on Bursa’s Uludağ and along the Turquoise Coast, in the Guide, but if you’re daunted at the prospect of going alone, contact one of the adventure-travel companies.

Except for the long-distance trails and the Kaçkar mountains, it’s virtually impossible to obtain large-scale topographical maps of specific areas for trekking (though usable enough maps for the most popular trekking areas can be found in Trekking in Turkey, an unfortunately out-of-print guide that’s still available secondhand).

Skiing

While few foreigners come to Turkey specifically to ski, the sport is growing in popularity, and if you’re visiting between December and April it’s well worth considering a day or more on the piste. If you’re willing to forego doorstep skiing, it’s surprisingly easy and cheap to ski while based in towns like Erzurum or Bursa that are near to resorts. The Turkish State Meteorological Service gives information on snow heights at the various resorts (wmgm.gov.tr).

Turkey’s best-known ski resort is Uludağ, above Bursa, with easy and intermediate runs, but the slopes are prone to mist and snow turns slushy after February. The Saklıkent complex in the Beydağları near Antalya would seem potentially ideal for an early spring sea-cum-ski holiday, but snow cover tends to be thin and the runs are limited. Close by is much better Davraz, near İsparta, where snow conditions are more reliable and there’s plentiful accommodation in the nearby lakeside town of Eğirdir as well as at the resort. Roughly midway between İstanbul and Ankara, near Bolu, Kartalkaya is better than any of the foregoing, despite a modest top altitude of 2223m; facilities now nearly match those of Uludağ, plus there are several red and black runs and, most importantly, in recent years there has been plentiful snow. The longest season and best snow conditions are usually at Palandöken, near Erzurum, where the top lift goes over 3000m and the Turkish Olympic team trains; there are three chairlifts, one T-bar and a 3km gondola car to service a mix of blue and red runs. At Tekir Yaylası on Erciyes Dağı near Kayseri, the season is nearly as long, the snow almost as powdery, and the top lift is 2770m (one to 3100m is planned), though thus far runs are only green and red grade, served by two chairlifts and two T-bars. Sarıkamış, near Kars, has two chairlifts and one T-bar to service a handful of runs (mostly red and blue grade); top lift is 2634m.

Watersports

Most medium to large resorts offer waterskiing and its offspring, parasailing; the even more exciting thrill of kite-surfing is centred on Alaçatı, near Çeşme, while windsurfers head for the Bodrum peninsula. Sea kayaking makes a great way to explore the indented coastline, islets and shallow, clear waters in the environs of the southwest Mediterranean resort of Kaş.

For more thrills and spills but less skill (you just sit there unless you happen to be thrown – or pushed – into the torrent), there’s also whitewater rafting. This is very popular on the Köprülü River near Antalya and the Dalaman River close to Fethiye, though for more serious outings the dam-threatened Çoruh in northeast Turkey is a world-class rafting river. Another freshwater-based activity of a very different nature is canyoning, which involves abseiling down waterfalls, leaping into plunge pools and generally exploring precipitous gorges – trips are organized by outfits in Kaş.

Scuba diving is one of the most popular water-based activities; outfits in Kaş, Kalkan and, further west, in Bodrum, Marmaris and Fethiye offer instruction and gear. There are underwater reefs and fish, wrecks and caves to explore, all in the (usually) clear, calm and warm waters of the Aegean/Mediterranean.

Other activities

With cheap flights, countless rock faces and ample winter sun, it’s only a matter of time before Turkey begins to rival Spain on the itineraries of climbers. The best place to start is Geyikbayırı, conveniently located just 25km from the gateway Mediterranean resort of Antalya. Five hundred bolted routes track their way up an imposing limestone cliff, and there are several camping/wooden chalet-style places to stay in the forest below. There’s more climbing from beach level at the beautiful resort of nearby Olympos. For more information check out wclimb-europe.com.

Cappadocia’s bizarrely sculpted rock pinnacles and plunging valleys rank among the world’s most striking landscapes. The best way to see this geological wonderland is to drift over it in an expertly piloted hot-air balloon. For more of an adrenaline rush, try paragliding (in tandem with a qualified pilot) from the mountains behind the bustling resorts of Kaş or Ölüdeniz.

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