What it’s like travelling abroad in the pandemic: A trip to Turkey

If you had the chance to go on a foreign holiday during this pandemic, would you? After two cancelled holidays, along with working and living in a one-bedroom flat since March, I seized that opportunity; a week-long trip in October 2020 to Turkey to stay at the family home in Bodrum with my mum and also visit my paternal grandmother in Istanbul.

When I booked my flight in mid-September, Turkey was still on the flight corridor, and for less than £100 return, I didn’t think twice. Not long after booking, Turkey was removed from the flight corridor and the idea of a two week self-isolation period didn’t put me off.

Having something to look forward to and the effect that can have on one’s mental health shouldn’t be taken lightly. I fully appreciated and savoured the fact I was leaving my claustrophobic environment to experience some fresh air, a change of scenery and a much-needed break.

On a typical Saturday lunchtime at Gatwick Airport the week that half term starts, you’d expect thousands of people bustling around. Instead, I wondered if it could resemble the aftermath of an apocalypse. The sort of scene you’d see in a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Although reasonably empty, there were pockets of busyness. Such as the queue for bag drop, and to go through security. Everyone was wearing a mask, including all the airport staff. The hand sanitisers stations were plentiful at key points too, which reassured me.

All but two restaurants were in a state of abandonment and ruin, and the two that were still open had a minimum 30-minute wait for a table. All the shops were open, but with so few customers, social distancing wasn’t a worry.

Upon arriving at the gate, we were allowed to board straight away. I had never been on such an empty aeroplane before. I overheard a member of the cabin crew say there were 49 passengers on board and permitted people to move seats. So in hindsight, it was unnecessary to pay the £21 for an extra legroom seat, when every other seat was a free-to-all upon take off.

Due to boarding the aeroplane so quickly, we took off on time, and landed in Bodrum earlier than expected. Having never been to Bodrum in October, I wasn’t sure if the quietness of the airport was due to the time of year being off-peak, or whether the pandemic was the cause. It wouldn’t be unusual even in the early hours to queue for at least 30 minutes to go through the passport security checks. What does speed up the passport checks is that British passport holders (along with a few other European countries) currently don’t need a visa to enter Turkey. This temporary measure has been in place since March 2020, and saves $20!

I was fortunate enough that I didn’t need to worry about accommodation whilst visiting Bodrum. Although many of the large resort-sized hotels were closed, plenty of guest houses, small hotels and self-catering accommodation were open and available, suitable for all budgets.

For those wanting to get out and explore, renting a hire car may be the easiest option. The dolmuş minibuses are regular and usually keep to time well, but given the small size of the bus, you may not get a seat with the locals using them as frequently as they do. Our hire car was an automatic Hyundai i20 – perfect for two people – and cost £20 a day. To fill up the tank cost 200 Turkish Lira, which is roughly £20. Plus at Turkish service stations, an attendant will fill up the tank for you, which can be set to how much you want to pay rather than just how much of the tank to fill up.

Now to the holiday! As someone who constantly likes to be busy and do things, this trip was about taking a step back and resetting. As the temperature was t-shirt weather but not quite warm enough to swim in the sea, my to-do list consisted of eating delicious Turkish food, reading my book and going for beach walks.

For tourists looking for more of a holiday, the traditional Turkish bazaars (markets) and historic attractions were open. Some restaurants were closed, but with so many venues, you wouldn’t be stuck for choice. Given the warm weather too, every meal – even at night – was suitable for outdoor dining.

I felt really comfortable with the hygiene standards at the restaurants I dined at. Tables were well distanced apart, with each having a big tub of hand sanitiser, and most of their menus were accessible online through scanning a QR code. Free WiFi is commonplace too, so having to use my mobile phone data to view an online menu wasn’t a concern.

A good quality meal needn’t push the boat either. One restaurant we discovered on an unsuspecting road away from the hotspot of Gümüşlük (known more for its seafood restaurants), offered cheese-filled köfte, a type of meatball, served with bread and salad for about £5! The low price didn’t reflect low quality; for a fussy meat-eater like myself, it was a delicious meal I beamed over.

Breakfasts are a big deal in Turkey too, and going out for a traditional “kahvaltı” is a must-do on any visit to Turkey. The meal would typically consist of different types of cheese, olives, eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, jam, honey and sucuk, which is a spicy sausage. We opted for a restaurant in the hills overlooking Yalıkavak Marina, costing 35 Turkish Lira – a mere £3.50 – per person and had tea included. The meal wasn’t rushed either, and you could easily spend an hour or two dining, taking in the views.

For those looking to enjoy the natural environment whilst keeping active, the bay surrounding Gümüşlük along with Turgutreis, Yalıkavak and Bodrum Marinas offered stretches of scenic views to admire from the paths and pedestrianised areas. Each suburb has its own attractions too. Gümüşlük has an island, affectionately known by the locals as Rabbit Island, which you can walk out to during low tide. Yalıkavak Marina is full of mega yachts to admire, as well as lots of medium to high end shops to wander around.  

Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology has remained open too, costing 20 Turkish Lira to visit. Plus at Turgutreis and Bodrum Marinas, you can find a number of boats offering private tours of the peninsula.

Following my week-long stay in Bodrum, I flew to Istanbul to visit and stay at my grandmother’s apartment. My time in Istanbul wasn’t particularly noteworthy, other than the fact that the airport seemed overcrowded and much harder to social distance compared to Gatwick and Bodrum airports. I didn’t do or see anything; I just spent time with my grandmother, socially distanced of course. Being able to visit, albeit only for a few days, when we’re living in times that’s changing from one day to the next, was so special. It felt heartbreaking saying goodbye, not being able to give her a cuddle or the customary kiss on each cheek, and not knowing when I’ll be able to come back.

We’re all making sacrifices to keep our loved ones safe, and to protect the NHS. One thing I’ve learnt from this trip is that it’s important to look after one’s wellbeing too, and if taking a trip abroad whilst adhering to COVID-safety regulations helps to achieve that, then go for it!

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