Turkey is an intriguing country with a unique identity straddling both Europe and Asia. In a place where familiarity merges with the exotic, we find a magical blend of the ancient, Christian and Ottoman worlds where the jewel in the crown is the incredible city of Istanbul.
A city of great diversity, Istanbul is a combination of tree-lined boulevards, cafés and cosmopolitan restaurants set against a backdrop where little has changed for centuries. High-class jewellery and fashion shops jostle with hawkers selling freshly prepared food, shoe-shine boys and the largest covered bazaar in the world. During its 3,000 years of turbulent history, it has been home to the Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans and, finally, the Turks themselves – all leaving their mark. We are taught the Roman Empire fell in 410AD when Attila the Hun sacked Rome, but rarely told is that the eastern and wealthier half lasted another thousand years. This led to some amazingly preserved monuments, with perhaps the greatest legacy being the 6th-century Hagia Sophia, the largest ever church and for over a thousand years, the largest covered space on earth. During the Middle Ages, the Ottoman Empire built another range of monuments to match, including the amazing Topkapi Palace, which was the seat of government of arguably the greatest empire of the medieval age.
We also visit three of the most famous ancient sites in the country: Troy, Pergamon and Ephesus. Each is very different, with Troy being the oldest, dating from 3000 BC, and during more than a century of excavations, nine separate cities have been unearthed, all built over each other. Once a Greek colony built high on a huge rock, Pergamon is an impregnable defensive site with amazing views in all directions and flourished as one of the ancient world’s greatest centres of learning and healing. During Roman times, the greatest city in the eastern Mediterranean was Ephesus, which boasts an extraordinary number of superbly preserved monuments, including the stunning two-storey Library of Celsus. For many, this is the Pompeii of the East.
We cross from Asia back to Europe on a scenic ferry journey across the Dardanelles Straight – you’ll be surprised by how close Europe is to the Asian shore and it’s not hard to imagine the great armies of Xerxes and Alexander the Great crossing here at their narrowest point.
Turkish cuisine is an interesting blend of Mediterranean specialities: fresh grilled lamb, fish, shellfish with aubergines, peppers and various fragrant olive oils combine to create tasty, healthy menus, all washed down with the excellent and very reasonably priced local red wine.
Turkey is the perfect place if you are looking for something a little different and it will not disappoint. It possesses a genuinely unique blend of diverse cultures, centuries of history and an atmosphere that links the mysterious east with the familiar west.