Travel: Turkey and Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul
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ISTANBUL is the city which bridges the gap between Europe and Asia, where East meets West and where layers of history link our modern world all the way back to that of the ancient Greeks.

Its population of more than 14 million makes it one of the biggest cities in the world.

And it is a huge draw for tourists who come to taste the culture, soak up the history and experience a busy, friendly, cosmopolitan city - ancient and modern..

Founded by the Greeks in the seventh century BC, it was known first as Byzantium, then rebuilt as capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine and renamed Constantinople, later going on to become the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Only after the formation of the modern Turkish Republic did it adopt its current name in 1930 .

Istanbul is just four hours by plane from Edinburgh and Turkish Airlines has daily direct flights.

Now the fourth largest carrier in the world, Turkish Airlines has made a name for itself with its in-flight catering, including its ‘flying chefs’ initiative which sees trained chefs from its catering company Do&Co preparing meals on board the aircraft. The food was indeed a delight.

We landed late in the afternoon - Turkey is two hours ahead of the UK - and the journey from the airport by minibus through rush-hour Istanbul is a reminder that its centuries-old role as a bustling metropolis, a place to live, work and play, has not come to an end.

Our hotel, the recently opened Istanbul Raffles has a magnificent foyer, a wide variety of bars and restaurants and a spa, not to mention an upmarket shopping mall, the 200-store Zorlu Centre, next door.

Each of the hotel’s 132 guest rooms and 49 suites has a private balcony and there are stunning views. Looking out over the darkening skyline and hearing the traditional call to prayer echo over Istanbul allows you to feel the timeless character of the place.

A bathtub close to the window offered the chance to gaze out while having a soak - or you could opt instead for the TV hidden in the bathroom mirror.

Eager to get a taste of Turkey as soon as possible, we take a short trip to the Ortakoy area of the city, on the European bank of the Bosphorus. It was midnight, yet market stalls were in full swing and several bars and restaurants still serving.

Local and tourists alike were enjoying a warm evening on the waterfront against the backdrop of the ornate neo-baroque Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus Bridge, which links the European and Asian parts of Istanbul, joining two continents.

Next day, it was time to visit some of the city’s famous sights, many of which are clustered in the historic Sultanahmed quarter.

The Roman Hippodrome is an ancient rectangular arena where the Romans held chariot races, but was also the scene of riots.

A series of statues and obelisks, thousands of years old, decorate the area, including the immaculately preserved pink granite Obelisk of Theodosius, carved in Egypt around 1500 BC and brought to Constantinople in 390AD.

Nearby is Istanbul’s most famous attraction, the stunning Hagia Sophia - or Ayasofya - which was built as a church, later became a mosque and is now a museum.

One of the world’s greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, it’s in pretty good shape for a building dating back to 537AD and seems to survive a constant stream of tourists tramping freely around inside.

It was a major Eastern Orthodox cathedral for most of its first 1000 years, but was also briefly a Roman Catholic cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453. ,

Its current role as a museum dates from 1935 when it was secularised by Mustafa Kemal, founder of the Republic of Turkey and the first Turkish President,

Mosaics and decorations hidden from view for centuries were uncovered and now Christian and Muslim symbols exist side by side under the massive 182ft high dome.

Close by, another favourite with visitors to Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, built in 1609-16 by Sultan Ahmed to reassert Ottoman power and still used as a mosque.

Its familiar name comes from the thousands of blue tiles that decorate the walls inside and are shown to magnificent effect by the sunlight streaming through hundreds of stained glass windows, but it is officially known as the Sultan Ahmed mosque.

Its importance is signified by its six minarets

And a short walk away is the famous Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 3000 shops selling carpets, jewellery, clothes and more. It has up to half a million visitors every day, but in case it needed any more profile it may also be familiar to cinema-goers from featuring in the James Bond movie Skyfall.

It was back to the Bosphorus in the evening to eat at the Feriye restaurant on the waterfront - traditional Turkish and Ottoman cuisine with wondeful views.

But Turkey, of course, is more than Istanbul.

A short internal flight with Turkish Airlines takes you to the Mediterranean resort town of Alanya, Attractions include Cleopatra Beach, where the Egyptian queen reputedly swam and Alanya Castle, a giant fortress which is now an open-air museum.

The bay is dominated by dramatic rock cliffs and we took a boat trip to get close-up views of Pirates’ Cave, Lovers’ Cave and Phosphorous Cave.

Along the coast, between Alanya and the city of Antalya, another popular destination for UK visitors is Belek,

Until recently, it was a small village but now finds itself the centre of a thriving golf tourism industry, with over 30 four-and five-start hotels and numerous golf courses

We stay at the Maxx Royal, a fabulously luxurious hotel, whose all-inclusive prices mean guests don’t have to pay extra to enjoy a whole range of treats on offer - including a patisserie serving mouth-watering cakes and pastries.

The golf course at the Maxx Royal was designed by Colin Montgomerie and hosted the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final In 2012 and the Turkish Airlines Open in 2013. Golf is an ever-present theme: even the soap in the bathrooms are shaped like golf ball and sit on little tees.

The bedrooms were enormous, with a jacuzzi in the ensuite and a large balcony looking towards the sea. The hotel has five restaurants, 14 bars, a spa, children’s activities, a cinema and a nightclub down at the beach.

We flew back to Edinburgh from Antalya, stopping off in Istanbul to sample the delights of Turkish Airline’s departure lounge with such a wide variety of food, drinks and snacks on offer, along with children’s play area and billiard room, it could almost be a holiday destination in its own right.

Turkish Airlines has daily departures to Istanbul from Edinburgh: www.turkishairlines.com/en-uk/

For more information about Raffles Istanbul visit: www.raffles.com/istanbul/

And for details about the Maxx Royal at Belek, go to: www.maxxroyal.com/