It’s likely you know someone who’s been to Turkey on a package holiday. Blazing sunshine and great deals attract crowds eager to do nothing more than laze on the beach for a fortnight with a good book in one hand and a cocktail in the other.
But if you’re willing to venture off the beaten track and explore a little further, this country has plenty of hidden charms to uncover. Backed by hills and valleys dotted with small villages, the Aegean coast, in the west, has wonderful food, beaches and historic ruins - yet still hasn’t been swallowed up by the mass holiday market.
Eager to explore the real Turkey, I flew into Izmir (Turkey’s third largest city) and visited towns in the surrounding area.
My first taste of Turkish culture - quite literally - was in Alacati, a town 80km west of Izmir. I arrived at dusk to find the rustic streets busy with young men on mopeds returning from work and shopkeepers gossiping with customers in their doorways.
The pretty town is popular with wealthy Turks and has an impressive choice of restaurants.
Scanning the different menus, it quickly became clear that Turkish food is nothing like the greasy tray of doner meat that’s served up in many British takeaways.
After taking my seat outside the Roka Bache restaurant, I was soon ploughing my way through a meze of juicy olives, crusty soda bread and mustard greens, followed by a grilled seabass, caught only a few hours before by a local fisherman. An ice-cold Efes beer completed an evening’s consumption that was more than satisfying.
Food isn’t the only thing that produces a smile here.
The beaches in the region are beautiful, and with temperatures pushing 40C, enjoying the scorching sun is not just socially acceptable - it’s an essential component of the Aegean experience.
For a chic beachside experience, I chose to take a sun lounger at the Babylon Beach Club. Launched by the Istanbul-based Babylon venue in 2005, Beach Club provides a great selection of food, drink and entertainment - including its annual Soundgarden festival, with a good selection of international headliners. As the cool Mediterranean waters licked the pebble shores of this secluded resort, palm leaves danced gently in the welcome sea breeze. Babylon Beach Club is the sort of place that sways to the mellow rhythms of Jack Johnson and Norah Jones, where the people are friendly and the atmosphere tranquil.
As beautiful people relaxed underneath wicker umbrellas, I headed straight for a bar stool next to a giant fan in an attempt to control the ungraceful beads of sweat dripping down my back. After ordering another slushy strawberry cocktail from the bar, I learnt one of my first Turkish words - ‘serefe’, which means ‘cheers’.
After a few days of relaxation, however, it was time to delve a little deeper into Turkey’s history. This is a land that has been fought over by many of the world’s greatest powers - thanks to its position along the ancient trade routes of silk from China and spice from India - and pretty much everything here is steeped in history.
An afternoon spent in Foca - a small fishing town further up the Aegean coast - gave me a great insight into Turkey’s vibrant past.
Founded by mariners in 1000 BC, Foca is divided into old and new towns, and enclosed within the Ottoman city walls. During my visit, an excavation work was under way to restore part of a 700-year-old fortress.
Roughly 7km outside Foca is the Stone House. Standing 5m high, this monumental tomb was carved some time between the 5th and 7th centuries BC, influenced largely by the contemporary Persian style.
If you’re interested, you can glean actual relics from these periods at the Archaeological Museum in Izmir - a city which, formerly known as Smyrna, boasts a history of some 8,500 years. But the past is just as interesting as the present, as I was to discover.
Most of the action can be found in Izmir’s old town at the busy Kemeralti Market, where eager shoppers vie for the best bargains at stalls selling spices, leather and other goods. With the help of a friendly local, I managed to navigate the labyrinthine alleys and find my way to Hisar mosque - Izmir’s largest place of worship and one of the most significant Ottoman landmarks.
Dome and spires shimmering majestically in the heat, this late 16th century temple looked truly majestic, and I couldn’t resist going inside to admire the architecture. Sparkling chandeliers hung on chains from the concave ceiling, decorated with intricate works of Islamic art.
To really understand Turkish culture, however, you need to look beyond impressive buildings and paintings. For centuries the cogs of society have been lubricated by something far simpler - tea.
Served in a small glass, it comes with sugar cubes but no milk, and tastes like a well-brewed Earl Grey. Locals wake up to it, provide it to visiting friends, have a good natter over it in cafes, and, in my experience, offer it to you while they try to sell you carpets!
So it was with a cup of tea that I said a final ‘serefe’ to this fascinating land, as I flew back over the jagged Aegean coast that sparkles with hidden gems.
• Steve Clarkson flew to Izmir with Pegasus, which offers one-way flights from London Stansted from £79.99. Visit www.flypgs.com or call 0845 0848 980
• Morro Otel in Alacati offers doubles with breakfast from £60 per night. Visit www.morrootel.com
• Swissotel in Izmir offers doubles with breakfast from £90. www.swissotel.com/hotels/izmir
• For more information, visit www.gototurkey.co.uk