The first day was full on with a guided tour to take us to the major classic sights of Istanbul. It was a perfect day: warm and sunny and a clear blue sky acting as a backdrop to the amazing architecture and towering minarets that dominate Istanbul’s skyline and is at once so familiar to this first-time traveller to Turkey yet also amazingly glorious in the experience of seeing them for real. Our lovely guide Pinor arrived with just one other traveller so we were fortunate to be a small group of five – including Pinor – to set out first to the Hippodrome, a large arena that was once the heart of Constantinople’s political and sporting life. It has been the scene of riots and chariot races. At the centre is a large granite obelisk brought from Egypt in 390AD.
The queue in the courtyard was long but moved surprisingly quickly. I wasn’t bothered at spending time there: it was magnificent. It’s a superb example of Ottoman architecture and despite the crowds seemed a calm place to be. Built in the 16th century, it has six towering minarets and 260 windows that illuminate the vast main interior chamber.
At the entrance we women had to cover our heads with scarves and I was given extra covering for my legs – apparently my knee-length skirt was too revealing. Looking up as we entered there was a beautiful tiled small dome.
It’s huge inside and decorated with thousands of Iznik tiles. We moved slowly forward through the crowds to take a better look. It was certainly impressive yet I felt a slight disappointment and that I’d preferred it from outside and standing in the courtyard.
We made our way first to the Topkapi Palace, a jewel in the crown of the Ottoman Empire. There are opulent pavilions and beautiful gardens; a kitchen staff of 600 once fed the sultans and their families; it was home to courtiers, eunuchs and a sprawling harem.
Some of us felt a coffee was in order before seeing much more, beautiful as it all was. We gave the Treasury with its treasures a quick look and then settled into seats in a cafe with a good view across the Bosphorus even if the coffee was expensive and only Nescafé.
We all agreed, now revived, to visit Hagia Sophia next and before lunch. For me, this was the highlight of the tour. Built in the 6th century, it was one of the largest basilicas in the Christian world; its huge and magnificent dome the work of architectural and engineering genius. The Ottomans converted it to a mosque and today it is a museum. Despite the large scaffolding inside, and crowds, it is still awesomely beautiful.
It was a bustling, crowded maze of passages with stall holders constantly hassling us to buy their wares. I bought a pashmina at one place and we had a fun conversation with the owner but there was little I wanted to buy. It’s very much a shopping experience for tourists and Pinor told me locals didn’t really shop there.
It had been a good day, full of wonderful experiences, and our guide was brilliant but we were too tired to venture far for dinner. We had abortive attempts at trying to find some recommended places but finally settled on a Lonely Planet recommendation – Cooking Alaturka. This restaurant – that is also a cookery school – is owned and run by the Dutch born Eveline and her Turkish partner. They serve a set menu of simple Anatolian dishes. I have to say it was a pleasure not having to choose but just have brilliant and delicious choices made for me, served with some excellent Turkish wine (without doubt the best Turkish wine I’ve ever had). We started with a hot yogurt soup with lemon and mint. It was unusual and fabulous.