Discover the mysteries of the east
IF EVER there was an experience to prove the value of a local guide it came to us in Istanbul.
We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon and it seemed every family in the city had come out to picnic on the banks of the Bosphorus.
Not only had their kitchen grill come with them to sizzle kebabs over small fires, every pot, pan and piece of cutlery had joined the picnic. It was a charming introduction to this vibrant Turkish city and we were instantly captivated.
A short stroll from our hotel, the Hotel Perula in the old city, took us to a square with obelisks, fountains and statues.
"This is nice," we said after a cursory look, before rushing to the nearest cafe for a big feed of Turkish pancakes.
In the morning Mutlu, our guide for the next two days arrived, beaming, chatting in excellent English.
"Let's walk," he said, and directed us back to the square of the night before.
"This is the Hippodrome, the centre of Byzantine life for a thousand years, where chariot races and athletic games took place."
Chariot races here? Where we had so irreverently stood the night before? Without thought to the rich history beneath our feet?
Oh dear. And we like to think we are savvy travellers.
We spent a riveting hour at the Hippodrome with Mutlu, gaining a sense of history so strong we could almost see the Byzantine Emperors cheering the chariots thundering around the obelisks.
"We're sticking with you, Mutlu," we said as he steered us to the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's archetypal landmark.
Approaching this beautiful mosque from the Hippodrome gives you the best view of its six imposing minarets, something we would have missed if not for Mutlu.
Standing in the mosque with its blue Iznik tiled walls and luminous effects of stained glass windows, Mutlu talked in easy-to-understand language about the questions many of us have about Islam.
His passion was infectious and
gave us an insight into this religion we would otherwise have strived years to gain.
Later at the Topkapi Palace, home between 1453 and 1839 to many Ottomans, both tragic and wicked, we wondered what the walls would tell if they could talk.
According to Mutlu, this palace has seen more triumphs and tragedies than any other of the world's royal residences.
The Imperial Treasury section had us so busy gawping at the riches displayed in glass cases, by the time we arrived at the third room where the fourth largest diamond of its kind in the world is housed, we were overcome by the dazzle of diamonds, the gleam of gold, the razzle of rubies.
Known as The Spoonmaker's Diamond, the 86 carats of pear-shaped brilliance, has a story as splendid as the vision itself.
It is said it was found on a rubbish dump in 1669 by a peasant who bartered for three wooden spoons. Fortunately it ended up in the palace and is now a main drawcard.
We then lunched in a small cafe most tourists pass without a glance.
"I want you to experience the true local food," Mutlu told us as we contemplated steep stone steps to a basement where staff brought us plates of spicy rice, fat meatballs, stewed vegetables.
Istanbul is a city of enchantment and mystery, of history sitting comfortably with modernity.
With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul combines all that is thrilling of both these worlds.
The city brims with culture and history and deserves a lengthy stay. Stay tuned for part two of this story next week.
IF YOU GO
Icon Holidays will tailor a tour of Turkey to suit from a group tour to a private guide and driver.
Where to stay
Peykhane Sok No. 45
Istanbul: Visit: http://www.hotelperula.com