For the past couple of years, Turkey has been the destination of choice for Egyptians. Blending history with stunning land and rugged mountainscapes, it has everything we could ask for: sun, sea, sights and most of all great food and shopping. Whats more, its cheap well, relatively cheap anyway.
Start with Istanbul, a bastion of civilization that contrasts ancient with modern like no other. Walking around the city (the best way to do any real sightseeing) is like walking into the past. For an introduction, stop by Sultanahment, the heart of Old Istanbul. First, visit the Topkapi Museum, which started off as one palace and ended up becoming a whole series of them. The edifice is so huge that the authorities have decided to open only some of it to the public. Even with this limitation, it would be challenging to
tour the entire place in just one visit.
While youre standing in line to pay the $10 (depending on the season) entrance fee, take a good look at the fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, dating back to the eighteenth century. Inside, numerous courtyards where severed heads of traitors are thankfully no longer displayed wind their way around towers and what was once a public area housing a mosque, hospital, bakery, mint and servant accommodations.
Move on to see the Church of Hagia Eirene (one of the oldest in Constantinople and the only one in Istanbul with its atrium still fully intact), the Tiled Pavilion and the Archaeological Museum. A guided
tour is preferable if you want to navigate displays easily and quickly there really is a lot to see and youll need one to enter the Harem section, which has a separate $10 fee. Here you can see the lodgings of the eunuchs who once guarded the sultan, his mother and his slew of concubines. Young princes also had quarters here, furnished with their own concubines. The museum is open 9am5pm, closed Tuesdays.
There isnt really much thats blue about the Blue Mosque. The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I has taken on the name, the Blue Mosque because part of the interior is walled with blue tiles but you can forget about seeing them, as theyre all on the inaccessible upper level. Blue or not, the mosque is an architectural masterpiece, with six daunting minarets and a great cascade of domes. Entrance is free, but note that the mosque still serves its religious function and is closed to non-worshippers around prayer times.
A hop, skip and a jump away is the magnificent Hagia Sophia, one of the most impressive edifices ever constructed. Highlighting a number of innovative architectural features, it was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in 537 AD and built on the site of Byzantiums acropolis, where it arguably became the most important church in the world. Also check out the Hippodrome, Sunken Palace Cistern and various smaller museums.
After so much touring your stomach will be growling, but dont worry as the area is packed with restaurants. First-time visitors never complain, but seasoned travelers find the area over-priced, touristy and a few steps removed from the authentic Turkish cuisine they desire. To sample that, head for the Bosphorus district, where East meets West. The shores of the maritime highway are dotted with eateries, most of them seafood stops.
For a break from all the sightseeing and eating, you can travel on a traditional ferryboat ($5) from Eminouno and cruise up the Bosphorus. Be sure to get to the ferry early at least 30 minutes before departure so you can get a good seat. The ferry fills up quickly in summer, particularly on weekends.
For shopping, Istanbuls Grand Bazaar lives up to its name. Its the largest covered market in the city, where youll find the most exquisite handmade carpets, glazed tiles, leather goods and alabaster ware as well as copper, brass and pottery items. Keep your hand on your wallet (pickpockets abound) and prepare to bargain hard. Youre sure to walk off with a bundle of treasures; just keep a few tricks up your sleeve if you dont want to spend every last penny.
The first tip is to never show extreme interest in any one item, try to pretend youre walking away, unhappy with the price. The second tip is to actually walk away. As you look around, youll get a better feel for the prices and variety available.
Also visit the Egyptian Spice Market (were not kidding thats what its called) for spices and fragrances. Here youll find the countrys national delicacy: Turkish delights. Sinful in calorie count, they come in a million and one flavors, colors and shapes. These delightful edibles can be found on sale at every other store.
Eat & Sleep
Fo</B>r five-star pampering, you cant beat the Hyatt Regency in Taksim (tel: +90 (212) 368-1234), where rooms are in the $230 range, or the S-shaped Conrad (tel: +90 (212) 227-3000), where rates are slightly lower at $200. Or, opt for a special class hotel like the Ayasofya Pansiyonlari (tel: +90 (212) 513-3660), in the heart of the Old City. This complex of 10 mansions once housed high-ranking officials who werent allowed to lodge at the Topkapi Palace. Ask for a front room (back rooms dont have much of a view). Expect to pay around 180 a night. For a good price combined with quality, try the Crowne Plaza Istanbul (book online at www.crowneplaza.com) which has rooms starting at $150 per night. When you move on from Istanbul to the nations capital, a good choice is the Sheraton Hotel & Convention Center Ankara (www.starwoodhotels.com), which has rooms from $155 per night and up.
There & Away
EgyptAir flies daily to Istanbul at 11:40pm but only has rates for 30-day tickets (LE 1,695). Travel agents will book you much cheaper fares, especially if you go for a package holiday. Just about every other local
tour operator offers Turkey packages (look up established operators such as Misr Travel, Emeco, Thomas Cook and Abercrombie & Kent). Most three-star trips will cost around LE 1,800. Call individual agents for rates and details.
If you want to make your own way around Istanbul, contact national operators
Tours (www.jasminnetour.com, (tel: +90 (212) 526-4547)
or Ezop Travel (www.ezoptravel.com, +90 (212) 292-8170) for
tour prices and details. If youre a motor fan, book your holiday around the end of August when you can catch the Turkish leg of the Grand Prix. In its second year, the race is once again scheduled for August 25, 2006. Hit the internet to check out package
tours at discounted rates.