An Insider look at Turkey with Trafalgar Travel.

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Nostalgia: The desire to go back to a place you ache for, a sentimental or wistful yearning for the happiness felt in a former time or situation.

Exactly what I’m filled with as I reflect on the sheer joy of travelling in Turkey with Trafalgar on their #TrafalgarInsider Global Media Tour, which had me joining top-quality writers and journalists from around the world for a week of shared exploration. A group of 32 that met as strangers and parted as friends, having connected over walks, delicious meals and discoveries in this evocative land. But then such is the gift of group travel.

One of many to come my way on this combination tour that would offer a generous taste of Istanbul, a moving visit to Gallipoli and Anzac Cove with a specialist Battlefields guide, a night in coastal Canakkale, time at the Trojan Horse of Troy in Izmir, excursions to Ephesus and an obligatory visit to the Grand Bazaar for shopping as well as some quiet contemplation in the Sultan Ahmet Camil, or Blue Mosque as it is better known.

And that just scratching the surface of what I got to see, taste and feel in this country which remains an unrivalled East-West meeting point, is the birthplace of Greek civilisation and held the seat of the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years. Everywhere you turn there is a story to be told. A place of significance.

Istanbul’s history stretches back two millennia. The domes and minarets of its great mosques dominate the skyline of the Golden Horn. The Topkapi Palace guards the treasures of a previous era and the romantic setting of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles make for incredible river cruises. We did one, sipping on bubbly as we looked to the crossroads of civilisations.

Think warm Arabian nights and you’ll get the picture.

Somehow blue looks better in Turkey, as does the marble that lines ancient ruins that today play home to resident cats who welcome tourists and historians. A Muslim country with an alcoholic beverage Raki as its national drink, one that serves some of the best coffee I’ve ever tasted and where Turkish delight is much more than a sweet treat that teases the tastebuds with a myriad of sensory wonders.

This is a country worth getting to know, one that deserves to be gently persuaded to reveal its lesser-known attributes and even a few local secrets. One way we achieved this was with the Trafalgar Be My Guest dining experience in the scenic village of Demircidere, where we were invited into family homes for lunch. A beautiful experience in a village with a population of about 200 people. Something I would never have been able to arrange myself. Its true what they say, food does taste better when shared with local people.

Talking food, two restaurants stood out for me looking back.

Kantin where owner-chef Semsa Denizsel pioneered the farm-to-table approach long before anyone had heard of the concept in Istanbul. Her offering is all about the ingredients which she has refined into the best Turkish cuisine. The olives, fresh baked bread and cheeses were a special treat. A must visit for anyone who appreciates good food.

Then imagine that on the one day we lunched in one of Istanbul’s oldest restaurants, Pandeli, which opened in 1901 at the entrance of the dizzy-making and aromatic Spice Market. A place where our host Jamal Biberci has worked for 60 years and served Audrey Hepburn (with both husband and boyfriend). There’s a framed signed photograph to mark the memory. Visual treats and changing landscapes indulged us. Warm waters that lapped against empty beaches and side street cafes which were home to regulars welcomed strangers.

There were #selfiesticks too, which are as much fun as you can imagine. Love affairs with aubergine dishes and cuddle sessions with stray cats and dogs, who are cared for by the state. Five times a day the call to prayer fills the air with song and on Friday male believers spill out as mosques fill for midday service. On the squares pigeons gather to be fed before a game of chase with the children, their mothers watch on.

The language is unfamiliar, as exotic as you would hope for this country with a population of 80 million, 15 million of which are in Istanbul. There’s a sense of ownership, a deeply embedded pride and its infectious; freedom on the air. One that has been fought for and will be richly protected. Energy and friendliness. You’ll like it. Like I did, and the memories that I look back on with longing are comforted by the knowledge that I will return. Ideally, with this very group of phenomenal travellers, and of course Trafalgar, who always ensure a most magical time.

Charming host and man of the moment Gavin Tollman, who joined us for the first few days. This is a man inspired to find the secret experiences, the itinerary that will give you more than a holiday, with the people who are set to bring the destination to life. In this case, he’s introducing us to the best Turkish Delight on offer, which he’d secured in abundance at the Spice Market in Istanbul. Oh and despite excellent branding on the very comfortable coaches, I did still manage to get on the wrong one, just this once. But that’s a whole different rather funny Dawn story … 🙂

Bits of advice for you:

  1. Eat as much Turkish delight as you can! It tastes better there.
  2. Even if you are travelling independently, book a guide for at least one day to learn more about the city, have an opportunity to ask questions and take that insider look.
  3. Avoid the traffic if you can. There are trams and a good metro which means that driving in the city isn’t necessary.
  4. Drink fresh pomegranate and orange juice, freshly squeezed on the street. Incredible.
  5. Book a Turkish Bath, no visit to Turkey is complete without one. I’m never been scrubbed so clean and the very ritual is one not to be missed.
  6. Bargain at the Grand Bazaar, but know that if you don’t buy somebody else will, so just savour the moment and make the investment in the items you want.
  7. The Spice Market – stock up!
  8. Don’t rush your visit to the Topkapi Palace, where at the weapons and jewellery alone you’ll want to spend good time. And the Basilica Cistern and Aya Sofiya are not to be missed.
  9. This is a place of modesty where visits to mosques and religious sites need to be considered. Whatever the weather, make sure you have a couple of scarves with you to cover your shoulders and legs when required.
  10. Look at Trafalgar’s new Hidden Journeys when booking. Also know that at some times of year their single supplement is wavered.

The details that matter:

During our time in Turkey we stayed in the Radisson Blu Sisli in Istanbul, the Kolin Hotel in Canakkale and the Grand Efes Swissotel in Izmir which meant two offered a view and easy access to the Aegean sea.

Our comfy coach was equipped with wifi (yay!), and our driver and butler took care of our safety and needs. Water, turkish delight and even coffee were served on the go.  It was a moveable home filled with excited chatter. Our tour director for the duration, Yeşim Güriş has been guiding for about 20 years. Her vast knowledge offered endless looks into the areas that we visited. Her sensitivity, charm and care provided a sense of belonging in her country.

Then there were the Trafalgar girls who on sight I wanted as friends. I think that when applying to work with this incredible company you need to be able to tick the box marked ‘Awesome’. Liesa, Rae and Skye – wow to women who can make a moment! Gratitude to you and all at Trafalgar for the opportunity, especially my SA girl on the ground Amanda Hardy. I truly feel like I’ve joined a family. But then again, when you experience a country like an insider, those you share it with becoming just that.

If you’d like to learn more about the Trafalgar packages take a look at the website, and to feed your travel want follow the #TrafalgarInsider hashtag to see what others are up to. Trafalgar really has reinvented group travel.

‘The world is too short to live in isolation. Travel brings friends, closes divides, and breaks down barriers. We laugh and we learn together and in that moment, all is well with the world …’

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