Gillian Thornton tried an 8-day tour with Newmarket Holidays.
With its blend of east-meets-west, its ancient history and vibrant present, Istanbul had always been high on my wish list. But when my husband and I started planning an independent city break, it seemed a shame not to explore more of this fascinating country on an escorted tour.
Many tour operators offer variations on the same theme – Istanbul and the ancient sites of Troy, Pergamon, and Ephesus – with tours lasting 8-12 days. Some start in Istanbul, others finish there, but the circuit is very similar, so it pays to compare price and hotel accommodation before you book. Whichever one you choose, you won’t be able to do the same itinerary for the same price on your own, or as painlessly.
This is an itinerary that is steeped in history and, like many such trips, requires a fair amount of walking. Our small hotel in Istanbul was in Sultanahmet, the historic centre, just down the hill from the key sites of the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Agia Sofia, so were able to stroll back after dinner to enjoy the illuminations. But expect to spend a large part of the day on your feet and don’t expect an intimate experience.
We soon realised the advantage of a little local knowledge. Our excellent young guide tailored our timetable to ensure that we visited the main sites before the cruise passengers arrived en masse and of course he already has your tickets, so there’s no queuing. The optional Bosphorous cruise provided a welcome opportunity to see the sites from the comfort of a river cruiser, but the main sightseeing tours were included in the package and covered all we would have chosen and more.
Hotels in Istanbul’s old town are usually in old buildings, which means bedrooms and bathrooms can be compact and unequal in size. But we found that the simple rooms were more than offset by the central location, and with no evening meal included, we were free to sample different restaurants and compare Turkish with Ottoman cuisine for the first three nights, all delicious. Restaurant staff invariably speak English and we found everyone to be super-friendly.
On day four, we drove out of Istanbul – a city which seems to go on for ever – and round the Sea of Marmara to the Gallipoli peninsula for a short stop at Anzac cove. This was the least interesting day, with several hours spent on the coach before an overnight stop in a spacious tourist hotel with its toes in the Dardanelles, but the scenery changed regularly and the journey provides the vital link between Istanbul and the ancient resorts of the Aegean coast.
First up, Troy, was – we were warned – slightly underwhelming. Whilst the layers of stone remains from the city’s different periods are amazing to think about, the only bits you can really see clearly are a small theatre and the ramp where the Greeks reputedly led the Trojan Horse to the city gates.
But Pergamon next day was outstanding with its hilltop acropolis, ruined temples and a 10,000-seater theatre that literally tumbles down the hillside. The site of the Hellenistic city is accessed by cable car and can be uneven, so flat shoes are a must, but if you’ve forgotten water or a sunhat, you’ll find plenty of stalls outside the entrance gates.
The same happens at Ephesus, where Roman and Byzantine architecture come together in one of the most evocative historic sites you’re ever likely to visit. But there is no shade, and walking amongst these UNESCO-listed ruins can be slow going, especially at peak times, so travel prepared or buy outside before you enter.
Ephesus was just a 20-minute drive from our third base on the edge of Kusadasi. Here our resort hotel room was everything that the Istanbul bedroom wasn’t – huge, modern, and air-conditioned with a balcony looking across the sparkling Aegean to the Greek island of Samos.
With a 1000 beds spread across three accommodation towers, this was hospitality on an industrial scale. Not my preferred style of hotel – nor the ‘canteen’ style of buffet dinner – but ideally placed for our escorted tours and independent excursions into Kusadasi itself, with a regular shuttle bus passing the front gate until late evening.
A popular stopover with cruise ships – largely because of Ephesus – Kusadasi offers the usual beach resort amenities as well as some great fish restaurants round the old harbour and a few small scale historic sites.
Newmarket Holidays offer a full-day optional excursion to Pamukkale to see its famous mineral springs and white calcium terraces, but we opted instead for leisurely local exploration and a good fish lunch. Another option is to take the early morning ferry to Samos and return late afternoon. The Pamukkale trip was apparently much enjoyed, but so too was our quiet day – the perfect chill out after a fascinating and unforgettable week. Highly recommended.
More about Gillian
Gillian Thornton has been a freelance journalist for more than 30 years, writing everything from parenting features to celebrity interviews, corporate copy to heritage articles. A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she has been concentrating on travel writing since 1998 and is a widely-acclaimed specialist on France, writing for all the Francophile newsstand titles as well as for ferry magazines, airline publications and tourist boards. Gillian also contributes travel features to The People’s Friend, My Weekly, Woman’s Weekly, and Go Holiday, on destinations as far apart as Finland and Oman, Florida and Poland, but she also loves travelling round Britain. “I never mind where I go”, she says. “There’s always something new to discover.”