In Turkey, differences come harmoniously together: the old, the new, the East and the West.

There is something truly fascinating about a land belonging to multiple continents. Most modern cities demonstrate superior contemporary architecture, fast freeways, great eating places, convenience banking and high speed connectivity to the rest of the world. Older cities of the world are usually a jumble of ancient relics and architectural wonders interspersed with a modern city sitting side by side a crowded old town with narrow alleys and hundreds of years’ old streets.

Sandwiched between Asia and Europe is Turkey — a country that belongs to both continents and both eras — the old and the new. Here is a land that has emerged from a 4,000-year-old history of multiple cultures, religions and ethnicities and yet has retained its charm, vivacity and freshness. Turkey was the seat of two great empires — the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Its main city saw a name change from Constantinople in the Byzantine era to present day Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire and despite its considerable past, it carries the weight of its history on remarkably youthful shoulders. This gleaming city does not bear visible wounds of past wars or fallen empires. Instead it has attempted redefinition and restructuring gracefully.

The beautiful waters of the Bosphorus divide the Asian part of Istanbul from the European. If you take a cruise down the Bosphorus, the shoreline is dotted with the exotic Topkapi and the Dolmabahce palaces, the Golden Horn Bridge and the Bosphorus Bridges, the Rumelihisari fort on the European side and the Anadoluhisar? fort on the Asian side. The ocean-facing road has hundreds of outdoor patios and eating places and is a perfect summer spot for outdoor cuisine. All along the waters of the Marmara, fishermen can be seen casting their nets and fishing. A unique culinary experience is the basket of fish that is offered to tourists at seafood restaurants in Kumkapi district. The fresh fish that you pick is weighed and subsequently cooked in any manner that you like.

Bustling square

The busy Sultan Ahmet area in Istanbul is a short walk from many monuments and historical sites. Mom and pop shops dot the entire line of the square, selling everything from Turkish delight to carpets, tiles and tickets to the latest Sufi show of whirling dervishes. Artists sit under the shade of Magnolia trees doing personalised calligraphy of peoples’ names and street vendors roast corn and macadamia nuts.

Our first stop was the Blue Mosque in Sultan Ahmet Square. Also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, this is the national mosque of Turkey, and is a historically preserved site. It gets its name for the blue tiles adorning its interior walls. It was built in the 1600s and has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul.

Next we visited the famous Hagia Sofia monument. This was a former basilica in the Byzantine Empire, which was later turned into a mosque during the Ottoman period and is now a museum. We found the Hagia Sophia to be uniquely representative of both the Islamic and Christian faiths. The walls of this monument have many inscriptions in Arabic as well as paintings of the Virgin Mary.

Also within walking distance was the Hippodrome Obelisk which is Istanbul’s oldest monument dating back to the 15th century BC. This obelisk was brought down by the Byzantine Emperor from Egypt and erected in its present place today.

Another place worth a visit is the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 covered streets and over 1,200 shops which attract between a quarter million to a half million visitors daily. This 450-year-old bazaar is a shoppers’ paradise for jewellery, pottery, spice, and carpets.

Showcasing the past

The palaces of Istanbul are quite ornate and resonate with fascinating stories of its previous residents. One can spend many, many hours in Topkapi Palace. The palace has been converted to a museum and has many exhibits which reveal the richness of the Ottoman Empire. You can browse through gold-carved and jewel-studded thrones, daggers, candlesticks and some dazzling pieces of jewellery. Of particular note is the spoon maker’s diamond which is a whopping 86 carats.

Legendary site

A two-hour drive from Istanbul takes you to Troy which is the ancient site of the historical Trojan War. A huge wooden horse stands among the ancient relics as a reminder of that battle. We also visited the ancient Ottoman capital of Bursa which was a four-hour drive through the countryside dotted with Olive farms. Bursa’s Iskender kebab is famous and people travel all the way to this town to eat the authentic kebab. Bursa is also home to the Uludag mountain, or “great mountain”. A cable car ride takes you up the mountain which is Turkey’s most popular ski resort.

Turkey has much to offer to tourists of varying interests — there’s no telling which aspect of Turkey will lodge itself in your imagination. In the end, we found a week was just not enough. We have yet to visit the city of Ephesus, a well preserved ancient Greek town, also believed to be the place where the Virgin Mary settled down. We have still to check out the breathtaking rock formations of Cappadocia which we’ve heard is unlike anything else in the world. And we have left for another time an entire coastline of beautiful beaches of Turkey.

This is a country that epitomises dichotomy — a place where the old stands right by the new. The Asian alongside the European. The Byzantine interspersed with the Ottoman. Both classic and contemporary. Conservative and yet transformational. The resurrection of Turkey is a delight to see. For all those countries that have a rich legacy of bygone eras, Turkey shows the way for carrying forward a spectacular past into a modern future.

Quick facts

Getting there: Most airlines that operate in Europe will fly into Istanbul after a changeover in a European port

Places to stay: The Sultanahmet area offers both budget hotels as well as more exclusive ones. Hotels in the Taksim area have better ambience and are priced higher. Turkey has its local chain of five-star hotels which are more affordable than the Internationally established chains. Ottoman style mansions converted into hotels also provide character as well as budget prices.

Things to do: Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia; ferry cruises on the Bosphorus; cable car up the Uludag mountain and skiing in the mountain slopes in the winter.

Places to see: Istanbul: Many ancient monuments, palaces and bridges; ethnic shopping bazaars; Troy: The ancient site of the great Trojan War; Cappadocia: A UNESCO world heritage site with natural geological formations; Ephesus: Ancient Greek city; The house of the Virgin Mary is believed to be the last home of Mary, mother of Jesus; Konya: The city where the famous Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi lived the last 50 years of his life.

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