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Turkish delights await in grand bazaars, ancient sites and pro-designed golf courses

From the buzzing backstreets of Istanbul to the fairways of Antalya, Turkey is pure magic

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Hagia Sophia in Istanbul at dusk

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul at dusk

Ancient amphitheatre Aspendos in Antalya, Turkey

Ancient amphitheatre Aspendos in Antalya, Turkey

Philip Hedderman in Turkey

Philip Hedderman in Turkey

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul at dusk

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul at dusk

Hagia Sophia in istanbul

Hagia Sophia in istanbul

Hagia Sophia newest

Hagia Sophia newest

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Hagia Sophia in Istanbul at dusk

Nervous as a kitten, I arrived into Dublin Airport unsure of what to expect. Almost 18 months to the day the pandemic hit, this anxious traveller was ready to escape the last days of lockdown – returning to “normality” and very much looking forward to it.

After all, the lure of immersing myself in the rich tapestry of Istanbul followed by a couple of days of sheer luxury in Antalya was simply too much to resist.

Check-in at Turkish Airlines was flawless, and after scanning our Covid certs and government health declaration, we were ushered straight through to business class.

Thankfully, the unpleasantness of being swabbed followed by endless form filling is avoided, as Turkey is on the safe country list.

Three hours and 55 minutes of supreme pampering and we touch down at the newest and largest airport/international hub in the world – boasting three terminals and no fewer than six runways.

Like New York, London or Paris, Istanbul is one of the world’s greatest cities and the only one that straddles the two continents of Europe and Asia.

Home to 15 million citizens, the atmosphere on the bustling streets of Istanbul is electric, as the traffic jockeys for space with pedestrians and jam-packed trams.

There is plenty for visitors to enjoy here. Towering above the skyline is the magnificent Hagia Sophia, a 6th century Byzantine church which 900 years later was turned into a mosque, then a museum, and is now a mosque once again.

The original church was built by Emperor Justinian I in AD 537 on the foundations of a pagan temple. With its breathtaking domes (the highest reaching 55 metres), monolithic marble columns and spectacular mosaics, it’s a true wonder of world architecture.

Keep a sharp eye out for the Virgin and Child masterpiece placed over the entrance via the Vestibule of Warriors, while those of a deeper faith should visit the Wishing Column, a bronze pillar with a hole in the centre. Place a finger in the hole and if it comes out wet, all woes and illness will be cured.

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A two-minute stroll from there and you’ll discover the Blue Mosque – famed for its mesmerising blue ink tile interior – trumping its neighbour with six minarets piercing the clouds.

Another must-see attraction is the Topkapı Palace, birthplace of the most colourful and salacious stories involving amorous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs – all of whom lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries, when it was the court of the Ottoman empire.

I wandered through the four courtyards and visited the opulent pavilions, including the Armoury with a vast collection of ornate swords and military hardware, the Council Chamber where the Sultan would eavesdrop from a secret room, the Harem quarters (additional ticket needed to unveil the secrets, lies and lust) and the jewel-filled Treasury which is home to the Spoonmaker’s diamond – a tear-drop shaped 86-carat rock.

Meandering through the warren of tiny cobbled streets surrounding the Hippodrome – now a square in the city centre, but originally designed for chariot racing – I get a true taste of Turkish culture with quaint pottery stalls, mini spice markets and souvenir shops, and traders eager to barter.

Those looking for serious retail therapy should head straight for the Grand Bazaar – one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and over 4,000 shops.

It’s a haven for fashionistas and bargain-hunters searching for the latest designer gear (some we suspect may have been, ahem, knock off), leather, textiles, antiques, and of course, those famous hand-woven carpets.

Famished by all the exploring, I’m spoiled for choice with a vast array of street-side cafés and bistros offering the finest Turkish cuisine. The Deraliye restaurant off the main thoroughfare is among the best and I’m treated to a feast fit for a king.

Starters consist of a choice of meze – a selection of hot and cold dishes – typically served as an appetiser and accompanied by piping hot flat bread. It’s followed by spicy meatballs and the most delectable kebab I’ve ever tasted. Simplicity is the key here, with fabulously seasoned lamb mince, pitta, raw white onion, roasted tomatoes and green peppers with a side of rice. Absolute heaven.

Exhausted by all that sightseeing, it was time for a well-deserved rest and where better to spend that downtime than Antalya – the golf capital of Turkey.

Just a 40-minute flight from Istanbul, this spectacular region, nestled on the Mediterranean coast, boasts 600kms of sandy beaches and 300 days of sunshine a year, and so is the perfect winter getaway.

One upmarket region called Belek is home to the best courses played on and designed by golfing legends. The crème de la crème here is the Cornelia – created by six times major-winner Nick Faldo. The 27-hole course, listed in the top 100 in Europe, boasts the most magnificently lush fairways and manicured greens.

Opened in 2006, this challenging course will delight the wiliest of players with legendary holes like ‘The Corridor’ (a par five with two doglegs), the well-bunkered ‘Deception’ and ‘Faldo’s Choice’ truly testing your mettle, both mentally and physically. I could only look on in envy as a four-ball teed off, as the rest of my party weren’t the best of players – a mininium handicap is required before playing. If you prefer to bring your own clubs, that won’t be a hassle, as Turkish Airlines are the only carrier to take equipment for free.

Those not bitten by the golf bug can simply kick back and enjoy five-star luxury in one of Antalya’s magnificent hotels. All-inclusive is the best choice here – and the Cornelia Diamond is highly recommended. It has no fewer than eight pools dotted around the complex and also includes a mini aqua-park for the children.

It has private access to Mevkii beach, where you can swim out to a trendy cocktail bar and enjoy a mojito on a pier in the middle of the lapping waters.

The Cornelia Diamond is also known for fine dining and the resort offers a choice of 10 restaurants – eight of which are à la carte – our favourite being Fish & Love, where we were treated to the most succulent grilled sea bream.

There’s plenty to see and do – and culture vultures won’t be short of places to visit. Top of your list should be Aspendos, which is a 40-minute coach ride from the hotel. This stunning ancient theatre is billed as the Roman Empire’s greatest remaining monument – and boy, it didn’t disappoint.

Built in the 2nd century, the mammoth outdoor arena has 20 tiers of seats and can accommodate an audience of 20,000. Because of its unique acoustics, it is still used to this day, and it’s where they hold Turkey’s annual opera festival.

For outstanding natural beauty nothing beats the ancient city of Side (pronounced ‘sea day’), the first known metropolis in history with aqueducts, an agora, fountains, monuments, schools, hospital and an amphitheatre, the ruins of which remain today.

Most spectacular of all the ancient buildings is the Temple of Apollo, which overlooks the harbour, from where visitors can soak up the history with a magnificent Instagrammable backdrop. It’s just a 30-minute trek from the Cornelia.

Another must-visit is the old town in Kaleici, with its quaint collection of Ottoman houses, old mosques, a legendary clock tower and landmark Hadrian’s gate.

Despite the thronged streets, the locals are welcoming and very friendly – and unlike Irish favourites like Bodrum and Kuşadasi, you’re not constantly badgered by waiters, bar staff and shop owners. It’s so much more upmarket.

Mask-wearing is expected, but not enforced. Restaurants and bars don’t ask for Covid certs, but social distancing is in operation. Like all major resorts, the beaches are quiet – but businesses expect that to change in the coming months, especially with direct flights from Dublin starting next April.

A glittering gem with something for everyone – ancient wonders of the world, divine food and wine, glorious sunshine, and a spot of golf – this was four days of sheer bliss ... a true Turkish delight.

Getting There

  • Philip Hedderman travelled as a guest of Turkish Airlines
  • Direct flights with Turkish Airlines and all taxes. Round-trip economy class Dublin-Antalya start from €260 (incl taxes); return business class start from €1,090 (incl taxes), see turkishairlines.com, or call (01) 525 1849.
  • Direct flights to Antalya run from April 1, 2022 to October 28, three times a week every Monday, Wednesday, Friday.
  • Cornelia Diamond Luxury Golf Resort & Spa Hotel Belek/Antalya; (corneliaresort.com
  • Official Turkey guide is GoTürkiye at goturkiye.com
  • For more information, contact the Turkish Tourist Board, +44 207 839 7802

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