When Lady Bracknell, the haughty dragon in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, discovers that her daughter's fiancé is an orphan who was found abandoned in a piece of luggage at a railway station, she exclaims, extending the vowel to hilarious effect, "A haaaaandbaaaaag!" Some travellers react to the prospect of a packaged tour in much the same way. "A buuuuus?"
But one of the simplest and quickest ways to familiarise oneself with a strange city or country is to travel on an organised tour. This is particularly apposite in Turkey, a vast sprawling country of just under 800,000 square kilometres, where distances between the most celebrated attractions are immense, where the language is complex and where to attempt to drive a rental car almost anywhere is to court catastrophe. Although a Formula One Grand Prix is staged there annually, the Turks are not notably good drivers, so for those interested in both survival and seeing as much as possible of this remarkable country, a guided coach tour - such as the one I'm about to embark on with boutique escorted tour operator Insight Vacations - is just the ticket.
Turkey is as multi-layered as its famed baklava. How many civilisations have existed here over the 10,000 years of its history? Dozens. Anatolia, biblical Asia Minor and by far the largest region of modern Turkey was home to Hittite, Phrygian, Lydian, Greek, Armenian, Roman, Byzantine and Seljuk civilisations, and each left their imprint on some part of this extraordinary country. But for many, the glory days were those of the mighty Ottoman Empire, which, at the peak of its power, spanned three continents, governing much of south-eastern Europe, western Asia and North Africa and surviving from the end of the 13th century to the first quarter of the 20th.
Most group tours of Turkey, including the one I join, begin in Istanbul, that most magical of cities, the unique point at which Europe and Asia meet. Its unmistakable skyline is punctuated with the massive domes and slender minarets of its fabulous mosques, of which the most famous is Hagia Sofia, a building that is to Istanbul what the Opera House is to Sydney, the most familiar and readily identifiable symbol of the city. Full of glorious frescoes and mosaics, it is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Despite being plundered by the Crusaders, it was for a thousand years the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch and was a centre of Christian worship until 1453, when it was taken by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror who converted it to the imperial mosque. It remained as such until 1935, when, after half a millennium as the principal place of worship in Istanbul, it became the city's most visited museum.
Hagia Sofia was the model for numerous other Ottoman buildings including the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, immediately opposite. Both of these magnificent buildings are mandatory elements of most tour itineraries, though the more architecturally curious tour member, during the time designated for independent activity, will also seek out the less well known but equally fascinating St Saviour in Chora, considered the most beautiful of Istanbul's Byzantine churches-cum-mosques-cum-museums, or the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, also known as the Fethiye Mosque.
But not every passenger on a tour bus has a passion for architecture or a fascination with history. Keener to shop, they will inevitably be deposited to wander through the labyrinthine 15th-century Grand Bazaar. A western retailer's dream, this extraordinary precursor of the modern mall attracts as many as 400,000 shoppers daily to an arcaded interior glittering with ornamental brass, silverware, brilliantly coloured glass, shimmering lamps, rugs and textiles, a mélange of the exotic and pure kitsch.
Istanbul's other historic must-see is the mighty Topkapi Palace, a sprawling complex of pavilions, imperial chambers, harem quarters and vast kitchens that produced food not only for the sultan but for the four or five thousand nobles, officials, servants and workers who attended to the needs of the sultan and the business of running an enormous empire.
Early in the morning, before the arrival of the hordes who today replace palace functionaries, this ravishing complex resembles a huge empty stage set awaiting the players. Its marble buildings, kiosks and divan halls are set in expanses of lawn dotted with cypresses like giant dark-green exclamation points hinting at the opulence of the Ottoman court. But nothing suggests the stupendous wealth of the sultans as strongly as the display of the imperial treasury, room after room of gobsmacking jewels, cabochon emeralds the size of Granny Smith apples, square-cut gems as big as matchboxes, giant rubies, crowns and tiaras with pear-shaped diamonds shimmering on slender gold wires half hidden among the attached aigrettes.
In a cabinet all to itself is the famous Kasikçi diamond, a whopping 86-carat stone surrounded by a double row of diamonds. Allegedly found by a poor fisherman in a pile of rubble (there are other versions of its discovery story), it's the star attraction here. A subtle latticed light plays over it, causing it to sparkle like the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Case after case contains amazing jewelled objects, a bow case and quiver thick with diamonds, spangled saddles, jewel-encrusted medals ranging from of the Order of the Garter from Britain to equally extravagant decorations from France, Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Vatican, the entire collection distinguished by the absence of a single utilitarian object.
It's something of a relief to escape from all this gemological excess into the thronged streets of the city. Officially, the population is given as 12.8 million, but a local tells me that it's closer to 20 million, a population that is said to suffer collectively from a condition known as hüzün. It's the Turkish word for melancholy and it is reckoned to be induced by the slow collapse of a once powerful empire. The Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul: Memories and the City, a thoroughly original portrait of the city in which he was born and lived until adulthood, imagines hüzün hanging like a pall over the city and its citizens. The visitor is more likely to sense not a pervasive sadness so much as the whiff of freshly baked sesame-studded simit, of flaky savoury filled börek, of traditional kebabs and mezze and gözleme and honey-drenched baklava, of almond and pistachio, cinnamon and myriad other spices.
To experience Istanbul requires far longer than the couple of days allocated on most tours, but there is more, much more, to see in Turkey than its exotic de facto capital.
There is Ephesus, a city once Greek, then Roman, second only to Rome in size and fame, home to the Temple of Artemis that was one of the seven wonders of the world. Today, with barely a fifth of the site excavated, it is still one of the most extensive collections of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. Its centrepiece is the superb theatrical façade of the Library of Celsus, but almost as impressive is the Roman theatre. Some sense of the importance of this port town can be had from the fact that the theatre could seat 45,000 spectators.
At the ancient Greek city of Pergamon, an acropolis, magnificently sited atop a hill overlooking the Aegean, a shimmering marble marker for maritime traffic between Rome and Egypt, one will see what remains of a once splendid metropolis. Today its treasures are dispersed to museums all over the world: two huge marble urns to the Hagia Sofia and, most notably, its monumental altar in white marble with fabulous friezes removed in a thousand pieces by German archaeologists in the 19th century, shipped to Berlin and erected in the eponymous museum. But even without this masterpiece the site is beautiful, with a theatre, remains of a temple begun by the emperor Trajan and completed by his successor, Hadrian, numerous soaring columns and fragments of their entablatures remaining in situ. The rest, huge stone boulders and great chunks of carved marble, are scattered about the site in a tumble as if cast down by the gods rather than by an earthquake in 60AD. Scarlet poppies, yellow dandelions and a foam of white daisies spring from among the fissures in marble floors and dot the surrounding fields. If there are no longer mighty monuments to power and vanity here, nature survives to supply a different kind of beauty.
At Asklepion, passengers debouch to wander over the remains of what was in effect the precursor of the modern day spa: a healing centre where thermal waters, mud baths, massages, herbs, ointments and music were used to restore to health the ill and the wounded, including many injured in gladiatorial combat.
It is something of a pity to sit passively on a coach and whiz by other less famous ancient sites, but to "do" all would require at least a month or more. Besides, there are essential manifestations of cultures other than Greek and Roman, from the troglodyte caves of Cappadocia to the remarkable 13th-century Zazadin Han, a caravanserai that rises dramatically from the sands of the desert on the road between Aksaray and the beautiful holy city of Konya, the largest and best preserved in Turkey. It was here that the great caravans carrying treasure along the Silk Road from Asia to Europe rested. More like a fort than a roadside inn, it offered travellers and their beasts of burden, mainly camels, a place to rest, restock, refresh and perform ritual ablutions. In its interior arcades were shops in which merchants could both acquire and dispose of goods. (On that note, the tour's stops at factories where the arts of carpet weaving and vase painting are demonstrated are a prelude to a hard-sell of tourist souvenirs.)
For Australians, most tours of Turkey include a mandatory visit to Gallipoli. Located not far from the site of another famous battle, that of Troy, where ruins of a city of purely archaeological interest are garnished with a Disney version of the famous wooden horse, this site is indescribably moving. In total silence one wanders through the headstones in Lone Pine Cemetery, memorials to those killed in the futile battle. As one reads the litany of names of kids from Boggabri, Bulimba, Prahran and other familiar places all over our country, it becomes impossible to suppress either tears or the lump in one's throat. I see two that share my surname, one with the initials RGH and the other NG. Were we in some way related?
The sky is grey. A light breeze shakes a pine tree to which a visitor has clamped a tiny toy koala. Below are the cliffs the Anzacs were dispatched to scale and to be cut down by the hundred. I stop at one headstone: "1113 Private J.J. Burton. 23rd Bn, Australian Inf. 30th November 1915. Age 18. Only a boy but he died as a man for liberty and freedom. His Mum and Dad." Memorial panel 49 remembers one Marian Pshevolodskey. Where did he come from with this strange name? And how was it that he fought for Australia? Even the Americans in our party are moved and for the 20 minutes after we depart there is complete silence on the bus.
For the final night in Istanbul there is a boat trip along the Bosphorus to admire the remaining palaces and the historic yalis, the elaborate old wooden mansions of the merchant and upper classes, the ongoing loss of which Pamuk laments in Istanbul, a book that is essential reading for any visitor. One by one they fall victim to fire, accidental or deliberate, and are replaced by the Turkish version of the McMansion. But the overall impact of the country persists, as we sit at a waterfront restaurant enjoying fish and watching the twinkling light of this mighty and enduringly influential place. I remind myself that in an 11-day coach trip I've seen more than most visitors. I think of it as an array of mezze: one returns to that which tasted best first time round. My next visit will be purely concerned with the ancient world and may include a trip to Zeugma in the south-east corner of the country, where a new museum has just opened containing a remarkable display of Roman mosaics, unearthed during excavation to create the country's biggest dam, another layer in the palimpsest of Turkey's astonishing history.