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Rich history, incredible food, spectacular scenery: A traveller's guide to Turkey.

The woman I just met won’t stop hugging me, and I love it.

I’ve established through the language gap her name is Nillifer. I’m sitting on the back porch of her modest home in the village of Demircidere in northern Turkey, basking in amber autumnal warmth.

The sun is sparking off Nillifer’s dress, a kaleidoscope of colourful sequins turned strobe light. It’s almost blinding me, but that it’s purpose. In Nillifer’s humble village, shiny things are highly valued as they are thought to deflect negative energy. And so, when Nillifer and the rest of her village converge to greet my fellow travellers and I for lunch, they wear their shiniest clothing, known as ucetek, as a mark of respect for the occasion and, I get the distinct impression, an opportunity to show off a their hand-made mirror ball finery.

Wendy (right) with Nillifer.

Had I made my way to Turkey on my own, I would not be enjoying the contagious embrace of Nillifer, or the incredible food and wine she is proudly sharing in between hugs, huge smiles and gentle pecks on my cheek.

Lunch in her 200-strong village is something only guests on Trafalgar guided holidays get to experience, yet another highlight of an itinerary that is as different from the tourist trap coach tour impressions many still harbour as possible.

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For a start, no one in our group is hooked to an oxygen tank. I am travelling with a gang of lively, passionate, educated, fun and warm late 20 to 60 year-olds whose company I adore. And today, in Nillifer’s village, we are all buzzing over what is truly a unique and unforgettable traveller (not tourist) experience.

Nillifer’s friends preparing bread for lunch.

Broken up in to groups of four and escorted in to different homes within the village, all the hosts are as tickled as my new friend to have for us for an intimate home-cooked lunch. And what a feast it is: we start with traditional Tarhana soup, made with yogurt from Nillifer’s goat, milked especially for the occasion. Tasty boreks (pastry filled with everything from potatoes to meat and spinach), dolmades hand rolled from the vine leaves shading us in the garden and home grown sautéed eggplant and tomatoes also grown mere feet away, are all washed down with wine or shrap, also hand picked and pressed by our host from the grapes hanging overhead.

After lunch we are invited inside for Turkish coffee, where Nillifer proudly shows us pictures of her little girl who will soon be home from school and some of her pretty dresses, all made by mum with love.

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Saying goodbye to Nillifer was hard, as a beautiful bond had formed through the universal language of respect, gratitude and friendship. I lost count of the hugs I gave and received as my fellow travellers and I left to continue on our journey experiencing the rich history, incredible food, spectacular scenery and warm hospitality that is Turkey.

The Blue Mosque.

The village Be My Guest experience with Nillifer was in vast contrast to where our Turkish adventure began, in the hectic yet exhilarating city of Istanbul. The traffic is chaotic (one local told me it can take up to four hours to travel less than 20kms from the European side to the Asian side of the city across the Bosphorus Straight, which divides the two contents).

But getting about is just part of the city’s bustling charm and in the end I grew to regard its cramped cobblestone streets festooned with carts toppled with lush pomegranates for juicing, happy, healthy canines, elegant pedestrians and gambolling children as street theatre.

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There is so much to see and do (not to mention shop and eat) in Istanbul it is well worth the hustle, from exploring the magnificent Blue Mosque with its exquisite its ornate tiled interiors (so heavenly I invested in a silk scarf featuring the design). The Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica and later, imperial mosque, is now a museum and one of the best I’ve visited. I say one of the best because it’s hard to beat The Topkapı Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years and now a mind-blowing collection of antiquities amidst an architectural delight straight out of an old Hollywood dream.

Spices in the Grand Bazaar.

Meanwhile, the city’s grand bazaar may be a tourist trap to locals but, in my mind, was a shopper’s paradise I could have spent days exploring (damn, I couldn’t fit rugs, chandeliers, glass mosaic lamps and several dinner sets of intricate hand painted filigree pottery in my case along with all the spices, essential oils and kilos of exquisite Turkish delight I’d already stuffed in to capacity).

But there is much more to Turkey than Istanbul and on my unforgettable trip I got to see so much I would have surely missed solo, from the crumbling remains of Troy to the ancient city of Ephesus (so well preserved I should have worn a toga) and the heart-breaking hills of ANZAC Cove, where thousands of diggers lost their lives so tragically.

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And I can never explain adequately the reverence I experienced watching whirling dervishes in the moonlight in Cappadocia, where I stayed in a cave hotel looking out on scenery so other worldly even Tolkien couldn’t dream its unique beauty and majesty.

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Let’s talk about the food, because I can’t stop thinking about it still: Salt crusted chicken cooked in a clay pot which is smashed to release its delicious contents, artichoke hearts as big as plates, delicious dips and dolmades concealing treasures from crumbled pine nuts and pistachios, tender meats and salty savoury cheeses.

Having travelled with Trafalgar before, I was again amazed by the choices of restaurants, from off the beaten tourist track ambient eateries where proud locals showcase their local produce spectacularly to up scale bistros putting a modern twist to native cuisine as good (maybe better) as any food I’ve devoured from hatted rock star chefs.

And once again I actually enjoyed the travel as much as the destinations, sinking back in plush seats on the air-conditioned coach taking in the scenery and laughing with my fellow travellers, who by trip’s end, I also counted as lifelong friends.

And while there was an awareness that the Syrian border and its associated strife was only hours away from where we were, I never experienced a second of fear or intolerance from the warm, open and liberal Turkish Muslims I met.

The ancient city of Ephesus.

Sadly everything must end and my trip finished where it began in Istanbul. After treating myself to an afternoon being kneaded, lathered and washed in the centuries old hamam tradition amidst the white marble opulence of the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam Turkish baths, right beside the Blue Mosque, we took in the magnificence of the Bosphorus on a private river cruise.

To see Istanbul by river is like stepping out of a rave party and into a tranquil oasis, as ornate mosques like majestic jewel boxes sing out the call to prayer, and mansions and palaces beyond imagination bedazzle.

To say I want to return to Turkey is redundant. I am already planning my next trip, this time to also take in the Turquoise coast and its beaches which I have been reliably assured will render anything else Europe has to offer as mere puddles.

Wendy soaking up the last rays of her holiday.

I am already imagining my first cold Efes beer as I type. But what I shall order to eat with it? Now, that is the question I will only be able to answer when I’m there. But let’s suffice to say that like that delicious frosty local brew, I will be having more than one of whatever is on offer.

Wendy Squires was a guest of Trafalgar, which runs three guided holidays in Turkey: Best of Turkey, priced from $2135; Highlights of Turkey, from $1535; and Secrets of Turkey including the Turquoise Coast, priced from $3295 (all prices per person, twin share, check for 2015 dates where the single supplement has been waived). For more information visit www.trafalgar.com.