Istanbul, Sri Lanka and Kilimanjaro

April: Istanbul

By Ian Irvine

In the Old World at least, getting lost is the best way to learn about a city. Though Istanbul is blessed with cheap, efficient public transport and inexpensive taxis, the cultural tourist requires only a comfortable pair of shoes. Take a room in Sultanahmet, the centre of the old city south of the Golden Horn, and there's easily enough within a mile of your hotel to fascinate and occupy you for a week (a copy of John Freely's Strolling Through Istanbul will help). Between the big sights there are more than enough cafés for mint tea or coffee, "pudding shops" for honeyed pastries, bazaars and back streets to get lost in to give a flavour of the city's real life.

Though the city over the past two decades has shaken off both its post-imperial hangover and the torpor induced by a paternalistic state - it now offers glitzy malls, designer bars and modish restaurants - you're probably not here for that sort of thing, which you can just as easily find at home. This city offers rare beauties, rare pleasures and considerable food for thought if you're interested in art, history and both the clashes and co-minglings of civilisations.

Geography is fate for cities, as character is for people. As much as Europe stretching out behind you and Asia before you, the waters of the blue, blue Bosphorus define the city. It's quite easy to find a hotel room with a view of this great waterway, always crowded with ferries and fishing boats while huge tankers, container ships and warships slowly but powerfully make their way north to the Black Sea or south to the Mediterranean. If you don't have a view at least leave your window open: the characteristic sound of Istanbul is a mixture of ships' engines and sirens, the call to prayer five times a day, traffic, children playing in the street and bursts of Turkish pop from car radios.

The skyline is as evocative as Manhattan: hills, domes, minarets. Its situation as beautiful as Venice on its lagoon: on both sides of the Bosphorus the city tumbles to the sea's edge and dozens of ferries criss-cross between the European and Asian shores. Its history is second only to Rome in its continuous importance over 2,000 years: two great successive empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman, made what happened here of concern throughout the world.

The colossal monuments of those two civilisations crowd the centre of the city, above all, the great mosques and churches. The cathedral of St Sophia was the largest building in the world for 1,000 years after its construction in the sixth century and still astonishes with its interior volume and, rare among ancient and medieval works, the light that floods it. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans (or "capture" as the locals reasonably call it), the 21-year-old victor, Sultan Mehmet II, " Fatih" ("The Conqueror"), turned it into a mosque, tactfully plastering over inappropriate mosaics rather than destroying them. When Attaturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made it a museum in the 1930s many were recovered. Nearby, the other monumental dome belongs to the Sultanahmet Mosque, the most famous in the city, known to tourists as the Blue Mosque. Its size impresses but Istanbul's true masterpiece of Islamic architecture lies further north, the Suleymaniye Mosque, created in the 16th century by Sinan, the Bernini of the Ottoman world. It's worth spending a couple of days in the city examining the works of this architect of genius.

The most famous secular building is Topkapi, the palace of the sultans, begun by Mehmet II in the 15th century. When I arrived my first thought was "How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen" - luxe, calme et volupté are not words that Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle ever bring to mind. But ease and ceremonious pleasure seem instinct in this architecture of courtyards, chambers, pavilions, kiosks and gardens. The second thought was that Topkapi was probably what Christ Church would be like if Edward Gibbon's vision of an Islamic Oxford had come to pass.

The site is amazing: there can't be a palace in the world to touch it apart from perhaps the Potala in Lhasa and Hradcany in Prague. The Iznik tiles were sensational, especially in and outside the Circumcision Room, and I promised never to use the word "decorative" in a pejorative sense again. In my ignorance I'd imagined that these tiles were "copied" in some proto-industrial process, not realising that every one was literally hand-produced, the small differences between each both fascinating and touching.

The Ottomans have been exporting the arts and crafts of pleasure to the West for centuries: Turkish carpets make their luxury-signifying appearance from Tudor portraits onwards, coffee and its consumption transformed European social life from the late 17th century, the importation of their tulips brought tulipmania to Holland in the 17th century, and the sophistication of their ceramics and textiles have constantly encouraged emulation. (Anyone with the slightest interest in these subjects should consider a subscription to Cornucopia, an English-language quarterly magazine, well-written and astonishingly and beautifully illustrated: a World of Interiors for Turkophiles, www.cornucopia.net.)

In its imperial days Istanbul was called the city of the world's desire, and though occluded for much of the last century, this exotic destination continues to offer so much that it still deserves the title.

The writer flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines and stayed at the Armada Hotel in Sultanahmet ( www.armadahotel.com.tr)

May: Sri Lanka

By Rosanna De Lisle

"We're going to be late for the plane," chivvied my driver, Gota, as I tried to extricate myself from the languorous Galle Fort Hotel. Thankfully it was no ordinary plane, or ordinary airport - and when we arrived at Koggala Lake two minutes after the scheduled flight time, the pilot was standing on the jetty beside his gleaming seaplane, unfazed.

The amphibious De Havilland Turbo Otter skimmed across the water until, imperceptibly, we were in the air. We flew low enough that the shadows of the palm trees looked like giant starfish on the beaches; high enough to see the central highlands in the distance.

The views were not the only thrill. We reached Colombo in 31 minutes, when the drive from Galle takes four hours. The time saved was then lost in an interminable crawl into the city. With the 2002 ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in tatters, the army was stopping every vehicle. The morning's journey pointed up the paradox of visiting Sri Lanka at the moment: you can have a lovely time in most of the country while civil conflict decimates the north-east. It also made a strong case for tackling this small, but traffic-choked country by seaplane.

In the Cultural Triangle, the plane comes in over Sigiriya, the staggering rock that the murderous king Kasyapa made his palace-fortress in the 5th century. From the ground it's a steep climb to the top, but worth the sweat for the frescoes of Kasyapa's concubines.

A more serene way to see Sigiriya is from a hot-air balloon - if the wind will take you there. There's no steering a balloon and we drifted instead over miles of jungle while our captain searched for somewhere to land. Eventually he brought us down in a patch of chilli.

Vil Uyana is a new hotel combining untamed nature - elephants and crocodiles can wander into its wetlands - and unbridled luxury. It's a bold idea but doesn't entirely work: over-water bungalows may be heaven in the Maldives but here there's no sea breeze to keep the mozzies away.

After the heat of the Cultural Triangle, Kandy was a relief: cool and fresh after monsoonal rain. You could see the Temple of the Tooth, botanic gardens, elephant orphanage and the quirky hostelry that is Helga's Folly in two days. Reason to stay longer is The Kandy House, an old manor converted into a seductive hotel, with deep verandas, tropical lawns and a yoga teacher on call.

In the Highlands, Ceylon Tea Trails (see also page 34) is a quartet of renovated planters' bungalows. Their setting, on a lake, surrounded by emerald hills, is as pretty as the backdrop to a Renaissance Madonna. Visitors can tour a tea factory or follow trails through the plantations. I walked six miles from one bungalow to the next and was rewarded with a 12-dish curry for lunch.

From the Tea Country, the seaplane flies to the south coast, where you can go on safari in Yala National Park, famous for elephant and leopard, or flop at Amanwella near Tangalle. Amanwella is so contemporary and spare it looks more like the parliament of a very progressive country than a beach resort. But austerity is the aesthetic, not the philosophy, and within minutes of arriving (and being garlanded with flowers) I realised the entire point of the place is hedonism. There are umpteen places to lounge and the service is beyond empathetic. You get used to a lot of good service in Sri Lanka but Amanwella's is something else.

Sadly it and its beautiful sister, Amangalla in Galle, are in a league of their own when it comes to the bill, too, with rates starting at £340. For less than half that, you could stay in one of the boutique hotels around historic Galle. Up in the hinterland there's Kahanda Kanda, a glamorous villa comprising pavilions around a saffron-yellow wall. On the edge of town, the charming Dutch House and Sun House offer different takes on colonial living. And then, inside the ramparts, the Galle Fort Hotel is a cool conversion of a 17th-century Dutch merchant's house with a laid-back vibe. It's the sort of place that means to detain you - and nearly made me miss a plane.

Sri Lanka in Style tailormakes itineraries to hotels and villas (www.srilankainstyle. com); SriLankan Airlines (www.srilankan. aero), flies from Heathrow to Colombo (returns from £608) and operates the Air Taxi (one-ways from £85). See also www.srilankatourism.org.uk

June: Kilimanjaro

By Guy Adams

Finally, after the aches and pains, and blisters; finally, after the cold, sleepless nights and frosty sunrises, and a gut-wrenching six-hour push to the summit. Finally, we conquered Kilimanjaro, and all Africa appeared before us, under its endless sky.

The Dark Continent's highest peak stands alone, 5,800m above sea-level. Huge glaciers spill from its snow-capped summit. To the west lie the Rift Valley and dusty plains of the Serengeti. In the east, you can look across northern Tanzania, towards the edge of the Indian Ocean. "You are now at Uhuru peak," reads the sign. "Welcome."

Welcome indeed. My flat-mate and I fell to the floor as the early-morning sun poked over the horizon, pushing the temperature up to -5C and bathing us in orange. We shook hands, looked each other in the eye, and declared that all the blood, sweat and tears had been worth it.

If you want to climb Kilimanjaro, be prepared for these Churchillian moments. The mountain wears its perils lightly: it does not require technical climbing skills, or any more than average fitness. In the (mandatory) presence of a guide, the only navigation you need to do is through customs at nearby Arusha airport. But it's certainly no picnic.

When we arrived in Tanzania, our guide, Onex, gave a pep-talk as he checked kit-bags for hats, gloves, and various items of ominously thick thermal clothing. The upper slopes to Kili's volcanic crater rim are steep and remorseless, he said. Weather conditions can be hostile, windy and cold (as low as -20C). And then there's something called Acute Mountain Sickness.

This nasty business is caused by the lack of oxygen in the air at altitude, and feels like a bad hangover: it starts with a headache, progresses to nausea and vomiting, and in extreme cases can kill. In fact, AMS is the number one reason why 30 per cent of climbers who attempt Kili fall short of the summit. You avoid it, Onex said, by walking "pole, pole" (Swahili for "slowly slowly") to acclimatise.

With that, we boarded a 4x4 with the various porters, cooks, deputy-cooks, guides and deputy-guides that western tourists ("Mzungu") take up Kili. Our party numbered nine: two walkers, and seven support staff. " This is ridiculous," said my flatmate. "We were supposed to be roughing it."

The "staff" served a purpose, though: to carry jaw-droppingly heavy loads. Kilimanjaro can be scaled by six routes, of which just one, Marangu, provides huts to sleep in. Others, including the six-day Machame trail we'd chosen, require you to sleep under canvas, bringing food, tents and provisions on your back.

Porters are there to ease the pain: they're officially allowed to take only 15kg of kit, but most manage much, much more. Thanks to them, the knock-kneed Mzungu, who would struggle with anything more than a small day-bag, are able to enjoy the ride.

And what a ride. Experienced mountaineers talk of their sport in terms of simple pleasures: the mighty views and brutal climbs, the sense of achievement, and warm glow that follow a day en plein air. Kili provides this in spades. We plodded up dusty footpaths, watching rainforest turn to heath and, finally, rocky desert. The trip was breathtaking, in both senses of the word. Evenings, for their part, offered a taste of the frontier: we pitched tents, guzzled energy-building meals, and shared card games and cups of chocolate with fellow climbers.

Things suddenly got difficult, though. I hit trouble at the end of day four, when a sharp headache arrived as sun began to set over the spectacular landscape of Barafu campsite, a barren outcrop 4,500m up where we had pitched tents for a few hours' shut-eye, before the final push to the top.

Tradition dictates that the long-awaited assault on the summit begins at midnight, allowing climbers enough time to see sunrise over Africa before returning to a camp in the foothills (with a couple of hours factored in for mishaps) while there is still daylight. Even without AMS, it is a long, draining day.

Preparing for the worst, I rose bleary-eyed and sore of head in the cold depths of an African night. The final push, which was supposed to take around six hours, was expected to require four layers of clothing, a small head-torch, and unlimited supplies of determination.

Our party set off in a howling gale. The hill was steep, relentless and gravelly. It was pitch dark, and too windy to hold a conversation. The headache, meanwhile, followed its expected course towards nausea and vomiting. Levels of oxygen in the air were only half those found at sea-level; as a result, even gentle exercise began to cause breathlessness. On the final slopes, our path began to traverse up the scree and each 100-yard section left me fighting for air and close to collapse.

Finally, after reaching the crater rim, mild hallucinations began and I broke down, unable to stay on my feet for more than a few steps at a time. In the end, like a teenage drunk, I had to be carried tearfully across the finish line. Photos show me raising half a smile, but I distinctly recall saying words to the effect: "Never again".

But these things are quickly forgotten. By the time we'd reached the bottom, AMS had disappeared and it was time to grab a cold beer, look forward to a few days' safari, and begin planning the next adventure holiday. Never again, as they often say, only lasts until the next time.

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