Getting about the Bosphorus by ferry. Picture: Ray Wilson

Mohammed smiled on us during the first week of our two- week stay in Istanbul when all the cliches came to life in this city of sensory splendour.

By their very nature, cliches are normally old and hackneyed but in this metropolis - which nudges 20 million people and dates back to 6700BC - it was a different story. Old, yes, but definitely not hackneyed.

To start a one-year overseas odyssey as a celebration of our retirement, my wife Leonie and I gambled on decent weather for nine weeks in Turkey before heading west to Italy and other parts yet unplanned.

As time was on our side - and because we were retiring on the savings of a humble teacher and journalist - we decided on self-catering apartments for the majority of the journey, and in particular in Istanbul for the last two weeks of the northern hemisphere winter in February.

We hit the jackpot early on at Sultanahmet Suites in the old quarter of Istanbul, with a low-season rental of $70 a night which included a good-sized bedroom, kitchen/dining room separated by a hallway and a clean and modern bathroom.

Situated in a narrow one-way street where daily life was far more fascinating than the two English-speaking channels we had on our satellite TV, it was only a 10-minute walk up a few cobblestoned goat tracks to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.

The elements were the greatest possible threat to our efforts to fully explore Istanbul but the weather gods smiled on us, providing many cloudless days of above 16C when the average is closer to 10C and gets decidedly bleak when the fronts roll in from the Black Sea.

Mohammed got his own back, though, with the early-morning calls to prayer blasted through loudspeakers on minarets, mosques and on the side of buildings all through the old part of the city, with the wailing beginning at 5.45am.

It was a small price to pay and a part of the enchantment that makes up the colour, the smells, the sights and sounds of Istanbul, which has Europe on one side of the Bosphorus Strait, the city's lifeblood, and Asia on the other.

Think Istanbul (or Turkey, for that matter). Tick the boxes: kebabs, mosques, coffee, carpets, Turkish delight, spices and bath houses (hamams).

In an area no bigger than a housing development in Perth, part of Istanbul's rich history was on display near the Hippodrome, where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are all within a five-minute walk of each other.

The Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century, is an active Muslim place of worship with soaring multiple domes much like the finale to a fireworks show, and whose name is derived from the colour of the Venetian tiles which adorn the inside walls. Entry is free and 10 minutes will see you out.

The amount of time spent mind-numbingly staring at artefacts through glass can be a traveller's lament but Hagia Sophia (built AD537), first a church, then a mosque and now a museum, and Topkapi Palace, the home of Ottoman sultans for about 400 years, shouldn't be missed.

I approached the palace with an inward glow, looking forward to visiting the Harem, a building as big as an army barracks where up to 500 concubines vied to catch the eye of the sultan of the time, but left with my legs crossed from the circumcision room, where princes up to 10 years old were circumcised.

Depending on the length of your stay, there other big-ticket attractions such as the Bosphorus and its famous bridge, the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar and a walk along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's answer to La Rambla in Spain or the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

But the most curious and enigmatic of all the city's attractions, for us anyway, didn't come draped in history. Mythology, perhaps.

Istanbul is crawling with cats. Not mangy felines which hiss and spit but well-behaved cats, hundreds of them, belonging to nobody but the city.

Folklore suggests the Prophet Mohammed had a pet cat whose character reminded him of the patience displayed by his mother. There is another story of the Prophet cutting away a piece of his jacket when he was called to prayer so as not to disturb the cat.

Certainly, nobody dares to mistreat the cats, which bunk in purpose-built cubbies along the verges, nestle in trees and are often seen slinking inside the mosques and temples.

More pragmatically, they keep the rats and mice population in check.

The West Australian

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