The spice of life and the sultan's pink pyjamas

Renata Rubnikowicz shops till she drops-and maintains her dignity with a Turkish bath

Ooh, I feel like a proper sultana - in Istanbul for a weekend's shopping and staying at the sultan's summer palace. The Ciragan Palace is now a sumptuous hotel with all mod cons. As I nibble on the complimentary apricots and almonds and watch the mosques and the fading light over the misty Bosphorous, the stress melts away. I forget the early start, the four-and-a-bit-hour flight (slightly long for a weekend) and the traffic jams on the long journey through the ugly, rubble-and-goat-strewn suburbs from the airport.

Next morning, I'm ready to hit the shops when they open at nine. The city has modern shops with names we recognise, but I haven't come all the way to Asia for that. So first we make for the Spice Market, or Misir Carsisi.

This was once the end of the Silk Road, along which merchants brought goods from the Far East to trade with Europeans. Who'd like that belly-dancer outfit? Or those gold-embroidered slippers? And do I know anyone who'd like some "Turkish Viagra", made from 31 spices and honey? The market is small, the traders friendly. I buy amazingly cheap saffron, jars of nuts with honey, halva and Turkish delight.

Then it's time for the main event. The Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsi, dates from the 15th century and has more than 3,000 shops. My companions speed off with squeals of joy - gathering kilims, fake Chanel and Fendi handbags as they run. I am overwhelmed by the amount of stuff. Here, a stallholder carries his Turkish coffee on a silver tray; there, ancient lanterns hang next to Versace underpants.

The stallholders vie for customers. "You like to see my carpets?" is traditional. "Well, hello," in an intonation exactly like Leslie Phillips, is surprising, but, "You from London? I speak Geordie - why, aye!" in perfect Newcastle is surreal.

Shopping had to come first (the bazaars are closed on Sundays) but it's time for lunch. The Topkapi Palace provides an adequate if routine tourist restaurant but its view - spanning two continents - is exceptional. Refreshed, we explore its gardens and treasures in the sunshine.

Here is the imperial wealth of the Ottomans, next to which the gold and jewellery in the Grand Bazaar pales. Huge diamonds and topazes seem flimsily protected in their glass cases. The sultan's pants are three feet wide , but what thin ankles he had. And why was he so keen on pink? Every utensil is made of precious metal or encrusted with gems. These guys had free-range Faberge eggs. There's nothing modern or interactive in this display. See this and wonder, they say.

One more experience would complete this sultana's day - a visit to the hamam, or Turkish bath. The Cagaloglu Hamami (212 522 24 24; www.cagalogluhamami) is more than 300 years old and my masseuse looks as if she's been here from the start. She scrubs me throughly, and finishes with a washcloth on the face that reminds me of nursery. I emerge from its marble chambers cleansed of Mammon, ready to see the spiritual side of the city the next day. The marvels of the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia and the tomb of Alexander the Great await. But now it's back to the summer palace - a sultana must have her beauty sleep.

Turkish Airlines (020 7766 9300; flies to Istanbul from Heathrow and Manchester from pound;176 return, including taxes. For the Christmas break, Holidays 4U will be running three-, four-and seven-night holidays to the city, at prices ranging from pound;199 for three nights' bed and breakfast in the Ferhat Hotel, within walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar, to pound;699 per person for three nights (room only) at the five-star Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, with flights and transfers, departing from Gatwick on Sundays and Thursdays. Or go independently: flight only from pound;149 return (starting from November 3).Alternatively, squeeze the most out of half-term with a two-centre, beachcity holiday for pound;349 per person including flights, Bamp;B and transfers: depart Gatwick for Dalaman at 22:10 on October 25, transfer to the Flash Hotel in Marmaris for six nights; on October 31, transfer to Istanbul for three nights at the three-star Ferhat Hotel. Arrive at Gatwick at 11.45pm on November 3. Holidays 4U: 0870 4443843;

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you