With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul ignites Glass’ imagination
“I don’t even like Turkish delight,” I told my father who, on hearing of my impending trip to Istanbul, had specified the delivery of three boxes of the best stuff. To me they’d always smelled like soap, the sight of that powdery layer of sugar making me subconsciously rub my fingers together to get the talcum-like sensation off before the Fry’s packaging had even been breached.
We had decided to stay at the Grand Hyatt – there are a myriad of possibilities for accommodation in the city, from cheap guesthouses right on the doorstep of the Hagia Sofia to old palaces refurbed by big-name hospitality brands, but I like the fantastic Grand Club rooms, where your own floor awaits with separate check-in, private concierge, library, complimentary breakfast, afternoon tea and cocktail hour. Nothing cools the soles of your aching feet like a bowl of olive tapenade and a vodka tonic as you watch the sun go down over the city. The amenities of a modern bathroom are not to be sniffed at either; bath tubs are a rarity (presumably everybody else is getting scrubbed down by half naked bears in the local hammam) and squat loos are not an altogether abandoned tradition round these parts. You could of course head to the Gaia Spa where traditional facilities await your scrubbing needs amongst the Zen-like treatment rooms. The restaurant, 34, has some seriously impressive show kitchens in a big open space, and come winter you won’t be left in the cold with access to the clubby Library Bar.
Our first real view of the city came from the Galata Bridge as the sun was setting over the water. From there, you can see dozens of minarets glinting in the waning sunlight, their distinctive onion-shaped spires silhouetted dark against the sky, reaching up high as if trying to warm themselves on the last remaining rays of sun. The rhythmic calls to prayer bounce off each other, melodic male voices echoing through crackling loudspeakers as down on the ground, the smell of cooked corn on the cob and fish compete for your attention. Like an old market causeway, the bridge is peppered with stalls selling everything from cherries and nuts in brown paper bags to freshly squeezed orange juice.
Refreshment in hand, Sultanhamet is the place to be to hit all of the big tourist sights. Across the square from the glittering Blue Mosque with its sapphire blue tiles, is the distinctive pink stone exterior of Hagia Sophia which maintains elements of both its Christian and Islamic past. Beneath the enormous dome sunlight spills in through latticed windows and casts a golden glow on everything. Enormous stone columns surround the space, one of which has a thumb-sized hole where, legend has it, if you manage one full turn of the hand whilst making a wish, it’ll come true. Evidence of the building’s first life as an Orthodox basilica, completed in 537 AD, can be found everywhere, mostly in the incredible mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mother resurfacing from underneath hastily-covered plaster, or the darkened shadows of the cross of a crucifix, removed to mask the symbol of Christianity.
Topkapi Palace is quite spectacular and offers a glimpse into the privileged world of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire before they started to migrate to waterside palaces in the 17th Century. Its various terraces, mosques and pavilions feel heavy with the presence of the lives of the 4000 people who once would have made this their home, from the Grand Vizier overseeing government and the soldiers carrying huge horse-tailed banners in imperial processions, to the wives and concubines of mythic harem legends. The innermost courtyard was home to the Sultan’s private chambers, and is a beautiful calming place to take in the views over the Bosphorus, as well as the site of some of the most stunning pavilions. Red velvet daybeds, intricate tiling and mother-of-pearl inlays speak of the artisanal talent that created this haven. The circumcision room on the other hand, speaks of another thing entirely.
What doesn’t have much to say at all is the harem. Whilst we came armed with stories of power-wielding black eunuchs and battles for supremacy amongst the women who fought for a place in the Sultan’s bed and better yet, tried to bear him a son, the reality was eerie silence. The space feels closed off, tight and secretive with its darkened courtyards and clear delineation of levels of influence. In empty corridors of more beautiful tiles and tightly-shut slatted windows, we were simply told that the women enjoyed “playing games, sewing and conversing”. Indeed.
We happened upon our absolute favourite spot late one night after a traditional dinner at riverside restaurant Feriye (sit outside what was once a 19th century Ottoman police station and hope for dolphins to swim by), where further along the water we found Le Fumoir. The stuff of exotic dreams, we slinked into the beautiful outdoor bar complete with mosaicked glass lamps suspended from trees and a hookah station, all in front of the jaw-dropping splendour of Ciragan Palace, now owned by the Kempinski Hotel. Puffing on apple shisha under the night sky, ensconced in a rattan sofa with cocktails in hand, we could have stayed forever.
Set aside a day to do the bazaars and brush up on your bargaining skills. The Grand Bazaar, once the last stop on the ancient Silk Road, is a warren of over 4,000 stalls where you’ll find shawls, cushion covers, lamps, jewellery bedecked with the evil eye talisman, copper coffee pots and carpets galore. The lamp sellers are particularly Aladdin-esque, their faces lit by the kaleidoscopic light of the hundreds of mosaic-covered shades surrounding them.
Finally, meander on to the Spice Bazaar and immerse yourself in an apothecary of taste. You really have to go deep into each stall where fragrant spices sit ready to be shovelled into bags, and vials of real vanilla pods and the “good” saffron are sold alongside eye kohl. Then there’s the Turkish delight. I’ll admit it; the real stuff is beyond measure, filled with nuts and flavoured with pomegranates, mandarins and pistachios. Apparently the Sultan ordered his confectioner to make something sweet to keep his concubines appeased, and this is what emerged from the Royal kitchens as a result. Suppose the ladies can add that to their exciting list of occupations, then. by Martina McHowat
Glass stayed at the Grand Hyatt Istanbul, Taskisla Caddesi, Taksim, Istanbul, Turkey 34437. Tel: +90 212 368 1234 Rooms from £280 Feriye Çırağan Cad. No: 40 Ortaköy, Istanbul, Turkey 34347. Tel : +90 212 227 2216
The Fumoir can be found at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, Ciragan Caddesi 32, 34349 Istanbul. Tel: +90 212 326 4646