Stop­ping over in Is­tan­bul to soak up its amaz­ing his­tory, food and cul­ture is a must

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - CON­TENTS - WORDS TAM­SIN COCKS

I’m head­ing back to my ho­tel after a spec­tac­u­lar Turk­ish feast at Ali Ocak­başı Gümüş­suyu (a great lit­tle din­ing spot over­look­ing the Bospho­rus) when out of nowhere, cars be­gin stream­ing past with their horns blar­ing. Pas­sen­gers are hang­ing out­side the win­dows shout­ing, bran­dish­ing f lags and set­ting off flares. The traf­fic lights ahead turn red; one car de­lib­er­ately swings across all three lanes block­ing the high­way. Four young men leap out and jump on the roof, chant­ing at the beep­ing ve­hi­cles be­hind them and set­ting off more flares. I’m gen­uinely quite alarmed – what is go­ing on? An up­ris­ing, a protest, a po­lit­i­cal rally?

As it turns out, it’s a foot­ball vic­tory. It’s the end of the Su­per Lig – the Turk­ish Pre­mier League. Galatasaray have beaten Goztepe in a tense 1-0 show­down to win the cup, and half the city has erupted in cel­e­bra­tion. We crawl past Tak­sim Square – the cen­tral pi­azza in the heart of “mod­ern” Is­tan­bul – where throngs of ju­bi­lant fans have con­gre­gated, fol­lowed by groups of friends and fam­i­lies com­ing to join the rev­elry. The ri­otous cel­e­bra­tions last un­til the early hours, as ev­i­denced by the con­tin­u­ous hoot­ing out­side my ho­tel room…

It’s the com­plete op­po­site of my first im­pres­sion of Is­tan­bul, when I landed al­most 48 hours ear­lier. The coastal drive from Is­tan­bul Ataturk Air­port (soon to be a thing of the past – see page 50) re­vealed a peace­ful cityscape emerg­ing through a hazy sun­rise, a pink wash of an­cient build­ings dot­ted with minarets, stand­ing astride the penin­sula that juts out into the Bospho­rus Strait.

A 20-minute drive took us through Con­stantino­ple, the an­cient cap­i­tal, and over a large es­tu­ary known as the Golden Horn into Beyo­glu dis­trict, the “Eu­ro­pean side” for­merly known as Pera. Here, much of the ar­chi­tec­ture dates back to the 1800s, when Eu­ro­pean mer­chants cre­ated grand em­bassies, stately homes and posh bou­tiques. To­day, it’s the art, en­ter­tain­ment and nightlife cen­tre of Is­tan­bul.

Our des­ti­na­tion is the Pera Palace Ho­tel, the old­est in­ter­na­tional ho­tel in the city, set on a charm­ing, wind­ing hill­side. It was built in 1892 to of­fer re­fined lodg­ings to pas­sen­gers of the Ori­ent Ex­press – the leg­endary train of lux­ury and in­trigue that linked the great cap­i­tals of Paris and Con­stantino­ple. The 126-year-old grande dame has lost none of her piz­zazz: a grand en­trance boasts a lav­ish dis­play of rich mar­bles and lux­u­ri­ous fur­nish­ings, with a sweep of red car­pet guid­ing guests be­neath chan­de­liers and dra­matic door­ways. An ir­re­sistible urge to peek into the cham­ber be­yond re­veals an enor­mous dou­ble-storey Ro­coco lounge – the Kubbeli Saloon – ex­tend­ing back past a grand piano, li­brary, bar area and onto an al­fresco pa­tio. I can eas­ily pic­ture for­mer guests Ernest Hem­ing­way and Al­fred Hitch­cock meet­ing over whisky and cigars.

In the Old City vast mosques rise out of the land­scape, com­mand­ing re­spect and at­ten­tion

New ar­rivals are given a spe­cial treat – a lift in Europe’s old­est work­ing el­e­va­tor. The an­tique car­riage sits ma­jes­ti­cally in wrought-iron frame­work, grace­fully ris­ing five storeys through the heart of a grand cir­cu­lar stair­case. In­side Room 411, you’ll find a trib­ute to one of the ho­tel’s most fa­mous guests, the doyenne of British crime fic­tion, Agatha Christie. It is be­lieved she wrote her 1932 clas­sic novel Mur­der on the Ori­ent Ex­press dur­ing one of her stays, and this room now fea­tures a li­brary of Christie’s nov­els, dra­matic blood-red walls, a work­ing type­writer and his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ra­bilia ded­i­cated to the mur­dermys­tery maven.

On the ground f loor, Room 101 re­veals a rev­er­ent mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to mod­ern Turkey’s found­ing fa­ther, Mustafa Ataturk. The revo­lu­tion­ary army of­fi­cer served as prime min­is­ter from 1923 un­til his death in 1938, and is still a beloved na­tional icon. The dis­play of­fers an in­ti­mate glimpse into his life, with the clothes he wore, rich ta­pes­tries (said to have pre­dicted his death) and notes from his work and con­tin­u­ous study­ing – which ex­tend right up un­til the day he died.

There are plenty more fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal nuggets to un­earth in this evoca­tive prop­erty, but it’s time for brunch. We meet our guide Ozlem at a lo­cal mar­ket; I can’t help but do a dou­ble­take – with her per­ox­ide-blonde hair, large brown eyes and red-lipped smile, she’s the spit­ting image of Amer­i­can singer Gwen Ste­fani. After stock­ing up for our im­pend­ing tra­di­tional break­fast, we head back to her apart­ment where she of­fers us slip­pers and douses our hands in per­fume – a cus­tom­ary greet­ing. We make our­selves at home while Ozlem chats away, ex­ud­ing warm Turk­ish hospi­tal­ity as she de­scribes her home and coun­try. She re­veals her love of South Korean dra­mas, while drop­ping scraps to the clut­ter of stray cats wait­ing for their break­fast two storeys below, and whip­ping up what turns into an in­cred­i­ble feast: men­e­men (roast pep­pers stewed in a fra­grant tomato sauce); borek (flaky Turk­ish pas­try filled with var­i­ous savoury flavours) and kay­mak (clot­ted buf­falo milk driz­zled with honey). All this is ac­com­pa­nied by sea­sonal figs and mul­ber­ries, a moun­tain of breads, olives, cheeses and hams, and washed down with lash­ings of strong black tea and rich cof­fee – we can’t get enough of it.

Fu­elled for the af­ter­noon, we head out to see some of the sur­round­ing sights.

In the cen­tre of Beyo­glu is the soar­ing Galata Tower, a Ro­manesque struc­ture built in the 14th cen­tury. The Me­dieval watch­tower of­fers in­cred­i­ble 360-de­gree views over Is­tan­bul, the Bospho­rus and the Golden Horn. In the Old City, vast mosques rise out of the land­scape, com­mand­ing re­spect and at­ten­tion – a to­tal con­trast to the chaotic com­pe­ti­tion of sky­scrapers in cities like Hong Kong. Ex­pect to queue, with just two lifts whisk­ing tourists to the top-floor restau­rant, fol­lowed by three flights of stairs lead­ing to the cir­cu­lar view­ing plat­form (en­trance 25 lira/US$4; open 9am-8.30pm).

From Galata Tower it’s just a short walk to join the el­e­gant pedes­tri­anised thor­ough­fare known as Istik­lal Street (In­de­pen­dence Street). Vin­tage trams come rum­bling along the 1.4km av­enue, lined with shops, gal­leries, cin­e­mas, pubs, patis­series, churches, his­tor­i­cal pas­sages and more, even­tu­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in Tak­sim Square, fea­tur­ing the Repub­lic Mon­u­ment.

Later we head across the wa­ter to the cir­cu­lar, stone Hod­japasha theatre, re­mod­elled from a 15th-cen­tury bath­house. There’s a som­bre at­mos­phere as the white-robed Whirling Dervishes and ac­com­pa­ny­ing Sufi mu­si­cians walk on, with a pro­jected sign in­struct­ing the au­di­ence not to ap­plaud the sa­cred sama

cer­e­mony they are about to wit­ness. What fol­lows is a hyp­notic rit­ual of whirling, wail­ing and… will­ing your eyes open. The rhyth­mic beat­ing of the benedir (frame drum), mo­not­o­nous keen­ing of the neys

(f lute-like in­stru­ments) and dizzy­ing spins of the dervishes send more than a few au­di­ence mem­bers nod­ding off – but it’s an at­mo­spheric cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence that stays with you. (Shows start at 7pm daily; cost US$20. It’s worth ar­riv­ing a lit­tle early to di­gest the ex­ten­sive ex­hi­bi­tion that of­fers a back­ground to the Whirling Dervishes and the rit­ual per­formed, with plenty of de­tails rang­ing from the re­li­gious sig­nif­i­cance of spe­cific hand ges­tures to in­stru­ments used by the band.)

The next day, we get up early to tackle some of Is­tan­bul’s most fa­mous his­toric sights: the Hip­po­drome of Con­stantino­ple, Sul­tan Ah­met Mosque (pop­u­larly known as the Blue Mosque), Top­kapi Palace, Ha­gia Sophia and the Basil­ica Cis­tern, all hand­ily lo­cated within walk­ing dis­tance of each other – each one more awe-in­spir­ing than the next.

Start at the Hip­po­drome, the site of an an­cient Byzan­tium char­iot-rac­ing sta­dium pep­pered with an­cient mon­u­ments in­clud­ing the bronze Ser­pent Col­umn, re­lo­cated by Con­stan­tine the Great in 324 AD, and the 3,500-year-old an­cient Egyp­tian obelisk of Thut­mose III.

Move swiftly on to the Sul­tan Ah­met (Blue) Mosque, built in the 17th cen­tury with an os­ten­ta­tious six minarets that courted con­tro­versy at the time for com­pet­ing with the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the only other mosque to boast six minarets at that time. (Sul­tan Ah­met solved the prob­lem by build­ing a sev­enth minaret at the Grand Mosque.) With 30,000 vis­i­tors a day, the trick is to get ahead of the crowds. Doors open at 8.30am with lit­tle or no queue for early birds. A strict dress code is en­forced as the tem­ple is still ac­tively used for prayer, though the car­toon di­a­grams are gen­uinely con­fus­ing. Ba­si­cally, keep your arms and legs cov­ered, no tight jeans, and ladies cover your hair – nearby stalls of­fer robes and scarves to bor­row. (En­try is free; open 8.30am-6pm every day, ex­clud­ing prayer times; sul­tanah­metcamii.org)

From the exit it’s straight on through the rose gar­dens and tur­reted gates into Top­kapi Palace, a sprawl­ing palace-cum­mu­seum. Here you’ll dis­cover the orig­i­nal res­i­dence of the Ot­toman sul­tans and in­cred­i­ble arte­fact col­lec­tions: a stun­ning clock-filled room with mother-of-pearl grand­fa­ther clocks, skele­ton pocket watches, as­tro­labes and as­tro­nom­i­cal disks; and an an­tique weapons horde of maces, lances, ar­rows, fear­some axes and mighty swords big­ger than me. The sa­cred relics room fea­tures the staff of Moses and scrolls from Mo­hammed, while next door a hafiz (some­one who has mem­o­rised the Qur’an) re­cites the scrip­ture into a mi­cro­phone.

Head on­wards to one of the most mag­nif­i­cent build­ings in the world. This is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion – the stag­ger­ing pro­por­tions of the Ha­gia Sofia alone are mind-blow­ing. The main dome looms 182 feet (55 me­tres) over­head, rest­ing on an ar­cade of 40 arched win­dows and col­umns. The in­cred­i­ble feat of engi­neer­ing is ac­com­pa­nied by or­nate in­te­ri­ors fea­tur­ing a mix­ture of Chris­tian fres­coes and Is­lamic cal­li­graphic panes, which re­mind you the mighty his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ment has wit­nessed cen­turies of his­tory. Alas, there are longterm, large-scale restora­tion works in progress, but there is plenty of beauty to go around. (En­try 40 lira/US$6; open 9am-7pm un­til Oc­to­ber 30, closes 5pm in win­ter).

Is­tan­bul’s most fa­mous his­toric sights are all hand­ily lo­cated within walk­ing dis­tance of each other

CLOCK­WISE FROM THIS PAGE TOP: Pic­turesque park with Ha­gia Sophia be­hind; the Basil­ica Cis­tern; Whirling Dervishes; and the Kubbeli Saloon at Pera Palace Ho­tel

LEFT: Is­tan­bul is lo­cated on the Bospho­rus, the gate­way be­tween East and West

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