East is West: where to go in Istanbul

Rebecca Newman indulges in all kinds of Turkish delights in Istanbul

The Blue Mosque

Istanbul. Constantinople. The city that for centuries held glorious dominion over much of the known world. A time-traveller destination, where ancient wonders give way to designer nightlife; a place of myths and minarets, where East meets West, and now where high culture meets fantastic clubbing.

We arrived to scorching heat and angry traffic: the 25km drive in from the airport took three hours. As our fraying taxi inched round a bend, a shining stretch of blue water spread before us, beyond it a patchwork of red roofs and white turrets. ‘There,’ cried Kerem, our moustachioed driver. ‘The Bosphorus! Where Europe and Asia kiss!’

Founded around 660BC as Byzantium, by a colonist called Byzas, Istanbul’s ascendancy came some 900 years later when Constantine the Great made it the new eastern capital of his Roman Empire. A strategic point on the Silk Route, with trade coming from all directions, it was a place of fabulous learning and wealth, intrigue and decadence: the capital of four successive empires — Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman.


The Four Seasons Bosphorous HotelThe Four Seasons Bosphorous HotelOld Istanbul lies on the western edge of the Bosphorus — the stretch of water that leads from the Black Sea south to the Sea of Marmara and on to the Mediterranean. Today the city spills north: the Galata Bridge crosses over a drowned valley, the Golden Horn, into the area called Beyoglu with the liveliest bar scene. It also continues to the eastern side of the Bosphorus into Asia — a sprawling conurbation with some 14 million inhabitants.

My husband and I travelled with some friends, all children left at home and excitement pitched high. Brimful of enthusiasm for Ottoman romance and bazaar shopping, we headed straight to the oldest part of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet. Perhaps the city’s most iconic landmark is here, the Hagia Sophia. Begun by one of Constantine’s successors, Justinian, in the sixth century, it was the largest cathedral in Christendom for over a thousand years, before being reconsecrated as a mosque in the 15th century when the city fell to the Ottomans. It’s now a museum. Despite a decent amount of scaffolding, as restoration is in progress, we stood transfixed under the 100ft span of the great dome.

A saunter through the grilled-corn stands and map sellers loitering in the old Roman Hippodrome led us to the 17th-century Blue Mosque. The interior is beautifully decorated with Iznik blue tiles — last year a very large Iznik pottery tile sold for nearly £68,000 at a London auction.

Equally compelling was the nearby Roman Basilica Cistern. Once part of a system that brought water into the city, today it is a dimly lit subterranean cathedral, 336 columns supporting arches reflected in opaque pools. Despite the lure of the jewels of the Topkapi Palace we headed off to the bazaar to shop, fortified by lacmacun (a hot slab of dough with a spicy meat filling, rolled into a delicious kind of skinny burrito).

Later that evening we made for a very different kind of display, in the area on the western side of the Bosphorus called Bebek. Following a line of Porsches, we discovered Lucca, a fashion-forward spot for cocktails and dinner as the sun goes down. The people were beautiful and the lobster spaghettini delicious, if not perfectly indigenous. Then to Anjelique. Once a three-storey Ottoman mansion, the façade remains but the interior has been given that ubiquitous international rich-at-play vibe of glass and white leather. Cocktails on the terrace had the odd feeling of Ibiza gone East: caipirinhas at low white tables, with white curtains framing the compelling views across the water. Upstairs, in a room playing funky house music, it was crammed with women in skyscraper shoes and suggestive Alaïa dresses. The club stays open until dawn, but if our spirits were willing, our bodies (having perhaps consumed too many spirits) were not.

And anyway, we had a problem. As compelling as the city is, so, too, was our hotel. Fronting the water’s edge, the Four Seasons Bosphorus is a very difficult place to leave. From my lounger by the pool I could watch the boats chug up and down the Bosphorus, and admire the city’s innumerable spires and turrets while sipping a fresh pineapple and coconut smoothie. From the double-height windows of our room — the hotel is in a 19th-century Ottoman palace — we could gaze toward the city and ponder, briefly, the traffic and chaos, before meandering downstairs for a steam in the hotel’s hammam.

Hagia SofiaHagia SofiaHaving thrown ourselves into the old city; having equipped myself with beaten gold earrings and a leather bag (which duly fell apart as the shuttle doors opened at Terminal 5); having danced like I was 17; here was luxurious peace. A breakfast where an old lady heated flatbreads in a small stone kiln. A facialist whose skilled massage and fragrant masks left my skin rejuvenated and the rest of me lazy.

One tip from the concierge was, however, seductive enough to lure us out. After dinner we took a water taxi from the hotel’s private pier toward the Maiden’s Tower (said to be where an emperor once kept his daughter captive, in the — unsuccessful — hope that he could outwit a prophecy that she would die from a snake bite). The sky was a bowl of stars reflected in the still water, along with the coloured lights of the city’s three shores.coloured lights of the city’s three shores.

Original article published in ES Magazine, in November, 2014

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