When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.
Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.
Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.
Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.
Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.
With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.
For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.
A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.
Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.
The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.
The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”
I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.
So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.
“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.
I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.
Don’t look for a reason behind Dutch designer Marcel Wanders’ spaces, it may not always be there. But you can count on magic always being present.
While most architects and designers tout form following function as a design philosophy, Wanders has a different perspective. “Luxury starts where functionality ends and where the true value is personal and so has no price or reason,” Wanders once said. He also said that the things he creates are the kind that people would want to save if their house was burning down.
If I had his Knotted Chair, the design that catapulted Wanders to global fame, I’d certainly save that first, too. Or the Horse Floor Lamp that the design label he co-founded, Moooi, produces. But I don’t have either.
Instead, I experience his spaces and gain insights into his design. To be standing in the pool deck of Fairmont Quasar Istanbul and seeing the product of his fanciful imagination is a treat that every design enthusiast would love.
In the glass-walled pool overlooking Marmara Sea and the red rooftops of Mecidiyekoy (okay, let’s call it by its other name, Şişli), Wanders put what seem like trees with globular fruits at the tips of the branches. It’s a fascinating element that pulls your gaze and then suddenly releases it for you to appreciate the panoramic skyline.
What’s on the other side of the pool will also make you smile. In the lounge area with white sunbeds, blue sofas and golden gazebos, Wanders created a garden space “guarded” by statues of ladies with red flowers for clothing and hair.
It’s weird but beautiful…and fascinating. It’s also a nod to whimsy and the designer’s proclivity for the extraordinary.
US-based design firm Wilson Associates, which masterminded Quasar’s overall design, imagined two sisters coming together in the city. “The older sister brought her polished Parisian sensibility, while the younger sister brought her eclectic, contemporary New York flare. Together, they created a design jargon all their own: contemporary classicism.”
Located on a windy hill in the city’s Mecidiyekoy area (after three years, I still can’t pronounce it), the property where Quasar is now used to be a 1930s liqueur factory designed by world-renowned cubist architect Robert Mallet Stevens.
Today, it is the newest star here, a luminous modern ode to a city that prides itself on its thousand years of history.
My wonderful friend Esin Sungur, Fairmont Quasar marketing and communications director, takes us around the hotel. I haven’t seen her in two years but know well enough that on this Eid al-Fatir weekend in June, she’d make the time. And it is a quiet weekend in Istanbul—more so than Manila during Holy Week and Easter, which is saying a lot about the two mega cities.
Istanbuller who are staying for the holiday are at nearby beaches or swimming pools. Here at Quasar, they are enjoying a windy summer day and food trays from Ukiyo restaurant (Japanese for “floating world”) at their chaise lounges while working on their tans.
With the hotel located in busy Mecidiyekoy—a short downhill walk to Cevahir Shopping Mall and a subway skip to Nisantasi or Taksim—it’s a great fit for business and leisure travelers who like some style with their drinks (The Marble Bar just off the lobby) or their tea (Demlique Tea Lounge and Patisserie), and spacious suites overlooking the city.
It’s also for people who love contemporary design. “There’s nothing nostalgic about the hotel, it’s modern all the way. Except for the industrial inspiration from the iconic liquor factory in front of the hotel,” says Esin of the 209-guestroom and 25-suite hotel.
Even in a place where the city’s skyscrapers are located—there are office and residential towers in nearby Levent, the Trump Tower is a walk down the hill, and many more under construction—Quasar’s architecture stands out. The building is silhouetted against the distant yachts and ships crossing Marmara Sea, the view never letting you forget that you’re in one of the world’s greatest, storied cities.
For a property that doesn’t have wide gardens, the architectural firm Wilson Associates managed to create breathing spaces that extend into courtyards like in Alia, a restaurant that combines distinct spaces—the Spice Library, the Raki Bar and two dining rooms, one for mezzes and the other for traditional live grill.
It’s where we celebrate Ramadan Feast. While the holiday is also observed in the Philippines, it’s my first time to experience it with people who practice Islam and are fasting till the sun goes down, today for the last time this year. It’s a very hot summer, which means daylight is long, and so is the fasting.
But even when there are those who do not observe fasting, even when the restaurant’s servers have filled our table with mezzes, not a single fork is lifted, no fast is broken prematurely, until the clock strikes 8:40 p.m.
It’s not just Wanders’ whimsical design elements or the hotel’s attention to detail (the boiled eggs at breakfast in Stations restaurant are wearing knitted caps to keep them warm, which made me laugh like silly) that makes the place special, it’s also the service that makes you feel like you’re an old friend.
At the Gold Lounge, we have a long chat with Recep Kileoglu, the funny and lively manager who shows us how to make coffee from the tap (seriously, it’s like a craft beer tap).
There is an easy familiarity and warmth—like the skyline and the rooftops on the horizon that we watch from the terrace, as if I’ve known them forever.
Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy. The Bosphorus Strait, he said, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”
That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that you can be walking in Istanbul’s historic streets and imagine yourself in the rich past of the Ottoman Empire and in the next block be jolted back to the reality of its modernity with hip coffee shops on both sides of the strait, gleaming shopping malls, and office towers.
Istanbul—a city where I’ve made friends and visited about 15 times in the past three years (sometimes just for the weekend when I’m coming from another city in Europe, sometimes for my annual vacation and then I head to Turkey’s coastline)—is a place I’ve come to regard like a second home. A friend calls me yenge (sister-in-law) as if I were married to the city, while another tells me that I should be granted honorary citizenship.
As with any first-time tourist to Istanbul, you go to where all the guidebooks tell you: the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Eminonu and the Bosphorus Strait.
I did all that, but it was only when I set out on a tour of the Bosphorus that I fell in love with Istanbul. This strait that divides the city between Europe and Asia lends it romance the way the River Seine does to Paris, but in an entirely different way.
“To be able to see the Bosphorus, even from afar—for İstanbuller, this is a matter of spiritual import that may explain why windows looking out onto the sea are like the mihrabs in mosques, the altars in Christian churches, and the tevans in synagogues, and why all the chairs, sofas, and dining tables in our Bosphorus-facing sitting rooms are arranged to face the view,” Pamuk wrote.
On that first Bosphorus tour, the guide pointed out the palaces of the sultans, the magnificent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe, which served as centers of the Ottoman Empire and are museums today. You can look at the bedrooms of the sultans and their collections but you cannot touch them or stay long because there is always a long queue behind you.
Then something caught my eye near the first Bosphorus Bridge. It was Çiragan Palace sitting on the shores, looking so magnificent—as if every marble column and gate rose out of the bottom of the waters of the Bosphorus fully constructed.
The palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz and designed by the era’s famous Armenian palace architect Nigogayos Balyan and constructed by his sons between 1863 and 1867. Before that, it was known as Kazancioglu Gardens at the beginning of the 17th century and a hundred years later, in 1719, Damat İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir built a summer mansion for his wife, the daughter of a sultan.
The guide said, “The palace is now Çiragan Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Istanbul. Its Sultan Suite costs about 33,000 euros a night.”
I thought, surely, that amount cannot be right—but it is.
The guide continued, “But superior rooms are affordable starting at 300 euros.”
And that was how, on my third time to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul, I found myself in this Ottoman Empire palace hotel—and I definitely did not book the Sultan’s Suite.
The Kempinski brand assures luxury and white-glove service— whether it’s a modern hotel such as Siam in Bangkok or a certain architecture, like the Selcuk-style The Dome in Belek—but more than that, I loved the idea of waking up, literally, to history. In Çiragan Palace Kempinski’s case, a faithfully reconstructed history.
Çiragan Palace was built during a period wherein all Ottoman sultans constructed their own palaces rather than using those before them. It is the last example of this period of extravagance. The inner walls and the roof were made of wood, the outer walls of colorful marble and a very high garden wall protected the palace from the outer world.
Sultan Abdülâziz did not live long in his palace. He was dethroned and succeeded by his nephew, whose reign lasted 93 days and lived here under house arrest until his death in August 1904.
Then the palace was used by the parliament until a great fire destroyed it in 1910 leaving only the outer walls intact and it lay abandoned for decades. Its third incarnation was as a football stadium.
And finally, in 1992, the Kempinski Group restored Çiragan Palace. Stones found still lying in the palace gardens through the years served as models for the master stonemasons to recreate the intricate latticework and marble colonnades by hand.
A mid-rise modern building was added (that’s where the affordable rooms come in!) and today it has 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel, and 11 suites in the historical palace.
I am told this amazing history by two lovely and sweet women, Ciaran Palace Kempinski’s director of public relations Neslihan Şen and her assistant Cansu Baş.
“It feels very special to be working here,” Neslihan says. “Apart from the Kempinski brand, you’re looking after a Turkish heritage that means a lot to everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility because it really is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel on the Bosphorus. And it’s a lot of fun because celebrities hold their weddings and celebrations at the historical palace.”
We are having tea at Laledan restaurant, which is famous in Istanbul for its Sunday brunch, overlooking the infinity pool and the Bosphorus. The hotel’s pool is famous as well—it’s the only outdoor heated pool in Istanbul and they tell me that in winter some guests come here, quickly disrobe and jump into the warm pool—while it’s snowing.
Cansu takes me on a tour of the historical palace, which is connected to the hotel via a walkway filled with pictures detailing its history.
I’ve seen and written about presidential suites before, but nothing quite like the Sultan’s Suite. The centerpiece here is the lobby with its grand chandelier and staircase, a favorite place of brides and for pictorials apart from the terrace facing the Bosphorus.
And then there’s the two-bedroom Sultan’s Suite. At 400 square meters, it’s one of the largest suites in Europe and certainly one of the most expensive. The furniture and accessories in the room date back to the 19th century; they sit side by side with state-of-the-art technology.
The master bedroom has a marble hamam and a Turkish bath with a private steam room, rainshower and bathtub with gold-plated and crystal fixtures. The guest bedroom also has its own bathroom with a specially designed bathtub and a large window overlooking the historical peninsula.
Chandeliers, columns, replicas of paintings from the famous palace painter Fausto Zonaro, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Bosphorus and classical Ottoman architecture all recreate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.
If that wasn’t enough, Çiragan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel on the Bosphorus reachable by car, yacht or helicopter and guests of the suite enjoy complimentary transfer to and from the airport—by land, sea or air.
Royalty, heads of state and celebrities have all stayed in the sultan suite, which has received numerous awards including the World’s Most Luxurious Hotel Suite and the Most Opulent Hotel Room.
Walking back to the hotel side, Cansu tells me, “My dear Tanya, you are very special because you are the last guest for the year that I have taken on a tour at the palace.” (What did I tell you about Turkish women? They’re so lovely!)
Back in my room, I do what Pamuk wrote about the chairs facing the water. It is a new year and the past 12 months have been difficult for this country with terror attacks, but I have never seen its people bow even when the city bends momentarily.
I am sitting on the balcony and looking at the Bosphorus Bridge outlined in red lights that perforate the dark sky. I have looked at Istanbul in a million ways, in all the seasons, under all circumstances, and I have loved it in each.
A funny thing happens over dinner the first time I am at Raffles Istanbul in Beşiktaş in October last year. I am craving mushroom pasta which I had seen in the in-room dining menu the night before, but the problem is that we are at the hotel’s Rocca restaurant which specializes in Turkish cuisine.
In this beautiful, contemporary one-year-old space where hundreds of wineglasses were used to create a translucent dividing wall, the menu is exclusively Turkish food — there is no mushroom pasta.
My (now ex-) boyfriend is chatting with the hotel’s assistant executive chef standing to the side of our table while I am making my order with a waiter standing next to the chef.
The waiter says, “I will have to ask the kitchen if they can make pasta for you, we don’t have it on our menu.”
“Well, the chef is right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I reply.
The chef turns to the waiter and says, “Go tell the kitchen to make it for her.”
This is chef Mehmet Ali, a man so charming and kind that when he offered to make me poached eggs with yogurt for breakfast on our first morning, I couldn’t say no even if I was thinking “What? Eggs and yogurt?”
But how could this tapsilog-loving, sunny-side-up girl say no to this nice man? He would come to our table every morning and ask if he could make us anything off the menu, would chat with the bf in Turkish while I finished my eggs and yogurt.
Unlike the original colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which started as a private beach house in 1887, everything about Raffles Istanbul is very new (it opened only in 2014). It’s located at Zorlu Center, a new complex of office and residential towers, a performance art theater, and a luxury mall.
And yet the hotel is already gaining praise for bringing the tradition of Asian hospitality and impeccable service into this old city. Public relations manager Esin Sungur says with a laugh that the Raffles philosophy is that “even before we know the question, the answer is yes.”
And, yes, Raffles Istanbul is very expensive but you do get what you pay for because luxury is indeed in the details — not just of the space or the well-appointed rooms but also in how personalized the service is.
You don’t even have to ask. The hotel goes the extra mile with its team of butlers that are assigned to every room. One of them is Hulya Zengin, who says there have been guests she’s assisted for special occasions such as marriage proposals, anniversaries and birthdays.
For one guest, Hulya and her team arranged a romantic dinner with music, flowers and candles on the balcony for the guy’s proposal. Hulya herself is newly married and maybe it’s the romantic in her that makes her want guests to have their special time, too.
For us, because I had mentioned in an email that we were in a long-distance relationship, Hulya decorated our room with balloons, flowers, handwritten quotes, and candles on the two times we stayed last year.
I was wondering why they had asked me to email them pictures, and it turned out to be a surprise. When we got there, there were framed pictures of us in the spring and summer of last year all around the room, and red balloons, sparkling confetti and rose petals scattered on the floor and bed (the confetti was a challenge to clear up).
The second time we were there, he and I were talking about whether it was easier for me to move to Istanbul or for him to expand his family’s business in Manila. He said I would never find a job as a journalist in his city; I said that wasn’t my question.
He had sent me to Bebek while he was at work the next day, that beautiful waterside and quiet part of the city. He was messaging me while I was at Starbucks overlooking the Bosphorus, that he was excited to live in Manila. I said, wait, hold your horses — you have to see the country first (he would do so four months later, in March this year).
The balloons were pink on our second stay. He met Hulya for the first time while she and I seemed like old friends by then.
The room’s decor made us forget the argument we had on the metro, when he dragged my heavy suitcase to and from the long walk at the Gayrettepe stop to get to Zorlu Center.
“Why is this so heavy?” He glared at me, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. “When we reach the hotel, you will open your suitcase and I will throw away every unnecessary thing that you packed.” I had come from a five-day tour across Anatolya and did not actually buy anything, except for an overpriced leather coat for $800 in Izmir over which he was livid, but I had three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, two coats and several jackets in there. I laughed and said, “You will do no such thing.”
Surrounded by pink balloons, I opened my suitcase and handed him the chocolate-covered polvoron and dried mangoes that he so loved…and he forgot about his annoyance that I had over-packed yet again and his plan of throwing out my stuff.
On the TV’s audio selection, we found violinist André Rieu’s version of The Rose and we must have played it a hundred times in the time we spent there.
It was playing when he brought the pink balloons out on the balcony in the cold November air later that night. “Make a wish and then let them go,” he told me taking a video on his phone.
And so I did. I let go of the strings and we watched the balloons float, carried by the autumn wind into Istanbul’s dark skies until we couldn’t see them anymore.
* * *
Designed by Sandra Cortner of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading firm in hospitality design with works from Atlanta to Moscow, Shanghai to LA, Raffles Istanbul at Zorlu Center was a unique project.
Istanbul itself was HBA’s main inspiration for the design with the “interiors reflecting the jewels of the Byzantine era, only worn by the Emperor and Empress of the time. These jewel tones are referenced throughout — in the palette and selected artworks.”
Cortner says, “The first question was, what would a guest coming into this landmark building expect? It would not be historical, classic interiors, for sure. Neither would the space be aggressively contemporary. It was decided to make it transitional, timeless. We needed to connect it with the destination to give the sense of place.”
“Art is part of the fabric of every Raffles hotel — incorporated into the overall design, seamlessly, which is how we came to our concept, ‘The Dream of Istanbul.’ Not everything has to be literal; you may have abstract sides to it, dreams, fantasies. You wake up in a room with a bed backdrop inspired by the chandeliers of the Hagia Sophia but they are not photographs; they are soft and volatile, painted on canvas.”
You see the references to the city’s history as you pass through the vestibule and stand under the crystal chandelier in the grand lobby: a huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name and a mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire.
The 181-room hotel remains true to its DNA with the signature Long Bar (yes, it has the Singapore Sling as well and this drink celebrates its centenary this year) and Writers Bars. It also has the very popular Spanish restaurant Arola by Michelin-star chef Sergi Arola, a favorite of the well-heeled.
Another space that’s show-stopping is the hotel’s award-winning spa. Designers at Hirsch Bedner Associates made this 3,000-sqm. spa a true oasis with dazzling details.
We so loved the facilities here. Above the indoor pool and cascading from the ceiling are design elements in geometric shapes, giving it a translucent feel. The spa has three Turkish hamams, seven treatment rooms, a male and female relaxation areas with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and ice fountains; and a fitness center, yoga and and pilates studios.
If sultans still reigned in Turkey today, surely this would be the hotel they would converge, because Raffles blends European timelessness and Asian warmth— in a city that is timeless itself.
(This story first appeared in the Philippine Star in 2015 and has been updated.)
So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.
A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and forget all about it?
The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)
While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.
He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.
So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!
I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.
Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”
It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.
But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.
That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)
The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.
Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor, historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.
The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”
“And which river is that?”
“The Bosphorus,” I said.
“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”
The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.
I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.
From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.
On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.
People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.
Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.
The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.
From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four. Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.
Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.
It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.
Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.
Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.
Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).
Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.
* * *
Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.
Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.
Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”
Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.
My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.
The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.
In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.
During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.
Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even the waters of the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”
I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.
I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.