December 14, 2011

TRAVEL: A Taste of Tradition in Old Istanbul


For thousands of years, emperors, sultans and their millions of loyal citizens have enjoyed the very special Bosphorus riverside location of Istanbul, which is at its best when the sun’s out and the water twinkles with optimism.

While it may no longer be the seat of a grand continent-spanning empire - as Constantinople (now Istanbul) was during the Roman and subsequent Ottoman period, from 1453 until 1923 - it still hums with optimistic energy on both its European and Asian shores.

In keeping with her Asian neighbours, Istanbul’s 12 million residents, up from three million in the 1970s, are enjoying an economic boom.

Sadly for the tourists who jostle out of the many mosques and palaces, this can mean mayhem. The quickest way for visitors to burn through their money is in a taxi, as the city’s inadequate transport system means the roads are in gridlock most of the time.

If you’re in Istanbul for a whistlestop tour, it’s probably easiest to stay bang in the centre, within tram-riding distance of the historic districts (Sultanahmet) and the modern bars and shops (Beyoglu).

For those in need of a treat, last year the Pera Palace Hotel opened its doors after a two-year restoration. The famous 1892 hotel, which originally provided the last destination stop for travellers arriving on the Orient Express, is a tribute to the city’s first forays into fashionable Western living.

Tasteful and effortlessly elegant, a few nights staying in the most refined hotel in town, faithfully furnished with antique bureaux and marble-clad bathrooms, will transport you back to those more glamorous times when Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway and Sarah Bernhardt stalked Europe’s capitals looking for inspiration and the high life.

Indeed, Room 411 is believed to be the place where Agatha Christie wrote Murder On The Orient Express.

Sitting on your French balcony, you’ll see Istanbul’s housing skyline stretching far into the middle distance. Yet the areas of interest for tourists are relatively self-contained nearby.

Probably the best decision we made, after buying an umbrella, was investing in a tour guide. It’s no mean feat absorbing the city’s history, which stretches from the moment Roman emperor Constantine I designated it his new Christian capital in the 7th century, to the eventual fall of the Islamic Ottoman empire, while still enjoying the sights.

And a guide’s also useful for pointing out the best place to eat really nice kofte (meatballs) or lahmacun (Turkish-style thin pizza) for lunch.

For tourists who don’t want to spend all their time sightseeing, you can take in the top three sights in a day. Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman Sultans, complete with harem; the Hagia Sophia, an impressive cathedral turned mosque, before being declared a museum by Ataturk, and the Blue Mosque are all within walking distance. Very handy if you’re just there for the weekend.

Each building is a tribute to the vision of the country’s rulers, with The Blue Mosque (officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) in particular drawing the eye with its six minarets, just one less than the most prestigious mosque in Mecca.

If you’ve got more time in town, then take advantage of Istanbul’s location spanning the Bosphorus river. Along the coast on both the European and Asian sides are fishing villages boasting charming restaurants and relaxing views.

After a day of sightseeing, there’s one Turkish tradition that should definitely be adhered to. Whether you prefer to try the communal bath approach or high-end treatment, a Turkish hammam is an exquisitely quirky affair.

Halfway between a wash and a massage, depending on your budget, these traditional baths can be found all over the city.

For a personal, delicate treatment, head to the beautifully renovated Ciragan Palace.

Afterwards we dined overlooking the Bosphorus at the hotel’s Tugra restaurant, enjoying one of the most romantic locations the city has to offer.

Read more on The Hemel Today: TRAVEL: A Taste of Tradition in Old Istanbul

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