Whenever I travel to Istanbul I think of the Orient Express, even if I arrive
by way of the less romantic, but infinitely more practical Turkish Air, 10 hours
from the East Coast. I have never been on the Orient Express, but its image holds
the same sense of enigma, excitement and adventure that its Turkish terminal city
represents. Istanbul with one part in Europe and the other in Asia, has been the
crossroads of the world, the link between both continents for over four thousand
years, as well as the gateway to the vast regions of the rest of Turkey.
The country's premier metropolis is a fine starting point to begin learning about
Turkey's history of cultural, religious and political change and struggle. Before
it emerged as a modern land created by Atatürk from the debris and chaos of
World War I, it had been dominated by the Hittite, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine
and Ottoman Empires. Remnants of all these periods, and more are to be found in Istanbul.
The best way to see the city is with a guide who is well-versed in Turkish history.
Your hotel can arrange one or you can contact the Turkish Tourist Office.
Istanbul is a very large city, most of it modern. Several of the greatest artistic
and historical attractions are all within walking distance of each other in the old
section at the tip of the peninsula jutting out into the Sea of Mamara. Since the
city was founded in 667 B.C. as Byzantium, there are layers of several civilizations
in this small area.
One of the most famous shrines in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia, the Church
of the Divine Wisdom, a cavernous religious sanctuary, now a museum, representing
over two thousand years of history. Two other churches, which burned down or were
destroyed, had been on this site. One was founded by Constantine in 330 when he made
the municipality the capital of the Roman Empire and changed its name to Constantinople.
Emperor Justinian erected the present building as a church in 548 and filled it with
dazzling mosaics of Christian themes, which were added to throughout the centuries.
It was his intention that the city, with its great Divine Wisdom Church, be recognized
as the center of the Christian world. For the next 900 years, through wars and conquests
it remained one of the great Christian shrines. But in 1453, when the Moslem leader
Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, he converted it into his main mosque. The Moslem
religion forbade images and idols and by the time of Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566)
much of the Christian artwork was covered over with a thick layer of plaster, which
remained until 1934 when Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum and began
the process of uncovering its art. Now there are several partially restored very
beautiful Christian mosaics, including one of Constantine with a model of the city
and Justinian offering a prototype of the church to the Madonna and Child.
|Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
The main hall of the Hagia Sophia is dominated by four enormous round plaques
with the names of Allah, Mohammed and the first caliphs, which were hung when it
was recast into a mosque.
After a visit to the Hagia Sophia, walk a few steps to the ancient cistern, Yerebatan
Sarayi, a covered vault constructed in 532 by that creative emperor, Justinian,
as a reservoir for the city. The 336 marble columns are spaced about 15 feet from
one another and hold up the roof. They were probably taken for this purpose from
ruined pagan temples. In ancient times the water reached the top of the columns and
the populace dropped buckets into it like a well. Now fish swim in the two- to three-feet
deep water. A boardwalk winds between the columns, which are bathed with colored
lights. Soft background music is piped in. Of prominence is a mammoth sculpted marble
head of Medusa lying on its side, holding up one of the columns--perhaps a Christian
punishment for a pagan goddess. At the end of the promenade in front of the cistern's
exit is a pleasant cafe where you may wish to rest over a cup of Turkish coffee.
Nearby, and as important as the Hagia Sophia, is the famous Blue Mosque,
built in 1609 by Sultan Ahmet I to rival the Hagia Sophia as a great architectural
monument, and the principal center for Moslem religious activity. It is not a museum
like the Hagia Sophia, but is actively used for prayer. Four giant columns referred
to as "elephant legs" support the massive dome. The lower walls are covered
with thousands of white and blue tiles, hence the name "Blue Mosque."
Just north of the Blue Mosque is the famous Topkapi Palace, one of the
world's greatest museums and the seat of numerous Turkish sultans. Built between
1460 and 1839 on the site of the ancient acropolis, artifacts, weapons and historical
items of all kinds are displayed in the sprawling palace complex. The most important
attraction is the harem area with 400 rooms.
The second most visited site in Turkey is the ruins of Ephesus. From Istanbul
it is a short hop by plane to Izmir, where you can take motor transportation to the
hotels in the beautiful seaside resort of Kusadasi. A brief bus or taxi ride
then brings you to Ephesus, one of the most thoroughly excavated ancient cities in
More than 3,000 years ago the Ephesians worshipped the great mother goddess, Cybele,
who later merged with the many-breasted Greek goddess, Artemis. Under the Romans,
Ephesus flourished with international trade and had a population of over 200,000.
You can still walk down the marble-paved Sacred Way, between ancient Greek
and Roman columns. Note the extensive water and sewer system and the engineering
feat that created communal latrines. Parts of the brothel and the 25,000-seat theater
are intact. Most impressive of all, is the double-height facade of the Library
of Celsus, one of the great wonders of the ancient world. St. Paul preached here
and it is said that St. John brought the Virgin Mary to live here safely after Jesus's
crucifixion. A stone house a few miles away may have been hers, and is now tended
by a Christian order.
From the wonders of Ephesus, the road runs due east over the mountains to Pamukkale,
an automobile trip of about four hours. Pamukkale is famous for its white terraces
created by volcanic water depositing layers of calcium carbonate on the shelves of
an old marble quarry. Even from afar the traveler can glimpse the white terraces
of Pamukkale whose name translates as "cotton castle." The shining white
calcium formations (travertines) are filled with warm calcium-rich mineral water
forming shallow pools. Take off your shoes and walk the wet terraces, or better yet,
swim in a thermal pool at Turas, a local hotel, where ancient broken marble
columns line the floor. Well known for the healing properties of the mineral waters,
Pamukkale has been a popular spa throughout the ages.
The plateau on top of the travertines is littered with the ruins of Roman Hierapolis,
including a well- restored theater. Just outside Pamukkale is one of the most extensive
necropolises in Turkey, with Greek and Latin inscribed burial sarcophagi.
After Pamukkale continue south to the the country's principal holiday resort,
the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya on the Turkish Riviera. It is a
tourist center but the old section, Kaleici, with its narrow bent streets
devoted mostly to leather and jewelry shops and small hotels, retains the antiquated
ambiance. The streets there slope down the hill toward the water where a lovely marina,
restaurants and coffee houses can be found. Visit Hadrian's Gate, commemorating
the emperor's visit to the city in 130.
Going east from Antalya along the Mediterranean coast are many points of interest,
including a string of beaches stretching about 100 kilometers. Perge, 13 kilometers
from Antalya, boasts a third-century Roman theater and a stadium, which
once held 12,000 spectators who came to see the gladiator contests. Further east
is Side, another Roman town where Antony and Cleopatra reputedly pursued their dalliances.
The great white sand seashore makes it a particularly picturesque vacation spot.
Continue on to Alanya to visit the 13th-century fortress built on
a cliff on a promontory near the outskirts of town. Its stone rampart is said to
be the longest single fortified wall outside the Great Wall of China. It was constructed
to protect the naval base on the other side of the peninsula and was never conquered.
Climb to the highest point within and see the barracks and what is left of the old
Byzantine church. There is also a limestone cave in Alanya, but unless
you've never seen one it isn't worth stopping for. Skip the Buyuk Selale waterfall,
too, which seems to be a popular site, but as waterfalls go this one falls flat.
Turkey is a large country rooted in the legacy of both the Western and Eastern
worlds. For visitors, who are interested in history, a small paperback, "A Traveller's
History of Turkey" by Richard Stoneman (Interlink Books, 1998) is recommended.
As a modern country, Turkey is a rich mixture of European and Eastern cultures.
Atatürk, in his mission to bring his people into the 20th century, converted
the Arabic written language into a version of the Roman alphabet, which is helpful
to foreigners in finding their way around. English is spoken in all the tourist
areas and the people are very friendly. Prices for hotels and restaurants are
reasonable. The country has many attractions for the jaded traveler who wants
a new experience and for those who seek a deeper understanding of the rich origins
of our civilization.
A visit to Topkapi Palace illustrates how important food was in palace life. By
the 16th century hundreds of chefs, each concentrating on just one dish, cooked for
the sultans in a kitchen so big it was covered by 10 cupolas. The emphasis on specialization
contributed to the inventiveness of Turkish cuisine. Also adding to the highly evolved
and refined table is the country's rich farmland. Worldwide trade and complete control
of the spice route rounded out the heirloom recipes that are still in use today.
Turkey with one foot in the Mediterranean and the other in the East has a cuisine
that was influenced by both regions. Like Chinese food, the meals contain infinite
variety and there is a sequence in which the dishes are eaten.
Because of the great range of foods, most meals begin with meze or appetizers--cheeses,
pastries, mussels, octopus, calamari, meat balls, humus, pita, cucumbers in yogurt,
smoked fish, marinated vegetables and more.
All prepared dishes contain just one or several central ingredients and can be
grouped as follows: grain-based (rice and wheat), meats, vegetables, seafood, desserts
and beverages. The flavor of the main food is meant to dominate and, therefore, seasoning
is subtle. Herbs and spices, like cumin and garlic, are used judiciously. Olive oil
is drizzled on cold vegetables, used for grilling and turns up in just about every
appetizer and entree. Yogurt is found in many sauces.
Some of the classic dishes are kebabs, made of boiled, baked or stewed meat and
vegetables, and pilaf, which is often studded with currants and raisins. Dolmas are
vegetables or grape leaves stuffed with rice or meat. Borek is a great delicacy prepared
with dough as thin as paper and filled with cheese, spinach, meat or fish before
being baked or fried.
Baklava is the most famous of all the country's sweets. But there are at least
a dozen other desserts using nuts, sugar, flaky pastry and syrup that are just as
The flavors of a cuisine with a huge repertoire of recipes and ingredients can
not be described in a few paragraphs. Tasting Turkish food in the place where the
flag flies is the only way to savor it.
We usually advise readers to skip the awful folkloric shows that in many countries
pass for local entertainment. However, much to our surprise the one at Orient
House in Istanbul was quite amusing. A charismatic master of ceremonies presided
over a three and one-half hour show and involved the audience in singing and merriment.
Five belly dancers and a six-piece band were part of the ensemble, frequently changing
costumes to stage a country wedding and typical 19th-century dances.
The surroundings were pleasant, the dinner was satisfactory and although we can't
vouch for the authenticity of the entire performance, we can say that the belly dancing
Orient House, Tiyatro Cad. No. 27 (The President Hotelyani), Beyazit. Tel.
Orient House also operates in another location.
Kennedy Cad. Sahilyou No. 32, Ahurapi (Citadel Hotel-yani). Tel. 212-638-94-04,
Istanbul has many upscale shops with fine selections of antiques, rugs, clothing,
leather and jewelry, but most visitors gravitate to the Kapali Çarsi
(Covered Market or Grand Bazaar) where 4000 stores can be found within the several
kilometers perimeter. The bazaar is a maze of tiny streets and alleys and it is easy
to lose your way. Shopkeepers speak English and are friendly and helpful, often escorting
you to the area that you wish to peruse. Amid the jumble there is a modicum of order.
Stalls selling similar merchandise are often clustered together and many of the street
names refer to the goods that are offered in that section. Even if you don't plan
to part with a lira, one of the great experiences in Istanbul is to revel in the
atmosphere of the Kapali Çarsi. Merchants scurry about fetching brass trays
full of small cups of tea for their potential customers, particularly those considering
carpets. Expect a hard sell when looking at rugs. No one needs to be told that bargaining
over price is standard procedure and that half off the original starting point on
most items seems to be the place to settle.
|The Covered Bazaar, Istanbul (Credit: Edwin Fancher)
The most intrepid of shoppers can not possibly cover more than a small part of
the Grand Bazaar so the suggestions that we offer can only point to a very few stores
that from personal experience we believe have superior wares. Open daily except Sunday
from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Beceren, Ortakazazlar Street 8-10. Tel. 212-522-90-84. Of two dozen handbag
shops that we looked in on, this was the only one stocking excellent quality and
Dogan Bilgili, Takkeciler Sok. No. 93-95. Tel. 212-527-63-59. Beautiful high
fashion leather jackets and suede shirts for men.
Tusba Bazaar, Takkeciler Sok. No. 38-40-42. Tel. 212-526-98-82. Artful Oriental
carpets. Check out the neigh-boring stalls, too.
Bazaar 64, Kalpakçilar No. 64. Tel. 212-512-63-15. Turquoise, amber,
silver, gold and ethnic jewelry.
Peker, Kal-pakçilar Cad. 101. Tel. 212-527-78-31. Gold jewelry in unusual
In Antalya the bazaar is in Kaleiçi, the quaint old section where
the twisted lanes are lined with a mix of 19th-century commercial and residential
properties. Many of the items for sale are not worth toting home. Open seven days.
Two of the better emporiums are:
Rose Leder, Iskele Cad. No. 20. Tel. 242-241-48-79. Wearable art in modern
designs. Mirolike images are hand painted on leather jackets, handbags, knapsacks,
attaché cases, wallets and other small items.
Nova, Uzunçarsi Sk. No. 3. Tel 242-247-64-01. A three-story mini-department
store for jewelry and leather goods. Mixed quality.
Some hotels have character and reflect the city they serve. In Istanbul one would
imagine an overwhelming number of hostelries that bespeak mystery and intrigue. Peruse
the descriptions of some of the town's luxury and first-class hotels and you will
find that more than a few are indistinguishable from one another, making it difficult
to decide where to bed down. The most popular accommodations--Americans scramble
to reserve them--are the deluxe Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski,
Four Seasons in the heart of the old city and the Istanbul Hilton. All
of them mirror their architectural environs. The Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski,
located on the banks of the Bosporus on the European side of town, is linked by arcades
to the 19th-century residence where the last Ottoman Empire sultans lived. As posh
as its name suggests, twelve of the suites are in the old palace. The two-year old
Four Seasons hotel, now designated a historic treasure, was ingeniously created from
a last century neoclassical prison. Although it lacks a swimming pool, the 65 rooms
and suites are centered around a beautifully landscaped courtyard with a colorful
mix of tiles, marble, greenery and birdcages. Almost all of the rooms have views
of the nearby Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar are
only a short distance away. Recently the resort-style Istanbul Hilton, with 13 acres
of gardens, was totally renovated and remains a popular choice, despite its age.
For an account, see the spring, 1994 issue.
The lobby is sweeping and palazzolike, and the design of the Conrad International
Istanbul, under the same management as the Hilton, is contemporary. Stay on an
executive floor and enjoy a complimentary breakfast on the outdoor balcony or have
a drink on the house in the Summit Bar at cocktail time.
Certain Turkish hotels, classified as five-star, are not quite in that luxury
category. Although acceptable and comfortable, U.S. tourists are likely to think
of them as four-star because they lack amenities, such as turn down service, two
of each size towel per person, washcloths, clocks and in-room safes. The Marmara,
a high-rise with over 400 large and pleasantly decorated rooms and a Taksim Square
address, is an illustration. The hotel is on the tallest of the city's seven hills
and has spectacular views stretching from the Bosporus to Seraglio Point and from
the Golden Horn to the Marmara Sea. From the Panorama restaurant and Tepe bar atop
the building there is a 360 degree view of Istanbul. Perhaps the Turkish bath is
not as ornate as in some other hotels. It, along with the outdoor swimming pool,
is more than adequate. Meals in the Panorama and Brasserie are expensive. The generous
buffet breakfast, included in the price of the room, is high quality.
Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, Çiragan Cad., Besiktas, 80700.
Tel. 800-426-3135, 258 33 77. Rates start at $230. www.ciragan-palace.com
Four Seasons, Tevkifhane Sok. 1, Sultanahmet, 34490. Tel. 800-332-3442,
638 82 00. Rates start at $240. www.fourseasons.com
Istanbul Hilton, Cumhuriyet Cad., Harbiye, 80200. Tel. 800-445-8667, 231
46 50. Rates start at $225. www.hilton.com/en/hi/hotels/index.jhtml?ctyhocn=ISTHITW
Conrad International Istanbul, Yildiz Cad., Besiktas, 80700. Tel. 800-445-8667,
227 30 00. Rates start at $220. www.conradhotels.com
The Marmara, Taksim Square 80090. Tel. 800-547-1211, 251 46 96, Rates start
at $175. www.themarmara.com.tr
Modern hotel complexes catering to package tours consume the coast of Kusadasi,
a stunning resort on the Aegean and the base for excursions to Ephesus. Korumar,
on the outskirts of town, is positioned in a magnificent setting and has impressive
views of the Aegean. Beaches in the area are scarce and, therefore, the hotels that
line the shore have very large pools. Because a sea wall constructed from rocks and
built at the hotel's edge forms an enclosed circular pool, you can swim in salt water
The rooms are small but they all have balconies. The ones at the back look out
on a road. However, you can't beat the location and price, which as in many Turkish
hotels includes an appealing and hearty buffet breakfast.
Korumar, Kusadasi. Tel. 90-256-614-82-43. Rates start at $140. www.korumar.com.tr
Like the Korumar, which also bills itself as five-star, the Spa Hotel Colassae
Thermal in Pamukkale is a notch below in room decor and amenities. Its spa services
are extensive and first-rate. All guests have the use of the thermal center, including
an oversized pool with soothing mineral water, underwater jets and waterfalls as
well as a Turkish bath and Jacuzzi. The list of therapeutic treatments in the health
center, which is overseen by a medical doctor, is as long as a menu in a Chinese
restaurant. A gym and a Clarins salon offering body and facial care are also on premises.
Facilities are spotlessly clean and modern. Many guests who come here elect a complete
one- or two-week program. Those who are in the area to sightsee can schedule individual
sessions for massage, fango and so forth.
Because the hotel hosts large bus tours, breakfast and dinner buffets are de rigueur.
The food was less than mediocre, but at a rate of $120 per day for two with meals
and some terrific benefits, why complain.
Spa Hotel Colossae Thermal. Karahayit - Pamukkale, Denizli. Tel. 90-258-271-4156.
With over 250 days of sunshine each year, the city of Antalya with its natural
beauty is the most important center on the southern coast. Just as in any seaside
resort, location is a prime consideration when choosing a hotel. The Talya Antalya,
situated on a cliff top with striking views of the Bey Mountains and the Mediterranean,
is in the heart of town and lives up to its designation as a five-star hostelry.
To swim in the ocean you descend a steep ladder anchored to the side of the rocks
at the far end of the hotel. For those who are fainter of heart there is a private
beach at the edge of the blue water and an inviting pool.
The fitness center is the most attractive one we came across in Turkey. As you
step through the door there is an immediate sense of place. The wooden walls of the
octagonally-shaped rest area are carved Middle Eastern-style arches and lined with
colorfully cushioned benches. The Turkish bath is a handsome one and the gym is never
too crowded to oblige one more guest wishing to work out. The rooms, which are large
and modern and include the right amenities, have balconies overlooking the spectacular
scenery. The meals that we ate here were again buffets, but of a quality that was
superior to many of the other hotel dining rooms. At dinner selections changed daily
and the variety was enough to satisfy anyone's taste. You can also eat outdoors on
the long terrace.
Talya Antalya, Fevzi Çakmak Cad. No. 30 07100. Tel. 90-242-248-68-00.
The setting is majestic. You can imagine the pashas dining at the Tugra
restaurant in the Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski. And, indeed, in the 17th,
18th and 19th centuries they often were entertained here since the hotel's premier
restaurant is housed in the restored former palace section of the complex. The lofty
dining room is glorious, but from May through September we'd opt to take our dinner
on the marble terrace with its fluted pillars overlooking the promenade that parallels
the dark mysterious Bosporus illuminated only by the moon and dim lights from a few
boats. Four young women in flowing black frocks play classical Turkish music; the
soft melodies float out into the open air.
On the menu that looks like an ancient art book and has parchment pages covered
in Ottoman designs, dishes that were translated from historical recipes are marked
by a sultan's picture. The selection of meze was so abundant that it was difficult
to choose, but we found two unfamiliar ones--lamb liver cubes and air dried beef--to
our liking. Entrees include lamb and poultry cooked three ways; fish and beef are
prepared using four different methods. Among the array of sweets was a traditional
chicken breast pudding. We were told that we wouldn't taste the chicken and to our
astonishment, we didn't.
Tugra, Çiragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, Çiragan, Cad 84, Besiktas.
Tel. 212 258 3377. Open for dinner only, seven nights. Expensive. www.ciragan-palace.com
The hundred-year-old Konyali restaurant, located on the terrace of Topkapi
Palace in Medcidiye Kiosk, a 19th-century rococo building with commanding views of
the Bosporus, bases some of its dishes on original recipes from the sultan's kitchen.
Konyali, Topkapi Sarayi Muzesi, Sultanahmet. Tel. 212 513 9696. Open for
lunch only. Closed Tuesday. Expensive.