Focus: The Ritz Carlton Hotel, Istanbul
Contrary to perceived wisdom, the breakfast beverage of choice in Istanbul isn’t the thick, heart-palpitation-causing coffee this city is famous for, but instead clear, dark tea, served in elegant tulip-shaped glasses.
The locals are mad for tea, cultivated in Turkey’s Black sea region to meet the huge domestic demand. I’d never before seen these simple, elegant glasses, but they were to become of my daily life in Turkey.
Turkish Airlines Hub
I had arrived from Malaga on a direct Turkish Airlines flight, on my way down to the Turkish Riviera. Of course, a stay in Istanbul is a requisite and I was eager for a refreshing, rejuvenating drink, and tea was suggested.
My base for exploring the city was the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel. From the outside, the hotel looks a little uninspiring; a modern, glass building that is shared with businesses on its lower floors. Yet, thanks to their elevated position, the guest rooms offer views across the city and the Bosphorus, a luxury in a city that seems to be getting more crowded by the day.
Istanbul, although not the political capital of Turkey, is certainly the country’s largest city with some 15 million inhabitants, and is Turkey’s economic and cultural powerhouse. Recent anti-government demonstrations in June resulted in tragic deaths and the city being thrown into the 24 hour-news spotlight. Thankfully, the city has now regained its live-and-let-live composure, and the area around Taksim Square has returned closer to normal.
The Ritz Carlton Tower
From the high floors of the Ritz Carlton, the quintessential Eastern minarets of the city’s historic mosques in the Sultanahmet district dominate the view. Although the old town area is the centre of the tourist industry, it’s really worth exploring beyond, into the more eclectic districts. ‘Beyoğlu’, for example, on the European side of the city, separated from old town by the Golden Horn waterway, is the young and innovative area. It has distant quarters, including Tünel, and Karaköy which includes the increasingly fashionable Galata. Amongst the cobbled streets of loft units and period buildings are coffee shops, cafés, bars, restaurants and late night venues where there are more residents than tourists. People are warm, friendly and talkative, eager to share the best of their city. With its boutiques and galleries that sell works from emerging Turkish artists, and the street art and graffiti, the area has a distinctly urban, creative buzz.
This is a good place to eat whatever your budget, from simple bars to more posh places like ‘Meze by Lemon Tree’, which offers modern interpretations of classic meze, the Turkish equivalent to tapas.
Head down from the historic Galata Tower, cross the Galata Bridge and one arrives at the ferry terminal. It’s true to say that to get a real perspective of Istanbul, it has to be from the water. There are a host of visitor boats trips to choose from, and standing between the many street vendors selling grilled or poached corn on the cob, there are plenty of touts willing to sell a ticket. But an alternative is to take one of the vintage commuter ferries across to the eastern part of the city, the Asian side. The ticket machines are a little hard to understand at first, but the ticket office will help and once on board one sees those postcard scenes of the city.
The city is vast, and before long one can have walked kilometres without even knowing it. So the sanctuary of your hotel room provides a welcome respite to the energy of Istanbul.
Ritz Carlton Guest Rooms
The Ritz Carlton’s 244 guest rooms are defined by attention to detail. In the entrance hall is an elegant console table, upon which is an Illy coffee ‘Francis Francis’ machine, beside which sits a hardwood box, containing two porcelain espresso cups, sugar and of course Illy espresso pods. This is a classy touch conceived by the hotel’s Italian general manager, Max Zanardi. On the writing desk was a glass vase, filled with a chocolate cone overflowing with Turkish delights, chocolates and other treats, made from icing printed with an edible picture montage taken from my website – a really thoughtful, creative touch that made me feel very welcome. Although the rooms have the signature Ritz Carlton design, there are subtle Turkish touches, such as artisan Turkish tiles in the bathroom.
Ritz Carlton Spa
The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Istanbul has the only city spa that includes a rooftop spa area. So as you are pampered with the Turkish hamam inspired treatments or take a swim in the pool you can also soak up an unforgettable view of the Bosphorus and the minarets of old town. In fact the Ritz Carlton Spa also has an indoor pool, sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, authentic Turkish Hamam, fitness centre and nine spa treatment rooms.
Spa culture is nothing new to the Turks and a traditional hamam is an essential part of the Istanbul experience, and there are baths in every neighbourhood, so if you want a more traditional experience, step inside!
A visit to the city’s Sultanahmet district, the Old Town, although very ‘touristy’, is a requisite. The area is chockfull of ancient buildings from the middle ages and more recent Ottoman Palaces, each giving some clues about the city’s past as Byzantium and Constantinople. However at times it feels like one is walking through a historical theme park, so skip the leisurely hotel breakfast and head out early in the morning to avoid the crowds. The area is served by buses and an-easy-to-navigate tram service, but most of the main highlights are within walking distance.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), with its distinctive six towering minarets, attracts the most visitors, and is still used as a place of worship, so visits fit in around the regular prayer times. As is customary, one has to dress conservatively and take off shoes before entering. Sit on the carpeted floor and look up, and take in the vast array of pastel blue ceramic detailing of the interior.
Opposite is the Hagia Sophia museum, a 6th Century Roman Christian Basilica, that later became a mosque in the 15th century. It is one of the most extraordinary buildings architecturally and culturally, and now, as a secular museum, it celebrates both faiths.
Below the streets of Sultanahmet is another sight to tick off; it is the Basilica Cistern. This is giant cistern built in the 6th century to store water in the event of a city siege. Now an elevated walkway above the remaining water allows a privileged view of the huge columned space.
A visit to old town is demanding – I am not a great fan of sight-seeing, so I was glad to be back at the hotel, chilling in the Ritz Carlton’s ‘Living Lounge’ – a club feel space, with comfy, welcoming leather chairs and sofas; a great place to take another tea!
Of course, despite all the refreshing tea I was drinking in Istanbul, I also tried the ubiquitous Turkish coffee. The best I tried was in Café Fes, in the Grand Bazaar. This vast covered market is an unexpected treat. It’s not a chaotic or disorganised frenzy like a North African souk; instead it is an immaculately presented covered market of small retailers. Amongst the shops are cafés and bars including the Fes Café that presents its Turkish coffee on a silver tray, accompanied with a shot of delicious almond liqueur, a handmade Turkish delight and a class of fresh water. It is one of the best ways to be introduced to this thick and strong drink where you taste and feel the texture of the ground coffee beans.
To satisfy an appetite for exotic eastern products, visit the Egyptian Bazaar, or spice bazaar as it is also known. This is as much a working retail centre as it is a city attraction, offering striking and vibrant scenes of spices piled high; extravagant handmade Turkish delight and displays of colourful Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods.
With the opening of the 13th Istanbul Biennial of Contemporary Art in September and the celebrations marking the 90th Anniversary of the Turkish Republic in October, autumn 2013 might just be a great time to visit Istanbul after all.
(I was a guest of Ritz Carlton Hotels and Turkish Airlines).
Ritz Carlton Hotel www.ritzcarlton.com
Turkish Airlines www.turkishairlines.com/