By Pamela L. Berman
(Continued from Part 1…)
In the spacious dining enclave, with its view of the Bosphorus (with dining also available on the terrace where we had first seen those bright awnings from the water), we perused the international menu of the Gazebo Lounge. My brother and I each ordered pizza – mine Italian, his Turkish with ground meats and spices – and our mother ordered one of our favorite Thai dishes: Tom Kha Gai – a tangy coconut milk and chicken soup flavored with galangal and lemongrass, and served with jasmine rice.
Unfortunately, this rendition was beyond salty. My mother simply could not eat it. We mentioned it to the Maître d’, and the next thing we knew, the chef came flying out, apologized profusely, and proceeded to discuss the soup with us for what seemed like ten minutes. He insisted on taking it back and remaking it, which he did. Out it came once more, only slightly less salty but still not truly inviting. My mother, however, was prepared to make do, until the Maître d’ inquired once again. Without hesitation, he apologized so sincerely, whisked it away, brought her a newly chosen substitute and refused to charge for her meal. And though we were full, he insisted on presenting us with an array of desserts. Now that’s fine service.
Afterwards, the lobby was still jumping and festive during the start of what was the annual, national Turkish religious holiday called Kurban Bayram (a feast of sacrifice involving the slaughter of a lamb or sheep, with a portion of each animal being shared with other families less fortunate), and which attracts guests to the hotel (and all of Istanbul) from throughout Turkey and the Middle East. Indeed, there amongst Islamic gentlemen, giddy children, and women in black robes (some in full veil) or stylish Islamic attire, one was lured to the marble “welcome table” with its large marble replica of the Palace door, in the center of the lobby. Dotted with ornate silver dishes and serving utensils, offering Turkish sweets and candies – and the real Turkish Delight known as Lokum (that jellied fruit candy in flavors such as rose, mint, lavender, and lemon, and sometimes with pistachios, hazel nuts and almonds, dusted with powdered sugar) – to the hotel guests in celebration. Festively, other guests and I took turns serving each other from every vessel. It was all very convivial.
Before our energies flagged, we took a languid stroll around the hotel.
The colors of the carpets, and corresponding objects d’art were what enthralled us. I had already seen in a Kuşadası ceramics factory the prevailing, traditional design patterns of deep red paired with dark blue along with what I can only describe as periwinkle mixed with Wedgewood. The colors are so stunning when melded together, that I immediately wanted to rush out, purchase everything in sight, and redo my apartment in the same hues and patterns. And maybe I will!
And the way the Çırağan has decorated so many of the hallways is just so visually arresting and refreshing. Framed paintings hanging on the walls are themselves framed inside glassless frames suspended from the ceilings. Art within art within art!
Indeed, so richly appointed, yet thoroughly modern, the Çırağn designs reference its storied history as the palace of several generations of Ottoman sultans, and infuses it with gracious Kempinski German, Swiss, and now Thai hotelier expertise.
The hotel literature tells us that the Çırağan is “The Only Imperial Palace & Hotel by the Bosphorus.” As with many luxuries, location is, indeed, everything, and this location has been prized for centuries. Situated on the European shore of the Bosphorus, between Beşiktaş and Ortaköy, in close proximity and driving distance to the business district, and all the important historic and cultural sites, including Taksim Square and the Old City (Sultanahmet), the Palace took life and shape over many previous incarnations. With its beautiful gardens and adjacent park and woods, the Palace was built and torn down and built again by various Pashas and Sultans until Sultan Abdülâziz began the construction on what would become the current Palace in 1863, taking almost nine years to complete, only to die a few years later.
The Sultan ensured that it was built of the finest materials… stone, marble, mother of pearl, and gilding from around the world. After his death, it again passed through the hands of relatives and royals, along with changing governments and fortunes, and was entirely destroyed by a fire in 1910, leaving only the stone shell. Once more, the Palace was adrift for many years, even becoming a dumping ground for sand and the football field for a local soccer team. Until a Japanese corporation purchased it in 1989, renovated the Palace and built the hotel complex, as well.
In 1990, the complex opened as the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, and was finally refurbished and restored to its former Ottoman glory in 2007. Kempinski, the oldest luxury hotel group in Europe, founded in 1897, painstakingly reconstructed the Palace piece by piece, from drawings and photographs, and even chunks of the original stone and marble found on the grounds. With Kempinski’s dedication to service and style, the Çırağan Palace is once again a building of magnificent stature, standing as a testament to time, perseverance, and cultural cooperation.
And so, we continued to wander through the arcades off the lobby, where shops were selling exquisite Turkish carpets (now these were the real deal), chic jewelry, fine art and antiques and more. We poked our heads into the Çırağan Bar, where a Turkish singer was channeling Ella Fitzgerald. We stopped to see Le Fumoir, the airily enclosed (open air in summer) cocktail and cigar bar, warmed by a dancing fire. We gazed out at the lawn and water, the firelight reflected in the glassware and enclosures. It was so beautiful but it was getting late and time for bed, as we would have several more early mornings and long days of sightseeing ahead of us.
On our way to the elevator, we stopped off at the Business Center to check e-mails, where the wonderfully efficient and charming Ms. Emel Todurga would become our “personal assistant” over the next few days, helping us manage and share photos and files. The “switchboard” counterpart to Gizem, Emel was a whiz on the computer, and the procurer of all blessings with wake-up calls, requests to housekeeping, and so on. Her gentlemen colleagues were also very helpful, and this was clearly a cheerful group who manned the phones and were the evening hub of the hotel. At one point, I heard one of the staff saying on the phone, “Yes, Your Highness. Yes, Your Highness. Yes, Your Highness. Very good, Your Highness.”
I didn’t ask which “Highness,” but the next day, the official greeters from the front office were standing at the ready with fresh orange juice and individual bouquets of flowers. What was happening, I inquired? The wives of a sheik were arriving soon, and this thoughtful husband had personally requested juice and flowers to welcome them from their journey. I wondered, momentarily, if I might have a word with the head wife as to any vacancies.
But before retiring that night, I called down for a wake-up call, and was greeted with a question I had never before been asked at any of the numerous fine hotels at which I have stayed. “Would you like tea or coffee with your wake-up call?” Yes, please, tea! Another delightful touch and thoughtful detail.
The next morning, while the hour was fairly ungodly, the hot tea and international newspapers were a great way to ease into the day before heading to breakfast.
On our way down, the front desk staff immediately greeted us by name. How could they possibly know or remember us already? But they did. Once again, details… And speaking of …
Let me tell you – breakfast at the Çırağan is something to behold. Hosted in the Laledan restaurant off the lobby, the sun streaming in from three sides, a buffet the likes of which we had never seen anywhere, unfolded as far as the eyes could wander. We had never, ever seen so many choices, tables, and food stations in any hotel, restaurant, or cruise ship on all our travels. It would have taken a week to eat one’s way through everything.
Racks of large iced beakers of myriad fresh juices. And trays of all kinds of fresh breads and pastries, every kind of fresh and “prepared” and dried fruits imaginable, cold and hot cereals and granolas, different varieties of fish and seafood and sushi. And a dozen, maybe two-dozen platters of salad fixings and varieties of lettuce and fresh and cooked vegetables, including my own favorite fresh artichoke hearts. Prepared salads, stuffed grape leaves, hummus and spreads and dips. So many Turkish and Middle Eastern prepared dishes, both hot and cold. Eggs Benedict (made with Turkey bacon, in compliance with the dictates of Islam), scrambled eggs, with more turkey bacon and turkey sausages, and a fresh omelet station with made-to-order eggs of all kinds. Waffles and pancakes and French toast. Cheeses from around the world. Desserts and sweets, especially the delicious Turkish ones with so many kinds of baklava and little crêpes stuffed with sweet milk-crème fillings, some I am told, using chicken in the ingredients!
My favorite of all? The large block of raw honeycomb, which could be cut and eaten as is. With a real, actual honeybee buzzing protectively around its handiwork! What, but a palace built for Sultans, would have its own “house bee?” Indeed, who but the Çırağan would think of this? It was amazing and wonderful and, needless to say, we looked forward to breakfast everyday.
So from this endless cocoon of comfort and style … rather reluctant, really, to leave this haven for mere sightseeing … we nonetheless spent another few days taking in as much of Istanbul as we could. With our knowledgeable guide, we braved holiday crowds and lines the likes of which we never expected. All of the country seemed to be there, as eager as we to explore their national monuments and treasures.
(To be concluded in February…)
Please check back for Part 3 soon!
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