Having worshiped at the temple of travel since I was a restless child in Indiana (the travel bug instilled in my brothers and me by our equally peripatetic parents, grandparents, great- and great-great!) – I have discovered that while heaven can come in many forms on this earth, for me it has always been a great hotel in an exotic city.
So for this particular adventure, and upon the recommendations of other family and friends, my mother, brother and I set out to fulfill a long-held wish of our mother’s – to experience together the acclaimed Çırağan Palace Hotel and the splendors of Istanbul.
And though this story should rightfully begin with our journey first to Athens (where high atop the Acropolis we marvelled, indeed, at “the glory that is Greece”), our subsequent sea cruise and tours of the Greek Islands, Cyprus, Israel, Kusadasi and Ephesus, Turkey – all worthy of articles of their own – I am going to beg forgiveness of the travel gods and cut straight to the sage advice that, “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”
So on to the addictive baklava that is Istanbul. Like the pastry itself – arguably the best in the world made in Turkey – Istanbul is a many-layered and labor-intensive delicacy.
Steeped in a rich, long, challenging history, blending cultures and seemingly effortlessly managing to wed the old with the new, our first glimpse of Istanbul came as it should … as it has for travellers throughout the centuries: by sea. From hearing the magnified sounds of the calls to Islamic prayer and seeing the numerous minarets and domes that dot the horizon, to the architectural delights of its modern bridges which connect a city that straddles two continents, we arrived after having sailed past ancient cites and ancient wonders, past Troy and the tragic Gallipoli, via the rolling beneficence of the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosphorus Strait.
Even more fittingly, we began our real introduction to the city later that day on a private tour boat of the Bosphorus. Floating past hotels, government buildings and stately homes, on both the European and Asian sides, watching people strolling along the banks and the busy streets beyond, and with scores of amateur fishermen casting lines into the depths, we were entranced by this modern yet mysterious landscape that is Istanbul.
And there on deck, as we sipped from delicate glasses of hot, sweet Turkish tea in the brisk autumn weather, the Çırağan Palace Hotel materialized before our eyes like an Ottoman Venus rising from the sea. The Palace to the left (at over 400 meters wide), the additional hotel wing to the right, its three, stepped, sky blue pools and outdoor cafe with pristine awnings, the ornate and imposing Sea Gate accessible and inviting from the waterfront, led the eye across the grounds and broad expanse of palm trees and deep emerald lawn – even in chilly November. Perfectly framing this E-shaped complex, the whole tableau rendered for us a tantalizing glimpse of the luxury within.
The next morning, we bid our cruise ship and new friends farewell, piled our luggage high into our van, and set out to explore the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market with our private guide Linda and driver. There we passed through the ancient stone entrance, where throngs of people shopped purposefully, congregating and winding their way through the myriad stalls before a long holiday would begin at sundown. The crowds were overwhelming, but exciting too, as the atmosphere was all color and life. We shopped for cashmere pashminas (and fell in love with whisper-thin, reversible shawls, with each side more exquisite than the other), silk scarves, leathers and suedes, spices and sweets and incense and oils. We were accosted by every carpet merchant claiming to have the only authentic carpets in Turkey, drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, and by late afternoon we had had enough of the teeming souks and finally made our way slowly to our hotel, through the great big traffic crawl that is this metropolis.
Fortunately, sanctuary waited. We arrived and were welcomed by a handsome doorman – a distinguished gentleman in full red, gold and black regalia who escorted us through the doors (and whose uniform insignia introduced us to the stylized Sultan’s flower that is the Çırağan logo).
And let me tell you, once inside the Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, you are in.
A home away from home to presidents and prime ministers, oil magnates and potentates, celebrities and the high profile from all walks – the Çırağan hosts 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel and 11 suites in the Palace.
Grand doesn’t quite cut it. Magnificent doesn’t do it justice. Charming – well yes. Beautiful – most definitely. Spacious and airy and light-filled and serene and regal – perhaps – can only begin to describe this favored respite to discerning travellers from around the globe. (Tellingly, Çırağan – pronounced “Cheer-on” – is derived from the Persian word for “light,” as torchlight festivals were a favorite of Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha of Nevsehir, who built the first Çırağan in 1719 and enjoyed holding “Çırağan Festivals” – i.e., “Light Festivals” on the grounds.)
From its soaring lobby to hallways as wide as boulevards, its fine Turkish carpets set into inlaid, polished hardwood floors, the Çırağan is a visual banquet, a sumptuous feast of Turkish color, architectural detail and Ottoman tradition, along with youthful and cheerful service from the moment one arrives.
Indeed, rather than checking in at the front desk, we were immediately greeted by a member of the Guest Relations staff, one of several who stand in the lobby in their deep red uniforms of jackets and skirts and black pumps, at the ready to shepherd guests quickly and graciously through the formalities.
The delightful Ms. Gizem Ulusan would become our guide and “Go To” person many times during our stay. We listened attentively as Gizem showed us how to work the television, the phones, and all the comforts of the room (e.g., how to request pillows from the “pillow menu” – all the types and densities offered for one’s sleep experience), delineated the numerous gadget-y looking knobs and levers on the blue-curtained, high-tech bathtub and shower (momentarily making us wonder whether we needed an advanced degree to operate this thoroughly modern fixture. Fortunately, we got the hang of it quickly), the Molton Brown toiletries, the mini-bar, electrical outlets, and so on. She was very thorough.
The show and tell complete, our paperwork expedited in the civilized gentility of our room, my brother went off to his own stately room for his check-in session, and my mother and I settled into our Grand Deluxe accommodation with it’s panoramic view of the Bosphorus, and which surely could have slept five.
Stepping out onto the balcony, we were immediately transfixed by the evening show of lights. From the Bosphorus Bridge to our left, with its colorful, changing light displays to the Golden Horn off to the right and illuminated mosques on the hill in the distance – and the wondrously lit grounds below – we watched the twinkling tour and merchant boats drift by, and could have easily remained mesmerized all night.
Soon there was a knock at the door, and the night houseman came in for “turn down” service. Watching him go through his ceremonial and practiced routine – clearly, it is all about the details at the Çırağan – he arranged each fold of the long deep Cerulean blue drapes to rest on the floor in the same direction, making sure they were equally spaced along the way. And placed our slippers by our beds – carefully angling them “just so” on the soft linen foot cloths. Mainly, though, it was the first time in any fine hotel I had seen standard white terry cloth slippers actually sized for a woman’s foot, rather than the enormous “clown shoes” usually on offer. (My brother’s turn down service, we would later see, included a pair of larger men’s slippers in black angled “exactly so” by the side of his own bed. First time I’d ever seen black terry hotel slippers, too. Such a good idea – why never before? I had to wonder. Very chic and an excellent touch!)
The houseman then placed, atop a polished dark wood dresser, fresh ice in a silver bucket on an ornate tray in our private hallway, which included water and wine glasses and a flower in a vase, and made sure we had ample, soft white Turkish towels, and said goodnight. Back we went to our living area to sample what the hotel calls “amenities”: a bottle of wine to welcome us, fresh and dried fruits, pistachio nuts, and tasty bites of sweets and savories, all so very artfully arranged, and which would be replenished each night with new tastes and temptations. It was lovely.
We sat a moment and took in more details – the comfortable sofa and chairs (all in various shades of blue – the family color!), the stately desk and accessories, the thoughtful little guide to Istanbul and a helpful bound history of the hotel, the inviting fine linens and comforters, and bottles of water strategically placed around the room and bathroom, with their own etched brass holders adding a welcome touch of Turkish Oriental to the décor.
We hated to drag ourselves away, but we had nevertheless worked up an appetite during our shopping at the bazaars, so down we went to the Gazebo Lounge off the lobby to have dinner…
(To be continued…)
Please check back for Parts 2 and 3 over the next few weeks!
Ah, well, I guess we have to look at it this way… Dessert may be the way to go, but when it comes to the real sweetness of life … travels and memories are best savored slowly.
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