(Continued from Part 2…)
We saw so much – the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and its jewels, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern (a magical underground world that stored water for the ancient city, supported by 336 Ionic, Corinthian and Doric marble columns, and where my brother and I indulged in a cheesy “costume” photo of the two of us as Sultan and Sultana).
We toured more mosques and churches and synagogues. We visited shopping streets and stores. We visited the Pera Palace Hotel, restored to its Victorian finest, to see where Agatha Christie called home during her many visits to Istanbul. Indeed, though her room was occupied, the charming front desk agent took us instead to Greta Garbo’s room, where I sat on the divan and “vanted to be alone.” Riding up in the “second oldest elevator in Europe” (the first being in the Eiffel Tower), sitting on the silk seat as heaven forbid we should stand, we were transported through history and the halls of Hercule Poirot.
We visited the Ortaköy district (deriving its name from once having been “the village in the middle”), now home to a revitalized arts culture full of bistros and galleries and boutiques. Plus, we indulged in what were enticing-looking, actually awful-tasting, baked potatoes the size of tugboats (with dozens of unusual toppings, like green olives and peppers and other pickled things, amidst the traditional butter and sour cream), and came back later in the evening to eat at the trendy House Café.
Suggested by an American friend and confirmed by the Çırağan concierge, we also travelled by taxi one evening to the area called Levent, to a celebrated kebab (or “Kebap” in Turkish) restaurant called Kosebasi. With the help of our server Cafer, who chatted with us and ordered for us, we had a delicious meal of Turkish specialties: Lamb, minced meat mixed with herbs, chicken Kebaps, salads and spicy dips. My mother pronounced her lamb chops the best and most tender she had ever eaten. As a lifelong great cook herself, that was saying something.
And then – contrary to the advice quoted at the very beginning of this journey – I saved this dessert for last.
I had one culinary pursuit at the top of my agenda when I arrived in Istanbul: Karaköy Güllüoğlu, I had been told, is perhaps the best and most famous purveyor of baklava in the world, since 1871. We made a pilgrimage for me to the restaurant located in the Karaköy area, where I viewed variety after variety and chose my selections carefully. Upon leaving, I inquired if the owner was there and I was promptly introduced. I had been on a quest, I told Mr. Nadir Güllü, since arriving in Europe via Athens and the Greek Islands, to find the best baklava! A Turkish waiter on our ship had definitively declared that the best of all was to be found in Turkey – right in Istanbul at this very establishment.
Mr. Güllü beamed, and the next thing I knew, I was invited to a table with this gentleman, several of his friends, and the manager who translated. A tray of fresh baklava was summoned, and I was offered a sampling with a flourish, first being asked to lift up the top pastry, something I had never before been instructed to do. The whole top crust should come off like a hat, despite all the many layers. It should be light, not soggy, and light this was. Then, a crème fraîche was dolloped onto the delicately sweet, nutty mixture, the top resealed, and I was told to pop exactly half into my mouth, let the flavors slowly reach all my taste buds, for the most authentic experience.
OMG. Perfectly sweet with just enough honey, the walnuts crunchy but smooth, the pastry flaky and not sodden – this was worth the wait.
Honestly, this is the reason one travels to different cultures – to broaden one’s horizons and every one of our senses. Even in this multi-cultural day and age – and especially in New York, where one can become familiar with so many international cultures and cuisines – it is still the “sweet” unexpected, the authentic twist on an old favorite, shared with newfound friends, that so delights the imagination and feeds the memory.
Mr. Güllü presented me with several little gift boxes of individual pieces, adorned with American and Turkish flags, and I left barely able to control wanting to dig into these fabulous treats straight away. But I successfully paced myself over the next few days, so that I could make every morsel last as long as possible.
And on our last day at the Çırağan, we rested. That is, we wandered around on our own, and ran into the oh-so-chic hotel manager, Ms. Andrea Muegge, who was making rounds and surveying the morning scene. I mentioned that my first Kempinski experience had been the Bristol Kempinski in Berlin, from where I could hear artillery detonating somewhere beyond Checkpoint Charlie, just a short time before “détente” would reunite East and West. On another grand family tour, four of us that time had also enjoyed our stay at the Baltschug Kempinksi Moscow. So we were quite familiar with Kempinski service.
Ms. Muegge graciously invited us to see the Palace itself and made an appointment for our personal tour. The ever-versatile Gizem was, once again, our guide. She accompanied us from the hotel through the long white marble passageway (along which glass display cases and framed photos and written histories tell the story of the buildings and the succession of Sultans), where we were met by a Palace manager who took over with the ins and outs and facts about this gorgeously restored, last Ottoman palace.
The Palace houses the largest suites, usually home to dignitaries and heads of state. President Obama, we had been told, had visited not long ago. Consisting, as mentioned, of 11 suites of one-, two-, and three-bedroom “apartments,” the Palace also hosts the award-winning Tuğra restaurant, which serves fine Turkish and Ottoman fare. One can see why the entire palace and hotel complex is a favored venue for high-profile weddings, arts and cultural happenings, special events and conferences.
The grand Sultan Suite is the ultimate in luxury and size. It’s really a large apartment, with living and dining areas, bedrooms, a partial kitchen, state-of-the-art electronics, and luxurious bathrooms with fabulous baths and showers. The Master Bath is fitted with solid gold faucets, and all the suites feature all the up-to-the-minute modern conveniences one can imagine. Many of the suites are duplexes with staircases and second floors. One bathroom, complete with old-fashioned tub, had a view of the Bosphorus and grounds that would be grounds for never leaving.
The Palace splendidly retains its Ottoman ambience, with original architectural details, art and furniture. I admired several of the paintings, which Gizem explained had been created using an old Turkish technique, involving paint and submersing the canvases in water.
We thanked our guides for the beautiful visit, and reluctantly left that world of regal privilege.
Meanwhile, back on our own side of the tracks, I had one last service to investigate for Beauty News: the Çırağan Spa. The Spa and gym facilities are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No doubt necessary after a daily Çırağan breakfast buffet!
And I certainly could not leave Turkey without a visit to a traditional Hamam – or Turkish Bath – so was led into the dressing room, offered fruit-infused water, and changed into what can only be described as a red plaid tea towel, just covering my appropriate bits.
Loli, my “bather,” was dressed in a traditional pillowcase-like short white toga (I couldn’t help thinking that the two of us must have looked like house elves in “Harry Potter”!), and I was sent into a sauna to relax and steam.
Escorted out of that inferno not a moment too soon, I was led into the hamam, a dimly lit white marble room with marble sinks lining the perimeter, and was asked to lie down on a pedestaled slab of marble. Still clutching my tea towel, Loli deftly exchanged it for modestly placed terry towels.
She began by applying warm water and a scrub to my body. Thoroughly exfoliating my limbs and torso, she rinsed me off and then used fragrant oil as she massaged my neck, shoulders and limbs, before rinsing me off and washing me down again in the most fascinating manner. A white cloth was soaked in water and filled with soapsuds, turning the cloth into a kind of large elongated balloon, which was then squeezed out gently over my body from toe to head, engulfing me, and the marble slab, in what looked like an overflowing bubble bath, with foam rising above and around me.
Between the sensations of bubbles lightly tickling my skin like airy silk, and warm water being filled into antique-looking metal pitchers (the sounds echoing softly off the marble walls) and then poured over my body in what felt like slowly cascading ribbons of the softest velvet – well I have to say, it was one of the most ethereal and sensuous experiences I have had. In fact, I had to wonder if there were something extraordinary about the pitcher or the water, but Loli assured me it was a very ordinary vessel pouring quite ordinary water.
Finally, I was asked to sit up while Loli washed and conditioned my hair. All clean, I was led to a relaxation chamber, where I sipped tea and came back to reality and room temperature. Loli apologized for not being able to give the “full experience.” What more could there possibly be? Loli, who is from Bali, explained that it is usually a Turkish woman who gives the baths – while singing traditional Turkish songs. The Turkish woman, however, was home celebrating the holiday. I re-assured Loli that I had a very good imagination, and that I was more than happy with the experience of my first hamam.
Unfortunately, after that bliss and a last dinner, there was nothing left to do but break the mood and pack for our departure the next morning.
We would discover at the end that there is, in fact, one serious problem with the Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul: It makes you never want to leave.
We were truly sad to be leaving this comfort, and all the charming people we had met. But we were happy to know that we would be taking with us so many special memories … and perhaps might find ourselves returning again someday.
On the plane back, I thought about all we had done and seen. And I realized only then – like Istanbul itself – my heart is now in two places.
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