Features

Tales from Istanbul's Heart

14 Apr 2024 by Anithya Balachandran
Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board

Arriving in Istanbul, a city that had long inhabited my dreams, was a surreal experience. The beauty that unfolded before me exceeded all expectations, casting a spell of enchantment upon my senses. Welcomed by Ali, my affable tour guide turned lifelong friend, I was immediately enveloped in the warmth and familiarity of Turkish hospitality. Checking in at the magnificent Swissôtel The Bosphorus, I was escorted to my exquisite room overlooking the mesmerising Bosphorus. The sight before me, with its tranquil waters and bustling shores, left an everlasting imprint on my memory. In that moment, as I settled into my surroundings, I knew that my journey through Istanbul would be nothing short of extraordinary.

 

Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board

On my first day in Istanbul, we walked through the enchanting district of Ortaköy, where we indulged in the gastronomic delight of freshly prepared mussels, generously filled with savoury rice and adorned with zesty lemon—a culinary treasure that would take a magical hold over my palate in the days to come. Ortaköy’s allure lies not only in its culinary offerings but also in its panoramic vistas of the Bosphorus, extending gracefully towards the Asian shores, embellished by the resplendent Ortaköy Mosque, an architectural masterpiece steeped in Neo-Baroque elegance. Originally erected in the 18th century, the present incarnation of the mosque, a testament to Sultan Abdülmecid I’s vision, was realised between 1854 and 1856 under the skillful direction of architects Garabet Amira Balyan and Nigoğayos Balyan.  My exploration continued with a visit to the opulent Marmara Esma Sultan, a historic mansion steeped in regal heritage and adorned with timeless elegance. Named in honour of Esma Sultan, daughter of the 32nd Ottoman sovereign, Sultan Abdülaziz, this distinguished venue has witnessed the passage of illustrious figures and historic events over the centuries. Renowned for its verdant gardens, idyllic waterfront location, and convenient access via a private dock, the Marmara Esma Sultan stands as a coveted destination for summer weddings and prestigious MICE gatherings alike. Its transparent glass enclosure offers unobstructed vistas of the surrounding Bosphorus, providing an enchanting backdrop for winter nuptials of unparalleled elegance and splendour.

Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board

Despite the weariness that typically accompanies a day of exploration, Ali, my insightful guide, urged me not to surrender my quest for steps just yet. He promised the next place on my itinerary would capture my heart—the Atatürk Cultural Centre. Within its walls lies a sanctuary that stole my soul for hours: the AKM Library, a haven dedicated to music, arts, architecture, and design. Nestled within the cultural hub, this specialised library beckons to scholars and enthusiasts alike with its expansive collection of books, spanning two main floors, two mezzanine levels adorned with shelves of knowledge, and a dedicated study floor. As an aficionado of the arts, stepping into this bibliophilic haven felt akin to a divine encounter. Satiated in spirit, I sought edible sustenance at the Divan Brasserie Foyer, where culinary delights awaited to replenish my body. The evening crescendoed into an unexpected symphony of serendipity as Ali and I, swept up in spontaneous fervour, decided to attend a performance by the Istanbul State Symphony Orchestra. It was a decision that yielded boundless rewards, as the orchestra’s spellbinding renditions transported me to ethereal realms, where time ceased to exist and only the music held sway over my sens

The following morning commenced with a regal breakfast at Çırağan Palace, characterised by an opulent spread befitting nobility. Following numerous servings of sucuk and menemen, I found myself invigorated for another day of exploration. Our destination was Balat, renowned as one of Istanbul’s oldest and most picturesque districts. Upon traversing its narrow, cobblestoned alleys and historic edifices, an ambiance unique to Istanbul, if not the entire world, enveloped us. Balat’s most iconic feature undoubtedly lies in its vibrant residences lining the meandering, inclined thoroughfares. These dwellings, some dating back over half a century and others boasting two centuries of history, impart a palpable sense of timelessness. Our itinerary included a visit to The Patriarchal Cathedral Church of St. George, a paramount Eastern Orthodox sanctuary. Dedicated to the revered Christian martyr Saint George, this cathedral serves as the venue for numerous solemn ceremonies of significance. Culminating our day’s endeavours, we indulged in a sumptuous Indian feast at Madhu’s, Istanbul’s preeminent Indian dining establishment nestled within the Swissôtel The Bosphorus.

Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board

The following day commenced with our arrival at The Peninsula Istanbul Hotel, where, after swiftly completing check-in formalities, we indulged in a sumptuous brunch affair that left an indelible mark on our culinary journey. The exquisite freshness of oysters and prawns served as notable highlights, elevating our gastronomic experience to unprecedented heights. Following this indulgence, we leisurely strolled through the enchanting environs of Galataport, immersing ourselves in the captivating atmosphere and marveling at its status as a globally recognised destination project, boasting a cruise liner port along its 1.2 kilometre coastline and housing a total of 230 food and beverage and retail establishments within its premises. Continuing our epicurean exploration, we delighted in a refined baklava tasting session at the esteemed Karaköy Güllüoğlu, relishing the intricate flavours of this cherished Turkish delicacy. Alongside the baklava, I savoured a plate of my favorite Börek, a savoury pastry crafted from thin flaky dough and filled with a delightful combination of spinach and cheese. Karaköy Güllüoğlu, with its singular outpost in Karaköy, stands as an institution in the realm of baklava making, drawing crowds eager to sample its heavenly varieties. Venturing onward, we meandered through the bustling lanes of Istiklal Avenue, adorned with grandiose department stores and animated by the picturesque presence of tramcars gliding through its thoroughfares. Particularly enchanting were the charming alleyways, brimming with a diverse array of dining establishments and bars.

Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board

As the realisation dawned upon me that my time in Istanbul was drawing to a close, a tinge of melancholy crept into my heart, tempered only by the determination to seize the day to its fullest. Our first destination, the Istanbul Lütfi Kırdar Congress and Exhibition Centre, situated in the esteemed Congress Valley, epitomised the convergence of culture, art, and business. It served as a testament to the city’s capacity for hosting diverse events, boasting technical prowess and impeccable hospitality services. However, it was the anticipation of visiting Hagia Sophia that truly stirred my soul. Stepping foot into this historic marvel, my long-cherished dream transformed into a reality, evoking profound epiphanies as I contemplated its rich heritage as a mosque, a former church, and a revered cultural landmark. My companion Ali, an avid history enthusiast, regaled me with a treasure trove of knowledge and intriguing tales surrounding the monument, enriching our experience. Our journey continued to the Blue Mosque, a breathtaking masterpiece of Ottoman architecture adorned with intricate details and resplendent motifs. After a morning steeped in history, we savoured the quintessential Turkish delight of Simit, before delving into the vibrant surroundings of the Grand Bazaar. Navigating its labyrinthine alleys, we were enveloped in a sensory symphony of sights, sounds, and aromas, immersing ourselves in its timeless charm. We then headed to the Basilica Cistern which transported us to the realms of adventure and mystique, akin to the climax of an Indiana Jones saga. Our pilgrimage culminated at the iconic Pera Palace Hotel, a haven of elegance and history that ignited the nostalgic fervour of an Agatha Christie devotee within me. Indulging in a sumptuous meal at the Kubbeli Lounge, amidst the grandeur of this legendary establishment, marked the perfect finale to my Istanbul odyssey—an unforgettable amalgamation of cultural immersion, historical marvels, and culinary delights that shall forever linger in my memory.

Istanbul, image provided by official tourism board
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The cover of the Business Traveller May 2024 edition
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