I knew it was going to be a Turkish delight of a trip when the counterperson smilingly handed me the boarding pass to their national carrier’s extravagant Business Class and, on board, I was treated to a hot, three-course meal, freshly cooked in front of my eyes by a ‘flying chef’. Then I could s-t-r-e-t-c-h out to sleep as my seat smoothly slid out to a full-size bed. The Turkish Airlines flight was a dream that was over too soon because we landed early in the day at Istanbul, which must have the most beautiful skyline in the world. The obliging professor from Istanbul, who had the window seat next to mine, insisted graciously that we exchange seats so that I could get a better view of his magnificent city (since I was on my first trip to Turkey). I was glad I took up his offer as I gasped at the blue waters of the Bosphorus and the multitudes of minarets shining in the morning light.
The 40-minute ride to my hotel, the Four Seasons Istanbul on the Bosphorus, was also exciting. The Turkish capital has more minarets, mosques, mansions and palaces than I could count and, already, I could feel the unique cultural energy that comes from Istanbul’s location as the only metropolis in the world that straddles two continents, bridging the East and the West. Divided by the Bosphorus Straits, which links the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, the erstwhile Constantinople is famously flanked by Asia to one side and Europe to the other. Along the lively banks of the Bosphorus are stately palaces and waterside wooden residences (called yali) built by the Ottoman elite. Later, I learnt that the government has strict laws to preserve the shore’s traditional appeal and allow lush views of the hills on either side.
My hotel was on the European shore of the Bosphorus. Here lie the bohemian arts and shopping centre of Taksim, the fashion boutiques of Nisantasi, and the upscale restaurants, bars and cafés of Ortakoy and Besiktas. Istanbul has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires and hence its profusion of spectacular monuments.
Since my hotel had a private jetty that could be accessed by boat, I took a ferry to the Sultanahmet side, a memorable ride that allowed me to experience Istanbul’s wonderful sights from the river. I dined at another stunning Four Seasons property here, the super-luxury hotel brand’s first in the city, this one a converted neo-classic prison. It is just a couple of minutes away from the Unesco sites of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the ancient Sultanahmet district, which is crammed with old historic sites. So that night, after a lavish dinner of mezze and kebabs, I got dropped off at Taksim Square to walk off the indulgent dinner. Nearby is the Golden Mile, a string of upmarket nightclubs running between the waterside suburbs of Ortakoy and Kurucesme, which are the places to be if you want to party the night away.
The award-winning Four Seasons Bosphorus, where I stayed for the two nights that I was in Istanbul, opened in 2008. It is a 19th-century Ottoman palace of contemporary elegance with a waterfront setting, which still gives you an idea of how a Turkish sultan, or at least a caliph, lived. I enjoyed a lavish breakfast in the well-landscaped Wedding Gardens, from where I could view the hills on the Asian side. Combining the most modern amenities with Ottoman opulence, the hotel’s 170 rooms occupy the original palace building and two new wings. I was lucky to get a room that gave me a peek of the river whose waters are a lovely Turkish blue by day and are a dancing ribbon of brightly reflected lights by night. The light and understated interiors make sure the ambience doesn’t become too heavy, while decorative Turkish touches and traditional artworks keep alive the feeling of living history.
Istanbul is best explored by starting with the Sultanahmet district. Discover it on foot, beginning the fascinating cultural voyage with the historic Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Istanbul is the seventh most visited city in the world and most of its visitors seemed to be there on the day I was. I could hear a babble of voices in English, Turkish, German, French, Italian, Russian Chinese, Japanese and even Gujarati. My guide told me that one of the many massive cruise ships that travels to Istanbul from Europe was docked at the port and it had let loose excited swarms of tourists, who seemed to be coming out of every nook and cranny of this historic heart of Istanbul. The city is also the last stop for the legendary Orient Express, made famous by the Agatha Christie classic Murder on the Orient Express. Walking around, I could see that all of Istanbul is a powerhouse of history, heritage and culture. There are Byzantine churches and palaces with mosaics and frescoes, Ottoman imperial mosques, and now business houses that have drawn on the city’s extraordinary ancient treasures to create a slew of impressive galleries, museums and festivals to enrich it even more.
Just as fascinating is the rich, varied food. The two meals I had at the Four Seasons Bosphorus’ main fine-dining restaurant Aqua, and at the Mediterranean Yali Lounge, were gourmet Italian and traditional Turkish. On the streets too, I found fusion foods, mezze, traditional kebabs at the local kebapcisi, and superb Italian pasta and ravioli, at many eateries. Flavoursome fish (November is the fish season) is plentiful everywhere, and superb when paired with the national drink raki (a delicious grape spirit infused with aniseed), or a glass of local wine.
You cannot leave Istanbul without visiting the 500-year-old Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops, and the Spice Bazaar for items of food. They are bustling marketplaces that house everything—fashionable apparel and accessories, carpets, artefacts and tourist souvenirs, spices and dry fruits, and of course the ubiquitous baklava and Turkish delight. A cultural treat, these markets rest cheek by jowl with mosques, hamams (bathhouses) and cay bahcesis (tea gardens), where locals drag on nargiles (water pipes) engrossed in tavla (backgammon). Both the bazaars were teeming with energy and thronging with shoppers even on a weekday.
From Istanbul, I went on to Bodrum, also known as the St Tropez of Turkey, an hour and a half by flight, on the southern peninsula. Bodrum’s coastline hugs the Aegean Sea and each year, the small resort town morphs from a quiet cove in the winter to a jet-setting beach party destination throbbing with nightlife in the summer. I was staying at the newly opened Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which took my definition of luxury a few notches higher with its splendid rooms and amenities, and intimate, discreet service.
With just two days at hand, I devoted a day each to discovering the fabulous property and the stunning town where antiquity is served up on a platter. Ephesus, one of the best preserved classical cities in the world, and the ancient Ionian site of Didyma, are just a short drive away.
But first I book myself into the hamam at the Mandarin Oriental, a serene space with a domed ceiling of tile and marble modelled on authentic Turkish baths. The ‘oriental hamam’ began with a cleansing mask and exfoliation. My body was massaged with a hydrating, aromatic rose essence foam while I lay in a relaxed stupor on a large, heated stone table. I was then washed and bathed with water as gently as a baby. As a fitting finale to a perfect morning, I followed this up with lunch at the Sofra restaurant, with its great view of a pine forest. For a special dinner, the hotel’s acclaimed chef Antonio Guida served up scallops with fennel, peach puree and powdered ginger, and grilled turbot with spinach, lemon sauce and capers.
Bodrum, described by Homer as ‘the land of eternal blue’, is also an open-air museum with well-preserved monuments such as the Bodrum Amphitheatre, and the Great Mausoleum, one of the original Seven Wonders (later used as a quarry by the Knights Hospitaller of St John to build the still imposing 15th-century fortress now known as the Bodrum Castle).
Bodrum has lively attractions and dining options around the marina, and pulsating nightlife along the cobbled pathways of Bar Street. Many outlets lining the busy, quaint streets display everything from leather goods, decorations and handmade crafts to jewellery and high-fashion brands (worth the price as fake…or not).
Back to Istanbul, at the Ataturk Airport, Turkish Airlines played host at its newly furbished, fabulous and state-of-the-art CIP (‘commercially important people’) lounge, complete with a wide choice of dining options, beverages and spirits to pamper its preferred guests. Turkish Airlines operates the lounge along with its award-winning air-catering partner, Turkish Do & Co.
The pampering continued on the Business Class through the flight back. Five-and-a-half hours and a sound sleep later, as the flight touched down at the Delhi airport, I felt so glad I had done this trip. Istanbul is a must on all bucket lists and with trouble brewing in the country’s neighbourhood, there is no telling what the future holds. So go now!
Getting there: Turkish Airlines connects Mumbai and Delhi by direct daily flights to Istanbul. Round-trip tickets cost about Rs 1,30,000 (business class) and Rs 44,000 (economy). They also have daily flights from Istanbul to Bodrum from about €370 (business class) and €117 (economy) for a round trip.
Visa: Download the application form via www.vfsglobal.com/turkey/india and apply directly with relevant papers to the Turkish embassy in Delhi or consulate in Mumbai. A single-entry visa for tourists costs Rs 3,900. Indian passport holders with a valid UK, US or Schengen visa can apply for an e-visa.
Currency: 1Turkish Lira = Rs 23.5 approx
Where to stay: I stayed at the riverfront Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus (from Rs 24,000; www.fourseasons.com/bosphorus), a royal indulgence with the Bosphorus close at hand. I also dined at the Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet (from Rs 21,000; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul), an oasis of tranquility in the bustling heart of the city’s oldest district. Also in this part of town is the well-regarded and more affordable Premist Hotel (from Rs 4,500; www.premisthotels.com). At Bodrum, I stayed at the brand new, super luxury Mandarin Oriental (from Rs 26,000; www.mandarinoriental.com/bodrum).
Getting around: Buses, minibuses, trams, a subway line and yellow taxis are all available and comfortably priced. There are also ferries that travel the Bosphorus. Buying an Istanbul Kart (www.istanbulkart.iett.gov.tr/en) is a good idea: the card can be used as a ticket on buses, trams, suburban trains, metro and the cross-Bosphorus ferries. The best way to get around Bodrum is by dolmus (shared taxi on fixed routes).
What to see & do: Check out the iconic Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque in the old city. Close by is the famous Galata Tower. For great music at lively nightlife venues, try Beyoglu, Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. Check out the Military Museum, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every day. On the Asian side, are the historical districts of Kadikoy and Uskudar. At Bodrum, see the Castle of St Peter, the Bodrum Amphitheatre, and the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and Myndos Gate.
Where to eat & drink: The roadside doner kebab costing TRY2-5 is a tasty and cheap option in Istanbul. Try the hamsi—Black Sea anchovy, deep fried and served with raw onion and bread at all fish restaurants for about TRY6—and the local ice cream called dondurma. Savour the Kumpir, which is baked potato with various fillings such as grated cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, sausage slices, carrots, mushrooms or Russian salad at cafés in Ortaköy for about TRY7-8 each. At Bodrum, the Marina Koftecisi has the best kofte. Drink at Bodrum Marine, a club on a catamaran.
Shopping: Istanbul’s historical bazaars date back to the Ottoman era. Visit the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. At Bodrum, shop for apparel and handbags at shops on the marina.
Top tip: A visit to a hamam is a must-do. Most places will offer a scrubbing and/or a massage for about TL40.