Istanbul has so many iconic buildings you can barely see one for the other. Take Hagia Sophia, dedicated in 360 as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a mosque from 1453 until 1931 and, today, a museum.
Go to the rooftop of one of Istanbul’s most admired luxury hotels, Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, and you feel you can almost touch it. The gal was up there at midday, when the muezzin from the various mosques around were singing with such enthusiasm they (or their recordings) were, it seemed, trying to outdo all the others.
Tip for today. Definitely try to be outside in a mosque area at midday for this noon ‘song’. And to be up on the rooftop of this fascinating hotel is another must-do. The building, finished in 1918, used to be Sultanahmet Prison. In 1994, an archaeologist called Yetcin had the idea of converting the by-then-empty building into a hotel.
Obviously the heritage people had to be involved, as did architects and politicians and many others. Now you have a 65-room hotel and, since late 2012, its two flat rooftop terraces are entertainment venues, for wining, dining and socialising summer long.
This hotel is an oasis of calm, somehow separate from the tiny narrow streets and hubbub of daily life in the Old City of Istanbul (across the Golden Horn from the Pera area). Four Seasons has two hotels in Istanbul and they recommend, ideally, a five night stay in town.
Stay three nights here, Sultanahmet, for sightseeing and shopping, and then remove, ten minutes’ away, if the traffic allows, for recovery time down by the Bosphorus. But actually you recover, anyway, here at Sultanahmet.
The hotel runs three sides around an amazing garden where even the pansies are covered with invisible netting to prevent birds coming to dine off tiny buds. In a few weeks’ time, the whole city will be ablaze of tulips, Turkey’s national flower (it came from here, though now it is often associated with the Netherlands).
The restaurant is a conservatory in the middle of this gorgeous garden. I had a Turkish- products lunch, but then everything, they say, is from here. The produce is beautiful. Try the mozzarella, different from the Italian but oh so creamy.
Try a Turkish pide, a type of pizza that looks like a two-bite row boat, wrapped around its filling. I hear about Turkish television soaps, especially Kuzey Güney, translated into so many languages that it is not surprising that Middle Easterners, and even Brazilians, come to Istanbul specially to try to see the stars in person. Top of their wanna-see list is Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, from Adana. Oh boy is that guy – top male model in the world ten years ago – goodlooking.
As I start a cheese soufflé with local greens and tomatoes, skinned of course, I hear that Kıvanç means pride, in Turkish, and Tatlıtuğ is a combination of sweet and tail. The Tatlıtuğ family were apparently bakers for many generations, but now presumably they live off the fame of Kıvanç, who is also an amateur basketball player.
Weary US tourists come and sit at tables near us in the conservatory, working their laptops while they order. This is, after all, the place to retreat to after you have visited the Blue Mosque and haggled over yet another leather coat.
I am with a Spaniard, Felix Morillo, and a Turk, Levent Gürcay, whose hobby is travel. Between the three of us we have been to much of the world, but then there is always somewhere new to look forward to.
Confession from the gal – I have not yet been to Cuba, but please will someone start a luxury hotel development there so I can put it on the agenda?