There are 13.4 million people living in Istanbul and, with a population that size, it is not surprising there is such an ample pool to draw on when luxury hotels need staff. Shangri-La Hotel Istanbul will be the city’s next big opening, sometime this March, and the gal was told that, thanks to social media, about 15,000 applied for 300 jobs.
Right now I am reading John Julius Norwich’s fascinating, and totally captivating, book, A Short History of Byzantium. In the past, emperors Constantine, after whom Istanbul – Constantinople – is named, thought nothing of human life. Suspect your wife, your own kids? No problem, kill’s all, any time. Today this remains, for so many other reasons, a fascinating city. Arrive at the airport, and you might think most of the women cover their heads. There are some veiled ladies, admittedly, but go into such restaurants as, say, Vogue (great views down to the Bosphorus!) and not a covered head in sight.
The same can be said about the top retail malls, say Cevahir, Istinye Park and Kanyon. Here you see local shoppers wearing the latest gear – hot right now are tight-tight trousers and high heels or black books with lots of silver studs, sometimes matched by studded handbags.
I actually love walking the main shopping areas, say Istiklal Street, a few minutes’ walk from Pera Palace. There is a Swarovski store there, nestled in with local brands. On a Sunday afternoon, which is when I tried to stroll, it was more walking-the-family rather than serious shopping.
It is also, any day of the week and any time of day, just right for a tasty snack from one of the büfes (yes, ‘buffets’, but they are not help-yourself, these snack shops). Locals love sweet things, Turkish delight and ultra-sweet baklava-type pastries – some say the best are at Hafiz Mustafa, near the port and rail station.
Alternatively go for local savouries, say börek flaky pastries filled with cheese or meat, or pide one-portion boat-shaped pizzas, and doner kebab, spit-roasted lamb shaved off and served in pita bread.
There are also imports so, if you must, head for a KFC or Pizza Hut, thus supporting the lovely Ritz-Carlton Istanbul, whose owner has all-Turkey concessions for both fast food brands.
Street-food vending operations, by the way, are meticulously clean, just like the entire city. You do not see the garbage that is associated with so many major European cities.
You do see, even in Istiklal Street at the busiest time of a Sunday afternoon, one-man automatic street-cleaning machines somehow weaving in and out of the crowds, scooping up whatever has been dropped.
Along Ciragan Street, near Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus and other hotels, men with long brooms are sweeping the sidewalks clean, early morning. The only debris is normally cigarette ends (is it true smoking will soon be banned in every indoor venue?).
Street vendors also offer drinks, say boza – ground chickpea, cinnamon, sugar, a concoction drunk between meals. There are lots of fresh juices, both out on the street and in hotels.
At the Ciragan Kempinski breakfast buffet, as well as displays of one-portion carafes of juices and smoothies, all carefully labelled, there is a cart that will squeeze your own juice for you there and then, and if you prefer something other than orange, the array of available fruits is shown, decoratively, in front of the cart.
Gosh the food in this city! TripAdvisor lists over 10,000 Istanbul restaurants: its top ranking goes to Imbat Restaurant, for great Turkish food, good service, and views over the Bosphorus.
The products never cease to amaze: strawberries right now are superb, big as California’s but tasty as England’s. More than half of the annual 23,000 tons of Turkey’s strawberries come from Yaltir, near Adana, which grows ceyhun and seyhun strawberries, crosses of Ottoman strawberries with varieties from Spain and the USA.
Put some Turkish strawberries with the many yoghurts available on buffets at Istanbul’s top luxury hotels and boy, is a gal happy!