You think you’ve seen traffic in New York City, eh? Well, try to imagine a trek from, say, the Waldorf to the Metropolitan Museum, or from The Stanhope to the West Village, if both President Clinton and Madonna were in town. At rush hour. On the last shopping day before Christmas. In a hailstorm. Then, maybe, you can begin to fathom what “traffic” means in Istanbul, a city of 11,000 (many say more like 16,000, but who’s counting?) where streets were designed for horses and “flow of cars” is an oxymoron–no, not even a comprehensible concept. “Seven hours I was in my car yesterday,” our guide, Serder, tells me as he pulls up to the new Four Seasons Istanbul, “just trying to get from the bridge to the Blue Mosque in the rain.”
This trip from hell is the same as the one Istanbul’s tourists have always taken to get from the new part of the city, where the luxury hotels are, to the historical part–called the Old City, or Sultanahmet (named after the 17th century ruler, Ahmet l)–where the serious sightseeing is. Here, the glorious 16th-century Blue Mosque struts its six minarets; the 5,000-shop Covered Bazaar–the largest mall in the world–beckons gold-, antiques- and rug-lovers; the red-brick Byzantine church-turned-museum, the Haghia Sophia, boggles minds as it has since AD 500–that’s 1,000 years before St. Peter’s Basilica was built; and Topkapi Palace, vast as a college campus, displays the jewels and porcelain and political life of the Ottomon Sultans. To get to all these treasures, tourists must take a bus or a cab or a boat, go across or under one of three bridges, and pray for clement weather so they’ll spend a mere 20 to 45 minutes each way rather than seven hours.
So when the Four Seasons Hotel opened right in the center of the Old City, local travel agents like Meyzie Baran, president of Iliada Tourism, had but one thought: “There are only 65 rooms. Who will get them?” Whoever did, she knew, would henceforth just fall out of bed in the morning, whip down a tiny cup of thick, dense Turkish coffee (and fresh watermelon juice first, as I did), and head out by foot to any of the sights above, each only moments away from the other.
So this is not your usual hotel opening: this is an arrival, a happening, and it promises to change forever the way Western visitors see, tour and remember Istanbul. Suddenly, this huge, enigmatic, complicated city feels as accessible as Paris. An early-morning jaunt to the Bazaar can now be followed by lunch and a nap; then it’s but a hop over to the Spice Bazaar or the underground basilica or a tour of the 19th-century sultans’ 400-room harem (pronounced hay-rem) at Topkapi; and then, perhaps, a change of clothes, or even a soak at one of the city’s oldest hammams, or Turkish baths, lodged between the Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. Before dinner, a quick trip over to the carpet museum tucked inside the Blue Mosque.
You’ve probably heard by now that the hotel was once a prison–actually a minimum-security Ottomon “holding cell” for dissident artists and intellectuals (someone there referred to it as “Club Fed”) during oppressive governments between 1910 and 1918. Now I’ve stayed in a Spanish parador that also was once a prison–and no matter what they do with bright linens and comfy duvets it still feels like one. Not so, here: But for the still-standing guard tower, and a little heart etched into a marble pillar by a lonely prisoner, the slammer-story feels apocryphal, mere romantic lore dreamed up by clever hotel executives. No hype is needed: More real romance saturates and surrounds this spacious, lush hotel than a body can take all at once.
What separates the Four Seasons from its worthy competitors across town is not only location, location, location, but an extraordinary Orientalism; a sense of being specifically in Istanbul. The Hilton, for instance, while satisfyingly efficient, elegant and with a smashing view of the Bosphorus–will never be accused of being “romantic” or “exotic” or indiginous to the region. No, what the Four Seasons’ CEO Isador Sharp and his Turkish architect and designer had in mind was something far more complex: They were going for mood as well as luxury, for harmony, for a particular melding of east and west, muslim and secular, old and new, intimate and exotic, that is modern Istanbul. So touches of antiquity dot an ultra-modern Turkish design: On one wall you’ll see a sultan’s announcement, complete with his stamp, and an ancient calligraphic writing; on another, contemporary nudes. Huge bronze antique candlesticks and Ideine region panels and gold-trimmed letters from sultans add historical heft to an airy, modern entryway. The blatantly new green and red carpeting and the kilims that splash across bathroom floors only hint at ancient Ottomon design and authenticity, offer a respectful nod to yesterday, but only via sense-memory, nothing verbatim.
The 65 rooms are spread over two buildings, one three storeys high, one four, connected by glass additions that wrap the structure seamlessly around an open courtyard bursting with colorful tiles and greenery. At the risk of sounding like the hotel’s PR director rather than a crusty, jet-lagged critic (for crust and criticism, speak to me sometime about Turkish Airways), I dare you to find a hotel view more breathtakingly exotic than this from the fourth-floor terrace at twilight: To the north is the gently lighted Haghia Sophia; to the south, the 16th-century sultanahmet Mosque, its six minarets changing colors every thirty seconds in a kind of hazy light show, now blue, now pink, now green; and, lest the eye rest for a moment, a glamorously crumbled but indestructable 1,700-year-old Byzantine wall stretches between the two luminous structures, giving new meaning to shabby chic. (All rooms on the fourth floor have terraces that look out onto either the Mosque or the Haghia Sofia. My room on the third floor, with no terrace, looks out from both bedroom and bathroom onto the Mosque. First-floor standard rooms, as opposed to superior and deluxe rooms higher up, have views either of the courtyard or of this ancient wall.)
Staring out at the Mosque from my room, I’m steeped further in history, and mystery, as the droning, nasal hum of mosque-goers floats in through my windows (each of which is triple-pane glass, so the hum isn’t a howl), reminding me in both stereo and Vistavision that I’m in a city where the people pray five times a day.
The Four Seasons brought 32-year-old Carlo Bernardini from its Venice hotel to be executive chef, and the even younger Philip Tibos from London to be the pastry chef. So it’s no surprise that the risotto with mint, and the chocolate cake with white chocolate ice cream, are sublime. (So too are the delicate ground nut-encrusted sea bass and the terminally voluptuous chocolate baklava.) The newcomer at this new restaurant may want more than the few Turkish dishes offered, and for that I recommend another restaurant, not to be missed, about 35 minutes away from the hotel (Don’t worry, at night you won’t have a traffic problem!).
It’s called Dilrubi, and its well-known Yugoslav-born chef, Vedat Basaran, specializes in pure Ottoman and Anatolian cooking (Homer was Anatolian, in case you were wondering). In homage to the all-natural, no preservatives (no liquor, even, that night) rigor of this ancient cuisine, we were served a warm chickpea puree with hazelnut and pinenuts, with muhammara, a spicy walnut mousse. Then, a traditional dish of Anadolu Corbasi soup served in copper mantiy. Next, a subtle pasha meze, a red pepper paste, with gherkins and tomato paste; a pasta with a meat filling and double-cooked herbs like mint and thyme, and red butter. “Armies ate this kind of food,” Basaren told us happily, pointing to its purity and nutrition. We loved its subtlety and elegance, particularly the highlight–a hearty potful of four kinds of lamb, surrounded by succulent, garlicky eggplant, onions, beans, tomatoes; and kunefe, a charcoal-broiled pastry filled with unsalted fresh cheese and a drizzle of warm syrup.
In front of Gucci and Vuitton in downtown Istanbul, a young woman with cropped hair and the tiniest leopard miniskirt awaits a bus next to several women the same age with traditional scarves knotted around their heads. Businessmen in elegant suits walk by men in funny hats hunched over backgammon boards, seemingly freebasing their nargile. A glamorous lunch, dinner and hotel room cost half to a third of what they would in New York–which means an extraordinarily elegant room at the Four Seasons for a mere $225 to $355; yet, if you were to live here, a small television set would set you back $600-$700, a dining set $5,000, and furnishings for even the most modest home, upwards of $20,000. To call this a city of contrasts is not just travel writers’ blarney; the dualities–sartorial, monetary, philosophical, religious, cultural–are overwhelmingly, well, in your face.
“Lady, you buy carpet?” my taxi driver asks on our return from that other part of town (it took over an hour), with its Turkpetrol gas stations, Sony signs and, yes, golden arches–a part of town that could be the outskirts of anywhere. Everyone wants me to buy a carpet. “Not yet,” I tell him, handing him my fare. “Lady very thank much you, but too much,” he says, handing me back some of the Turkish lire I give as a tip, and helping himself to fewer. I blink.
“Too much,” I say back at him, and he smiles.
Call The Four Seasons at 800-332-3442. Doubles from $225-$355.
Note: Spelling of the Haghia Sophia varies–sometimes the second “h” in Haghia is dropped, sometimes the muslim spelling is used: Aya Sofia.