Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Gateway to the East

Back in November my boyfriend and I travelled to Nepal to visit friends- more on this to come- but we had to stop off in Istanbul on the way. I've always wanted to visit the city, so rather than just changing flights there, we arranged to stay for the night both on the way to and back from Nepal.
I'd heard how amazing the city was from many friends and it lived up to all my expectations. Much like Morocco, which I also only visited for the first time last year, Istanbul was a real melting pot of cultures- I was amazed to see so much European influence, even in the Sultanahmet; inside Agia Sofia and the Topkaki palace, both of which are must-sees.
  (Huge thanks to Amber Butchart who gave me some tips on places to visit in Istanbul- you can actually read some of Amber's fashion tips and anecdotes in her forthcoming book, I took my copy on the tube the other day and missed my stop, I was so engrossed. The ultimate London seal of approval)
The town is full of fascinating history- including the second oldest tram which runs from the Western side of the city over the river into the East. The bridge is a wonderful place to watch locals fishing and selling fresh pomegranate juice, roasted chestnuts and baked goods smothered in nutella.

We only had two half-days to spend in the city, but even in those few hours we walked by so many places we'd have loved to explore- like this 300 year old Turkish baths.
Here is some of the beautiful tiling from inside the tombs around Agia Sofia. I love the mixture of Arab script, almost Spanish or Moorish colour schemes and then, renaissance style European murals like the one below!

The Topkapi Palace was a real highlight of our visit, full of stunning tiles, carved wooden doors, elaborate fountains, luxurious gilding and rolling gardens.

The only other place we really got to explore was the grand bazaar- I could have spent hours here but the boy got a bit bored by all the shops- which to be fair, did mainly all seem to be selling the same thing- until we found the centre, the oldest part of the bazaar, where the shops seemed to be have more unique products, often vintage or antique- so slightly pricier but much more interesting than the rest of the mainstream, tourist tat.
Even if you're not shopping though, the corridors of the Grand Bazaar are worth exploring just for the beautiful tiles and marble everywhere.
 I made sure to buy some rose flavoured turkish delight for my sister who loves it!
 I wish I'd had time/money/luggage space to do some proper shopping- I would have loved to fill up my tea and spice cupboards, and I was also lusting after all the gorgeous ceramics and cashmere scarves. There were some lovely bathroom shops selling hammam towels, soaps and robes which were also tempting- but the problem I often find with shopping on holiday is that you can get carried away by how great stuff looks in situ, surrounded by all the right props and in its natural location, only to get home and find out that actually one Turkish towel looks a bit lame by itself on your bathroom shelf. I guess I have to wait until I can afford to travel with an extra suitcase and fill it with a whole set of new towels or bowls or whatever so they can have the same effect at home as they do on holiday. Apologies- that is probably the most first world problem I've ever written about.
The other wonderful thing about our trip was the hotel we stayed at in Istanbul. It was called the Empress Zoe and, like the city, was a real mix of modern turkish culture and ancient history from the days of Byzantium. 
The hotel's location was ideal- within the Sultanahmet itself, with views of Ayia Sofia from the rooftop. Next door was a disused hammam from the 18th century, backing onto the hotel's courtyard, full of marble sculptures and fountains. It was November when we visited, but I can imagine that this must be a glorious retreat from the heat and bustle of the city in the summer months.

As with all the best boutique hotels, each bedroom is different, all unique and reminiscent of a very stylish friend's home rather than the clinical, impersonal hotel feel you can get in chains.
This was our gorgeous bed- lying there and listening to the call to prayer felt like a truly authentic Istanbul experience. The bathroom was tiny but built from impressive huge, solid marble slabs and touches like the hand-made olive-oil soap really made all the difference. The soap was so lovely I actually bothered bringing it home with me-apparently it's been made by the Muftuoglu family for 4 generations and contains only natural organic ingredients from ancient Antioch. You can read more about the soap here, though it doesn't seem like you can buy it online yet..
We had delicious homemade muffins for breakfast in the restaurant downstairs where there were wonderful old photos of the city on the walls, and artwork like this charming Turkish boat.
The hotel reception was also full of fascinating artefacts- from old saddles to mosaics to some ancient fixtures still remaining from the building's past.
A number of cats also inhabited the hotel- this fellow below didn't budge from his comfy cushion for one whole afternoon! There's something terribly reassuring about seeing ordinary things like pet cats when you're away from home. You're in this amazing city, where everything is new to you, everything's exotic and different, and yet this little cat is completely oblivious to the fact that he lives in this incredible place- it's just his home, and he'll still be here when you get back from exploring the sites. A cat really does make a hotel feel like a home away from home to me.

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