By Janet Steinberg
Who would have dreamed it? Certainly, I could not have!
As a young girl, bored to death in a geography class that spoke of sultans, straits, and seven continents, I could never have dreamed where I would be six decades later.
But there I was…sitting in a genuine Ottoman Sultan’s palace on the continent of Europe, overlooking a panoramic view of the majestic Bosphorus Strait, and gazing at the coastline of the continent of Asia, an almost veritable stone’s throw away. Yes, moments after checking into the incredible Ciragan Palace Kempinski, that is exactly what I was doing.
The regal 5-star Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel, situated on the European shores of the Bosphorus and overlooking the ancient city of Istanbul, allowed me to fantasize about the luxury and glamour of living in a genuine Ottoman Palace. With its splendid style, superb location, fascinating view, and resort ambiance, the hotel gave me an unforgettable stay in the enchanting, mystical city where East meets West, Europe meets Asia, and the past meets the present.
Budgetary limitations kept mere mortals like myself in one of the 1990s hotel rooms adjacent to the original palace. However, royalty, dignitaries and superstars can opt for the Sultan Suite, one of 11 suites in the actual restored palace.
The Ciragan Palace’s 4050-square-foot Sultan Suite ($50,000 per night) is one of the largest hotel suites in Europe. The needs of those privileged to occupy the Sultan Suite are met 24 hours a day by their personal butler.
With its beautiful décor, decorative fireplaces, flamboyant chandeliers, artsy columns, floor to ceiling windows giving an extraordinary Bosphorus view, the magnificent Sultan Suite combines the best of today’s modernism (like 65-inch TVs) with classic Ottoman architecture to recreate the splendor of the Palace.
When it came time for my first dinner in Istanbul, I chose to heed the advice of my colleague, the late great author James Michener. The renowned writer, whom I met many years ago on a trans-Atlantic crossing, said: “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” Since I did not choose to stay home, I chose to take Michener’s advice and headed straight to Tugra Restaurant in the historical Palace for a dinner of traditional Ottoman cuisine.
Tugra served me a palate-pleasing, classic Ottoman dinner that included traditional mezzes (appetizers), Mushroom Baklava, and Morel Mushroom-Lamb Cheek in Casserole. The dinner culminated with a lovely young lady wheeling out a “Macun” cart from which she made the traditional fruit-flavored Ottoman candy. Formerly sold by street vendors, this Turkish-style lollipop is now served to Tugra guests to end their evening with sweet dreams.
And, as if this was not enough to make me yearn to return to Ciragan Palace, I would eagerly go back just for a swim in the hotel’s heated year-round infinity swimming pool that appeared to overflow into the Bosphorus, or to indulge myself with the Laledan Restaurant’s incredible buffet breakfast. Both of which are among the finest in the world.
After a night’s rest it was time to explore Istanbul, a city of more than 13-million people and approximately 3,000 active Muslim mosques. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, it is the only city in the world that straddles two continents (Europe and Asia) and is embraced by two seas (Aegean and Black) and the connecting Bosphorus Strait.
Don’t even think about renting a car and driving yourself in this vibrant, colorful city, where some consider traffic lights as mere street decorations. On a previous visit, my guide told me: “Our traffic is better than in Cairo, but worse than that in Rome.”
The best way to go is on a tour…a Plan Tour. Plan Tours, Gray Line’s Licensee for Turkey, is Istanbul’s local expert when it comes to touring.
On day one, I opted for the full-day Byzantine and Ottoman Relics tour. On day two, I hopped on Plan’s HO-HO (hop-on, hop-off) double-decker tour bus and circled the city a couple of times. Once around was not enough to soak up the atmosphere of Istanbul.
Highlights of my tours in Istanbul included the following not-to-be missed sights:
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also called The Blue Mosque, takes its name from its walls that are adorned with more than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles. Its six minarets pierce Istanbul’s skyline. The low-hanging chain across the entrance to the courtyard was put there so that only the sultan could enter the court on horseback.
Hagia Sophia, once a Christian cathedral, and then a Muslim mosque, is now a museum. Its awesome massive dome, exquisite mosaics, and huge lustration marble urns carved from a single block of marble, are among the museum’s memorable features.
Topkapi Palace Museum is one of the most impressive monuments in Istanbul. A visit to The Treasury (Hazine) is a must. Here you will find the bejeweled Topkapi Dagger as seen in the 1964 movie Topkapi; a 6.5-pound emerald, the largest uncut emerald in the world; and the 86-carat Spoon Maker’s diamond.
Neve Shalom Synagogue, located in the Galata district of Istanbul, is the largest and most famous synagogue in Istanbul. There are 16 synagogues in Istanbul serving approximately 25,000 Jews. All but one of the synagogues are Sephardic.
The Grand Bazaar (Capali Carsi) reveals the largest shopping center in the world. The diverse atmosphere of the bazaar, with all its hustle-and-bustle, is a maze of stalls and overlapping aromas of spices, leather and food.
After a long day of touring in Istanbul, it was time for another memorable dinner. From Cipriani to Cipriani was my plan!
My friend Harry (Arrigo) Cipriani, of Harry’s Bar fame (in Venice) had recently opened the Cipriani Istanbul Restaurant in the Istanbul Edition Hotel. What fun, I thought, to end my stay in Istanbul with dinner at Cipriani Istanbul, and then to end my Crystal Serenity Aegean Dream Cruise (that was sailing the next day from Istanbul to Venice) with dinner at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar in Venice. And so I did just that.
I do not need a menu when I dine at any of Harry Cipriani’s restaurants around the world. Just start me out with Harry’s traditional Bellini aperitif. Next, serve me some Carpaccio Cipriani, and a plate of Black Risotto. Whatever follows, really doesn’t matter. I’m already in heaven. Cipriani Istanbul combines the Cipriani heritage along with the relaxed joie de vivre of Istanbul’s café society.
Istanbul, the exotic intriguing city that has been the capital of three empires and countless cultures, is “Istan-cool.”
Janet Steinberg is an award-winning Travel Writer and International Travel Consultant.