INTRIGUING ISTANBUL: Where ancient and modern meet (2023)

Author of the article:

Cynthia McLeod

Publishing date:

Oct 15, 20225days ago6 minute read Join the conversation

INTRIGUING ISTANBUL: Where ancient and modern meet (1)

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The rest of the world has always known “Turkey.”

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But now the country that straddles two continents wants its anglicized name ditched for Türkiye — a pronunciation (tur-key-YAY) and spelling that though might seem new have actually been used locally since independence in 1923.

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One of the reasons for the international rebranding — already embraced by the United Nations, NATO and the Canadian government — is the association with the bird ‘turkey’ and other less flattering definitions of the word. And having recently visited I can attest that the move makes sense: ‘Türkiye’ is more exotic and interesting than ‘Turkey,’ fitting the bill of this ancient land pulsing with a modern vibe.

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In Istanbul, Türkiye’s largest city which dates back at least two millennia, the blend of the old with the new, is evident everywhere — including while cruising the Bosphorus Strait, which divides the city between Europe and Asia. (And how cool is that? One city but two continents?!) On the European side, the historical peninsula — featuring, among other landmarks, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace — gives way to the city’s ancient port area, now home to the impressive Galataport (galataport.com) project.

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Opened in October 2021, Galataport houses the world’s first underground cruise ship terminal, a marvel that allows public access the 1,500-metre-long Karaköy neighbourhood coastline for the first time since the 19th century.

Covering 52,000 square metres, Galataport sports 240 retail and dining establishments featuring both Turkish and international brands, plus arts and culture venues, so there’s no shortage of things to do. Honouring its historic Karaköy district, heritage buildings have been restored including the oldest on the pier, the beautiful 1911 passenger terminal and one-time post office that’s now a fashion galleria.

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Another landmark, theTophane Clock Towerdating back to 1848, for years welcomed sea visitors to Istanbul after a long journey. Eventually it began to tilt, similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, due to the weight of its flag tower and the ground shifting underneath. During its restoration, an unnoticed floor was discovered beneath the tower covered with a layer of soil. The section was lifted and cleaned with precision care — even using dental picks.

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Environment and sustainability were considered throughout the development and Galataport is the second-largest project in Europe to receive the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum rating for sustainability measures, such as using seawater as a coolant instead of cooling gases.

Another plus for the magnificent port is its stunning views of the historical peninsula, which of course must be visited on its own. One of the old city’s highlights is the architectural marvel that is Hagia Sophia, originally a Greek Orthodox church, then later a mosque and then a museum. In 2020, it was reverted back to a mosque.

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Considered one of the great monuments of the world, it is open to the public, with visitors asked to remove their footwear before stepping on the carpets and women asked to wear a head covering. (TIP: Bring a bag to hold your footwear.)

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Steps away is the 25-metre-tall Obelisk of Theodosius, built under Pharoah Thumose III around 1,450 BC before being moved by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I from Luxor to the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 390 AD.

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Also within a short walk is Topkapi Palace (muze.gen.tr/muze-detay/topkapi), which served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly four centuries. The Harem alone is a must-see. It was the living quarters of the sultan, his mother, wives, children and siblings, maids, Black eunuchs who guarded the premises, and, of course, up to 300 concubines. The Imperial Treasury holds a glittery collection including the jewel-encrusted Sword of Süleyman the Magnificent and the Topkapi Dagger, subject of the 1964 film Topkapi in which Peter Ustinov won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

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(TIP: Be sure to walk through lovely Gulhane Park and to stop at the nearby Marmaray Sirkeci Istasyonu train station, built in 1890 as the eastern terminus of the legendary Orient Express. And don’t leave the peninsula without taking in the sounds and smells of the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar.)

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Head over to Taksim Square, famous for its nightlife, restaurants and shops. Admire the Republic Monument commemorating the formation of the Turkish Republic as you listen to the call to prayer from Taksim Mosque while the city bustles around you. Then stroll along the bustling pedestrian street Istiklal Ave., flanked by gorgeous architecture, to St. Antoine Church. The largest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul, it has a statue out front of Pope John XXIII, who preached here in 2003.

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A couple blocks away is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks and the world’s oldest towers, Galata Tower (muze.gen.tr/muze-detay/galatakulesi). First built in 528 and then reconstructed in 1348, it offers spectacular panoramic views. Legend has it that a couple who climb the tower together for the first time will get married — but if one had visited before, marriage won’t happen.

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A PALATIAL STAY

Ciragan Palace Kempinski (kempinski.com/en/istanbul/ciragan-palace) feels like a resort in the heart of Istanbul along the Bosphorus. It has a total of 310 rooms — 279 rooms and 20 suites in the newer hotel section and 11 suites in the palace section.

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The former Ottoman palace’s history dates back to the 17th century but it was devastated by a 1910 fire that left only the outer walls and Imperial Hammam intact. Decades later, a restoration — as well as construction of the modern building — led to the hotel being opened in 1991.

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The palace section is a draw for guests seeking discretion and a royal stay, with its own lobby, helipad and butler service. Its soap service dates back to the ancient water therapies of the Turkish bath. Palace guests choose a scent from 100% pure olive oil handmade soaps and the butler slices your pick — one to use during your stay and another to take home. Complimentary Turkish delights, baklavas, fruits and nuts in suite help tide you over until dinner at one of the hotel’s fine restaurants.

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The five-star hotel’s Sultan Suite in the historical section ranks among the world’s most luxurious suites and has hosted such guests as Kobe Bryant, Bono, Madonna and Oprah.

The on-site Sanitas Spa offers an authentic Turkish bath experience that shouldn’t be missed. The hammam is very much a part of Turkish culture, in which an attendant first scrubs your body, then massages you with a foam-filled cloth before rinsing. Let any of your body insecurities go and just enjoy the pampering.

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SOME DIVINE EATS

Alaf, with its outdoor rooftop patio looking at the Bhosphorus, was recently awarded the Michelin Guide’s Bib Gourmand, which spotlights restaurants that offer three-course meals at reasonable prices.

Ali Ocakbasi at the Oligark eatery complex on the Bhosphorus serves up tasty kebab and mezze.

Matbah Restaurant,near Topaki Palace, serves Ottoman cuisine “fit for the sultans” and influenced by recipes from historical palace documents.

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FLY IN COMFORT AND STYLE WITH TURKISH AIRLINES

Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) was recently named World’s Best Business Class Catering, Best Airline in Europe and the Best Airline in Southern Europe at the World Airline Awards organized by Skytrax, an air transport rating agency, in a survey of responses from more than 14 million online customers.

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There’s a reason for it. The delicious Turkish and world cuisine served in business class is prepared by the airline’s flying chefs and changes according to season to be its freshest. Their selection of Wellness Tea — once you’ve sampled the Turkish wines, of course — includes travel-friendly ones like promoting sleep and reducing swelling.

Did we mention Toronto to Istanbul is a 10-hour flight? The business-class lie-flat seats — complete with a massage feature — help you arrive refreshed. Other business-class perks include preferential check-in to skip long airport lines, extra baggage allowance, travel kits from fashion giants Coccinelle and Hackett, and Turkish Airlines Lounge Business access in Istanbul.

Turkish Airlines also offers a stopover accommodation service providing a one-night stay in a 4-star hotel for economy passengers and a two-night stay in a 5-star hotel for business-class passengers departing from select countries, including Canada. Travellers can also add extra nights with Turkish Airlines prices at contracted hotels to have more time to explore beautiful Istanbul.

cmcleod@postmedia.com

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