Golden times

In revisiting Istanbul, Nick Redman is reunited with his old flame

Beyond the windows it looked like a light show put on just for us, as we waited to be seated at Mürver, a busy new rooftop restaurant in Istanbul. Illuminated white and sodium-orange across the dark mouth of the Golden Horn, the skyline monuments sparkled: Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, its six minarets spearing the night sky. We got a corner table at the back. This place was dinner-reservation gold, be it your first night ever in the old Ottoman capital, or your first night back, as it was for my other half and me late last spring.

The soft funk sounds, flash-fire open kitchen and de rigueur filament bulbs made Mürver feel sweepingly self-assured. Marinated sea-bass starters arrived, a tangy delight; then courgette fritters, kicky with chilli. The maîtresse d’, upon my asking about moving to a window table when the crowd thinned, said, ‘It won’t,’ with a satisfied smile, as if nothing had changed since the city’s big-money, pre-crunch, pre-coup millennial times.

I had to smile, too. So it was still irresistanbul! Istanbul, the city I’ve adored for three decades or more, living and working there first, as a sybaritic twentysomething. I’d love to say nothing had changed, but that would be to ignore the endless posters of President Erdoğan we saw lining the freeway from the airport, as he geared up for another power-enhancing election. For Turks, a lot has changed.

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Interior of the Blue Mosque

And for tourists? Here again after more than two years, we needn’t have worried: the same effusive welcome that is practically the Turks’ moral duty; the same great-value food; the same kamikaze taxi drivers, sadly, too, with their allergy to safety belts. We were glad we had chosen to stay in Sultanahmet, where Byzantium and Constantinople rose and fell, and where Christianity yielded to Islam, 600 or so years ago. I found reassurance in its historic continuity: it looked as stunning as it always had, just untroubled now by tourists and touts. At dusk, the two of us strolled the sleepy streets, past leafy trees and gaily painted clapboard facades, more Tyrolean than Turkish. It was as if we’d hit on an undiscovered Euro weekend hotspot.

The Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet was a tranquil essay in polished-wood floors, geometric kilims and corridors of Ottoman tiles, patterned with tulip petals and circular bursts of colour, like firework finales. The lobby had the perfume of lilies, a safe embrace. From our balcony I looked down at the garden, where jasmine plaited itself in thick columns up the turmeric-coloured enfolding walls, looking like cypress in the low light. Inhaling the iron smell of geraniums, I was back, oddly, in a flash: to June 2001, a heady evening here with friends, the summer before the Twin Towers fell.

The world has mended and come apart since. It always will. In Istanbul, tourists were trickling back, said a hotel waiter, pouring drinks by an oil lamp’s flicker. ‘This is an old city,’ he told us, as we devoured yoghurt-smothered Iskender kebab on puffy flatbread, zingy on the tongue with tomato sauce and hot chilli flakes. ‘Over thousands of years it has had so many punches. We have been sad, but people are returning again.’

Istanbul felt no scarier than Paris, I thought, as we stepped out to mingle with those people next day. In the balmy air we wandered among horse chestnuts in bloom before the Blue Mosque, fountains playing, the muezzin’s call wailing to its crescendo. Loudly chattering Turkish schoolkids milled about smoke-laced carts selling blackened corn-on-the-cob. 

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The View from Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet

‘Like a photograph emerging in a darkroom tray, the spiritual gloom developed into magnificence’

The queue was reassuringly healthy for the Hagia Sophia, its buttresses and ballooning domes squeezing out the sky. It seemed more magnificent than I’d ever known it, almost not of this planet, as if it had crash-landed from outer space millions of years ago and, over the ages, grown rusty and dusty, as civilisations rose around it. Such was the awe it was built to instil: first as a church in the 6th century, and again, after almost a millennium, when saved from failing Byzantine dilapidation in 1453 by the conquering Ottomans, who restored it as a mosque. Inside, like a photograph emerging in a darkroom tray, the spiritual gloom developed into magnificence, daylight angling in with stage-beam precision from windows on high. 

We performed the ‘Say, “cheese”’ honours for three Romanians in the grounds of Topkapı Palace, which rang with the chip-chip of masons repairing the low stone walls. The inscrutable residence for generations of sultans was a paradise garden of blood-red rose beds and carpets of pansies, monastic cedars throwing shadows across the lawns. It filled the senses like distilled nostalgia.

Chambers shone with centuries of splendour, from mother-of-pearl grandfather clocks (one a gift from Queen Victoria to Abdul Hamid II) to a 300-year-old ceremonial suit of armour, dripping with chains like something from Michael Jackson’s tour wardrobe circa 1993. But on this cloudless day, Topkapı was for outside indulgence. As waiters at Konyalı restaurant removed the cloches on our kebab lunch plates, we lazed sultan-style on the terrace, catching rays, letting our senses lead us.

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Ample spices on sale in the city’s Spice Bazaar

Ooh, that Bosphorus view, and the blue Golden Horn flowing to meet it, scored with the white trails of ferries moving at the speed of swans. Way north, in the direction of the Black Sea, traffic caught sunlight, tiny silver beads traversing the Bosphorus Bridge, the unlikely front line of the failed 2016 coup. Behind it all rose the LA-style skyline of new-rich Istanbul – steely and blue-glassy, aspiring optimistically to heydays ahead.

 We took a night taxi, seeking the delectations of the modern city in Bomonti, inland from the Bosphorus shores. The city unspooled: a futuristic galaxy. Brutal apartment blocks filled canyons, glittering as they rolled off into the hills. We sped above it all, across high flyovers like fat spaghetti tangles, spotted with red taillights, and could only gawp admiringly at Istanbul’s sheer indefatigable grandeur.

‘You made it,’ called Hatice, looming to greet us as we stepped into Kilimanjaro. She’d already texted a snap of herself with her Italian beau, taken at the table moments before – possibly in case we didn’t recognise our friend, two years after she’d left London to resettle here. The pair had invited us so as to big-up Bomonti, their home turf, a kilometre or so north of Taksim Square. It was named after two Swiss brothers who brewed hops here around the dawn of the 20th century, when Istanbul was Constantinople. Their factory, once closed and broken-windowed, has been resurrected for the unfailingly effervescent millennials of Istanbul, and Kilimanjaro is one of several hedonistic joints filling its bare-brick warehouse spaces and sprawling courtyards.

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Boza being poured into a glass

With lots of straw-sucking, couplesy-flirting going on, Kilimanjaro could have been in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District or Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin. Its centrepiece was a huge ‘aviary’ basket structure that followed the looping Grand-Prix curves of the bar below, full of spotlit bottles, perched like songbirds among dangling potted plants. Such a surprise stunner in a reborn corner! All the while, ’70s funk of the James Brown school came courtesy of a speccily serious DJ, as plates of crispy-skin chicken thighs circulated with waiters’ pirouettes, threatening drinkers’ Armani garb.

‘Ooh, that Bosphorus view, and the blue Golden Horn flowing to meet it, scored with the white trails of ferries moving at the speed of swans’

We talked until late, about this and that; about how, if ever a city deserves good times, it is Istanbul, with inclusivity in its marrow. I recalled the borscht of snowy nights, in 1987, at Rejans, a nocturnal nook in a dodgy Beyoğlu backstreet originally opened by anti-Bolshevik exiles, musicians sawing away in its minstrel’s gallery, late.

I lamented its long-ago folding. ‘It’s been relaunched’, said Hatice. ‘Next time you come, we’ll go.’

Next morning dawned more dispiritingly, cacophonous with irascible gulls, and hangover-grey due to a grim downpour off the foggy Bosphorus. A comfort-food kind of day. Benoit was waiting, as he’d promised, with brollies outside the Spice Bazaar, beyond the moored ferries of Eminönü, gateway to Old Istanbul. The Belgian expat lays on culinary walks to help visitors discover the part of the city I’d overlooked in the past, always questing after the new. This area was a commercial whirl in late Roman imperial times – and with Benoit, we uncovered a traditional Istanbul as vibrant as I’d recalled it years ago.

We breakfasted first, on seeded simit bread rings, with the rain coursing about the drainpipes of an atmospheric han — a storeyed, arcaded Ottoman storage depot, of which few remain. It was a workers’ cafe, family-run for generations, by emigrants from Erzincan, a town way east, near the border with Armenia. A daub of molasses tingled the tastebuds, black, sticky and prune-like, brought from the Black Sea, where it is a centuries-old method of preserving apples in winter. Coffee sacks piled in a nearby alley told of wider, older trade links, stamped with destinations from ‘Yemen’ to ‘Etiyopya’, ‘Sumatra’ to ‘Hindistan’. Moving deeper, we brushed past spice dens dustily pungent with oregano and coriander, wild orchid roots dangling like sacrificial skeins of teeth.

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Turkish cheese pie

We ate lamb’s neck soup in a corner place, scrunched on low stools like picnic gnomes, then cheesy pizza-style pide at Mavi Haliç Pidecisi, where the cook-proprietor let us dispatch our own off a large wooden paddle into the oven’s roar. We had lamb kebabs still sizzling from their bed of red charcoal at Osmanlı Kebapçısı, a classic concern as queued-for as a trendy New York food truck. At Altan Sekerleme sweet shop (founded 1865) we sucked sugared almonds in Smartie colours, offered freely for the tasting from stoppered jars. It was very Turkish: these sensory rituals, the sweetness of strangers.

Another curiosity was Sevda Gazozcusu, its walls lined with shelves of retro Turkish fizzy drinks: a collector’s new trend, would you believe, said Benoit. 

Darkness was descending over the city. We ended up sipping boza, Turkey’s traditional rainy-day warmer, made of fermented millet, sugary and creamy – slightly custardy. At this elegant establishment, Vefa Bozacısı, served by white-clad waiters, we could have been in Florence or Madrid amid the stained mirrors and worn floor tiles. Spooning it up, I fell through the time tunnel, through decades, to my first winter, January 1986, when I would order it on ferries crossing the bitter, sleety Bosphorus after work. I got a familiar warm feeling inside: Istanbul, and the pleasurable glow of going back to find a city as sweet and seductive as ever I’d known it.

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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing