There are a handful of cities in this world, where you are spoiled for choice when it comes to decide which of the many sites to visit. Istanbul is definitely top of the list. Blue Mosque, Topkapi, Hagia Sofia, Grand Bazaar, Maiden Tower, Princes’ Island…on and on goes the list. I am lucky insofar that I live not far from Istanbul for several months each year, so I can take it by turns.
On the occasion of my last visit, I concentrated on finding the most glamorous places which for once are not connected to ancient history. But history influenced they are nonetheless.
Curiosity drove me to visit my first place of choice: Magic Ice, the first and only ice museum in a warm European country. Conveniently located in one of Istanbul’s most fashionable Shopping Malls, the FORUM Istanbul, I saw the opportunity of combining a bit of retail therapy with the blue lighted glamour of Magic ice.
I duly averted my eyes from the enticing windows of the designer shops (that was for later) and descended two floors to the entrance of Magic Ice. And the fun began: after paying my admission, I was kitted out with a blue protective cape to wear over my clothes so I wouldn’t freeze to death once I had passed through the ice tunnel. Two gloves were dangling from the collar of the cape which came in handy later on.
Then I made my way inside past walls of ice, all bathed in a magical blue light. The theme of the museum is about the visit of the Vikings to Istanbul in 880 (as you can see, there is no getting away from history in Istanbul) and the story is carved into sheets of ice. Very pretty. Next come huge ice sculptures of a Viking house, a boat, an elk and..a Viking, one of the brave travelers who had made it all the way here and carved his name in runes into a wall of the Hagia Sofia. At the end of the walk, a bar awaits, illuminated by a chandelier made of ice and you are served a drink in an ice glass. That’s what you need the gloves for so your fingers won’t stick. Ah yes, and you get a straw too so your lips won’t stick either. A delightful experience, unexpected in a place like Istanbul.
In the afternoon, I made my way to the most emblematic hotel in Istanbul: the Pera Palace. Overlooking the Golden Horn, the hotel came into existence at the time when to fabled Orient Express ran all the way from Paris to Istanbul carrying fashionable travelers who were enchanted by the general fascination of Europe with everything oriental (meaning Turkish) at the times. The train was there, the city was there, but a suitable hotel was missing and the Pera Palace was conceived. It featured the first electrically operated elevator in the city, a ball room with blue glass domes to filter the day light and each and every facility to cater for the needs of the rich. And everybody who was anybody came, from Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie to Eleanor Duse, Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy and Atatürk was a regular too.
Recently the hotel underwent extensive restorations and was closed for several years, to re-open in polished splendor in October of this year. I had the pleasure of being shown around by the PR lady of the hotel. After a coffee in the Orient Bar, I visited the spa and pool in the basement, small because the entire hotel is not very big, but exquisitely appointed, romantic and very cozy. Beauty treatments are available as is a traditional Turkish bath (hamam) and massage.
The rooms are themed according to previous occupants. I just loved the Greta Garbo room, all in pastel colors and the bathrooms with claw foot tubs. Apart from the Orient Bar, you can dine in the Agatha Christie restaurant with an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs celebrating their art. Hundreds of pieces of silver cutlery and bowls from Christofle/Paris were discovered hidden in the basement during the restoration, some in their original packaging and are now exhibited in show cases throughout the hotel .A place which breathes history, glamour and culture and the good news is that the restoration was carried out with a delicate hand so as not to ruin the original ambience.
Totally in tune with the themes of glamour, Orient Express and nostalgia is my visit to the nearby Flower Passage on Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu. Once the site of a famous wooden theatre which burnt down, a Greek banker bought the land in 1870 and constructed a shopping arcade with 18 luxury flats on the top floor which became Istanbul’s most fashionable address named Cite de Pera. After the revolution in Russia in 1917, many emigrants took refuge in Istanbul and baronesses opened flower shops in the arcade which is where the name Flower Passage derives from.
The upscale atmosphere deteriorated over the following years, the Flower Passage had no more flower shops, cheap pubs moved in and the Flower Passage became a watering hole for itinerant musicians, workers and some decidedly unsavory characters. The final straw was when the roof collapsed in 1980 and the entire complex was closed.
But in the late 1980 when tourism to the city started to pick up considerably, the city fathers remembered the charm of the Flower Passage and it was restored and reopened. As luck would have it, many of the original, splendid art deco features of the building had survived the collapse and that’s why it’s one of my favorite places to admire art deco splendor. Stained glass windows let in the light, photographs of some of the famous original tenants look down from the walls and baskets full of flowers hang from the ceiling.
The restaurants which line the passage today serve good fish dishes from the nearby fish market, but it’s the spirit of the past and the art deco which make it a glamorous place to visit.
*Photos by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte, except for exterior of Pera Palace Hotel by Pablo Monteagudo via flickr.
Another one of Inka’s favorite glamorous places in Turkey, is the coastal playground of Bodrum