Tuesday 20 August 2019

Istanbul's Turkish delights: My immersion in one of the world's great city breaks

From a surprising hammam to the Hagia Sophia, Jerome Reilly explores 'a bridge between east and west'

Byzantine architecture: Istanbul
Byzantine architecture: Istanbul
Cagoloyu Hamami in Istanbul
The Gate of Salutation at Topkapi Palace
Jerome Reilly
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

A couple of immutable truths about your average Irishman: He is not comfortable waving his bits about in public, and he can't walk in flip-flops.

I pondered our innate bashfulness and fraught relationship with flimsy footwear as I clutched a rather sheer towel around my nethers with a death grip and shuffled towards my first authentic Turkish bath in the heart of old Istanbul.

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The flip-flops slapped the marble floors, laid 400 years ago in old Constantinople as I followed some pretty famous footsteps in visiting Cagaloglu Hamami, this great city's most celebrated bath house.

I wondered if John Travolta, one of its many A-lister visitors, was a little lighter on his flip-flops than me.

The females' hamami, which is identically elaborate, luxurious and no doubt equally fragrant, is completely separate. It was once visited, rather bizarrely, by Florence Nightingale (R&R from Crimea?) as well as more recently by Kate Moss and Oprah Winfrey. Three names I never thought I'd put in one sentence.

Anyway, here's how it works, just in case you ever get the opportunity to have a real Turkish bath and your natural Irish reticence gives you pause.

The hamami is stunningly ornate with marble fountains, dark wooden panelling and domed ceilings, and I was ushered into a private dressing room with, appropriately enough, a leather ottoman, dressing table and small wardrobe as well as various complimentaries: a comb, shampoo, body cream and various soaps and unguents.

I stripped, unwrapped my new footwear anticipating the inevitable bashed toes to follow, and wrapped the towel around me as best I could. A few moments later there was a gentle knock on the door. I locked up, took the key with me, and followed my attendant, Tamir, into the hamam proper. He was a big bloke with the neck of a Maori prop and a back as wide as the front wall of a handball alley. He was similarly unattired from the waist up and I shuffled after him like an emperor penguin in a David Attenborough special, trying to make sure the egg doesn't touch Antarctic ice.

First a visit to the steam room. I gently braised for 20 minutes accompanied by an icy bottle of water. The room was toasty but nevertheless it was comfortable.

Tamir returned and I followed as he led me to the hamam's centrepiece, a circular dais about waist height where perhaps half a dozen men were already being massaged and pummelled and rubbed with exfoliating gloves or doused in a sudsy torrent of olive oil soap.

Time to get up close and personal with Tamir who poured blood temperature water over my head as an initial first ablution. Then the work began. My turn on the marble.

Face up, with the towel artfully draped over the essentials, the first step was exfoliation with newly unwrapped gloves on each of his hands. He started on my face and concentrated on the sinus area and then over the next 10 minutes or so covered most of my body.

At this stage one might have thought an uptight Irishman would be properly freaked out - but no, I was actually pretty blissed out and totally relaxed for the final stage of the process: a deep tissue massage and then a final rinse before Tamir washed my hair. Again a vivid close up of his navel. I was nearly asleep. I didn't give a sugar. Tamir was OK with me, notwithstanding his unnervingly hairy belly button.

Lots of warm dry towels and I was ushered out, sat down at a low table and brought slices of fresh fruit and a honeyed rosewater tea with more than a touch of tamarind (bitter and sweet in equal measure and both delightful and restorative).

That night I slept for 12 hours straight. A miracle. I usually sleep like a baby - up three times a night roaring and looking for a feed.

The cost? About 75 yoyos plus a decent and deserved gratuity.

Cagoloyu Hamami in Istanbul

Earlier that day I had visited all the usual tourist haunts - the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The latter, one of the towering achievements of Byzantine architecture, is simply stunning and throughout the ages has served as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, an Ottoman imperial mosque - and now a museum.

It's only in recent decades that scholars found runic inscriptions etched into the stonework in the upper vaults.

The working theory is that a bored Viking mercenary, part of the Varangian guard hired to act as minders to the ruling Byzantine nobility, carved the graffiti.

Translated, the message reads: "Halfdan carved these runes." In other words: "Halfdan woz 'ere!" Nothing changes. Thank Odin he didn't have a spray can.

And, of course Istanbul, with 15 million souls within its city limits, a history as complex and turbulent as any place on Earth, and a strategic importance as the bridge between east and west was always going to throw up those intriguing historic curiosities.

We had flown with the flagship Turkish Airlines into the city's new airport which will be a delightful treat for returning Irish visitors familiar with the old centrally located (but often chaotically busy) Ataturk Airport.

The new Istanbul airport is the last word in airy modern design and is set to challenge and perhaps exceed Dubai as a global aviation hub.

It is located some 50km outside the city and a new metro line, completed, probably in early 2020, will bring passengers into the city. In the meantime taxi or bus takes about 1 hour.

It is a simply stunning piece of architecture and will on completion in 2027 be equal in size to Manhattan. It will need to be that big to cater for the planned 200 million travelers a year, more than twice that now handled by Atlanta, currently the world's busiest airport.

The architects took inspiration from the domed mosques of Istanbul, the massive transit hall echoes the shape of the Bosphorus Strait and the control tower is shaped like the Turkish national flower, the tulip.

The target, after all four phases are completed, is to host 100 airlines flying 200 million passengers to 300 destinations every year.

On the way home we were lucky enough to be ushered into the Turkish Airlines business lounge which really is the last word in passenger molly-coddling - there is a cinema, art gallery, dozens of different five-star food options, usually cooked to order. It also has a golf simulator of the type professionals use when they are trying to prise €1,000 from the wallets of hackers like me who believe a new set of Callaways will finally cure that hook. They won't.

The Gate of Salutation at Topkapi Palace

The mighty Bosphorus dominates this crazy, vibrant and tumultuous city, and a sunset cruise along this mighty waterway that divides Europe from Asia is a great way to get a different perspective of the city.

We boarded a motor yacht moored in the wealthy Istanbul enclave of Bebek where the super rich hang their hats. We drank wine and scoffed typically Turkish fare including oven-fresh flatbreads and charcoal-grilled fish and meats.

I was expecting wonderful food in Istanbul - but I shouldn't have been so surprised by its diversity and invention. It's a heady fusion of Asian, Middle Eastern, European and Balkan cuisines and, of course, in this vast country there are deep regional differences.

As we ate, the azure Bosphorus glinted beneath a setting sun and we enjoyed a different and unrivalled view of the Topkapi Palace; the scene of centuries of Byzantine intrigue and bitter internecine feuding.

It was once the home of hundreds of concubines who lived lives of comfort and plenty in a harem of astonishing splendour and, given their number, not much to do in the way of work.

After docking and making our way back into the city the mournful and evocative adhan (call to prayer) echoed across Istanbul, and the sing-song riddle much loved by schoolchildren decades ago came to my mind. Constantinople is a very long word. Can you spell it?

Take Two: Top attractions

Blue Mosque

Considered the jewel of Istanbul, the Blue Mosque, with its stunning main dome and six needle-point minarets that pierce sapphire blue skies is a must-see destination. Women need to wear a headscarf (supplied).

Grand Bazaar

For those who love shopping, the Grand Bazaar, dating from 1455 and reputedly the oldest shopping centre in the world, boasts 4,000 shops. Haggle to your heart’s content for everything under the sun

Getting there

Jerome Reilly

Turkish Airlines departs 14 times a week from Dublin's Terminal 1 and beyond to 311 destinations in 124 countries and is the recipient of numerous Skytrax Passenger Choice Awards.

* Turkish Airlines offers round-trip economy class fares for Dublin to Istanbul from €325 (including taxes).

* Return Turkish Airlines business class fares from Dublin to the new airport in Istanbul cost from €1,035 (including taxes).

* Baggage allowance in economy class is 23kg plus 8kg for hand luggage. In business class it is 40kg, plus 8kg (x2) for hand luggage.

* For more details visit turkishairlines.com or contact the dedicated call centre on 01 5251849.

* Flight duration is 3 hours 50 minutes. Wi-fi is free.

NB: This article originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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