Friday, May 01, 2015

Back from Istanbul

I didn't think that my no foreign travel policy could hold for ever so it was that I had to get up at 4.00am on Monday to head off for Terminal 5 and a flight to Istanbul.  Fortunately, although I hadn't been abroad for eighteen months, I had enough accumulated points to keep my British Airways silver card which meant I could get into the really rather splendid lounge and have a bacon roll or two.  The chances of getting decent tea (to have at breakfast with milk) would be small in Turkey.  Likewise bacon, of course, and as for HP Sauce...  

The  lounge was very quiet (not surprisingly) so I could spread out enough to check that I had everything I needed to have on me for the flight.   I didn't have any meetings when I arrived so was travelling reasonably casually dressed although I did wear a blazer because the pockets are useful for carrying my passport (I always keep it on me on a trip, with my spare one hidden in my bag), iPod and my Kindle which fits neatly in the blazer pocket. So I can just stow my bag in the overhead locker and sit straight down. This avoids the situation you always encounter of annoying people putting their bags in the overhead locker then fiddling about for ages while they try to find something inside their bag for the trip (book, iPod, banana, lip balm (girls only, of course) etc.) while everyone waits in the aisle trying to get to their seats, wishing they would just get a bloomin' move on! Later. they usually stand up, just as the plane is taxiing, to look for something else (mints, puzzle book, pen, iPad).  Grr!  It's a three and a half hour flight which is not too bad.  At least, when I sat down in the rather too small aircraft for my taste, the captain said that they were expecting a smooth flight.  Hooray!  I also had an empty seat next to me. Double Hooray!  One change since my last trip is that they now let you listen to your iPod or read your Kindle even when taking off.  No need to switch it off and then switch it on again when the seat belt sign goes off.  This was good news as I could listen to calming music during take off (which I hate) but it does make you wonder why, for all those years, they said you couldn't use portable electronic devices during take off and landing.  It obviously wasn't for safety reasons, so why do it?

Having my music on (John Barry's From Russia with Love, of course) meant I fell asleep and woke up just twenty minutes before landing. This meant I missed second breakfast on board but I'm not a Hobbit and, anyway, British Airways produce this compressed scrambled egg concoction which looks exactly like, and has the same consistency as, the sort of pale yellow foam rubber they put in baby cot mattresses.  There was a long queue at immigration and I witnessed the usual strange habit that immigration officers the world over seem to follow in that they like to put their stamp next to  a previous stamp from their country.  Why?  They could put it anywhere!  Another improvement from my last trip is that you can now get an electronic visa in advance.  Before you had to queue up and buy a visa for £20 (or $20, so I always took dollars) when you arrived.  You then had to join another queue for immigration.  This visa is just a way of making easy money; there were no checks, you just gave them cash and they stuck a stamp (bottom left, above) in your passport.  When you think that Istanbul attracts around 12 million tourists a year you can see that it is a nice little earner at £20 a time.

The drive from Istanbul airport into town is one of the great airport drives on earth.  You travel along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, which is always full of anchored ships waiting for passage up the Bosphorus, and then go through part of the old fifth century Theodosian walls.  To get from old Istanbul to the newer part (well, new a thousand years ago) you have to cross The Golden Horn via the Atatürk bridge where you have a wonderful view to the right of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia.  Up past the Pera Palace Hotel (where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express) and around Taksim Square to my hotel.  I have stayed in the Pera Palace before but the conference I was attending was at the Istanbul Hilton and as travelling around by taxi is a nightmare in Istanbul I agreed to stay at the Hilton, although I wasn't particularly enamoured of the idea.

In fact, the Hilton turned out to be an interesting and splendid hotel and is celebrating it's sixtieth birthday this year.  It opened in 1955 and was the first brand new hotel to be built in Europe since the end of World War 2 and the first five star hotel in Turkey.  Constructed in just 21 months it was the largest hotel in Eastern Europe or the Middle East when it was finished. Partly paid for with Marshall Plan money, it was designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who developed many of the key engineering concepts behind the glass tower type of skyscraper.  The firm designed many famous buildings, including the Sears Tower in Chicago; for nearly twenty-five years the tallest building in the world.  More recently, they designed the current world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The Hilton party arrive in Istanbul, June 1955

Conrad Hilton chartered a Pan Am plane to take a bevy of Hollwood actresses (including Terry Moore, Olivia de Havilland, Irene Dunne, Sonja Henie, Merle Oberon and Ann Miller) out to Istanbul for the opening and this cemented its reputation as a top place to be seen in Istanbul.  

Topkapi (1964)


The hotel has been used as the setting for a number of films, most notably Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley (seen above in front of  the magic carpet inspired entrance).  

From Russia With Love (1963)

It's hill top position and distinctive silhouette makes it an easy to spot landmark and you can glimpse it in the ferry scenes in From Russia with Love (1963).  It's the oldest Hilton outside the US and I have to say everything about it was pretty top notch.  It's certainly the best Hilton I have stayed in.

For an extra £25 a day they were offering a room with a view of the Bosphorus and, of course, Asia, which was well worth taking advantage of.  All the rooms have balconies too, so it was nice to sit out and watch the ships while having a glass of Turkish wine (some of which is very good indeed) with my particular German friend B, who joined me after work as she was attending the same conference.

This was because it was too early to go to the bar but my reasoning was that as it was two hours ahead of UK time then it was still lunchtime in England, so drinking wine at three forty-five in the afternoon was justifiable.  Anyway, it's always a good idea to thin the blood a bit after a long flight, to avoid DVT. This wine was made from the local Öküzgözü (literally, ox eye) grape from Anatolia by Gulor who, twenty years ago, set up the first boutique winery in Turkey under the supervision of a Frenchman.  The origin of the vitis vinifera vine has been traced to the region so it is only right that wine production is increasing in Turkey.

Anyway man cannot live by wine alone so it was time to move down and take my first Vodka Martini of the trip at the Veranda (as they spell it) Bar where you could still look at the Bosphorus.  It was a good, cold one but suffered from too many olives!  There really needs to be an EU standard on this.  Brussels could set up a committee and monitor olive immersion in Martinis.  Olive producers would be against the idea, of course, but it would prevent this ongoing Martini displacement fraud.  More useful than most of the things the EU does, anyway.  By the time Turkey joins the EU they may have written an initial report.

Veranda Bar Cat

We were joined by Veranda Bar Cat, one of the many cats that inhabit the gardens of the hotel.  In fact, cats roam much of Istanbul but unlike the ones I have seen in Athens, for example, which are scrawny underfed things, the ones in Turkey look very well fed and people leave out food and bowls of water on the streets for them.  My daughter would approve!

The executive lounge at the Hilton is a particularly good one, on the ninth floor with not only a series of computers and printers ( I didn't have my laptop with me as Guy is using it for exam revision), a very helpful selection of Turkish ladies on duty (so to speak) and a pretty good free food and drink service too.   The domed ceiling demonstrates some of the work of Turkish architect Seddat Hakki Eldam, who designed much of the hotel's interior, which is in stark contrast to the external modernism of SOM.  Oddly, the hotel was built by the forerunner of the German construction firm B was working for when I first met her at a conference in Lithuania in 2006.

Anyway, on the first morning at the hotel we had breakfast in the lounge.  Usually lounge breakfasts are pretty dull and consist of bread, cereal, fruit and other such girly horrors.  Worse still, of course, are croissants; the baked food of the devil. Much to my surprise they had a cooked selection with scrambled eggs, mushrooms, baked beans and, amazingly, bacon.

Even more amazingly they had that true sign of civilisation: HP Sauce!  It certainly set me up for a dull day in the conference centre.  It's always hard work listening to presentations given through simultaneous interpretation, not least because you know your own efforts will emerge equally mangled to others.  Fortunately, most of the Turkish contingent didn't seem to need interpretatiom.  B, much to my surprise, who has been living in Istanbul for four years now, has pretty fluent sounding Turkish, which was useful when out and about.  

And out and about we went that afternoon, as we judged that part of the conference to be particularly tedious.  So we headed off to the Grand Bazaar for tea.  Well, I had tea and B had coffee as she doesn't like tea that much.  Interestingly, I heard on the radio just before I left, that considering that I think coffee to be a barbarians drink, its large scale adoption in Britain in the nineteenth century was considered uncivilised itself, compared with the older habit of drinking coffee.   Turkish tea is very good, however, and was certainly better than the tea at the conference.  Nothing makes my heart sink more than the sight of the horrid little red and yellow label of Lipton's tea bags which seems the default brew of countries that don't know anything about tea.  It always tastes like dishwater (probably because it is owned by Unilever) mixed with iron filings.

For a change we had breakfast in the main restaurant on Wednesday.  This was a nice bright place also overlooking the view of the Bosphorus.  I have to say that this is one of the cleanest hotels I have ever been in.  The floors positively gleamed.

Breakfast here proved to be rather more cylindrical than upstairs with veal and chicken sausages as well as potato croquettes.  They had a fried egg station too but no bacon, as there were rather more Turkish people using the restaurant for morning meetings.

After the second and final day of the conference B and I could escape and we did something I've always wanted to do (no, we've probably already done that) which was to take a ferry across the Bosphorus to have dinner in Asia.  I've been to Istanbul perhaps eight or nine times but never done this inter-continental voyage.

The Hilton eclipsed

So it was goodbye to Europe.  There was a ferry across the water every five minutes or so.  All the locals sat inside but I wanted to see what was going on!  There are still a number of the fifties-style ferries, as seen in From Russia with Love, about but the Hilton is rather less prominent now than it was then because of all the newer buildings around it.

The population has increased from just under 2 million in 1963 to around 14.4 million today, making it the sixth most populous city in the world and taking the taxi down to the ferry port it felt like it!

We walked for about ten minutes once we arrived on the Anatolian side and arrived at the restaurant Fethi Paşa Korusu Sosyal Tesisleri, which is part of a bigger complex and park and used to be owned by some Ottoman bigwig (or big turban, more likely).

Demonstrating that good ingredients don't need messing about with was my delicious Antolian mixed grill.  Also, I think those potatoes were the most delicious ones I had ever had anywhere.

There was no alcohol at the restaurant, which is common in Istanbul outside the big hotels, and so we took a relatively early trip back to Europe during a spectacular electric storm in search of drinks.

B and I wanted to get out of our suits so it was a quick change and down to the Veranda bar again.  We had left for Asia straight after the conference, at about five, given the slow taxi ride, boat trip and walk needed to get to the restaurant.  By the time we got back at ten o'clock a change had come upon the hotel, however.  Previously quite quiet it had been dozens and dozens of Australians, doing a Gallipoli battlefield tour.  They were scruffy, they were fat, they were old and they were loud.  B and I huddled at the far end of the veranda, away from their welcome drinks party and wondered how most of them would cope with actually walking, as opposed to waddling, on the actual battlefield.  Tonight's Martini was delivered with a sliver of lime rather than too many olives, which was a refreshing change. After one drink each, though we retired, defeated by the antipodean aural bombardment.  Tomorrow we planned to visit the nearby military museum but that is for my next post...


  1. Sounds like a great trip (apart from the work stuff which seemed to get in the way a bit!)

  2. Marvellous sounding trip so far. I really do enjoy reading your posts on your adventuring. You should really write some spy novels :)

  3. Sounds a wonderful trip (the conference parts excepted).

  4. I stayed at the Istanbul Hilton a few years ago, it was pretty good then... Good to see it seems to be the same. Seems overall to have been a good trip.