Istanbul taxi drivers don’t do street names. They don’t need the Knowledge. Their method of pathfinding is an ancient one: they ask directions. Our driver nods as we ask for the A'jia Hotel, sucks on his cigarette, turns up his music and hits the gas. Istanbul streams past the window, ancient domes and minarets jostling shiny new apartment blocks, while carpet-sellers, shoeshine hawkers and sharp-suited businessmen hang off buses and spill into the road. Through the window comes the smell of rosewater, spice and smoky kebabs. And every now and then our driver screeches to a halt to ask directions, and off he goes again, his evil-eye medallion swinging from the rearview mirror.
Istanbul straddles the magnificent Bosphorus Straits, a body of water that separates Asia and Europe. The city's palaces and mosques stud the skyline on both shores. This is where crusaders marched, Romans orgied and sultans ruled, and its heady mix of modern glamour and ancient exoticism make it one of the world's most romantic cities for sensual delights. Well that’s what we’re hoping, in the steamy back of our speeding cab.
The A'jia Hotel is one of the new wave of boutique hotels in Istanbul and sits on the Asian shore, half an hour away from the mayhem of the centre. Slowly the crowds and chaos begin to give way to lush green gardens and waterside mansions, and we pull up at a discreet set of iron gates. It’s an ex-pasha’s mansion right on the magnificent Bosphorus, but its grand Ottoman exterior belies a contemporary interior of slick modern design. There’s not a kilim or belly-dancer’s tassel in sight, just chic white-on-white glamour. A vast foyer contains nothing but marble and golden sunlight and quietly attentive check-in staff. We soon discover the A'jia’s policy is to leave you to your own devices, unless of course there’s anything at all you might require.
The understated, modern luxury continues in the sparse, cool bedroom. A wall of windows makes it feel as though it’s floating above the Bosphorus before a distant shimmering shore. Geometrical white armchairs are arranged across rich dark wood floors but we’re most impressed with the centrepiece: an enormous bed with the crispest, coolest sheets of Egyptian cotton.
Almost as big as the room itself, the bathroom is a gorgeous Ottoman chamber of creamy marble and tile and I can’t decide between the enormous shower or the deep rectangular bath. Mr Smith decides for me. He runs me a bath and I slip under fragrant Molton Brown foam while he prepares himself a G&T on the balcony. With its platform of wood atop an arrangement of white pebbles, the balcony continues the minimal theme outside, and beyond it there’s nothing but the brilliant blue of the Bosphorus. Clean and damp and wrapped in fluffy white cotton, I come out to join him. The afternoon sun pours through floor-to-ceiling windows, bathing the bed in warm golden light so we slip in for a sun-warmed siesta before dinner.
Waking ravenous, we head to the hotel’s private pier. Wooden deckchairs face the water, and cosy tables for two flutter with white linen in the warm breeze. The restaurant and bar are run by the Istanbul Doors Group, who also run some of the city’s most glamorous bars, and the food is stylish Modern European. But we’re heading to Europe for dinner, so we step into the A'jia’s private boat and the captain starts the engine. It’s a short but magical journey. The muezzins’ call to prayer drifts from mosques on both shores; the ancient skyline hovers against a sultry sunset; and then, beside us, a family of dolphins breaks the surface and heads on upstream.
We step out on the European shore and take a taxi to Ortakoy, a gorgeous little waterside area filled with hip bars and cafes. We eat on the water at the House Café, one of a chain of five cosy café-bars created by Autobahn, one of Istanbul’s hottest young design agencies and recent winner of the 100% Design newcomer award. Then we pop in to Angelique, next door, a super-slick summer bar where Turkey’s glitterati make their entrance on private boats. One passionfruit martini and we’re ready for bed.
We wake to a golden morning and the sound of water lapping below. Ukranian freighters pass our window on their way to the Black Sea. Outside, Mr Smith dons his sunglasses and devours his pancakes with peaches. I go for A'jia’s elegant take on the traditional Turkish breakfast, a gorgeous selection of titbits arranged like jewels on a tray: white cheese, olives, honey, cherry jam, cucumber and freshly baked bread.
The day brings a whirl of exotic sights – Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Aga Sofia, the fragrant Spice Bazaar and the crazy colour of the Grand Bazaar – then a visit to the ancient Cemberlitas hammam, where naked masseuses with huge soapy breasts scrub and pummel as we lie steaming on the hot marble slab.
As exciting as Istanbul is, pretty soon we’re aching to get back to the A'jia. The relentless chaos and colour sets our heads awhirl, and returning to the luxurious simplicity of our romantic Ottoman mansion is deeply soothing. A little bit of simplicity goes a long way in Istanbul. This is not a quiet city, and a day spent trawling its teeming streets can send you a little barmy. A'jia, with its magnificent watery view, is the perfect place to get away from it all, together.
Anonymously reviewed by Mr & Mrs Smith