7am and Istanbul is sparkling. Sitting in the breezy lounge and library of the House Hotel Bosphorus, in the heart of the laid-back Ortakoy neighbourhood (it means, literally in Turkish ‘middle village’), the view is tranquil, historic: baroque old mansions rising on the far banks of Istanbul’s world-famous strait; teak-decked fishing boats meander under the grand Ortokoy Bridge; men on bicycles deliver bread to cafés lining Ortakoy’s laidback plaza. As Mrs Smith and I sip thick black Turkish coffee, it’s easy to imagine we’ve been transported back to the 18th century when Ortakoy was a small fishing village…
Easy, that is, until a waiter decides now is a good time to crank up the stereo and Mark Ronson’s ‘Bang Bang Bang’ comes blaring out of the speakers. I’m fleetingly piqued by the intrusion, but Mrs Smith just smiles. She reminds me that contradictions like this are part of this cosmopolitan city’s charm: history is always mixed with hip.
Our stylish stay, the newest addition to Istanbul’s House Hotel group, is a savvy blend of old and new. Opened summer 2011 it’s a gleaming white Ottoman-style mansion designed and built in the 1890s by Simon Balyan, the youngest son of a dynasty of imperial architects. (Simon’s father, Garabat Balyan, built the baroque mosque across from the hotel.) Originally created as a family residence (the rooms still have the feeling of being in a stately, if carved-up, formal home), the mansion fell into disrepair in the past half-century and was for a few years, randomly, a ball-bearing factory.
A simple, elegant renovation applied great attention to period details, from light fixtures to new hand-carved wall moldings. The House Hotel Bosphorus does not feel fussy or old-fashioned, and has a keen eye for modern style, namely care of designers du jour, Autoban. Our two-room, second-floor suite feels midcentury Danish, and features plenty of hi-tech conveniences: two flatscreen TVs, remote-controlled curtains, and small but fabulous, heated marble bathroom.
Having flown in after a week of roughing it in Ethiopia we are ready to eat well, lounge in the sun and sleep under soft sheets. Dinner is at the chic House Café, a restaurant built on a deck leading to the docks; it proves as good a start as we could imagine: ice-cold Turkish rosé (generally better than the loc whites I tried such as Narince and Misket), yogurt with cucumber soup, vegetable risotto, grilled aubergines and spiced fish. By day, the House Café is a popular post-shopping stop for locals craving the famous house lemonade loaded with apples, pears orange and strawberries. At night, it is loud and bustling, with tables of young, well-dressed people drinking imported champagne and partying late.
Like Paris, Istanbul is a city that loves to dazzle, with flowers and candles, spectacular food and drinks. But unlike Paris, Istanbul is not so fussy – things are looser, more quirky and imperfect. I love that about this buzzing hub, and the House Hotel is no exception. There’s a casualness to the place that makes you feel at home. Often, waiters act less like servers and more like friends. One morning at breakfast a member of staff takes our order, then plops down at the table to chat a while. When we tell him how much we love the eggs menimen (baked scrambled eggs with feta and parsley and tomatoes) he writes down a family recipe. (We’ve since tried it; it’s good.)
If your main goal is to see the old-city sites of Istanbul, the House Hotel Bosphorus, a few miles upriver from the Galata Bridge, is not necessarily the most convenient base. But if you don’t mind taxiing into town (or taking the long walk up the Bosphorus, which was one of our trip’s highlights) the neighbourhood is a respite from the tour buses and overpriced kebab houses. In fact, after visiting the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market and the Blue Mosque on our first day, we don’t even bother straying beyond our locale. Instead we wander through Ortakoy’s cobblestone alleys, discovering a great quarter of bakeries, cafés and produce markets just across Muallim Naci Cd from the water?
Our amble leads to Kosebasi Reina, a sceney new addition to the international Anatolian cuisine empire. (For those unfamiliar, Kosebasi is the Nobu of kebab houses, with outlets everywhere from Amsterdam to Ankara.) Reina shares a large outdoor deck with other high-end restaurants and clubs, and requires running a gauntlet of check-in stations and security guards to gain admittance. The food is worth it: lamb and beef kebabs marinated in milk and olive oil, a house salad of arugula and parsley with pomegranate syrup (another recipe we take home) and creamy babaganoush that’s the best eggplanty dip you’ll ever taste.
Strolling back alongside the water, the sun setting, and the city at dusk sparkles again. We stop for hand-churned mango ice-cream and to watch a street magician perform tricks with cards and real rabbits. A couple of blocks from the hotel, we pause at a small rug store called Hazal. It doesn’t look much from the street but inside we find three floors of gorgeous Anatolian kilims and carpets stacked up in every room and hanging on the walls. The daughter of the shop’s owner, Engin Demirkol, is especially proud of the rugs her mother creates by sewing together pieces of antiques into modern designs of her own.
‘We aim to preserve the history of these types of kilims,’ she tells us, ‘but we also want to make things that are new.’
As we step back into the Ortakoy plaza, with the last light gleaming off the Bosphorus, I think that this is exactly what Istanbul is about: making something centuries-old feel exciting and fresh.