Maybe it was the yellow cabs. Or perhaps the city’s 212 telephone code. Whatever…both had me thinking of Manhattan when I visited Istanbul last month. (To be honest, it was probably the crushing traffic, which 24/7 is like the Long Island Expressway at 5 p.m.) But within 24 hours I was thinking not of New York, nor of Paris, Madrid, Marrakech, Beirut—all of which are compared to Istanbul. That’s a cheap way out. Istanbul, like any truly great metropolis, may “suggest” other places, but it’s very much its own, singular destination—sexy, sensual, sophisticated, and totally surprising.
Before I went I had every intention of writing this letter from Milan, where for four days in mid-January I watched the comings and goings at men’s fashion week. Back-to-back runway shows of how we should dress this fall and winter. Or let’s say, how designers and big luxury brands think we should dress. This January, of course, was different than in years past, given the economic tsunami. But it’s Milan, where buyers and retailers decide what’s on their shelves in the coming season….Among our favorites: Brunello Cucinelli’s gray cashmere tuxedo, Tom Ford’s new foray into more casual and less-expensive menswear, Giorgio Armani’s return to elegance, Canali’s unlined K-jackets, Tod’s hand-painted Gommini loafers, Fratelli Rossetti’s desert boots, Angela Missoni’s big crazy-plaid sweaters, and Ermenegildo Zegna’s suits. And Tomas Maier has literally defined “understated” luxury at Bottega Veneta.
Now as I say, I thought I’d be writing about Milan, but then came Istanbul. I had always wanted to go but somehow just hadn’t quite made it. I really had to wait, I kept telling myself, until I had enough time. But you know what? Life’s too short, and these days nobody ever has “enough” time. So I called my friend Joel Zack.
“How would i personally do Turkey were I going for the first time and had only four days?” asked Zack, whose Heritage Tours Private Travel (htprivatetravel.com) specializes in Turkey (along with southern Africa, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal). “A night and day in Cappadocia and two days in Istanbul. Is it enough time? No, but it’s what you have.”
So from Milan via Turkish Airlines, I arrived first in Istanbul, transferred immediately, and flew to the remote, lunarlike terrain called Cappadocia, which this magazine featured last July.
“In Istanbul you have to stay at the Four Seasons at Sultanahmet,” my very wise and well-traveled uncle told me. “It’s one of my favorite hotels anywhere, and it’s right in the center of the Old City.”
“The Kempinski is where I’d stay,” advised luxury retailer Eva Jeanbart-Lorenzotti. “It’s right on the Bosporus.”
“It also has the greatest pool in the world,” added Alessandra Scifo, senior director of public relations for Ralph Lauren in Italy.
Instead, I stayed at the four-month-old Park Hyatt Istanbul–Maçka Palas, designed by New Yorker Randy Gerner. Overseen by the general manager, Tashi Takang, and guest services manager Antony Doucet, it’s as jet-set luxe as any hotel that’s opened recently. But also very Turkish. Each room—from a deluxe king to the ravishing Presidential Suite—has its own version of the traditional Turkish bath, the hammam, in a limestone-and-tile bathroom with a deep soaking tub and a special rain shower. In the überfashionable Nisantasi neighborhood, there are the familiar brands alongside Turkish shops like Beyman and D & R, where I stocked up on Turkish Nobel Prize–winner Orhan Pamuk. This part of the city became, for me, the window onto a new and very contemporary Istanbul.
In 2005 New York Times reporter Guy Trebay visited Turkey for Travel + Leisure magazine and wrote that he “tried earnestly to engage with contemporary Istanbul, even going so far as to visit a pretentious new boutique hotel on the Asian side. But inevitably I was drawn back to Sultanahmet, to that place where 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet captured Constantinople on May 29, 1453, raising the star and crescent, swiftly reconsecrating Hagia Sophia as a mosque, and then making for the Great Palace on the First Hill.”
Much as I understand and appreciate that—Sultanahmet is the heart of the Old City—I found myself in awe of the new Istanbul: the food, art, design, and the remarkable mix of Swedish designers, German-Turkish bankers, a New York florist, the 30-year-old Frenchman named Alex, who is opening the city’s first true boutique hotel. These ambitious, artistic, and entrepreneurial new globalists, like previous generations of arrivistes, are carving out a city of their own. Not only can I not wait to return, I’ve already started thinking of how Departures can report and photograph all that’s going on there right now. Stay tuned.
On a final note: In a world that seems sometimes turned upside down and spinning out of control, the following e-mail came from my friend and Departures contributing editor Cathryn Collins on a particularly poignant day this week.
On a gray January day, with the news a barrage of gloom and doom, it occurred to me that what we all could use is some substantive but decadent, financially nontaxing diversion.
And so I thought I would share with you tips about two amazing exhibitions which are up right now that hit the spot for me…completely inspiring and smart, fulfilling and fun. One is “Calder Jewelry” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org), which runs through March 1. The other is “Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, the Condé Nast Years 1923–1937” at the International Center of Photography (icp.org), which runs through May 3. Neither is what you would expect, and both completely transport you to other zones and live on in your head…little portable sanctuaries from the maelstrom. Run, don’t walk.