“Like most Istanbul Turks I had little interest in Byzantium as a child. I associated the word with spooky, bearded, black-robed Greek Orthodox priests, with the aqueducts that still ran through the city, with the Hagia Sophia and the red brick walls of old churches. To me, these were remnants of an age so distant there was little need to know about it. Even the Ottomans who conquered Byzantium seemed very far away.”
—Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories and the City
Istanbul, of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, is a lingering fragrance. However, the new, cosmopolitan city is the music you hear on İstiklal Avenue, where bands perform on trams and singers gather crowds outside pubs. A virgin visitor, I had envisaged something from the pages of Dan Brown’s Inferno and fancifully dreamt of uncovering Byzantine secrets; instead, I met this modern city transcending its past glory.
ART AS A BIOSCOPE
Raffles Istanbul—the brand’s 10th property—takes you away from the historic heart of the city to the newly-developed Zorlu Center, deemed a ‘modern bazaar’ for it straddles a centre. It rises like a sentinel on the European side of the transcontinental city, looking at Asia and the Bosphorus in the distance.
Rather than holding the Byzantine and Ottoman heritage of the city in a death grip, Raffles Istanbul uses a more contemporary approach to salute the past, with ‘The Dream of Istanbul’ design concept that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. The first sample is the masterpiece in the Lavinia Lounge by Jean-Francois Rauzie, one of his largest pieces in the world. This eight-metre-high hyperphotograph recreates Dolmabahce Palace by deforming and reforming photographs of its interiors and façade—historic, yet modern. Interestingly, you’ll find birds and animals hiding in plain sight in this surrealistic fantasy.
Another larger-than-life piece that you meet as you enter is the bronze sculpture Lavinia. She was the first one to arrive on scene; surrounding her are intricate details from the Byzantine era: Chandeliers with ruffed collars, mosaic tiles, and dramatic touches of gold, glass, and crystal.
Along a corridor, Turkish artist Ardan Özmenoğlu has created portraits of consequential Turks including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (first President of Turkey), Afife Jale (the first female theatre actress), and Fatih Sultan Mehmet (the conqueror of Constantinople) using Post-its. Additionally, the hotel has a pretty-as-a-jewellery-box patisserie, a Mediterranean restaurant, lounges and bars, and a fine-dining Spanish restaurant by Chef Sergi Arola.
But if you take one step out of the building, you will find tons of options at the Zorlu Center that stretches its arm to the hotel. From Louis Vuitton and Apple store to Tom’s Kitchen and Jamie’s, it is blatantly urbane, truly tempting.
IT’S NOT BUSINESS, IT’S PERSONAL
This was my first Raffles experience, so imagine my surprise when I found a rolled page on the table, my last blog post printed on it. They had Googled me! A note from my butler and a photobook on Istanbul (because I post pictures of books I’m reading on Instagram) welcomed me to the hotel.
I toured the suite that seemed more like a flat with a living area, with a desk, a lounge area, a dining table where the staff had left Turkish delights and baklava, and a towering shelf with books on Istanbul. The ‘mini-bar’ was a whole wall stocked with spirits and snacks and had a tea and coffee machine. My suite faced Asia too, and it had a huge bathroom centred around a marble bath tub and a walk-in closet. As a constant reminder of the destination, an artwork depicting chandeliers of the Blue Mosque adorned the wall behind the headboard.
There is nothing a fatigued, feverish traveller could want more than someone to ask, “May I get you a cup of tea or coffee?” My private butler, Ayhan, learnt to pronounce my name correctly in the elevator when he escorted me to my suite. The floor-to-ceiling windows had bathed the suite in sunlight and after he helped me open the door to the balcony, I watched the cluttered and chaotic Asia, smiling at me with recognition.