Originally Published in the Vancouver Province on August, 13, 2018. 

Down a set of stone stairs below the busy streets of Istanbul, artist Coskun Uzunkaya sits in a corridor of the Caferaga Medresesi — a circa 1559 Islamic school turned artists’ studio — lashing vivid layers of paint into a tray of water. As he slices the water with an awl, the colours float and shift into hypnotic, kaleidoscopic patterns.

Uzunkaya is a master of traditional Ebru painting — he spent 18 years studying the marbling technique and is now passing it on to a new generation before it’s lost. It’s no small concern — the modern Istanbul artist is more likely to spray paint pop art on buildings than perfect a 13th-century craft.

Just like an elaborate Ebru painting, layers of ancient history and stories lie at the foundation of the city.

“For us, if a building is from the 16th century, it is too young,” Uzunkaya says, in all seriousness. Istanbul’s vibrant street culture and art scene both veil and revive the old city. Here, there is always something wonderful hidden: since so many buildings are protected they are endlessly repurposed, sometimes by street artists, until the original is transformed.

There is always something more to uncover in Istanbul – from the fading, over-painted frescoes on the walls of the Hagia Sophia to the layered textiles and textures of the Grand Bazaar.

A new layover program with the nation’s largest airline allows even travellers in transit to enjoy a brief unveiling of this city at the crux of Europe and Asia.

Turkish Airlines has revamped its business class program to include optional tours for passengers for just this reason, to give some of the 63 million passengers flying through Ataturk International the opportunity to uncover their own Istanbul.

Upon landing we’re whisked away on the airlines’ Istanbul Bosphorus Experience — a bespoke package of varied city tours offered to passengers in business class and above with layovers of more than seven hours and less than 24. We catch glimpses of ancient Constantinople’s walls — parts dating to 200 A.D. — as we drive the European side of the city.

We board a luxury yacht at Karakoy port for hot mint tea flutes and sunrise on the Bosphorus as soaring sea birds flit over fishermen casting into waves between Ottoman Palaces. Morning light moves over mosque minarets lighting views of Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, and the Bosphorus Bridge.

Our river cruise ends with what could be the most elaborate brunch on earth as we disembark at the five-diamond Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel’s Laledan restaurant, offering more than 250 items of fine Turkish cuisine.

We start with pomegranate and rosewater sherbets — delicate glasses of aperitifs traditionally offered as a sign of hospitality — then sip saleh, milky orchid tea and gorge on hot menemen (spicy scrambled eggs), su borek (a layered cheese and egg pastry), alma (sweet brioche buns) and platters of dried dates and apricots, salty soft cheese from Thrace, rich whole honeycombs, and for dessert walnut baklava and pistachio sobiyet (baklava with cream filling).

The Imperial Ottoman Palace, extensively renovated and opened in the 1990s, marked the beginning of the luxury tourism boom in Istanbul. Parts of the historic property date from the 16th century — it was the first waterside villa on the Bosphorus, built by a grand vizier of the Tulip Age and rebuilt by consecutive sultans over two centuries.

Having eaten like royalty (impossibly Istan-full!), it’s time to wander the city. Our guide, Hakan Baykara, a university history student, expertly exposes each era, leading an excavation of Istanbul’s famed monuments.

We begin at the Suleymaniye Mosque, built in 1557 and still considered the greatest mosque in Istanbul. The vast complex includes a medressa, Turkish baths, community kitchen, and hospice. Many of the mosques offer free literature promoting cross-cultural understanding of Islam among visitors.

There are an unbelievable 1,137 mosques in Istanbul, Baykara says, and while 98 per cent of the country is Muslim, only a fraction pray five times a day.

At the Blue Mosque, women must don more layers — borrowed headscarves and floor-length skirts – to access the interior with its blood-red carpets and mosaic domes. Yet it’s a lone local woman who holds my attention, hidden by scrims in the women’s prayer section, counting beads in a thin ribbon of sun straining through thick, dark 16th century shutters.

The nearby Hagia Sofia, by contrast, is much more accessible experience. Built in the middle ages as a Greek Orthodox Basilica, it was later transformed into an Ottoman Imperial mosque in the 1400s. All Christian religious iconography was covered over or destroyed, and new minarets added. When it became a museum in 1935, some of the Christian iconography was uncovered, leaving the museum a curious monument to two religious faiths at once.

From there, we take our Turkish lira and try our hand bargaining at the fragrant Spice Market and then Kapalicarsi, the city’s sprawling Grand Bazaar. First built in 1461, it’s now home to four thousand shops under its frescoed ceiling, decorated with quotes. “Kapalicarsi is like a living museum,” one reads, “you can feel Istanbul’s glorious history just by walking through its streets.”

You can also see its future. Other tour options offered by Turkish Airlines include exploring the urban art and bohemian back streets of Karakoy, Cihangir, and the Pera and Galata districts where, our guide Pinar Cagayan explains, hip cafes and organic grocers are shoring up aging buildings and attracting artists and students.

These newcomers are leaving their mark with graffiti pop art murals: everything from Einstein to aliens, pandas to political art (“Free Qurds” is everywhere) and shopping and student-priced street eats abound: from simit, a sesame-sprinkled Turkish bagel that serves as the culinary symbol of the city, to tasty Turkish pizzas called pide. The literati converge on Soho House in Pera — an outpost of the global creatives’ private social club in a restored former bank building — now reimagined as a broody luxury hangout for hipsters complete with lavish bars, DJ parties on weekends and cultural programs.

Before it’s time to end our Istanbul idyll, I take a side trip — off itinerary — peel off my own layers and let the city soak in. Stepping into the serenity of the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami — a 1580 women’s mosque transformed into a spa — I’m greeted with a glass of quince sherbet before I’m stripped down and scrubbed new by a spa attendant and artfully encased in a film of foam. The spa is exquisite, with pure polished slabs of dove grey marble as big as beds heated to warm women’s backs as they relax.

I, too, lie staring up at morning light streaming freely through marble-cut stars in the domed ceiling, lost in thought until the attendant, wearing little more than me, returns and startles me. We laugh together and, for a moment, even though I don’t speak the language, there are no layers between us.

Elaine O’Connor travelled as a guest of G Adventures and Turkish Airlines. Neither reviewed this article before publication. Read more travel tales at Whywanderlust.ca and follow on Twitter @WhyWanderlust.

If you go:

  • Turkish Airlines flies to 270+ destinations including Toronto and Montreal: Turkishairlines.com
  • Turkish Airlines’ Istanbul Bosphorus Experience: Bosphorus.turkishairlines.com/daily-tour/the-bosphorus-experience-breakfast-tour
  • TourIstanbul: Istanbulinhours.com
  • Ciragan Palace Kempinski: Kempinski.com/em/Istanbul/ciragan-palace/
  • Soho House Istanbul: sohohouseistanbul.com
  • Caferaga Medresesi: Tkhv.org.tr/caferaga-medresesi/
  • Kapalicarsi Market: Kapalicarsi.com.tr
  • Hagia Sophia: Ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en
  • Suleymaniye Mosque: Kultur.gov.tr/EN
  • Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami: Kilicalipasahamami.com


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