Istan Bull

How to enjoy the high life in the city where Asia meets Europe.

If you had always thought a kebab was a rather dodgy excuse for spit-roasted meat best savoured with the benefit of beer goggles, then you could not have been more mistaken. According to the proprietor of Bistro Amedros in Istanbul, kebab means 'very tasty'. It is not what the guidebook says, but nevertheless it seems a fitting footnote for Istanbul: a city that turns visitors misconceptions about Turkey, its people and its cuisine completely on their head.

I was recently lucky enough to spend an entire week there with my friend and colleague Steve Irvine, plus a large number of bankers from the Asian debt capital markets who were attending the annual Asian Development Bank meeting. It is somewhere I would return in a shot.

Istanbul is rich in history, bursting with great bars and restaurants and remarkably welcoming to outsiders. Never have I been to a city where the touts are genuinely helpful and unfailingly polite. Istanbul feels like a Prague or a Budapest as they once were when they came out from the shadow of the iron curtain: beautiful cities that have not yet hit their full tourist stride and are all the better for it.

Indeed, the Eastern promise that enthralled a large number of our investment banking counterparts was the prospective riches they might derive from an investment in the up-and-coming local property market - be it an elegant, but faded Victorian apartment block along the cobbled streets of Beyoglu (for centuries the home of the city's foreign residents), or a waterfront mansion along the banks of the Bosphorus Strait, which cuts the city in two.

Most writers describe Istanbul as a city where East meets West. Geographically it is divided by the Bosphorus, with the continent of Europe straddling one bank and the continent of Asia the other.

Historically it has been the battlefield and cradle of a number of the world's most important religions and civilizations. Founded by Greek colonists back in the seventh century BC, a Byzantine empire flourished then succumbed to the Romans who moved their capital to the city and called it Nova Roma. After adopting Christianity, the Romans renamed it Constantinople, and it ranked as the richest city in Christendom before being sacked by the Crusaders. A few centuries later and it was the turn of the Ottoman Turks, whose invasion ushered in a second great age under the Islamic religion and the rule of the Sultans.

Today Istanbul's skyline is studded with minarets, but it feels as if the population is facing West rather than East to Mecca. Joining the European Union appears to have become a national obsession. Every day of our stay, the newspapers were full of the benefits Turkey had to offer the EU. The constant refrain on the lips of virtually every new person we met was not if, but "when we join the EU...."

If you are planning to visit Istanbul, a long weekend is the very least amount of time you need to spend. The city's rich cultural and archeological heritage is literally everywhere. However, it was not the obvious tourist sites, which formed the highlight of our stay, but the city's bars and restaurants, many of which are historical gems in their own right.

A large number of the city's most highly rated restaurants have wonderful settings in renovated mansion houses and old apartment blocks. At night, many have stunning views of the city lights skimming the banks of the Bosphorus.

By day, it is extremely easy to while away hours sitting outside watching the city's street life from the hundreds of local cafés. My favourite extended lunch spot was Bistro Amedros in the old city. The friendly proprietor persuaded us to sample the house speciality - testi kebab. This turned out to be a casserole, cooked and sealed in a Cappadocian clay pot that had to be smashed in front of us in order to release its richly aromatic contents.

My favourite restaurant of the entire stay was "360" and I am not the only one to think so. It is very hard to get a reservation and best to book some time in advance of arriving in the city. I had no idea of this at the time I went with my friend Steve Diao who had been recommended it by a friend in Hong Kong and booked before leaving for the ADB meeting.

Initially, we both had our doubts as we entered an old apartment block that could have been straight out of the "Bourne Identity," or any of the cold war movies that preceded it. You only begin to realize you may be heading somewhere a little bit special when you approach the creaking lift and suddenly wonder why the numbers 360 appear to be hanging in mid air next to it. Closer inspection revealed them to be suspended by luminous strips of coloured light that stretch up through the many floors of the spiral stairwell and seemingly out through the roof and into the night.

As you come out of the lift at the other end, a large scented candle greets you on every step of the remaining two flights of stairs to the very top of the building. I'm not quite sure what I was expecting once we finally reached the big stone door, which would lead us into the restaurant. I already felt like I had been lifted out of myself.

What we did get was Manhattan loft, with sheer glass windows, 21st century design and the customarily beautiful views of the city. The menu is as international as the decor. The Turkish mezes were wonderful, although my Chinese American friend was a little piqued to be recommended Mandarin Duck by the clearly not so internationally-minded waiter.

360 can be found on Istiklal Caddesi, a meanderingly long street in Beyoglu lined with 19th century embassy buildings and apartment blocks. Once known as Grand Rue de Pera, the street now seems to be home to a succession of patisseries and bookshops. Aside from the tram, which runs up and down its length, the only other traffic is human and mostly it is strolling arm in arm.

There are numerous small, covered markets down its side streets and it is by far the best place to go shopping for local delicacies. Where a trip to the Grand Bazaar involves endless haggling and streams of tourists, the markets in this area are local and the prices clearly marked. A large pot of sevruga caviar could be had for under $25. One of our fellow ADB delegates, who would probably prefer to remain nameless, haggled a similar pot down to $250 in one of the tourist bazaars!!

After a few hours meandering around Beyoglu, a great place to drop by for a cocktail or a cup of tea is the Pera Palas Hotel built in the late 1890's for travellers arriving on the Orient Express. This is history as it was - a uniquely characterful hotel that doesn't look as if it has been altered since Agatha Christie wrote parts of "Murder on the Orient Express" there in the early part of the last century. There is also a quaint 'hole in the wall' gift shop where merchandise is themed around the late 19th century posters advertising journeys to Istanbul on the great train.

At the other end of the bar scale is Reina. This is the place to see and be seen - a happening bar along the banks of the Bosphorus where the dancing is great and it is still possible to talk without being drowned out by the noise. But it is very expensive and it seemed five of us had managed to dance away to the tune of $2,000. We rapidly discovered that haggling is not solely confined to the tourist bazaars and after some discussion (heated) the bill was finally dropped to around $1,000.

For a nightcap or a relaxing night out with friends, one of the best bars to head to is Besinci Kat. Situated at the top of yet another rambling old apartment building, there is a wonderfully relaxing roof terrace with views out over the city, or a very seductive turn of the century bar on the floor below complete with candles, chandeliers, luscious drapes and velvety cocktails.

For many visitors to Istanbul, dinner along the banks of the Bosphorus is also one of the main highlights. There are a large number of waterfront restaurants to choose from, but one, which consistently ranks highly in all the guidebooks is Korfez.

The restaurant is situated in Kanlica, one of the beautiful Bosphorus villages, which line the straits right up to the mouth of the Black Sea. It sits on the Asian shore and can either be reached by a 30 to 45 minute taxi ride, or by taxi and the restaurant's own small boat.

Korfez is designed for romance. Tables are candlit and there is an expansive view of water, yachts and marbled mansions, which line the small inlet around it. The menu is also a highly indulgent feast of seafood and chocolate. The house speciality is seabass baked in a coffin of salt.

The village of Kanlica is also famous for its creamy yoghurts and is a good stopping-off point during the day if you decide to take a cruise up and down the Bosphorus.

Most of Istanbul's most obvious tourist landmarks are in the old city across the water from Beyoglu. The big three are the Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans and their harem for just over five centuries. Each of the three buildings represents a different era of Istanbul's long history, but my own feeling is that they are best appreciated from a distance.

The Blue Mosque is stunningly beautiful, but was a little bit too aromatic: its carpeted floors oozing the sweat of the millions of shoeless pilgrims that regularly pass through its portals. So too, the Topkapi Palace is an endurance test for even the most hardened tourist. The queues to get in are very long and it is hard to imagine the cloistered life of the harem when your brain is fighting against the noise of endless tour guides rattling away in German, French, German, Italian, German, Japanese, German... The palace is large, but there did not appear to be any means of escape.

Far better to check into one of the many boutique hotels close by and sit up on the roof terrace with an unencumbered view of centuries of history. At night, the only living creatures I could see from mine were the seagulls keening around the floodlit splendour of the Blue Mosque's delicate minarets.

Likewise the Four Seasons hotel has wonderful views out over Haghia Sophia - or Church of Holy Testament as it is otherwise known - a 1,400 year-old monument to the sophistication of the original Byzantine Empire. Of all the hotels we roamed through in Istanbul, the Four Seasons was the best. Once a prison, it now blends five star luxury with the intimacy of a boutique hotel. It is also very beautiful. The old prison courtyard now houses a lovely tea garden framed by honey yellow walls and pots of Geraniums and Azalae under every window.

Another former prison and now a quirky little restaurant is Galata House, just around the corner from Galata Tower, one of the main landmarks in Beyoglu. Galata House is run by a highly eccentric couple who personally open the front door after you ring the bell, wait on the few odd tables, cook the food and cast a highly disapproving eye over anyone who fails to finish their meal. It felt like stepping back in time to the couple's dining room, as it would have looked circa World War II.

The food is a mix of Russian, Georgian and Tartar. I tried a starter of runner beans with walnut and coriander followed by Hingali: meat filled dumplings in tomato sauce. The dumplings were delicious, but 10 were too much for this small girl who ended up having to pass half of them to her friend for fear of not being allowed to leave the table.

If you want to eat with the rich and the powerful in Istanbul then Ulus 29 is a good place to head. Everything about the place is impressive including the service. One of the waiters even persuaded us to forsake Italian wines for a local cabernet sauvignon.

The group at our table concluded it was surprisingly good. Not quite vintage perhaps, but with the right marketing, Turkey could be the next Bulgaria. The food is also high end Turkish and some of the best dishes come from a traditional Turkish oven (firin), which also produces some wonderfully fresh crisp bread to accompany the meal.

Ulus 29 is set on a hill overlooking the city and has a steep driveway lined with some very expensive cars and an army of attendant drivers. As we arrived I was very definitely on the lookout for Dyke, who worked in "security" and had been assigned as the driver to one of my friends during the ADB. When he wasn't busy ferrying the banker between different client meetings with Korean commercial banks, he occasionally drove me around. And it has to said, being driven around in an armoured Mercedes with a machine gun in the boot was a significant improvement on the terrible taxis which plague Istanbul. The local taxi drivers are friendly but clueless.

Dyke on the other hand, looked as if he could have starred in any one of the three James Bond films shot in Istanbul, although it was quite hard to tell whose side he might have been on. As we cruised along the cobbled streets, his firm grip certainly left this would-be Bond girl shaken and stirred.

One of the three Bond films - From Russia With Love - was partially shot at the Roman Cistern, a personal favourite of the week's sightseeing. The underground reservoir was built by the Emperor Justinian and today provides a cool and atmospheric retreat from the old city above.

Equally to be recommended, but far higher up the temperature scale is a visit to a Hamam, otherwise known as a Turkish bath. After a week of heavy eating and drinking it proved a great way to shed some toxins, although I also ended up feeling that most of my skin had gone too. Unless you enjoy being sandblasted, remember to bring some moisturizer.

For those used to the soothing balm of an Asian spa, a visit to a Turkish bath is an altogether different, though nonetheless interesting and enlivening experience. The female masseuses, if they can be described as such, are typically burly and semi-naked. Despite being only inches from my own, I never quite worked out where her breasts ended and the stomach began.

We visited what are probably the most famous baths in Istanbul - the 18th century baths of Cagaloglu. The interior looked more Roman than Renaissance and the atmosphere was steamy and hedonistic. After getting undressed, I was led to the hararet or hot room - a true temple of Lesbos with a domed roof and marbled interiors. About 30 completely naked women were sat lounging on slabs, gently steaming in the heat.

After about half an hour to loosen up in the steam I was taken to a giant circular plinth in the middle of the room where five or six women were being alternately scrubbed, pummeled and kneaded. It was at this point I realized there really was no scope for any modesty. I can still picture myself lying head to foot behind another woman: me on my front looking straight at her on her back, naked and soapy. After it was all over, we never even got to exchange names.

Generally most of the hamans are full of tourists these days, but the experience feels local and bathers are allowed to spend as long as they like soaking up the heat and dousing themselves with water. Afterwards there is also a small garden in which to recuperate. As I left the bath, thoroughly cleansed in mind and body, there was no better sight than my equally relaxed friend Steve sitting with a hookah, cool beer at the ready.

Lost your cards abroad?

There are few things so inconvenient than when you lose your wallet or purse while abroad. You are left cashless and frantically trying to dial long distance to cancel a myriad of credit cards.

Thankfully, a solution has arrived in Asia. Card Protection Plan (CPP), a UK firm that was founded by Hamish Ogston 25 years ago, has launched its service in Hong Kong (and Singapore soon).

Its Asian managing director, Howard Davidson explains how its works. "I'll give you a true example from two weeks ago," he says. "A businessman who uses our service was in Shenzhen and lost his wallet. He had our hotline number on his keychain. He then called our number - which is manned 24 hours a day, and guarantees an answer by a human operator in 20 seconds and delivers service in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

"Three minutes after calling us, all of his credit cards were cancelled and reissued by his banks. We then sent him enough money to get back to Hong Kong. We send money via Western Union and in this case, the office was in the Shenzhen post office. Our operator spoke to his taxi driver via his mobile phone and gave him directions as to how to get there.

"Western Union sent us an ID code, which he used to identify himself at the window - which is necessary since he obviously didn't have his ID, because his Hong Kong ID card was in his wallet.

"Once he has got his money our operator then told our client where he had to go to get his re-entry visa and where to even get photos. Within four hours of losing his wallet he was back in Hong Kong."

Once back in Hong Kong, CPP covers the cost of replacing valuable cards, such as the Hong Kong ID card (which costs HK$400 to replace). "We like to think our service offers piece of mind to the busy executive traveller," says Davidson. "That is particularly true when they are on the other side of the world. Our operators can speak to them in their own language."

Davidson say the client can either call CPP from their own mobile phone and later claim back the cost from CPP, or else if their phone is lost, reverse the charges from a payphone. "Calling one number and having us cancel all the cards, is much easier than having to call all of your individual card issuers," he points out.

CPP, which has 8 million customers in Europe and 2 million in the US, allows its users to register up to 30 pieces of plastic with the company. "You can register any type of plastic that might need canceling," he says. "Obviously, credit cards are the priority for most people."

CPP works mostly through banks, and since February Citibank has been promoting the service to its card base in Hong Kong. You can also register direct on CPP's website at www.cppasia.com - the cost of the service is HK$198 per year for an individual, or HK$398 for a whole family.

"You hope you never have to use our service," laughs Davidson. "But the one time you do have to, you will instantly recognize its value. It takes much of the hassle out of what is a very unpleasant experience."

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