As a young girl, a distinct memory of Turkey I have is the scent of chestnuts roasting in open carts along cobblestone streets lined with boutiques and shops of anything and everything one could desire. I recall scores of people walking along the street in no particular order. Growing up in the United States, I found that walking on the sidewalk was not so much a lesson in how to dodge people walking into you, until I returned to Istanbul. That was the lesson I learned on Istiklal Avenue late in the evening as we wound our way through the crowds on the pedestrian only streets of Beyoğlu, the ultra-chic and fashionable 19th century neighborhood of the European side of old Constantinople, or Istanbul, as it became known after the Ottomans took the city from the Byzantines in 1453. Beyoğlu was one of the first parts of İstanbul to have telephone lines, electricity, trams, municipal government and the world’s second underground railway, the Tünel, (after London's Underground) in 1875.
With a population of 17 million or so, Istanbul is teaming with life. The theatre, cinema, patisserie and café culture that still remains strong in Beyoğlu dates from this late Ottoman period. This most active art, entertainment and nightlife center is a favorite destination of not only tourists but native inhabitants as well. As a young girl, I recall trying to painfully navigate the cobblestones with 1980’s platform shoes. Twenty-five years later, nothing had changed. The same platform shoes decorated the feet of young girls, but this time, all of them were cradling an iPhone in their hands, texting, emailing or calling someone. Turkey had come a long way from the donkey carts and phaeton carriages from those days.
Upon arrival at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, my fiancé and I took a taxi to our hotel in Ortaköy, another very fashionable and historic district along the Bosphorus. We had made the reservation online, only from reviews on Trip Advisor AND because of the photographs of the hotel situated on the water overlooking the Bosphorus Bridge, so we were dying from anticipation.
The House Hotel, a charming 19th century landmark Armenian mansion a few hundred yards from the popular Ortaköy Mosque (constructed on its own platform in the Bosphorus in 1853!) was to be our home for the next three days. Situated on the water, we had our own dock and a lovely courtyard with restaurants, cafes and shops where we could watch the ships pass through the ancient waters of the Bosphorus. There was a street festival called IstanBLU, the Istanbul Blue Night, a music and dance festival in which the city designated various landmarks such as the bridges and streetlights to be illuminated in blue. It was an interesting juxtaposition between the disco music and the muezzin sounding his call to prayer in the mosque a few hours earlier. An ancient land with a modern twist.
Within an hour after arriving at our hotel, a woman greeted us as we were walking down the staircase to meet our friend for dinner. “Hello Sven, Hello Arica.” Who was this woman who knew our names? Her hand reached towards us as she introduced herself. “Hello, I am Bahar, the manager of The House Hotel. I wish to welcome you. I want to apologize for giving you a small room. We will change your room with a view of the Bosphorus tomorrow. If there is anything you need, please feel free to call me.” And off she went.
We were rather dumbfounded that 1. The manager of the hotel recognized us, and 2. She thought we would be disappointed with our gorgeous little room with the modern white Turkish marble bath, the outrageously comfortable bed and l’Occitane bath products. Seriously, we were too tired to worry about a view after a 12-hour flight!
Our friend, internationally renowned glass artist, Meral Değer was waiting for us in the lounge. We had met at SOFA Chicago (Sculptural Objects and Fine Art Show) at the Merchandise Mart. Represented by the Turkish Cultural Foundation, her delicate glass love birds, crescent moons, tulip shaped glass sculptures and ethereal jewelry virtually sold out at the show. Her works have shown in galleries throughout Europe and this was her first (very successful show, I might add) in the United States. I recall being immediately drawn to her soft, gentle voice and face that looked as if she had already reached enlightenment. Fused into her glassworks was this bodhisattva countenance.
She and her husband, Yilmaz, had invited us to their home on the Bosphorus for dinner. They lived on the Asian side of Istanbul in the oldest established residential district called Üsküdar, founded in the 7th century BC as the ancient Greek city of Chrysopolis (City of Gold.)
Illuminated in blue lights, the Bosphorus Bridge, connecting Europe and Asia, was our quickest route to their lovely 3rd story flat overlooking the Bosphorus, the Bridge and the Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). Also known as Leander’s Tower, it is a small tower in the water 220 meters off the coast that dates back to Byzantine times. Currently a popular restaurant for tourists and romantics, the name comes from one legend about a king who had a much beloved daughter. Prophesy told that she would die from the bite of a venomous snake before she reached the age of 18, so he built a tower in the water for her protection. Of course, just before her 18th birthday, the king brought her a basket full of fresh fruit and in it was a poisonous asp that took the princess’ life and thus the legend. At one point, the Tower was used as prison, a toll-booth for ships wanting to cross from the southern end of the Bosphorus through to the Dardanelles and a lighthouse.
Expansive glass windows and doors of their minimalist modern home, (Yilmaz was a renowned architect) led out to a large patio overlooking the entire European coast of Istanbul. Our House Hotel was visible directly across. When the traffic was extreme (which it always seems to be in Istanbul!) Yilmaz would on occasion take a water taxi from Üsküdar to his office in Nişantaşi on the European side, the über fashionable and social district of Istanbul.
Meral outdid herself with the meal. We began with few appetizers of cigara börek (feta cheese pastry wrapped in fillo dough in the shape of a cigar), delicate grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices (nothing like what Americans are used to), olives, antipasti, and various delectable cheeses. The main course was Michelin five-star. Mediterranean Bass baked in paper with thinly shredded zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes and fresh herbs. If mere words could impart the aroma and taste. By the time we finished with the meal, Meral carried out an oversize tray of desserts! In Turkey, there is a saying, “Tatli yiyelim, tatli konuşalim” (Let’s eat sweet and let’s speak sweet.)
The following day we headed for a walk in the affluent Nişantaşi neighborhood, background to many of the novels by Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk (also a local resident). Our taxi dropped us off in front of The House Hotel in Nişantaşi, sister hotel to ours and voted the number one boutique hotel in Europe. Unbeknownst to us, the gallery we were searching for was right next door to The House Hotel! What luck!
I had not called in advance to warn the owner we were coming, but since it was a retail gallery, we thought, why not, we are already here. We walked up the marble staircase of the old refurbished building to the second floor. The gallery was minimalist modern with wooden floors and white walls. Very Chicago or New York in feel. When we asked for the owner, a girl immediately ran in back and out walked a tall, lithe figure of a model to greet us. She graciously gave us a tour of the gallery and invited us for espresso.
What struck me most about the gallerist was that she was heavily immersed in the art philosophically, as she spoke lovingly about “her” artists. In this age of technology and the marketing of art as a commodity, it was refreshing to see the possessiveness of her tone. It reminded me of a time when the artist/gallerist relationship was more of a personal nature, when the business of art was a mystical, romantic notion and nurturing and support were de rigeur.
The Turkish art market, I learned, is clearly blossoming into a global market. It was fascinating to see a country, when a decade earlier was in crisis, and today has become the second fastest growing economy in the world after China. The local art scene has experienced a boom in new art institutions since 2004, from galleries, artist-run spaces, privately funded museums and art centres, to art fairs and auctions. Compared to art markets in the Middle-East and India – the Turkish art market is more developed, with a solid infrastructure to support the growing art scene. With Istanbul being named the European Capital of Culture in 2010, further art infrastructure support and investment has blossomed. In 2009, London Sotheby’s had it first ever auction of Turkish Modern Art. The following year, the sales doubled. Modern Turkish art is in high demand, in Turkey and internationally, but Turks also have a global perspective and are collecting artists from abroad. Turkey’s transformation is not only economic, but also cultural, especially since the launch of the Istanbul Biennal Contemporary Art in 1987.
The following day we were invited to visit another Turkish glass artist for a brief lunch and tour of her glass center in the Golden Horn, the scimitar shaped estuary that divides Istanbul and forms a natural harbor that has sheltered ships for thousands of years. With our friend, Meral, we had made a tight schedule that same day to visit the Salvador Dali exhibit in Tophane and then on to the Istanbul Modern Museum after our tour and lunch. What is that saying “The best laid plans….?”
We made it as far as Yasemin Aslan Bakiri’s CAMHANE (Glass House, an ancient Byzantine house recently excavated in 2005 by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and turned into Yasemin’s glass studio and gallery. Bakiri, one of Turkey’s most successful glass artists, has exhibited and sold her work to various museums, galleries and collectors internationally since 1986. Her trademark glass caftan recently sold at Christie’s in Dubai.
In true Turkish tradition, Yasemin outdid herself to welcome us to her glass studio and workshop. Protected by a wrought iron fence, two side by side brick, buildings with an expansive courtyard comprised the galleries and glass workshops. We toured the upper floor galleries, getting private insight into the massive scope of Yasemin’s talent. Sublime glassworks ranged from a modern interpretation on the traditional caftan to swirling motifs of color melding into one another in her various glass pieces. From hand blowing the glass to knitting the steel mesh on which to support the glass, Yasemin’s works were astonishing in delicacy and power.
After an extensive tour, we walked across the street for lunch in what appeared to be a dive. The simple fare turned out to be another exercise in gourmet delectables. From the bean soup to the köfte (spicy Turkish meatballs) to the thick, creamy yogurt and artichoke hearts, we ended up, once again, in another food Elysium. For dessert, we were escorted back to Yasemin’s medieval looking office in the CAMHANE, a brick room with Byzantine high arched ceilings warmed only by a wood-burning stove. Her partner was already preparing the Turkish coffee and what brought tears to my eyes, chestnuts roasting (seriously) on an open fire.
Salvador Dali? The Istanbul Modern Museum? Maybe on another time. For now, we sat around the stove, warming our hands, as I had the duty of turning the chestnuts over as they were roasting.
Our time in Istanbul was a magical experience of art, architecture, gourmet meals and exquisite friends. We were not tourists. We were honored guests. Meral and Yilmaz opened their architecturally stunning home and showed us a taste of Turkey most tourists will never see. Lunch and tour of Yasemin’s Byzantine glass workshop and gallery in the Golden Horn was a voyage worthy of The Odyssey. I would advise anyone to become friendly with a Turk. Your life will be far richer than it has ever been.