I'm standing at my window, a cool glass of Turkish wine in hand, staring at the alluring array of spires on the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's most famous sight. I've pulled open the heavy velvet curtains and lifted the traditional Turkish latticed shutters, and though I've promised myself I'll start immediately to re-explore this city I love, at the moment I prefer the comfort of my room: the brass bedstead, old-fashioned phone, Victorian lamps and Turkish rugs scattered across wooden floors.
It's not surprising that I feel at home, for I'm staying in an old house: the Yesil Ev (or green house, in Turkish), a 19th-Century Ottoman mansion now converted into a hotel. This charming 20-room oasis is one of several projects of the Turkish Touring and Automobile Assn. that has, in the last decade, restored classic buildings in the heart of the city and opened them as moderately priced public lodgings. Predictably, they book up far in advance. Though I've stayed at the Yesil Ev on all three of my recent trips to the city, I've visited the group's two other nearby hotels--Ayasofya Pansiyonlari and the new Konuk Evi--and have found them to be equally charming.
The hotels follow an idea similar to Spain's paradores , occupying historical sites that are of architectural interest and providing a more intimate setting than the grand hotels. While the Turkish Touring Assn. is a private company, it works closely with various government agencies and in some cases has overseen renovations at the behest of local municipalities. But it is the group's hotels near the Blue Mosque that have garnered the most attention.
This area, known as Sultanahmet, was filled with wood homes like the Yesil Ev that were, until the end of World War II, single-family dwellings. But when landlords began to rent them, room-by-room, thousands of these houses fell into disrepair.
During the post-war population explosion and resulting construction boom, the crumbling buildings were replaced with modern structures, and the touristic advantages of the neighborhood, where most of Istanbul's sights are located, were all but abandoned as international hotel chains set up in the area around Taksim Square, in the newer section of town.
Enter the touring association, hoping to capitalize on what seemed like a ripe market for the restoration of these traditional dwellings. TTA had already worked with the municipality of Istanbul in renovating pavilions at Yildiz and Emirgan, two parks on the outskirts of town, rejuvenating the parklands and cafes of Camlica, a scenic hill outside town that is famous for its spectacular view of the city, and overhauling the Egyptian Khedives Palace on the Asian shores of the Bosporus Strait. But the group's new idea--revitalizing this decaying house in the shadow of the Blue Mosque--was more revolutionary, because the city's devotion to its architectural heritage has always focused on the great monuments, with other projects usually relegated to outlying areas.
In fact, the wooden Yesil Ev house, which until the mid-1970s had been owned by the family of a high-ranking government official, was unique for having survived, albeit in a rather decayed condition. TTA obtained permission from the Commission for Ancient Monuments to restore what is now the flagship hotel in the chain and still the best known of the group. Crews rebuilt the dilapidated structure, brought in a pink marble fountain from a mansion in nearby Yildiz to be centerpiece of the hotel's garden and furnished the rooms in late 19th-Century style.
The 1984 opening brought very little fanfare, but when it almost immediately received the prestigious Europa Nostra annual award honoring projects conserving European heritage, word began to spread about this tiny hotel, which boasts a list of celebrity guests ranging from the late dancer Rudolf Nureyev to former President Francois Mitterrand of France.
It's easy to see the attraction; the hotel is full of character. Of course, it is necessary to do without some of the luxuries of the larger hotels--air conditioning and television. (Unless you stay in the huge Pasha's Room, with its private Turkish bath, TV, mini-bar and antique furnishings.)
But for me it's worth it to have Istanbul's great sights so close: the Blue Mosque at my doorstep, Ayasofya (the mosque of St. Sophia) across the street, Topkapi Palace a few blocks north, the Grand Bazaar 10 minutes away on foot. In fact, had I stayed in the newer area around Taksim Square, I'm not sure I'd ever have felt Istanbul to be so accessible or comfortable. As one San Francisco couple I chatted with over breakfast commented, "We moved here from the Hilton, which is beautiful, but why start every day in a taxi when you can stay right in the heart of things?"
I love the garden restaurant (open to non-guests), where I spent many a late afternoon relaxing under the vast fig tree, sipping Turkish coffee or apple tea while the fountain bubbled and the call to prayer sounded from mosques nearby.
Next door to the hotel is another of my favorite spots--also a TTA renovation--the Istanbul Handicrafts Center. Created in an old medrese (Muslim school), its tiny rooms--once the monastic cells of scholars--have been converted into artists' studios, where I watched craftspeople at work and shopped in an easygoing, bargaining-free atmosphere.
Not all of the renovation projects are in Istanbul. In the tiny town of Safranbolu, just off the main Istanbul-Ankara road, about 50 miles from the Black Sea coast, is Havuzlu Konak (house with pool). Though I've never visited this 25-room hotel, from the descriptions of friends who have stayed there, it sounds delightful and, at $40 a night for a double, quite a bargain. Located in a sheltered valley, Safranbolu was a favorite winter residence of wealthy Ottomans at the turn of the century and the largest mansion in town is the Havuzlu Konak, whose rooms are decorated in traditional style, each with a brass bedstead, shelves filled with copper craft work and Turkish kilims on the floor. My friends were rhapsodic about the poolside salon appointed with porcelain bowls and brass candlesticks. Something to remember for my next trip to Turkey.
The city hotels are not cheap by Istanbul standards (where it's possible to rent a room for $20 a night) but they are definitely a better deal than the luxury spots, especially for those who prefer coziness to grandeur, convenience to indulgence.
From the Yesil Ev, I take a five-minute walk to tiny Sogukcesme Sokagi (street of the cool fountain) between Ayasofya and Topkapi Palace. This car-free lane, home to a row of 18th-Century townhouses, the eponymous fountain and an ancient Roman cistern, is the site of TTA's second major enterprise: the Ayasofya Pansiyonlari.
The townhouses, once housing for the staff at Topkapi Palace, had fallen into as bad a state as the Yesil Ev. The restoration required more extensive rebuilding than the premiere project, with the entire street reconstructed according to original designs. The result is fascinating: nine buildings with a reception area at one end, creating a residence that seems more like a refined boarding house than a hotel.
The visitor is given a key to one of the townhouses (each named after a flower) as well as to his individual guest room (there are five to 10 in each house). The furnishings, as in the Yesil Ev, are evocative of the late 19th Century, and include tasseled armchairs, gilt mirrors and carved wooden chests. The street-side rooms, slightly more expensive, look onto a stunning view of Ayasofya, while the back rooms line the walls of the palace.
The reconstruction, completed in 1986, consumed the entire block, reclaiming a street that by the mid-1980s was rather desolate. Even the 1,000-year-old cistern, one of a ring of water depots in the area, has been put to use as a tavern/restaurant open to non-residents and named, not surprisingly, Sarnic Cistern.
It's a unique and slightly eerie dining experience. As I feasted on Turkish and continental specialties, candles cast flickering shadows in the dim, close space, while the free-standing dome, supported by six stone columns, gave the room a bit of height that saved me from total claustrophobia. The cistern was preserved with very little change (only the old-style fireplace is a recent addition).
By contrast, the Konuk Evi hotel, across the street from Sarnic, was the result of extensive change. The original Ottoman mansion didn't exist anymore, having long ago been replaced by an eyesore of a concrete building, but after demolishing the existing high-rise, a duplicate of the original building was reproduced from period photographs.
The result is a gleaming off-white hotel, set back from the street and surrounded by gardens and fountains, with an unimpeded view of the Marmara. With just 10 rooms and two suites, it's the most exclusive of the Sultanahmet hotels. The four-story Konuk Evi is a model of simplicity, especially in contrast to the monstrosity that until recently stood on the site. Gilt mirrors and chandeliers in the foyer greet the visitor with an air of dignity--though, true to form, the bedrooms' furnishings are more comfortable than opulent.
An added plus is the small bar, built in an ancient Roman structure that was discovered on the grounds. With its stone columns and brick walls, the feeling is similar to that of Sarnic. There is dining outdoors, as well as in the airy white marble conservatory in the middle of the garden.
Though comparable in price to the company's other hotels, the Konuk Evi seems the most posh; perhaps because it is new construction rather than the remodeling of an existing structure. Or maybe it's the colors--all those whites and creams--that make it sparkle. Or possibly it just hasn't been open long enough to acquire some of the rough edges that inevitably beset a painted wooden building and give it a sense of character.
I've never been one to object to a few tatters, though. For me, a little peeling paint actually enhances the homey atmosphere at the Yesil Ev, which includes a friendliness I often miss at chain hotels.
"You can get to know people here; it's much more personal," agreed Gazanfer Kizildemir, assistant manager, who has been at the Yesil Ev for nine years. "I love this house," he says, looking around at the gleaming wood floors, slightly worn carpets and French doors leading to the restful garden.
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GUIDEBOOK / Istanbul's History Hotels
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul. Fly from LAX, with a change of planes in New York or various European cities, on Delta, American, United, Lufthansa, KLM, British Air and Air France. Advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at about $1,325.
Where to stay: Ayasofya Pansiyonlari, Sogukcesme Sokagi; double rooms $90-$100 per day; from the United States telephone 011-90-212-513-3660, fax 011-90-212-513-3669.
Havuzlu Konak, Mescit Sokak, Safranbolu; double room $40; tel. 011-90-372-725-2883, fax 011-90-372-712-3824.
Konuk Evi, Sogukcesme Sokagi; double room $125; tel. 011-90-212-514-0120, fax 011-90-212-514-0213.
Yesil Ev, Kabasakal Caddesi No. 5; double room $125; tel. 011-90-212-517-6786, fax 011-90-212-517-6780.
For more information: Turkish Tourist Office, 821 United Nations Plaza, New York 10017, (212) 687-2194; fax (212) 599-7568.