Like most young people in Ireland, my first introduction to Istanbul came when I entered my second last year in High School. It was 1976, I was 17 and, like thousands before and after me, I was introduced to Yeats’s great poem “Sailing to Byzantium”. The first strident lines are etched indelibly in the minds of most of us (they re-appeared recently in the title of Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, now also a successful movie) as Yeats juxtaposes the transient nature of the material world with the immortality of mystical Byzantium:
That is no country for old men …
Soundings, the now treasured school anthology of poetry from the time, helpfully provided a clear back-of-the-book explanation of how Byzantium became Constantinople and, finally, Istanbul. So, like Janis Ian, at 17 I too learned the truth and became aware of a city whose name changed three times as its power and influence waxed and waned, like a lunar cycle.
I’ve visited Istanbul on a number of occasions – most notably for a site inspection in the period immediately following 9/11 – and, put simply and honestly, I have fallen in love with this teaming, pulsating city. But this is not a fickle adolescent infatuation; my first visit, in fact, to attend an industry conference in the mid nineties, didn’t particularly leave me smitten. This is rather a slow burning, mature, enduring love, nurtured tenderly over many years and several visits, and now enjoying its autumn years of fond, nostalgic memories and active on-going courtship during which new, delightful surprises continue to offer themselves up.
This latest visit was on the occasion of MCI’s legendary International Business Meeting (better known mischievously as the “IBM”). Over 600 MCI employees from 44 offices located in 22 countries gathered in Istanbul in early December 2011 to network, learn and engage around the theme of “Trust”. Istanbul, as a city where East meets West, provided an appropriate symbolic context for MCI’s talent pool which is a true united nations of Europeans, Americans, Latins, Asians and Africans.
Hosted at the Hilton and Grand Hyatt in the Conference Valley area, one of three distinct convention areas in the city, attendees were afforded continuous panoramic views of the majestic, ever moving Bosphorus while remaining within very short walking distance of Taksim Square, one of Istanbul’s social and commercial focal points.
An afternoon of visits to some of the city’s newer hotel properties on the day before the IBM commenced left a lasting impression – Istanbul is clearly and confidently building itself, like Byzantium and Constantinople of old, as a vital, indispensible nexus city, a meeting point and a gathering place for minds, communities and ideas.
Four Seasons on the Bosphorus – one of two Four Seasons properties in Istanbul – opened two years ago and must rank as a signature property within this luxury brand’s portfolio. Commanding over 200m of Bosphorus frontage the property is an objective correlative of Istanbul itself fusing old and new by wrapping a magnificently finished and clean lined contemporary structure around an ancient palace. Details include the mock sculptured architraves which replicate ancient ottoman designs. The Meetings and Events space here is vast and spacious, extending out to the stunning marble terraces overlooking the water.
Accommodated within a rather tall, conspicuous tower which overlooks, to one side, the Besiktas football arena, Ritz Carlton Istanbul provides another touchstone for service beyond the smile in Istanbul. With the majority of its super-large sleeping rooms looking directly or partially onto the Bosphorous, the debatable external aesthetic of the Tower is more than compensated for by the unquestionable quality of the in-house guest experience.
Wedged centrally at a Y junction in the Akaretler neighbourhood, the newly opened W (Europe’s first!) oozes class. Using the post-ironic but ultimately confusing W Hotel room nomenclature – fantastic, wonderful, mega etc – there are over 11 diverse room categories here. Inspired by traditional Ottoman architecture the sleeping rooms here challenge your expectations in a host of ways – the wash area is to the front of the room while the wardrobe and storage area forms the screen between this area and the sleeping area. Open the full length window and there, facing you across a stone inlaid footbridge, is your own private cabana, nestled amidst the natural green foliage. So how cool is that?
When the famous author, Agatha Christie, visited Istanbul in the late 1920s she stayed at the Pera Palace Hotel and dreamed up the plot for her famous Murder on the Orient Express. (Some sources claim she actually wrote the novel in room 411). Following a $25m renovation (labour is cheap in Istanbul!) the Pera Palace is now open again offering a nostalgic re-enactment of Art Nouveau, Oriental and Neo Classical styles with understated contemporary conveniences. The Pera Palace dates originally from 1892 and overlooks the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorous.
By contrast The Sofa Hotel is only 4 years old but represents another key, defining aspect of Istanbul as hub destination for Meetings and Events. Situated in the fashionable downtown area of Nisantasi, The Sofa Hotel is the perfect example of Istanbul’s central positioning as a cultural and artistic trendsetter. Works by Warhol and Sam Francis hang alongside works by contemporary Turkish artists and the hotel itself is a major sponsor of the Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair. The rooftop terrace, called Art 8, doubles as a gallery and event space and provides stunning views over the city.
Longtable, the restaurant within The Sofa Hotel, is Istanbul’s hottest dining ticket. It completely changes its theme and décor on an annual basis and has just opened for the 2011 season as “Supermarket”, using eclectic and garishly coloured props, bric-a-brac and non-perishable food items to support the theme.
So what would William Butler Yeats make of the whole thing? He yearned escape from a material world where everything is “begotten, born and dies”. He wanted to live in a place where you might hear a golden bird sing of what was “past, passing or to come”. I think Yeats, like me, would love contemporary Istanbul with its ever-churning, ever changing kaleidoscopic socio-cultural matrix. And if he were in the Meetings and Events business he’d certainly choose Istanbul as his destination!
13 December 2010
Padraic Gilligan would like to thank his colleagues at MCI for choosing this great city for IBM2010. He would particularly like to thank Birgul and Tomruk, owners of Meptur (www.meptur.com.tr), MCI’s DMC partner for Turkey. They are incredible ambassadors for their destination and their passion for Istanbul is deeply contagious.
As promised, this article is specially for Bilge at Meptur – thanks so much for showing Patrick and me around.