Have you ever met someone on your travels that impressed you almost as much as the city’s sights themselves? That’s what happened on my recent trip to Istanbul. In fact I met three people who did that.
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown novels you may recognise the central character in my Turkish travels. His wife played a pretty significant role too, along with the head butler at one of the city’s hotels.
Those who have travelled to Istanbul would agree it is an impressive city with loads to see, but like any foreign destination, it’s the people that make the place, give it charm and leave you with some of your fondest memories.
My base is the new St Regis hotel in Nisantasi, an upmarket area in Istanbul just two kilometres from the famed Taksim Square, and offering views of the Bosphorus Strait and access to a number of restaurants, cafes and high-end boutiques.
The area, admittedly very funky, is saturated with fashionable well-to-do types who appear to have Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton on speed-dial I feel a little out of my element, it’s not the upmarket experience I’m after – I want to see the real Istanbul, the one the locals live and love.
Fatos Gungor, a professional tour guide, has lived in Istanbul most of her life, and is now one of the city’s ambassadors. She’s my guide on day one. Travelling with her is like being a local yourself.
As we make our way around the city by van and by foot, I hang on to every word she has to say about her beloved Istanbul – the place where she was born in 1975 and lived until she jetted off to university in the United States – only to return a few years later with a marketing/communications degree and a desire to become a certified tour guide.
Fatos is the one who lets slip that her husband Serhan, also a tour guide, has been immortalised in Brown’s bestselling novel Inferno, but we’ll get to that later.
“I like starting a day with a breakfast at Gulhane Park, located in the Old City by Topkapi Palace. I usually grab Simit (Turkish pretzels) on the way and enjoy the little teahouse overlooking the southern entrance of the Bosphorus,” Fatos says as she takes me up the Galata Tower, our first stop and the place where you’ll find one of the most breathtaking views of the city.
“I live on the Asian side, in Uskudar where the view of the Bosphorus is the best. I often meet friends in Kuzguncuk which is like a derivative of a village in the city centre, near Uskudar.”
Fatos says it’s a neighbourhood that still reflects the multicultural atmosphere of Istanbul with its synagogue, mosque, Greek Orthodox churches and Armenian Orthodox church – all in close proximity.
“With its restored wooden civil architecture, with its neighbourhood store owners chatting and playing backgammon in front of their shops, it is a break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul,” she adds.
While there are plenty of big attractions here, the locals such as Fatos who spend much of their work time showing people around the heart of the city, prefer to enjoy their own piece of the city in their own time and a little closer to home.
“I like enjoying fish restaurants by the shore, or having an afternoon break in the neighbourhood coffee shops,” she says as we sit down to lunch at a traditional Turkish restaurant – Sultanahmet Koftecisi – that offers a view of the Hagia Sophia, and is just a short walk from the oldest hammam in the city – the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Bath 1556.
As for what the rest of her leisure time looks like, well in a word, it sounds fun. “I enjoy the artistic side of Istanbul and share my passion of the city with my guests. Enjoying jazz on my terrace, cooking for loved ones, listening to rock albums when I’m driving and tango dancing are my favourite activities.”
There have been so many stories written about the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern, and of course, the Bosphorus Strait that separates Europe and Asia.
“Sokullu Mehmet Pasha and Kucukayasofya mosques in the Kucukayasofya neighbourhood near Sultanahmet are gems of the city. If the Blue Mosque is too crowded, then walk through the Roman Hippodrome, down the street towards the sea and you’ll find yourself by the Pasha mosque,” Fatos suggests.
The Sokullu Mehmet Pasha mosque, she explains, is smaller and more intimate than the others, was built by Sinan the architect in the 16th century, and is famous for its Iznik tiles. Kucukayasofya, on the other hand, was originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in the 6th century, and with the arrival of the Ottomans it was converted into a mosque.
“With its original plan layout the Byzantine column and column capitals and its baroque decoration from the Ottoman period, it is another hidden gem of the city,” Fatos tells me.
In addition to this, and as we walk through the Basilica Cistern, a beautiful underground part of the city filled with tourists at every turn, Fatos gives me my final insider tip.
“In Haskoy, near Beyoglu, an 18th century Ottoman palace/pavilion, which was renovated several times in the following century is another favourite of mine,” she says. “Aynalikavak Kasri … recently restored and open for visits, located in a beautiful courtyard by the Golden Horn (a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus), is the evidence of Ottoman architecture and lifestyle.”
As my day with Fatos comes to a close, I’m content to return to the hotel. Tired, but happy in the knowledge that the next day her husband would be guiding me on the Bosphorus – I’ve never met a book character before.
As the morning dawns and we board our private boat that will take us on a two-hour tour of the famous stretch of water, I leave it a while before launching into my questions about Serhan’s encounter with Brown, but when I finally throw it out, he answers with a smile.
“When Dan Brown was here in 2009 I guided him through the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, Beyoglu and Bebek regions – we spent quite a long time in the historical peninsula. An area of historical significance … Walls, Chora, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica ... apart from the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, from Istiklal Caddesi we hiked up the Bosphorus from Galata,” Serhan recalls. “It was afterwards that I found out a character in his book Inferno was based on me... and when I read it, it made me happy.” Brown revealed in a TV interview that after visiting Istanbul, Serhan had inspired the character Mirsat, the enthusiastic guide who shows Robert Langdon – the central character of the hugely-popular Da Vinci Code series around.
As a result of this amazing tribute, Serhan, who has since guided cosmetic giant Napoleon Perdis, foodie whizz Rick Stein, actress Joanna Lumley, and has a great story to tell about his encounter with Meryl Streep, now offers tours he calls “In Search of Dan Brown’s Historic Peninsula”.
“When I found out they were planning to make a movie based on the book, I thought I should contact (director) Ron Howard’s people and tell them I was available,” Serhan says with a cheeky grin. Unfortunately for the man who was born in Ankara and served in the military before becoming a full-fledged tour guide in the late 1990s, that role has been cast, and production has begun, with Tom Hanks reprising his role as Langdon.
As we continue to meander along the Bosphorus with Serhan pointing out Ottoman palaces and significant landmarks along the way, he continues to tell us about his other notable encounters. “When Meryl Streep was in town she asked where she could get a quiet coffee, somewhere she wouldn’t be recognised ... I ended up taking her and the family to my home. They were lovely,” Serhan says, adding that the thing he loves most about showing tourists around is the diversity Istanbul offers.
I spend the day on the water taking in the history of Istanbul and enjoying the scene afterwards at Ismet Baba Restaurant, a place Serhan and Fatos frequent often, which is extremely popular with the locals.
Upon returning to the hotel, the third character in my Turkish short story provides me another interesting local perspective.
Atilla Cimsit is the head butler at the St Regis, and like Fatos and Serhan he was born and raised in Turkey. Besides being the head of the service team at one the city’s newest five-star properties, when we get talking it becomes clear he is like any other passionate local.
“Being a tourist in Istanbul is really fun. My wife and I try to go to Istanbul at midnight to Sultanahmet, when you can just throw back the century – it is not crowded and you can really let your imagination take over. Or we take a late-night Bosphorus ferry ride all the way up,” he says. “To me being a tourist means discovering or rediscovering.”
Cimsit, who rates serving Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in Canada a few years ago as one of his most memorable moments, says he leaves the arrangements for their leisure time outings up to his wife. He does add though that if you listen to opera there’s one place you just can’t go past.
“If you go to the entrance of Topkapi Palace, a church called Aya Yorgi – it’s a fantastic acoustic and authentic location I will say if you are here in the springtime in Istanbul find a concert in Aya Yorgi, it’s an amazing experience you never forget.”
As for a Sunday breakfast recommendation? “There is a place called Salacak which is in the area of Uskudar, that looks over to the Maiden Tower with the backdrop of the old city with the walls, the (Topkapi) Palace with the Blue Mosque, so you are sitting in a place where you get to see a lot,” he suggests.
And a recommendation from Cimsit is something you can happily take away with the knowledge they’re getting sound advice.
So when next you’re in Istanbul or any other city for that matter, be sure to keep an eye out for the characters who can offer another chapter to your holiday story.