How far would you go for a bath? A Turkish bath, that is. If you’re John Travolta, the answer is pretty far. The Hollywood A-lister flew all the way to Istanbul for the opportunity of a shvitz in the Galatasaray Hamam, the city’s oldest Turkish bath, dating from 1481.
He was spotted propping up the reception desk at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, where, coincidentally, I was brunching with girlfriends in the beautifully manicured courtyard gardens. “John,” I said, “sit down. Take the weight off. Come and join us for this fantastic brunch (only 99 Turkish lira per person, about £40, worth every penny).” Did he take any notice...? Not really, it has to be admitted.
Still, I had other things to think about. For the credit crunch aware, travelling outside the euro zone is now really the only way to get that elusive “I have scored a bargain” feeling. So there are few better places to go than Istanbul, perfect for a long weekend.
It fulfils the essential “girlfriends on a break” criteria; not too far away (just over three hours’ flying time), English widely spoken, terrific and accessible sights to give you that veneer of caring about culture, a civilised city, and yes, extraordinary shopping.
Every traveller to Istanbul knows about the Grand Bazaar, with its hundreds of shops and sharp-eyed, multi-lingual (and multi-currency) shopkeepers. For many people the Grand Bazaar (closed on Sundays) is frankly overwhelming. Though the lanes are signposted and nominally the bazaar is split up into different areas (leather, antiques, jewellery, pashminas), in practice many of the shops appear to meld into one giant Woolworths-of-blessed-memory.
An ideal shopping companion, we found, was the cardboard concertina that is the Luxe Guide to Istanbul. Close consultation led us down some promising alleyways and steered us away from sharp practice. Many of the recommendations are right on the money, such as starting your assault on the Grand Bazaar with a soothing pit-stop at the Fes Cafe, an Istanbul institution, or its advice on the House Cafe (“deeply lovely, Soho-style, relaxed and homely atmos-kaff”). Luxe is also extremely useful for drawing your attention away from dull shopping malls (Istanbul boasts several mega-malls, each more cavernous and bland than the next) and instead to chic areas such as Nişantaşi, the hub of which is the four-floor Beymen department store, a place which makes Harvey Nicks look like the aforesaid Woolies. Each floor sussurates with designer labels and prices designed to give you a nose-bleed — but you can’t deny the pleasure of looking.
Sprinkled up and down Abdi Ipekçi Street in the heart of this district are various outposts of the Jewish-owned Vakko clothing and accessories empire: Vakko men’s, Vakko women’s, Vakko shoes, bags… you get the picture.
Istanbul is home to three major football teams, Besiktas, Galatasaray, and Fenerbahce, all of which appeared to be playing on a daily basis during my visit. Football mania and a general Ottoman impatience is a lethal combination which gives rise to the worst traffic jams I have ever seen in my life. Add to that the occasional closure of one of the two great bridges which connect the two parts of the city over the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, and you are looking at traffic meltdown.
Turkish taxi-drivers need watching closely: they are nippy and seemingly fearless, weaving their yellow cabs in and out, but — particularly if you are staying somewhere nice — watch that they put the meter on or they are liable to hike up the fare. If you’re planning to see the sights, start early and try to get the concierge or receptionist at your hotel to agree a price with the driver.
By far the most unusual sight in the city is the Basilica Cistern, first laid out in the year 532, during the rule of Justinian, to supply water to the city. It is a truly extraordinary structure and a miracle of Byzantine engineering: 336 columns, each 26 foot high, hold up the roof of the cistern, while just discernible in the gloom from the walkways are hundreds of fish, great and small. The Cistern makes a change from many of the other, well-trodden tourist sites: just wear something you don’t mind getting wet, as the roof is drippy, and wear non-slip shoes.
Just behind the Grand Bazaar you’ll find the Arasta Bazaar, a long dreamy street lined with slightly unusually stocked shops, a bit different from the normal tourist tat. I read on the plane of one of the shops which specialises in unbelievably silly hats, made of felt and often looking as though they had escaped from the Teletubbies’ costume department. It turns out that Ottoman-era Turks were proud of their silly hats, many of which feature strange spouts or peculiar fringes. They are, it has to be said, the antithesis of sophisticated, but you might find a fun present for any children in your life.
Much cooler is Iznik, with exquisite tiles and ceramics which are the work of master craftsmen and women — very desirable but very expensive. However, with two shops in the Arasta Bazaar and a four-floor gallery around the corner from the Four Seasons Sultanahmet hotel, Iznik is well used to tourists — and they ship.
Next door to the Iznik gallery is Ugur, whose cards proclaim it to be a leather and jewellery store but which is, in fact, a dedicated leather warehouse. A much more pleasant experience than buying in the Grand Bazaar, the staff will make you what you want, to measure, and they, too, will post your purchase directly to you at home.
If you’ve shopped till you drop during the day, you will definitely want somewhere cool to stay. Our base was the luxurious and beautiful new Four Seasons at the Bosphorus, in the Besiktas district (about 15 minutes drive from the main tourist areas). The 166-room hotel was once a 19th-century Ottoman palace, known as Atik Pasha. Though there are two new wings, the elegance of the original building remains, particularly the sweeping driveway to the entrance.
With its sprawling riverside location and infinity pool (open April to October), it could not be more different from its sister hotel in the old city, Sultanahmet, yet it remains distinctively Four Seasons: understated luxury and fantastic service.
Our elegant, spacious room, facing on to the city gardens, had huge beds with the best pillows I have ever slept on and a giant ensuite bathroom with a seriously powerful walk-in shower.
The hotel also has a gorgeous spa, featuring a traditional hammam alongside spa treatments. Spreadeagled on a tiled platform while a tiny but powerful masseuse smoothed, pummelled and chucked water over me, I felt appropriately pampered.
Aqua, the hotel’s main restaurant, offers a vast array of Mediterranean and Turkish dishes, including a terrific vegetarian and fish selection. In summer, the pool bar and grill offers barbecued fish cooked outside; and the lobby bar, inside the main palace building, provides every delicious drink you’ve ever heard of and many that you haven’t. You may never want to go out.
The Four Seasons at the Bosphorus (00800 6488 6488; www.fourseasons.com/bosphorus) offers double rooms from ¤300 (£271) per night. Guests at sister property, the Four Seasons Sultanahmet can use the pool at the Bosphorus hotel free of charge. British Airways (www.ba.com; 0844 4930 787) has flights to Istanbul from £132 return; Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) has flights to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport (about 90 minutes’ drive from the city centre) from £32.99 one way in February. Luxe Guide to Istanbul, £4.99
● Jews from the Iberian peninsula and Italy fled to the Ottoman Empire, many settling in Constantinople, Istanbul’s historic name
● Around 17,000 Jews live in Istanbul today. The city has 18 functioning synagogues, the oldest, Ahrida built in the 15th century. The largest synagogue is Neve Shalom
●Today’s community is mainly based in Karaköy which has a Jewish Primary school and a Jewish Museum. Jewish heritage tours offered by: www. toursistanbul.com/jewishheritagetour