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Experiencing Intriguing Istanbul at the Hyatt Regency

A friend whose business travels frequently bring him to exotic locales consistently stays at one of the American chains. “I have to be in a place where I can count on things like Internet and fax access, well equipped meeting rooms, not to mention the luxury of a good shower and a comfortable bed in an air conditioned room,” he said.  Then he sighed just a bit and added “But you know, there are times when it’s easy to forget where I am.  It could be Toledo as easily as Tokyo. All these hotels seem the same.”

“Let us know the next time you’re going to Istanbul,” we told him. 

Hyatt Regency Istanbul - Click to Enlarge Hyatt Regency Istanbul - Click to Enlarge
Hyatt Regency Istanbul Lobby - Click to Enlarge Hyatt Regency Istanbul Lobby
The Hyatt Regency lobby: evocation of Ottoman splendor - Click to Enlarge

The Hyatt Regency Istanbul stands close to the dreamy blue Bosphorus that divides Europe from Asia.  In our fifth floor corner room, a picture window framed a view that, but for the modern ferry commuter boats that regularly zig-zag between the two continents, could be a 19th century Ottoman painting of domes and minarets etched into an Asian skyline of changing hues under the shifting light of day. This five-star American chain hotel has all our friend requires in terms of business center with computer connections, private meeting rooms, VIP lounges and check-in facilities, as well as every 21st century luxury and comfort. Yet, not for a moment would he forget where he was.

Istanbul’s 19th century Technical University, just across the way, was the architectural inspiration for the Hyatt Regency.  Built in 1994 on the site of a former tennis club, the sturdy, I-shaped eight-story structure with red tiled roof and terra cotta exterior is accessed through an elaborately landscaped sunken driveway. Its octagon-shaped lobby soars two stories high and is punctuated by a pair of towering golden grills evoking harem screens and wooden pillars evoking classical themes. 

From the surrounding second floor balcony one looks down on an enormous antique Bohemian crystal chandelier, of the sort fancied by sultans, suspended over a marble floor of gray, gold, and green marble slabs laid in a starburst pattern. The setting is opulent; yet the mood is serene, even intimate, belying the hotel’s actual 360-room size.

Looking into the Hyatt Regency gardens - Click to Enlarge
Looking into the Hyatt Regency gardens
Features of Istanbul’s famed palaces have been incorporated into the Hyatt Regency to stunning effect.  A grand staircase leads from the lobby to the Saray Lounge on the balcony level. Aptly named with the Turkish word for palace, it spreads out in palatial proportions. Carpets are patterned after a sultan’s caftan, divans are heaped with plush cushions, circular couches surround domed-capped tables, antique medallions and paintings decorate walls painted a creamy golden beige. 

Beyond a wall of glass are terraced gardens where streams cascade down pink marble steps and water runs out from a lagoon-like swimming pool into gratings that line its perimeter.  Pathways of brownish marble laid in a parquet pattern pick up the exquisite bosphorus light that filters through wooden screens. And in the evening, when the gardens are illuminated by flaming torches whose reflections are multiplied in the pool into patterns of liquid gold, it is a scene out of “A Thousand and One Nights.”

Burcu Kaleagasi, Marketing Communications Executive at the Hyatt Regency - Click to Enlarge
Burcu Kaleagasi, Marketing Communications Executive at the Hyatt Regency
Except that the women in this Turkish palace are not confined to the harem. Burcu Kaleagasi, for example, may be as captivating as Scherazade, but the Hyatt’s Marketing Communications Executive tells her stories to a hotel-going public instead of a potentate. When we commented how surprised we were to see so many women in visible executive positions around the hotel, Burcu, who studied business management and has worked in Seattle and Las Vegas, assured us this was not an anomaly. “Since the 1980’s, women in Istanbul have been moving very fast into professional fields, many of them in public relations,” she said.
The Presidential Suite done up in Ottoman themes - Click to Enlarge
The Presidential Suite done up in Ottoman themes
We had already visited Topkapi and the Dalmabache Palace when Burcu escorted us on a tour of the Hyatt Regency, and indeed it was very much the third palace in a row, we thought, particularly when we saw the Presidential Suite which has hosted royalty, dignitaries of state, performing artists, even Hillary Clinton. The octagon-shaped entry, Turkish rugs, fabulous chandelier, rare antiques including an illustrated manuscript dated 1582 commemorating an Imperial Celebration, and “hamam”-like bathrooms all evoke the splendor of the Ottoman and even earlier Seljuk eras. 

The theme continues throughout the hotel – even to the richly carpeted hallways whose walls are hung with intriguing photographs of Istanbul portals and doorways and into our junior suite where paintings of mosques, reclining sultans and caliphs blended with cool contemporary furnishings.

But as we soon discovered, what makes the Hyatt Regency most distinctively Turkish is not its palatial environs so much as its exemplification of the traditions of Turkish hospitality, “a significant part of the culture,” according to Burcu. “If you go into a village where nobody knows you and knock on a door saying you lost your way, you will be welcomed,” she told us over strong Turkish coffee and baklava in the Saray Lounge. “You will be what we call ‘God’s guest.’ Your host will serve you food, coffee and dessert. It will be his pleasure to take care of you, to make you feel like you are at home. The hospitality will come from the heart.”

  Indeed it was this kind of hospitality, Burcu so eloquently described that made our stay at the Hyatt Regency most memorable. From the concierge who got us seats for an SRO performance of “Sultans of the Dance” – the hottest show in town, to the greeters who rushed to open a door or call a cab, to the welcoming people at the reception desk, to the lovely Guest Services Manager Martina Turesinler who introduced us to  Asim Gumusgerdan, the courtly owner of the hotel’s Lobby Shop who accompanied us on a tour of the Golden Bazaar and helped us through the intricacies of buying a Turkish carpet, every member of the staff we encountered was smiling and courteous, at the ready to go out of his or her way to be of some service.

The uniqueness of Turkish hospitality is on display at the Hyatt’s Agora, one of the city’s  premiere dining destinations which attracts people living in Istanbul as much as hotel guests. There is also Spasso, voted the best Italian restaurant in Istanbul for four years, and Takarabune for fine Japanese cuisine. But as we were in Turkey, our preference was for the Agora which specializes in Turkish food. The Agora Restaurant, named for the ancient Greek marketplace - Click to Enlarge
The Agora Restaurant, named for the ancient Greek marketplace

Its ambience, however, stems from its name, the word for the ancient Greek marketplace, an appropriate designation since in one of its former lives Istanbul was part of the classical world. In a spacious and brightly lit dining room, huge sacks of aromatic spices and antique storage jars sit amidst a profusion of plants creating the feel of a marketplace. Wide arched portals lead to passageways that surround an elaborate multi-level buffet, tables laden with a cornucopia of foods, and an open kitchen decorated with IZNIK-style tiles.

The dining room spills out onto a broad terrace overlooking the hotel gardens, and as the weather was consistently perfect, we consistently dined al fresco at the same table beside the garden wall where the sound of running water was a soothing constant and where we came to know Ergun Vuzenni.  A waiter at the Agora for a little more than a year, Ergun in his attentiveness and warmth personified the kind of Turkish hospitableness Burcu had described.  “When you are hired at this hotel, you are told the most important thing is to be attentive to the guests,” he told us, an admonition the handsome and charming Ergun clearly took to heart.

The terrace outside the Agora Restaurant - Click to Enlarge
The terrace outside the Agora Restaurant
A favored dining spot beside the garden - Click to Enlarge
A favored dining spot beside the garden

One evening after dinner, we sat in the darkened dining room, talking to Ergun and discovered he had worked for several of Istanbul’s five-star hotels and on a cruise ship before coming to the Hyatt Regency. As Turkey is currently undergoing a difficult financial situation, he feels particularly fortunate in his employment. “Other places, they give you the money and they fire you. But here, even though there is a crisis, they haven’t fired anyone,” he said. “That makes a big difference to me particularly since my wife and I have a new baby daughter.

“What makes this hotel special is the management. You can talk to them about anything. “And there is opportunity here,” he added. “As a young married man, I feel positioned to move on.” Ergun gestured in the direction of the tall, thoughtful looking maitre d’ not much older than himself with whom he obviously has an easy-going, bantering relationship. “I am looking forward to the day when I will take my manager’s jacket.”

Hearing this, the maitre d’ laughed good naturedly. He could have answered “Which one?”  For in addition to managing the Agora, room service and the Executive Lounge, Harun Dursun is the Hyatt’s sommelier, an unusual distinction in this Moslem country and an indicator of the direction Turkey is taking as it moves into the larger European community.

Harun is not only the Hyatt Regency’s first sommelier, he is the nation’s  first official sommelier as well although he came upon viticulture by accident. After studying hotel management and working for a range of Turkish hotels, he won a two-year scholarship to study for a master’s degree at a Glasgow university where wine tasting every Thursday and whiskey tasting every Friday was compulsory. “The subject intrigued me,” he told us. “I wanted to go deeper. First I studied whiskey, and I learned it has borders. You can complete the study of whiskeys. But then I turned to wine, and I learned it has no borders. It is an open subject.” The young man completed his degree, worked for a while in a traditional hotel in London and then returned to Istanbul where at the Hyatt he was able to put his knowledge to good use.

Although he was off to a wine conference in Bordeaux the next morning, Harun sat talking with us late into the night and the early hours of the next morning. We had finished an excellent dinner; still the big bowl of cherries that was placed before us was quickly emptied as Harun provided fascinating insight into some of the dilemmas faced by a nation that straddles east and west, old and new.

 “According to our religion, we cannot drink alcoholic beverages,” he told us. “I believe in God and my religion very much, but on the other hand I drink as it is my job. As a sommelier you don’t swallow, you spit in the bowl.

“Turkey is not like Iran where if you drink one gram of alcohol, you can be put in prison,” he added. “We are a democratic nation. Politically you have the right to drink if you wish. In the eastern part of Anatolia, the community would frown upon it so you would not see people drinking.  In Istanbul, you see people drinking all the time. Still, I must say wine is a new concept in Turkey.”

We learned from Harun that although Turkey is the world’s fifth largest producer of grapes, only three percent of the harvest goes into the production of wine. Grapes are grown for table use, dried into raisins, and sold to Spain and Italy who use them to produce wine. “It is like Levi’s,” he said. “The cotton is grown in Turkey and sent to the States.”

The end of the Ottoman period and the dawn of the modern Turkish republic in the 1920’s began a new era in the nation’s viticulture. Today Turkish wines are rapidly drawing the attention and admiration from the international wine-growing community with two companies Doluca and Kavaklidere responsible for 70% of the nation’s wine production. Ironically, vineyards on the soils of Gallipolis – where some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War were fought – bear Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes.

We had a wonderfully aromatic and fruity Doluca Chardonnay from Gallipolis called Serafin. Harun told us the wine is more floral than Chardonnays from Burgundy because the sunlight in Gallipolis is so much stronger, and that is what accounts for the wine’s sweetness and long finish. It was disappointing to learn that we would not be able to get Serafin, which is aged in French white oak and has just a touch of wood flavor, nor any other Turkish wine in the States.

However, Harun believes the breakthrough of Turkish wines into the wine-loving world has begun.

“We are not in the European Community, but we play football in the European Championship,” he said.  “I went to the European Championship for sommeliers in 2000 although unlike the other contestants, I was not the winner of a national competition because I had no one to compete with. Still I became one of the semi finalists among 30 European countries. It was the first time a Muslim nation was involved in a championship.”

As the Hyatt Regency, Harun has organized wines according to countries, varieties, vintages in a list that would be normal for a fine American restaurant but was very new in Turkey. He had a storage area built two stories below the ground. In 2000, he began the first of what has become an annual wine festival.  And he is vice president of Turkey’s sommelier’s association which he was instrumental in forming. When Harun told us, “I am very interested in this aspect of work. I love my job,” it was not difficult to believe him.

But it was difficult to believe how this gentle young man with the air of an intellectual handles so many Hyatt Regency operations so well. Managing the Agora, it seemed to us, would be enough for any one person with its international a la carte menu that features Asian specialties like Indian lamb and Malaysian chicken curry, in addition to its primary Turkish focus.

The Agora’s sheer variety of foods and manifold styles of preparation were overwhelming.

An elaborate buffet offered a profusion of such cold dishes as mussels stuffed with currants and pine nuts, marinated artichokes that looked like a disc at the end of a stick, smoked sturgeon, smoked and poached salmon, swordfish, roast beef, pastrami, salamis, little balls of mozzarella cheese with sun dried tomatoes, a multitude of salads from magenta colored cabbage to mashed artichoke with onions and peppers, bowls of  bulgar reddened with tomatoes, humus, spinach with mint-flavored yogurt, rice with pine nuts, the sweetest cherry tomatoes we had ever tasted, and eggplant -- fried, grilled, mashed, sauted, stewed, chopped and combined with vinegar, tomatoes and scallions. 

Each night we dined at the Agora, different soups: lentil, chicken broths flavored with lemon, cold tomato, cream of onion filled fanciful tureens.  A bread station held a cornucopia of freshly baked breads with seeds of all kinds including a lemon poppy that was irresistible, flat pitas, and twisted loaves.

 At the far end of the outdoor dining terrace, ka-bobs, entrecorte, chicken, corn and other vegetables were prepared over an open grill by chefs in white uniforms. You walk up, select whatever you want, and the platters arrive at your table.

For dessert, you return to the buffet where a dizzying array of choices including rice and burned milk puddings, chocolate mousse cakes, a range of pastries from baklava to profiteroles, cakes topped with meringue and filled with berries, and baskets of fresh fruits including bowls overflowing with bright red cherries softens the most rigid will power.

The plentitude reflects the natural wealth of this ancient land. “In Turkey we are quite rich in that we can plant everything,” we were told. “All the produce is fresh every day.”

View of Asia across the Bospherous from a fifth floor window of the Hyatt Regency - click to enlarge
View of Asia across the Bosphorus from a fifth floor window of the Hyatt Regency
Before we left the Hyatt Regency, our thoughts turned to our friend who has been in too many chain hotels that have nothing to do with their locale. Our experience was quite the opposite. “Despite the fact that Hyatt is an international chain, we have the freedom to do what we want here, to decorate as we like, to maintain the Ottoman feel,” commented Haluk Ozdogan, Assistant General Manager. “There are plans to make it more even more suitable to the business traveler, but that won’t be at the expense of the individuality that sets this place apart.”

“Turkey straddles Europe and Asia culturally as well as geographically,” the beautiful Burcu had told us. “The growing wine industry is a way for Turkey to say we are western, European, part of the modern world.”

We were walking beside the swimming pool and Burcu pointed out a contraption that looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland surrounded with cushions. “This is the water pipe,” she said. “Tobacco is mixed with aromatic flavors like apple, cinnamon cappuccino. In the evening, people get together and arrange themselves on the cushions and enjoy the pipe while conversing with each other. It is an old Ottoman custom.

“We live like westerners but something inside us is eastern,” she added. Having spent a week in Istanbul, we understood what she was talking about. The Hyatt Regency was a case in point.

Hyatt Regency Istanbul
Taskisla Caddesi
80090 Taksim
Istanbul, Turkey

Phone: 90 0 212 225 7000

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

This Article is Copyright © 2003 by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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