Intriguing Istanbul at the Hyatt Regency
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
know the next time you’re going to Istanbul,” we told him.
Hyatt Regency lobby: evocation of Ottoman splendor - Click to Enlarge
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.
Agora Restaurant, named for the ancient Greek marketplace
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Harun believes the breakthrough of Turkish wines into the wine-loving
world has begun.
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.”
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
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
Agora’s sheer variety of foods and manifold styles of preparation were
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
of Asia across the Bosphorus from a fifth floor window of the Hyatt
|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.”
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.”
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.
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
Phone: 90 0 212 225 7000
Photos by Harvey
# # #
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.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights
This Article is Copyright © 2003 by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.
All rights reserved worldwide.
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