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The Crossroads of Europe and Asia

November 05, 1989|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Once described as a comely bride adorned enticingly for her husband, this color-splashed city is more than that, being a fetching combination of earth mother, saucy soubrette, harridan and grand dame at the doorway of Asia Minor.

With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, Istanbul's setting at the confluence of the Sea of Marmara, Golden Horn and Bosporus, is unrivaled by any other city--Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco and Naples included.

Istanbul's checkered history and changing fate began as a fishing village about 1000 BC. It became the Greek Byzantium a few centuries later and, after accepting Rome's influence and fighting wars between the empire's various factions, it fell to Constantine the Great and Christianity in AD 330.

He proclaimed it "New Rome," renamed it Constantinople and made it capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Understanding Istanbul's past helps to appreciate the city's attractions today: bits of Greek statuary; Roman forums, hippodrome and aqueduct; majestic Ottoman palaces, the great Christian church-Muslim mosque of St. Sophia.

These and other priceless legacies from Hellenic, Christian and Muslim eras have made the city an exciting first step into a country that yearly lures great numbers of visitors from around the world.

Getting here: Fly British Airways, Pan Am, Lufthansa, KLM or SAS.

How long/how much? Four days will keep you hopping, what with a day's cruise up the Bosporus for lunch near the Black Sea and perhaps another day over to Bursa for a look at the Asian side. Lodging costs are expensive, but great Turkish food is a huge bargain.

A few fast facts: The Turkish lira recently sold at 2,200 to the dollar, about .00045 each. Visit any time from spring through November. Cabs are reasonable and the town has 17,000 of them, but make sure you get one with a meter. And stick to bottled water, even in the best hotels.

Getting settled in: Hotel Gezi (Mete Caddesi 42; $74 to $97 double B&B) has a wonderful location, with fine views of the city and Bosporus. Bedrooms are contemporary in decor, and there are sparkling marble baths, mini-bars and TV.

The Hotel Riva (Aydede Caddesi 8; $95 B&B double), like most hotels, is on the "newer" Beyoglu side of the Golden Horn. It's modern, with a restaurant cantilevered over the lobby on a balcony. Bedrooms are neat, basic and on the small side. The cellar breakfast room serves as the Riva Pub in the evening.

Hotel Eresin (Topcu Caddesi 34; $100 B&B double), at the heart of Beyoglu, has a pleasant marble lobby. While the bedrooms are also small, they're pretty, bright and have all the big hotel amenities. Buffet breakfasts there are more like a hearty brunch.

Regional food and drink: You'll find plenty of lamb and fresh seafood, but some of the more interesting specialties never make it out of the country. Try the pedici-- a flat, pita-like bread topped with cheese, ground meat or eggs, then baked. Lahmacun also uses pita bread as a base for a soft pizza delight that's inexpensive.

Turks have at least 150 ways of preparing eggplant and all are colorful and delicious, like most of their fresh vegetable dishes. Cankaya is a good white wine from the Ankara region. Doluca Akik Beyoz also is excellent.

Dining well: Pandeli (above the Spice Market by the Galata Bridge) has achieved a worldwide reputation for authentic Turkish food in a romantic setting overlooking the Bosporus. Everything we had was luscious: fried mussels, kebabs on eggplant, lamb shish kebab and koftes (a spicy lamb patty). Menus have English translations, and most main dishes are $3-$5.

Akvaryum (Capariz Sok. 39) is one of about 35 small fish places in the Kumkapi area of the old part of town, southwest of the Golden Horn. Just look for the word balik , which means "fish," over the door, then go in for the very best seafood. Try Akvaryum's swordfish kebab skewered with fresh bay leaf. At night the area comes alive with street musicians, which you invite inside to play, and then tip. Some groups even bring along their own belly dancer.

Palet No. 3 (Tarabaya village on Bosporus) is about a 20-mile cab ride from Istanbul. Or take a ferry from the Galata Bridge, but make sure you get Palet No. 3. It's on a small marina, open to the street, offering music in the evenings. The mezes (hors d'oeuvres) are numerous, the main dishes superb.

Going first-class: In the last three decades the Hilton (Cumhuriyet Caddesi; $145-$170 double) has become a showplace and social center, with probably the finest view in the city. Its lobby is also the best people-watching spot in town: women in purdah, sheiks in flowing robes, European industrialists meeting for drinks.

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