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Destination: Turkey : Inn-side Istanbul : In the shadow of the Blue Mosque, Ottoman-era mansions become modern lodgings

August 13, 1995|RICH RUBIN | Rubin is a New-York based free-lance writer

ISTANBUL, Turkey — I'm standing at my window, a cool glass of Turkish wine in hand, staring at the alluring array of spires on the Blue Mosque, Istanbul's most famous sight. I've pulled open the heavy velvet curtains and lifted the traditional Turkish latticed shutters, and though I've promised myself I'll start immediately to re-explore this city I love, at the moment I prefer the comfort of my room: the brass bedstead, old-fashioned phone, Victorian lamps and Turkish rugs scattered across wooden floors.

It's not surprising that I feel at home, for I'm staying in an old house: the Yesil Ev (or green house, in Turkish), a 19th-Century Ottoman mansion now converted into a hotel. This charming 20-room oasis is one of several projects of the Turkish Touring and Automobile Assn. that has, in the last decade, restored classic buildings in the heart of the city and opened them as moderately priced public lodgings. Predictably, they book up far in advance. Though I've stayed at the Yesil Ev on all three of my recent trips to the city, I've visited the group's two other nearby hotels--Ayasofya Pansiyonlari and the new Konuk Evi--and have found them to be equally charming.

The hotels follow an idea similar to Spain's paradores , occupying historical sites that are of architectural interest and providing a more intimate setting than the grand hotels. While the Turkish Touring Assn. is a private company, it works closely with various government agencies and in some cases has overseen renovations at the behest of local municipalities. But it is the group's hotels near the Blue Mosque that have garnered the most attention.

This area, known as Sultanahmet, was filled with wood homes like the Yesil Ev that were, until the end of World War II, single-family dwellings. But when landlords began to rent them, room-by-room, thousands of these houses fell into disrepair.

During the post-war population explosion and resulting construction boom, the crumbling buildings were replaced with modern structures, and the touristic advantages of the neighborhood, where most of Istanbul's sights are located, were all but abandoned as international hotel chains set up in the area around Taksim Square, in the newer section of town.

Enter the touring association, hoping to capitalize on what seemed like a ripe market for the restoration of these traditional dwellings. TTA had already worked with the municipality of Istanbul in renovating pavilions at Yildiz and Emirgan, two parks on the outskirts of town, rejuvenating the parklands and cafes of Camlica, a scenic hill outside town that is famous for its spectacular view of the city, and overhauling the Egyptian Khedives Palace on the Asian shores of the Bosporus Strait. But the group's new idea--revitalizing this decaying house in the shadow of the Blue Mosque--was more revolutionary, because the city's devotion to its architectural heritage has always focused on the great monuments, with other projects usually relegated to outlying areas.

In fact, the wooden Yesil Ev house, which until the mid-1970s had been owned by the family of a high-ranking government official, was unique for having survived, albeit in a rather decayed condition. TTA obtained permission from the Commission for Ancient Monuments to restore what is now the flagship hotel in the chain and still the best known of the group. Crews rebuilt the dilapidated structure, brought in a pink marble fountain from a mansion in nearby Yildiz to be centerpiece of the hotel's garden and furnished the rooms in late 19th-Century style.

The 1984 opening brought very little fanfare, but when it almost immediately received the prestigious Europa Nostra annual award honoring projects conserving European heritage, word began to spread about this tiny hotel, which boasts a list of celebrity guests ranging from the late dancer Rudolf Nureyev to former President Francois Mitterrand of France.

It's easy to see the attraction; the hotel is full of character. Of course, it is necessary to do without some of the luxuries of the larger hotels--air conditioning and television. (Unless you stay in the huge Pasha's Room, with its private Turkish bath, TV, mini-bar and antique furnishings.)

But for me it's worth it to have Istanbul's great sights so close: the Blue Mosque at my doorstep, Ayasofya (the mosque of St. Sophia) across the street, Topkapi Palace a few blocks north, the Grand Bazaar 10 minutes away on foot. In fact, had I stayed in the newer area around Taksim Square, I'm not sure I'd ever have felt Istanbul to be so accessible or comfortable. As one San Francisco couple I chatted with over breakfast commented, "We moved here from the Hilton, which is beautiful, but why start every day in a taxi when you can stay right in the heart of things?"

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