Joe Mortimer drinks in magnificent intercontinental vistas from the sumptuous surrounds of the Continents Suite at RAFFLES ISTANBUL
It might be one of the seven deadly sins, but envy can be a motivator for good as well as nefarious deeds. In the early 1800s, Sultan Abdülmecid I, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, was becoming increasingly discontent. While his European counterparts entertained world leaders in resplendent chateaux created by the foremost architects and artisans in the world, Abdülmecid was resigned to receiving foreign dignitaries in Constantinople’s Topkapi Palace, a sprawling mishmash of buildings assembled during the previous four centuries.
To quell his growing gloom, the Sultan commissioned a new residence on the shores of the Bosporus, a grand palace of neoclassical and baroque design that would showcase the great taste and wealth of the Ottoman Empire.
One of the last great buildings to have been built in Constantinople, Dolmabahçe Palace remains one of its most impressive. The sprawling complex contains 285 ornate rooms and 43 halls: the grand salons, state offices and reception halls of the selamlık on one side, and the private quarters of the harem (an inner sanctum reserved for the Sultan and his family) at the other. Separating the two is a Grand Ceremonial Hall that’s more in keeping with the Byzantine style of the city’s historic buildings than the rest of the palace; a cavernous space where pairs of gigantic pillars soar 36 metres up towards a domed ceiling, from which a pendulous 4.5-ton Bohemian crystal chandelier is suspended.
Gifts from kings, queens and emperors from all over the world decorate the palace’s interiors, including bear skin rugs from Russia, furniture from Paris and Asian ornamental vases. But it is the grand, classic double horseshoe-shaped Crystal Staircase of the selamlık that makes the most powerful impression.
When construction was complete in 1856, the palace was a modern marvel, a fitting home for the Ottoman court and an enduring legacy for Abdülmecid. But the building also demonstrated the duality of contemporary culture in Constantinople, a city torn between its Ottoman heritage and European aspirations. Some 150 years later, this sense of mixed identity can still be felt in Istanbul, Turkey’s economic powerhouse, which remains on the brink of Europe, while other world powers pull it in opposite directions.
It was into this environment that Raffles Istanbul opened in 2014, part of the exclusive Zorlu Centre and a clear statement of Istanbul’s future-focused aspirations. Situated a few minutes uphill from the Bosphorus-facing Ortaköy neighbourhood, Zorlu is a mixed use-residential, commercial and hospitality development of the kind made popular in the Gulf during the past two decades.
Crossing the onyx-clad entrance into the hotel’s lobby, it’s impossible to miss the striking installation on the opposite wall: a photo-composite of the Crystal Staircase and the splendid interiors of Dolmabahçe Palace made from hundreds of images digitally stitched together. Created by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier, the centrepiece immerses the viewer into the legend of the palace, a building that marked a major change in the city’s evolution in terms of architecture, design and identity. The parallel with Zorlu Centre is fairly clear.
Outside, the clean lines and angular shapes of the contemporary exterior are a marked contrast to the classical style exhibited in much of Istanbul’s historic centre, and the segregation of public and private areas connected by a ceremonial space (the performing arts centre) echoes the multi-functional format of the palace. But here in Raffles Istanbul, it is the ornamentation, refinement and attention to detail displayed in the photo wall that fuses the of ideology the two buildings.
Towering Byzantine columns of black marble inlaid with golden mosaic grace the lobby, leading the eye up to hand-blown glass chandeliers and partitions wrought in pre-Islamic geometric patterns. An abstract bronze figure reclining in a reflecting pool on one side of the lobby lounge is the work of sculpture Martin Dawe, bringing a touch of human emotion to the setting.
It’s a wonderful first impression, but I don’t have time to linger. Accompanied by a private butler, I’m whisked directly through the lobby to the elevator and escorted to my new home in Istanbul: the Continents Suite.
The last time I was in Istanbul, I ran from Asia to Europe as part of the Eurasia Marathon, a 26-mile race that started on the far side of the Bosphorus Bridge and ended in front of Hagia Sophia. The opening hour of the annual race is the only time of the year when the bridge is open to pedestrians, giving runners the unique privilege of crossing between two continents on foot. Six years later, I can confirm that drinking in the intercontinental views from the sumptuous surrounds of the Continents Suite is a much more satisfying privilege.
To the east are the swimming pools and apartment buildings of the exclusive Ukis residential neighbourhood. To the south, a trail of traffic snakes along the bridge, heading out to the suburbs on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Over in the west, the sun melts into the skies above the historic Beşiktaş and Karaköy neighbourhoods, where waterfront palaces line the Bosphorus and the distant minarets of Sultanahmet reach for the heavens. Sun loungers and a dining table tease with the prospect of lazy afternoons basking in the summer sun, but on this blustery winter evening, I’m quickly lured inside to the suite’s deluxe comforts.
An enormous L-shaped sofa dominates the living room, opposite a feature fireplace which soon warms up the suite. Overhead, a recessed ceiling in antique-style bronze gilt lends a stylish hint of nostalgia to this thoroughly contemporary space. Dark wooden floors and white walls are punctuated with pops of colour: blossom-pink alcoves filled with warm golden mosaic plates, and fuchsia-coloured orchids in a leaning palm-trunk vase.
Bookshelves are lined with Assouline and Thames & Hudson books on architecture, fashion and design, which demand to be devoured along with the complimentary fruit, nuts and lokum (Turkish delight) on one of the stylish wing-backed armchairs, and vibrant artwork adds a homely feel to the sumptuous surroundings.
The bedroom is almost as big as the living room, with a king-sized bed covered in elaborately embroidered sheets, and an abstract mural depicting the Hagia Sophia in dreamy purple hues covering the wall behind it. A huge walk-in wardrobe makes the suite a viable option for long-term stays, and a window-facing armchair is a great spot for morning coffee. The hammam-style bathroom is a work of art, with acres of marble covering every surface and a freestanding bathtub positioned to enjoy views of the bridge while you soak.
At 224 square metres, the Continents Suite is one of the biggest in Istanbul. Double doors separate the living room from a six-seat dining room with direct access to the terrace, and there’s a Bang & Olufsen sound system in case of a lull in the conversation. The suite’s hardware is first-class throughout: a fully-fitted kitchen with Gaggenau appliances; curtains, blinds, air conditioning and lights controlled by digital wall panels; and a fully-loaded bedside iPad. But it’s the soft touches that make the Continents Suite extra special.
Since Raffles Singapore first opened in 1887, the Raffles butler service has been a brand standard. A constant supply of soothing ginger and lemon tea is delivered to the suite for my poorly partner and, returning one afternoon, we discover a bunch of balloons and Raffles teddy bear to celebrate her birthday. Downstairs, the concierge is just as thoughtful, calling ahead to Dolmabahçe Palace to check on the size of the queue before we visit during a heavy rainstorm, and recommending the best place to hail a reliable taxi in Sultanahmet.
But heartfelt service isn’t the only Raffles staple continued in Istanbul. Here, the famous Long Bar is a dark and sultry place festooned with artwork by Turkish artists: a pair of signature portraits by Şahi̇n Paksoy and suits of winged armour created by Serdar Tekebaşoğlu.
Stepping into the adjacent Champagne Room is like walking into an oversized golden crown. The lavish space for wine tasting and celebrations is surrounded by hundreds of bottles of champagne, and 500 glass baubles representing Turkey’s iconic whirling dervishes form an elaborate chandelier overhead. The Writers’ Bar has also been transposed from Singapore, interpreted here as the hotel’s executive lounge: a studious library with moody lighting, giant chess set and book-themed sculptures by local artist İsmai̇l Öklügi̇l, who is just one of the dozens of national artists whose work is on display throughout the hotel.
The hotel achieves a wonderful sense of place courtesy of its culinary offerings. Glamorous all-day dining venue Rocca incorporates Turkish staples and a variety of egg dishes in its breakfast offering. Meanwhile, Isokyo turns its attention to the East, with a creative and contemporary menu that fuses local cuisine with flavours and ingredients from the Asian kitchen.
The hotel’s successful marriage of contemporary style and traditional ideas shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Raffles brand itself is one steeped in history, yet with an increasingly forward-facing outlook. Heritage style hotels in Phnom Penh and Paris are now accompanied by contemporary urban escapes like those in Istanbul and Warsaw, and properties just opened in Shenzhen and the Maldives. Like Istanbul, the Raffles brand occupies a special space in time that celebrates the past and aspires to the future.
Looking out at the view on a clear morning, it seems that not a lot has changed in Istanbul since Abdülmecid sat on the throne. The city is still treading the line between east and west, striving to embrace western culture while retaining its unique identity. But here on a hill high above the Bosphorus, in the plush surrounds of the Continents Suite, it’s clear that the modern and traditional can quite happily co-exist, leading this extraordinary city into its next monumental era.
Joe Mortimer stayed in the Continents Suite at Raffles Istanbul in February 2019. The nightly rate for the suite in June, July and August 2019 is EUR 3,500 + VAT, inclusive of breakfast and airport transportation