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9 Hours in Istanbul

Geoffrey Weill

Jun 6, 2022

Eager traveler Geoffrey Weilll takes us through his layover in Istanbul, seeing the best of the city in nine hours.

In 2008, I flew nonstop from JFK to Bangkok aboard Thai Airways International. It was sixteen mind-numbing hours on an Airbus A340-500 sitting in Business next to a gentleman in a tie and suit who, as far as I recall from my waking hours, never moved a muscle, never watched a movie, never read. Back then, “flat seats” were those with a 20% angle, so it was like lying on a ski slope clenching your calf muscles to avoid ending up on the floor in a heap. The route wasn’t a big success, and was withdrawn after a few years.

Flash forward to 2022 and there are no longer nonstops from New York to Bangkok, but I am Bangkok bound. As Bangkok is virtually equidistant from New York to Bangkok whether you fly east or west, I elected to fly eastward as flying west gives me jetlag that lasts about three months. I cheapest way to fly Business from New York to Thailand was aboard Finnair, but I was nervous of its probable routing over wartime Russia. European and the gulf airlines were an option, but I have a penchant for airlines whose Business Class is the “best” class on board. Why? Because airlines that also have First Class, have to make their Business Class just a little crappier, just a little more austere, so that there is a recognizable difference between it and First. Inevitably, airlines for whom Business is their “best,” the service and atmosphere is almost always closer to the higher style of First.

I settled on one of my favorites, Turkish – despite – or because - it included a nine-hour stopover in Istanbul. You see, I like stopovers. They give you a tiny moment of realization that you are actually flying around the world – not being inserted at home into a metal tube and a couple of meals and naps later being disgorged discombobulated at your destination. Most people don’t agree with me. But I like the idea of the “journey.” And spending nine hours in one of the most super cities on earth, adds to that “like.”

I boarded a Turkish A330-300 at Newark and soon after the midnight takeoff, an elegant candlelit (yes twinkly LED candles on every table) was served. Like Austrian Airlines, Turkish’s catering is performed by Vienna’s gourmet caterer DO & CO, and a chef wearing a white apron and a white toque actually “finishes” the plating service. The meal was far more elegant, tasty, and served course-by-course, unlike in the Business of those carriers who have to make evident you’re not getting quite-as-good service as those who’ve paid double to sit all the way up front. Most of the passengers and all the crew wore masks.

After a seven-hour sleep on a flat bed...made-up at bedtime by the crew with a cushiony underblanket and duvet, I ordered two cappuccinos – yes, cappuccino, not the usual airline coffee swill, and we landed at 4:30PM at Istanbul’s monumental new airport. Yes, I could have sat nine hours in what is probably the world’s largest Business Class lounge. But, instead, I kept my mask on, exited through immigration and found my name on a sign. I was ushered to a limo that whooshed me along clogged expressways into the city. We crossed the Galata Bridge at sunset and I admired the exquisite panorama of the Bosporus, of Asia, of the Golden Horn. I met my guide, Saleh in the old city. We strolled its narrow streets, with their plentiful stores, crowds young and old, and seven-hundred-and-fifteen thousand shops selling Turkish Delight. I did some shopping (only in Istanbul can you buy pillows shaped and looking like every sort of cat), then we strolled to an open-air restaurant for Turkish mezze and lamp chops. I’d hired a guide who wasn’t guidey. He was intelligent, intellectual, young, reactionary, critical, charming. He had no problem being open about his life, his studies, his girlfriend, his opinion of the government, the trauma of being circumcised wide awake aged seven.

After dinner, we ambled to the Cağaloğlu hamam, serving Turks and infidels since 1741. Saleh checked me in for my ninety-minute steam, scrub, and oil massage. I changed into a cotton towel, and was led into the domed three-centuries-old steam room. I fried on a marble slab, and a chunky betoweled attendant scraped my skin raw, helping me lose about a kilo of schmutz. He soaped, he rinsed with hot water, then soaped, manage to get some my eyes, then rinsed me with cold water, then lay me flat again to fry some more. Twenty minutes later, I staggered into the massage room, where a chunkier, sweatier attendant oiled and massage me, finding and pounding into the walnuts of stress in my shoulder blades. A quick shower, and I felt calm, clean, renewed, refreshed, and not the least bothered or bewildered.

Saleh was waiting for me at the exit, and it was back onto the now emptier expressways to the airport. I waved my issued-in-Newark boarding pass, was fast-tracked through security, and was back in the Business Class lounge for a little email catch-up, and a Hendrick’s and tonic. My flight was called. Clean and pert, I walked to the gate and was back on a Turkish A330, ready of another candlelit dinner, and a long overnight nap.

I had just had a short, and totally super vacation in Istanbul. Layovers are the best.

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