Admittedly, a visit to Istanbul, the city dividing Europe from Asia and partaking of the myriad splendors of each, is always a pleasure. Now, to see it again after 14 years of restoration and renewal is to increase one's pleasure many times over. The greatest number of changes have taken place where they were most urgently needed - in Beyoglu, for example, the quarter in which Topkapi Palace and the most splendid of the mosques are situated. Beautification has also come to the modern Taksim district and to the areas bordering both banks of the Bosporus, the strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
In the case of Beyoglu, a jumble of half-ruined wooden houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries used to mar the overall picture. Now they've been rebuilt in their original style and converted to new uses. Some have become pensions furnished with Victorian antiques, and their ambiance is welcoming.
On the same street, a patriarchal dwelling has been made into a library with books on every subject pertaining to Istanbul for the use of researchers and scholars. At the end of the row, a taverna has been made from a Byzantine cistern, no less. Nearby, overlooking the museum of Sancta Sophia, is a charming small hotel (the Green House) - another Victorian mansion, painted green, of course, with white trim. These restorations enable the visitor to stay in the older quarter, thus dispensing with the need for taxis (as public transport in this city is in short supply). Moreover, the fascinating Grand Bazaar, a shopping area with endless contents, is not far away.
Another pleasing factor is the cleanliness of the city. And there is very little, if any, street crime, so one needn't feel timid about wandering off alone.
One of the most ambitious achievements in the beautification project is the establishment of several large parks in the city. The magnificently wooded tracts of land were formerly the hunting preserves of the sultans.
Celik G"ulersoy, the planner of these innovations, has transformed the princely hunting lodges into pleasure palaces for the citizenry. They are now elegantly furnished in harmony with their architectural period and are used for private parties and receptions. Terraces and gardens have become restaurants and tea rooms for public use, both winter and summer.
As Mr. G"ulersoy is also a passionate gardener and botanist, he has seen to it that flowers bloom the year round in these parks. He has designed and built several glass pavilions where flowers are to be seen blooming even if it snows. To further enliven the scene, there are several old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages for drives through the forest.
The bridge that spans the Bosporus, completed a few years ago, links the Asian and the European parts of the city. For a leisurely and very scenic boat trip, there's a one- or two-hour sail up the Bosporus. At the end of it is Princes Island, now a summer resort with private villas, many trees, and lots of flowering oleander. The island was once used as a place of exile for the younger brothers of the reigning sultan. The Taksim area, where the luxury hotels are situated (the Hilton, Sheraton, Intercontinental, and Divan), is well manicured and prosperous looking, and the view from these hostelries is hard to beat.
Back at Beyoglu, one naturally turns first to Topkapi Palace. What one sees today is only a fraction of what used to exist, but even that much is monumental. Originally, the palace grounds extended down to the water's edge, and the lower reaches were planted in exotic gardens.
From the 15th to the 19th centuries, this was the home of the Ottoman sultans. The harem section, now beautifully restored, comprised the women's quarters. They include reception rooms, courtyards, and prayer rooms which, although sparsely furnished according to the Islamic style, have walls of exquisite tiles, doors of Circassian walnut inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and fine carpets.
The wonders of Topkapi are nearly inexhaustible. Suffice it to say that the porcelain collection, the costume collection, the jewels, and the kitchens alone require time to peruse - not to mention the other parts of this vast complex.
Of the mosques, I found the two most famous ones - the Blue Mosque and Sancta Sophia - just as movingly beautiful as I had remembered them.
But I also discovered another that, architecturally, is considered the finest and should not be passed over. It is the S"uleymaniye Mosque, built in the 16th century, and designed by the famous architect Sinan.
Spring and autumn are the best months in which to explore this unique city. I've been told, however, that the ultimate pleasure would be to see it when the mosques and minarets, the domes, and the trees are frosted with snow.
For more information, contact a travel agent or the Turkish Culture and Information Office, 821 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017, or telephone (212) 687-2194.