A Few Days In

Travels in Corona Europe: Adventures in Turkey

by Geoffrey Weill
Cappadocia People actually live here in Cappodocia. Photo by Mantas August / Unsplash.

In our latest installment of his Travels in Corona Europe series, Geoffrey Weill recounts his trip to Turkey. You can read more of his engaging travel adventures in his new memoir, Travel Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession

It’s April 2021 and I am bound for Turkey to scout for clients and attend a business seminar. I’m vaccinated and feeling totally gung-ho about travel — this is my fourth transatlantic jaunt since the onset of the pandemic. I fly United from Newark to Frankfurt, then aboard the connecting Turkish Airlines Airbus, where extravagant gestures are made to explain the heightened hygiene, the cleaner-than-cleanliness, the every-three-minute air circulation. A video is played before the safety video to explain it all in paralyzing yet comforting detail. Indeed, Turkish, the airline that proudly proclaims it flies to more countries than any other airline in the world, is busily out-emirating Emirates and out-singaporing Singapore Airlines in its goal to be “best.” But the sarcastic among us can’t help but wonder, when all this over — which it will be — will airline boardrooms be filled with executives and number crunchers deciding, within acres of euphemism, that it’s okay to go back to being a little less clean than we were before Covid?

Turkish is, actually, a splendid airline. The service, food, seats, attitude in the front of the plane is, in business class, truly first class. The new Istanbul airport is steel, glass, and beyond vast, not only in area, but with ceilings that must be 60 feet high. I am welcomed into Turkey. Here, because I have stopped in Frankfurt and not flown nonstop from New York, my Covid-test certificate is read in detail and the clerk gives my British passport a thundering stamp.

Opulent (and very red). Photo courtesy of Pera Palace.

One: Welcome to Istanbul

This is my third stay at the Pera Palas Hotel. Built in 1892 by the Wagons-Lits company to accommodate passengers set to board the Orient Express, it is all marble pillars, stained glass, and Turkish (no kidding) carpets. The first time I stayed here in 2004, it was in a miserable yet somehow delicious state of decay. It had not been renovated since before World War II — or perhaps it had never been renovated. The open iron elevator struggled to lift me to the third floor, where I was ushered into a suite whose vast square sitting room overlooked the Golden Horn and contained approximately 47 pieces of Victorian furniture (velvet chairs, creaking fauteuils, flap-lid desks, tome-filled bookcases, marble-topped dressers). The bedroom was all red velvet. The plumbing made indescribable noises.

I was back again at the Pera Palas in 2011. The dust had been blown away by a multi-zillion-dollar renovation, and it was gorgeous, even if the rooms were a bit Four Seasons beige and bland. But everything sparkled. The Agatha Christie restaurant served delicious cuisine. The open elevator remained and now worked flawlessly. The Sedan Chair used to carry guests to the station was a feature of the lobby, and delicious pastries and macarons were served in the street-front tea shop.

Ten years later, the Pera Palas is tired again: not in a coma, just a touch sleepy. The beauty of the renovation remains, but the service is doleful and ragged. A friendly, slightly befuddled clerk checks me in. He tells me that breakfast is served from 7 a.m., just after I have told him I am leaving in the morning at 6:45. He thinks awhile. I suggest I can have coffee from room service? He looks doubtful, then seizes on a brainwave: “I shall arrange a breakfast box for you!” I realize there is no point in moaning that I will want coffee too. I shrug and smile. The stunningly winsome concierge takes the trouble to show me her ledger in which my transfers and my dinner reservation are inscribed. I am not in the 47-pieces-of-Victorian-furniture suite this time, but one with 1930s velvet couches, a strange alcove that contains a desk, and framed hotel bills of long-forgotten Ottoman dignitaries. But the bathroom is definitely 21st century, as are the Bulgari amenities.

Before dinner, I stroll the main pedestrianized street with its Starbucks and Turkish Delight emporia. Everyone is masked. The air is warm. An ancient trolley car rumbles by. I find a small alley containing ancient treasures and Art Deco bric-a-brac stores. Had I been returning home on the Mauretania, I would have happily cleaned them all out.

Back at the Pera Palas, I descend to level -1 and the Agatha Christie Restaurant. A sign is posted on the door informing dear guests that the restaurant is closed this evening and please have dinner in the lobby lounge. Oh. So much for my dinner reservation. Covid-19 has been hard on us all.

In the lobby lounge — which is still very grand, a mixture of the Orient and Queen Victoria — I sit on a red velvet couch. The maître d’ has long, stringy black hair, and to my mind his deportment and manner reveal regret that the hotel is currently not what it once was. He points to the card with a QR code atop the table. I ask if he has a “real” menu. He looks alarmed, then nods. (I long ago worked out that Covid-19 is rarely transmitted by thumbing menus.) I order Turkish mezze and lamb chops. And it’s all, actually, delicious. And I am suddenly overcome with jet lag. I return to my third-floor aerie. I figure it’ll still be dark when my alarm wakes me at six, so I leave the curtains open and crawl into a vast bed with beautifully embroidered pillows and sleep.

Two: Cappadocia

Of the people in New York I told I was bound for Cappadocia, ten percent reacted with envy, ten percent with delight, and fully eighty percent with a glassy stare. I have a short bucket list, with specific and eclectic entries — St. Helena, Trieste, St. Pierre et Miquelon, Charleston, Aleppo, and the Dordogne. I plan to get to most of them, although Aleppo, whose fabulous Crusader castle is the stuff of legend and has been tragically battered by a decade of civil war, is in Syria, and I doubt I will be there any time soon. Also on the list: Cappadocia.

At 6:45 a.m., the telephone jangles me out of sleep and the desk clerk tells me my car awaits.

“What?”

For one of the only times in my life I had set the time on my iPad an hour off, and I am now being rudely awoken without my usual time to shower, pack, think, recalibrate. Yet, somehow, in fourteen minutes, I am downstairs and bundled into a sleek Mercedes. We weave through surprisingly busy streets and wind high up onto the soaring bridge that crosses from Europe to Asia. We stream through suburbs, each crowned by an elegantly Disney mosque, and I munch the contents of my breakfast box. Sabiha Gokcen International Airport is bustling. I heave my luggage through an X-ray machine and stumble to the check-in for Pegasus Airlines.

Descending through the clouds into Kayseri Airport is a shock. I am not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect tens, dozens, twenties of square, capacious, and affluent-looking skyscraper apartment towers. It is almost like descending into Hong Kong, except these towers are a mere twenty stories, not fifty. I wheel my luggage out to the waiting drivers bearing signs, and I don’t see my name. Or the hotel’s name. This is not usual. I wait, I pace. And eventually I google “Argos in Cappadocia” on my iPhone and am connected to an affable clerk who is shocked by my being unmet, and tells me he will call me right back. Ten minutes later, a lanky, handsome young Turk (forgive the pun) jogs towards me. His phone to his ear, he says to me “Argos?” I nod. He speaks into the phone. He nods, bundles me into a waiting yellow cab, and waves me off.

The drive is through unkempt scenery and I am reminded of a day-trip long ago to a faraway lake in Kazakhstan. But then I see the first one. Then the second. And my jaw drops. The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia. Unique, pointy, geological mounds that exist nowhere else on earth. As we press on into villages, I see that some of the mounds are fifty, sixty feet tall. Some have entries and windows. People live in them. We drive higher, and the Fairy Chimneys are now everywhere. My driver speaks no English, nor any tongue other than Turkish, a language so obscure that merely learning “thank you” is a challenge. But I notice we are beginning to pass tourist-type shops, restaurants with inviting terraces, and small hotels, all of whose names seem to include “Cave.” Everything is built of creamy stone. We climb into the hillside village of Uschisar and I see a sign for my hotel, Argos in Cappadocia. We turn off and wobble down a cobbled hill, and I am here, amid a cluster of square one-story stone houses.

Minions rush to welcome me, unload my luggage, pay the driver, and I am ushered into to what has to be one of the most charming and unique hotels in the world. The desk clerk smiles warmly and solemnly points to a page showing my flight information. And he’s right, and I am wrong. During the last month, my flight from Istanbul to Kayseri had been changed four times for reasons I assumed were connected to the pandemic, and I had omitted to email the hotel details of the most recent change. First the alarm, now this. I feel abashed. Normally punctilious Geoffrey has tripped. Twice.

Photo courtesy of Argos in Cappadocia.
Photo courtesy of Argos in Cappadocia.

I sit at a low coffee table and drink delicious, undefined juice. My temperature is taken, I check in, completing copious forms attesting to my health. A kindly young lady walks me down stone staircases that seem to descend the actual mountainside. She shows me the bar and the restaurant and ushers me through an ancient courtyard with a lawn, lawn-chairs, and two plump cats. (Turkish cats are always plump.) We come to an ancient wooden door marked 3105. A mighty keyring opens the door, and it is if I am walking into a medieval crypt. The walls and arched ceiling are hewn of the same creamy stone I spied from the car. She shows me the foyer’s daybed, the mini-bar, the coffee machine, and walks me into a square sitting room with a couch, behind which net-curtained windows face the lawn and the plump cats. There is a fireplace whose stone is darkened by smoke. The large, low coffee table is loaded with treats. Pizzas of pistachios and honey. Slices of sheep’s cheese. Crunchy things. Nuts. A bottle of wine. Wildflowers in tiny vases.

“Come,” she says as we leave the sitting room and pass through a stone archway into a large bedroom with stone floors, stone walls, and an arched stone ceiling. At the far end of the bedroom, glass doors lead into a cave that is a swimming pool artfully lit from under the water in the cave ceiling. The water is bubbling. I kneel and feel. Warm. We continue down a stone passage into a vast stone bathroom with stone-hewn sinks and counters and a stone-hewn shower for six, where carved alcoves contain rows of Molton Brown products. The lighting is concealed and expert. The entire suite must be 1,500 square feet, and it’s all quite fantastic.

I stroll through my tidy courtyard to the hotel restaurant down a stone staircase that leads to a glorious terrace with a glorious view of the Fairy Chimneys. To the right, there’s the needle-like minaret of a mosque. (Unlike mosques in Morocco or Israel or Abu Dhabi, Turkey’s mosques have minarets that look like a 4B pencil topped by a cone.) I sit and QR code the menu. I order what I think will be a light lunch. The waitress is stern, bemasked, and not one for jocularity. My mezze platter arrives and would be enough to feed three families for a month. It’s delicious, though. As is the eggplant and tomato and lamb stew — of which I can only manage to ingest 25 percent. I gaze at the panorama and suddenly realize I am not on Planet Earth. Nowhere else on the globe is there scenery like this. I mull that thought over mint tea — and then it’s time to return to my cave for a nap.

Three hours later, I’m sated, refreshed, and curious about my private pool-in-the-cave. I gingerly immerse myself in the warm water. It’s lovely. It’s also a little odd. Here I am, in the middle of Turkish nowhere, closer to Syria than to Constantinople, in the land of the fairy chimneys, and I am sloshing around in my private pool in a cloistered cave, magically illuminated by halogen spotlights hidden in ancient niches. A Holiday Inn this is not. I emerge and swathe myself in Turkish towels (pun intended). I learn that living in a sandstone cave means that the floor is always a trifle sandy, so I remove the hotel slippers from their gossamer bag and actually use them.

Over dinner back in the restaurant, I order sensibly, knowing the portion size. I drink delicious Turkish wine. (It always charms me that in Muslim Turkey, just as in Muslim Morocco, they make wine. And serve bacon for breakfast. It’s all about what the traveler wants — unlike Israel, where the traveler’s desires are an irrelevance subsumed by what the rabbis permit.)

The next morning is bright. The sky is blue, and a vast breakfast is served on the terrace. I learn that plump Turkish cats prefer haloumi cheese over smoked turkey. As plump as they are, they eat ravenously, viciously chomping each delicacy with little regard for their feline friends and associates who may also be a tad peckish. In the cat world, it’s all about me, here in the land of the Fairy Chimneys.

It’s time to explore. Ali, my guide, and Salim, his driver, arrive in a 19-seater minibus to take just me on a tour. Ali is friendly, funny, wordly. He lived ten years in Germany. He’s a bit guide-y, with a few witticisms he has no doubt performed for thousands of travelers for the last quarter-century. He explains how this extraordinary scenery was formed millions of years ago as the tectonic plates of Asia, Africa, and Europe met together and, in exhaustion, created the Fairy Chimneys. I marvel, although I really don’t quite understand the ability of continents to move. I gaze at scenery that becomes more unique as we progress. We enter a tourist area, where we must purchase tickets and click through metal gates. Ali walks me to high caves where the early Christians carved churches and painted them with Byzantine friezes. The interiors may not be photographed — unless you are the only visitor (which I am). The caretaker winkingly permits me to take photos, in exchange for a surreptitiously transferred dollar bill.

A Byzantine frieze inside a 5th century church in a Fairy Chimney. Photo by Geoffrey Weill.
The author and the Fairy Chimneys. Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Weill.
Exploring Cappadocia. Photo by Geoffrey Weill.

I climb in and out of caves painted 1,500 years ago, in which some of the faces of saints or disciples have been scratched out by zealous Muslims. But enough of the ancient painting remains, and it is simply magnificent. There are a few small groups of visitors.

“Ali,” I ask, “how many visitors do you think there are here today?”

He cups his chin, gazes around the valley and calculates. “About two hundred?”

“And how many would there be right here if there were no Covid?”

“Ten thousand,” he says firmly, and I have to hide my sense of joy that the scourge of the pandemic, which has flattened his income, has made visiting here without hordes of tour groups such a singular treat.

We drive on to a valley where the Fairy Chimneys are less tall and pointy. These are round and pyramid-like, topped with the inevitable cones. One of the cones is askew and looks as if it is about to fall the next time the earth tremors. Ali tells me that he has seen a photograph taken of that very Fairy Chimney in 1910 — the cone is identically askew. Near the parking lot is the inevitable vast shop selling sheepskins, onyx everythings, and jewelry. The salesman, who I imagine has not seen an extravagant shopper in months, ushers me in to admire earrings, rings, necklaces, and pendants of a stone called “zultanite” elegantly hewn (square-cut or pear-shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape) and mounted in sterling silver. The zultanite, he explains, is mined locally. It is pale green. He hands me a ring and tells me to take it outside, which I do. Suddenly, the sultanate is orange. I walk back inside: green again.

“This stone will be pink in the morning, green indoors, orange outdoors, purple in the evening,” he assures me. I’m enthralled. I buy two pairs of earrings, a ring, a pendant.

Ali realizes that I am an easy touch, so on we proceed to a ceramics factory. I am offered mint tea as I watch a craftsman produce a vase on a pottery wheel. The factory owner walks me into the fluorescent showroom where there are hundreds of plates, bowls, platters, teapots, Hittite wine carafes, and mugs, all bearing traditional Turkish designs of leaves, plants, curlicues, and flourishes. He explains the production process in such detail that my eyes glaze over. In one anteroom are the star pieces, whose bright colors are interwoven with 24-carat gold. I consider them all one notch beyond hideous. I feel I must buy something and pick up a small bowl that is the least garish of all.

“345 Euros,” he says. I gulp, and realize that even for $34.50 I wouldn’t want it. I pretend to give the bowl consideration. I walk around a bit more and, finally, I turn and say a polite “thank you.” The factory owner hides his irritation with graciousness, and with a well-practiced eye-roll signals to Ali that this was a waste of all our times. I am beginning to tire of shopping and of Ali, but not of the Fairy Chimneys, and we drive exhausted and silent back to the hotel. We part with politesse and the transfer of colorful Turkish lira.

Three: A Glorious Detour

My journey from Cappadocia to Bodrum on the Mediterranean should have involved two one-hour flights separated by a one-hour layover back at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport. A day before I left for Turkey, I received an SMS from Turkish Airlines apologizing that my 12:30 p.m. flight from Istanbul to Bodrum was not operating, and that I would be leaving for the Mediterranean at 5:30 p.m. My one-hour layover was now six hours. Not one to be bullied, I had instantly emailed Ugur, the astonishingly courteous concierge at Istanbul’s Čirağan Palace Kempinski, and arranged to be met by a car and driver and taken to the Asian shore for lunch, while my suitcases would be silently transferred to my onward flight.

Mahmoud is intensely polite and the BMW is spacious. He drives me to Adil Salih Balik, a vast fish restaurant in the port of Tuzla, where manicured lawns lead to a marina jammed with motor yachts. Had the Prince of Wales been coming to lunch, the proprietor and staff of the restaurant could not have been more obsequious. My temperature is taken at my wrist. I am offered a squirt of hand sanitizer. Five gentlemen in suits and ties stand in a row and bow deeply. I am ushered to a refrigerated display case where I am asked to point at the appetizers I would like. They all look delicious. Onward I am led through the empty restaurant and up staircases to the empty second floor, and finally to the cavernous and empty third floor where I am shown to a table by the window with its view of the marina. A fleet of waiters attend to me with extreme gravity. I am handed a real menu, and I choose fried calamari and sea bass.

After my gastronomic adventures in Cappadocia, I should know better. Plates of the appetizers to which I had pointed are arrayed before me. I try to pace myself, knowing this just the beginning. On the roof outside the window, a portly seagull lands atop his spindly yellow webbed feet, determined to share my lunch. Neither of us realize we are separated by unmovable glass. He’s clearly ravenous, and I would happily share. But the glass is impermeable.

The calamari arrive, and I struggle to make a dent in the delicious friture, observed by a solemn waiter. Next, a vast whole grilled sea bass is brought for me to admire, then its meat is expertly removed from the bone by the earnest waiter. The proprietor now approaches my table, bows, and asks in fluent Turkish if all is well. I bow from the waist. The sea bass tastes like it was alive half an hour earlier and is exquisite — even though there is enough for me, the seagull, and half the population of Chad. The seagull is joined by another seagull and they engage in a circular dance of pecking and caressing. I am unsure if this is friendship, mating, or if seagull A is telling seagull B to fuck off. Somehow, I devour the plate of fish and manage also to polish off the accompanying boiled, buttered, and minted potatoes. After three glasses of Turkish sauvignon blanc, I am beyond caring anyway, until a plate of Middle Eastern pastries is placed before me, each oozing with honey and chopped pistachios. I sample one. And two. And three.

Close to comatose, I sip mint tea and ask for the check. This banquet, complete with the bowing and the solemnity has cost the Turkish equivalent of $38. I manage to struggle to my feet, traverse the still utterly empty restaurant, descend two floors to the rank of suited gentlemen, who bow again and spritz my hands with rose water. I slide into the BMW and we glide back to the airport, back through two security checks, one of which includes a pat down that includes every part of my anatomy, back into the departure lounge, back past the Turkish delight emporia, back onto a bus, and onto the 737 that will fly me south. All in all, this day has ranked as one of the best ever uses of an unexpected airplane delay.

The beach club at Amanruya. Photo courtesy of Aman.
The arrival pavillion at Amanruya. Photo courtesy of Aman.
The main pool at Amanruya. Photo courtesy of Aman.
A pool pavillion at Amanruya. Photo courtesy of Aman.
The Ottoman Lounge at Amanruya. Photo courtesy of Aman.

Four: Bodrum

On the shores of the Mediterranean, I experience that unique Riviera glow. The vegetation is rich, so different from the desert and otherworldliness of Cappadocia. The hills leading down to the shore are swathed in white villas: dozens, hundreds, too many possibly. Across the bay, giant hotel complexes climb up the hills. One of the largest is, incredibly, named Titanic, spelled in giant “Hollywoodland” letters across its massive rooftop. I’ve often mulled what it must have been like in a pre-1912 world when the word “titanic” just meant “vast.”

On we drive, past little bays that could be on the Costa Brava or in Liguria, Croatia, or the Alpes Maritimes. There’s a sense of comfort, of recognition, of romance in this place. Even though this is Asia, it is first and foremost the Med.

The entry to Amanruya is, as expected, sort of secret and privileged. The driver has a long interaction with the uniformed guard at the barrier, who consults his clipboard as if reading the Talmud. Light finally dawns, he salutes, the barrier lifts. We drive through pine woods and wheel into the driveway of the suitably palatial Amanruya, where two people stand to greet me. One is a manager; one offers a refreshing lemon mint drink. The welcome is warm. When we say palatial, we usually mean vast. But Amanruya’s architecture is truly “palatial.” This is a 21st-century version of a palace in Troy or Ephesus, all pink stone, acres of marble, columns, and ceremonial staircases that would fit agreeably into Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. My temperature is taken in the reception building, and I sign a sheaf of forms whose 8-point type is presumably never read — although I wonder if lawyers, instead of vacant-brained travelers like me, actually do churn through these pages of legalize.

A gorgeous host walks me through the grounds and I tell her that I have been here before, when it was being built, when it was all mud and dust. We enter a hall that could easily be an ancient temple and ascend stairs whose sides bear vast silver vases of unusual purple blooms. Onward, past the 50-meter-long infinity pool, past the boutique, past the restaurant pavilions, past the spa, into a maze of stone lanes that lead to the villas. I am in #28, reached from the main lane, through pathways that twist and turn. I enter my private palace — a vast room with a four-poster bed, couches, tables covered with treats and wine, and an idyllic view over the pines of the Mediterranean. The dressing room and bathroom could accommodate twenty families. But they’re all for me. And from the bedroom, French doors open on to my private patio, my private pool, my private steps to my sun beds, and onwards to my private sunbed sala. I can handle this.

As with every Aman resort, it’s all about space. Even when they’re full, they seem empty, because there are so many places to be, so many lounges, the library, patios, the beach club — not to mention one’s own secluded villa which one would happily never leave. At dinner, two other tables are occupied — by Americans. Indeed, at Amanruya, I see only Americans and a Swiss couple, whose older husband embarrasses his younger wife/girlfriend/mistress by loudly carping that the menu isn’t sufficiently lavish. Of course, it is sufficiently lavish. And this is Aman, so the contents of the menu actually don’t matter. If you fancy a slice of sautéed crocodile with deviled eggs, they’ll make it.

A driver takes me to Bodrum harbor. It could be the Costa del Sol, or Greece, or Sicily, but it’s Turkey. There are cute boutiques, lawns, cafés, and hundreds of parked yachts — each like something from the Robb Report. But the crowds are few, the tables are sparsely occupied, the back streets are silent. It’s sort of wonderful. I could spend a month here. Two months. Especially at Amanruya. Why don’t I? The Wi-Fi is as good here as anywhere. But then sometimes one forgets one has a life.

Onward to the the Kempinski Barbaros Bay. It's big and gorgeous. The doorman greets me warmly and tells me he remembers me. I’ve never set foot here before, but I indulge him and we elbow-bump. My room is lovely. I gaze at the majesty of the view. I try to find Amanruya in the distance. I can’t.

Čirağan Palace Kempinski is a palace indeed. Photo courtesy of Čirağan Palace Kempinski.
The grounds along the Bosphorus. Photo courtesy of Čirağan Palace Kempinski.
The sumptuous lobby. Photo courtesy of Čirağan Palace Kempinski.

Five: Istanbul

Bodrum Airport is still vast as I fly aboard Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. By now I’ve become accustomed to Turkish airports’ double security checks, the easy check-in, the choreographed pandemic protocols. The flight is effortless and I land back at the vast new Istanbul Airport, and I am amazed again at its grandeur and size. I am met at the jetway by a charming hostess who escorts me to the baggage carousel, to the ATM, and out to the Mercedes sent by the Čirağan Palace.

It’s the first day of Ramadan. We whizz through suburbs, then into Istanbul, and suddenly there it is again: the Bosporus that divides Europe from Asia, the only body of water in the world that is within a city, yet also an international waterway. The traffic gets heavy as we reach the shore. We pass the Ottoman Sultans’ ornate and whopping Dolmabahçe Palace. We glide along the Bosporus to the similarly ornate Ciragan Palace, the base from which the Čirağan Palace Kempinski was created exactly thirty years ago.

I am greeted as if I am a minor member of the Royal Family. Three people are there to greet me, to unload my luggage, to spritz my hands with sanitizer, and a second spritz with lemon water, to take my temperature discreetly at the wrist, to usher me to the reception desk. I’m starving, so instead of going straight to the room, I head for the terrace restaurant. I watch the Bosporus. (By the way, in English, it can be spelled Bosphorous, Bosphorus, Bosporus…because, because, because…it can.) I eat a Caesar salad laced with giant prawns. The waitstaff is masked in elegant navy cotton with the hotel logo at the corner. Signs ask guests not to feed the sparrows. There are twenty or more guests lunching, almost all chattering in Russian or Turkish (clearly Turks for whom Ramadan is unimportant). As I munch, I realize that in Arabic, P is pronounced B, and if your say Constantinople fast enough, and substitute the P for a B, you realize where Istanbul, or Stamboul, comes from.

Sated, I am escorted to my vast room which has a full-on view of the Bosporus and Asia. The coffee table is mounded with wine and treats and pastries and chocolate recreations of the gates to the Čirağan Palace. A handwritten card welcomes me “home.” Istanbul’s restaurants are closed for Covid and Ramadan, with the exception of those in one’s own hotel. And I’m actually relieved that I don’t have to scour the Internet for the latest, hottest, bestest, most creative places to dine. There is a certain relief in not having to make choices.

I stroll the grounds. I watch the ferry boats ferrying, and the giant container ships gliding through the Bosporus to and from the Black Sea. I admire the sculptures on the lawn and the well-fed cats, of which there are but two. I learn that despite a pandemic, the Čirağan Palace has had an amazingly good year, thronged with Russians who outspend to a flabbergasting extent. The infinity pool is surrounded by socially distanced pairs of chairs. The pool is empty. I consider going to the Grand Bazaar, to which I’ve been a dozen times. And then I consider that there’s a pandemic and it’s Ramadan, so not only could there be droplets, they would be enriched with halitosis. I choose the hotel shopping arcade instead. An establishment sells minks and sables. It also sells a perfect soft-leather belt that wraps creatively and that my wife might like. Within minutes it is wrapped in tissue and placed in snazzy shopping bag.

The next day a nurse arrives to give me my going-back-to-America PCR test. He doesn’t speak English so is accompanied by one of the fleet of concierges. His is the back-of-the-throat, deep-up-both-nostrils-till-you-squirm variety. Twelve hours later, the negative result is slid under my door in a giant envelope.

I am awakened at 4:45 a.m. by King George III (aka Jonathan Groff) singing Hamilton’s “You’ll be back” on my iPad alarm. I shower, coffee arrives. Porters whisk me down to another BMW. We race through just awakening Istanbul back to that giant airport. Čirağan Palace staff greet me, whisk me to check-in, whisk me through security, then onto an electric cart which he drives to the gate. There is a lot of whisking this morning. I sleep through the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. I stroll through the empty airport. A trio of security officials examine my passport, scrutinize my Covid-result and I board United. Seven hours and forty minutes later, I am at Newark. And forty minutes after that, I am home, hugged, and happy.

Read more of Geoffrey's travel adventures in his terrific new memoir, Travel Abroad: A Memoir of Travel and Obsession. Start with this excerpt