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Mr and Mrs Smith reviews

Waking up in our split-level suite in the Vault Karaköy, Mr Smith is in heaven. He presses the remote-control button and our olive-green, five-metre-long ‘curtains’ silently glide open to reveal morning in Istanbul. From the shower I hear Mr Smith singing along to MTV – he’s discovered a further remote, which raises a television from the at-foot-of-the-bed cabinet.

Wide-eyed teenager button-pressing aside, the Vault Karaköy is a sophisticated affair. It’s set in a grand 19th-century bank and the architect has made great use of the original features: a large steel safe is the bar, and the wine cellar has taken over the old vault, complete with a two-foot-thick steel door and turning wheel. Beside the vault is a contemporary touch I appreciate: a marble-and-rose-gold hammam.

Over a breakfast feast of quinoa, tomato, smoked salmon and capers (plus pastries and fruit), we leaf through a huge book containing of photographs of the Grand Bazaar, which is just 20 minutes away, over the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus. Pictures of Mehmet Usta, one of the world’s last traditional gramophone-makers pique my curiosity. Excited by all we can see just outside the door of our hotel, we gulp down our Turkish tea and head out into the sunshine.

Our first stop, a stroll away along cobblestone streets, is the Museum of Innocence. Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote a novel and created this display in tandem, spending over a decade collecting objects that would become part of both. The book contains a free-entry ticket, which I happily take to be stamped. Cabinets are filled with artefacts that are the memory traces of the love affair at the heart of Pamuk’s story. The result is a superb art installation that blends reality and fiction – Mr Smith declares it the best museum he has ever been to.

We emerge three hours later, blinking into the Turkish afternoon light. A glass of fresh pomegranate juice from a street stall in hand, we cross the Galata Bridge. We gaze at the city as it stretches both sides of the Bosphorus with a unique blend of European and Asian influences. It’s exhilarating to be in a city that spans two continents.

Fishermen line the bridge and a crowd is enjoying fried mackerel filets stuffed into loaves of bread beside the water. We go local and order one each (easily done as they’re the only thing on the menu) from a boat tied to the dock – lunch comes to a grand total of the equivalent of £3. We can’t come to Istanbul without a baklava-fest, so we also try lots of specialities with Turkish tea at waterside restaurant, Hamdi; their double-pistachio special is divine.

On our way to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, we join the crowd in the spice market and look at nuts, teas and aromatic herbs, and sample sweet, fragrant Turkish delight. It’s closed for prayer, so we sit in the courtyard of what’s known best as the Blue Mosque as sun sets, and rain begins to fall. Lights are switched on, seting the wet stone of the six-minaret mosque aglow as people pray inside. The call to prayer used to be sung by 16 people standing atop the high minarets singing to different directions; I wish I could have heard them – it must have been beautiful.

We buy umbrellas and leg it back to Vault Karaköy to warm up in the hammam. Nicely snug, steamed and sauna’d, we stay in for dinner. It’s buzzing but quiet enough to chat and the service is excellent – the young, staff at the hotel are charming and friendly. Under beautifully lit paintings, surrounded by stacks of art books, I tuck into a fish casserole with puff pastry; it lets out a perfect puff of steam as I put my fork into it. Best of all is dessert, a tahini soufflé served in a teacup.

Hagia Sophia begins the next morning’s escapades; built in the sixth century, it was the largest cathedral in Christendom for over a thousand years until the Ottomans converted it into a mosque in the 15th century. It is now a museum with blends of both religions. Heads tilted backwards we admire the epic dome of the church, adorned with angels and Islamic symbols. Next comes a whirl around former royal residence Topkapi Palace, once home to the Ottoman sultans. It starts to rain, so we jump in a taxi and our driver Mustapha lures us to his nephew’s shop; we end up with three kilim rugs.

Next, it’s time to feel the modern vibe of Istanbul. A friend is director of contemporary art fair ArtInternational, and she’s invited us to meet at Haliç Congress Center where it’s in full swing. Hundreds of galleries – international and local – have come to show their artwork and collectors and connoisseurs have flocked to browse and buy.

Dinner is at Nopa Restaurant and Grill in trendy, leafy Ni?anta??, an enclave of Art Nouveau buildings, European-style cafes, and designer shops. Plants grow up the sides of the walls and the roof is open to the sky in summer. It’s owned by the same group as Vault Karaköy but it has a different feel, for this is the super-rich end of town. It’s fun to see this side, but I like our hotel’s bohemian feel– it’s warmer and more unusual – and feels further from home.

Over cocktails, 12-hour-roasted lamb and wine, we swap stories of what we’ve been up to in Istanbul this weekend. The others have been on boat trips on the Bosphorus, tasted Turkish breakfasts, danced in designer nightclubs and acquired Turkish names from their guide on a visit to the Basilica Cistern (made by the Romans to bring water to the city, also featured in the Bond movie From Russia with Love). With so many Turkish delights on offer in this epic city made for time-travelers, it’s easy to dream of coming back. For nowhere else in the world does East kiss West in such a stylish, celebratory fashion.

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Turkey

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