The coffee shops in old Istanbul are a Turkish delight, says Matthew Corbin Bishop, who makes a pilgrimage to a favourite literary haunt
The final city on the frontier of Europe, majestic Istanbul has enchanted travellers for centuries.
When you see the view from the Pierre Loti Café, it’s easy to understand why. Perched on a hill above the glistening waters of the Golden Horn (an inlet of the Bosphorus that divides the city), from its garden terrace you can see Fatih on your right, Beyoglu on your left and Asia on the horizon, while ships crisscross the Bosphorus below.
Historically this part of the Golden Horn was called the Sweet Waters of Europe, a playground for the rich and powerful to escape the hot, narrow, muddy streets of Istanbul and show off their wealth. However, in the 1890s the city started to clean up and modernise with such inventions as electricity, and the popularity of the Sweet Waters faded in favour of areas within the European-dominated and fashionable district of Pera (now Beyoglu), such as the Grand and Petit Camps de Mort near the Islamic cemetery. The Grand cemetery became a favourite place for evening strolls, and the French novelist Pierre Loti became so fond of it he rented a pied-à-terre close by. While enjoying a sweet kahve at the Sweet Waters of Europe, it may seem odd that the Pierre Loti Café has ended up somewhere that seems a world away from where he was to settle, but legend has it that he summoned the inspiration to write his literary classic, Aziyadé, from this hilltop.
Loti, born Julien Viaud, was a French naval officer and one of the best descriptive writers of the late 19th century. Many of his works were inspired by his travels with the Navy, which included spells in Polynesia, Morocco, Algeria, Vietnam and China as well as Istanbul. He was a champion of the Turkish War of Independence, and to show its gratitude the Turkish government named one of Istanbul’s famous hills Pierre Loti Tepesi (Pierre Loti Hill), and it is here that the café stands.
The interior is very Loti. In the small tearoom the walls are covered with photos of the man himself, hung haphazardly. On the terrace outside the waiters mill around, taking orders in uniforms straight out of a history book, collecting glasses and coffee cups and whisking them off to the Iznik-tiled kitchen for a brisk wash for the next horde of visitors. Loti would have been proud of these touches, for he was an Orientalist, as evidenced by the photos and a delightful portrait by Henri Rousseau in which he wears a fez and traditional outfit.
The café may be on the European side of the city, but the coffee is very Middle Eastern: short, sweet – often very sweet – and simple. In Istanbul, coffee is greatly enjoyed, but tea is the real favourite with locals, usually served straight from a giant samovar, where leaves left to brew for hours in a pot are diluted with hot water and perked up with a spoonful of sugar. It is surprisingly refreshing and satisfying, and something of a national obsession. Coffee was the Turks’ first passion, however, and a coffee house is a great place to start your visit of Istanbul.
Coffee arrived here from Yemen by way of Damascus and Aleppo in the mid-16th century, and it was the Syrians who founded the first public coffee house in the capital in 1554 – 100 years before its appearance in London and Paris. In 1601 English merchants brought tobacco to the city via America and this combination of coffee drinking and pipe smoking became a hallmark of Ottoman society. The coffee house would supply the pipes, the men would bring their mouth pieces – the fancier your piece, the higher your status, rank and wealth. However these commodities were controversial as their popularity turned people’s attention away from the mosque. Various sultans denounced or banned one or the other; Murad IV banned tobacco in 1633, on pain of death, while Muslim puritans rejected them as contrary to religious law. Then Emperor Suleyman II was the first leader to tax coffee imports in the 17th century – generating great customs revenues – and added a further tax on its sale, to provide that little bit more. It was these extra expenses, the loss of the south-eastern territories after the First World War, and locally-sourced, less expensive tea that turned the tables. But from the 16th to 19th centuries, coffee houses were the pre-eminent public space for men to talk politics, gossip and tell stories, and became intellectual hubs. By the 19th century one in five commercial spaces in Istanbul was a coffee house, and there were about 2,500 of them.
Today a good tea or a coffee is an affordable way to quench your thirst, relax and while away an hour or so. You needn’t restrict your visit to the Pierre Loti Café however. Stroll down the lush and peaceful path that winds through the cemetery that hugs the slopes – filled with fantastically carved, monolithic tombstones – and an idyllic area teeming with life is revealed. On the high street, busy stalls, cafés and restaurants hum with people, but one place is busier than the rest: the Eyup Sultan Mosque.
When Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul in 1453, one of his first orders was to build this mosque, named after Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the standard bearer of the Prophet Muhammad, who fell before the walls of Constantinople during the Arab siege of the 7th century. It is so popular, it is almost impossible to get more than a fleeting glimpse of his tomb. However, it is a joy to explore the area around the mosque, so use a coffee as an excuse to get away for a few hours to see another side of Istanbul.
Pierre Loti Café, Gumussuyu Balmumcu Sik 1, Eyüp, Istanbul. British artist Matthew Corbin Bishop is represented by Rose Issa Projects (roseissaprojects.com).