The French Connection in Istanbul

Having lived in Paris for two years, an obsession of mine is to seek out all things French when traveling, be it bistros, cafes, literary haunts, and/or vistas. It has been become a standard ritual of mine to sit in drinking establishments that writers frequented, to dine in restaurants where artists supped, to mull about in places that attracted the likes of the Mary Cassatt’s, Picasso’s, Oscar Wilde’s, and James Baldwin’s of the world. If you’re a literature enthusiast like myself or simply someone who is enamored with French culture (a true Frankophile), then Istanbul may just provide you with the impetus to pen your first collection of short stories, novella, or screenplay. In fact, Istanbul is where French naval officer and writer, Pierre Loti (birth name: Julien Viaud), garnered inspiration for his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, Aziyade.

To put yourself into an artistic frame of mind, book a stay with the hotel which bears the name of the man who is considered to be the finest French descriptive writers of the second half of the 19th century- Pierre Loti.

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The Pierre Loti Hotel is at the doorstep of most historical landmarks in the city, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapi Palace. It is a boutique hotel that is disarmingly charming and modern, yet hints at 18th century aristocracy. The walls are adorned with toile wallpaper, reminiscent of the meticulously hand drawn fabrics of the 1760’s. Pastoral scenes of Istanbul are depicted in beautiful dioramas.

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The rooms are outfitted with “bistro” armchairs, placed strategically next to a window, offering views of the main road leading up to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest markets in the world making it a veritable shopper’s paradise.

In the mornings, you can request to have your breakfast at the Loti Café on the ground level, where you can watch the streets become ripe with color and clamor as men offering freshly pressed pomegranate juice, orange juice and Turkish delights, occupy the corner posts.

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In the evenings, you can watch the sun dwindle to a red eye in the sky atop the rooftop terrace, while consuming arresting views of the city in its splendor. It would be remiss to have spent time in Istanbul and not watched the sun crouch behind the city’s ancient, spiry silhouette from atop the rooftop pub.

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If you need further inspiration and are looking for a taste of the “City of Lights” in Istanbul, take a ride on the tram to Taksim Square, where you will descend upon the widest pedestrian street in the city- Istikal Avenue. From there, you can amble your way over to the area known as the French district/quarter. As this area has only been recently developed (since 2004) and was a bit difficult to find, I highly recommend that you google “La Rue Francaise” (French Street).

Peppered along French Street are cozy, colorful cafes with old-fashioned French names like “Le Comptoir” (The Counter) and “La Noir” (The Night). You will find some authentic traditional French fare on the menus, but if you’re looking for escargots au gratin (snails with cheese) or Boeuf bourguignon (beef stew) here, you will most likely have to return to the city center, where there are copious restaurants to choose from.

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La Rue Francaise is a street tucked away from the rest of the glittering city. Remaining true to the ethos of the French “joie de vivre”, it serves as an intimate reprieve after an arduous day of boutique and souvenir shopping. You can repose to the soft strumming of a Turk on guitar and sip on a glass or two of light and lively red wine.

Top off your “French adventure” in Istanbul with a visit to the Pierre Loti Hill, where the French writer’s presence still lingers, even 92 years after his death. A Frenchman who became a “Turkophile”, it is no wonder that I found myself beguiled by his legend. It is from atop the “Hill” that Loti penned Aziyade.

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Accessing the Pierre Loti hill from the center of town requires several modes of transportation-tram to a funicular to a bus. If you embark on this route, you will need to set aside 5-6 hours round trip. However, conserve both energy and time by simply booking a half day “Golden Horn” tour with one of the local hotels or outfitters, which will include transportation by teleferique (cable car) to the Pierre Loti Coffee House and cost approximately $45 U.S.

Reservations at the Pierre Loti Coffee House are not needed, but recommended as come late afternoon, you find yourself jostling tourists to get the most optimal view of the Golden Horn. If you fancy fine Turkish coffee or tea paired with delectable deserts, then the Pierre Loti café will not disappoint.

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While sipping coffee and consuming bird’s eye views of Istanbul gleaming in the backdrop, you can gaze out onto the Bosphorous strait, and reimagine Istanbul through the eyes of a Frenchman.

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