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East Side Story
Diana Bitting | Photo: Diana Bitting | October 4, 2013
Camels and cows and elephants, oh my! An extravagant travel tale is told of a Middle East-to-Asia escapade.
For those who make a living in an artistic arena—be it sculpture, fashion or architecture—inspiration can come from all corners of the earth. And if every place had a palette, Europe would most likely be blues, greens and grays; South America, pinks and oranges; and Asia, reds and yellows. I’d argue, however, hot off a recent trip to Turkey followed by a weeklong India excursion, that both countries offer the entire spectrum. From the blues of the Bosphorus and the greens of the Himalayas, to the reds of the sandstone in the Old City and the yellows of the Thar Desert sands, it seems Mother Nature used every crayon in the box for this mesmerizing part of the world. It’s a destination that still flies under the radar for most Americans, who have forgotten their high school history lessons telling the dramatic tales of Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire; the Mongols and the Mughals and the Maharajas; the ancient civilizations of these colorful Middle Eastern and Asian countries—and a peoples who introduced us to tea, textiles, gold and gemstones, cashmere, the art of rug-making and more. So, naturally, when local interior designer Susan Fredman decided to team up with Oscar Tatosian of Oscar Isberian rugs to travel halfway around the world in search of inspiration for their new line of hand-woven rugs, Interiors Chicago jumped at the opportunity to tag along. What was revealed to Fredman and the rest of us upon arrival (and the ensuing adventures that followed) can only be communicated in pictures. Well, and a few words.
5pm We arrive in Istanbul, Turkey, at sundown, which is perfect. It’s just enough time to check into the historic Armada Hotel, freshen up and take one of the craziest taxi rides of my life (second only to Shanghai) to the historic Kiva Han restaurant by the c.1348 Galata Tower. There, we enjoy a variety of traditional Turkish small plates—fresh artichoke in olive oil; roasted gundelia; watercress salad; stuffed fava beans; loquat kebab; and roasted mulberries and apricots for dessert. And, of course, hummus!
8 am Breakfast atop the hotel, which offers panoramic views of the Old City, the sea and surrounding mosques—breathtaking.
9 am Arzu, our trusted local guide, tours us around the Hippodrome—the city’s sporting and social center during the Byzantine Empire.
10 am We enter the stunning Hagia Sophia, once a basilica A.D. 537, then mosque, now a secular museum and an ancient feat of engineering and artistry.
12 pm At the Topkapi Palace, the old residence of the Ottoman Sultans, the biggest draw is the 86-carat (!) pear-shaped Spoonmaker Diamond.
1 pm Lunch is alfresco on the palace grounds at Karakol.
3 pm We accompany Tatosian to visit the Bozdag brothers, two antique rug specialists in Sultanahmet. They promptly whip out dozens of traditional Turkish, woven heirlooms for us to ooh and aah over.
4 pm Now to the Grand Bazaar! Founded in 1455, it’s one of the largest and oldest markets in the world, with over 3,000 shops. I admit I am overwhelmed—so much stimulation at once! After ogling case after case of brilliant jewels, I spring for 24-carat gold teardrop earrings for my mother from the one store owner that lets me peruse in peace.
7 pm For dinner, we head to Balikçi Sabahattin, a delicious open-air seafood restaurant.
9 am Today begins at the Sultan Ahmed, built in 1609, though it’s better known as the Blue Mosque, due to the vibrant cobalt tiles adorning its interior.
11 am We travel by bus to view a private ancient embroidery and costume collection at the Sadberk Hanim Museum.
1 pm We need only cross the street to board the yacht for our afternoon cruise down the beautiful Bosphorus Strait, lined with the private homes of some of the world’s wealthiest inhabitants and architectural masterpieces like the marble Ottoman-era Ciragan Palace.
3 pm Post-boat, I opt to check out Armaggan, an opulent, seven-story boutique in the trendy Nisantasi shopping district, known for its exquisitely crafted textiles and tabletop wares. (There’s also a lovely cafe inside with a rare vertical botanical garden).
1 pm We arrive in the Pink City of Jaipur, India, and, after an incredibly exhilarating car ride (wildly weaving around camels, dogs, horses and those endearing cows I’ve heard so much about; in and out of oncoming traffic; past beautiful fruit stands and fresh vegetable stalls, carts overflowing with colorful goods for sale; around tuk-tuk taxis sprouting giddy schoolgirls in uniform and rickshaws pulled by tan, sinewy old men with beards past their bellies; alongside motorcycling young men with a side-saddle female cohort hanging on for dear life and still managing to look quite unruffled, often in full sari!), we enter through the calm, stately iron gates of the majestic Rambagh Hotel. Peacock’s plumes, accompanied by their distinct mating call, pepper the meticulously groomed 47-acre landscape, while monkeys swing from the trees of this former private residence of the Maharaja. We are greeted by the staff with garlands of jasmine and fresh-squeezed lychee juice. The suite-style rooms, each unique, boast sizeable soaking tubs, double marble vanities and much appreciated down pillow-topped beds. Oh, and a personal butler. If there’s one thing Indians do best, after all, it’s hospitality.
4 pm Our guide for the India leg of the journey, Shrupti, cheerfully offers to take a group to the Old City market, and I—still swirling from the intense cultural immersion I experienced on the road—jump at the chance to see the action. The 100-plus tiny storefronts along the strip sell everything from exotic spices and medicinal herbs to embroidered scarves and jewelry featuring a variety of gems. (The city is one of the world’s main trade centers for rare stones.) Someone spots a pashmina shop, and the group gets our holiday shopping done in one fell swoop!
7 pm Dinner is at the hotel, Steam style: the name of the locomotive-turned-dining destination where we enjoy a dinner of prosciutto coalfire pizza (much Indian food to come, don’t worry!) in an old railcar.
9 am A bountiful morning buffet meal at the Rambagh’s Rajput Room begins the day, and we set off for Jantar Mantur, the ancient outdoor astronomical instrument collection.
11 am After an adrenaline-inducing run-in with a king cobra snake charmer out front (I’m even coerced into petting the hissing reptile), we enter the City Palace museum complex. Built in 1730, the reddish sandstone structure helped Jaipur get its nickname.
1 pm Rug time! I meet Fredman and the rest of the designers at a local rug-weaving outpost run by Vikram Kapoor to scout colors, textures, weaves, patterns and motifs. We observe two men, the finest weavers in the region, feverishly crafting wool and silk rugs, strand by strand, on a large floor-to-ceiling wooden loom. The colors are incredibly rich, made with all-natural vegetable-based dyes. Delectable tea sandwiches are served as we watch the assistants roll out rug after marvelous rug—a few dozen of which Tatosian picks out for his Chicago showroom in River North. Fredman and team, meanwhile, make note of potential designs for their forthcoming eponymous rug line in collaboration with Oscar Isberian (spring 2014).
5 pm Back at the hotel, a slumber-inducing massage and facial combo in the magnificent spa (and dip in the divine indoor pool) is followed by a refreshing glass of local Sula Sauvignon Blanc and an authentic Indian dance performance on the Verandah lawn. After which, we are whisked away into the night to the fairy-tale setting of the Amber Fort, where Kapoor has arranged an unforgettable evening: sitar-accompanied cocktails overlooking the valley and a traditional, six-course Indian meal (the other-worldly flavors of which will linger forever). Now, I think,
I can die happy.
8 am Another epic day awaits, as we return to the fort for a truly elephantine adventure. A swishing, snorting, festively adorned elephant parade creates a chaotic buzz at the base, but we manage to mount our mammals and lumber up the cobblestone path—aggressive peddlers in tow—in time for a tour of the grounds.
2 pm We bus it to the Gem Palace store, a tourist mecca where one lucky lady in our group scores a rough-cut diamond necklace fit for a princess (indeed, Diana of Wales was a patron!).
6 pm The two of us celebrate that evening with a splendidly spicy dinner of lamb roganjosh and delectable naan bread at Suvarna Mahal, the Rambagh’s fine dining establishment.
8 am Alas, we must leave, traveling five hours by bus to Agra, a city known for its magnificent feat of human strength and sacrifice, the Taj Mahal.
4 pm We check in to the stunning Oberoi Amarvilas hotel, then set off to catch the sunset. As dusk settles on the 350-year-old awe-inspiring ivory marble mausoleum, illuminating the numerous domes and minarets to heavenly effect affront the perfectly peaceful backdrop of the Yamuna River, I realize, No, now I can die happy.