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Age of innocence

An idyllic childhood in Fifties Turkey

The astrophotographer Tony Hallas spent an idyllic childhood in 1950s Turkey, where he first marvelled at the night sky. On his recent return, he found hulking cruise ships and Disneyfied destinations. Here, in the first of two articles, he looks back at the Turkey he left behind, and evocative family photographs capture a world waiting to be discovered. Photographs by Andy and Tony Hallas

  • Travelling in style, 1955: my mother, Binky Hallas, and I wait to board a Turkish Airlines DC-3 at Izmir Airport. Security was so relaxed: we were free to walk and take photographs anywhere we liked, as my father, Andy, did here

Another American traveller grumbled as we arrived at our luxury hotel in Antalya: “This is all really great, but when are we going to see Turkey?”

It was 2006, and my wife, Daphne, and I had joined a tour organised by Sky and Telescope magazine to view a total eclipse of the sun from a hotel on the Turkish south coast, near the spectacular ancient ruins of Side. After our plane had touched down in Istanbul we had been flown onwards by jet to Antalya, where we were met at the airport by an ultra-modern bus and ferried to one of the ultra-modern hotels reminiscent of cruise ships beached on the sands. The food was very good but geared to American tastes. We were living in luxury, but my interlocutor was right – this was not Turkey, or at least not the Turkey I had known, my childhood home.

Like the rest of the party, our fellow traveller must have noticed how at ease I was in these surroundings, and how readily I slipped into the language. I was born in the USA, where we lived on Long Island, New York, but my paternal grandfather was a tobacco merchant, and before the Second World War my father, Andy, had spent several years in remote villages in Bulgaria, learning the trade. He had tried his hand at various jobs before deciding to go into tobacco, like his father before him, and so it was that when I was five he moved us to Istanbul, where he went into partnership with a Turkish businessman to set up Türkiye Tütünleri (Tobacco from Turkey).

As well as English, my father was fluent in Turkish and Bulgarian (both from his days in Bulgaria), German and French. He was a historian by nature and education, and he took many photographs. From an art standpoint they were terrible, but they were a way of recording his life. When he gave me my first box camera at the age of ten, it was the beginning for me of a long love affair that I would pursue as a professional, culminating in a giant photo lab in Ventura, California. In that lab, since my father’s death at the age of 104, I have been able to go to work on the mountain of old Kodachrome slides he left behind – 30 years’ worth, dating from our time in Turkey between 1949 and 1979 – and bring them back to life, transforming them into images that seem as though they were taken yesterday, not more than half a century ago.

For several months after we arrived in Turkey, we lived in the Park Hotel, an Art Deco legend, long since demolished. My parents loved Istanbul, where our favourite restaurant was Pandeli’s, just inside the Spice Bazaar. I remember climbing the narrow staircase lined with Turkish tiles that led to a dining room with a view towards the Golden Horn, and then the exquisite taste of a fillet of sole, lightly breaded or just pan-fried in butter. Young as I was, I have many memories of the hotel too. At Christmas we lit candles on a small Christmas tree (imagine doing that in a hotel room today). I recall the pigeons that would congregate on our balcony, and the large dining room where the speciality was chicken cooked with butter inside it. I can see in my mind’s eye the grand marble staircase by the reception desk, and my father’s look of panic as I launched myself from the fifth step. From the Park Hotel we moved to Büyükada, largest of the Princes Islands. There were (and still are) no cars on the island, so we were driven around by fayton (phaeton). My Bulgarian-born mother, Binky, always chose one with healthy-looking horses, for she worried that some were underfed and mistreated.

We rented a house on the water, where I would swim in the crystal-clear sea and fish from its small wooden pier, and when my father got back from work, we would take a boat out to catch a wonderful dinner. He would commute by ferry to the city and come home with big tins of Beluga caviar, which we ate slathered like butter on fresh bread. It was neither expensive nor rare, no more remarkable than baklava.

We spent a year on Büyükada before moving on again, renting a house in the Bornova district of Izmir from a Madame La Fontaine, a member of one of the old Levantine merchant families, like the Girauds and Whittalls, whose 19th-century mansions are their impressive legacy. Sometimes we would stay with Madame La Fontaine at her house in Ilıca, on the Çeşme Peninsula, a resort famed for its thermal springs. For those living in Izmir, Ilıca was a place to escape the summer heat, with all the entertainment of a beach resort. Madame was a tyrant about table manners and would scold me because mine fell short of her refined standards. Ilıca, back then, consisted of a few village houses, a few Levantine summer homes and some rather old-fashioned hotels. There was no electricity other than that produced by little windmill generators to charge ageing 12-volt batteries. Sometimes you had lights; when no wind was blowing, you did not.

Outside the town there was nothing but the long beach and magnificent sand dunes on which scented sea daffodils bloomed. We would go to the dunes at night to gaze at the myriad stars in the dark sky. If you visit today, you will see how high the new houses sit, right next to the beach – built over those dunes after the bulldozers moved in.

We spent a few years in Bornova, with very hot summers and no cooling imbat sea breeze, then moved to Izmir proper, and, over the years, we lived in a variety of apartments on the Kordon, the long seafront esplanade. There was also a house right on the water in Göztepe, then beyond the city, on the Gulf of Izmir. I had a small boat that I could row out into the bay, to fish with hand lines and a bait called mamun, a mud shrimp resembling a small crayfish. It was a childhood idyll…

To read the full article, purchase Issue 63

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Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
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Other Highlights from Cornucopia 63
  • Flights of fantasy

    The artist Lithian Ricci has rescued a dilapidated old house on the Golden Horn – and transformed it into a magical work of art. Berrin Torolsan is dazzled. Photographs: Monica Fritz

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  • Saved by the royal bed

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  • The Marvellous Eye of the King’s Artist

    Three centuries ago Cornelius Loos, Charles XII’s military draughtsman, captured the atmospheric grandeur of Ayasofya’s interiors with panache and precision. Robert Ousterhout lingers over Loos’s peerless drawings

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    In 1833 Horace Vernet, the French Orientalist, created a fabulous ‘Turkish Room’ at the top of a tower in Rome’s Villa Medici. By Paolo Girardelli. Photographs: Daniele Molajoli

  • Going with the Grain

    For many peoples bulgur came before bread. It may now be ultra-fashionable, but versatile, nutritious bulgur was in fact the world’s first processed food. Berrin Torolsan celebrates the revival of this Anatolian staple and its nutty joys with a collection of intriguing recipes

  • The smile that launched a thousand shish

    Ever since it was founded in 1945 on the edge of Istanbul, people have flocked to eat at Beyti’s, the grill house that taught the city the importance of Sunday lunch. The journey, says Andrew Finkel, is always worth the effort

Good places to stay
Buy the issue
Issue 63, 2021 Lure of the Exotic
£600.00 / $762.42 / 24,928.25 TL
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