Full steam ahead
A grand Istanbul residence has been rejuvenated by a modern makeover
THERE was a rude surprise awaiting early travellers on the Orient-Express when they checked into their Constantinople hotel. After indulging themselves for several days on the most luxurious train of its era, the leisured rich found themselves lodging in digs that not even the most cashstrapped backpacker would be prepared to countenance today.
That is not to say that Sultan Abdulaziz had been dragging his heels when it came to propelling the then Turkish capital into the 19th century. Indeed, by the time the first Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits service rolled into Istanbul station in June 1889, the city boasted the world’s second-oldest underground railway, the Tunel, which had been running for 22 years.
Pera Palace Hotel, built in 1892 to serve the Orient-Express clientele, was another milestone in modernism. Its spirit was reflected in architect Alexander Vallaury’s neoclassical, art nouveau and oriental styles and sophisticated plumbing that, for the first time in Istanbul, delivered running water in the bathrooms.
There was electricity, which was emerging as transforming technology early-adapting cities.
In pride of place in the centre of Pera Palace’s grand staircase was an elevator, the first to be built in the Ottoman Empire and only the second in Europe after Gustav Eiffel’s pioneering hydraulically powered cars, which entertained Parisians at the 1889 World Fair.
The elevator has been restored to perfect working order, a crafted wooden Tardis running between four monumental cast-iron pillars, with its glorious engineering form proudly on display.
The bellboy pulls the wroughtiron gates shut with a sonorous clunk and we ascend to our thirdfloor room. ‘‘An utterly pretty and aristocratic elevator,’’ declared writer Daniel Farson. ‘‘It ascends like a lady who curtsies.’’
To the extent that heritage limitations would allow, a
million renovation four years ago transformed the 115 guestrooms. The rattling plumbing has been stripped out, and heated Italian Carrara marble floors have been laid in the bathroom, where too, the for showers deliver a satisfyingly forceful downpour. The pioneering electrical engineers who built the lift would have been incredulous at the remote-controlled curtains, though they, too, would have struggled with the temperature control switch, which demands a degree in computer science to operate. On the balcony, the vista opens over the Golden Horn across the city and a glimpse of a mosque high on the opposite bank of the Bosphorus.
The laneways around the Pera, at the heart of the European district of Beyoglu, enjoy an ambience of sophistication a world away from the chaos of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. A range of pleasant bars and restaurants serve meze and other traditional Turkish fare.
Early travellers from Europe who came to Istanbul for a taste of the Orient found it on the crowded streets below the Grand Mosque. But Turkey’s recent economic prosperity has brought a renewed confidence to the city’s European quarter.
Istiklal Caddesi, the 3km-long pedestrian street five minutes’ walk from Pera Palace, has shaken off its run-down air and is thriving again with boutiques, bookshops, music stores, galleries, restaurants and cafes. Neoclassic, neo-gothic, beaux-arts and art nouveau form a streetscape charged with 19thcentury optimism. A historic tram trundles the length of the street at a slow enough pace for a moderately fit traveller to j ump on between stops. It runs from Taksim Square to the Karakoy district and the entrance to the Tunel, opposite the steam house that once housed the stationary engine that pulled railway cars up and down the steep 550m track to the shores of the Golden Horn.
The notion of an underground railway that would reduce street congestion had been the holy grail for urban planners for several decades before Londoners completed the steam-run Metropolitan line in 1863 and almost choked the passengers to death with locomotive fumes.
French engineer EugeneHenri Gavand approached Sultan Abdulaziz with a better idea: the steam engine would be fixed at one end of the line and pull the train by hawsers up and down the track. The construction of electrical underground systems in Paris, London and New York was three decades away; until then Istanbul led the world in low carbonparticulate subterranean travel.
The waterside and the footway under the Ataturk Bridge are always crowded. Seafood is landed, bought, sold and grilled in a matter of hours.
From the restaurants that span the walkway of the bridge, the fish is served at its simple best, grilled with lemon, accompanied by a salad and, if you choose to indulge, crisp French fries and a glass of the perfectly quaffable Turkish sauvignon blanc. If you were a fish you’d be a mug to swim under the Bosphorus bridges, particularly on Sunday when the anglers stand shoulder to shoulder against the railings with their lines dangling like a curtain into the water.
Before the bridges were built, passengers arriving on the train from Sofia would disembark at the station on the western bank and be ferried across to Pera Palace. A sedan chair in the hotel entrance was said to be the preferred means of transport up the steep, cobbled steps.
The Queen, Edward VIII, Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sarah Bernhardt and Alfred Hitchcock have signed the guestbook, but Agatha Christie holds pride of place among Pera Palace Hotel’s bragging list of famous guests.
While staying in her favourite room, 411, she is said to have sketched out the plot of Murder on the Orient Express.
Istanbul’s historic Pera Palace Hotel has been thoroughly modernised yet retains its 19th-century charm
The opulent entrance of a hotel that has hosted kings, queens and Agatha Christie