Full steam ahead

A grand Is­tan­bul res­i­dence has been re­ju­ve­nated by a modern makeover

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - RE­BECCA WEISSER

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

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