I had just observed one of the time-honoured traditions of Istanbul, and surrendered to the temptation to buy too much in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The affable trader with whom I had haggled and laughed and drunk tea for the best part of an hour was just wrapping up my purchases and instructing one of his assistants to find me a taxi. “Which hotel?” When I mentioned the Pera Palace, his face fell and he looked me up and down as if to reassess me, perhaps regretting the extent of the discount he had given.
Of all the grand hotels of the old Levant, only a few still have instant name recognition. The Pera Palace is one of them, its name conjuring an army of ghostly former guests, from Greta Garbo and Alfred Hitchcock to Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, the Kennedys and King Edward VIII, no doubt with Mrs Simpson somewhere close at hand. The hotel opened in 1892 to accommodate passengers travelling on the Orient Express, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits service from Paris and Vienna. It was one of several that opened in the city around that time. Located just off the Grand Rue de Pera, the centre of Istanbul’s European community, it sat on a hill above the Golden Horn and enjoyed views across the busy waterway to Topkapi. It was the smartest address in town, a European-styled hotel and the first in Turkey to have electricity and an elevator.
The Pera Palace opened at a time when the Ottoman empire was crumbling and European power games were moving towards an era of world wars. A cloud of intrigue soon hung above the hotel; it was not by chance that Mata Hari stayed here, nor that it attracted the grande dame of crime, Mrs Max Mallowan, aka Agatha Christie. Christie passed through in the early 1930s and is said to have written some of Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411, although in the novel she has Hercule Poirot check into the long-gone Hotel Tokatlian nearby.
With the end of empire, the rise of the republic and the departure of many Greek, Armenian and Jewish residents, Pera declined, buildings deteriorated and the state-owned palace hotel lost its cachet. So it was history, not the comforts of the hotel that drew me to the Pera Palace on a cold, damp day in January 1989. I had come from London on a string of trains, including one very unglamorous regular service to Vienna, simply called the Orient Express. (The luxury Venice Simplon Orient Express is something else entirely.) I had booked ahead to reserve an upper floor room at the Pera Palace, anticipating the long views out over the Golden Horn. But a cloud had descended on Pera Hill, and it remained there, obscuring the view for three inclement days and nights. And while the clouds remained outside, an air of huzun, that particularly Turkish sense of muffled sadness, clogged the interior.
Much has changed since then. Istanbul’s economy has been on the rise, as has its standing both as a centre of historical significance and as an exotic playground: it is currently European Capital of Culture and one of Europe’s favourite short-break destinations. Pera, or Beyoglu as it is now known, has benefited as much as anywhere in the city and, in an explosion of drills and cranes and scaffolding, many new shops, bars and restaurants have opened along the side of old Pera Hill. The Palace hotel was finally taken in hand by a Turkish shipping business, classed as a “museum hotel” and then closed in 2006 for a €23m restoration. I arrived earlier this month on the day it reopened, which also happened to be the day the Venice Simplon Orient Express made its twice yearly visit to the city. The omens seemed good.
From the outside, glimpsed as the taxi crested the hill, not too much had changed: the massive neoclassical stone building had been scrubbed and cleaned but there were no modern extensions or inappropriate roof elevations. A doorman in elegant grey tails and black foulard welcomed me through the old doors. And then I was back in the marble-lined reception, revisiting the surprise of my first visit, more than 20 years ago, and remembering that the interior of this imposing block belongs less to a palace than to a grand mansion.
Grand it may be, but the grandeur is understated. Don’t come to the Pera Palace hoping for oriental excess. There are Ottoman patterns on the furniture, the initials PP engraved on bathroom taps and a rolltop tub in my room, but the palette is muted and the spirit refined. The Kubbeli tea lounge, with its soaring domed ceiling and bold striped walls, is the closest the public areas come to extravagance. But even here is restraint: the only bling is a touch of silver leaf on delicate pastries and the glint of the Cristofle teapots, found boarded up in a basement cupboard, now pressed into service for an afternoon tea that owes more to London than Istanbul (scones, anyone?) and that will, inevitably, soon be drawing the grandes dames of Stambouli society.
The Euro-Ottoman fusion peaks in the new Agatha restaurant. Named in honour of Christie and run by the exuberant chef Maximilian JW Thomae, the restaurant’s menu talks of “bridging culinary cultures”. It pays particular tribute to the Orient Express’s three main stops by mixing French, Italian and Turkish flavours. Beyond the blurb, the kitchen is turning out world-class cuisine, including a magnificent chilled artichoke soup and a quail kebab served on a bed of oriental risotto.
Bedrooms are even more restrained than the public areas. There is one, protected by law, which preserves the spirit of the times of Ataturk, and another dedicated to Agatha Christie. But most are modern, in spite of the odd piece of retro furniture, and a subtle blend of muted, soothing colours; the seduction, if it is to happen, will come from the excellence of the beds, the quality of the sheets or the person you are sharing with. Or, as in my case, the view from the tall windows: this time there were no clouds and I finally saw the view I had missed on my first visit. And while the sight of the Golden Horn and the Topkapi Palace has been partly obstructed by other buildings, and a six-lane road now sits below the hotel, I still found myself returning again and again to the window.
The reopening of the Pera Palace is one of many events that coincide with Istanbul’s year of cultural celebrations. The scaffolding has finally come down from the Hagia Sophia museum, an extensive calendar of events and exhibitions has been organised across the city and we await with impatience the opening of the new Museum of Innocence, conceived by the Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk as a tribute to the city’s 20th-century culture.
It also comes as the regeneration of Pera/Beyoglu reaches its peak: some of the city’s most interesting bars, restaurants, clubs and shops are within walking distance, an advantage in a city that is so traffic-bound. Next door is the rooftop Mikla, long acknowledged as one of the best restaurants in Istanbul. A few steps beyond is a mayhane called Refik, a drinking house that also serves meze. Sofyali alley, which Refik’s has graced for many decades, used to be sleazy but is now home to a string of shiny restaurants and bars. Walk five minutes up Istiklal Caddesi and you can choose between the grand views and loud music of 360 Bar and Restaurant, or the very different views of the simple restaurants along the Balik Pazar (fish market).
Few hotel openings receive as much attention as the Pera Palace has. In part, that is because the issue of preservation and restoration is a hot one and the Istanbul authorities have been found wanting. Unesco has dropped its threat to remove the city from the World Heritage list but has given the authorities until October 15 to deliver an assessment of the impact of a proposed metro bridge over the Golden Horn. The Pera Palace seems to suggest that modernity and preservation can live side by side.
The main reason for all the fuss is that, as the traders of the Grand Bazaar know only too well, the hotel has much to live up to. Whether it will – and whether it can lure visitors away from the luxury hotels by the Bosphorus and across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet – remains to be seen. But if first impressions are anything to go by, the pearl of Istanbul, as the management have dubbed their hotel, will certainly regain a central place in the city.
Anthony Sattin’s latest book is ‘A Winter on the Nile’ (Hutchinson)
Rooms at the Pera Palace (www.perapalace.com) start at €250 including breakfast. Anthony Sattin travelled as a guest of Cox & Kings (www.coxandkings.co.uk) which offers three nights at the Pera Palace from £760pp including breakfast, flights from London and transfers
Istanbul’s autumn of art
Travellers to this “city of water” are usually advised to get their bearings on Galata bridge, linking Old Stamboul to the medieval port across the Golden Horn, writes Maya Jaggi. Instead, I watched the drama of an impending storm through a plate-glass wall in the sleek warehouse café of the Museum of Modern Art (www.istanbulmodern.org), which offers nouvelle Turkish cuisine and a mesmerising view of container ships powering along the Bosphorus, as ferries cross their path between Asian and European shores.
Opened in 2004, Istanbul Modern is one of several new spaces for contemporary art counterpointing the city’s Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks. Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul’s Nobel laureate, has a swipe at “ersatz museums of modern art with adjoining restaurants”, in his latest novel The Museum of Innocence (Faber), but the new museums are thriving. They include the Sakip Sabanci (http://muze.sabanciuniv.edu), the Pera (www.peramuzesi.org.tr) and Santralistanbul, “Turkey’s Tate Modern” (www.santralistanbul.com), which opened in 2007 in a revamped power plant up the Horn. Istanbul 1910-2010, Santralistanbul’s show about the architectural transformation of the city, runs until November 20.
Smaller galleries are burgeoning too, like those in Misir Apartments at Istiklal Caddesi 311, the pedestrianised shopping drag in Beyoglu, while art lovers can mingle with young artists at Urban Café, in an alley off Galatasaray square. Autumn brings a cluster of events – the 20th Istanbul Art Fair runs from October 30 to November 7 at the Tuyap convention centre (www.tuyap.com.tr), and the fifth Contemporary Istanbul fair (www.contemporaryistanbul.com) takes place on November 25-28.
Pamuk plans to open a Museum of Innocence next year, as a nostalgic counterpart to his novel of lost love. When the book came out in Turkish in 2008, I visited Pamuk in neighbouring Cihangir – a quarter named after the mosque seen from his balcony, along with distant minarets. He showed me the mundane objects, dating to the 1950s, lying on his office floor that inspired the novel and will feature in what promises to be a poignantly idiosyncratic museum.
Pamuk’s city of “end-of-empire melancholy” owes much to Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-1962), a writer neglected as Kemal Ataturk’s republic of 1923 turned the page on the Ottoman past. The Istanbul Tanpinar Literary Festival (www.istanbultanpinarliteraturefestival.com) is named in his honour and took place for the first time last year, with intimate readings across the city, from the subterranean, cathedral-like Basilica Cistern to Kaktüs, a cat-lovers’ café in Cihangir. The second international festival runs from October 30 to November 2.
I went in search of the Stamboul of A Mind at Peace, Tanpinar’s modernist masterpiece of 1949 (translated in 2008), whose characters wander among the bazaar quarter’s mosques. Suleymaniye, the 16th-century mosque built for Suleyman the Magnificent by his architect Sinan, is breathtaking. But don’t miss Rustem Pasa mosque, Sinan’s Iznik-tiled gem elevated above shops. You can sip pomegranate juice in the vaulted warren of the Grand Bazaar. Clutching an aromatic haul from the spice market, the Egyptian Bazaar, I made for Hamdi’s restaurant at Kalcin Sokak 17, for its kebabs with pistachio and view across the Horn.
I ended my stay at the Çiragan Palace, whose fire-gutted ruins were a bleak sight on the Bosphorus from 1910 until its rebirth as Turkey’s Ottoman palace hotel. It was a short walk to chic Ortaköy village for a valedictory cocktail. Ortaköy mosque shone at the water’s edge, with the coloured lights of the 1970s suspension bridge festooned above. Behind the barman, tankers glided by.
Maya Jaggi stayed at the Çiragan Palace Kempinski (www.kempinski.com; doubles from €276)