Takeaway

A palace called Pera

Shriya Mohan | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Murder she wrote: The Agatha Christie Room is where the novelist stayed intermittently during 1926-32   -  IMAGE COURTESY: PERA PALACE HOTEL

Only 125 years young, Istanbul’s first hotel is chock-full of trivia and nostalgia

Room 411 is cloaked in noir — burgundy upholstery, matching bedcovers, handwoven Usak silk carpets and the dark polish of antique furniture. A historic but functional typewriter sits on a study table and a stack of Agatha Christie books in diverse languages deck the bookshelf. French windows open into a balcony, where a marble-top coffee table and two chairs await. At the tea counter inside the room, a few framed newspaper articles, yellowing with time, draw your attention and then you spot Agatha Christie looking thoughtfully at you from another frame. Eighty-six years after the writer stayed here (intermittently in 1926-32), completing her famous detective novelMurder on the Orient Express, the air of intrigue within the Agatha Christie Room, in Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel, has been well preserved.

About 20 km from Istanbul’s Ataturk aiport, Pera Palace is in the Tepebaşı district of Pera — also known as Little Europe — and overlooks the Golden Horn, the waterway that leads to the Bosphorus. This area was, and still is, a hive of cultural activity. Pera Palace was the Turkish capital’s first hotel when it opened in 1892, primarily to serve guests of the Orient Express train from Europe to Asia. The 115 rooms and 16 suites even today retain their original late-19th century characteristics (including bathrooms that resemble mini hammams).

Pera Palace Hotel was also the first building in Istanbul constructed with iron and steel. It was designed in alignment with wind patterns to create natural air-conditioning (the stained-glass domes above the Kubbeli Lounge could even be opened like flower petals to allow air circulation). When the hotel first opened, the champagne and the Christofle silverware were brought to Istanbul from France by the Orient Express.

To honour the melting pot of cultures that the Orient Express tunnelled through, the hotel’s Patisserie de Pera, also Istanbul’s first pastry shop, serves three kinds of cuisines — French, Italian and Turkish. The Kubbeli Salon serves tea (and Turkish coffee) along with cakes, chocolates, macaroons and éclairs oozing with cream, all of it set amidst a table-sized forest of fruits and flowers. Down below is the Orient Bar, where the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Greta Garbo, and even spies like Mata Hari are known to have sipped their favourite poison. The food is an eclectic experience. If the hotel authorities are to be believed, it was the first hotel in Turkey to include “curry dishes” on the menu after an Indian princess, a guest in 1910, introduced the chef to masalas.

Suites in Pera Palace Hotel are named after the celebrities who have stayed here. Apart from the Agatha Christie Room (₹20,000 a night), there is the Greta Garbo Corner Room, the Ernest Hemingway Suite, the Pierre Loti Suite, the Emperor Franz Joseph Presidential Suite, and the King Edward VIII Presidential Suite. Other famous guests include Queen Elizabeth II, Sarah Bernhardt, Ian Fleming, Alfred Hitchcock and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The hotel enjoys a “museum-hotel” status. In 1981, on the 100th birthday of the father of the republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Room 101 was converted into a museum, to commemorate the years he spent there.

Interestingly, the hotel was the first and only Turkish building, other than the Ottoman palaces, to be powered by electricity back in the day. This meant it had the country’s first electric lift. An ornate wrought-iron box with a wooden bench, the staff call it “The Old Lady”.

The Pera Palace turned 125 last year. The hotel runs today because the palace itself is treated with the tenderness and respect meted out to a grand old matriarch. Care is ministered to her every groan and creak. In all these years of its existence, the hotel shut down briefly between 2008 and 2010 for renovations. Since then, thanks to the upkeep the structure is indulged with, Pera Palace Hotel has been defying her age zealously.

Each year, 25 million tourists pour into Turkey through Istanbul. The Pera Palace Hotel remains on most of their bucket lists. The hotel is also a popular host for local music festivals, cultural events and writing retreats. For the past couple of years, it has been organising ‘Black Week Festival’, attended by noir writers from across the globe. This year’s will be the fourth Black Week Festival, scheduled for November. The theme is Mike Hammer — a fictional hard-boiled detective created by American author Mickey Spillane. There is a special vibe during this festival. Some believe that the typewriter in room 411 can be heard tapping away softly.

(The writer was in Turkey on invitation from Turkish Airlines)

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Travel Log

Getting there

Fly Turkish Airlines from Mumbai and New Delhi to Istanbul and beyond. They also have a code share with Air India, so passengers can take AI connecting flights from  any Indian city to Mumbai and New Delhi.

Stay

Pera Palace is a 20-km drive from the Ataturk Airport. The deluxe rooms begin from ₹10,000. The Presidential Suite that comes with its own piano could set you back by ₹1.2 lakh.

Tip

Hop across for tea, hookah and a game of chess at the roadside tea stalls at Istiklal Cadessi, which is bustling with art galleries, boutique shops, live street performances, restaurants and bars.

 

Published on June 22, 2018
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