James Ruggia | August 28, 2015 1:55 PM ET
Friday Flashback: Pera Palace, Where Progress Stayed in Istanbul
Editor’s note: TravelPulse features an editorial column from one of our editors on a rotating daily basis. Destinations Editor James Ruggia has traditionally held the Friday spot, making it his own and sharing his views as someone who has seen nearly every point on the globe and has a story to tell about them all. With our friend Jim being under the weather, we wanted to keep his Friday spot warm for him by bringing you this piece on Istanbul's Pera Palace from May 29, 2015. We wish our friend the best for a speedy recovery and can’t wait to hear the next story from his travels.
Thirty-three years ago yesterday, the Orient Express brand returned to the rails, connecting Paris to Istanbul on a 26-hour journey. Today, Belmond’s Venice-Simplon Orient Express only occasionally rides that legendary route. Many things changed between 1888, when the original train launched, and 1982 when the successor sporting the same name came roaring out of Paris’ Gare de l'Est.
Georges Nagelmackers’ original Orient Express was designed to bear the standard for that spirit of late Victorian optimism that spoke the word “Progress” as if it were ordained from Mount Sinai. These Progressives believed that modern technology, like the Orient Express, would lead Western society from the moldering collapse of a worn-out age into a modern future where merit and enlightened self-interest would triumph over old superstitions and corrupt hierarchies of power.
Nagelmackers founded the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits after a trip to the United States where he became enthralled by Pullman’s sleeper cars. Imagine that: a European rail man being inspired by American trains and bringing the idea back to Europe. But it was bigger than an idea, it was a vision; and those original Wagons-Lits railroad cars and luxury coaches were the vison of Progress expressed on rail.
The Orient Express would connect the modern capital of Paris, where the Exposition Universalle would be held in 1889 with its soaring iron statement, the Eiffel Tower, to what was then a symbol of the old ways, Istanbul, the capital of a weary Ottoman Empire that was breaking up.
Modern Progress had Turkish adherents as well, including the Sultan Abdul Hamid II whose modernist zeal invested heavily in Turkish rail projects. Modernism would ultimately defang the sultans. By 1908, it was the Progressives in Turkey’s officer corps, the so-called Young Turks, who would rise to power.
To the riders on that original Orient Express departure in 1888, Istanbul or Stamboul, as it was often called, was a labyrinth of intrigue, mystery and romance; the same atmospheric concoction that Agatha Christie conjured up in her 1934 classic, Murder on the Orient Express. When Hercule Poirot, Christie’s crack detective, decides to spend a few days as a tourist in “Stamboul,” he might just as easily have chosen the Pera Palace as she did. Some believe she wrote the book in Room 411 of the Pera Palace.
Mystery writers from around the world will come to the Pera Palace this Oct. 22-24 to celebrate the 125th birthday of Agatha Christie for a crime fiction festival called Black Week. There will be a program of panel discussions, “whodunit” nights and more. Black Week packages are available from the Pera Palace.
The Pera Palace Hotel opened in 1892 in Istanbul’s Galata District, an old Venetian enclave built on a sloping hill that looked across the Golden Horn to the Divine Port where Byzantine Emperors and Ottoman Sultans ruled vast empires for about 1,700 years. The hotel was an Art Nouveau jewelry box designed by architect Alexander Vallaury with a mission from the Wagon-Lits owners to embody the spirit of Progress, just as the Orient Express did. The hotel was a Progressive showcase sporting Turkey’s first electric lights, first hot water and first elevator.
Thus began a history so compelling that such celebrity guests as Sarah Bernhardt, Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock were minor players compared to guests such as Mustafa Kemal and Mata Hari. Kemal’s suite at Room 101 was made into a museum in 1981 and still has the feel of the space where Ataturk kicked back and entertained his friends.
On my earliest visits to Istanbul, the Pera Palace held a special mystique for me. In those days, before it was restored, it had fallen on very hard times. Mildew and dust contended for control, the historic elevator creaked and whined and some critics whispered of “wildlife in the halls.” It had become a mausoleum for a lost age, just waiting for the wrecking ball. I spent four days there at that time, in the Greta Garbo Suite, at a time in my own life when the wrecking ball was in full swing. Ms. Garbo, Mr. John Jameson and I spent the weekend reflecting on better times. I wanted to be alone and it was the perfect place to do it.
Luckily, things got way better for me and the Pera Palace. A shipping company purchased the hotel and brought it back with a multi-million dollar renovation that was overseen by historians and architects from the Turkish Board of Antiquities, and by 2010, the hotel emerged as the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah. The renovation added a conference space; a terrace bar for sunset cocktails; a spa; an indoor pool and a Turkish bath. It took the hotel from 145 to 115 rooms and suites.
The room where Mata Hari squeezed state secrets out of admirals, generals and diplomats is gone forever, but the renovation saved that refined elegance, completely restoring not only the building but that air of Progress that was there when the hotel first opened. The hotel’s Kubbeli Saloon, which offers a tea service in the afternoon, is a must see if you’re in Istanbul. Vallaury used the ceiling of the Saloon to pay homage to Ottoman architecture by installing six domed roofs like the signature domes of Istanbul’s mosques.
The Venetians have left Galata and Galata has become has become Karaköy. Once a community known as a “Little Europe,” today it has revived as a culturally rich area symbolizing the new Turkey as it spills down from Taksim Square, with galleries, cafes, boutique shops and restaurants.
As for Progress, well technology turned out to be a two-faced wonder. Electric lit streets and gleaming new railways on the one hand and machine guns on the battlefields of Flanders on the other. Progress was supposed to put the most capable at the top of every pyramid, but machine guns only proved that merit and courage had nothing to do with who won the war.
Today Istanbul and Turkey are enjoying a level of prosperity and command that they haven’t seen since the days of the healthy Ottoman Empire, but the singular beauty of Istanbul is much broader than any time’s Progress. Istanbul has been lived in so long that the very stones seem to have longer memories than the people that live there. The Pera Palace isn’t as large as Hagia Sofia or the Blue Mosque, but in its own way, it also enshrines the memories that define one of the world’s greatest cities.
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