A Hotel to Stay - A Train to Remember: VSOE takes you to the Pera Palace
Adrian Mourby in front of the Pera Palace Hotel
By Adrian Mourby
On 1 September 2010 two momentous things happened in Istanbul. The Venice Simplon Orient Express arrived for its annual visit and the same day the Pera Palace Hotel reopened its doors.
In 1892 the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits purchased this huge hotel above the Golden Horn for the use of its European guests arriving on what became known later as The Orient Express. In 1934 Agatha Christie actually wrote her novel Murder in the Orient Express in room 411.
In those days the Pera Palace stood in the middle of Istanbul’s diplomatic quarter. Huge and dimly-lit, this was the meeting place for politicians, spies, travellers, and of course writers. Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene propped up its smoky bar. Upstairs Greta Garbo lived here in seclusion and Mata Hari plied her dubious trade. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, stayed in room 101 (now a museum to the great man).
With the shift of diplomacy to Ankara, the Pera Palace and its cosmopolitan neighbourhood declined. The hotel was declared a national museum, but by 2006 it was in dire need of refurbishment. Now, €23m later, the Grand Lady of Istanbul is reborn as a light and gracious heritage hotel under the ownership of a Turkish company.
Thirty rooms have been removed around the central lightwell, bringing sunshine into the heart of the building. Every square inch of marble and mahogany has been repolished or replaced. Two new elevators have been installed, but the original 1890s lift still rises in its cage between floors. Istanbul is not short of good hotels, but it needed the equivalent of the Ritz Paris or London’s Savoy. This it now has. Glamour has returned to the Orient.
The hotel has gone for a look that is retro with comfort. The Garbo corner suites have English rose-embroidered tapestries on the chairs, bedspread and footstool – and you last saw a carpet like the one here in your great-aunt’s parlour. Headboards and chandeliers continue the late-Victorian theme and the bathrooms all sport curvy freestanding white tubs. Period detail is offset by flatscreen TVs, and window blinds that close at the flick of a switch.
The new Agatha restaurant is in the old below-stairs area. While its chequered floor tiles recall the art deco period of Murder on the Orient Express, the restaurant lacks atmosphere and a decent view. The old Pera had a superb dining room on the ground floor, taking up one side of the hotel. This beautifully restored suite of rooms is now reserved for private functions, which may prove a mistake because the Agatha will never be a destination restaurant, however good the food. That said, head chef Maximilian Thomas has created a superb Orient Express Menu Degustation, which mixes dishes from three major stops on the train’s best-known route: Paris, Venice, and Istanbul.
Two days later on September 3rd 2010, the Venice Simplon Orient Express departed Sirkeci station heading northwest towards Bulgaria. Initially the luxury train followed the same route as Inspector Poirot's ill-fated Orient Express, but it then headed north through Edirne rather then following the snow-bound route to Belgrade that features in Murder on the Orient Express.
These days the train's 100 passengers enjoy a train that is in much better condition than the studio mock-up in which Sydney Lumet's 1974 film was shot. The compartments are small but decorated with beautiful inlaid woodwork. Toiletries (by La Prairie) are exqusite and hot water is supplied by a wood and coal-burning stove in each carriage, tended discreetly by the bright blue-uniformed stewards.
The levels of service on the new VSOE are exemplary. Breakfast is served in guests' compartments at a time of their choosing. Brunch, lunch and dinner are taken in the three dining cars where white-coated waiters keep no one waiting. In the evening a dinner-jacketed pianist plays in the bar car. His grand piano is tuned before each journey, making it quite possibly the most frequently-tuned piano in the world.
The Istanbul-Venice journey is made only once a year. This five-day journey through Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria and Italy alternates nights on the train with nights in Bucharest and Budapest. During this time the train becomes not just a way of getting between two destinations, as it was in Poirot's day, but one of the world's most comfortable hotels on wheels.
Crowds turn out in Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania to watch the train pass through their villages. What is a major event for guests on the train seems just as important for spectators who get to see the Orient Express just once a year.
This year the train journey ended in Venice's Ferrovia and guests were then transferred by water taxi to the island of Burano for a farewell meal.
The next VSOE journey from Istanbul to Venice will depart on 9th September 2011.
Pera Palace Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52, 34430 Istanbul, Turkey (00 90 212 222 8090; perapalace.com).