ONCE you’ve been to Istanbul, Paris, Berlin and even London seem somehow paltry, a bit small-scale and even a touch banal. The enormity and seductiveness of the Bosphorous, especially at sunset, and the mesmeric mixture of ancient history, Ottoman splendour and Islamic architecture beguile every traveller.
Its appeal was just as strong for the most discerning Victorians. And so in 1892 work began on the Pera Palace, to house guests who arrived in Istanbul off the Orient Express, and was completed in 1895, when a glamorous inaugural ball was held. Indeed, the symbols of both the Orient Express and the hotel are the same.
The Pera Palace is special. For one thing, it was Agatha Christie’s choice when she stepped off the train. Hemingway, Hitchcock, Greta Garbo and the great and the good of the British Empire favoured it too, along with spies across the Orient. Its appeal sprung from its exquisite refinement, its Europeanness, with its high ceilings, French paintings and elegant tea salons. Known as the “oldest European hotel” in Istanbul, the Palace boasts Europe’s second elevator and Turkey’s first. (The lift is a beautiful work of mahogany and wrought iron that we rode quite comfortably settled on velvet benches, drawn by a pulley anchored in the basement). And, located with a jaw-dropping perch over the Golden Horn (the city’s natural harbour) in the heart the picturesque Tepebaşı neighbourhood of Pera, no wonder everyone who was anyone stayed there.
But what worked for the Victorians wasn’t working for us. And so the Pera Palace closed in 2006 for a refurbishment costing $29m, reopening on the first of September this year, with 115 rooms and 16 suites. It still feels old, almost antique and absolutely oozing grandeur (touches like the sedan chair in the foyer set the historical scene), but also glossy. It is this combination that gives it a deeply fashionable touch – the weekend we were there, there was a celebrity wedding held in the ballroom, with Istanbul’s glitterati swanning about in haute couture swilling champagne in front of the paparazzi assembled outside. Turkish Vogue has also already held shoots and parties here.
Despite its modishness, this is historical hostelry as it should be (The Four Seasons Florence, set in a Medici palace, is another archetype). It’s subtle but striking; museum-like but not austere. Artfully placed throughout the hotel are 300 pieces of original furniture. My favourite exhibit (apart from the sedan chair, which prompts fantasies of a new kind of a decadent airport pick-up) was the cabinet of Christofle silver cutlery (5,000 pieces) used at the hotel’s inaugural ball. Architecturally, the refurb is stunning. The hotel’s extraordinary sextet of indoor domes has been given a new glass roof to let in more light and now makes a beautiful place to have afternoon tea. The Grand Hall – which was bombed during WWII – glints with Murano chandeliers, while marble and gold-leaf embellish the heavily guarded foyer. Mother of pearl-inlaid bookcases are another feature throughout the hotel.
In the rooms are hand-woven Oushak carpets, gold-embroidered bedspreads and heated marble showers. Rather than catnapping after my early start, I opened the French doors to my balcony and stepped onto a platform with a little table and chairs from which I ogled the expanse of river, houses and the mosques of the old town. I could have stayed there all afternoon.
Instead I went downstairs for a snack in either the French patisserie or the Grand Hall where a table with cakes and sandwiches took centre stage. We couldn’t resist the majesty of the Hall so perched on some richly upholstered sofas and commenced to nibble and sip. There is an outdoor terrace, too, and although the weather was impeccable, the Pera Palace sadly looks out on a four-lane motorway that’s choked with traffic from dawn till night so we rejected it. (The rooms also look out on the motorway but the ones in the back focus the eye on the Golden Horn, not the road. Beware some corner rooms which – however beautiful inside – stare straight at the highway’s billboards, in a disturbing contrast with the hotel’s historical interior.)
Next came a stroll round the Pera area with its hilly streets, trendy bars, music shops and sleeping cats, and the famous Medieval Galata tower is a five minute walk from the hotel. Back at the Palace, we had a sneak preview of the Ataturk museum in room 101 where the founder of the modern Turkish Republic first stayed in 1917. It’s filled with his clothes, an Indian tapestry said to predict the time of his death, and newspaper clippings after his sudden death in 1938 that brought actual tears to the eyes of our guide. History buffs can also ask to see – or stay in – Christie’s suite (room 411), which contains bookshelves of her novels in several languages, as well as opulent, blood-red antique furniture.
One thing Christie and friends missed out on was a spa – the hotel’s new one is a tastefully luxe affair with lots of pale wood, minimalist treatment rooms and a deep blue pool and jacuzzi (you can swim against a jet in the pool to simulate lane swimming – ingenious).
As for dinner – German chef Maximilian Thomae lords it over a beautiful, checked-floor dining room, producing posh (and frankly somewhat confused) modern European. With such exciting things happening in Istanbul’s culinary scene, I’d advise you to eat elsewhere. For everything else, though, the hotel is complete Turkish delight.
Zoe travelled with Cox & Kings (0207 873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk), which offers three nights at the Pera Palace (www.perapalace.com) from £685 pp including breakfast daily, flights from London with British Airways and transfers. Deluxe rooms at Pera Palace from £205 per night.
CULTURE VULTURE’S ISTANBUL
Istanbul is this year’s European Capital of Culture, but that title hardly captures its essence, which is super-cool and magically historical at once. The city is also a plain old eyeful of colour, hustle and bustle and extraordinary buildings. It is as loaded with bars and restaurants as with palaces and mosques – but for those who appreciate history, a good dose of sightseeing is necessary. Here are the must-dos.
● The Blue Mosque: Designed and even partly built by Sultan Ahmet I (ruler from 1603-1617) to eclipse the neightbouring Aya Sofia, the mosque has one of the most extravagant exteriors in the former Ottoman Empire, with its intense curves, six minarets (the only other mosque at the time with six minarets was at Mecca), blue tiles and an enormous courtyard.
● Aya Sofia: To enter this once-Byzantine church, now mosque, is to lose yourself physically and mentally. Echoing spaces, a quartet of enormous black discs covered in Arabic scripture hanging from four corners of the massive central dome, endless, intricate mosaic-work and an upstairs balcony that offers still more mixed religiosity requires, a good deal of time and thought. It’s a central symbol of Istanbul’s multi-cultural past.
● Topkapi Palace: One of the most opulent palaces in the East. It has been home to a sultan who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne as well as several others with colourful ends. Don’t miss the jewel museum to see just how well the sultans and their friends lived.
● Grand Bazaar and Spice Market: The first is a must-do for anyone who likes trinkets, jewellery, textiles and watches. Be prepared to bargain. The second is a wonder for the senses.
● Galata Tower (left): Built in 1358 as a fortifaction for the Genoese colony in Constantinople, the tower offers superb views.
● Bosphorous river cruise: A glorious way to see Istanbul. Go at sunset. ZS
ISTANBUL | Eating and drinking
Kebabs, pide (the local speciality of fried dough for a pizza-style dish), dips and veggies form at least some of the backbone of basic Turkish food. But in Istanbul these days you can go way, way beyond these to have a plethora of dining experiences ranging from the super-cool to the fine to the local – all of them totally tasty. There are places you can take your biker boyfriend, your Euro playboy, your local lover – or your mother.
Perhaps the greatest joy of eating and drinking in Istanbul is partaking of the plentiful rooftop venues spread around the city. Favourites include the seriously hip NuTeras (Tepebaşı Mesrutiyet Caddesi 147-149), on the roof of an old apartment building in Pera, with a bar that feels as if it’s hanging off the edge of the building – and great food. Mikla (Meşrutiyet Caddesi Tepebaşı) has a 360-degree view of the city and is one of the great “it” places to go just now for the trendy set. 360 Istanbul (Istiklal Caddesi) is a bar/club up among the rooftops, with incredible views of the “big four”: Topkapi Palace, the Golden Horn, Aya Sofia and the Bosphorous. Zoe (Tomtom Mahallesi, Yeniçarşı Caddesi 58/5) is another draw for the hip and once you’re past the bouncers you can expect a great rooftop party in summer and a laid back vibe indoors at other times.
For great Bosphorous action, head to Angelique (Muallim Naci Caddesi, 109), where the city’s rich and model-esque (and their hangers’ on) congregate. Ulus 29 (Yol Sokak 1) is an established restaurant where suits and movers and shakers come to eat like Ottoman sultans; Middle Eastern food is also served. Beşinci Kat (5th floor, Soĸancı Sokak 7) has one of the city’s most striking interiors, with velvet and a floor-piece of a naked Norma Jean Baker.
For the boho French vibe, head to Brasserie Nişantaşı (Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi 23/1), which has a mirrored ceiling and a huge chandelier.
For bang-on and affordable Turkish fare, try Gani Gani (Kuyu Sokak 13, Taksim), where seating is cosy and the food rocks, particularly the çiĸköfte (steak tartare made with cracked wheat and chili), mantı (ravioli with yoghurt sauce), pide and kebabs. ZS