Retro Istanbul: the Pera Palas Hotel
Now an icon of shabby chic, the legendary Pera Palas hotel in Istanbul provides a rich source of inspiration for those interested in Orient Express style.
As it’s rumoured to be due for a multi-million euro makeover any time now, this could be the last chance to glimpse the Pera Palas hotel in its authentic state of faded grandeur. With its shadowy lobby, antique Turkish rugs, smoke-filled bar and stately cage elevator, the Pera Palas still feels as though it is a second home for spies, professional gamblers, amoral aristocrats and other stock characters from the time when Istanbul was still called Constantinople.
In fact, Agatha Christie references are entirely appropriate, as the mystery writer drafted the plot of Murder on the Orient Express in room 411. The hotel was actually designed for passengers of the Orient Express, who for a long time lacked any other choice of modern accommodation when they arrived in town. After the luxurious train pulled in, they would be transported to the hotel in horse-drawn carriages or sedan chairs.
The hotel opened in 1893 and has catered for romantic riffraff ever since. A notable early guest was Mata Hari, the beautiful dancer and spy who seduced French, English and Russian officers in order to pass their secrets onto her German masters during the First World War. In 1921, there was an assassination in the lobby. A diplomat from Azerbaijan was resting in one of the red velvet-covered armchairs (they are still there), when he was shot between the eyes by a foreign agent, who sported a goatee beard and round steel-rimmed glasses, according to witnesses.
Despite such dangers, the hotel was a favourite of Kemal Atatürk, the military hero, liberator and father of modern Turkey. His old room (number 101) is now a museum. But politicians seem to have been outnumbered at the Pera Palas: it is, after all, located in the nightlife quarter now known as Beyoglu. Actresses, socialites and journalists were far more common, from Greta Garbo to Jacqueline Kennedy and from Ian Fleming to Ernest Hemingway (is there anywhere Hem hasn’t had at least one drink?). Alfred Hitchcock and Graham Greene have also been guests.
The Pera Palas also has links with the fashion world: Istanbul’s first “entirely western” fashion show, The Istanbul Fashion Revue, took place here on December 2 1926. It’s said that oriental hookah pipes were provided to every guest, and that “the Champagne flowed like water”. Today, fans of vintage fashion will find it easy to evoke 1920s and 30s style at the Pera Palas. The owners have done their best to ensure that the décor has barely changed since the hotel’s between-the-wars heyday. Alongside original Orient Express advertising posters, the walls of the lobby, bar and restaurant are plastered with sepia photographs, old menus and receipts. As well as the famous red armchairs, the lobby contains a charming superannuated telephone, an abandoned typewriter and slightly dusty displays of dried flowers. The hotel tea room – which is open to non-residents – is also delightfully anachronistic, with its gramophone and tiered cake stand.
But while it could feel like a museum, the Pera Palas is a bustling, lively hotel. The weekend we stayed, a wedding reception was held there on the Saturday night. As the guests stepped out of taxis in their evening wear, and waltzes filtered up the staircase and lift shaft of the old building, it seemed as though the same party had been going on for a hundred years, with very little interruption.
Hotel Pera Palas, Mesrutiyet Cad 98-100, Tepebasi 80050, Istanbul T: +90 (0) 212 251 45 60 www.perapalas.com