April 30, 2011

The Glamour of Travel from a Bygone Era at Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul

The Welcome

Despite its name, illustrious history and a two-year, €23 million (Dh124m) renovation, there is nothing remotely grand or intimidating about the Pera Palace Hotel. I'm greeted by a smiling doorman who immediately makes me feel like I've just returned to a sumptuous private members club after a long absence. The atmosphere is calm and genteel, my fellow members include Atatürk, Hemingway and Agatha Christie, and I'm happy to collude in this delusion for the rest of my stay.


The Neighbourhood

In the 19th century, Pera was Istanbul's most contemporary quarter. Today the area, now known as Beyoglu, is one of the city's most vibrant, being just as popular with fashionable Istanbullus as it is with tourists. Both promenade the nearby Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu's main pedestrianised shopping street, and flock to its many chic bars, restaurants, boutiques and cafes. In comparison given the hotel's refined interior, some streets are still decidedly down at heel, but with nearby neighbours such as the excellent Pera Museum (http://en.peramuzesi.org.tr/) and the Istanbul Culinary Institute (www.istanbulculinary.com/eng/), the area attracts a smart, sophisticated crowd looking for the best of Turkish culture and cuisine.

The Food

The hotel's main restaurant Agatha pays tribute to the three major stops made by guests as they originally travelled to the hotel on the Orient Express: Paris, Venice and Istanbul. It serves a combination of French, Italian and Turkish dishes that are available à la carte or from the chef's six-course degustation menu (125 Turkish lira; Dh300) and it's the Turkish dishes that really stand out. For à la carte offerings try the saffron-infused artichoke soup cooked in olive oil (18 lira; Dh43) or marinated saddle of lamb stuffed with dried aubergine and green beans wrapped with pastrami and mint sauce (46 lira; Dh110).

The Scene

Judging by the designer glasses, high-concept luggage and artfully unkempt hairstyles, the Pera Palace seems to be a favourite with slightly older writers, journalists, academics and architecture junkies out of season, as well as alternative business people looking for a suitable venue for their breakfast meetings. During high season, the hotel attracts larger, organised tour groups of foreign tourists for one or two nights who come to see the hotel's in-house Atatürk museum as well as room 411 - Agatha Christie's favourite and reputedly the suite where she was inspired to write her novel Murder on the Orient Express.

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