24-Hour Room Service: Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul
History revisited in the heart of Istanbul
In some cities, there's really only one hotel. It's the place where Ernest Hemingway sipped whisky at the bar, and Agatha Christie daydreamed of murder in the foyer. Over time, it becomes a tourist attraction in its own right: the literary connections get their own panel in the guidebooks; tour groups traipse round breathing in the history, half-hoping to find a lock of Greta Garbo's hair.
Such is the Pera Palace in Istanbul. Launched with a grand ball in 1895, it was the first luxury hotel in the Ottoman Empire, the final destination for passengers aboard the Orient Express. All of the above, and many others, including Jackie Onassis, Alfred Hitchcock, and our own Queen Elizabeth, once stayed. But glamour fades, and by 2008 even the ghosts of the past couldn't maintain the illusion that the Pera was still a luxury hotel. In more than 100 years' service, it had never had so much as a facelift, so a two-year renovation project began.
Today, Greta's hairs have been swept away – or, in the case of a small diary key found in Agatha Christie's room, put in a display case – and the hotel has a crisp new look. The Pera is a palace once more.
From outside, it is certainly impressive. Standing on the edge of the reasonably bohemian quarter of Beyoglu, overlooking the Golden Horn, its clean lines stand proud against a rag-tag of dirtier buildings.
It looks like The Ritz in Paris – perhaps because the architect, Alexander Vallaury, was half-French. Liveried footmen hang around on the busy street, waiting to show you in. If you're feeling flush, one of them will even collect you from the airport in the hotel's 1954 Plymouth saloon, decked out in the same deep maroon as their livery (the price is €150 one way).
Inside, once you've passed through the surprisingly narrow front door, a splendid red marble hall greets you, which remains as it always was. The day I walked in it felt like the British Museum, it was so busy. For this is not just a hotel for foreigners: the Pera is a local landmark and plays as great a role in modern Istanbul as it did when the city was called Constantinople.
At its heart is the magnificent double-height hall, the Kubbeli Saloon, where grandees take tea on Sundays. A fusion of art nouveau, Oriental and neo-classical designs, its marble walls and floors sparkle once again, and the six green glass domes in the ceiling now have light pouring in, thanks to an inspired decision to remove a central block of bedrooms above, creating a giant light well. Throughout my stay, all bourgeois Turkish life was played out here: one day a wedding, the next a youth orchestra concert. It's not often you get to immerse yourself in the local culture without leaving the hotel.
Elsewhere, though, the décor isn't much to get excited about. Empty white walls and pale grey marble floors make the Patisserie and Orient Bar, at either end of the hall, cold and uninviting. The stairs and corridors suffer from the same, sterile feel, and the bedrooms also lack warmth.
Clearly, the designers have been careful not to distract from the hotel's great heritage with any flashy innovations, and have opted for a classical look, but there is such a thing as being too careful, and the result is rather dreary. A few dark pieces of furniture and gilt-framed prints do little to liven up great expanses of off-white walls.
The facilities, though, are good, especially the basement swimming pool, sauna, and spa. There's a Turkish bath too, though for the real experience you should venture to one of the ancient hammams in the city. One mistake was to put the restaurant in the basement, which leaves it lacking in atmosphere. The menu is impressively ambitious, claiming to fuse French, Italian and Turkish cuisines, to "pay tribute to the three major stops of the Orient Express: Paris, Venice and Istanbul". But I'm afraid I struggled to keep a straight face after my "dialogue of anchovies."
The Pera is well located for first-time visitors to Istanbul, as you can instantly soak up the atmosphere by wandering the narrow streets of Beyoglu on your doorstep. This is the most vibrant quarter, full of cafés, shops and bars that stay open late into the night. Most of Istanbul's must-see sites – the Topkapi Palace, the grand bazaar, the Blue Mosque – are a short tram ride away over the river.
The 115 rooms and suites vary in size and decor, though all have hand-woven Turkish rugs and pretty Murano glass chandeliers. The best are the vast corner suites, named after illustrious past guests, which have dining and living rooms, and command views of the Golden Horn.
My attic room was rather spartan and had no view to speak of, but was so spacious it felt like a New York loft. Of the remaining 83 "Deluxe" bedrooms, half have a view of the Horn, the others look onto the backstreets of the Pera district, but have the advantage of a small breakfast balcony. While rooms vary, the bathrooms are universally decked out in white Carrera marble and boast slipper baths, some with a plasma screen above. My room had a separate rain shower in the window; I enjoyed watching the traffic while soaping. All rooms have TVs and free Wi-Fi, and a choice of Turkish or Continental breakfast comes in a trolley with its own hot cupboard, to keep your eggs warm. Another pleasing detail is the printed pillow menu.
The beds are a definite highlight: vast and decked in crisp white cotton, they make getting up to see the sights less attractive. But then, you've already ticked one off by checking in.
Pera Palace Hotel
52 Mesrutiyet Caddesi, Istanbul, Turkey (00 90 212 222 80 90; perapalace.com)
Double rooms start at €250, including breakfast. BA Holidays (0844 493 0758; ba.com/istanbul) offers three nights' B&B at the Pera Palace from £419 per person, including flights from Heathrow.
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