Two momentous things have just happened in Istanbul. On 1 September, the Orient Express train rolled into town for its annual visit, and on the same day the Pera Palace Hotel reopened its doors.
In 1892, the Orient Express company purchased this huge hotel above the Golden Horn for the use of its European guests. (Agatha Christie wrote Murder in the Orient Express in room 411.) In those days, the Pera 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 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 him).
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 food and drink
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. Three courses without wine costs 80 lira (£35).
The Pera Spa in the basement has an indoor pool with jet stream, a traditional hammam, plus steam bath and the treatment rooms. There is also a small gym. Wi-Fi is free throughout the property. The hotel operates a gorgeous maroon 1954 Plymouth sedan that will collect you from the airport for €150 (£125).
Children welcome, no pets. The steps in the marble lobby are protected from any modification (like the rest of the hotel) so access for guests with disabilities is via the terrace of the Orient Bar. Once inside, access is good and there's a specially equipped room.
Double rooms cost from €250 (£209) per night, including breakfast. I flew to Istanbul with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/Istanbul), which offers three nights' B&B at the Pera Palace from £515 per person, including return flights.
Pera Palace Hotel, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52, 34430 Istanbul, Turkey (00 90 212 222 8090; perapalace.com).Reuse content