Landmark Istanbul hotel bids to revive glorious past

A favourite of royals seeking luxury, writers looking for the muse and undercover spies, Pera Palace - Istanbul's hotel of mysteries and pomp - has reopened after a major facelift to revive its past grandeur.

Built in the late 19th century for the passengers of the legendary Orient Express, the 115-room hotel has hosted generations of illustrious guests, from King Edward VIII and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain or the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I, to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock or Greta Garbo.

It was the place where crime writer Agatha Christie, one of the hotel's most ardent visitors, crafted "Murder on the Orient Express", and where Ernest Hemingway is said to have sipped at a whisky, watching the sunlight play on the waters of the Golden Horn.

Other, more discreet visitors also took up residence in the hotel.

Kim Philby, British double agent in the pay of the KGB, is believed to have been among the guests at the end of World War II.

He was preceded shortly by Elyesa Bazna, better known by his codename Cicero, in the service of Nazi Germany, says historian Jak Deleon in his book "A taste of old Istanbul".

A stay by iconic dancer and spy Mata Hari, registered among Orient Express passengers in 1897, is also very likely, according to Deleon.

The histories of the express, inaugurated in 1883, and the hotel are closely linked.

Carrying travelers of a new kind - businessmen attracted by the growing Western hold on Ottoman economy, artists and wealthy adventurers in search of the exotic - the Orient Express needed a place to meet the expectations of its passengers.

Construction started in 1892 and the Pera Palace opened its doors in 1895, becoming Istanbul's most luxurious establishment.

It was the city's first building, barring the Ottoman palace, to have electricity, and the only one to provide hot running water to its guests. The hotel's electric elevator was unprecedented in Turkey.

But after 111 years of service, the building needed a serious renovation. It was closed in 2006 for an inventory before renovation work started in April 2008.

"It is the first renovation on such a scale in the history of the Pera Palace. Anything you can think of - every pipe, every cable - has been changed," hotel manager Pinar Kartal Timer told AFP.

"Our objective was to preserve the nostalgia of Pera Palace while incorporating the technology of the 21st century," she said. The renovation cost 23 million euros (29.3 million dollars).

But on the ground floor, which is listed as a historical monument, all original pieces were left untouched, meticulously restored by a team of academic experts.

Once the heart of Istanbul's social life - in the 1920s, people came to dance the foxtrot, drink champagne or attend Turkey's first fashion shows - the Pera Palace aims to regain its place on the social map of a city now teeming with posh hotels and night clubs.

"We would like to revive the traditions," said Kartal Timer.

Next month the hotel plans to stage a "Republic Ball," an event dating back to the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923.

The hotel's re-opening Wednesday coincided with the arrival of an old friend, the Orient Express, which today makes a single annual run from Paris to Istanbul.

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