Istanbul - The Pera Palace Hotel
By David Ellis
Istanbul - The Pera Palace Hotel
At her grand opening in 1892 she was hailed as the Pearl of
Istanbul, a visionary hotel whose luxuries and services were of the
likes never before seen in Istanbul – nor in much of Europe for that
But after a hundred years of attracting the rich, the
famous, the adventurous and the infamous, this Pearl’s lustre was
waning; in 2008, aged and frail, she withdrew from public life to
undergo a face-lift that would take two-and-a-half years and cost a
And when last month she removed the
last of her dressings, the Pera Palace Hotel could once again lay claim
to truly being The Pearl of Istanbul.
Originally built to
provide accommodations for the affluent who rode the famed Orient
Express train from Paris to Vienna and ultimately Istanbul, the Pera
Palace Hotel attracted myriad admirers.
Agatha Christie slid
into town on the famous train in the early 1930s and booked herself
into the hotel’s room 411 to write Murder on the Orient Express. And
then from Room 411 she disappeared in circumstances more bizarre than
anything she’d ever created in her intriguing whodunnits.
Hemingway also found the Pera Palace a wondrous ambience in which to
write, as did Graham Greene, while Greta Garbo regularly retreated
there in search of solitude.
More infamous was an exotic dancer
named Margaretha Zelle who performed at the hotel. To her audience she
was known as Mata Hari – and she was eventually executed for spying for
Germany against France in World War I.
Later in the Cold War, an
English public servant named Kim Philby was posted to Istanbul as First
Secretary of the British Embassy, a cover for his real role as a spy
for British intelligence agency MI6. But Philby was a traitorous
double-agent, also working for Russia’s KGB, and used his time in
Istanbul to frequent the Pera Palace to loosen-up staff from the
next-door American, as well as his own Embassy, at the bar.
he spent hours sipping on drinks while on an old 2-piece telephone at
the end of the bar, a phone that many believed he had been able to
manipulate to tap into lines into and out of the two embassies.
was later stripped of the OBE he’d been awarded for his British
Intelligence work, after helping two other British double-agents, Guy
Burgess and Donald Maclean escape to Russia, and himself defected to
Moscow as well.
But as intriguing as all this is, it has always
been overshadowed in the history of the Pera Palace by Agatha
Christie’s bizarre disappearance after writing Murder on the Orient
Express, and finally being found hiding in a small hotel in England’s
country Harrogate after an 11-day search.
She claimed not
knowing how she got there, blaming the shock discovery of her husband’s
infidelity for memory loss. But more weirdly, after her death in 1976 a
manager of the Pera Palas found a note in a hotel safe in Christie’s
handwriting: “The key to my disappearance will be found in my diary,”
it said. The manager called in a clairvoyant – who remarkably found a
key between a skirtingboard and floorboards of Christie’s room 411.
it would open is still a mystery, and as her diary has never been
found, the reason she hid the key there remains as intriguing
today as ever…
The just-completed refurbishment of the grand old
Pera Palace saw 30 guest rooms removed to allow more light into the
central foyer and lobby of the hotel, a new art deco restaurant named
Agatha opened in Christie’s honour, and the hotel’s room 101 in which
founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk regularly stayed,
refurbished as a museum to his memory.
chandeliers have been re-touched with gold leaf, thousands of metres of
hand-laid marble and mahogany re-polished and re-stained, and while an
additional two modern lifts have been installed, the original 1890s
steel and timber “cage lift” has been retained and is still a popular
novelty with guests.
Guest rooms have been refurbished with 21st
century luxuries whilst retaining their late-Victorian theme, including
chairs individually hand-embroidered with English rose motifs.
The Pera Palace Hotel as been officially listed as a “national hotel-museum” and is well worth a visit when in Istanbul.