Istanbul: The Historic Pera Palace Hotel

Istanbul: The Historic Pera Palace Hotel

From Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself to the enigmatic Mata Hari, this iconic hotel built in 1892 has played host to some of the most tenacious personalities of the 20th century

Aimee Ginsburg
July 01 , 2016
12 Min Read

We know ourselves to be lucky, sitting in this small elegant room, happy to be crowded in on these soft brocaded sofas as the swirling frost coats the world outside the large window panes. Here, inside the Orient Bar and Terrace at the Pera Palace Hotel, a locally re­nowned band playing Turkish folk-jazz is melt­ing our hearts while all fingers, well manicured, are keeping rhythm on the dark wood tables. Goblets of wine and aged whisky reflect the light of the antique chandeliers, and happy faces shine around the room. The audience, Istanbul’s ‘higher bohemian society’, according to the bar­man, knows the words to many of the songs and sings along, in layered harmonies. All eyes are on the singer; her eyes are on her saxophonist; my eyes are on the bill ($96 for two glasses of wine!).

300616173437-42-33535885

Earlier, I had entertained a high-ranking Turkish diplomat (now retired) in this very room, for an off-the-record chat about some pressing diplomatic issues. He told me what I already knew: this lounge was once a well- known meeting ground of rulers, agents, counter-agents and spies in all of the great games between Europe and Asia. Famously, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was inspired by what she saw as a guest of this hotel. At the end of my top-secret meeting, as I walk back up to my room as pleased with myself as can be (a $48 glass of wine and secret diplo­matic chatting can do that to a lady), I put on my best Mata Hari airs. Only the white hotel-embossed slippers, the sad result of miles upon miles of walking in my cheap Bata sneakers, give away my secret.

I had wanted to visit Istanbul ever since I was a child. I had walked her streets, bathed in a hammam, eaten burek and turkish delight, sipped strong coffee in small glasses in the company of charming men. I had watched flam­ing sunsets over the pale blue domes and dark blue rivers countless times, but only in my imagination. When the Pera Palace, Istanbul’s ‘luxury museum hotel’ invited me for a stay, there was no reason to resist and I did not. Mid­winter, it was darn cold outside, but less tourists meant no one was too busy to talk, the lines were shorter and the strong coffee or sweet tea offered by most shopkeepers served more than one purpose.

“Welcome home,” the doorman at the Pera Palace said the first time I walked in, and on all other times as well; and though I know this is as cliché as it can get, it rang true. The hotel exudes peace and warmth. The fact that this is a luxury property remains in the background; it is taken for granted, hardly the point: it is the history, the chance to be part of the myth with every hot shower (the first hot show­ers in an Istanbul hotel) or ride up the historic lift (the first in Turkey). Several years ago the hotel was renovated and brought up to date by Jumeirah Hotels, but the wooden stairs still slightly creak, attractively.

The Pera Palace, “designed in a blend of art nouveau, oriental and neoclassic styles” (as I was told on my tour, available to all), threw its grand opening ball in 1895. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, iconic father of the modern Turkish Republic, was a frequent guest: his favourite suite has been turned into a fascinating museum which displays a tapestry, gifted to him by a gypsy princess, in which his death is proph­esised in the embroidered details. King Edward VIII, Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, Alfred Hitchcock, Sarah Bernhart, Mata Hari (in fetching high heels, I’m sure), Zsa Zsa Gabor, have all stayed here (with the suites named after, and designed to the tastes of, several of them). I thought about them, about Hemingway and Atatürk most of all, as I braved the freezing cold and stood on my small veranda watching the night fall over the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. Were they feeling similar feelings, aware as I was of Europe spread open before me, Asia laying open behind me, myself one small soaring soul (with sore, sore soles), completely spent but unwilling to miss even a moment of this beauty?

The gentleman standing behind the gleaming counter watches me eyeing the treasure-laden silver trays with more lust than a lady should ever allow herself to show in public. “These are cherries, madam,” he says, pointing to one tray of dark red fruit swimming in a rich amber syrup, “and these are honeyed kumquats.” There were apricots, figs, quince. “These are roses,” he says, softly but with en­couragement in his voice, you can tell he has seen this kind of swooning many times before, “Yes, rose, only the tender buds. And these whole limes—sour-sweet, and these are walnuts, their shells made soft by months in the honey.” On he goes and I am quite faint. If I had a small folding fan in my bag this would be the time to whip it out. “Madam,” he says, “let me give you a taste, just a little. I will only give you a few of the very best pieces, don’t worry.” Just then another perfect gentleman calls me over to his counter where hillocks of baklava (phyllo dough, butter, honey, nuts), of all shapes and fillings, rivers of honey flowing down them, lay ripe for conquest: almond triangles and pista squares, circles and rolls of flaky dough with figs and walnuts dusted in pista powder. And a new invention, blasphemous, irresistible: dark chocolate baklava filled with pecans. Serder (as he may have been called) does not even wait for a sign from me. He puts four pieces of the chocolate baklava on a delicate china plate, adds a tiny sil­ver fork and sends me over to a table to sample in silence. Sometime later, after I have died and discovered paradise and sit dazed at my table feeling quite lost, Serder arrives to my rescue. “It is better than anything you have ever tasted, yes, madam?” he asks, looking right into my eyes with a firm but gentle gaze.

300616173437-dsc_5801

Thank goodness my hotel is only a ten-minute walk, down the incredible Istiklal Caddessi. Truth be told, the hotel is really only two minutes off Istiklal, but it is so hard to move along at a proper pace with the temptations faced in every shop along the way—bright ceramic bowls and rose-scented confections, skewers of lamb, tomato, onion and pepper cooked on open grills, chic shoes in über-trendy spaces and, best of all, peasant women selling chestnuts and sachets of lavender. Bravely I walk on (‘I will not eat any­thing more’ being my brave but meek mantra), past tall gorgeous women in short suede boots, grey stubbled men in old-fashioned wool coats, pigeons relaxing in naked trees, the colours somehow richer than usual.

All in all, food was a great problem in Istan­bul, and I gained four kilos in four days. And it was not only the baklava, although I do think it should be made illegal. With breakfast run­ning into lunch and lunch into dinner, there was never enough time to fit in all of the rest. Breakfast at the hotel was sumptuous, and one needed careful planning (and restraint) in order not to peak too early. Soft and hard cheeses, plump cherries and dried figs, flaky, savoury filled pastries, pungent olives and fresh pieces of honeycomb washed down with fine Turkish coffee were usually more than enough for me but the feast included much more, served in a charming room with a view to the river. This one meal, breakfast, a twice-daily visit to the hotel’s spa and hammam (Turkish hot bath, including an indoor pool and wet and dry saunas) and the long leisurely walks through the mythic city—sampling street food as we go—would have been enough to make a perfect holiday. But we made a fatal error, and accepted an invitation to Matbah, the world’s only Ottoman palace cuisine restau­rant, located right outside the City Palace.

300616173437-ottoman1

Matbah’s proprietor, Necati Yilmaz, was probably a member of the royal Ottoman court in his past life, if not as chef than at least the major foodie onboard. He just knows what the food served to the king and his court tasted like, but still, he added years of academic research to his intuition. Matbah’s menu changes with the seasons as all of the food is locally sourced, and is faithful to what was served in the palace—visible from here—throughout the yearly cycle. We let Necati choose for us; the food was deli­cious. Çerkez Tavugu (Circassian-style chicken) is cooked with walnuts and spices. The Visneli Yaprak Sarma (1844) are vine leaves stuffed with a blend of sour cherries, rice, onions and pinenuts. We ate lamb cooked in phyllo dough with a honey, apricot and pista sauce, Tarçınlı Tavuk Begendili (fifteenth century)—marinated and grilled chicken pieces seasoned with cinnamon, on a bed of smoked and mashed eggplant. There was more, seasoned with essence of pomegranate, or cinnamon, or saffron, Turkish wine and, for dessert, pumpkin and figs in honey and clotted cream and, of course, baklava, dripping, divine. On the way back to the hotel, amidst the cheery chaos of the city that hardly sleeps, a beauti­ful boy dances ‘Gangnam Style’ in front of an ancient shrine.

“Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty,” Coco Chanel has said. “It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” On my last night in the city, I take a walk down to the river’s edge. As I stand rubbing my frozen hands together I become aware of a motley group of guys, sitting round a small twig fire on low-cut plastic chairs. They motion me to sit and I figure, what the hell. They pour me a cup of tea out of a blackened kettle and the glass nicely warms my hands. They do not know any English, nor I Turkish, but we manage to talk anyway, about their homes in faraway villages—they point to the east, the north, the south—and about their jobs here in the city. Labourers all, they miss their homes and their girlfriends (and their moms) but the money is here, in the metropolis. I hunt around in my bag for some gift or memento and all I can find are some ten-rupee coins so I pass them out, and their eyes shine like little boys’ as the coins sparkle in the light of the flames. And so we sit in the clotted moonlight, nowhere to go and nowhere to be till the morning, passing round glasses of steaming tea, fully and truly in the lap of luxury.

THE INFORMATION

GETTING THERE
Turkish Airlines connects both Delhi and Mumbai with Istan­bul on direct flights for approx. Rs 25,000 one way on economy class. Air India also has direct flights from both cities.

THE HOTEL
The Pera Palace, bought and renovated a few years ago by the Jumeirah Hotel group, is a small hotel in a wonderful location and is luxurious without being overdone. While the rooms are modern and fresh with all five-star amenities, the public spaces are unique with no generic feel any­where—brocaded velvets, antique chandeliers, historical displays, smiling gracious service. The Pal­ace is right off the Istiklal Caddesi, the bustling chic boulevard, in the Pera neighbourhood, with won­derful alleyways to explore and great nightlife. Breakfast (included in the room tariff) is a highlight of the days; every afternoon there is the famous high tea (not included)—a buffet of homemade pastries and savouries, often with live piano accompaniment. Weekend Getaway offer: A nights in  Grand Pera Studio King room room, from € 250 + breakfast charges extra + 8% VAT. Book online at jumeirah.com.

THE RESTAURANT
We loved the food at Matbah and would eat there every night of our lives if we only could. In good weather the seating is outside in a magical courtyard overlooking the palace; when it's cold, it's in a lovely inner room. Matbah is only a few steps away from the Hagia Sofia as well, perfect for hobbling over to at the end of your tour of the breathtaking monu­ment. Make a reservation; this is a popular, award-winning restaurant (matbahrestaurant.com)!

THE BAKLAVA
Be warned, you are taking your life in your hands with the first bite... I loved Hafiz Mustafa’s stuff (hafizmustafa.com) and they have branches around town. But you can find baklava literally everywhere you turn and by the time you find the perfect one—most shops are happy to give you a taste—you will be begging for mercy. Same goes for the turkish delight, by the way!


Related Articles

48 Hours in Tbilisi

Prannay Pathak February 22 , 2021

Try a Virtual Tour of...

Siddharth Ganguly April 14 , 2020

Here to there

Explore Directions(Routes) and more...
to Go

Our Other Editions

Outlook’ is India’s most vibrant weekly news magazine with critically and globally acclaimed print and digital editions. Now in its 23rd year...

Explore All
  • Check out our Magazine of the month
  • Offbeat destinations
  • In-depth storytelling
  • Stunning pictures
  • Subscribe