Letter from Istanbul: A Night at the Pera Palace Hotel
My first impression of Istanbul’s most famous hotel was a false impression: I had the wrong hotel.
I’d been having a drink in a bar on Istiklal Caddesi, on a dull, warm Saturday afternoon in August, and to startle myself awake, had decided on impulse to go and have a look at the place. The barman directed me, and after negotiating a few Beyöğlu backstreets, following tips from taxi drivers, I found what I thought was my destination: The Pera Hotel. A doorman eyed me curiously, approached.
“Oh, you want the Pera Palace Hotel,” he said, in English, responding to a question. He pointed further up the street.
You notice the difference one word can make right off, and not just in scale but in ambiance. There is that flash of recognition that materializes in you, like when seeing somebody famous in the street, a flash that instantly tells you that you are not looking at a photograph, nor an impersonator or look-alike, but the real deal.
Two extremely well-groomed men, with breezy formality, stood near the door watching the street, a small fleet of taxis lounged at the curb. I asked the porters if the Ataturk Room was open for visitors, and they politely urged me to come in to the hotel and take my questions to reception.
Two women were working the desk, one in her mid-thirties, neat and pert, the other very young, a delicate girl in her teens. It wasn’t difficult to tell who was in charge, especially since the name on the girl’s badge read simply “Trainee.”
“Actually my name is Buşra,” the girl told me later, when we were alone. “It’s an Arabic name. It means ‘an Angel sent from Heaven.” Indeed, Buşra, in her impeccable hotel dress, brunette hair streaming down her shoulders and hazel eyes, could easily have passed for an angel, from Heaven or anywhere.
The older woman, who I will call Teden, was worldly, professional, but not unsympathetic. She informed me that I’d missed the visiting hours for the Ataturk Room, but I was free otherwise to have a look around. With Ramadan, and the late summer that sees most foreign tourists, Russians, English, German, prefer the beaches of Bodrum and Marmaris, it was slow at the Pera Palace. I got the sense that they actually welcomed a visitor — any visitor — even one such as I, with my rumpled, teacher’s salary clothes, scuffed shoes, decidedly not among society’s elite. I was glad to be of service.
Actually I didn’t think about these things. I was too caught up in the buzz of novelty, the polished, elegant surfaces, the suggestion of romance that had suddenly filled my afternoon. Teden left me in the most pleasant company of Buşra, who guided me through the lobby and into the old ballroom, where roller-skating tournaments were once held during the hotel’s hey day before the First World War.
We went out to the patio, a fine, wide patio with a broad view of the Golden Horn. I asked about the sturdy glass that acted as a shield and ran the length of the patio. “Yes,” Buşra said. “It’s for security.”“Does (prime minister) Erdoğan come here?”I asked.
“No. Actually I think he prefers the Hilton.”
“But you must have many well-known people who come.”
I asked if it was OK to stay for a drink and Buşra insisted of course, selecting for me a fine table near the bar. There were only a few people out on the patio and the barman was just polishing glasses. He came over and handed me a menu. It was daunting, discouraging; not much in the single-digit price range. The barman, whose name was Tolga, saw my embarrassment and covered nicely.
“May I suggest The Godfather? Scotch whiskey and amaretto almond. I think you will find it satisfying.” The Godfather was one of the cheaper drinks. It would do. When the drink came, I let it sit, letting its dazzling yellow color catch the sunlight. I took out a book and read for awhile, sipping the whiskey.
It was late afternoon by the time I finished the drink, followed by a pint of Efes beer. It was then that it dawned on me that I was going to spend the night. I didn’t plan on it, but suddenly it was inevitable. With the mellow guidance of the whiskey and fading sunlight, I reasoned. A room for the night at the Pera Palace Hotel costs 500 Turkish lira (about $300). I had that, and more, in my wallet. It was money I was planning to use on holiday soon. But the school could advance me when the time come, and this chance may never come again. Plus, the thought of passing the night on the Golden Horn, instead of hopping the ferry back to my flat on the Asian side, suddenly seemed marvelous, irresistable — nay, sensible.
At the reception desk Teden seemed hardly surprised. I think she’d known it before I did, but just wanted to be sure I was OK with it, financially speaking. Within a few minutes the transaction was done, my passport number duly recorded, and with room key in had, I was now the Pera Palace Hotel’s guest for the evening.
Buşra went out to the patio to get my bag (which didn’t even contain a toothbrush, let alone a change of clothing).
“Ah, my angel sent from heaven,” I said, when she returned. She smiled.
“We can take the old lift. You know about it, don’t you? It was the second elevator built in all of Europe and the first one in Turkey.” She pulled back the iron gate and let us in, and shut the gate. She giggled. “It’s an old lady now, of course. And it squeaks like an old lady.”
We squeaked up to the third floor. “This place is big,” I noted, looking up at the high ceilings.
“Yes,” Buşra said. “When I first started working here I kept getting lost all the time.”
We dropped the bag off in the room, and the girl showed me the balcony with its Golden Horn view (all rooms have a Golden Horn view). “See? You can sit here and look out and drink.”
By now I was feeling much more comfortable, even nonchalant, as if staying in such places were a regular thing for me. We went downstairs and out again to the patio.
“So you’re staying?” Tolga asked. He brought another pint of Efes. Buşra had to attend to her duties in the lobby. Leaving me with Tolga, she noticed my lighter was not working. She took one from somewhere and handed it to me. “It’s all right,” she said. “You can keep it.”
A few hours passed. It wasn’t busy. A family came in and had dinner at a big table, and nearby an older man and his much younger and very attractive girlfriend sat intimately over glasses of white wine, looking at the sunset and at each other. A very tall, imposing man in a neat blue suit, who, judging from his build and manner could have been both manager and bouncer, kept an eye on the patio — on me perhaps — and paced back and forth. At one point he came over and asked if everything was alright. I noticed his name was Ahmet.
“Are you French?” Ahmet asked. “American?” He opened up more. “Which part?”
“Pittsburgh? Really?” He grinned. “I spent a few years in New York City.” He seemed less watchful of me after that, and told me he’d recently moved back to Istanbul to get married, and I noticed the gold band. We talked a bit more, and then Ahmet saw my empty glass and took it to the bar and poured another round. “On the house,” he said.
By then I’m sure word had got around the staff about me, the hotel’s strange guest: again, I’m not exactly five-star. As you (and they) probably figured out, I’m more the hostel type. But then again, I certainly wasn’t the strangest or most unusual person to ever pass the night here. Mata Hari, the exotic First World War spy, stayed here. There were the truly exceptional people, like Agatha Christie, Hemingway, and of course Ataturk, who used the hotel as a gathering place and had many late-night talk sessions boosted by glass after glass of rakı.
“Did Ataturk have his drinks out here?” I asked Tolga.
“Ataturk? No. This patio was not built then. In those days this was a garden. Ataturk would sit in the bar there. I can show you if you want later.”
“Later” I was one of the few guests left. The patio was open until two, so there were still a couple more hours. The family had finished their evening meal and left, the romantic couple was gone. I was still drinking beer and trying to read, but it was night now, the city lights shining on the black waters of the Bosphorous, and it was better to just sit back and take it all in, to reflect grandly, beerfully, on the past. At these prices, you think, the past comes gloriously indeed.
It’s too bad the Orient Express no longer comes to Istanbul. In those days the train ran from Paris across the Continent, finishing at Istanbul, and the sleepy guests stepping off the train would pass the night here, at the Pera Palace. You imagine those long ago nights; there would be a fog coming in off the Bosphorous, or perhaps it would be a night like this night, clear and warm … the multitude of pre-War outfits, men with their stovepipe hats and women with their jewelry and furs. Those nights were long ago, gone now as the stovepipes and furs, gone as the Sultans and Caliphate. The hotel remains, but it is more a museum now, a monument to those days, and it has its rivals in the Hilton, the Ritz, the Four Seasons.
Thinking these unoriginal, but nevertheless illuminating thoughts, I wasn’t lonely or bored, as I had been earlier in the afternoon on Istikklal Caddesi. Now, the day and night had taken form, and I had the hotel for company, and Buşra my angel sent from Heaven, I had Tolga the bar man. I had my luxurious room and bed waiting upstairs, as well as the balcony and the whole Golden Horn spread out in the night. I had all these things and people and places, and all of the history thrown along with the Continental breakfast.
Sure, the bill would come in the morning. Actually, it had already come. That’s right. You’ve already paid it, James my boy. So don’t worry about it. Of course, you’ll wake up in the morning feeling anxious about your drastically depleted wallet. You’ll barely be able to survive until pay day, two weeks away. But stop it, stop worrying. As Hemingway says, think of it as a simple exchange of values. You’ve exchanged some money for something else. Don’t worry. Think about the hotel and the war and Ataturk and all the rest of it.
Tolga brought a fresh pint.
“What do you think, Tolga?” I asked.
“I think everything is fine, James,” he said. “But I think maybe this should be the last one for tonight.”
We shared our grin again, which said our team was still ahead, but it was time to put the game away. I paid the bill, then went out to the street and found a market, and bought two bottles of Efes, thinking it would be nice to finish the evening on the balcony in my room.
It was not a large room, but large enough, with a big comfortable bed and thick, heavy curtains. I stepped out on the balcony. The air was cool there, with the wind blowing up from the Bosphorous. I couldn’t drink the beer anymore, I was too tired, so I put it in the fridge (which was already stocked full, there was champagne, if you wanted any), shut off the lamp and went to bed.
In the morning the room was still dark, pitch dark, thanks to the heavy duty curtains, which could have kept out the flash from an atomic blast.
“It’s a good thing you can’t afford to live this way,” was my first waking thought. During the night I’d woken up several times. I got up now and went into the bathroom, having fleeting, early morning thoughts of spoiled princes and decadent aristocrats going to seed in romantic European capitals, wild Byronic nights and sleeping all day in hotels with the kind of cache to keep the sun and undesirable realities in their place.
“Yep, it’s a good thing,” I thought, stepping into the shower. “Because you could get way too used to this.”
Shower! This was no ordinary shower. It was a sparkling summer rain of god water, glory from Above. “Splendour,” I said, tenderly addressing the shower. “If I may call you that, my Splendour.” Splendour spelled with a “u.”
“Yep, it’s a good thing you can’t afford this.”
I got out of the shower and noticed a white robe, with the hotel’s name emblazoned in gold. No way. Not just an ordinary bathrobe, but a White Elvis Dead Rock Star Bathrobe. Some sense of decorum or ethic told me that when one stays in a hotel such as the Pera Palace, it is quite necessary for one, after showering, to don the Bathrobe (there were slippers too but I shunned them), and go out onto the balcony wearing it and look out at the new morning. So I did all of the above, then got dressed and went downstairs.
Downstairs the new day had arrived. Bright sunshine shone in the lobby. The family was checking out, and the porters were handling their bags. A stray guest or two browsed laptops. I found the Agatha Christie Restaurant, where breakfast was being served. It was an immense buffet, the world’s offerings on display … smoked trout or salmon, roast beef with horseradish, Circassian cheese along with four or five other varieties, flax seed and sunflower seeds, walnuts, pecans, every kind of grain and a painter’s pallet of colorful jams and marmalades, sliced watermelon and pineapple and oranges …
A copy of Sunday’s Zaman, the English newspaper, came with breakfast. The top story was about fears of a second economic crisis. “Turkey appears positioned to avoid the crisis,” the story read. “But we must take measures.”
Yes, I thought, we must take measures. We must be very economical. I went up to the buffet table to try the roast beef with horseradish and a second flavor of cheese. Yes, we must take measures. I added a couple of orange slices. There was another story in the newspaper about teenage brides in the East. While most teenagers are getting ready for school or playing video games, 13-year-old Z.D. is having a baby. There, too, was this curious headline: “Lack of democracy, transparency, are animals’ enemies,” a headline on the inside pages read.
After breakfast I wandered around, getting a bit lost, mistaking the doors to the toilets for the doors to the lift for perhaps the fifth time. Back on the ground floor more people were checking out. I spotted Buşra and she saw me and came over.
“You can see the Ataturk Room now,” she said, checking her watch.
We went to the room and she unlocked the door. Inside the room was a small museum, filled with Ataturk’s personal effects, some pieces of his clothing, glasses, lots of photographs. There was a peculiar hush in the room, and in the mellow, Sunday air a feeling of being in church. Buşra’s face was lit up, filled with reverence, an angel attending her Lord. We stood there for a few minutes, breathing in the past.
But one can only breathe in the past for so long. It was time to go. We went to reception for check out. A new shift was working, a man and a woman, both fresh at the start of their shifts. The male concierge prepared the invoice.
“Did you drink anything from the mini-bar in your room, Mr. Tressler?” His voice was cordial, efficient. He was just checking.
“No,” I said, then remembering the two bottles of Efes I had stocked in the fridge the night before: “Actually I added to the bar.”
“Excuse me? Oh! I you added to it.” That had probably never happened in all the history of the hotel. He smiled and finished preparing the invoice, and counted the money for the room deposit into my hand.
“Would you like us to call you a taxi, Mr. Tressler?”
“No thanks. I’ll take the ferry.”
“Of course. Thank you. Goodbye, Mr. Tressler.”
Outside it was new day. A dreamy, unreal feeling stayed with me down the block until I turned the corner. Back out on Istiklal Caddesi things felt familiar again, and I headed down the hill to get the ferry back to the Asian side. It was time for all of us to get back. I thought of Tolga. The game was up; we’d won, but just barely. I thought of Buşra my angel sent from Heaven or Anywhere, and hoped soon they would take the word Trainee off her name badge, and vaguely dreamed of seeing her again. I thought about the night. I knew I’d had way too much to drink and they had tolerated it. Now, it was time for me to get back home, back to teaching and writing. It was time for them to get back to their normal five-star clientele. After all, this was not just any watering hole. This was the Pera Palace Hotel.
James Tressler was a reporter for the Eureka Times-Standard. His books, including “Conversations in Prague,” and “The Trumpet Fisherman and Other Istanbul Sketches,” are available at Amazon and at lulu.com. He is now living in Istanbul.