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The Pera Palace Hotel, "Pearl of Istanbul" (PHOTOS)

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A pearl of Istanbul's glory days is about to mark the first anniversary of its reappearance.

The Pera Palace Hotel, born in the gilded age of the Orient Express, reopened its doors last September after a monumental feat of restoration lasting over two years at a cost of 23 million Euros. As a "museum-hotel," the building required a refurbishing program of heritage-scale finesse, involving academicians and distinguished artisans.

Gone is the genteel shabbiness of recent years, replaced by a vividly revived elegance --sumptuous but understated. It's the sort of deluxe you can feel at home in (and pay less than $400 for), perched overlooking the Golden Horn, right off pedestrianized Istiklal Street, the ambling artery of European Beyoglu. There's Carrera marble, Murano lamps, a six-domed tea salon, a celebrated "birdcage" elevator--all now accompanied by a terrific spa of some 280 sq. meters which include a hammam and heated pool.


Guests and Mysteries

Opened in 1892, the Pera Palace was the first luxury hotel in Istanbul, built to accommodate the swells arriving on the Orient Express, which terminated across the Golden Horn at Sirkeci Station in old Constantinople. The guest book here is heavy with potentates, prime ministers, and the likes of Garbo and Mata Hari, Hitchcock and Hemingway, and of course Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411 in the early '30's.

The supposed lock key to the mystery writer's supposed secret diary, recording the truth of her celebrated 10-day unexplained disappearance in 1926, was recovered in Room 411 in 1979, through the actions of a spiritual medium. The room is still rentable for would-be writers of bestsellers (aren't we all?).

The Elegance of Ataturk

Not rentable, but visitable and much worth it, is Room 101, which houses a little museum to frequent guest Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The setting is fitting for a man for whom European-style dandyism was a political statement, whose style was that of a silent movie star. Here are Ataturk's Panama hat, his linen summer clothes, and, on a note of eerie tragedy, the carpet given to him with a clock image woven in--its clock hands set to the exact hour when he would die some years later.

A Green Raki for Musing

You can ponder the Pera's mysteries over slim glass of raki in the Orient Bar, as I did. I made mine a "green" raki, from fresh grapes rather than raisins. It's a fruitier version of Turkey's tipple, and I recommend it highly.

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(All photos: Barry Yourgrau)