Having a museum right inside a luxury hotel certainly saves time – you do not have to travel half way across town to see, say, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or the Louvre in Paris (even though, in both instances, the journey is well justified).
At Pera Palace Hotel, Jumeirah, in Istanbul, the entire Suite 101 is a museum. It is a museum to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1881-1938. This was his favourite place – he stayed here 18 times between December 10th, 1915, and October 1st, 1937.
The museum is open daily, 1000-1100 and 1500-1600, so of course the gal headed to have a look at the memorabilia.
Pera, meaning ‘opposite’, is a hilltop area of Istanbul, across the Golden Horn from the Old City. Pera is a jumble of consulates, and narrow alleys with cafés and jewellery stores. There are several museums and, it is rumoured, a Frank Gehry modern art museum could be right next to Pera Palace in a few years’ time, with, by then, a Soho House (taking the place of the former U.S. Consulate) the other side.
Pera Palace opened 1895, to serve passengers coming off the Orient-Express train from Paris. The lobby is set around a rectangular atrium. From above the second floor, you look down at the atrium, at six blue-glass-studded mounds, each nine feet across and rising 8.5 feet. This is an amazing structure and it is not therefore surprising that this design concept has not been copied.
Below is the lobby, based on the rail terminus at St-Lazare in Paris. Here, you look up at the six hemispherical glass-studded domes, known locally as Kubbeli. All this, like so many of the furnishings in the hotel, is original.
Now with 145 air-conditioned rooms, the hotel re-opened September 2010: the building is leased from the government by the Demsa Group, led by Cengiz Çetindoğan and his equally powerful television-magnate wife, Demet Sabanci Çetindoğan. The Çetindoğans have asked Jumeirah, the fabulous luxury-hotel company that stresses its stay-different concept – the ‘stay different’ philosophy – to manage it.
Demsa Group’s chosen designer walked off the job when the Çetindoğans queried his suggestions, so the hotel’s multi-talented GM, Pınar Kartal Timer, took over. In public rooms she had treasures to work with, like a mother-of-pearl cabinet she put in between two stained glass windows. Many of the chandeliers are original (others are Murano).
Some bedrooms are themed for frequent guests of the past: the pale pink 212 is for Greta Garbo, the strong-coloured 202 for Ernest Hemingway, the deep plum and gold 301 corner suite is a memorial to modern-Turkey’s third President, Celal Bayar, who died in 1986 aged 103 (really glad I stayed there as perhaps it imparts longevity?). Bedside lights are original, as are cabinets, but the freestanding bathtubs are new.
New, too, is Agatha, the all-day restaurant created out of storerooms one floor below the lobby. At one time it was thought Agatha Christie was here during her famous disappearance in 1926, and it is certain she was later a frequent guest.
Down here, as well, is the spa, with a gym, looking out to the Golden Horn, and a bijou pool. New, and simply stunning, are the staff uniforms. Some men wear black cravats with white polka dots, the same pattern that edges the chic black dresses of their female colleagues – no, these are not Givenchy but Pinar Kartal Timer design (though she did call on Paris fashion-show regular Arzu Kaprol for silver silhouette-patterned bedlinen decoration for some suites).
The main doorway, with its cantilevered rain-protector, is unchanged, and so is one of the hotel’s highlights, an original elevator. This was the first electric lift in Turkey back in 1895 (it is worth going one floor down to see the glass-fronted mechanism).
Mornings and evenings, cultural tourists in Istanbul come in to visit the Ataturk museum. At all times they come to look at, and photograph, this elevator – and then, if they are sensible, they will head for the lobby, for afternoon tea, or to the ultra-exotic Orient Bar for a cocktail, perhaps going on to Agatha to try Arif Dogan’s blend of French-Italian-Turkish cuisine.
This is, after all, a luxury hotel that can be suitably described as ‘stay different, and learn a lot’.