Saturday #137: Goodbye #bunk, Hello Pera Palace

I had mixed feelings when I checked out of my Istanbul hostel on the morning of Saturday #137. This was my second stint at the Taksim area hostel as I spent more than a month at #bunk back in 2015 while I waiting for a new Canadian passport and an Indian visa.  The tourism industry in Istanbul has been hit hard by terrorist attacks and political instability since I was last at #bunk and it really shows.  Hotels have taken it on the chin but places like #bunk (which holds 150+ and probably had 5 guests on some nights) have been hit even harder since school groups would normally fill the place and they’re now avoiding Istanbul like the plague.  While the mood at the hostel has been rather sombre this time around, the property is still first class and the staff were phenomenal.  So, goodbye #bunk, I’ll remember you fondly.

The positive side of this story is that I’m doing the Jefferson thing — movin’ on up. Tomorrow evening I board The Orient Express for Paris and I will spend my last night in Istanbul in one of the world’s top railway hotels, the grand old Pera Palace. Built in 1892 to serve well-heeled travellers who were beginning or ending their journeys between Europe and Asia on the Simplon Orient Express, the Pera Palace is arguably a nicer hotel today than when it was built. The addition of a modern pool and spa and upgraded beds and bathrooms have elevated the Pera Palace to a class of its own. It’s easily the nicest hotel I’ve stayed at during my 137 weeks on the road, and that includes two nights at Toronto’s Royal York and a week at Mumbai’s Vivanta by Taj.

 So, Saturday #137 was all about repositioning and preparing for Sunday’s departure.  Starting next week I will begin posting “Trip Notes” for every leg of my journey between Istanbul and Paris. I did something similar when I spent 90 days on the Silk Road and another 40-odd days on the Camino de Santiago.  They may not be particularly entertaining but as I’ve often said, I created this blog for me and I know that at some point in my life I will want to relive these memories.  

I’ll leave you with some photos and commentary from my last few hours in Istanbul.  

Goodbye #bunk.  You can stay at this first-class hostel for between $9 and $22 (CDN) depending on the day of the week and the size of the dorm.  I stayed in a 4-bed “deluxe” dorm with ensuite and for all but two of my 10 nights I was the only person in the room.  In effect I had a very comfortable private room for under $20 in a World Class city.  

And I got to say hi to this guy most mornings.  India has a problem with dogs but in Istanbul it’s cats who seem to be everywhere.  This one slept in a small “cathouse” near my hostel.  The SPCA or some similar group has left foam-core shelters in alleys throughout the city and many local residents leave trays of dry cat food by their doors.  

Heading south from the hostel you come to Taksim Square.  There are occasionally political demonstrations in the square – which are best avoided – but most of the time its just a place where young and old gather to kill time.  A major roadway runs below this section of the square and the large monument in the centre of the square is directly overtop of one of the city’s busiest intersections.  Hear this, Toronto?  It’s called civic planning.  Many cities are light years ahead of Toronto when it comes to the public realm.  Don’t get me started on transit.

It may not be wise to post caricatures of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but I saw many unflattering references to The Donald.  That’s probably a stupid comment.  Are there any flattering caricatures of Trump?

While walking down Istiklal Caddesi (a 2km long pedestrian mall that should be an inspiration for Yonge Street) I had to stop at a Starbucks for little pick-me-up.  There aren’t nearly as many Starbucks in Istanbul or the major cities in India as there are in North American cities but the ones they are building are HUGE.  This one is spread over 5 floors and the upper levels are about half as big as the ground level.  Open seats are hard to find, night or day.

I cannot lug antique books around with me for the rest of the winter but there were some great deals in Istanbul.  

But I can visit bars.  I’ve been to this one a few times and I still can’t figure out its connection with Montreal.   

The Paul Martin menswear store is another mystery.  Did the former PM get into the haberdashery business?

I had a one-sided conversation with this pup while waiting for the light to change.  He seemed to be telling me that it was dangerous to cross against the light!  

I was prepared for a confrontation when this taxi driver stopped his cab and came running up to me.  I had been standing just off the curb and was sure he was going to tell me to get back on the sidewalk – or worse.  It turned out that he had noticed the Canadian flag patch on my daypack and he just wanted to thank a Canadian.  He’s originally from Syria.  His English was pretty choppy so we communicated with simple words and gestures including him pantomiming tears coming down his cheeks.  “Canada good.  Your big guy very good,” was the closest he came to a complete sentence.  By “big guy” he was almost certainly referring to Justin Trudeau who was shown a few days earlier on Turkish TV when he attended the funeral for some of the men shot in the Quebec City mosque.  If Trudeau wasn’t in tears at the funeral, he was very close to it.  I can tell you the whole interaction with this guy brought tears to my eyes.   

The Pera Palace from the side, which was my first view as I approached from an alley.  

Not only was the Pera Palace the first building in Istanbul to have electricity, it had the first elevator in Turkey.  And it’s still in operation!  The attendant operates the elevator which is handy since the controls appeared to be quite complicated!

I didn’t know what I was looking at when I got this view from the balcony outisde my room.  Explanation below.

The elevator runs up the middle of a grand marble staircase.

This flower arrangement is changed daily!  

The sign says: “The original sedan chair used to carry passengers from the Orient Express in Sirkeci Train Station to the Pera Palace Hotel.”

There are dozens of glass display cases throughout the hotel showcasing hotel artifacts and memorabilia, including many references to Agatha Christie and The Orient Express.

I took this photo of the exterior of the elevator on Sunday morning when it was out of commission.  (There is a modern elevator a short distance away – and I was briefly trapped in it late on Saturday night.)

Here’s the explanation that I alluded to above.  When the hotel was built, these skylight formed the ceiling of the dining room that is located just off the lobby.  A new skylight has since been added up on the 6th floor so now the hallways look into an enclosed space with these domes protruding through the floor.  

Tomorrow (Sunday) I head to the train station in the evening and board a 10:00 PM bus to the border with Bulgaria.  From there I board a train and begin to trace the route of The Orient Express.  It has lost some of its lustre since Agatha Christie wrote of it – and the Pera Palace opened to accomodate its passengers – but it still covers much of the same route to Paris.  Check back in a few days for the first of my daily “Trip Notes” from the train.

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