February 11, 2013 by Jools Stone
Last stop for the Old Orient Express
Istanbul has been up-and-coming for a while, and has evolved into the perfect destination for getting away from it all and immersing oneself in the romantic past. It’s true that today Istanbul is a hectic metropolis, and has an established tourist industry, but at least this encourages a good infrastructure and brings with it special offers and last minute deals on accommodation to help keep your travel costs low.
And parts of Instanbul still retain that seductive aura associated with Agatha Christie and the Orient Express; that atmosphere of laconic indulgence and a more civilised pace of life that can best be felt in the historic Istanbul Sirkeci Station, original terminus of that legendary line, which has recently undergone some major refurbishments to restore some of its past glory. It’s still a functioning station and also contains a fascinating railway museum.
When the long-distance trains from Europe first started coming here back in 1895, the well-heeled passengers generally headed straight for the nearby Pera Palas Hotel, which still has its original lift and giant chandeliers, stately furnishings, and rooms marked with the names of some of its celebrity guests, from Mata Hari and Agatha Christie to King Edward VIII and King Zog.
The Orient Express started out from Paris and on its epic journey across Europe and the Balkans to Istanbul, stopped off at many exotic locations along the way, including Germany, Romania and Bulgaria. As international travel became commonplace, so the allure of the Orient Express declined and in 1977 it took a shorter route before finally giving up the ghost, on this line at least, in 2009.
Sirkeci Station began life when the Ottomans belatedly decided that they needed a rail connection with Europe after the Crimean War. The plan was to connect Istanbul with Belgrade via Sarajevo, and 15km of the track had been completed by 1871. Sirkeci Station was connected to the Golden Horn stretch of the line by tracks that ran through the Sultan’s Topkapi Palace gardens, and parts of the palace were demolished to accommodate them. The station itself was opened in 1888. As it turned out, this newfound enthusiasm with modern technology on the part of the Ottomans came far too late, as by now their empire had officially become the ‘sick man of Europe’ and was in terminal decline.
The German architect responsible for building the station envisioned an East-meets-West design which incorporated a florid oriental style, characterised by peaked windows, stained glass and an elegant facade that used stones and marble brought from Marseille. The result was and is greatly admired, and was subsequently used for railway stations across the Balkans.
Sirkeci Station has been in continual use for over a century now, and one of the delights of any visit to Istanbul is to take a trip in the old carriages along the coast of the Sea of Marmara to the Seven Towers Castle. The route follows the old Byzantine sea walls and passes the remains of the emperors’ Bucoleon Sea Palace. In the station itself there is a wonderful museum full of artifacts to do with the history of the station and the Turkish railway system in general, along with a good restaurant that serves Turkish cuisine and is popular with tourists.
About the Author
David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.
This post was supplied and supported by TravelZoo.