It seemed only fitting that we should go for afternoon tea at the Pera Palace Hotel; the hotel at the end of the line of the famous Orient Express.
Train passengers were ferried here in a sedan chair from Sirkeci station. We climbed up the steep hill from Karakoy. A doorman welcomed us. Up the white marble steps of the foyer we went, to the Kubbeli Saloon – a rose-coloured room with parquet flooring, columns of Carrara marble, and six domes high in the ceiling crowned with turquoise glass. It was a heady mix of neo-classical, Art Nouveau, and Oriental styles; the design of a French-Turkish architect, Alexandre Vallaury, and the baby of George Nagelmackers, owner of the Orient Express, who built his own hotel when he realised that Istanbul did not have a single suitable establishment where his esteemed train passengers could stay.
The Palace drips history. Hemingway quaffed whiskies in the Orient bar, Agatha Christie wrote ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ in room 411, Mata Hari (presumably) spied here and Greta Garbo, Alfred Hitchcock, Edward VII, and Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey, all laid their heads on Pera pillows.
We were early and watched as kitchen staff laid out tartlets, macaroons, skewers of fruit, miniscule eclairs, and bite-sized opera cakes. A dapper elderly moustachioed gentleman hovered. With his candy pink shirt, raspberry pink jacket, burgundy trousers and red socks he provided the colourful sweet treats with serious competition. ‘He could’ve been on the Orient Express’, said Jim, as the old man helped himself to a snack and strutted like a peacock in a confident, man-of-the-world manner.
The staff were attentive, forever filling our tea-cups and whisking away dirty plates, but the tea was average at best. Nothing had the wow factor. Once or twice the old man paused by the grand piano as if he was going to play, but then he went back to the buffet and helped himself to another snack. After a while he came towards us. ‘Where you from?’, was his opening gambit. ‘Give me a song, I’m going to play for you’, he said. ‘What’s your name’? ‘Tracey’, I told him. ‘Crazy’, he said, looking puzzled. I tried again. It took a while, but he got it, and then threw back his head and roared with laughter. ‘Crazy… ‘ shaking his head and shoulders. ‘I can sing in 8 languages’, he said and proceeded to list about 15. ‘The day after tomorrow I will sing with 20 musicians behind me – a big concert. Everyday I play here between 15.00-18.00. Now I sing for you. Moon River’. And with that he wondered off again, distracted by a large group of Taiwanese tourists that had just arrived. ‘Hey Taiwan’, he boomed across the saloon. He was a loose cannon. We thought he might never play but he certainly livened things up.
But then he began. What a showman. He still had a voice. More importantly he had style. ‘Moon River’. ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’. ‘I could have danced all night’ – Mozart and jazz. ‘For Mr Jim and Tracey – my friends from England’, he shouted. In his break he joined us again, telling us he swam every day, that he couldn’t read a note of music, that he’d started to play the piano at 5, and that his wife of 27 years had been killed in a car accident. ‘All my happiness gone’, he said ‘but you have to go on. I have a family’. Two sons, a daughter, two granddaughters and finally a grandson. It was the mention of the grandson that lit up his face like a beacon. ‘Now my name will go on’, he told us, beaming. ‘I don’t do this for money. I am a musician. I do it because I love it’. And again he was off, singing to the Taiwanese in Chinese, insisting that they all join him around the piano. They were laughing, cheering, clapping, and having a great sing-a-long. Ilham, 93 years of age was the life and soul of the party.
‘My name means inspiration’, he told us. He turned a mediocre tea into a wonderful afternoon. Never mind Hemingway and Agatha Christie, the Pera Palace should thank their lucky stars that they have him.
Pera Palace Hotel, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 52. Afternoon tea served daily 15.00-18.00. Price 109 TRY per person.