Traveling on the Orient Express has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. I love trains, and I’ve been aesthetically drawn to the early twentieth century since I first watched The Secret Garden as a small child. Instead of fading over time, my love for these things has only grown – my graduate studies are now focused on the time period and my aesthetic heart flutters whenever I get to experience anything related to it. Of course, actually traveling on the Orient Express these days is impossible. Not only are its golden years of the 1900-1930s over, but the line slowly disappeared after it stopped serving Istanbul.* A replacement line, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, now exists as the epitome of luxurious train travel, but it is not only inaccessibly expensive for a graduate student (and for most people), but it doesn’t even seem to be serving Istanbul at this time either. That might be fine for those wishing to do the trip just for the glamour or the prestige, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s absolutely no point of traveling on the Orient Express if you don’t get to spend a few days in Istanbul on one end of your trip.
Luckily for me, I get my Orient Express kick another way. My mother’s side of the family hails from Istanbul, and so I get to visit the city with some regularity. On my most recent trip, I decided that I was finally going to do the thing and spend the three hour flight from Geneva to Istanbul reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. We may not be able to go by train anymore, but the closest thing at the moment is probably flying to Istanbul over the Simplon on Turkish Airlines. After all, when it comes to traveling in economy, Turkish Airlines is basically the height of luxury.** You have comfy seats, hot, actually decent meals, unlimited alcohol, and you can even have Turkish coffee delivered to your seat with lokum (the “Turkish delights” little British children apparently betray their families for). There may not be plush velvet seats trimmed with tassels involved, but under these modern circumstances, I’m happy to compromise.
So I read Murder on the Orient Express as the Alps went by outside of our windows***, slowly sipping my tonic water****, and was pleasantly surprised. I was in a reading rut at the time, having given up on Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and not having read anything in weeks. Christie’s simple but engaging prose was like a breath of fresh air, and I zoomed through most of the novel. I’d never read any Agatha Christie before and, though I knew the gist of the ending, I was able to read through it without knowing what to expect in the details. The novel is straightforward and entertaining and really the perfect train/plane read. My only disappointment was that there wasn’t enough aesthetic description in the text, but my imagination easily made up for that.
As did the rest of our trip. My grandmother’s favorite hotel in Istanbul is the Pera Palace in Beyoğlu. Built in 1892 to accommodate Orient Express passengers, the hotel oozes turn of the century chic that brings about those poor aesthetic flutters. The hotel isn’t where Hercule Poirot stays in Murder on the Orient Express, but it is where Agatha Christie herself stayed when writing the novel. It’s also where my mother and grandmother stayed on this trip*****, and so the Pera Palace lounge became our go-to spot to sit and relax over Turkish coffee or cocktails.
It’s an exquisite place. It has all the luxuries of old hotel lounges around the world, but its little details give it its turn of the century personality. The velvet armchairs. The fringe. The tassels. The chandeliers. The bookshelves filled with art books. The piano. The Turkish tiles and the teapot cocktails. Everything is a uniquely perfect mix of Turkish and European aesthetics.
The very neighborhood the hotel finds itself in is a little international bubble on the European side of the city. I’ve talked about my love for it before, but it’s something that I’m not getting over anytime soon, especially now that as an American, I can’t easily travel back there. I felt most like myself on those nights in Beyoğlu – dressed in favorite outfits (not photographed is a swingy velvet minidress that I will never stop wearing), sipping cocktails, and eating meze in tiny restaurants with my partner as people spoke in different languages all around us. The combination of cultures – through fashion, food, language, and aesthetic – felt so uniquely right to me that the thought of not experiencing them in that balance again hurts my heart.
May all of us aesthetes find such a place.
* The Orient Express ran from Paris to Istanbul from 1883 to 1962 (war years excluded), while the Simplon-Orient Express ran from 1919 to 1977 (again, war years excluded)
**This is not sponsored. I just really appreciate flying on Turkish Airlines after spending the rest of the year on Easyjet.
***On the return trip, we flew directly over the peak of the Mont Blanc, and I will say that in that moment, I finally understood the meaning of the sublime.
****Sans vodka. I had a headache.
*****My partner and I didn’t. Because again, #gradstudents. Our hotel was chic, too, in a younger way – it just didn’t cost as much.