Thursday, June 4, 2009

The GB Express

It was gloriously hot and sunny yesterday so I took my bipedal attendants into Istanbul to do some (more) sightseeing. Istanbul is a huge city - its population is well over 12 million - and because it's over 8,000 years old and there's so much to see, it'll take many, many trips for us to just scratch its surface. (Which means that there'll be many, many posts on Istanbul.)

Because my bipedals - and you know I mean the female one - hasn't been whining too much lately, I thought I'd give her a special treat by taking her to the Sirkeci Gari (gari = train station) which once served as the eastern terminus for the exotic Oriental Express. I knew that while she was growing up, her father - whom sadly I knew only briefly - used to buy her an Agatha Christie novel every Friday during his weekly scouring of second-hand bookstores. Or at least he did until she had collected and read every one of them. Compassion comes naturally to me which is why I was chosen to be a Freelance Goodwill Ambassador.

Anyway, as I said, the Sirkeci Gari is - or was - the ending point for the famed Orient Express. Built in 1873, it served the route which runs along the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara, bordering the lower garden walls of the Topkapı Palace. Builders needed special permission from Sultan Abdülaziz to run a railway line so close to his palace but he granted it because he believed that the Sirkeci Station would only be temporary.

It was temporary but only just - 15 years later, a new building, designed in the so-called European Orientalist style, was erected on the same site. It was considered quite "modern" for the time with gas lighting and heat during the winter. I don't know how
Sultan Abdülaziz would have felt about a permanent station being built at Sirkeci but we know that he had a fondness for trains (it was he who had established the first Ottoman railroad system) ... and for women as well (he had seven wives & thirty-six legitimate children). But he had died by this time - probably from exhaustion.

So ... Belgian businessman Georges Nagelmackers, the founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, conceived the idea of an easterly train and, in 1882, took a select group of friends on the inaugural 2,000 kilometre trip from Paris to Vienna. The first Istanbul-bound voyage of the Orient Express left Paris' Gare de l'Est the following year on October 4, 1883 while an orchestra played Mozart's Turkish March. The train passed through France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and finally ended in Sirkeci, covering just over 3,000 kilometres. The whole trip took 80 hours or about 3 days.

There were other routes - one went south to Athens - but none captured the imagination like the Istanbul-bound routes. Passengers were actually advised to carry guns with them for protection as they left the "safety" of Western Europe! Both World War I & II halted service of the Orient Express and a treaty had to be drawn up just to allow the train to pass through Austria.

The Orient Express' heyday was in the 1930's when it was the train of choice for royalty, diplomats and the bourgeoisie. Its name became synonymous with glamour & luxury: both for the comfort of its sleeping cars but also for its excellent cuisine and champagne. Its direct route ended in May 1977 and the train instead stopped short at Bucharest. Now what's left of the Orient Express runs between Strasbourg (France) and Vienna.

As a former international fashion model, I can say that, had I been around, I would have given my eye teeth (yes, bears have canines!) to have ridden the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul. Many famous writers placed their characters on this easterly train: Ian Fleming's James Bond was there, as were characters created by Graham Green and even Bram Stoker.

But none can rival Agatha Christie's contribution to immortalizing the mystique of this train. In fact, she wrote Murder on the Orient Express in 1934 while she was staying in Istanbul.

Today, Sirkeci Gari accommodates European-bound trains and even if it may no longer be part of the Orient Express route, you can still sit and enjoy a meal (or a drink!) at its terminal restaurant. Once a meeting place for journalists, writers and bigwigs, you can at least feel the presence of these bygone days under the watchful eyes of Agatha herself. I'm not sure I enjoyed the Celine Dion music videos projected on a large screen outside on the platform, and the menu's "hot beginnings" (appetizers?) gave me pause, but still, if I closed my eyes I could almost hear Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" at work.

Like the Istanbul station of the Orient Express, I'll bring this post to a terminus by saying that the hotel Agatha wrote Murder on the Orient Express in - the Hotel Pera Palace - is currently being refurbished - but when it's finished, I'm definitely going to check in for the night. I'll be in room 411. And if the bipedals are good, then maybe I'll take them too!


Anonymous said...

Good Post GB!

You're really using your grey matter!!

Grey Bear said...

ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!