You Can Still Visit the Original Istanbul Train Station Where the Orient Express Began

This past weekend my husband and I went to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express movie.  It was about what I expected, based on reviews I’d read– the acting was fun, the costumes and scenery were fantastic, the story itself was enjoyable if a bit underwhelming.  It’s more a homage to the glamour of the 1930s than it is a riveting detective movie, even with Kenneth Branagh’s stellar performance as Hercule Poirot.

One thing I did like about it is that it’s perhaps the first movie I’ve seen that takes place in Istanbul (partially, for a brief bit at the beginning of the film) that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out.  Most Western movies use Istanbul through a heavy lens of orientalism— making Istanbul seem exotic just for the sake of being exotic, of attributing various aspects of Arab culture to the city that don’t even exist here (reminder: Turks and Arabs have distinct languages, religious denominations, and cultures), that sort of thing.  There was none of that in this movie, thankfully.

Something I didn’t know until last year is that you can still go to the train station in Istanbul that was one of the endpoints of the Orient Express, and I only found out because we happened to stumble across it while out in the city one day.  It’s a beautiful old building, and we wandered over to get a better look at it before realizing what it is.  It’s situated in the city’s historic peninsula, and is surrounded by bazaars and mosques and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old, so it’s kind of easy to miss even though it does have that old-school glamour that the time period is known for.

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The front of Sirkeci Station

Sirkeci Station was built in 1888 by the Ottoman Empire, who decided that Istanbul needed to be connected to Europe after the Crimean War.  The station ran both local and international trains.  The train lines changed frequently over the years, and eventually a restaurant was added that became a popular spot for artists, writers, and journalists in the 1950s and 1960s.  The Orient Express line to Istanbul was shut down in 1977 (later, the other stations were shut down as well in other countries, ending the famous route), and all international lines were shut down from Sirkeci until just this past year.  Now, a few routes are running to cities in the Balkans.

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Inside one of the waiting rooms of the station, looking out to the train platform

When we were at the station last spring, they were doing restoration on the facade of the building, and certain parts of the station were locked/unavailable for tourists.  Still, the architecture is beautiful, and it’s worth wandering into when you’re in the area– and if you’re a tourist in Istanbul, you’ll definitely be in the area, since it’s close to the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque.  The restaurant still exists and you can sit down for lunch, or even just for tea and a snack.  The station was decently busy but not overly crowded when we were there, both with tourists and with locals, and at one point a group bike tour pedaled through.

And if you like this kind of architecture and the glamour from that time period, another place to visit is the Pera Palace Hotel and Museum— it’s where Agatha Christie used to hang out and write when she was in Istanbul.  It’s a beautiful building and one of my favorite art museums in Istanbul.  It’s not particularly close to Sirkeci Station– it’s across the Golden Horn, located just off the famous Istiklal Street.  Istiklal sadly has seen better days and is definitely not what it once was– nowadays, it’s mostly construction and empty storefronts– but the Pera Palace is still there and still stunning, and I definitely recommend it if you have a free afternoon.

Istanbul is such a diverse city, and sometimes you can find the most interesting bits of history when you look past the mosques and bazaar.

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