When Hemingway arrived in Istanbul in the Roaring '20s, he did not plan to party, not exactly, but to cover the movement of peoples between Greece and Turkey. The year was 1922, and a dreaded policy measure was due to land on the international conference tables of Lausanne, Switzerland, when, in January of 1923 the government of Greece signed the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” with the parliament that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had quite newly formed in Ankara.
While Hemingway gained well-deserved and riveting material from the front of the humanitarian crisis on the landmass of Thrace, he would later say that journalism was good for a writer, but the whole business was best left as early as possible, so as not to stifle creativity. He was only one among the bohemian intellectual writers and artists who graced the floor of the Pera Palace Hotel, among them Agatha Christie, whose book, “Murder on the Orient Express” immortalized Istanbul as a Belgian’s detective’s crime fantasy.
Nowadays, the redolence of mental diversion and imaginative allure is still hot on the busy streets of 21st-century Pera, where the highland urban environs of Tepebaşı offer a powerful cocktail of sights and activities. Overlooking the Golden Horn inlet, with the complex and overwhelming urbanization of Istanbul’s sprawling hills in the distance, there is a formidable representation of culture between Pera Museum, the Big London Hotel and neighboring contemporary art galleries.
Oftentimes presenting their latest exhibitions with a billowing, building-wide canvas, Pera Museum holds a treasury of late Ottoman and early modern Turkish art, including permanent collections of paintings by one of the fundamental artist-intellectuals of his day, Osman Hamdi Bey, whose paintings are almost surrealist in their realism, depicting the people and traditions of Turkey as the pursuit of undying, Orientalist fascinations. Their displays of official portraiture in the age of empires are as essential as they are ripe for historical critique.
A few skips and a hop from the Pera Museum, there are surprising, multilayered revelations that wait, opening the city like an onion, the sting of its outer skin accentuating the taste of its experiential bounty as a whole. The Big London Hotel (or, in Turkish, Büyük Londres Oteli) is a sumptuous gem of architectural singularity. Inside, its antique furniture and elaborate wallpaper is a paradise of embroidered upholstery and ornate wood. There are outmoded artifacts from the 20th century all around, such as a peculiar, irresistibly charming German-Turkish jukebox.
But perhaps most curious is a caged bird named Yakup, a Turkish appellation that would be Jacob, as anglicized, and conjures an air of Jewish heritage. The parrot is a relic of the place, perched proudly, though confined, beside the old bar, where a man who has worked at the hotel for decades kindly answers touristic questions with more reliability than the shy, tropical pet. And if talking is a probable pastime amid such a wealth of ancient design, there is a dark, little hall of vintage rotary phones that will tickle any playful spirit out for a joke.
Despite the grab of the Big London Hotel’s terrace in summertime, and its use as a movie set for such films as Fatih Akin’s classic masterpiece “Head-On” (2004), it is mostly the setting for light amusement and heavy doses of nostalgia. Only a minute or so walk away, Istanbul Research Institute prepares a serious measure of programming regarding the history and culture of the city, with one of the most substantial, well-backed foundations for research into Byzantine, Ottoman and Republican eras.
If that’s too much erudition and pedagogy for something like an afternoon stroll, it is best to try an exhibition at Galerist or ArtOn, two major institutions for contemporary art with a splendid array of represented artists whose works are on the cusp of the international scene. Galerist is housed within a historic apartment, the peeling paint of its hipster decor reinvented in the interest of stimulating dialogue and thought on the nature of visuality and its aesthetic, philosophical dimensions. ArtOn has a more commercial feel, yet its artists, like Burcu Erden or Ali Elmacı, are often young and empowered to create what it means to make art afresh.
When whiling away the day, and perhaps into the night, strolling and sightseeing, whether as a local with some well-earned downtime, or a globetrotter out for the next venture, every neighborhood, especially Pera, is rich with ways to kick into slow gear, to sit back and relax a little. The patisserie Pera Bakery is one mellow haunt for that kind of ambiance, and it is situated within an elegant, former residential building downstairs from a cultural space called Kiraathane Istanbul Literature House, which supports writers and minorities.
For more, the stylish cafe Noir Pit is always bustling, if not exactly with very gregarious, caffeine-addled clientele. And on down the way, the streets open up with a wide view of the historical peninsula and its inlet ports, where industrial behemoths rise up, and yet magically, they do not obscure the beauty of the watery, citified landscape. It is a confluence for people from all walks of life who amble about not far from the feeding frenzy around Galata Tower, or Istiklal Avenue, and so many countless points of beguilement within Istanbul’s core.