A Visit to Sirkeci Gare in Cagaloglu Near the Golden Horn
No trip to Istanbul, Turkey’s vibrant metropolis straddling two continents, would be complete without a visit to the art deco-inspired train station of Sirkeci Gare, which, until 1977, was the final destination of the famous Orient Express.
Not least because of Agatha Christie and her thriller Murder in the Orient Express" as well as several movies, including the 1963 James Bonds From Russia with Love" and TV series, has the train become a worldwide household name and a synonym for luxury rail travel. Its history is colorful and starts in 1882.
Originally operated by the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons-Lits, the name; Orient Express did not come into being official until 1891. The first train ran from Paris to Vienna and the two most remarkable facts of that joureny are that it ran on time and featured a delicious 6 course menu.
A few years later, the route was extended to Belgrade and passengers who wanted to reach Istanbul, had to do so by ferry. The first direct non stop train from Paris to Istanbul, completely on the rail, ran in 1889 and continued to do so until 19th of May 1977. Several trains used the name Orient Express either parallel or variations like Simplon Orient Express or Arlberg Orient Express. Today’s version is much shorter, starts from London and reaches destinations such as Vienna and Venice.
In the 1930s, the Orient Express to Istanbul enjoyed its heyday, used by politicians, royalty, movie and theatre actors, writers and anybody famous in between. Orient Express and Pera Palace Hotel goes hand in hand and it was in this luxurious hotel in Taksim, which is currently undergoing extensive renovations, that Agatha Christie wrote her famous thriller in 1934.
Once the line was extended, a terminal in Istanbul was needed to cater to the illustrious passengers, visiting the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The choice of Sultan Abdulaziz fell on the current location in the Cagaloglu district near the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul.
The architect of the pink brick, white stucco and black wrought iron structure was a German, August Jachmund from Prussia who had come to study Ottoman architecture and ended up lecturing at the Istanbul Polytechnic. He created a style known as European Orientalism which became very popular throughout Europe and influenced other buildings. Construction began in 1888 and the terminal was inaugurated in 1890. The station is still in operation today for much less glamorous trains leaving Istanbul for Greece and other Balkan destinations.
However, the spirit of a romantic and nostalgic past is very much alive, as soon as the visitor turns his back on the platforms. Outside the station, a gleaming steam engine can be admired and inside, a visit to the Orient Express restaurant is a joy. Photographs of prominent patrons of the 5os and 60s adorn the walls and the service is impeccable. Adjacent to the restaurant is a community hall, which is also the seat of Istanbul’s cultural center. Many nights a week, the Whirling Dervishes who belong to the Istanbul Sufi lodge, perform here, accompanied by traditional musicians. Memories of the past are very much brought to life in the well kept and preserved train station which should be on the must-see list of every visitor to Istanbul.