A visit to Istanbul’s historic railway station

Istanbul’s historic Sirkeci railway station (also known as Istanbul Gar) was officially opened on Nov 3, 1890.

The station was designed by German architect August Jachmund, who incorporated oriental elements in his blueprint.

The station is in Sirkeci district, located in the old part of the city on the European side of the Bosporus. For the railway line to reach Sirkeci, it would built along the shoreline of the Sea of Marmara, and the Sultan allowed a stretch of track to be built through the gardens skirting his Topkapi Palace.

There used to be a large beer garden, and outdoor restaurants in front of the station on terraces leading down to the sea but now a petrol station and a busy highway block the direct access to the waterfront.

The terminal connects Turkey to the rest of the European rail network as well as being the terminus for various suburban and local routes. However, if you want to catch a train to Ankara or all points east, you need to cross the Asian shore of Bosporus and catch a train from Haydarpaşa, Istanbul’s other main station.

These days, Sirkeci is a fairly quiet station but still has a popular restaurant, the Orient Express. During the 1950s and 60s the restaurant was a favourite haunt for journalists, writers and intellectuals but nowadays it is more likely to be filled with tourists trying to imagine how this place must have been during the golden age of rail travel.

ORIENT EXPRESS

Talking of the Orient Express, Sirkeci was, and still is occasionally, the terminus for the world’s most famous train, the Orient Express.

The first Orient Express left Paris on Oct 4, 1883 bound for Istanbul (the old Sirkeci station) via Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Rousse and Varna. The journey covered 3,094 km and took 80 hours. This service was stopped in 1977.

Confusingly, there is another luxury train service with a similar name, the Venice Simplon Orient Express which runs mainly between Calais and Venice but makes periodic side trips to Istanbul by a more southerly route than the original.

This route map might help to clarify (or perhaps not!).

This train was the setting for one of Agatha Christie’s most famous Hercule Poirot novels, Murder on the Orient Express.

In the book, Poirot was staying at the Tokatlian Hotel in Constantinople before catching the Orient Express back to London. That hotel burnt down in 1954.

While writing Murder on the Orient Express, Christie stayed at another nearby hotel, the Pera Palace.

The Pera Palace’s Orient Bar is said to have been a popular hangout for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway – is there any famous bar in the world where Hemingway did not drink?

Next to the waiting room at Sirkeci station is a small railway museum.

Its exhibits include crockery and cutlery used on the Orient Express, the driver’s cab of an electric train, a rather modest Hornby model train layout, the station master’s desk and chair, an Austrian tile stove dating from 1890 used for heating the waiting room, signage and other ‘railwayana’.

The museum is open from Tuesday to Saturday. Admission is free.

This article first appeared in http://thriftytraveller.wordpress.com