So you may have been wondering about our header photo. It is Sirkeci station, the grand terminus of the Orient Express. This photo is from a trip that Mark and I took along the train route in 2010 from London to Istanbul to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our writing about the train.
Let’s face it, most big city train stations are approached through industrial estates. Sirkeci has to be one of the best situated stations in the world. To my mind its only rival is Venice’s Santa Lucia, where the unsuspecting first-time visitor walks out of the terminal to find the sea lapping at the edge of the station piazza. The sea! Will you look at that? Okay, it’s actually the Grand Canal, but it still smells pretty salty and really cements the impression of Venice as a city built on water. I think Istanbul and Venice are two cities that are best approached by train.
The Istanbul train enters the city along the shore of the Sea of Marmosa. The tracks pass Istanbul’s land walls – never breached, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind a short history lesson – and still mammoth in ruin.
Then the train passes around the Golden Horn along the Bosporus, passing a jaw-dropping array of beautiful buildings, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofia. Istanbul’s apartment buildings pile up over the surrounding hills. It is a breath-taking entrance, even when bleary-eyed in the morning after a day and a night on a ramshackle yet lovable old train, including standing in line after midnight for an entry visa at the Turkish border.
Sirkeci station was built in the 1880s and according to the guidebook is one of the most famous examples of the European Orientalism school of architecture. Apparently is also holds a train museum, which Nick and Meghan visited on their research trip but we somehow missed. Instead, we found this oddly pathetic train, stalled out front the station forever, but never investigated further.
From Sirkeci station, if you turn right you cross the Galata Bridge to the Pera Palace hotel, beloved of the wealthy Orient Express passengers. If you turn left you’re in the heart of the Sultanahmet district. There you’ll find yourself slapped down in the middle of all that gobsmacking architecture you glimpsed from the train; the Blue Mosque, the Archaeological Museum, the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace. If you keep going, assuming you can walk past the Basilica Cistern (and who’s going to resist going down to peek at an ancient spooky columned cistern full of dark water and giant carp) you will trip over the Serpent Column and run smack into the last standing wall of the Hippodrome. Seldom has one train station offered entrance to so much.
Sirkeci station is at the heart of all of the scenarios in the new Horror on the Orient Express; the investigators will arrive or depart from the station in the Gaslight, 1920s and modern eras. There are some evocative departure scenes in the classic 1974 and superior 2010 versions of Murder on the Orient Express. Alas, we flew home to Australia from the charmless airport instead.