ISTANBUL, Turkey — The spectacular panorama of this ancient city has two flaws, and a lot more are about to appear. The two, rising like giants among dwarfs, are the towers of the Etap and Sheraton hotels.
After years of decline, tourism is once again big business in Turkey, and most of last year's 750,000 visitors at least passed through Istanbul. Six more grand hotels are slated to rise in the next few years, and 20 hotel towers are said to be in the planning stage.
Confronted by all this modernity in one of the world's most beautiful ancient capitals, how can the visitor escape the feeling of sameness in these concrete high-rises?
Two hotels offer a refreshing alternative, summoning up the gloried days of the Ottoman Empire. They are dramatically different, and will appeal to different individuals.
One is the Pera Palas Oteli, located near the U.S. Consulate in the "new section" of Istanbul. The Pera Palas, which went up in 1892, was built to provide luxury accommodations for passengers on the famed Orient Express, which ferried Europe's aristocracy from Paris to its eastern terminus in Istanbul.
The Pera Palas is an architectural gem of the 19th Century, having been imported from France virtually doorknob by doorknob. Its great strength--possibly its great weakness--is that it has changed only marginally over the years.
Especially magnificent is the towering lobby, with porphyry pillars and windows in carved mahogany. Among its other treasures is an early example of the electric elevator, with shining brass cage, that is still very much in use.
The hotel has the feel of a Victorian movie set, and with good reason. Over the years it has sheltered guests ranging from Britain's King Edward VIII to Greta Garbo and the famed spy she portrayed, Mata Hari.
It is also the centerpiece of a literary mystery. It is believed that during her renowned disappearance, the English mystery writer Agatha Christie holed up here. A brass key, supposedly hidden by Christie, was found under the floorboards of Room 411. A Los Angeles mystic is said to have located it.
The ground-floor Orient Bar has been lovingly preserved. One feels almost out of place there without a dinner jacket and brilliantined hair.
Most of the rooms are in their original state, and some visitors might find this a mixed blessing. For example, the telephones are of 1920s vintage; there is no dial and calls must be placed through the hotel operator. This might be of more concern to a business traveler than a tourist, but it can be an annoying inconvenience.
The furniture, while authentic, has a frumpy look about it that may not appeal to travelers who demand their comfort. The same is true of the bathrooms, which appear to be equipped with early 20th-Century fixtures.
Visitors are warned that the street side of the hotel can be extremely noisy. The view of the Bosporous from the other side is breathtaking.
Despite its dowager status, the Pera Palas has very up-to-date rates: $85 for a single, $107 for a double, including breakfast.
For those seeking 19th-Century style with modern comfort, an alternative is the Yesil Ev, formerly the Konak. It is hard to beat this hotel for location; it is just steps away from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
Yesil Ev, which means "Green House," is one of the pioneering projects of the Turkish Touring & Automobile Assn., which is renovating historic buildings. The building was one of the last 19th-Century Istanbul mansions and it had fallen into disrepair. The association completed its renovation in 1984.
With just 20 rooms, the hotel is comfortably small, with parquet floors, brass beds, handmade carpets and ersatz 19th-Century telephones (modern instruments, really).
The hotel has the somewhat artificial feel of a reproduction-antique showroom, and it has been denounced by architectural historians as a phony.
"At least the renovation at the Yesil Ev saved the building, but it is not authentic," says Felice Ozer of the Istanbul Polytechnic. "The Pera Palas is authentic. You can dislike things about it, but you can't argue if they are authentic."
There is no denying that Yesil Ev is a handsome building that has been lavishly restored, even if the striped wallpaper is reminiscent of a set from Mozart's "The Abduction from the Seraglio." The rear garden ranks as one of the loveliest settings in Istanbul.
The Touring Club has also renovated the small bazaar next to the hotel and turned it into a crafts bazaar for ancient Turkish arts.
Prices are reasonable by modern standards, at $73 for a single, $97 for a double.
For those not on a budget, the so-called Pasha's room, with giant brass bed and private Turkish bath, seems a good deal at $141 a night.
Both the Pera Palas and the Yesil Ev report that they are fully booked for June, July, August and September, but trying for a last-minute vacancy is worth the effort.
Pera Palas Oteli, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 98-100, Tepebasi-Istanbul, Turkey; Yesil Ev, Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul, Turkey.