A continent-hopping weekend in Istanbul

Mark Everleigh spans two continents in a single weekend and comes away charmed

7 mins

Even in an era of super-cheap, no-frills airline tickets, 46p struck me as extremely good value for a journey from Europe to Asia.

It was 8am and I was still nursing my second cup of Turkish coffee as I boarded a boat for a short voyage to ‘the East’. I climbed to the stern of the upper deck and wobbled on landlubber’s legs to watch Europe drift away. My fellow passengers were clearly indifferent to the fact that their daily commute to work was taking them to another continent.

A friend in Istanbul had laughed at what she saw as my childish excitement about a voyage to Asia. “A tourist once asked me if they speak the same language on the Asian side,” she had chuckled. “He wanted to know whether he would have to get his passport stamped when he got off the ferry!”

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect either. After all, it’s not every day that you get to disembark from a boat in a new continent while remaining in the same city. Indeed, Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents.

I was staying in the western Sultanahmet quarter, within reach of the historical centre – an area as full of Eastern promise and tantalising sensations as a mixed box of lokum (Turkish delight). But it’s the Bosphorus that has always been the life force of Istanbul. Since the first days of the city’s history the channel has seethed with vessels of all sorts – from the earliest Anatolian and Trojan fishing boats, to Byzantine and Persian slavers, Roman galleons, Arab fire-ships and Greek and Venetian traders. The minaret-studded skyline is instantly recognisable, but only from the water can you get a clear perspective of the lofty positions that the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya hold over ‘Old Stamboul’. I needed to get on the river.

We quickly left the busy European marketplace of Bes¸iktas¸ behind and motored north towards the little Asian fishing harbour of Beylerbeyi. The domes and minarets were barely receding into the dawn mist when I turned to catch my first sight of the Bosphorus Bridge. While the rumble of heavy traffic droned far above, the little ferry puttered between bullying cargo ships and past tiny fishing skiffs.

On the Asian shore, we began to catch sight of the old noble homes that are known here as yalı. Traditionally built of timber, these lovely waterside mansions were once the retreat of various illustrious members of the Ottoman aristocracy.

We cruised past the spot where the clean water of the Göksu Deresi (the Heavenly Streams) flowed into the café-au-lait of the Bosphorus. Whereas previous sultans had contented themselves with a picnic blanket, Sultan Mecit had built Küçüksu Kasrı, along the lines of the wedding-cake school of architecture that was prevalent in 1856. It is one of the most intriguing buildings on the Bosphorus, and worth a visit if you can synchronise yourself with the erratic opening times.

The second bridge (the Fatih Bridge) was built at the narrowest part of the straits (about 800m). This point has always been strategically important; the 15th-century ‘Fortress of Europe’ at Rumeli Hisarı still looms above the western shore, while on the east side lay the ruins of the ‘Fortress of Anatolia’. Greek legend has it that when Hera found out about Zeus’s lover Io, the king of the gods was forced to turn Io into an ox here, while Hera sent a horsefly to sting her on the rump until she swam across to exile in Asia. ‘Bosphorus’ is derived from the Greek for ‘ford of the ox’.

At the little village of Kanlıca, I placed my first ceremonial footstep on Asian soil. There were, of course, no entry formalities and no discernable differences between the people here and their compatriots across the water, but the peaceful little plaza with its shaded terraces could not have felt farther from the mid-morning scramble of bustling Istanbul. 

I had been told that Kanlıca is famous for its yoghurt – ‘the best in the entire world’, allegedly – and I soon realised that the open-air terrace of Asırlık Kanlıca Yogurdu café is one of those places that just exudes relaxation and contentment. So, I soaked up the Asian sun while enjoying yoghurt that was tooth-achingly sweetened with honey.

I spent another peaceful hour wandering around the market at Kanlıca and bought a lucky charm that was guaranteed to protect me from the evil eye. A few old men lined the harbour wall with their fishing rods. They talked occasionally, but otherwise seemed heedless to everything but the gentle tug of another catch.

I had noticed from the boat that every patch of unclaimed waterfront land was occupied by ranks of men brandishing fishing rods at their scaly enemies. It seemed surprising that there were any fish left in the Bosphorus at all, yet each time a line was reeled in I counted as many as a dozen silver fish flapping on the hooks.

I still had a long way to go, so I decided against lunch in the lovely (and amazingly inexpensive) restaurant in Hidiv Kasrı palace and instead rejoined the next northbound ferry. We puttered across to the pretty European yachting cove at Istinye and zigzagged through the sleepy fishing villages of Beykoz (Asia) and Sarıyer (Europe). Shortly before the ferry pulled in at Tarabya (once known as ‘Therapeia’ for its blessed climate), we began to feel the force of the Black Sea swells. Waves coming straight from the Crimea crashed against the bow as the ferry struggled over to the last stop at Anadolu Kavagı.

At Yedigül fish restaurant I celebrated my arrival at the Black Sea with a meal of fresh anchovies and a glass of ayran (salted drinking yoghurt). Alcohol is not often available at village restaurants, but I figured that I had time for an invigorating afternoon walk and could still make it back to Istanbul in time for a rakı sun-downer in the Kiz Kulesi lighthouse, overlooking the lights of what might be the world’s most romantic city.

On the clifftops above Anadolu Kavagı stands the 10th-century fortress that has been guarded at various times by Byzantine, Genoese and Ottoman forces, and now the Turkish defence force. Much of the coast where the Bosphorus meets the Black Sea is a militarised zone, and I resisted the temptation to take photos until I was within the grounds of the historical fortress itself.

A seemingly endless procession of cargo ships and tankers was threading itself into the narrow channel at the mouth of the river. As the vessels ploughed their way towards the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean beyond, they could almost have been trying to drive an iron wedge of commerce between the sleepy little European and Asian fishing villages.

But I had the feeling that even when the mighty tankers have been replaced by the mega-transporters of the future, there would still be little old men patiently casting their fishing lines into the timeless waters of the Bosphorus.

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