Where Europe meets Asia – a day on the Bosphorus
Here’s an interesting fact for you. Did you know that Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents: Asia and Europe?
Having had my fill of mosques, palaces and crowded markets for a while, I wanted to change the pace and had a day-trip on the Bosphorus River. Technically, it’s not a river though – it’s a strait that connects the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara. The strait (also known as the Straits of Constantinople) is what divides Istanbul into the Asian and European sides. It was also known as the Straits of Constantinople in another era.
(Yes, it looks like the boats are about to collide. They didn’t – but the Bosphorus is one of the world’s busiest waterways apparently. I sat on a bridge for a while, mesmerised by all the boat traffic. There are so many boats zipping around, but it seems to be a form of organised chaos.)
I jumped on to the ferry that took 1½ hours to go up river to a small fishing village called Anadolu Kavagi. Keen to have a good view and to take photos along the way, I grabbed a seat outside, instead of the warmer option inside, and oh my goodness, it was cold! Dressed in my standard 4 layers which a new scarf wrapped around my ears, I shivered all the way there and all the way back. With a chill factor taken into account, I’m sure that the temperature was around the 10-12 degree mark. I could have done inside, but it just wouldn’t be the same experience.
There were many key sites to see along the straits, including several fairly grand palaces and mosques.
There were a few palaces along the way, with the most spectacular being the Dolmabahce Palace, also built by Sultan Abdulmecid. It has a long 600m frontage on the Bosphorus waterfront – it wouldn’t all fit into the photo, so this is just one section. I thought it looked quite elegant.
I was amazed at the density of the housing in some of the towns that we passed. Not to mention the steepness of the land. You build up some good leg muscles living in this part of the world!
As our boat pulled into Anadolu Kavagi (at the end of the strait, near the Black Sea), these seafood restaurant guys didn’t even wait for us to get off the boat before they starting flapping their arms around to get our attention. And our custom of course.
Nor did their competition next door.
There was an old crumbling castle at the top of a hill at Anadolu Kavagi. I had been told that it wasn’t really worth the climb up as the castle fortress itself was closed, but I had 3 hours to kill here here before the boat headed back to Istanbul. There wasn’t much else to see or do here aside from checking out the very small village and it’s restaurants. So up I went. Another bloody hill to climb!
The views were very nice, and the castle was kind of interesting, but aside from walking around the outside, there wasn’t much else to see as it was closed off to visitors as it’s in such a state of disrepair inside.
Anadolu Kavagi was a quiet little fishing village, although it appears that they are becoming more reliant on the tourist dollar judging by the number of fish and seafood restaurants there. Many of the houses in the village lacked any real charm, and had, shall we say, lots of potential. But I really liked the cheerfulness and use of colour at this place.
All in all, in spite of the bitter cold on the boat, it was a really nice day out away from the maddening crowds back in the city.
Street food can be found everywhere in Istanbul – you’ll go hungry as there is bound to be a food cart within 50m of where you are standing. And that’s always handy for a quick and cheap snack on the run.
The photo at the top of this post shows a cart selling ‘simit’ , a bit like a bagel, coated in sesame seeds but just a bit harder to chew. I didn’t particularly like them as they one I tried seemed too dry for my liking. I saw a couple of guys walking around with them stacked on their head. Like the guy below.
Roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob
The other type of cart that was popular was the roasted chestnuts and corn carts (sometimes combined). I did get an ear of corn once, but sadly, it wasn’t the best corn that I’ve ever had – a bit tough and chewy. But I was feeling peckish…
Salep is an interesting drink based on an extract from orchids, and dates back to the Ottomans, 18-19th century, before tea and coffee became the drink of choice. On my second day in Istanbul I was so cold as I persevered through the cold winds and rain to visit the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya. It was the perfect day to try a piping hot cup of Salep, The drink is milk-based, and contains honey, vanilla, cream, cinnamon and other spices
And then are the Kebabs
Turkey would not be Turkey without the doner kebabs. In Istanbul, small doner restaurants are found everywhere, and provided a very cheap meal on the run. The wonderful smell of grilled meat was thick in the air and very welcoming.
Restaurants seemed to specialise in either lamb (et durum) or chicken (tavuk durum), but rarely both. The meat is put on the rotisserie grill early in the morning and carved throughout the day as new customers arrive, continuing to cook the newly exposed meat. The one in the photo above was a larger than normal.
Each restaurant had a different version of how the meat was served: rolled up in a pita bread, or in a sandwich on freshly baked bread. I prefer the pita bread version which is normally rolled up with the meat, some lettuce, maybe picked red cabbage, tomatoes (which they obliging leave out for me), a large roasted chilli (relatively mild) – and a handful of cold fries (!). The kebab rolls are much smaller than the overstuffed ones that we get in New Zealand, and they don’t use the different sauces that we have oozing out of our ones at home, either. No sauce is used at all. A simple pita kebab for about $1.50- $2.
This was another kebab guy – quite a chatty one that wanted his photo taken. Then he wanted me to come back in a few hours when he finished work. These Turks are smooth talkers!
Cobblestone streets of Kumkapi
I moved out of the apartment that I mentioned in an early post and moved into a cheap hotel room in an area called Kumkapi. It was just outside of Sultanamhet, the main tourist district, but within easy walking distance of the Grand Bazaar. The hotel was a horrid experience but I promised myself that I wouldn’t bore you with my complaints. Let’s just say you get what you paid for!
In spite of the hotel itself being pretty crappy, I liked the neighbourhood. There were a few restaurants and hotels around but it wasn’t too touristy – there was just a few tourists around so that I didn’t feel that I was stood out too much. (Blonde hair is a giveaway around here!) And I got to witness normal Turkish life as it whizzed on past me. That entailed a mass migration of people walking up the steep cobblestoned streets towards the tram in the morning, and the reverse in the evenings.
I was in a shoe manufacturing district – and many of the shops wholesaled shoes. Some shops were devoted to shoe parts: there was the heel shop (which displayed a range of heels in all shapes and forms), the fabric shop (different shoe leathers and fabrics) and the trim shop (which sold little buckles and other metallic trimmings that go on the shoes). Many of the shops made the shoes in their basements; I’d get a glimpse sometimes if they left the basement door open.
At the end of each day, the streets would be filled cartons of shoes ready to be picked up by trucks in the evening. For the most part, there was very little motorised traffic on the streets here. Locals would transport all sorts of stuff up and down the hill using hand carts. It was mostly in the evenings when some trucks would come down to collect the cartons, pick up rubbish, etc.
I guess it was all too much for this guy!
Across the bridge to Taksim Square and Beyogolu
After spending my first week in the Sultanahmet area, it was time to venture across the Galata Bridge to check out the other side of town. Taking a tram and the funicular railway, I made my way to Taksim Square. You may have heard of Taksim Square: it featured in the news in June last year when protesters occupied the square for a couple of weeks, before the police moved in and riots broke out. More recently, in Feb/March this year, protests were held when the government pushed through laws to tighten control on access to the internet, namely YouTube and Twitter.
However, the day that I went, all was peaceful n Taksim Square and the very pretty Gezi Park next door.
From Taksim, I meandered my way down Cadessi Istiklal (Istiklal Avenue) – a 1.4km long pedestrian street with all sorts of interesting buildings, boutique shops, book and music stores, restaurants and art galleries. It’s a mix of old Ottoman style buildings mixed with the art deco and modern. I checked out one of the Art Galleries, but have to say that the exhibitions on show at the time were a bit too far-fetched for my tastes. (There was a video installation with one looped video clip showing a close up of a man and woman facing either other, taking turns yelling at each other, louder and louder. Very strange. I’m just not a true arty-farty type I guess.
Further down the street, as I reached the Galata tower and entered the Beyogolu area, I came across some colourful displays of graffiti.
Galata Bridge – where it all happens at night
I continued my walk back across the Galata Bridge in the late afternoon/early evening – and it’s this area that is obviously the hub of all social activity in Istanbul.
The top of the bridge was crowded with cars, trams and people crossing from one side of the river to the other. Dozens of fisherman were also trying their luck.
(The mosque in the background in the picture above is called the New Mosque. That’s because it’s fairly young, relatively speaking, having been completed between 300-400 years ago.)
Underneath the bridge is a row of restaurants on either side – a good spot to grab a beer or tea and watch the comings and goings, and the sunset.
Istanbul – a wrap up
Istanbul is a vibrant and interesting city. East meets west. Conservative muslim meets modern and contemporary. It’s a busy and crowded city but fairly clean and very easy to get around.
I knew that April was the start of the tourist season (in Istanbul but not the rest of the country so much) – but I was frustrated by the crowds here. I didn’t find it to be a particularly friendly city and found it hard to meet or talk to the local Turks. (Oh don’t worry, the touts and shopkeepers were very friendly though!). I put it down to the lack of ability to communicate: I don’t speak Turkish obviously, and surprisingly few spoke English. Perhaps shyness (especially the women), and maybe an overall feeling of being jaded from living in the big city. . I don’t know. Maybe I was just adapting to a new culture, new language and just trying to get my bearings. Travelling independently (ie not as part of a tour) is very rewarding most of the time, but can be quite challenging at others.
Many love Istanbul. I didn’t so much. But then – I really don’t like cities at the best of times. I stayed too long, and stayed in a crappy hotel after having to move from the apartment. I do think that a better hotel, somewhere I could comfortably relax after being out and about during the day, would have made a difference to me.
Lessons learned: don’t say in a city for more than 4-5 days (that’s my personal max), and don’t skimp on accommodation when staying somewhere for more than a night or two.
It’s been over a week since I moved on from Istanbul, and can happily say that I am really enjoying Turkey and all that it has to offer. I’m much more relaxed, comfortable and happy. The local people I’m meeting seem to be much friendlier and are definitely more helpful.
It’s all good! 🙂