Istanbul in the flow lane: Jason Goodwin heads out on to the Bosphorus to get the best view of the city’s awe-inspiring sights
So you have done the Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. You’ve trudged the steep streets of Beyoglu in search of kitsch and cocktails, and you quail at the thought of crossing the Bosphorus to Uskudar. You have walked enough for the day. What you need now is a mini-cruise, Istanbul-style.
I’ve been coming here every year for 25 years, since I first walked into the city at the end of a six-month hike from Gdansk in Poland. I still escape on to the water when I can. Istanbul may be one of the world’s favourite destination cities, but it can also be blazing hot, crowded and busy.
In all its glory: The magnificent New Mosque as seen from the Bosphorus
It was meant to be busy. For almost two millennia it was an imperial capital, ruling over the deserts of Arabia and the Nile, the mountains of Serbia and the islands of Greece. With a population of a million, it was the biggest city in medieval Europe. Now it’s not even Turkey’s capital – that honour has gone to Ankara since 1923 – but that hasn’t stopped its population growing to almost 20million. It’s plainly not just tourists who want to be here: Istanbul is the engine of Turkey’s economic revolution.
So I tend to cast melting looks at the waterway that divides Istanbul, and splits Asia from Europe. You can’t miss the Bosphorus: it nudges into your view from every angle. It’s not a river – it’s a 17-mile channel, up to a mile wide and hundreds of feet deep, a flooded chasm that runs from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and links the steppe with the Mediterranean. The surface current moves from the Mediterranean, but deep down there’s a counterflow from the Black Sea, and strange eddies scour the bays along the shore.
Since the days of Jason and his Argonauts, the Bosphorus has funnelled travellers, traders, soldiers, sailors and adventurers between East and West. It still does. Coming in from the airport, you’ll see dozens of vessels anchored in the Sea of Marmara waiting to file through the middle of Europe’s biggest city – Chinese and Ukrainian ships, Black Sea ferries, huge floating hotels, tankers, and maybe Russian warships, too.
Frenetic: Traders sell their wares at the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets
All day they glide through the strait, dwarfed by the hills that surround them, to slip under the suspension bridges that link Asia and Europe.
This is a fantastic waterway. It’s jam-packed with life, and there’s a lot of city to see from the deck of the ferries that crowd the pontoons at Eminonu. I especially like the slow vapurs, with high prows for punching through the water, and low thwarts for easy embarkation – the Bosphorus in winter can be dangerously rough.
One day vapurs will be gone, replaced by fibreglass catamarans probably, with no outside seating. So now’s a good time to enjoy the tang of wet planks, splintered pilings, and thick bubbling paint over rust.
Bright green hawsers are casually coiled on the planking. I buy a glass of tea from the waiter and sit on an outside bench, with my feet up on the rail, watching the shores of the Bosphorus unscroll like some Victorian panorama, their vistas of villas, palaces, restaurants and domes.
It was an old cliche among travellers arriving here by sea that Istanbul looked glorious from the water, but coming ashore, amid noisy markets and tight, winding streets, was always a disappointment.
This is Istanbul as it was meant to be seen – a fretted mass climbing from the water to the domes, pinnacles and hills that enclose the skyline. The towers and gateways of Topkapi Palace peep through the trees that shade the sultan’s gardens on Seraglio Point, and one by one the domes of Hagia Sofia and the great Ottoman mosques reveal themselves as the ferry crosses the mouth of the Golden Horn, the curving creek that runs up through the city, dividing ‘old’ Istanbul from the more obviously Europeanised districts on the opposite side.
Old Istanbul was where Constantinople stood, enclosed by the massive 6th Century walls you see today: it was here that the Byzantine emperors – and later the sultans – had their palaces, and where the great religious and social institutions of the city were built, the churches and granaries, and later the mosques and the bazaars.
On the waterfront: The Ciragan Palace – which stood for years in a state of neglect – is now The Kempinski hotel
Near the ferry terminal itself stands the Egyptian, or Spice Bazaar, a miniature of the sprawling Grand Bazaar that climbs the hill above it; these days it caters mainly for tourists, selling spice and caviar and ‘Turkish aphrodisiac’, likely to be made of pistachios.
Until modern times, no bridge crossed the Golden Horn. Even within living memory, you could make the crossing by boat, on one of the fragile caiques that were the gondolas of Istanbul. On the other side, where the conical hat of the Galata Tower rises from the jumbled buildings that surround it, the medieval Genoese colony of Galata began as a walled community of Italian merchants.
The mouth of the Golden Horn itself was protected from assault by a heavy chain that could be drawn across from Galata to Istanbul proper – a fragment can still be seen at the Archaeological Museum. When Mehmed II attacked Constantinople in 1453, he dragged a fleet overland and launched it into the Golden Horn to the consternation of the defenders. The city fell to the forces of Islam within weeks.
Galata remained a European enclave. By the 19th Century it had its Grande Rue de Pera, lined with French apartment buildings and bankers’ offices. Today Istiklal Caddesi is where you go for a meal or drinks after sightseeing around Sultanahmet on the Istanbul side. From the deck of the ferry, you get a grand view of the former brutalist warehouse on the waterfront, which has now been transformed into an art gallery called Istanbul Modern.
Not much further along, you can see the Dolmabahce Palace, a 19th Century confection done for the modern-minded sultans who had grown tired of medieval Topkapi. Further still, before the first suspension bridge across the Bosphorus, comes the Ciragan Palace, where the unhappy Sultan Mehmed V, deposed by his brother, lived mad and forgotten until his death in 1904. It stood for years in a state of dismal neglect but now it’s The Kempinski hotel.
Conquerer: Sultan Mehmed II, who attacked Constantinople in 1453
I’m more interested in its neighbour, Feriye Sarayi at Ortakoy, a restaurant serving traditional Ottoman dishes alongside modern recipes – I think of it as Istanbul’s Harry’s Bar. It’s a shame you can’t reach it these days by caique, but the last of those elegant water taxis have been put on display at the Nautical Museum.
Across the strait, the woods coming down to the water, dotted with villas, illustrate how the whole of this shore once looked.
Many of the wooden villas, or yalis, rotted away over the past century, and some were accidentally demolished when ships ploughed into them on a foggy night. However, several hundred survive, and many have been restored.
The preliminary to the Turkish conquest of 1453 was control of the straits. The Ottomans were crossing back and forth with their armies, from Europe to Asia, for more than a century before they put an end to Constantinople’s 1,000-year history as a Christian city, the second Rome.
The castle that emerges on your left is Rumeli Hisar, which Mehmed had built in record time to put a stranglehold on the hapless Byzantines, now reduced to inhabiting the shell of their once-proud metropolis.
Behind the walls, whole districts had reverted to farmland, and the population had collapsed. The first Venetian ship to attempt to sail past the fortress without permission was sunk by one of the first cannons to be employed in European warfare.
A cool breeze ruffles the water, a flock of shearwaters skims across its surface and a cormorant outstrips the ferry, heading south, like a commuter. The European shore is frenetically built up and what used to be fishing villages are distinguished only as stops on the line. Eventually I disembark and get the bus back into Istanbul.
If I’ve timed it right, it will be growing dark. I’ll stop at a waterside restaurant in Ortakoy or Karakoy to watch the fading light play purple on the water.
Now the mosques are glowing like incandescent mortars and the minarets wait to be discharged skywards in a sheath of light. The cruise ships moored at Besiktas are strung with festive bulbs, the coloured windows on the hills shine like old soft paint, and the neon lights of the fish restaurants below the Galata Bridge throb like Sunset Boulevard.
Green channel buoys wink midstream; a freighter slides silently by, stern high, weaving in and out of its own silhouette as it follows the turns of the channel; two ferries churn past each other, heading for Uskudar and Eminonu, over which rise the dark gardens of the seraglio, its treetops pierced by the concentrated turrets, towers and crenellations of Topkapi, that medieval paradise.
The Baklava Club, by Jason Goodwin, is out now priced £12.99 (Faber & Faber).
Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com, 020 7593 2283) offers three nights in a four-star hotel in Istanbul from £678pp. This includes flights from London, transfers, B&B accommodation, Turkish visa and guide notes.