East Meets West in Istanbul

There is significant ambiguity over what continent Istanbul sits on.  Strictly speaking, Turkey is a European country, which means its largest city is part of Europe.  Yet Istanbul actually straddles two different continental landmasses, the only metropolis in the world to do so, which means it is, in effect, half European, half Asian. This is very confusing when you arrive there for the first time, and it took me a long while to work it out.

Despite being separated by less than two kilometres of water, the two sides of Istanbul are discernably different.  Indeed, if it weren’t for two bridges – the Fatih Sultan Mehmet and the Bosphorus – Istanbul’s east and west would be completely unconnected, little more than two opposing coastlines (albeit close enough to swim between.) The Bosphorus Strait is the vein that bisects the two continents, the channel from which Istanbul’s sprawling mass extends; it is the gateway from Europe to Asia.  Any trip to the city inevitably centres upon the Bosphorus, if not out of necessity then out of intrigue, for Turkish life literally agglomerates towards the water’s edge, amassing upon it like a flock of sheep on the edge of a cliff.

It was with this in mind that I decided there could be no better place to absorb the essence of Istanbul than from the Strait itself. The six hour ‘Nostalgic’ IDO Bosphorus Cruise leaves Bogaz Hatti dock at 10:35 and 13:35 each day, promising a whole day of sightseeing aboard an anachronistically romantic looking ferry that reminded me of a paddle steamer without the paddles… or steam.  Nostalgia from the start, then.

The dock is situated in Eminonu, next to Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn of Istanbul, at the southern end of the Bosphorus.  It is a bustling stretch of tarmac which encapsulates the city’s passionate personality, crammed with street hawkers and local fishermen, beneath which lie an assortment of Istanbul restaurants and cafes.  The perfect spot for breakfast, I found, although you should be wary of the hanging fishing lines if you venture underneath the bridge – finding yourself the catch of the day might be funny in hindsight, but you won’t laugh at the time.

To have the best chance of a seat on the ferry it’s a good idea to arrive at the terminal around 45 minutes early, although, it must be said, the seats that you are arriving early for are not all that comfortable, a bit like spending half a day perched on a block of ice.  Nevertheless, considering the length of the cruise it’s better to have a perch than not.  At 10:35 on the dot, we set sail.

I knew the name Besiktas only through Champions League football – the source of almost all my early geographical knowledge – so was excited to see it was the first stop on the cruise.  Located on the European side of the city, Besiktas is an area awash with the flag of Turkey, casting ripples of red across a horizon of baked terracotta roofs and grand edifices, from which an oblong football stadium peaks behind the decadent Dolmabahce Palace on the water’s edge.  The overall impression is of an established district built around the solid foundations of European heritage.

We passed under the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges on the way to our next stop, which, frankly, although elegant, are incredibly similar and a bit featureless.  Kanlica is a quaint village on the Asian side of Istanbul which is famous for its yoghurt, a fact which didn’t particularly excite me before arriving, not because I don’t like yoghurt, but because I don’t like cucumbers (which the Turkish mix with their yoghurt), and I normally find that places which sell themselves on such things are grasping at straws and don’t have much else going for them. I was wrong on both fronts.

Kanlica is a place I’d be happy retiring to, not that that is going to happen anytime soon.  The waterfront is scattered with small houses which protrude from a vibrant bank of trees, each one a private retreat from Istanbul’s chaos.  It must be blissful to wake up there every morning.  Besides, the yoghurt is delicious…

I made this judgement, of course, before seeing Yenikoy, our next stop, back on the European side of the city.  Yenikoy would be an even better place to retire than Kanlica, primarily because to do so you must have earned a significant amount of money, evidenced by the hilltop mansions that overlook the Bosphorus, home to Istanbul’s wealthiest residents.

I questioned whether we were still actually in Istanbul once we reached Rumeli Kavagi, the northernmost dock on the cruise, again on the European side of the city, and the final port before the basalt cliffs of the Bosphorus Strait open into the Black Sea.  The landscape here is markedly different; steep hills, lush forests and bunched-up houses which reminded me more of the banks of the Mekong River than the Danube.

Across the Bosphorus our final stop, Anadolu Kavagi, was dominated by Yoros Castle, a commanding and distinctly European ruin standing high upon Joshua Hill, most famously possessed by Genoa in the fifteenth century.  The location was long an important point of defence, and once had an iron chain which could be tied across the entire width of the Bosphorus to prevent ships from entering – must have been a strong chain.  The views afforded from the summit stretch from the distant belly of Istanbul, along the Bosphorus and out towards the vast Black Sea, beyond which lies Eastern Europe.

I stood contemplating that distance for a long time, considering the influence of European and Asian culture on Istanbul, starring across towards Rumeli Kavagi, West facing East where East meets West.

Read more about things to see and do in Turkey.

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Kirk was reared in Australia’s Outback before travelling extensively across the globe, eventually settling in London.  He is passionate about food, travel and any sport that isn’t cricket, and enjoys driving cattle in his spare time.  He is also a content writer for MyDestination.com, your local travel guide to world wide destinations.

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