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Istanbul: Cruising the Bosphorus

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One of the classics for visitors to Istanbul—and for quite a few Istanbulis as well—is a cruise up the Bosphorus, the 19-mile strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and ultimately the Mediterranean.

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The Bosphorus is more than just a path between two seas; it is a border between Asia and Europe, it is the key to access to the Mediterranean and thus the world to any Black Sea power; it has been the scene and cause of wars from ancient times into the 20th century. And today, it is one of the world’s premier shipping routes, and an important route for oil tankers.

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Our cruise began at the Eminonu pier, near the Galata Bridge, above. The bridge is so lined with fish shops and restaurants you'd hardly know it was a bridge. The ancient Galata tower is in the background. 

 

Istanbul began on the European side, on a peninsula at the southern end of the channel, and then spread north across the Golden Horn, an estuary that flows into the Bosphorus, and then spread across the channel itself to absorb the villages of the Asian side in one of the ancient world’s great cities.

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Istanbul ferries operate like buses along the waterfront and the Bosphorus; one of the routes is the all-day Bosphorus cruise.This one is the twin of our boat.

 

Unlike the rivers that split such cities as London and Paris, it’s too wide for easy walking; Istanbul has relied for centuries on ferries of one sort or another; there are dozens of routes and dozens of stops, such as this one.

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And some time ago, the municipal ferry operator, Sehir Hatlari, realized that there were quite a few people who were simply riding the ferry to the northern end, to the Black Sea, and turning around to return. From that, the cruise route has developed. No special facilities or arrangements—just a regular city ferry, with the option of renting an audio guide that describes what you’re seeing as you go by.

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Mosque and modern—the typical Istanbul mix. In this case, it involves a mosque sitting behind Istanbul's fairly-new Modern Art museum, occupying an old warehouse.

 

The whole trip takes about six-and-a-half hours—a bit over 90 minutes each way between the Eminonu ferry station and the last stop before the Black Sea, Anadolu Kavagi, and a 3-hour layover in Anadolu Kavagi to poke around and have lunch at one of the dozens of restaurants that are the heart of business there. The cruise costs 25 Turkish lira, ridiculously cheap (about $10) and gives you a map as well.

 

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DSC03713In the 19th century, the Ottoman Sultans moved from the centuries-old Topkapi palace in the "Old City" and moved into the immense new Dolmabache Palace on the shore of the "New City. We passed the Dolmabache Mosque and then the Palace.

 

So, what’s it like along the way? Since we made the trip in February, we obviously didn’t spend a lot of time on the open deck (and in some of the pictures you can see window reflections..sorry!) As we rode, one thing stood out: unlike cities where the whole shoreline is given over to expressways and the like, the Bosphorus is lined with houses and mosques, as well as with businesses.

 

 

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In fact, waterfront summer homes were popular with the Ottoman elite long before Istanbul spread to include the whole strait, and the further north you go, the more you see these fancy summer houses, or “yali” right down to the water’s edge. More than 600 were built in the last years of the Ottoman empire, and more in other styles since. Some as grand as the ones above, others, as below, more modest.

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And the gulls. Not surprising for a port city, Istanbul has gulls. It’s the number of them along the shore and accompanying the cruise that amazed me…and in a number of cases they came to accidentally dominate pictures, swooping through just as I took the picture. In some cases they are distracting; in others, I think they “make” the picture. In this case, the foreground.

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The mix of modern and older is especially marked around the two bridges (a third is planned) that span the Bosphorus. The first was built in 1973, the second in 1988. Before that, only boats (and a legendary Persian bridge of boats) crossed the water. Here, a mosque stands neighbor to the 1973 bridge on one shore, and a modern neighborhood on the other. At the second bridge, the Rumeli fortress, also seen in the picture at the top, is paired with another across the strait, to hold off invaders.

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The entire 19-mile length of the strait is now within the municipal limits of Istanbul, although some areas are more densely settled than others. But everywhere, there are the hills. If ancient Rome, and modern Lisbon and classic Constantinople could all claim to rise on seven hills, modern Istanbul must have seven hundred, with houses and mosques climbing to the top.

 

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Boats and ships of all kinds to be seen as well, whether ferries, fishing boats, cruise ships or rusted tankers and freighters. I took too many pictures of too many kinds to put them all in here...but maybe I took too many out!

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This seaside house has become a private museum...it's larger than it looks! And next to it, a children's playground sticks out, next to one of the boat docks.

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Approaching Rumeli Kavagi, the last stop on the European side, and almost the last stop before lunch.

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And now, Anadolu Kavagi, last stop on the ride. Notice the "garages" under the houses at the waterfront. Reminded me a bit of the water-doors of Venetian palazzi!

 

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And then the task of finding lunch in a town whose entire business seems to be feeding lunch to travelers on the Bosphorus, both on the "official" cruise, private cruises and personal boats.  Waiters were at the dock, waving menus and assuring us that their place was the best.

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But we're skeptics, and anyway we had a recommendation. At first, the restaurant, called Baba, appeared to have disappeared, but finally, past the last of the rows of restaurants, we found it. And it was worth it. Along the way, we met this cat. And while we ate, we got to watch the antics of birds playing on an around a floating barrel.

 

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Leaving again on the boat, this time sitting on the "Asia" side, we looked back toward the Black Sea, and up at the ruins of the ancient castle on the hill; some of the passengers had hiked up to it instead of lunch. According to the books, there's no access to the interior, but a good view down.

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Continuing back down past more neighborhoods, hills, houses and mosques

 

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And another stop for passengers to join and leave, at Kanlica, where a small festival was happening near the dock.

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Here are the remains of the Anatolian-side castle that's a match for the one we saw on the way up, just near the bridge...with summer yali squeezed between it and the water.

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 And finally, back to "downtown" Istanbul, and one more landmark, the "Maiden's Tower," whose romantic story involves a Sultan protecting his beautiful daughter from snakes. The actual history is more straightforward; the first tower (the present one dates to 1832) was built as part of the city walls by Byzantine Emperor Alexis Comenius. The little island it stands on was connected to the Asian shore by an underwater wall whose remains still exist; a chain was stretched across to the European shore.

 

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All in all, a pleasant day's adventure, especially after several days of snow and cold. And a last view, from the air, as we left Turkey the next day.

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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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