Cruising the Bosphorus

National Geographic Traveler

CAPTAIN MEHMET CLIMBS UP ON DECK and hands me a beer. It’s a wind-down moment: he’s just steered our schooner through the precarious currents around the promontory of Akıntı Burnu, and now he’s leaving the plain sailing up to to one of his numerous more youthful crew. Although the evening waters are relatively calm on this summer evening, the apparent serenity of the tide can be dangerously deceiving: currents around this particular stretch of water can reach up to five knots in the worst conditions, and are legendary among sea dogs in the area.

For my part, I feel like a latter-day Cleopatra, propped up by my elbows on a mass of cushions provided by one of Mehmet’s boys to protect my delicate rump from the hard wood of the deck. Soothed by the bottle of cold beer, I am being steered like a queen, feet-first, along one of the world’s most hotly-contested waterways; the Bosphorus.

This 34 kilometre channel, sparkling azure when the sun’s shining and a dark foreboding grey under overcast skies, connects the centre of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea and Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Georgia to the north. Streaming past the palaces and mosques of Old Constantinople, it cleaves modern Istanbul in two, a natural continental divide separating Europe and Asia.

It’s 7pm and the light is beginning to fade. Istanbul’s archaic pandemonium is behind us, the Bosphorus stretches generously ahead. We are sailing close to the European shore and I can see fishing rods in sillhouette against the darkeneing sky as men stand solitary or gather in groups of three, four and five to watch their lines with unwavering composure. Fishing is the strait’s oldest tradition and was for centuries the sole livelihood of Greek, Turkish and even Albanian villages that lined the shore from Constantinople to the Black Sea. Today it’s the favourite passtime of scores of Turks who spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings routinely casting baited lines into the water below.

I’m jolted out of my regal repose by the sight of a levithian hunk of steel coursing towards with the stern severity of an unstoppable funeral march. I spin round to see the captain and his young crew relatively nonplussed by the sight of the bohemoth oil tanker that just rounded the headland and appeared to be smack in the middle of our course. One of the 5,000 oil tankers annually that make the journey to and from the oil fields of the Black Sea, it’s hardly a rare sight; still, we darken in the shadow of its giant hull and rock madly on its wake.

The captain is unpeturbed. He’s been navigating the strait for years. For him, it’s a companion, an adversary and a kindred spirit. He knows each cape, bay and peninsula by heart; every erratic swirl and eddy is inscribed in his extensive mental log. Aparently, I’m in safe hands.

“The Bosphorus has two main currents,” he tells me, miming the movements with his hands. “There’s a surface current that flows from the Black Sea towards the city, and a deeper one underneath that moves in the other direction”. The lower one is so strong that legend tells of fishermen who used to put down their nets to harness its power to propel them against the force of the surface current.

I met the equable captain quite by chance, walking to Arnavutköy from the neighbouring village of Kuruçeşme. He was sat on the rear deck of his schooner drinking tea under a giant ‘for rent’ sign. On the boat next to him, two men were struggling to attach a satellite dish to the vessel’s sterm pulpit while a third was signalling to them from inside the cabin as to the clarity of the signal as a football game buzzed into life on his TV screen. Mehmet noticed my amusement at the farcical sight and smilingly lowered a gangplank for me to board his boat. Within minutes we had sealed a plan for an evening’s cruise along the strait.

Mehmet’s sailer is one of dozens moored along sections of the stunning 7km stretch of coast road that runs from the village of Kuruçeşme all the way up to Emirgan on the European shore of the Bosphorus. Vessels of all shapes and classes bob shoulder to shoulder, innocent of their vast social differences. Decrepit fishing boats loaded with swathes of orange netting partially submerged in seawater puddles on their wooden floors and invigorated by a coat of spring paint nestle next to grandeoise fibreglass yachts whose shining white sterns bob and bounce off the cut-off tyres tied with thick rope to the concrete walkway.


It’s ironic that I am sat at one of the most romantic tables along the Bosphorus and my date for the evening is an A5 spiral bound notebook. Nonetheless, I’m having the time of my life. The restaurant, Körfez is one of Istanbul’s best kept secrets; a restaurant nestled into a bay between the villages of Kanlıca and Anadolu Hisarı on the Asian shore, and a favourite among the city’s well-heeled fish lovers. Diners are ferried across to this remote location by way of a private shuttle that runs from the castle of Rumeli Hisarı on the European side, sailing under the stars and the giant metal underbelly of the second Bosphorus bridge. The whole experience is indisputably spellbinding, a must-do for any visitor to Istanbul.

Waiters with large mezze trays balanced on one shoulder weave their way through a sea of brass-buttoned blazers and designer dresses with calamari, shrimp and scallop starters to offer their clientele. When asked what they recommend for a main dish, the answer is instantaneous: “the sea bass.” And so follows a flurry of action as the entire fish encrusted in a shell of sea salt is brought to the side of your table and set alight before being hammered from its casing and served on your plate. It’s a lot of fish for me and my notebook, but I’ll willingly attest to the fact that its among the best I’ve ever tasted.

This is the life, I think. It’s not hard to see why the Bosphorus is popular with so many Istanbullus looking for a break from the city. In fact, these shores that run the entire length of the strait are all considered part of Istanbul, and are easily accessible from the centre of town by car or ferry. And still, it’s far enough away to afford some greenery, silence, good food and stunning views of the variety that I’m contemplating from my waterside seat in Körfez. This particular restaurant may be catering for the high-end crowd, but between here and the Black Sea there is something for every pocket: from $10 Sunday family outings to the far-flung Genoese castle at Anadolu Kavağı, or a $1,000 night on the tiles for a gaggle of heiresses at one of the notorious Bosphorus super-clubs. One of which happens to be my next stop.

The spectacle of a giant crystal chandelier hanging over my head in the open night sky momentarily distracts my attention from my hard-fought mission to the bar. Armed with only my bare elbows, I’m pushing my way through the thick crowd of jetset revellers clutching flamboyant cocktails and displaying for the world to see how Istanbul’s upper crust really live it up. Caravaggio himself would marvel at the composition of the richly-loaded fruit plates adorning the private tables to the side of the club, while anyone who believes Turkey is a country blanketed by conservatism will have their eyes opened by the scantily clad young girls shaking their well-toned booty in skimpy D&G dresses.

This is Reina, waterside nightclub extraordinaire, home to no less than ten outdoor restaurants and a large central dance floor, and domain of Istanbul’s glitterati; the rich, famous and fabulous make this extraordinary Bosphorus nightspot their summer haunt. Getting in is not easy; near-impossible for single men unaccompanied by women, and a crapshoot for anybody arriving without a reservation or the bling factor of their own private yacht.

In contrast to the rustic quaintness of its fishing villages, the Bosphorus is also no stranger to shows of extravagance. In fact, its shores have been colonized by bling for centuries now. In the later days of the Ottoman Empire, pashas, viziers and wealthy families living inside the cramped conditions of the rapidly growing and condensing Istanbul looked to the Bosphorus for relief. One by one, houses, mansions and palaces began to go up along the shoreline that had previously been the domain of a handful of fishing villages. And so was born the yalı, the seaside mansion that is the architectural progeny of the Bosphorus. Typically a multi-storey house made from finely worked wood built at the water’s edge, this structural tradition flourished along the waterway from the end of the 17th century onwards. More than 620 yalıs were built over the years on the Bosphorus shore, and many still survive today, having been renovated into restaurants, pricey boutique hotels and homes for the city’s elite.

And then there are the ornate palaces, reminders of the final vestiges of the Ottoman Empire: Dolmabahçe, the last residence of the Sultans, built near the mouth of the Bosphorus in a flamboyant French style; the baroque Beylerbeyi, an erstwhile guest-house for esteemed visitors of the state; the compact Küçüksu, originally a summer house for the Sultans; all are jaw-dropping in their unrestrained opulence. All three are open to visitors, who shuffle in tour groups around its decaying interiors in plastic-covered feet with a kind of reverent silence you feel is kept in check for fear of waking the dead.

If Beverly Hills moved to the Bosphorus, it’d be thrilled to settle in Bebek. One of Istanbul’s more upscale neighbourhoods, Bebek is a hotbed for ladies who lunch, professionals who coffee, and yuppies who aperitif. Home to posh specialist bakeries, delicatessens and a pint-sized branch of the local swanky department store Beymen, Bebek can also boast what is widely recognized as The Best Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey, and possibly even the world. The coffee shop’s reputation is entirely based on the strength of its stunning view across the waters of the Bosphorus, and I’ve sat there for hours myself, nursing a mocha frapp and staring riveted at the tankers criss-crossing the strait as streams of excited high-school kids chattering in Turkish flowed around me at a steady rate.

Arriving at Bebek on Captain Mehmet’s schooner just after sunset, I disembark and cross the little park to see the lights coming on inside Lucca, the hippest after-work destination for the more affluent local office force. The sound of popping corks marks the beginning of a night’s session, and the bar is fast filling with suited yuppie-types getting ready to decompress after a day behind the desk.

At that same moment, something completely different occurs: the fluorescent tubes of the waterside Bebek Mosque just across the road buzz into life. The ear-splitting sound of the muezzin’s stentorian call to prayer siphoned through tinny loudspeakers temporarily drowns out Lucca’s jazzy lounge soundtrack. For the devout, this is Maghrib Adhan, the twilight call to prayer that brings scores of men, likely local shop assistants and waiters from the surrounding cafes and restaurants, filing inside the mosque and prostrating themselves in unison over their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca.

As a city, Istanbul has an incredible propensity for the snapshot; a passing instant that contains all the divergent elements of society, belief and culture in one single pitch. This evening in Bebek is one of them.


Less than one kilometre downstream in Arnavutköy, the vibe is a little different. The lights are coming on one by one in Abracadabra, a quirky seedbed of experimental cooking set over the four floors of a burgundy-coloured yalı overlooking the Bosphorus. “We’re here for the people who are tired of the chic, expensive, pretentious places,” owner and chef Dilara Erbay tells me from behind several hanging garlands of garlic and chilli peppers. Her hair is wrapped in a blue scarf and her skin covered in a thin film of moisture, a mixture of steam from the boiling pots and her own perspiration as she rushes around the kitchen of this cosy eatery whose open cooking spaces and pine trimmings have all the intimacy of a domestic dining room. “My husband and I wanted to create a homely, artistic and joyful venue,” she explains, “just like our home.”

Weekend dinner times and Sunday brunch see Abracadabra fill out with clientele come to feast on Dilara’s distinctive creative recipes; singular dishes like mihlama, a black sea region fondue, or deep fried snails in a hot shrimp sauce. The favourite is the ‘1’ börek, a pastry made with pastrami and dried fruit and served with a rosehip sauce, washed down with a tamarind-flavoured drink that can be fortified with a shot or two of vodka.

Dilara moved Abracadabra from Beyoğlu in the centre of Istanbul to Arnavutköy about a year ago, and hasn’t looked back. Business is booming, despite the financial crisis, and the this creaky 100-year-old yalı that was once home to an Armenian family is the perfect setting for her inventive and wholesome cuisine. For confirmation, you need look no further than the charming scene just out of the window: outside, by a small white lighthouse on the tip of Arnavutköy’s promonitory, a group of boys are throwing themselves into the water. One by one, they let the burly current sweep them upstream, where they hoist themselves up dripping onto the cement jetty and repeat the process tirelessly with ebullient shouts and screams.

Across the Bosphorus in tiny Kanlıca on the Asian shore, the pace of life slows down by yet another few notches: a smudge on the map, the village consists of a small ferry landing flanked by two wooden cafes at the water’s edge and a square containing a miniature mosque built by Ottoman wunder-architect Sinan in the 16th century. It’s just past lunchtime, and a couple of old men in flatcaps are sitting watchfully on a bench at the waters’ edge, their fishing rods bobbing in the Bosphorus while they smoke and exchange the odd word. I ask one of them about the day’s catch and he cheerfully shakes his head: “We lost a sea bass a earlier this afternoon,” he tells me. “Now it’s quiet. There’ll probably be nothing till evening.” Nonetheless, he returns dutifully to the vigil of his line.

To Istanbullus, Kanlıca is a place synonymous with one thing: yoghurt. Heading straight for the wooden cafe perched right next to the boat dock of this tiny village, I beeline for a table by the window for maximum float-on-water effect. The tall, white-shirted waiter brings me the menu, a dog-eared one-pager cataloguing variations on size and sweetness of yoghurt and the odd side dish to accompany. I order a medium sized option with extra sugar and a karışık tost, a hot cheese and pepperoni sandwich that’s more ubiquitous on the streets of Istanbul than even the time-honoured kebab. My passion for this most unsophisticated local snack is one of my best-kept secrets.

Here I meet Elif, a teaching assistant at the city’s Bilgi university who flees to Kanlıca at the first opportunity for a little respite from the urban mayhem. “Here you can enjoy a lifestyle that doesn’t suffer from over-commercialisation,” she says. Gesturing towards the European shore in the direction of Bebek and the nightclub Reina, she adds, “The European side became the easy part of the lifestyle package for modern yuppies because it’s so close to the modern residential and business districts.” She has a point. Istanbul’s European side is where the action is. With the exception of a couple of historical and commercial neighbourhoods like Üsküdar and Kadıköy, the Asian half of this bi-continental metropolitan sprawl is far more suburban in character. And at the edge of the Bosphorus it’s positively serene.

Looking at the ferry timetable, I see that the next public boat to service this little outpost isn’t due for another hour and a half, so I decide to walk down the coast towards Anadolu Hisarı, an early Ottoman castle about a kilometre down the coast from here. It was built in 1390, in the days when this land was still under Byzantine rule, and the domes of Christianity had not yet been replaced by the soaring minarets of Islam. The Ottomans had repeatedly failed to take the well-protected Constantinople, and the construction of two castles at either side of the Bosphorus’ narrowest point was part of their subsequently successful strategy to control trade in and out of the city, thus creating a commercial seige and weakening the Byzantines into eventual defeat.

The remains of the castle at Anadolu Hisarı are scant, but a walk around its tumbledown ramparts, and a stroll around its quiet harbour, stopping in at the small fish restaurant and continuing on to Küçüksu Palace, a few hundred metres downstream, is a lofty and reflective afternoon’s activity.


It’s now completely dark as Captain Mehmet’s wooden boat creaks into position at its mooring spot and his lively crew jump up and secure ropes and fenders for another night docked outside the village of Kuruçeşme. The village lights have blinked into life, winking tungsten sentinels heralding the advent of another evening along the strait.

The sea air blows onto the shore and ignites orange the coals on the tiny makeshift barbequeues grilling the day’s catch, which is to be served up in crusty bread rolls as balık ekmek. It’s a wildly popular snack that Istanbullus associate with the sea air and the squawking seagulls of their home, and I buy one, despite not being in the least bit hungry. It’s a symbolic act.

Somewhere in the distance are the glittering explosions of a firework display, most likely marking a wedding. To my far right, the fairy-lit Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the 36-year-old Bosphorus suspension bridge, sweeps for 1,500 metres into the darkness, connecting with the fronting Asian shore whose undulating obsidian landscape is layered over the lime-infused charcoal of a darkening full-moon night. The peace in the air is tangible and it’s hard to believe we’re only a 20 minute ride along the coast road back to the traffic-saturated chaos of Taksim Square and the tourist throngs in Sultanahmet.

What contrasts. I think of Mercan Dede, a local musician here and Sufi aficionado whom I spoke to some time ago about his love of the Bosphorus. He told me “Istanbul is where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.” Tonight, on the inky waters of the heaving strait, giddy with the swell of the water and a stomach over-full with fish, I think I know what he means.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s