Crossroads Tour: The Bosphorus – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To celebrate, I’m reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  My Crossroads Tour series details my travels to Florence, Genoa and Istanbul in May 2011.

I awaken from first decent sleep I’ve had since arriving here, to sun streaming through the embroidered and sequined curtain. What a glorious, sunny day! After the traditional breakfast that I now look forward to every morning of peynir cheese, oil-cured olives, sweet breads, and french bread with today’s pair of homemade jams, I consult my new map, and chart my day.

I follow the train tracks to the waterfront for a ferry to the Rumeli Fortress. I find the Sirkeci train station, the arrival point of the legendary Orient Express. I stop to take photos of the cute little steam engine that sits in the yard along side the station. I had hoped to come to Istanbul on this train, which ran for nearly a century before shutting down in 1977. An Orient Express run by the Venice Simpleton company now runs only twice a year, departing out of London.

The original Orient Express began operation in 1883 in Paris, where it took three days to reach Istanbul via Romania, Munich, Vienna, Varna, Budapest and Bucharest. Six years later, the first non-stop train departed Paris for Istanbul, where it stopped at the Sirkeci Station. Passengers could walk from Sirkeci to the ferry terminal for service across the Bosphorus, where they could pick up the Ottoman Railways on the Asian side of Istanbul to continue their journey to Bagdad and other points in the Middle & Far East. 

I find the Eminönü ferry dock but am outwitted by the ticket machines. I ask for assistance from one of the clerks who redirects me to the Bosphorus cruise dock. After several failed attempts to rephrase my question, I grudgingly trudge north and buy a ticket for TL25 instead of the TL7 that the ferry would have cost. There’s no seats left on the upper deck, but plenty of room below on old wooden seats that remind me of ships from the 1940’s.

The Bosphorus is a nineteen mile long strait that connects the Black Sea in the north, to the Sea of Marmara in the south, and separates European Istanbul from its Asian side. It was a critical factor in the establishment of Constantinople in the fourth century, and remained a strategic waterway for centuries after that. 

We pull away from the dock, and I see the waterfront side of the Ayasofya and the Sirkeci train station, and a little later, the minarets of the Blue Mosque. The skyline is studded with mosques and minarets. We pass the small Ortaköy Camii, and next to it, the Esma Sultan Yalisi, a 19th century mansion that was used to store tobacco during the 20th century.

After we pass under the Bosphorus Bridge, I queue up for the WC (restroom). The expressions on the faces of the German women in front of me make me wish my German wasn’t so rusty. I find out the cause when my turn comes to use the Bayern (women’s room).

It’s my first encounter with a traditional Turkish toilet – an oblong ceramic piece with a very shallow bowl, a hole, and two textured areas where you place your feet. Now I know why the German women are grimacing and shaking their hands. The toilet reeks as any pit privy does, and I wonder if the Germans understood that the water tap and pitcher at your right foot is there to flush the toilet as well as take care of any other needs. One more experience checked off my bucket list (no pun intended).

The Rumeli Hisari comes into view. It is expansive and I’m very disappointed that this boat doesn’t stop here (which is why I was trying to take the ferry).

Built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1452, the Rumeli Hisari was completed in 80 days and was one of two fortresses that led to Mehmet’s successful siege of Constantinople the following year.

A pair of yogurt vendors board at the port of Kanlica. One sells you a yogurt, the other hands you a packet of powdered sugar and a spoon. The yogurt is crusty on top and really good.

Beyond Kanlica we reach Rumeli Kavagi, where the strait narrows and is thought to be the site of the ‘Clashing Rocks’ from Homer’s epic ‘Jason and the Argonauts.’ During the Byzantine period a large column was erected as a warning to ships. It remains a treacherous part of the strait, even with modern day navigational equipment. 

We reach our final destination, the small fishing village of Anadolu Cavagi that sits at the base of a hill, crested by Yoros Kalesi. I start up the hill, and I’m approached by a waiter from the nearby restaurant, whom I try to ignore until I realize that he’s pointing me towards the castle. The path up the hill is steep, taking me past a cemetery, and through a maze of opportunistically placed eateries, and up to the ruins of the fortress.

A ruin which is closed for renovation…

Andalolu Kavagi was the customs point on the Bosphorus during the Roman era. The village industries included fishing, gardening and serving the ships while waiting for favorable winds to the Black Sea.

I content myself with wandering around the back side. This is the closest I’ll get to the Black Sea, as the rest of the land on this side is restricted to military access. I turn around and head back towards the path, just in time to see a group of men old enough to know better, scrambling over the locked iron gate at the entrance to the fortress, which seems like a really good way to get yourself in trouble.

The stone stairs leading down are a little treacherous, and I’m mindful of patches of broken glass. I progress down the path, past a shanty house with chickens roaming free, and another restaurant. Down a set of stairs I find a play yard with a wooden swing set, a wooden teeter-totter taller than a man, and a number of hammocks. As inviting as it is, I opt to continue down the hill. I add to my photo collection of fountains, and start my collection of stone Istanbuli lions…

The boat schedule shows that I still have time for lunch, so I head back to the waiter who pointed me to the castle. My eye contact is returned with a big smile as he seats me for lunch. I choose swordfish, cooked on a small grill just feet from my table. I look around at a terrain built on the side of a hill, with outdoor cafes under tarp roofs, foliage and intense sunlight that make me think more of Greece than Turkey. When I finish, I spend several minutes trying to get the waiter’s attention for my check so I can head back to the ferry.

No one is ever in a hurry here. Choices are made via sign language or gesture, checks are tallied by pen and paper or calculator and if you ask for a receipt you are likely to get the scrap of paper they did the tally on.

I wander down towards the ferry dock, stopping for a gelato and looking for the elusive silver ring that I ultimately will never find this trip. I buy a glass evil eye key chain from a young gypsy woman in the square. (The Hotel Han attaches glass evil eyes to their room keys. It’s the small things that serve as the sweetest reminders.) I stake out a place near the door of the ferry terminal, since the first ones in line get the best seats (though that often means a 45 minute wait). I get a window seat but I think I napped most of the way home…

Back at the hotel, the young waiter, whose name I have learned is Cihan, stands and smiles as he waits for our nightly game of ‘What’s For Dinner’. Baha later invites me to what I now call the Captain’s Table for a cup of coffee and small talk about soccer and football, and my hats.

After dinner, I return to Gulhane (Tulip) Park which surrounds the Topkapi Palace. The birds I couldn’t recognize by voice, turn out to be grey herons. The tops of the trees are filled with their nests, and I break out my binoculars for a better look. What a spectacular sight! More pairs of birds than I can count, building nests and mating, puffing out their chests and making a racket with their calls.  I note the location of the Science Museum which I will visit tomorrow.

I go to my room to download the photos from the day. Construction continues and the building starts to shake as heavy equipment seems to slam into the side of the hotel’s foundation. It felt like an earthquake that lasted for hours, but at least it wasn’t jack hammers. I doze off and on until finally, at about 2 AM, quiet reigns. I learn later that the heavy work must be done at night as trucks are not allowed on these streets during the day during tourist season.

There appear to be no sound ordinances here at all…

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