Istanbul, 25 November 2012.
Today I’ve decided to take a cruise up the Bosphorus to the edge of the black sea, hopefully giving my legs a chance to rest while the ship does the hard work of sailing us up and down the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia.
I take the tram down to the waterfront at Eminönü, the closest pier to the Galata Bridge on the south side of the Golden Horn. All along the waterfront are touts shouting “Bosphorus, Bosphorus, Bosphortour…”, each wearing a cheap fancy dress captain’s hat and holding a laminated card with a picture of a ferry and various sights along the Istanbul Strait. Ferries depart from here to many parts of Istanbul and in the morning rush hour thousands of people flock to and from the piers. The only ones who seem unhurried are the many anglers lining the Galata Bridge, chain smoking while leaning wearily against the railings next to their rods, watching of the web of lines that hang across the restaurant terraces below the bridge and into the green waters.
Settling myself next to a window looking at the European shore I watch as we pull away from the minaret studded old city. Rounding the corner of the Golden Horn and entering the Bosphorus proper, the older, smaller buildings begin to disappear. Apart from the occasional old waterfront palace or luxury hotel, the buildings become much more modern and further inland I see high-rise buildings appearing, some still under construction. Istanbul is an expanding city of almost thirteen million people, with much of the new construction appearing to happen to the north of the old centre and on the western side of the Bosphorus.
I try to match the occasional palace or notable building with the descriptions given in my guidebook, but quickly give up. The man sitting behind me has hired an english speaking personal guide who is happily talking through the history of Istanbul and explaining any significant buildings on the route, so I sit back and give up trying to block out his voice while I read and let him talk me along the strait.
After we stop at Kanlica the onboard refreshment seller switches from selling tea to yogurt. Previously he sauntered around with trays of small glass cups of clear sweet turkish tea. Now he strides proudly around the deck calling “Fresh yogurt!” and demonstrating its quality by peeling the foil lid from one pot and then walking around holding it upside down, showing that it doesn’t fall out. I’m too confused by this demonstration of yogurt quality to decide if I want one. By the time I’ve decided that, yes, I want a gravity defying yogurt, he’s back to selling tea.
At the confluence of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, atop a hill on the Asian side, sits Yoros Castle. Below it nestles the small town of Anadolu Kavagi. Here almost all the ferry passengers get out and stream into the town, the centre of which is exclusively restaurants for tourists on day trips. As we crowd on the ferry’s stairs waiting for the gangplank to be wheeled into place I strike up a conversation with another solo traveller. We both wander up to the castle and I ask my new companion, Norman, to recommend the best thing he’s seen so far, which results in the Basilica Cistern being added to the top of my sight seeing list for tomorrow.
We follow the signs to Yoros Castle and foolishly take the well signed ‘short cut’, which does appear to be shorter, but mysteriously takes you right through many restaurant terraces on the climb up to the castle. From the striped red brick and grey stone ruins we can see the Black Sea almost merge with the blue grey sky, pinched and held into place just below the horizon by the two headlands. As we stand and watch a regular stream of container and tanker ships sail by, rocking the occasional smaller fishing boat as they cruise towards the open water and the far away ports of Russia, Romania, Georgia and The Ukraine.
We wander back down through the terraces and seat ourselves at one of the many restaurants that make up most of the town. Norman and I discuss our mutual unease about ’touristy’ destinations. For reasons we can’t explain we feel snobbish about places that rely on tourism; that somehow it’s not a real industry or that it is demeaning, even though we are perfectly happy to travel to such destinations. Clearly allowing people to come and experience different cultures or locations, and making that easier and more pleasurable, is of great benefit to everyone. It is also a good way of redistributing wealth from richer nations to poorer nations as their relative inexpensiveness makes them more appealing1. Why does that make us uneasy? And what would a more ‘authentic’ destination be like, one with a neglected and under appreciated wonder attraction or somewhere completely mundane?
A ferry arrives mid afternoon and we sail back towards Istanbul. We approach the city as the sun is setting, beautifully illuminating the old city, outlining the many domes and minarets, not just of the bigger mosques, but of the many smaller neighbourhood mosques throughout the city. As we get closer more and more small boats and ferries hurry through the water, dodging the steady march of larger merchant ships in the central channel, determined to finish their errands before night falls.
Before dinner I go to a turkish bathhouse near my hostel, picking the simplest self service option from the long list of scrubbing and massaging combinations listed in the fragrant, humid lobby. After changing in a private lockable room upstairs I wander into the baths proper via two massive wooden doors. The inner room is, as expected, sweltering, the steamy air almost seems to choke at first, thick and hot in your mouth and throat. I find a space on the hot round stone table that takes up most of the circular room and lie down. Above, through the steam, I can just make out the many small circular windows that sit recessed in the thick domed roof, as if we’re looking out of some insect’s nest. The pink painted dome is patchy in places and looks like it’s sweating almost as much as I am. Around me other patrons are lying down, either sweating out or being scrubbed vigorously by strong armed attendants under an enveloping cloud of soap bubbles with only their heads and feet visible at either end.
I relax on the scolding table and concentrate on breathing the hot cloying air comfortably, reassuring myself that if there is enough oxygen for the masseurs to tenderise their customers, there must be enough for me to just lie here. My skin starts to tickle with the drops of sweat that a form and run off, occasionally a slosh of hot water runs against me as soap bubbles are rinsed off someone lying nearby. I lie like this for a timeless age, the clang of pots, the splash of water and the murmur of people becoming more distant. The scolding table now feels comfortable and all I can feel is the sweat sliding out of my pores and brushing past the occasional arm or leg hair. Outside a thousands years or five minutes could have elapsed, the people coming and going could be romans, ottomans, tourists or web designers. Baths like these have served them all for thousands of years, the ageless steam cleaning them all alike.
Later as I wander out of the baths and into the cooler night air my mediative daze slowly recedes. I walk past the 3rd century BC Column of Constantine and the 15th century AD Atik Ali Pasa Mosque as a modern tram trundles by. In Istanbul it can be any century you want it to be.