The Bosphorus Strait is that body of water that separates the Asian and European geographical landmasses as it meanders its way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. It’s what makes Istanbul an exotic city that straddles two hemispheres where East literally meets West.
In order to see and experience for ourselves the ghost of the past and the vibe of the present, we took the 1-1/2-hour cruise that plies the 31-kilometer length of the waterway. The trip actually takes about 6 hours total because there is a 3-hour layover at the last stop for passengers to stroll around, have lunch and visit the ruins of a fort located on top of a hill. And so we hopped on one of the ferries at the dock in Eminonu right in the city center next to the Galata Bridge which took us to the town of Anadolu Kavagi at the mouth of the entrance to the Black Sea. At $10 for the return journey, it was a steal!
Along the shoreline stood hundreds of ancient and modern landmarks such as old houses in traditional neighborhoods as well as palaces and fortifications that blended in with the landscape. Upon embarking, we took up our prime seats at the rear of the upper deck so we could see a wider panoramic view of the receding scenery. With a short blast of its horn and the chugging of its engines, the ferry pushed off from the dock followed by a flock of seagulls whom passengers threw bread crumbs at in order to take their pictures up close.
First stop was Dolmabahce Palace which was the home of the Sultans after it was built in 1856 with a mixture of European styles fused with Ottoman architecture and is the biggest palace in Turkey occupying 4.5 hectares including huge gardens. Next was the chic Besiktas district with expensive neighborhoods before we stopped in Ortakoy, with its small but beautifully well-proportioned mosque with a Baroque design which stood right next to the towering Bosphorus Bridge. This first of three suspension bridges spanning the strait was built in 1973 and is 1.5 kms. long.
The outskirts of Istanbul slowly gave way to attractive towns and villages which you could glimpse from afar before the Fortress of Europe came into view with its crenelated stone walls connecting three great round towers. This was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 to prevent the passage of foreign vessels as a prelude to his conquest of Constantinople. Here the strait reached its narrowest point at 700 meters where the Sultan Mehmet Bridge stood. Interestingly, it was also at this point where Darius the Great built a pontoon bridge in 500BC to enable his army to cross in order to wage war against his favorite enemy, the Greeks.
During the 19th century, foreign ambassadors built their summer retreat homes in the surrounding countryside which was quite hilly but with great views of the Bosphorus. You can see these large and beautiful houses still standing with additional boathouses in front owned by the city’s rich clique. Another interesting sight are the well-preserved wooden villas called yalis built by the well-heeled 17th century Ottoman Turks. Some have become more elaborate done in Baroque and turn-of-the-century Art Noveau with many painted rust red, a color known as “Ottoman Rose”.
The last stop on the European side was the village of Rumeli Kavagi where the Bosphorus widens up to join the Black Sea. The ferry crossed this spot to the Asian side in the quaint village of Anadolu Kavagi where all the passengers got down. It was quite touristy with numerous restaurants lining the quay and the narrow streets in the center had row upon row of stalls grilling seafood. Suddenly feeling hungry what with all the appetizing aroma permeating the air, we settled down in one of the restaurants’ outdoor verandah for a sumptuous lunch of calamari, seabass and salad washed down with Efes beer.
Then it was time for some serious walking up the hill to visit the Yoros Castle. Fought over by the Ottomans, Byzantines, and Genoese, the fortifications are now in ruins and the main entrance was closed. The only consolation after the 20-minute climb were the breathtaking views of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea. Gleaming white in the noonday sun stood the third bridge, the brand-new $3 billion Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge which is also the tallest in the world standing at 350 meters.
The return trip on the same ferry that left at 3:00PM. skirted the Asian side this time. It had fewer sights but there were interesting things to see as well like the colorful stately houses dotting the shore. The cool breeze made us drowsy as we watched many ships and tankers headed for the Black Sea carrying their cargo all the way to the Ukraine and Russia. The strait sure is a busy waterway.
By the time we disembarked on the same pier we earlier left in Eminonu, we had a wider understanding of Istanbul’s colorful past and realized the vital importance of the Bosphorus in the life of the city after seeing it up close. So if you find yourself there, go on a ferry cruise – it’s deeply enthralling, amazingly cheap, and lots of fun!
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Also read: 15 Best Things To Do In Istanbul, Turkey