The one-day Bosphorus Cruise along the strait that divides Europe and Asia has long been a classic component of any Istanbul itinerary but I found it less touristy than expected and infinitely pleasurable.
The old ferry passes a line of fishermen setting up for a day on the docks and bridges below the Golden Horn. Then we see the excesses of the late Ottoman palaces and mosques nestling along the shore before the great span of the Bosphorus bridge hoves into view.
There is a great Ottoman fortress here at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus – crouching below the gridlocked traffic on the bridge. This is the point where Darius of Persia crossed with his army on pontoons in 512 BC. I’d imagine the traffic is not moving much faster across the one-kilometre-long bridge now!
Pleasure craft are moored outside gracious waterside mansions, a reminder of an age before the super tanker. The elegant Yalis are wooden villas with wooden gingerbread and brightly painted shutters. They were highly desirable during the hot weather in Ottoman times and still fetch a pretty price. These are swanky suburbs such as Arnarutkoy where once there were villages.
Passenger and commercial vessels criss cross our wake and the wooded hillsides are punctuated by giant, scarlet streaming Turkish flags. Cypresses, umbrella pines and deciduous trees yellowing as the autumn advances.
The ferry is dwarfed by an enormous container ship as it churns past on its way to collect oil from the Black Sea ports. Not dwarfed nearly as much as the tiny wooden fishing boats containing one guy throwing a line over the side.
I buy a cup of chai for 50 cents in a tiny, delicately curved glass. Then a delicious kanlica yoghurt with a pile of icing sugar on top for two Turkish Lira.
The ferry passes the fishing village of Rumeli Kavagi – a collection of shanties on the waterfront and people bent over mending their nets. Our final destination on the Bosphorus cruise is Anadolu Kavagi and the midday call to prayer can be heard as we dock.
The waterfront restaurants are good for a drink I’m sure but go a few streets back and find a hole-in-the-wall eatery for the best Bosphorus fare. At Coskun Balikcsi I enjoyed a delectable, lip-smackingly good meal of grilled mackerel, sardines, calamari and mussels for 15 Turkish Lira.
Along the waterfront from the dock I made friends with a family of the many village cats – all looking particularly healthy (it’s good practise to feed local cats in Turkey) from the fishy diet.
There’s plenty of time to walk up through the dilapidated village to the ruined Byzantine fortress. Sit on the low perimeter wall in the sun and survey the Bosphorus. The sunlight casts sparkling patches on these international waters as the ships pass within a speed limit of eight to 12 knots (there’s often a queue).
Walking back down the hill there is a highly romantic picnic spot under the trees.
After two hours we depart and flocks of noisy gulls follow the ferry, trying to catch the bread thrown by passengers. The view back over the village and the fortress is impressive.
By Natasha von Geldern
How to organise a Bosphorus cruise
Going on a Bosphorus cruise couldn’t be easier. Boats depart from the Bogaz Ferry Terminal near the Galata Bridge in Eminonu. There is a daily departure at 10.35am all year and during May-September there are also noon and 1.35pm sailings. Buy tickets at the terminal – at busy times you have to allow some extra time for this.