As much as Istanbul can be beguiling in its beauty, it can also sometimes be a little suffocating in its intensity. Grandiose historic buildings are dwarfed by contemporary construction, the colors of commerce upon which this city was built provide constant distraction, smells of roasting coffee blend with chargrilling meat into a heady aroma, and the sounds of buskers, hawkers, and perpetual traffic fill in the gaps. This is why sometimes the best way to fully appreciate Istanbul is to take a step back and see the bigger picture. And in a city surrounded by water, what better way than to find your sea legs and get away from it all? We joined Sinan Sökmen, founder of Istanbul Tour Studio for three very different views at the city. But, before we start, we ask Sinan why he likes to show people Istanbul from the water.
“The geography of Istanbul can be quite confusing for first time visitors, so viewing it from the sea makes for a great orientation, especially on visitors’ first day. It’s also a chance to show the size of the city and all the riches it has to offer – too many people just see Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu but never get a chance to see Asian Istanbul or the beauty of the Bosphorus. Also, for people who already know the city, it gives them a chance to see it in a different light – people are always struck by how green it looks – something you don’t always notice from land.”
SAILING ON MARMARA SEA
Meeting in Kalamış Marina before the trip begins gives us a chance to see how the other half lives, as smiling faces wave at us from the obvious comfort of their yachts. We are greeted by our skipper, Captain Vedat, whose tanned, weathered face is reassurance enough that this is a man who spends much of his life on a boat. After maneuvering us expertly out of the harbor, Vedat invites us to the helm to turn the boat southwest in the direction of the Princes’ Islands.
It has been known as the Marmara since 1788, and was named after Maramara Island (the second largest in Turkey).
It comes from the Greek word for marble (marmaron), which the islands were known for.
With an area of 11,471 km and a maximum depth of 1219m, it is said to be the smallest sea in the world.
Although the wind isn’t strong, we are able to raise the sails, and glide noiselessly through the Marmara Sea, watching Istanbul get smaller and smaller. Viewing the city from this angle gives you a chance to see just how far it extends on the Asian side – a seemingly never-ending spread, backed by rolling hills. Out here though, you’re alone with just your thoughts and nature for company; flocks of Yelkovan Shearwaters skim the water, fat seagulls bob contentedly, and we even get a glimpse of a pod of dolphins cutting effortlessly through the waves.
As we approach the clutch of Princes’ Islands, Sinan leans across to tell us that the Byzantine princes and members of the Ottoman sultans’ families were exiled here – which is how they got their name – and that they later became a favorite retreat of the wealthy Istanbulites resulting in the construction of the beautiful mansions that still stand today. There are nine islands here, and Istanbul Tour Studio offers two options; an eight-hour cruise in which we can visit several, or a four-hour option. We choose the shorter and opt to stop for lunch in the peaceful Burgazada. We debark and take a stroll around the charming streets, heavily scented from the pine, fig, bay and oleander trees lining them, before stopping to visit Sait Faik Abasıyanık Museum. Dedicated to this Turkish literature great (himself a great lover of the sea), it’s an opportunity to see the interior of an island home, unchanged for over decades. Afterwards we enjoy some traditional meze and an even more traditional glass of rakı at Yasemin Restaurant before climbing back on board, thinking ‘we could get used to this.’
No prior knowledge of sailing is required, but if you want to get involved, Vedat’s an excellent teacher.
ROWING THE GOLDEN HORN
Whilst enjoying the life of luxury suits some, others prefer to take a more active role in their sightseeing. With that in mind we head down to the mouth of the Golden Horn at the crack of dawn to try our hand (and arm, shoulder and leg muscles) at rowing. Experienced rowers can simply take their seats, take their oars and take off (with Sinan). However, for novices like us, there is thankfully a thirty minute training class before we get underway.
The real beauty of this tour is the opportunity to see the city before most of its inhabitants wake up. There’s a perfect stillness in the water, broken by the gentle splashes of our oars. There’s also a tangible peace at this time of the morning that is broken when the commuters begin their daily slogs, the horns start blaring, and everyone starts rushing. Passing the colorful houses of historically cosmopolitan Fener and Balat (where Jews, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks have all lived) before the commotion begins, you have an opportunity to imagine the city as it once was.
Golden Horn Facts
An enormous chain was hung across its mouth to prevent ships from entering it during the siege of 1453, parts of wich are on display in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
The Golden Horn is 7.5km long and 750 at its widest..
Rowing was, of course, once the means of all the traffic on these waters, a fact we are reminded of as we pass a traditional Ottoman imperial caique. Now used just for tourist excursions, these long narrow skiffs were once used by the sultans and his suite for daily excursions and ceremonial purposes. Whilst the sultans had teams of rowers to propel him along in splendor, ours is a rather more low key affair that is both tiring and exhilarating at once. After working up quite an appetite we end our one hour and a half long adventure with a hearty breakfast at the charming Café Vodina in Balat.
CRUISING ON THE BOSPHORUS
The Bosphorus strait separating Europe and Asia both divides and defines Istanbul, more than any of its other geographical features. To begin this trip we head to the pretty region of Arnavutköy, which retains more of a community feel than some of its flashy neighbors. After being helped aboard this luxury motorized yacht, we climb the stairs to the first floor to relax on the comfy seating, and are brought a glass of cold white wine. After our more energetic sailing and rowing, this feels like a well-deserved treat. We take off, head north and Sinan tells us about the impressive buildings on the shores, pointing out some we know and some we don’t. Passing under the two colossal suspension bridges, we pass the stunning art nouveau Egyptian Consulate, the small-but-perfectly-formed palace, Küçüksu Kasrı that was used by sultans as an abode of reprieve when on country excursionsor hunting trips in nearby woodlands, and the crumbling ramparts of the Anadolu and Rumeli Fortresses, set on opposite sides of the narrowest part of strait, and designed by the besieging Ottoman forces to cut off Byzantine Constantinople from supplies.
It is 32km long, with a maximum width of 3.7km at the northern entrance and a minimum wideth of 700m between Kandillil and Asiyan and 750m between Anadoluhisari and Rumelihisari.
It is the second busiest strait on the planet, with an average of 48,000 vessels passing each year - that's 132 vessels per day, not even including local traffic.
But more than just the history, we see today’s Istanbul. With skyscrapers reaching to the skies in the distance, life continues on these waterfronts in the same fashion it has for years. Fishermen, smoking cigarettes down to the butt cast their lines in again and again hoping for a bite, young boys scramble up a makeshift diving board and jump into the jellyfish infested waters, the wooden yalıs (waterfront mansions) that haven’t succumbed to fire still stand, but their glory has faded, and their paint flakes. It is from this angle that we see the city’s contrasts; East and West, traditional and contemporary, rich and poor – all juxtaposed so clearly when viewed from the water.
For more information about all of Sinan’s carefully curated tours, including other unusual ways of seeing Istanbul, such as a street art walk, mushroom foraging, street photography, and jewelry making, visit: www.istanbultourstudio.com, or call: 0533 355 30 49.