Trail of the unexpected: Along the Bosphorus

Cathy Packe explores lively districts and historic sites along both sides of the Bosphorus

The world's most spectacular continental divide? Surely the Bosphorus, the 19-mile waterway that defines Istanbul. On the European side, the Topkapi Palace presides over the southern limit, while the minarets of great mosques puncture the sky. Every visitor to the city should take a ferry across the divide from the Eminonu quay, from where boats shuttle constantly to several ports on the Asian side: choose Harem to see the Selimiye Barracks, where Florence Nightingale was based, or Uskudar for the small but attractive Semsi Pasa mosque, designed by a major architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan.

For centuries the Bosphorus has been a strategic link between the Black Sea and Russia to the north and the Mediterranean – via the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean – in the south. The best way to appreciate its significance is to wander its length.

On Sunday mornings, amateur fishermen cast their lines into the water, then wait patiently for something to bite. Buckets of small fish, destined to be fried for supper, attract the attention of curious children, while families buy chestnuts or mussels from stalls along the waterfront.

The usual visitor experience of the Bosphorus is on one of the cruise boats that depart from Eminonu pier. But while there is plenty to see from the water, I decided on a closer exploration, to get to the mouth of the strait by staying, mostly, on dry land.

The bustling streets that skirt the European shore soon turn into a pleasant promenade and calmer suburbs: Ortakoy with its waterside bars, and Arnavutkoy, full of attractive cafés. Glamorous summer houses and chic restaurants mask the fact that for centuries the Bosphorus has been one of the most bitterly contested waterways in history.

The Roman Emperor Constantine was aware of its strategic significance when he chose the site of his new capital, Constantinople, in the 4th century; and even before they conquered the city some 1,100 years later, the Ottomans started building fortifications along the water.

Rumeli Hisari, "the Fortress of Europe", looks more like a pleasure palace than a defensive site, cascading as it does down the hillside and stopping just before it tumbles into the water. Now, deeply crenellated walls surrounding a series of towers are all that is left. Trees and shrubs have taken over the interior, leaving space only for a recently constructed amphitheatre which is used for outdoor concerts in the summer. But when it was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, the fortress was a prominent statement of his intention to advance on Constantinople.

Just beyond Rumeli Hisari is the newer of the two suspension bridges that span the Bosphorus, a useful intercontinental link for trucks and cars but which is off limits to pedestrians. Yet private enterprise is flourishing on both continents, and I was soon directed towards the waterfront and a local boatman. I clambered into his small craft, quickly followed by a family of eight. Together we chugged across the water from Europe to Asia, groaning occasionally as we were buffeted by wash from larger vessels.

The boat skirted past Anadolu Hisari, the Asian counterpart of the European fortress, and moored at the tiny landing stage at Kanlica. A cat lay sleeping on a bench. An elderly man was selling bread rolls from a stall near the ferry stop, and a small market was doing a brisk trade in hats and cheap jewellery.

On the road beyond I found a bus heading north. Beside the water were family groups enjoying a weekend barbecue, but as the bus turned inland through dense pine forest, soldiers on patrol behind walls of sandbags provided a stark reminder that the shore is fiercely guarded territory.

At the end of the road is Yoros Castle, a striking structure built in alternating horizontal stripes of stone and brick, a typical Byzantine design. Despite the presence of the military around the headland, this is the perfect spot to find peace and quiet. The silence is broken by a couple of donkeys braying in the distance. The view is of the open sea merging gently into the horizon.

In the past, chains stretched across the mouth of the Bosphorus where it met the Black Sea. Imposing fortifications on both sides of the water would have made sailing south a hazardous affair. Now, all it takes is a pleasant afternoon cruise.

Below Yoros Castle is the picturesque village of Anadolu Kavagi, with its popular fish restaurants overlooking the water. I headed downhill to wait for the ferry that would take me back to Istanbul. The trip afforded me a different perspective, and a sense of just how close Europe and Asia are at the narrowest point in the strait. And although I'd crossed from one continent to the other on my journey north, it was good to experience the Bosphorus as so many visitors – from Phoenicians to 21st-century tourists – have done: from the water.

Travel essentials: Istanbul

Getting there

* The main airport, Ataturk, is served by Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester and BA (0844 493 0787; from Heathrow. Sabiha Gokcen Airport is served by Turkish Airlines and Pegasus (0845 084 8980; from Stansted, and by easyJet (0905 821 0905; from Luton and Gatwick.

Staying there

* The writer travelled as a guest of Hilton Hotels and stayed at the Hilton Istanbul (00 90 212 315 6000;, on the European side of the Bosphorus at Cumhuriyet Caddesi Harbiye. Doubles start at €260 including breakfast.

More information

* Britons must pay £10 (in cash) for a visa on arrival.

* Tourist Office: 020-7839 7778;

Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
people70-year-old was most famous for 'You are So Beautiful'
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
The US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'