(Aug 19): Turkey's historical city can be enjoyed while cruising along the Bosphorus and strolling through its streets
The best way to experience Istanbul must be on the water. A cruise along the cerulean Bosphorus Strait spirits you away from the crowds at the transcendent Blue Mosque and the traffic that clogs Turkey’s largest city. Bobbing on the water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other, you get a sense of the sweep of this transcontinental city. And gliding past grand Ottoman-era waterfront mansions and looking back at the skyline pierced by minarets, you get an idea of the empire that ruled for some 600 years.
Yes, the Bosphorus is one of the world’s busiest waterways. All day long, catamarans and ferries zigzag across the 32km-long strait, taking thousands of locals and tourists from shore to shore. Yet, there is something meditative about being out at sea. As the waves lap rhythmically against our boat, the pace gradually slows down. There is nothing left to do but drink in the panorama while sipping chilled white wine.
The wine is a Fume Blanc from Sarafin, a label from one of Turkey’s oldest wineries, Doluca Wines. Made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes harvested late in the season, this pale white wine is surprisingly buttery and fruity. It finishes with a hint of the smokiness that comes from ageing in oak. An- other surprise is the price: At around $20 a bottle, it is only slightly more than the cost of a glass in a Singapore bar. We savour this with a platter of local cheese that is balanced on the bow of the yacht. The long ropes of stretchy cheese in the vein of mozzarella, and cubes of semi-hard cheese that tastes like feta, pair perfectly with the Fume Blanc.
We had boarded the 20-seater yacht by SU Yachts at Arnavutkö y pier, some 10km north of Istanbul’s historical core, Sultanhmet. Arnavutkö y is a laidback neighbourhood known for its seafood restaurants as well as wooden Ottoman mansions, called yali. Built so close to the water that they look like they are floating on the Bosphorus, these homes of wealthy Turkish families were often secondary residences designed as a retreat from the bustling city.
Most date back to the 19th century and were evocatively painted in Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s memoir, Istanbul. “What I enjoyed most about our family excursions to the Bosphorus was to see the traces everywhere of a sumptuous culture that had been influenced by the West without having lost its originality or vitality,” he writes. The most famous and opulent of these is Dolmabahce Palace. It was dreamt up by the empire’s 13th sultan, who felt that his medieval-era Topkapi Palace was lacking in luxury and comfort. The result was a lavish 285-room edifice that fuses Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and Ottoman architecture. Completed in 1856, it remained the nerve centre of the Ottoman empire until 1922. Today, many of the yali along the Bos-phorus have been turned into boutique hotels or restaurants.
Being off the tourist track, Arnavut kö y must be one of Istanbul’s better-kept secrets. We saunter into Chef Meyhane, drawn to the restaurant’s attractive cobalt, turquoise and white décor. It turns out to be a tavern owned by Turkish chef-restaurateur Gazi Ateú, who produces a smorgasbord of meze, from staples such as hummus and tzatziki to dishes influenced by Cretan cuisine. The standouts are muamara, a dip made of roasted red peppers and walnuts, and fish kokorec. Kokorec are grilled skewers of offal, a delicacy in Turkey. However, Chef Meyhane has reinvented it by using seafood and serves it as a stew, making it more palatable for first-timers.
While Arnavutkö y exudes old-world charm, neighbouring Bebek drips with new-world glamour. Just 2km away, it is dotted with chi-chi cafés, stylish shops and posh real estate carved into cliffs and overlooking private yachts down below. However, it also offers one of the most pleasurable and Instagrammable walks along the Bosphorus. One sunny morning, with the sea air in our hair, we strolled the 2km to the Europe Fortress (Rumeli Hisari). Built in the mid-15th century for the final attack on Constantinople (as Istanbul was then known), the hilltop fortress looms over the narrowest part of the Bosphorus Strait.
Aesthetically, there is much to enjoy in Istanbul — the dreamy Iznik tiles on the walls of the Blue Mosque; the majestic remains of the Topkapi Palace and its courtyards; and the peeling frescoes and mosaics of the Hagia Sofia, a Greek Orthodox church built by Emperor Justinian that was subsequently converted into a mosque and is now a museum. Istanbul’s famed heritage is justifiably earned.
Less celebrated but just as impressive is the local food and wine. Turkish food is more than just kebabs, and its wines have moved beyond the table variety. A notable red, hard to find outside of Turkey, is one made of its native Kalecik Karasi grape. Vinkara Winery does a particularly well-balanced version, sourcing its grape northeast of Ankara, in the middle to northern part of Anatolia, and producing a wine that hums with red fruit flavours and mellow tannins.
On a trip to Istanbul’s Spice Market, we discover that Turkey has more than 190 varieties of cheese. A standout is Divli Obruk Tulum Peynir, a goat’s cheese from south central Turkey that is aged in a goat skin casing inside a cave. Unlike most goat cheeses, this hard cheese is not overpowering. Another is the Ezine Yagli Sert Beyaz-Peynir, a white cheese from Canakkale on Turkey’s southeastern coast that is decadently creamy in the mouth.
And there can be nothing better than powering up for the day with breakfast at Mado, a chain of cafés known for its pastries. On a cobblestone alley off Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Street, in the heart of European Istanbul, we survey the spread with incredulity. There is bal-kay-mak (clotted cream with honeycomb), cheese with dried apricots and walnuts, black and green olives, tahine peksek (a spread of sesame and grape molasses), fresh fruit, berry jam, borek (filo pastry filled with cheese), eggs with sujuk (a spicy beef sausage), and cup after cup of dense, invigorating Turkish coffee. Just the fortification needed to brave the hordes in enchanting Istanbul
Sunita Sue Leng is a former associate editor at The Edge Singapore