Ships leave Istanbul and cruise up the Bosphorus — a strait that separates Europe from Asia — every day. On a cold April morning, I boarded one of them to follow in the footsteps of centuries of travelers who have left the city in this way.
A stew of dead jellyfish and buoyant trash swirls around the ship as its engines begin to churn. Topkapi Palace and the minarets of the Blue Mosque slip away, and the Ritz Carlton and the Istanbul Modern of the new city appear on the horizon. But as we head up the narrow link between the Black and Marmara seas, the packed-in feeling of one of the world’s mega-cities begins to fade into an older world built around trade and fishing.
I get my first taste of this world when our ship stops at Kanlica. Portly men walk up and down the aisles with cardboard trays. I hand over two lire and receive a container of fresh yogurt and a packet of confectioner’s sugar in return. The tart flavor – tasting of fresh, strong milk – mixes well with the sweetness. It’s easy to see why yogurt is the village’s claim to fame.
The captain chugs along slowly, giving the passengers time to study our eventual destination – Anadolu Kavagi, a fishing village on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, at the mouth of the Black sea. Yellow and blue houses line the curve of the bay and creep up the steep hillside.
Centuries of temples, castles, and mosques have crowded the summit and then crumbled away. Only Yoros Castle— built by the Byzantines to protect this strategic position against invading Ottomans — remains.
As we dock, the deckhands warn us to be back on the ship at 3:00 p.m. because they won’t be waiting. Vendors call out, trying to convince us that their restaurant – every one of them open to the air, featuring a wide grill full of skewered fish – is the best. But, for me, castles are even better than food, so I join a small group heading up the hill.
The path is steep. Between shallow breaths, I laugh at the thought of trying to storm the castle. I’d read about the strategic value of this position – now my muscles understand it.
Finally, the path flattens out to the wide grassy area of the summit. Much of Yoros Castle has fallen away but the two rounded towers remain. The multi-colored bricks seem to melt into the gray sky, and the sprawl of Istanbul, tucked in between hills, is just visible in the distance.
I look out across the Black Sea. The hill we’re on is the last bit of land before the expanse of water begins. Below, enormous freighters look small and lonely; their journey almost complete. Three Turkish navy ships cut silver lines in the water as they head into the blue beyond.
Centuries of defenders have looked out from this spot, waiting for battle. The Byzantines, the Ottomans, the Genoese. Raiding Cossacks from Russia had even made attempts on the castle.
We descend halfway down the hill to a restaurant built into steep tiers of earth. As I eat a shepherd’s salad of ripe tomatoes, parsley, and chunks of cucumber and onion dressed in olive oil, a cat curls around my ankle, asking for food. The restaurant competes for space with chicken coops, twisted old fruit trees and walls made of stone that matches the castle’s. A dog leaps onto the roof from a footpath, then paces, barking in protest over all the new people in his territory. A storm rolls in over the skyscrapers of Istanbul, miles away.
Anadolu Kavagi is very clearly a tourist’s village, a place that comes alive and shows a different face when ships spill people out onto the streets. But it’s the kind of place that doesn’t bother to hide its other side.
I follow a downhill path through quiet neighborhoods and see lines of laundry fluttering in the breeze. Hand-made marionettes fill the dusty window of a house set back from the street.
A woman and her daughter sell hammered-metal earrings that have been painted in bright primary colors near the wooden pier leading back to the boat. I try asking about the earrings and how they are made but the mother speaks only Turkish. I buy three pairs and use what little Turkish I have to say ‘thank you.’
As the boat turns back towards Istanbul, I think about everything we’ve just passed and wonder what it must be like to be a local. To experience that brief respite before the next ship shows up at the dock.