Istanbul lies in probably the best geographical location in the whole world; its strategic importance might not be as prime as it used to be when the Byzantine Emperors used to run the shop, but its looks are still as good as they used to be a millennium ago.
The city boroughs lie separated by the Golden Horn and, obviously, by the Bosphorus strait. This prompted, in recent times, a flurry of infrastructures under the form of bridges and underwater tunnels, all worth of featuring in a Discovery Channel programme. But the fact is that the waves are ruled by Istanbul’s most brilliant public transport system: its ferries.
Ferries, I’m told, have been set up in the current shape and form in the mid XIX century. They are mostly run by İstanbul Deniz Otobusleri, a formerly public provider which also turns to be the largest municipal ferry operator in the world (and that’s a record you don’t hear very often) and they run routes up to the Black sea.
Istanbul’s ferries come in all sizes and shapes. There are large ones, carrying cars and trucks; new ones, capable of passing below Galata Bridge and powering through the private traffic at Eminönü, or old ones, full of charm, plying the Europe-Asia route. No matter their size and destination, all of them come with ample open spaces from where to admire the city passing by, and with a on-board service with tea and sweets on sale. Compared with the hustle and bustle of transportation on the ground, it’s a relaxed and civilised way of moving about in Istanbul.
I have two routes that I absolutely adore and invite anyone to have a hop on to: the first one leaves from Eminönü and crawls up the Golden Horn to its very end in the borough of Eyup. It’s a milk run, stopping on both sides on this majestic stretch of sea, and it’s paradise for the history lover. Galata, with her Genoese buildings, beckons one side; the mosques of Sultanahmet dominate the other hilltop. The Turkish fleet broke into these waters in the momentous siege of 1453, and their entrance meant the end for the Byzantine empire. End of the line is a peaceful and dramatically beautiful borough, Eyup, with tiny lively streets, a wonderful mosque cum garden and a local feel that nearby Pyer Eloti lookout, where tourists flock to, can’t spoil.
My second favourite route is the classic Sultanahmet – Kadiköy. It’s not as elaborate as the one leading up to Eyup but what it makes in length makes up in scenography. It crosses directly the Bosphorus, intersecating the traffic of oil tankers on other big ships, past the Maiden Tower and stopping also at the sleepy port of Haydarpasa, with its grand, belle-époque rail terminus. Conventional ferries run by Sehir Hatlari ply the route and, believe me, they are class. Some of them have about 40 years of history on their hulls, and the modern ones have been made to look as if they had the same, picture of Atatürk included.
The main character of one of my favourite cyberpunk books, Richard Morgan’s “Black Man”, once says that one of his favourite past times was hopping ferries across the Bosphorus when in town. You know what? It’s also mine, and I seriously recommend you avoid that new tunnel and do the same.