Symbols you won’t find on your keyboard: Beşiktaş and Örtaköy.
I turned a corner on Beşiktaş caddesi and basically run into them. Milling around on civilian buses and police vans, sitting besides the mammoth hydrants that usually turn up, at these latitudes, at demonstrations against the ruling AKP party, were dozens of officers. I never thought that a museum of Ottoman ceramics could require such levels of protection, but no one seemed alarmed or shared my curiosity; the young couple sitting by the pier certainly didn’t, for they didn’t bother stopping their argument. It was, simply, yet another day in Beşiktaş.
It’d be extremely easy to label this blog as some sort of tour amongst Istanbul’s hidden gems/off-the-beaten-path, and perhaps add a 10-point-list of places not to miss, but I won’t. Mainly because I suck at finding 10 places not to miss and, secondly, because Beşiktaş and Örtaköy aren’t off-the-beaten-path, not at all. Simply, they are semi-central boroughs, places that most visitors won’t look at, contenting themselves with Sultanahmet and Galata, but that in fact are as worthy of a visit as downtown. And these two blogs will be a sort of a travelogue, a tribute to those hid… Ah, I almost said it.
Beşiktaş starts, according to my personal geography, where Taksim and Gezi park end. There’s a bit of a no-man’s-land made of large streets, faceless corporate hotels, green patches enclosed by razor wire and tall fences, and a street that runs precipitously down, towards the sea. I follow a stray dog, one of those massive Anatolian hulks of muscles, as it makes its way downhill, taking left as it goes right. Should’ve trusted the dog, though: the pavement next to the Beşiktaş stadium – under renovation – is invaded by rusting metal, pylons and other stuff designed to make a passer-by stumble.
Running parallel to the Bosphorus, Dolmabahçe caddesi doesn’t have a lot of what spray-tanned London estate agents would call “stunning seas vistas”, because – as it happens in London – someone got there first. It was sultan Abdülmecid who stole the show, building Dolmabahçe Sarayi, the palace whose high walls and ornate Baroque gates are now all I can see.
Dolmabahçe caddesi isn’t that bad a road, though. Yes, there’s traffic, and yes, you are bound to be deafened by the local chavs on bikes, but there also are some interesting pictures of Atatürk, with the great man framed whilst engaged in Putin-esque activities (piloting a ship, inspecting an aircraft, seriously gazing a posse of prelates… Only sedating a tiger was missing). In addition to that, there are thousands and thousands of beautiful blue flowers flanking picture-perfect tulips, a polite reminder of the fondness for the bulbs that the Turks have nurtured since long (sultan Ahmet III loved those bulbs so much that his reign was nicknamed Lale devri, the Tulip period).
Beşiktaş is a busy waterfront, and a tangle of roads that irradiates from it. I walk past its fish market, an orderly affair sitting below a concrete arcade that would’ve done Le Corbusier proud, and get lost in a maze of small alleys where every shop is a bar or restaurant, every restaurant has its own outside patio and yet two-sense car circulation is still enforced. Luckily, it’s still early and all I can hear are the seagulls squawking at the planes, the planes themselves and a few early punters chatting about in front of their kahve and raki.
Click on the photos to start the slideshow.
There’s also a rather quirky side to the place, under the form of a park with an amphitheatre with stands painted in bright colours, overlooked by the least martial bronze statues ever cast in this illustrious city. Possibly annoyed by my giggles, a dog ululates until I abandon the field.
Between Beşiktaş and Örtaköy lies another piece of no-man’s-land, this time less nice than the one before, up to the point that I consider hopping on one of the buses. However it’s early in the morning and I can’t quite understand which bus stops where, so I give up, a decision that allows me to detour on Yahya Efendi sokak.
This cobbled road, winding up the hill, reminds me of the streets leading up to the medieval core of my hometown, only that this one is shaded by cypresses, has a mosque adorned with gold and boasts an ancient marble fountain, sleeping stray cat included. Unfortunately, the top is closed: a friendly guard turns me away, after having inquired if I’m a Lazio fan (I’m not). Mocking a deep offense to the fact that the man ignores the existence of Torino FC I retreat, but Yayha Efendi makes amends by offering the most unexpected of the views: between the cypresses, above the old arch covered in daisies, I can make the profile of Sultanahmet, of Hagya Sophia and of Topkapi Saray, all whilst a Şehir Hatları ferry puffs towards the mooring in Kabataş.
Örtaköy is often reduced to a postcard, the one of Büyük Mecidiye Camii mosque, its ornate Baroque style contrasting the minimalist lines of Atatürk suspension bridge. But it’d be a pity to limit it to stop there. Örtaköy is, to me, the best surprise of the journey, with its wooden houses, grocery shops and bakeries, a Levantine version of those Ligurian towns I used to remember from my childhood days, without a backpackers’ hostel, Starbucks franchise or imitation of a French pâtisserie.
I walk Örtaköy’s innards extensively, camera packed away to savour the experience and to notice the baskets that ladies on the third floor lower down to the baker, winching it up once the purchases of bread and ayran are made, or the slightly unsettling views of the bridge looming over the houses, something that brought back memories of the dystopian Citadel in Half Life 2.
Another purchase of simit and çay ensues, and I return to the waterfront. According to my phone, a vapur to Üsküdar is scheduled to leave frequently, but I am yet to learn how imprecise Microsoft’s mappers can be: “Only tourist boats here, mistah. Go back to Beşiktaşfor the vapur bus” says the African migrant that I find tending at the tables of a waterfront café. I suppose now it’s a good time to learn how to use those buses, then.