We can see the Bosphorus at the end of our street. It’s like living at the seaside. A five-minute walk and we’re at the ferry terminal; but that’s not counting the ten minutes we need to cross the road. Traffic in Istanbul is awful. A seething mass of buses, dolmuses, cars, sunshine-yellow taxis, all tooting and hooting, swerving, impatient to be somewhere. Most folk just step out, walk into it, weaving in and out of moving traffic. They are seasoned pros. We dare not. Every morning I wonder if I will make it to the other side.
But then we reach the iskele (ferry terminal) and all the traffic is forgotten. It’s busy but there’s no rush. The iskele is a bubble. An in-between place. We walk past simit sellers, waterside cafes serving endless glasses of çay, fish-sandwich purveyors, and men shaving meat for doners. There are shoe-shine men, flower sellers, newsagent’s kiosks, men and boys selling prayer beads and clothes, cold water, shavers, lights, sunglasses and mobile telephones. Street dogs sprawl under feet, forever seeking shade, and fishermen cast lines into the murky water – often filled with bobbing bits of bread and simit. And always at any time of day or night, people sitting; on benches, in cafes, on the concrete. Chatting, laughing, eating, smoking, sitting with their arms around a friend’s shoulder, staring into the water, waiting, wondering, watching.
And then there are the ferries. A constant stream of boats, all different. There are government-run ferries and private-company ferries. Some with two decks, some with three. Some with shade, some without. Some with a string of flags stretched from mast to stern and mast to bow. Some belching out black smoke. Some trailing clouds of seagulls. Some doing reverse spins as they set off for the other side.
We love to sit on the top deck, watching the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, Topkapi and Europe getting closer and closer. On the Asian side we skirt the Maidens Tower and always look out for our tea spot on the Uskudar promenade. Seagulls hang effortlessly in the air or swoop and dive as people throw them bread, crackers and simit. Some hold their offerings aloft at the end of outstretched arms, but never have I seen a gull snatch such a proffered tid-bit. Inside there’s air conditioning and soft seats; a snack bar (more çay) and often a musician playing for coins. On the top deck we bake and sit on wooden benches, but the novelty of the journey never wears off.
In the evenings the ferries are more crowded, but still there’s no stress. If we can find space, once we dock, we sit in the cafe above the iskele and sip on lemonade, watching the sun go down. While the mosques on the European side turn into a classic postcard shot, minarets and domes silhouetted against a golden backdrop, pin-points of light highlight ferries, and the Bosphorus turns a smokey grey. At the end of the quay, most nights a guy sings and plays a bouzouki. It seems he has a small following. Fishing smacks bob behind; quayside, onlookers film on mobiles. One night two men started to dance, arms across shoulders, they stepped back and forth, while moving in a circle. Slowly others joined, until there was a line – women and men, stepping, with an occasional shrug of the shoulders, a wobble of the head, and every now and again a twirl of the prayer beads from the man at the end. It was not a dance to set the world on fire, but the enjoyment was infectious, the feel-good factor huge.
Thank goodness we lived on the Asian side. The iskele and taking the ferry was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul.