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A Walk Along the Land Walls – Day One

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Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years… until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.

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We started at the Marble Tower, marking the southern end of the walls at the Sea of Marmara. The tower provides a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the fortifications: impressive despite the ruinous state, and able to be climbed… although the piles of trash and human poop should discourage comprehensive exploration. The walls, with their towers and protected nooks and crannies, make attractive shelters for vagrants; they’re fine during the day, but we kept away from dark corners and would suggest avoiding the walls entirely after dusk.

From the Marble Tower, we crossed the busy Kennedy Highway to begin our journey north. Throughout the day, we’d have to cross a number of roads, and would switch from walking either inside or outside of the walls, depending upon where the most accessible sidewalk happened to be. Occasionally, the easiest path was on top of the walls themselves.

Climbing-In-Istanbul

The Walls of Theodosius II were originally constructed in 417, but destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake. Bad timing, since Attila the Hun was marching towards Constantinople at that very moment. In a panic, the city recruited everyone to assist in the rebuilding effort, and new fortifications were ready within two months. These new walls consisted of three separate layers and 96 towers and were unbreachable by 5th century military technology. Attila didn’t even try.

We had an incredible time walking along the walls, especially in the sections where we could clamber up to the top and gain a view over the city. There was plenty to see along the way. The old neighborhood of Yedikule, parks, mosques, ancient gates like the Belgrade Kapı, and museums.

West of the wall’s Silivri Gate, we found a path leading through a cemetery to the Zoodochos Pege, an old Orthodox Church that harbors a sacred spring. After exploring the courtyard, we followed marble stairs into the basement where the spring is found, complete with fish swimming around in the holy water. According to legend, a monk was frying fish in a pan, when he was told that the Turks had breached the nearby walls. Disbelieving, the monk scoffed that this was “as likely as the fish in my pan returning to life”. Which they promptly did, jumping from his pan into the spring where they remain to this day. To the Turks, the Zoodochos Pege is known as the Church of the Fish (Balıklı Kilise).

At six kilometers in length, it’s easy to walk along the entire length of the walls in a single day, but by the time we’d reached the halfway point at the Topkapı tram stop, we were exhausted, and decided to save the second half for another time.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Marble Tower | Belgrade Gate | Zoodochos Pege

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May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm Comments (4)

Easter Sunday on Burgazada

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Burgazada is the third-largest of the popular Princes Islands, found just off Istanbul’s southern coast in the Sea of Marmara. Around 2000 people live there permanently, but its population swells considerably in the summer… and on sunny Sundays, like the one we stupidly chose for our visit.

Istanbul-Islands

While boarding the ferry at Kabataş, we were shocked by the crowd. When the sun is shining, a single idea pops into the collective mind of Istanbul: “Princes Islands!” This was the first truly warm weekend of the year, and we had expected a mob, but not like this. We crammed on the ferry, lucky to snatch a seat, then watched with increasing dismay as it filled to capacity. And then continued filling. 30 minutes past the scheduled departure time, people were still squeezing on, occupying every conceivable inch of space: the floors, aisles, railings, laps.

And this was just at the first stop! The ferry also picked up passengers at Kadiköy, where hundreds more people somehow managed to find space on the already-overflowing boat.

Despite the crush, the atmosphere on the ferry was festive. After a long period of rain and cold, the sun was finally shining, and people were in good spirits. In the aisle, a guy jammed on his guitar while friends and strangers found room to dance. A group of Turkish students challenged each other to backgammon. And despite my distaste for dangerously overloaded ferries, I found myself curiously content. I wouldn’t say the boat ride was “fun”, but it was certainly entertaining.

Any stress began to evaporate the minute we arrived in Burgazada. Friends of ours were visiting, and we wasted no time in finding a four-person phaeton (a horse-drawn carriage) to carry us off to the far side of the small island. By the time our rickety journey ended at Kalpazankaya Beach, we were rejuvenated and ready for some amusement. “What should we do first?” I asked.

“Drink rakı”, came the immediate, unanimous reply. Exactly the answer I’d been hoping for!

So we sat down to a great meal of meze and grilled fish at Kalpazankaya Restaurant, where we had a lovely view over the Sea of Marmara, Asian Istanbul looming surprisingly close on the horizon. (We had to fight for a table here — be sure to make reservations if visiting on a weekend.) After eating, we relaxed on the beach a bit and then began a slow, leisurely walk back to the port, about two kilometers away.

There wasn’t much to do on Burgazada; the island’s only museum, dedicated to novelist Sait Faik, was closed for renovation. But I suspect that “doing things” isn’t really the key to enjoying the Princes Islands. We admired the sea, played with stray cats, took pleasure in the lack of cars and city-noise, and wandered around the lively port area before boarding the ferry back home.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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April 17, 2013 at 6:57 am Comments (6)

Lunchtime in Eminönü

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Hungry for lunch? Then join the throngs heading for the semicircular Eminönü Plaza, on the western side of the Galata Bridge. “Why? What’s there to eat?” you might be asking. Well, try not worry about that quite yet!

Galata-Tower-Storm

This plaza between the Galata Bridge and the Bosphorus Ferry Terminal is one of the most popular places in the city to grab a quick and cheap lunch. Three restaurants floating on the riverside offer the exact same thing — fish sandwiches. Just step right up, hand over 5 TL and grab a seat at the first available stool. Lather your sandwich with diluted lemon juice and salt, and dig in!

Don’t walk over to the edge and peer into the murky river from which the fish are caught… stop that! Instead, look around you. Look at the funny little waiters dressed in Ottoman-era costumes! Isn’t this fun? Look at the other customers, mostly locals, happily enjoying their fish sandwiches. Hey, I said to stop looking at the water! Just close your eyes and concentrate on the fish. It’s good, right?

Chowing on a grilled fish sandwich really works up a thirst, doesn’t it? You know what sounds really delicious right now? You got it: neon-red vinegary pickle juice. You’re reading my mind! Yes sir, put a cup of that sweet stuff right here. So vinegary, so full of pickles and radishes… so bright! Mmmm, that’s the taste of a new, slightly disturbed, generation.

So, a meal in Eminönü is kind of an adventure, but in truth the pickle juice is not totally undrinkable and does complement the fish sandwich — which is just as delicious as a grilled fish sandwich should be. The experience is fun, and the price is great. You can also find non-fishy foods in the plaza, such as chestnuts, simits, corn ears and döner, and with the boisterous, almost carnival-like atmosphere and the view of the Galata Bridge, it’s an excellent place to grab a quick bite.

Just make sure to save room for dessert. There are stands offering Halka Lokma Tarifi, which are freshly-fried donut balls topped with ground pistachio. Or those with an even sweeter tooth can try out the Tarihi Osmanlı Macunu (Traditional Ottoman Candy): five different flavors of thick taffy spiraled deftly around a stick, creating a delicious lollipop.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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April 15, 2013 at 10:01 am Comments (4)
A Walk Along the Land Walls - Day One Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years... until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.
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