Monday, July 4, 2011

A Peaceful Moment

JoeWhile the splendors of Istanbul are obvious, its charm has proved to be more elusive, buried beneath a thick veneer of overly friendly carpet touts and pushy restauranteurs. But today — sitting in the cool evening breeze outside one of the dozens of fish places under Galata bridge, sipping wickedly strong tea from a tulip-bulb glass, and watching dolphins cavort around the ferry boats that madly ply the waters of the Golden Horn — today I see it.

My new found sense of harmony with the place is partly a reaction to the peace and quiet of being the restaurant's only patron at the moment, as the dinner rush won't start for another couple of hours. The solitude, while welcome, was not my intent; I'm here early because I unintentionally skipped lunch today. I was quite ravenous by the time I got here—but that's getting ahead of myself.

Having been in the city for a couple of days now, I woke up this morning feeling the need for a little space and quiet. I decided to spend a little time away by taking a boat up the Bosphorous to the Black Sea. There are several expensive, touristy boats that make this trip, but there is also a city-run ferry that makes a 5 hour round trip several times daily for a lot less money (about 24 lira round trip). It's more crowded, and you can't get on and off at the several villages it stops at along the way, but there are several returns in the afternoon, so you basically pick how far you want to go and then stay there until a boat comes back the other way. I wanted to catch at least a glimpse of the Black Sea, so I did the whole two hour trip up to Anadolu Kavaği, a small village on the Asian coast with a ruined fortress looming over it, said to offer great views of the Sea.

The trip was pleasant enough, and passed a number of landmarks that I wish I had pictures of, such as the impressive Rumeli Hisari (a fortress built by Mehmed the Conqueror to cut Istanbul off from trade to the north). Unfortunately, I had something of a difference of opinion with my new camera today: I was of the opinion that I had recharged the battery last night, while the camera was of the opinion that I had drained it instead. So I have no pictures of Ottoman fortresses, or of tiny fishing villages, or the Black Sea. Sigh.

Anadolu Kavaği is indeed quite small; other than the fortress up the steep hill behind it, there is nothing there but a small enclave of family housing for the Turkish Army, and a plethora of fish places for the tourists on the boats. I made the long, hot climb up to the fortress, thinking to miss the lunch rush and instead eat before departure, or perhaps to eat at one of the several places that lined the trail, each with a helpful sign reading, "Direct Path to Castle"—which in this case means the most direct way to get to the castle by walking through the maximum number of outdoor restaurants. At the top of the hill, the castle was—need I even say it at this point?—closed for renovation. I spent a few minutes looking at the Black Sea in the distance, then huffed back down the mountain, ignoring the lunch specials in a fit of pique. By the time I got back down, town didn't look as appealing any more, so I opted for an early return rather than a late lunch.

The ferry winds up at Eminönü Terminal, on the Golden Horn right next to Galata Bridge, so once I made it back to town it was definitely time to try the tempting looking fish places all along the lower level of that bridge. Not having a particular one in mind, and given that the menus and prices seem to be pretty much identical in all of them, I decided to make a circuit of the bridge before picking a place. There's a sort of broad walkway just above water level on both sides, covered in outdoor seating, and every one of the two dozen or so restaurants there employs someone to stand on the walkway and shepherd passing pedestrians into a booth. The younger ones are just mildly annoying ("You eat here! Sit!"), but some of the more formal places towards the center had older, better spoken representatives with a long spiel to give. As I walked past each of these places, one of these guys would step in front of me with a lopsided smile and a little shrug, and announce, "Yes, I am the next," before launching into their description of why their place was better than the next one ("Everyone will tell you that they have a clean kitchen, and of course that is important…", "I am not from Istanbul, I am a poor man from Anatolia, bringing honest food to this city…").

In the end I went with the guy who simply handed me his card and told me to look at all his competition first before I decided that his place was the best—when I did, in fact, come back, his neighbor to the north was visibly annoyed, and I believe there were actually some rude gestures exchanged behind my back. Did looking around make a difference? Probably not, but now I have a belly full of sea bass, Efes, crusty bread, and spicy eggplant, so I guess I don't really care.

Oh, and the dolphins are here, but my camera stubbornly maintains that its battery is drained, so you'll have to take my word for it.

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