The Golden Horn – Touring the Heart of Istanbul
This is a description of the first full day of an Adventures Abroad tour of western Turkey that Alison and I took in October, 2021. Thanks to the pathetic state of the Turkish lira, at well under $5,000 Cdn this tour is one of the great bargains in travel today. In my first post from Turkey I expounded on the reasons for visiting Turkey now with AA, although I did omit to point out what a bargain it really is. In the second I introduced the Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel where we stayed both before, during and after the trip. In the next two we visited the fabulous Istanbul Archaeological Museums to get just a taste of some of the places we will visit on this tour. From hereon until the end of the tour I will describe the itinerary pretty well exactly as it played out from start to finish. Each day will provide enough material for at least one or more posts starting with this one on a trip around the Golden Horn. So let’s go meet our guide, our driver and our fellow travellers and get this show on the road.
Our first get together was to be an introductory dinner so Alison and I headed to the lobby area of the hotel about 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time. Well before our guide arrived, we had met most of the people we would be spending almost three weeks with. Somewhat unusually, out of eighteen people on the tour only one, other than Alison and me, was a Canadian; the rest were from United States. I say unusually because the split in many past trips has been about even and I have to attribute this anomaly to Covid. Canadians are simply more risk averse than many Americans. In terms of professions we had doctors, lawyers (us) scientists, a pair of retired USAF pilots and a couple of former teachers. As is usual on AA tours, the level of education was very high and so was the travel experience of most of the group.
As we were exchanging pleasantries Yasemin Reis somewhat hesitantly introduced herself as our guide. I found out later that due to Covid she had not led an English speaking tour for some time and she was nervous that her English would be rusty. She need not have worried as it very good. Standards for Turkish guides are very high and it takes years to get accredited. One of the good reasons for travelling in a group like this is that you avoid the many charlatans who pose as qualified guides, especially in places like the Sultanhamet and other attractions around the Golden Horn.
The area around the hotel must have at least a couple dozen restaurants within a block or two and it was a short walk to the Khorasani Kebab House where we enjoyed a great first meal and Yasemin filled us on the next day’s activities. This is a variety of dipping sauces that are usually provided at most Turkish restaurants to go along with the puff bread.
I mentioned in the very first post that I love the many ways that Turkish chefs prepare lamb and this groaning board was no exception. Peppers appear a lot in Turkish cuisine, but unlike many Asian and Latin American dishes, they are not overly spicy although you will get a real hot one occasionally.
We ordered a bottle of a dry white blend from Kavaklidere one of the oldest and largest wine producers in Turkey which was very good, so any concerns about getting drinkable wine on this tour were quickly put to rest.
The next morning the first order of business was to be an introductory bus tour around the Golden Horn during which Yasemin could fill us in on some basic Turkish history and answer general questions about the trip. We walked a couple of blocks through lanes too narrow to accommodate a full sized bus and then came out on a proper street where we met our driver Ahmet.
One of the things I like about travelling with Adventures Abroad is that they seem to hire drivers who are not suicidal. Whether it was on a six lane highway heading from Istanbul, Izmir or Ankara or on something not much better than a goat path, Ahmet was always the consummate professional and never once did I feel nervous about his driving. Another thing I like about AA is that the buses they use are not only modern, but they have far more seating capacity than the number of people on the tour. I usually travel with my laptop and at least one camera, often editing photos from the previous day while we are driving so it’s nice to have that extra space.
Around the Golden Horn
The Golden Horn is a narrow inlet on the European side of Istanbul that separates what was the Byzantine city of Constantinople from neighbourhoods on the other side where many of the foreign traders set up shop, most notably the Genoese in Galata. That’s a very simplistic explanation as there are a number of other distinct districts on both sides including Fener where most of the Greeks resident in Istanbul lived and Balat which was the Jewish quarter established by Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition. These districts are all worth visiting, although they are all now overwhelmingly Muslim.
Here is an aerial view of the Golden Horn, which does resemble the shape of a horn. Our tour will take us along the remnants of the ancient city walls to the Ataturk Bridge where we will cross over to the Kasimpasa district, once home to the Ottoman fleet. From there we will make our way to the Galata bridge and return to the Sultanhamet district.
The walls of Constantinople are among the most famous in world history. Completed by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius in the 5th century they resisted sieges from many different attackers including Bulgars, Russians, Arabs and Avars before finally succumbing to the Ottomans in 1453. To put that in perspective, these walls were successful in their purpose for a thousand years. No other system of fortifications comes remotely close. Here is a map that shows the extent of the walls at the time of the Ottoman conquest.
After the invention of artillery most walled cities found them to be of little use against this new kind of weaponry and let the walls deteriorate or used the stones for building materials. This did not happen to the walls of Constantinople which were largely left intact until the 19th century when they were mostly dismantled and used for building materials. But they were just so extensive that large sections still remain. I think the expression “If these walls could talk.” is more apt in Istanbul than any place I’ve ever been.
Belatedly in the 1980’s the Turkish government realized that the Theodosian walls are a world treasure and began restoring some of the 96 towers that once stood. Here is an example taken from the bus.
Ironically, during a 1999 earthquake it was the restored portions of the walls that collapsed and not the originals.
Crossing the Golden Horn over to the Karaköy district, which was once the Genoese colony of Galata, we see the tower of the same name which dominates this part of Istanbul.
Believe it or not, in 1630 a man named Hezarafen Ahmed Celebi built a set of wings based on drawings of Leonardo da Vinci and hurled himself from the Galata Tower and actually flew across the Bosphorus, well over 3,500 meters. How crazy was that? No one jumped from the tower for another 385 years when Turkish BASE jumper Cengiz Koçak parachuted off to land in the square below, some 3,480 meters less than that accomplished by Celebi. The Galata Tower is well worth visiting and has a restaurant at the top from where you get great views of the Golden Horn and much of Istanbul, although the food and service are so so.
The trip around the Golden Horn ends on a very high note with the crossing of the Galata Bridge near where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. The Istanbul that I have had in my mind’s eye ever since first seeing it in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love now comes into real view. The mosque of Suleiman was commissioned by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to rival Hagia Sophia and emulate the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Sitting atop a hill overlooking one of the busiest waterways in the world it is the perfect embodiment of what you might think of as Istanbul and it never fails to impress.
Mosque of Suleiman – Public Domain Photo
We’ll spend the next post exploring the Sultanhamet which has been at the centre of Istabul’s tourism industry for almost two thousand years. Please join us as we say güle güle from the Golden Horn.