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Fishermen on the Galata Bridge, across the Golden Horn

Fishermen on the Galata Bridge, across the Golden Horn

Year: 2014, Month: February

Turkey > Istanbul > Istanbul

Istanbul is one of my favourite cities, and one that I have travelled to many times since my first visit in 1981. The city and its people have changed much in the intervening 33 years; sometimes for the better, sometimes not so. The traveller's adage tells us 'Never go back' to a place we have previously visited, implying that what we will find will be a diminished and faded copy of the enchantment that our memories hold dear. This is especially true of Istanbul, which has leaped forward from a backward, third-world city under martial law and military curfew to one of modernity and progress and shining new office blocks and coffee bars. In doing so, though, it has lost a lot of its charm, and its people, in their exposure to the shopping Westerner who now arrives by cruise ship to the docks near the Galata Tower, have lost a lot of their genuine friendliness and hospitality that used to be the trademark of all Turks. You need to leave behind the big cities and go to the villages of the Central Anatolian Plain to find this these days. I could spend many paragraphs detailing the changes to old Istanbul, but won't do that here or now. For those interested, I would recommend any of the books of local author Orhan Pamuk, who describes the city he was born in and its changes so very very well.

Despite these changes, any newcomer to Istanbul will still find much to delight and enchant them, and a visit there should be in the top ten of everyone's personal bucket list. There are lots of things to see and do, but no matter where you are in the city, you will always be pulled, as if by a magnet, to the ribbon of water that runs through the heart of the city and of its citizens: the bustling main waterway of Istanbul, known as the Bosphorous. This strategically important shipping route passes from the Mediterranean and the Sea of Marmara north to the Black Sea, providing a gateway to the southern ports of Ukraine and Russia. It also acts as the border between Europe and Asia, making Istanbul one of the very few cities that sits in two continents. I have spent many happy hours walking along its banks, or riding the distinctive yellow and black funneled ferry-boats that bustle along the shores and provide an easy route to cross to the Asian side.

Branching off from the Bosphorous on the European side is the Golden Horn, an enticingly-named inlet that divides the districts of Eminonou and Sultanahmet, with their palaces, iconic mosques, and the famous Sirkeci Station, terminus for the fabled but long defunct Orient Express, from the more up-market districts of Galata and Tophane with their streets of stylish shops leading north to Taksim Square. The Golden Horn is of my favourite spots in Istanbul, and the best way to watch the hustle and bustle of the area is to spend time on the Galata Bridge.

There have been a number of bridges built to cross the Golden Horn at this point. My introduction to them was the fourth Galata Bridge, which was built in 1912 by the German firm Hüttenwerk Oberhausen AG for 350,000 gold liras. It was a floating bridge, 466 m long and 25 m wide, that depended on a number of pontoons to make it work. There was a road for traffic on the top, whilst underneath a number of walkways provided access for pedestrians, and a number of small cafes provided a pleasant place from which to drink a glass of the local Efes beer and watch the ferries dock at Eminonou and Sirkeci. Unfortunately, this bridge was badly damaged in a fire in 1992 and so was towed up the Golden Horn to make way for the modern bridge now in use today: the fifth in the series.

The fifth Galata bridge was built by the Turkish construction company STFA, and completed in December 1994. It is a bascule bridge, 490 m long with a main span of 80 m. The deck of the bridge is 42 m wide and has three vehicular lanes and one walkway in each direction. It has also recently had tram tracks re-added to it, allowing the Istanbul Tram to run from Zeytinburnu in the suburbs near Atatürk International Airport to Kabatas, a few blocks before the Dolmabahçe Palace. Below the main deck, a much expanded pedestrian area has been added, with room for a large number of bars and restaurants most famous for serving 'balik', the grilled fish within a roll of fresh white bread that has been the favored snack of Istanbul since time began. Fish has always been dear to the hearts of the people of this water-based city, and catching it is a pastime enjoyed by many. Fishermen can be seen in all weathers along the upper deck of the Galata Bridge, casting their lines beyond the strolling pedestrians on the deck below, ever-hopeful that the next catch may provide the substance of tonight's meal.

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