Early Morning Istanbul By Steve Kopandy - Bike Tourist and Cycle Cities Director
The city of Istanbul is in a privileged position globally, being a gateway to the Middle East and Asia for those travelling East, and Europe for those travelling West. For shipping, to get from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, you will sail South to North right through the centre of Istanbul. It’s one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. It’s not hard to argue that Istanbul is both the ancient and modern crossroads of the world.
I, like millions of people per year, arrived at Istanbul Airport. I had a 6 hour stopover. I was treating the city like a hub in the sense that I was changing planes there, but not in the sense of my experience. I had a 6 hour stopover between Beijing and London, and didn’t fancy spending it at the airport. The obvious choice was to go and see the city, a city I’d never seen before, but always wanted to visit. Cem, the owner of Istanbul on Bike, picked me up from arrivals and we made our way Eastwards down the quiet motorway at around 5.30am.
Being in Istanbul at sunrise is a special experience. The traffic is silent, the 6am calls to prayer start to emanate from the mosques and fill the city, with little other sound to distract, probably the way these calls were intended to be appreciated.
We picked up Cem’s tour guide colleague, Çağrı, and proceeded to drive through the old city part of Istanbul. Seeing the old city walls against the dusky morning was a nice touch. I like my Middle Eastern and European history. I know about Constantine, Constantinople and the rich history of a city which changed at the hands of the crusaders centuries ago. Without the background of local guides, talking about their experiences being Turkish and seeing the city develop in recent years into a cosmopolitan wonderland, it’s easy to miss the detail. As with many destinations, it’s the people, and the stories which make it special in my opinion.
Turkish people love their bread, so after a suitably doughy breakfast, we picked up 3 bicycles in the Sirkeci station area where the Golden Horn inlet meets the famous Bosphorus, and took a trail North West, mainly along the shores of the river. The Cycling is reasonable, and Cem assures me facilities are improving all the time. Whilst there is a lack of cycling specific facilities in many areas, avoiding the main roads and sticking to the quieter neighbourhoods doesn’t seem to pose many problems. When waterside, there are wide, traffic free paths. Istanbul is built around the water, so these places are ample.
Cem took me to the neighbourhood of his childhood, central, rustic, and starting to be taken over by cafes and younger professionals in the burgeoning metropolis, looking for quiet characterful corners to be at home in. It reminded me of some parts of East London 15 years ago- places that are now full of young professionals and hipsters, strange street sellers, quirky hats and bands with too many keyboard players.
Further up the river we came across the 4th most holy site in Islam, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, which is said to be the burial place of Eyüp (Job) al-Ansari, a close follower and friend of Muhammad. By the Mosque we entered a small Turkish tea house to sip the traditional beverage. It was a crisp morning so the warm Tea was a nice touch. I am a big lover of English breakfast style of tea with milk, but the Turkish style worked well for me. When in Rome.
More history and culture, just to my order, came with Cem’s commentary. It’s great to book a private tour as you can make sure the guide focuses on your specific interests, and you have more time to ask questions and get a real personal experience.
The Tour route was mainly flat, as it followed the river. The return to the start point was via ferry. It’s great to look back on the tour from the other perspective and see it all from a different direction, and the comfort of an uncrowded ferry where you can grab a drink and watch the water and city go by.
Istanbul is a strategic city built around the natural, important waterway of the Bosphourus. It’s a city split in half. It’s hard to say where the centre might be. I suppose that’s a matter of perspective. We didn’t travel to the East side on this tour, but other tours from Istanbul on Bike go there. There are a range to choose from.
Heading back to the airport, Cem took me via the coastal route along the Sea of Marmara, with scores of ships stacked waiting to dock, as a perfect reminder to the way the trade routes have shaped this city over it’s several thousand years of existence.
I’ve been to a lot of airports and I have to say Istanbul Ataturk is one of the worst I’ve ever been in. It’s completely overcrowded. In 2018 they will open the new Istanbul Airport, which will be the world’s largest, and the gateway this city deserves. They are also building a massive new shipping canal West of Istanbul to relieve the pressure on the Bosphorous, and a futuristic city along it’s banks. Istanbul has everything, including a very bright future.