Escape up the Bosphorus

JAMES BLICK
Last updated 05:00 25/01/2012
Istanbul, Turkey
Reuters

EASTERN PROMISE: The Bosphorus Bridge connects Europe with Asia in the ancient capital of Istanbul.

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We wait on the edge of Istanbul for the number 150 to Garipce. The bus, when it comes, is an old one like from my childhood. And it complains constantly as we lurch through the folding hills above the Bosphorus. Occasionally the land parts and we glimpse the mercurial strait of wind-tossed water below, dividing Europe and Asia and coursing between Istanbul and the Black Sea.

For many tourists a day-trip out of heady Istanbul means island-hopping the Princes' Islands. Instead my wife and I are weaving up the European shore of the Bosphorus. Istanbulites drive up on weekends, unwinding and eating at villages that hug the water's edge. We've come midweek to avoid the crowds. And by the looks of our fellow passengers – old men, mothers, all Turks – it's an idyllic day-trip that remains off the tourist to-do list.

We drop out of the hills into tiny Garipce. Half-hidden in a sheltered Bosphorus cove, its name is Turkish for "strange".

The bus brakes at the rocky shore where blue-hulled rowboats lie upturned in the sun.

Houses burrow into the hills above us and two browning Ottoman villas, signs of better times, lie abandoned opposite the water, their roofs caving in. Coloured nets clutter the village and this morning men and boys sit by the Bosphorus, chatting and mending entangled mounds.

Fish dictate Garipce's economy, and its daily rhythms. The men shove off nightly and their catch is the following day's lunch at the three village restaurants.

But it's too early for fish, so we sit waterside for breakfast.

In the hazy mythological past, Jason and the Argonauts put in at Garipce. Aboard the Argo, they were questing for the Golden Fleece. The village was then home to blind King Phineas and, as it is with blind ancients, Phineas was a seer. But he'd seen too much and the gods sent a flock of harpies – shrewish winged women – to punish him. By the time Jason arrived poor Phineas was wasting away, the harpies snatching everything he tried to eat.

Many cheeses are laid before us. Some are soft and yellow, others salty and stringy, and one, fresh and white, is soaked in honey. There are olives and sliced cucumber.

Then come the omelettes, one with biting hot sausage, the other a muted mix of peppers and tomato. It's the formidable traditional Turkish breakfast. We work slowly and my wife drops titbits for the scraggy cat, a passive-aggressive harpy, with pitch-perfect sad eyes at our feet.

To shake off breakfast, we climb. Above Garipce an 18-century fortress sprouts from the rock and atop the battlements we get the full sweep of the Bosphorus. Asia surfaces across the water – shaggy green hills – and northwards the narrow strait bursts, becoming the vast Black Sea.

That's where the Argonauts were headed – the Golden Fleece lay on the Black Sea's distant shore.

As a thank-you for expelling the harpies, Phineas offered Jason some parting prophetic advice: how to beat the Clashing Rocks. One in Europe, the other in Asia, the Clashing Rocks are two outcroppings that straddle the Bosphorus entrance to the Black Sea. If a ship attempted to make passage the rocks would slam together, crushing the vessel. Phineas advised Jason to fly a dove between the rocks before entering the sea. If the bird made it, so would the Argo.

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With time before the bus to the next village we decide on a drink in the sun. But the waiter brings unfortunate news.

"There is no alcohol in Garipce. Would you like tea?"

Sipping our tea, the stocky man at the table alongside leans over. A sailor on Bosphorus tankers, he whispers advice that, while not prophetic, is certainly timely.

"In the next village, I know a place that serves wine."

Rumeli Feneri, just north, is larger and livelier than its sleepy southern neighbour. A fishing port, it's perched perfectly on the rocky corner where Bosphorus and Black Sea meet. Above its rooftops looms Turkey's tallest lighthouse which, built in 1855, still steers ships into the strait at night.

Men crowd cafe tables in the village square, talking over tea and backgammon. We see the women through windows, shapes in dim rooms. And dusty roads border back gardens, overgrown with grass and shiny capsicum.

We descend to the dockyards, a fitting home for the restaurant with wine.

Great steel trawlers, sky-blue and white, jam the wharves beside flaking wooden craft, old men of the sea. A dark form rises behind them.

On all fours, I shinny up the Clashing Rock. My legs quiver, my feet slide on scree and I clutch at wild grass. Far below, my wife photographs the ascent and two Turks snorkel among the serrated sea-boulders that will break my fall.

But I summit and my heart stumbles at the enormous view.

I'd only ever read about the Black Sea. Now, stretching away from me, it seems infinite. A dark and churning syrup. Cargo ships glide back and forth, in and out of the Bosphorus, some container-laden, others empty and rolling high in the water.

Alone on the rock is a hunk of glinting marble, the remains of a Roman shrine to Apollo. Garlanded rams' heads decorate its surface and tourists have carved their names alongside the original inscription to Caesar.

Arriving here, at the mouth of the Black Sea, Jason launched the dove. The bird snuck through as the Clashing Rocks slammed shut. Running the gauntlet next, the Argo made it by a whisker. Jason set course for the horizon and the Clashing Rocks never clashed again.

My backwards hands-and-knees descent is undignified and apparently distressing to watch, but once I'm down alive, we go to lunch.

Barinak Balik, doubtless packed on weekends, is empty. Its many waiters, lolling at a large table, snap to attention as we enter. Clearly bored, they all serve us.

We eat small grilled mullet, the bones so delicate we bite off everything bar the head, and sea bass in mustard sauce. The wine is a half-bottle of dry Turkish white and, after toasting the health of our sailor friend, we drink at a clip. It's cold and easy, and we order the other half.

The only sound is rhythmic hammering from the wharves, fishermen making repairs.

WOOZY from the second half-bottle, we strike out for Rumeli Feneri's own 18th-century fortress, balanced atop a Black Sea outcropping. On the jaggy parapet, studded with arches and curving along land's edge, we sit together. A young couple nuzzles nearby.

Children tumble in the white wash below, their shouts oscillating in the breeze. A trawler grumbles up the coast where dark rocks claw down to the water. And the Black Sea vanishes into the horizon like an ocean.

The lovers disappear, holding hands, into the ruined castle.

The light is going fast and Istanbul beckons. The call to prayer strikes up from the village minaret. A mother, veiled and wearing thick socks and sandals despite the heat, appears from under the arches. She's climbed up from the rocks, has a wet child in each arm, and several young boys, dripping from the sea, trail willingly behind her.

- The Dominion Post

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