Boho by the Horn is a travel package exploring two undiscovered neighbourhoods in Istanbul, Turkey. The article, photos and video evoke a sense of place and offer your readers new travel ideas.
Top: Neighbourhood concept cafés in Fener and Balat are wild experiments in design, colour and decoration.
Bottom: Cafés line Vodina Caddesi, the main street through Fener and Balat. It starts here with one side under construction to build… more cafés.
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Boho by the Horn
by Bramwell Ryan
Only in one place do the continents meet where the divide is human-scale rather than geologic: Istanbul. But here even the frontier markers are measured in centuries. In this city of 14 million, where both Asia and Europe have thrown up testaments to glories long forgotten, the buffed relics of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace are global destinations of industrial-strength tourism. While Turkish political unrest has chipped away at the willingness of some, tides of visitors still wash ashore at the end of the Golden Horn. If you are one of them, once you have marinated in humility under the mosaics, arches and flying buttresses, travel a bit farther along the Horn to an equally original part of the city – a fun area of deep history that welcomes rather than intimidates.
There’s no global spotlight on the conjoined neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat, ancient suburbs in the Western Districts. These are modest places where people are busy with life. They laugh out loud. They holler down the street. You’ll find no hushed tones here. It’s a living human museum of cobblestone streets filled with wisps of the past. Fener, where Greek Christians once lived, is home to the Patriarchate, the symbolic headquarters of the Greek Orthodox church. The neighbourhood crouches under the rococo excess of Phanar College – known locally as kirimizi kale (the red castle) – perched high on a hill and home to a mere 50 students. Next door, for centuries Balat was a home for Jews, a safe place in a dangerous world in a city open to all. Its narrow winding streets are passages of mist and memory.
This earthy, chaotic collection of bruised houses patched together with plaster is now inhabited by migrants from the Turkish countryside. They have brought the village to a city where folks more often live vertically in concrete towers. Life here is spent in crumbling three story homes. It’s rooted in the tangible – smelling of bread and fish, tasting of baklava and echoing with the calls of simit sellers. Small tea rooms where old men linger are omnipresent. Sandwich shops abound, where carved meat and roasted peppers are cheap. Daily auctions for bric-a-brac draw dozens.
Scores of Turkish tourists come here for the slower pace of life. They sit in and gawk at concept cafés, each carefully curated in strangely eclectic ways. One is like a Kansas farm kitchen circa 1952, another resembles a vintage auto repair shop while beside it is a nod to jazzy left bank cool. The café patios are artfully conceived for languid living and to watch the world slip past. And what a parade: Istanbul hipsters, scores of selfie snapping teenage girls and even brides in full wedding dress. Model and movie shoots are common. Sit long enough and you will see one of the many groups of locals armed with DSLRs shooting the same scenes and eventually… always… each other.
The tactile and unlikely mix of village tradition and bohemian experimentation is forged in Istanbul’s famed and ancient tolerance. These neighbourhoods are perfect antidotes to the homogenous global travel bubble of plastic and glass. This is, the acclaimed wood carver Ayhan Tomak says, where the spirits of the past still live, spirits he summons out of the wood in his neighbourhood atelier. Along Vodina Caddesi, the main street that connects both Fener and Balat, the spirit of hospitality lingers. Locals aren’t yet blurred by tidal waves of tourists, as is the case in Sultanahmet at the end of the Horn. And if things get too busy there’s always the Tahta Minare Hamam, a modestly priced escape for anyone, including those just passing through.
A visit to Fener and Balat is a fast way to experience slow travel. No one is concerned that you are from away and have foreign cash to spend. When you stop to snap pictures of twee cafés, painted pastel bottles perched on a window ledge or even the local armoury shop, you’ll be jostling with Turks seeking the same shots. Like you, they’ve come to see a vanishing part of this city on the continental divide, to experience eclectic human-scaled neighbourhoods not yet swallowed by trinket shops and high rise density. Don’t miss it.
Boho by the Horn: a 2:10 high energy package cut to an evocative music track that gives a granular sense of the Fener and Balat neighbourhoods.