You know you are in a really old place when the “new” mosque is from the 16th century. Istanbul’s old city has 8,000 years of history behind it, along which weaves the gargantuan kilometer-wide Bosphorus: the only river that separates two continents. The mainly residential and newer Asian side contrasts sharply with the economic, cultural and ancient heart of the old town, which teeters on the river strip on the European side.
And what better way to experience the dichotomy between old and new than to swim between the two sides? Yes, bathing. From Asia to Europe, descending 6.5 km of this venerable waterway, during the few hours each year when the navigation channel closes, it is possible to swim.
Since its inception in 1989, the Bosphorus Cross-Continental Swim has been organized by the Turkish Olympic Committee, but for hellish hope of participating in the annual event, I recommend booking through SwimTrek (swimtrek.com), a British tour operator specializing in open water swimming holidays around the world, who can also provide training times for long distance swimming events such as this.
I was nervous, but soon fell into a languid, soaring motion, allowing the river to do most of the work, passing ancient forts, towers and mansions on the west bank.
I can hear you asking yourself, “six and a half miles – are you off your rocker?” Two summers before, I had struggled to complete a 1.5km lake swim, which I wrote about in The Irish Times. But perseverance and training paid off, starting with swimming in the pool once a week, then in the sea two to three times a week from April until the race in August.
Once I mastered decent technique in open water, I found it surprisingly easy to gradually increase the distance from under 1km to over 4km. It was enough to get me through the Bosphorus swim; as you follow the course of this mighty river, the event is more like a standard 3.5-4km open water swim. And it was worth every shot over the previous six months.
Prior to the event, a flotilla of nearly naked swimmers are ferried 6.5km upstream to the eastern shore, where we plunge en masse into the warm waters, swimming back to the pier from which we started. The glorious madness of it all reminded me of those Serengeti documentaries of wildebeest migration, as they plunge off the steep banks.
I was nervous, but soon fell into a languid, soaring motion, letting the river do most of the work, passing old forts, towers and mansions on the west bank. With over 2,000 attendees you would think that would be shocking and yet there were times when I couldn’t see a single other swimmer. With the finish jetty close at hand, I realized how much I had left in the tank, which was duly emptied to cross the line.
Old town by day
Before and after the race we had a few days to explore. While Europe was, comparatively speaking, dragging its fingers through the mud between the 9th and 16th centuries, Islamic civilization was on the rise, as the Museum of Islamic Science and History of Technology shows. Housed in the former Imperial stables, in the dappled shade of Gulhane Park, it’s a perfect place to relax, picnic or people-watch under towering plane trees, just below the impressive Topkapi Palace. As the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, the palace served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans and now houses a museum filled with jewels.
A 10-minute walk away is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, housed in a former 16th-century private palace within the Süleymaniye Mosque complex, and displaying rare examples from the Abbasid, Mamluk, Seljuk, and Ottoman periods. It also houses one of the best collections of carpets in the world, as well as glass, stone and terracotta objects.
Despite 2,400 race tickets each year, demand still outstrips supply
Located within the Blue Mosque complex is the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum, with exhibits dating back to the 5th century featuring scenes from daily life, nature and mythology. The most memorable mosaics include a lizard-eating griffin, a fight between an elephant and a lion, and children “weeding” a goose.
Istanbul’s compact old town is also a Romanesque maze of ornate cisterns. The Serefiye cistern recently underwent an eight-year restoration, accessible via a carpet shop (where else?). I still don’t know why the Romans poured so much money into these lavish underground pools that no one was supposed to visit, but we’re lucky they did. A certified Tureb guide, fluent in English, is well worth paying, costing between 100-200 TL (around €6.50-€13) for a six-hour day. Selcuk Eracun (email@example.com) is the author of several books on Turkish history and an excellent guide.
Istanbul after dusk
During the 364 days when the Bosphorus is not closed to accommodate swimming, it sustains an entire industry. There’s buzz and bustle afloat, from rowing fishermen to passenger ferries; from showboat pleasure craft to giant tankers plowing through a watery wake of the Black Sea.
A fabulous way to get your bearings is to take a sunset cruise with bosphorustour.com. With a live guide on a modern yacht, the 2.5-hour (€50) tour includes complementary Turkish drinks (non-alcoholic), canapes and sliced fruit to enjoy while floating near Dolmabahce Palace, the Ortakoy Mosque, Rumeli Fortress and Maiden’s Tower. Cruising south along the Asian side, you’ll see Baroque wooden mansions originally built as hunting lodges and country homes for Istanbul’s elite.
At around €50 for an hour performance, the Whirling Dervishes at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center are an expensive but worthwhile sight. Run by the Rumi Education and Culture Association and taking place in a renovated 15th-century building, the spectacle of the Mevlevi Order – twirling in cloaks from head to heels since 1273 – is a mesmerizing act in front of a small audience seated at the edge from the ring.
As you cannot leave Turkey without experiencing one of its famous hammam baths – the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami (http://kilicalipasahamami.com) gets my vote. Housed in a domed 16th-century stone building, the hammam ritual lasts around an hour, costs 340 TL (€21) and includes exfoliation, foam and hair washing. Dressed in a towel, you can then relax on the sofas in the living room while you are served tea.
Then, wander through the lanes of the hammam along the semi-pedestrian Mumhane Caddesi road, with barely a tourist in sight. It’s where the locals come to play among restaurants and cafes, galleries and shops – visualize what Temple Bar could have been and you’re halfway there.
Despite 2,400 tickets to the race each year, demand still exceeds supply. Applications open in January through the Turkish Olympic Committee (bogazici.olimpiyatkomitesi.org.tr) and are usually complete within hours. Applying through an agent like SwimTrek greatly increases your chances of securing a place, but you will pay for this access: from €700 per person sharing, including entry and registration fees at the race, two nights of accommodation, airport transfers, and the race, and a dedicated, English-speaking SwimTrek guide staying at your hotel. Swimming takes place on Sunday morning, with race registration, briefing and boat tour of the course on Saturday morning. SwimTrek accepts applications starting in October. For the 2023 event, join the mailing list and start swimming!
Turkish Airlines flies from Dublin to Istanbul several times a week, from €310 return.