ISTANBUL - A sizzling June day reluctantly cools toward evening along the waterfront at Eminonu. I stop and write in my notebook.
Smells: salty, moist sea; grilled lamb; car exhaust; sweat; hamburgers; flowering trees; cigarettes; sweet cologne.
Here, where the shimmering Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus connect at the Golden Horn, massive ferries fill to capacity with pushy commuters. They include last-minute passengers not afraid to leap across the widening gap between solid ground and the decks as deafening horns signal imminent departure and the vessels chug to destinations with names like Kabatas, Uskudar, Buyukada, Harem, and Besiktas.
Between the ferry piers and a four-lane road clogged with rush-hour traffic, crowds stream in all directions across the wide Eminonu Meydani. I'm reminded of the concourse at Grand Central Station in New York except the twinkling overhead constellations are real, as is the crescent moon rising near the minaret of the 17th-century Yeni Cami.
The plaza is awash with activity. Vendors vie for attention, their carts piled high with cherries, bananas, apricots, peaches, pistachios, and mussels. A boy on a bicycle leans precipitously close to pyramids of fresh grilled corn. Nearby, a musician with a long mustache strums his amplified oud and sings a mournful song.
Destination: nowhere in particular.
I watch my step as I meander. The plaza isn't always this bustling but it's Friday night and the ground is covered with a patchwork of plastic sheets and canvas tarps hosting an improvised flea market. Sneakers, shoes, backgammon sets, straw cowboy hats, beaded necklaces, carved wood horses and elephants, cheap plastic toys that light up, perfume, baseball caps, are all for sale. Two elderly men in turbans with scraggly gray-white beards offer winter parkas at bargain prices but no one stops.
I realized I could fall in love with a city many years ago, on my first visit to Rome, when I stepped from the train and felt, vividly and inexplicably, as if I were arriving home. Now I'm similarly drawn to Istanbul, though it feels less like a home of my past than a place I could imagine living. In six years I've returned three times, for longer and longer visits. I'm especially besotted with this waterfront, which pulls me as if by magnetic force at all hours of the day and night.
Sounds: high-pitched seagull cries, cellphone tones, a ferry horn, shouts from vendors, the tap of a cane, amplified fasil music, the raspy call to prayer broadcast from flimsy microphones, a revving motorcycle, the clang-clang of an approaching light rail train, the snap of a flag in the wind.
Fishermen slouch and casually drape their rods across a low iron rail. Docked along the pier, a diminutive boat sporting a necklace of lights rocks in the wake of larger ships. Smoke wafts from its cabin where closer inspection reveals a man grilling fish. His partner slaps each portion into a crusty roll and passes it out the window to hungry diners who sit with their families on tiny plastic seats at tiny plastic tables for their evening meal.
Behind me, the Spice Market's entrance entices with its visual, olfactory, and tactile wonders, but I want to stay outside where the evening breeze tousles my hair.
In front of me, the Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn. A stroll to the opposite shore, past more hopeful anglers, leads to a colorful fish market and small park on the left and the Karakoy ferries on the right.
It's a steep climb on stone steps to the Galata Tower, a cone-capped structure built by the Genoese in the 14th century. From the observation deck, at about 170 feet, I delight in a 360-degree bird's-eye view of this city that has captured my imagination.
I return to the waterfront in the early morning to avoid the blazing midday heat. The water sparkles like fish scales beneath the sapphire sky and I'm ready to hop on a ferry.
I consult the schedule and locate the ferry to Ortaköy. I'm told it doesn't leave for hours. But hurry! There's a ship departing now for Besiktas. My leap is not as dramatic as the late-night commuters, and the crowds are few, though in my haste I lose my cap.
The ship disengages from the shore. Curved domes and pointed minarets punctuate a tumble of interlocking shapes that shrink by the moment as we head to deeper waters, until the landscape looks like an intricate puzzle. The graceful lines of the Bosphorus Bridge, linking Europe to Asia, blur in lingering morning fog. To the north, sunlight blooms across rolling hills and spills down toward houses and apartments where I imagine people performing their morning rituals: dressing for work, drinking coffee, brushing their teeth. The wind intensifies as we swing north. I don't care where I'm going, really; I only want to be on my way.
At 10 a.m. I look for signs that say Adalar Iskelesi ("island ferries"), buy a $2 token, and board a ship of impressive size. I follow a boisterous crowd to the upper deck and settle on a bench near the railing.
The nine-island archipelago known as the Princes' Islands sits in the sea southeast of Istanbul. This ferry stops at four of the islands including the largest, Buyukada, a 14-mile, two-hour voyage.
In Byzantine and Ottoman times, emperors and sultans used the islands as a place to banish powerful rivals. In the 19th century, wealthy Armenians, Jews, and Greeks built elaborate cottages as summer homes. Today, many but not all of the islands are inhabited, and the preserved Victorian-era structures, or yalis, are surrounded by meticulous gardens that bloom with fragrant acacia, jasmine, honeysuckle, bougainvillea, and oleander. The only things banished these days are combustion engines; the methods of transportation on the islands are bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, or phaetons, or two strong legs.
The party starts before we leave. In summertime, the island ferries are filled with day-trippers rather than commuters, and the atmosphere is festive. A gaggle of teenage girls from Lebanon sing and clap to pop tunes. Across the aisle, an equally exuberant group of men erupt in songs of their own. Others whoop as scraps of bread tossed to acrobatic seagulls are snatched in midair.
As we veer into the harbor, a guitar is produced and dancing commences. Between the celebratory enclaves, waiters maneuver balancing trays of coffee, orange juice, pretzels, and tea served in tulip-shaped glasses.
People dash amid the groups to snap pictures. Chinese tourists pose with the guitar-playing Arab and his dancers. A woman covered in a black hijab raises a
"Take our picture!"
A young woman wearing oversized pink sunglasses and matching hat pulls her boyfriend to her side. They don't hand me a camera; she wants me to use my own. I do.
"Where are you from?"
"America." I speak quietly, hoping to avoid attention.
"We're from Lebanon! We love America!" she shouts.
I return on the evening ferry, a subdued ride between groups of dozing revelers. Evening commuter boats steam in every direction, the interiors of their hulking silhouettes aglow in the purple-gray dusk. Colorful neon signage, from restaurants along the Galata Bridge's lower level, reflects bright shapes on the water's choppy surface. In the west, swaths of fading pink clouds are smeared across the horizon. Slender minarets of adjacent mosques, lighted from below, loom large as we approach the dock, reaching upward in the deepening indigo sky.
A man on the plaza grills fish in a cart. The crispy bread crackles as I bite. The flesh is sweet and smoky, wedged between a lettuce leaf and a dripping tomato slice. I have no plans for tomorrow except to return - dopey, curious, lovesick - to explore this peculiar object of my affection, the changing, chaotic, vibrant, breathing waterfront in Istanbul.
Necee Regis can be reached at email@example.com.