Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Fortress of Europe, Istanbul

The Fortress of Europe (Rumeli Hisarı in Turkish) sits on the European shore of the Bosphorus just before the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. During our time living in Istanbul we have passed this impressive structure many times, both on the water and on the road which runs alongside it, but, until a couple of weeks ago, we hadn’t actually visited it. Now that we have, I can report that it is well worth a visit, and that the 3TL (about £1.20) entrance fee is an absolute bargain!

The huge fortress was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 as his first step in the conquest of Constantinople. He chose the site as it is at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus and directly opposite the Fortress of Asia (Anadolu Hisarı) which had been built on the Asian shore by Sultan Beyazit I in 1391. By controlling this vital Byzantine supply route, Mehmet was able to lay siege to the city and prevent its re-supply by sea.

Mehmet planned the layout of the fortress himself, but wanted the construction to be completed quickly. To this end, he took charge of the walls and assigned responsibility for the building of each of the three main towers to his three viziers. He warned them that they would be executed if the work was not finished on time. Unsurprisingly, they succeeded in their task and, using 30,000 men, this major engineering feat was completed in just four months!

Following the completion of the fortress, the fall of Constantinople took less than a year, after which time the fortification was no longer needed for its original purpose. In subsequent years, it was used as a Bosphorus toll booth, a barracks, and a prison, before falling into disrepair. It was restored in the 1950s, and today the structure is a majestic reminder of its military past.

Once you’ve paid your entrance fee, you are free to wander at will. The grounds within the fortress are lush with trees, flowering shrubs, and scented ground-cover plants, offering a real oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are plenty of benches provided to sit and read or just contemplate your surroundings. If you’re feeling energetic, you can clamber up steep, uneven stairs and access the ramparts and towers, from where you will get fantastic views of the Bosphorus. There are no barriers or hand-rails anywhere, so watch your step as you are climbing!

Being slightly off the beaten track, the Fortress of Europe never gets overrun with visitors, so take your time and marvel at this magnificent structure.

TOP TIP – Make a visit here part of a more extensive exploration of the European shore of the Bosphorus, as described here:

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

My Favourite Bus Service in Istanbul – Route 25E - The European Shore of the Bosphorus

My ‘favourite bus service’ – this is a real contradiction as, of all the ways of getting around Istanbul, the bus would usually be my choice of last resort; the transport to use when there is simply no alternative. Generally speaking, Istanbul buses are incredibly overcrowded, hot, and uncomfortable. Passengers are jammed on like sardines in a can, and, just when you think you are going to suffocate from all the smelly bodies crushed around you, the bus stops and yet more people are shoe-horned on! So, when I talk about my ‘favourite bus service’, it is tempered with reservations.

Having said this, route 25E is a great ride, especially if you time it when it’s not too busy. Get on at the start, find a seat by an open window on the right-hand side of the bus (as you face forward), and enjoy the journey.

The 25E starts from Kabataş and follows the European shore of the Bosphorus right up to Sarıyer. It gives you a whole different perspective than the one you get from the water. It is a frequent service (every 15 minutes), so hop on and off and explore some of the pretty villages along this shore. Alternatively, stay on until the end, look around the attractive fishing town of Sarıyer, and then walk back. Apart from the most dedicated hikers, it is not really feasible to make the entire journey back on foot to Kabataş in one day, especially if you want to stop and enjoy the sights along the way. It is a distance of about 13 miles, so, if you’re in town for a while, do it over a couple of days.

So, let’s begin at Sarıyer and work our way back. As I said, Sarıyer is a fishing town with a long history. Even today, many of the local inhabitants make their living from fishing, either as crew on one of the many boats in the harbour, or by working in one of the fish restaurants for which the town is famous.

From Sarıyer, walk south along the pathway which borders the Bosphorus, and the next village you will come to is Büyükdere, where, if time permits, you should visit the Sadberk (unfortunate name in English!) Hanım Museum (open every day except Wednesday, 10.30am – 6pm). This museum is housed in two typical wooden yalıs, or summer houses, which belonged to the wealthy Koç family. The museum is named after Sadberk Hanım, the wife of the industrialist Vehbi Koç, and is home to an eclectic collection of items that she accumulated over the years. Some of these are displayed in a series of tableaux giving a fascinating insight into 19th century Ottoman society.

Continuing south from Büyükdere, you will pass several impressive buildings which were the summer residences of 19th century European ambassadors to Turkey. Some of these are still owned by foreign governments, as indicated by the array of non-Turkish flags fluttering in the breeze.

The next place you will come to is Tarabya, a pretty little fishing village set around an attractive cove, marred only by a huge concrete carbuncle at its entrance. For the whole time we have lived in Istanbul this has been a massive empty shell – a real blot on the landscape, but, at the time of writing, work has begun to finish it and turn it in to some sort of shopping and office complex. Hopefully, it will be less of an eyesore when it is completed.

Tarabya was originally settled by wealthy Greeks in the 18th century who called the place Therapeia because of its healthy climate. It is still an exclusive resort with up-market restaurants and expensive boats moored in the harbour.

South of Tarabya Bay, you continue your pleasant walk by the shores of the Bosphorus, stopping to marvel at the fishermen who, here, do not restrict themselves to rod and line, but instead use lead weights and large, four-pronged hooks attached to the end of lengths of thick twine which they throw into the fast-running waters to catch bass. They catch a glimpse of a fish and throw the line just ahead of it; the fish is attracted to the shiny lead weight as it looks for all the world like a minnow, which would make up its normal daily diet. The bass go to swallow the weight and are caught with the hook and hauled in. Other fishermen don wetsuits, masks and snorkels and lie very still in the fast-moving shallows. When they see a bass, they use a harpoon gun to catch their prey. Both methods appear to be very successful, if a little gory!

As you carry on, be careful not to miss the Huber Köşkü, a very ornate 19th century yalı, complete with towers, now owned by the government and used to entertain foreign dignitaries.

Throughout your walk, notice at different points along the route how the road has been constructed in front of houses and yalıs which once enjoyed a position fronting on to the Bosphorus, complete with jetty and mooring for a boat. These houses are now left with a small stretch of stagnant water and a busy road as their view, along with a consequential drop in the value of their property. As a result, many of these once-splendid summer houses have been left to wrack and ruin. One of the saddest sights is a hotel struggling to keep going, with its pool and restaurant, which would have overlooked the Bosphorus, now affording a vista of lorries, buses, and cars, accompanied by the associated noise and pollution.

Continuing southwards, you will come to Yeniköy, which is best viewed from the water as, here, thankfully, the road has been built behind the handsome 19th century villas which define the waterfront of the village.

Next, you will arrive at İstinye Bay, a huge natural cove and the largest inlet on the Bosphorus, home to a still thriving fishing fleet as well as countless pleasure craft. Having walked around the bay, you will come to Emirgan Park, well worth a stop, especially in the spring when it is full of stunningly beautiful tulips, as written about here:

If you are doing this walk over two days, now would be a good time to hop on a bus back to Kabataş and plan to resume at the same place another day.

From Emirgan, it is a pleasant walk along the banks of the Bosphorus to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Just past the bridge is the entrance to the Fortress of Europe, which is a ‘must see’ (see separate posting). Having spent an hour or two here, continue on to the fashionable (and expensive!) village of Bebek, famous for its upmarket restaurants and waterfront cafés. Here, you will find a branch of Makro, one of the very few places to purchase bacon and ham in Istanbul, but you will need a second mortgage to do so!

Also in Bebek is the Egyptian consulate, a gorgeous Art Nouveau palace built by Abbas Hilmi II, the last khedive of Egypt. I have seen photographs of this building, but, unfortunately, for the time we have lived in Istanbul it has been shrouded in scaffolding and safety netting as it undergoes a major renovation, so I have been unable to see it for real!

The next place you will come to is Arnavutköy, a village boasting a number of ornate Ottoman-era wooden houses.

From Arnavutköy, continue southwards to the Bosphorus Bridge, the first bridge to be built across the straits which divide the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Also known as Atatürk Bridge, it was finished, symbolically, on 29th October 1973, the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the Turkish Republic.

Just beyond the bridge is the suburb of Ortaköy, which, as well as being home to the very attractive waterfront Mecidiye Mosque, is a trendy place, both during the day and at night. There are lots of craft shops, bars and cafés where locals like to gather to see and be seen. Ortaköy is also famous for its ‘kumpir’, jacket potatoes crammed full of assorted fillings – Russian salad, cheese, beetroot, red cabbage, coleslaw, diced turkey ‘ham’, olives, etc., etc.. They are widely available all over the city, but they are the speciality here in Ortaköy, and there are numerous sellers to choose from. For me, I would prefer the jacket potato without all of the messy stuff served with it, but whenever I have tried to order anything other than ‘full kumpir’ I tend to be looked at as if I’ve got two heads!! The same thing happens if I do manage to get a kumpir just with butter and cheese and then proceed to eat the whole thing including the skin (the best bit if you ask me!) – Turkish people never eat the skin!

From Ortaköy, you might be as well to catch a bus back to Kabataş as all of the attractions along the route now are best viewed from the water. If you do walk, you will be walking on a pavement next to a busy road with high walls to your left. You will catch the occasional glimpse of opulence as you pass the gateways to the Çırağnan Sarayı, formerly an imperial residence, and the Bosphorus Palace, both now 5-star waterfront hotels. You will also skirt the outer walls of Dolmabahçe Palace where you can pause to photograph the motionless soldiers whose duty is to guard the side entrance.

Returning to Kabataş, you can be satisfied that you have indeed explored the European shore of the Bosphorus.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Field Trips for EFL Students

Obviously, if you are teaching EFL in an English speaking country, then the opportunities for your students to use their newly acquired language skills are endless. Every time they leave the classroom they have the chance to practise – whether that is when shopping, eating out, travelling on public transport, socialising with fellow students of different nationalities, eavesdropping on the conversations of others, or simply walking the streets. The teacher can turn such experiences into more formal learning activities by organising field trips to the supermarket, a café, or to the cinema, for example.

The situation for students studying EFL in their own countries, however, is very different. Their classes are monolingual, so the temptation is always to lapse into their native tongue with their classmates. Outside of the classroom, students have little opportunity to speak English. As an EFL teacher in this situation, you have to be a little more creative, but if, like me, you are fortunate enough to live and teach in a place which attracts large numbers of English-speaking tourists, then you have a solution.

Taking groups of students to a popular tourist attraction and getting them to speak to tourists is a great confidence booster for them, but to get the most benefit requires some preparation. It is not enough merely to accost total strangers in the street; you need to have a plan.

For lower level students, having a questionnaire is always a good idea. That way they know what they are going to say to people, and are less likely to get tongue-tied and nervous. Writing the questionnaire is a useful classroom activity in itself, and the students can practise on each other, or on students in other classes, before venturing outside. Subjects for the questionnaires should be innocuous – reasons for visit, length of stay, country of origin, etc. Controversial topics, like religion and politics, should be avoided.

For more advanced students, general conversations with tourists should be encouraged. To this end, a range of open-ended questions should be explored and practised in class beforehand. Again, subjects which may cause controversy should be discouraged. When rehearsing the use of these questions, it is important that the teacher highlights any cultural differences which may arise between the students and the people they are talking to; which questions are inappropriate and why?; what misunderstandings could cause problems?.

Whichever level students you are dealing with, you need to role-play conversation openers before you let them loose on the public. Get them to write possible introductions and try them out on each other in front of the group. Encourage feedback – what works and what doesn’t work? I live and work in Istanbul, where tourists are often approached by strangers in the street who invariably want to sell them something. Consequently, they walk around constantly on their guard, ready to rebuff the advances of anyone who comes near. So, in the preparation for a field trip, we have to discuss ways to overcome that suspicion. It is also important to tell students not to be disheartened if they suffer rejection. This makes for a fun-filled activity with some students playing themselves, earnestly trying to engage someone in conversation, and others acting the reluctant tourist!

Having prepared thoroughly, you can launch your students onto the public! If possible, choose a location with plenty of seating – somewhere where tourists are likely to take a breather to consult their maps and guidebooks. In Istanbul, we have the perfect location – an area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, where there are plenty of public benches.

In my experience, students are always nervous at first, unwilling to make that first move, but, once they have and have had their first successful encounter, particularly if it is with a native speaker, then they are delighted and want to do it again and again. Field trips such as this have, in my time in Istanbul, given the students the confidence to repeat the exercise at a later date without me being present. They have also led to friendships being made with tourists agreeing to maintain contact with students via Skype after they return home. To those people, and to all those who have had conversations with my students in Istanbul over the last two years, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

And to all tourists in foreign parts in the future, if a student approaches you and asks you to spare five minutes to help them practise their English, then please say yes. If they try to sell you a carpet, you have my permission to be as rude as you need to be to get rid of them!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars, Istanbul

Probably not near the top of many tourists’ ‘to do’ list when in Istanbul, the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars is, nevertheless, well worth a visit; whether you arrive at it by walking up the western shore of the Golden Horn from Eminönü, at the end of a walk from Chora Church (as described here:, or by ferry to Fener (the same service used to visit the Rahmi M Koç Museum, as explained here:

However you approach it, the church is a striking sight. Looking for all the world like many a European-style, gothic church, it sits incongruously on the shore of the Golden Horn, seemingly in splendid isolation so that it can be better appreciated in the crowded and frenetic city of Istanbul. Of course, I am neglecting to mention the very busy road which runs in front of the church, between it and the water, but it really is possible to ignore it. Believe me – visit in the spring when the daffodils are in full bloom all around it, and you could be in an English county town or a pleasant, green Austrian valley.

There is, though, more to the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars than its unusual appearance in its Istanbul location. On closer investigation, you learn that the entire church and its contents are made of cast iron! It was made in pieces in Vienna, Austria in 1871. These pieces were then transported on 100 barges along the Danube, across the Black Sea, and down the Bosphorus to Istanbul, where they were put together like a giant Meccano set. An unusual idea and one which, you could argue, was not really necessary! However, the result is stunning. In the beautiful interior, you feel compelled to touch the pillars, pedestals, and other fixtures and fittings, and are genuinely surprised that they feel cold – the ageing process has given them the appearance of old, weathered wood which you expect to be warm.

The church was built to serve as the main church of the Bulgarian community living in Istanbul, and is still owned by their descendants today. There is no entrance fee to visit, but please put something in the collection box to help with the upkeep of this beautiful and unique church.