Istanbul City Walls and Gates

I’ve been wanting to walk along these ancient defence walls, ever since I first came to Istanbul which was about ten years ago. The chance came this weekend after a business trip I made to Bandırma.

There are plenty of online reviews and articles about this walk so I’m not going into any great descriptions here, you’ll be pleased to know, and I’ll let the photos do the work for me. The sun was high for most of the walk which does not make for the best pictures and there was far too much traffic but you’ll have the later problem at anytime.

I did it the hard way and walked out from my hotel in Beyazıt (near Sultanahmet), in a westerly direction, until it reached the land walls at Yedikule. Then I went roughly north an northeast until I reached the Golden Horn at Ayvansaray. I then made my way through the maze of streets in Fatih and back to my Beyazıt. I did over 22 km (13.5 miles) but the much easier way is to take the train to Yedikule from Sultanahmet then catch a bus for your return.

Yedikule Gate

The castle of Yedikule was impressive but it was impossible to gets good photo of it. A drone would have been useful!

Second Military Gate

Gate of Spring

Gates of Rehsios

Looking for tea, I wondered into Merkezefendi (to the west of the walls) and found this little gem. The following beautifully restored building was designed by the architect Abdülbaki Paşa in the 17th century and I believe originally used for teaching the Koran. In the 1970s it was a children’s library but these days it is known as Nağmedar and maintained for live classic music recitals .

Nağmedar (near Merkezefendi Mosque)

The Walls near Fetihkapı

Fatih Sultan Mehmed (Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror) and his army entered Istanbul via this gate in 1453 when he conquered the city.

Fatihkapı (The Gate of Fatih)

Chora (Kariye) was an Orthodox church before the conquest and on which it was converted into a mosque and a minaret added. It is now a museum though my timing was not good as the whole of the outside and part of the inside was obscured and inaccessible due to these works. That’s a very good excuse for a return visit as it contains some stunning orthodox icons.

Ottoman House and Chora Minaret

Some of the Frescoes in Chora

Graveyard and Street next to Chora

Eğrikapı (The Curved Gate)

Situated in Ayvansaray, Tekfur Palace (Palace of Porphyrogenitus) was built as an annex to the Blachernae Palace in the late thirteenth century. The exact construction date of the palace is not certain, yet according to the primary sources it was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) for his son Prince Constantine “Porphyrogenitus”. The location of the palace was crucial, because it was situated at the highest point of Constantinople (Byzantine Istanbul) on the northwest corner of the city, therefore controlling the Golden Horn, Pera (today’s Galata), and city itself.

Walls of Tekfur Palace (Palace of Porphyrogenitus)

Tefkur palace was also under renovation and so I couldn’t get any decent shots but that’s just yet another good excuse to return.

Originally built in 1898, the Bulgarian St. Stephen Church has a historical presence in Istanbul. In the late 19th century, Prince Stefan Bogoridi, an Ottoman statesman of Bulgarian origin, donated the land he owned to the church, and started the efforts for its building. The original construction plans were made by the Armenian architect Hovsep Aznavur. The cast iron parts of the church, weighing about 500 tons in all, were produced by the Austrian company Rudolph Ph. Waagner, and were transported by ship from Vienna, through the Danube, Black Sea, and Bosphorus to Istanbul. Two of the surviving tower bells were brought from Russia’s city of Yaroslav.

Bulgarian St Stephen Church, Balat

So, that’s a very brief review of the main sites. Well worth visiting if you want to get away from the hordes of tourists in Sultanahmet and many other parts of the city. There’s were some warnings on some websites about the drunks and vagrants that frequent some of the parts of the walls and though I discovered some of them not one even spoke to me or bothered me.

You may find these links of use (from which some of my information was ruthlessly plagiarised):

This video was one of my inspirations for this walk. The original video on YouTube was much better quality but access has been removed (from the UK) due to copyright issues.


Northern Cyprus Walk Summaries and GAIA Maps

Overview of Walks in Northern Cyprus

Details of Walks

Monday 30 October 

Bellapais Circuit

13 km, 410 m ascent

Tuesday 31 October 

Beşparmak Loop

16 km, 480 m ascent

Wednesday 1 November 

Famagusta City Walls

6.5 km, 20 ascent
Salamis Tour

4.6 km, 15 m ascent

Thursday 2 November

Kantara Castle Circuit 

10.5 km, 275 m ascent

Antiphonitis Church descent to Esentepe

8 km, 40 m ascent 

Friday 3 November

Buffavento Castle Climb

2.5k m, 220 m ascent

St Heralion Castle Hill Circumnavigation 

6.5 km, 320 m ascent 

Total for the week:

67.6 km 1780 m

(Average ~8 miles per day and ~1200 feet)

Saturday 4 November and Refections

Today we just drove into Kyrenia for a wander around and a breakfast at Çıralı where we were treated to some local foods at bargain prices. İçli köfte (kibbeh), börek and lahmucan with ayran. After a quick final pack and sort out of the villa we were were on our way to Larnaca airport. 

Mosque in Kyrenia

Fountain in Kyrenia 

Northern Cyprus is a wonderful holiday location.  Away from the busy coastal roads the scenery is wonderful, and the people friendly and welcoming. There are plenty of tourist traps in the main centres but if you make a bit of an effort and seek out the places that the locals use in the villages and backstreets you will have a much better culinary and social experience. We only had one slightly disappointing afternoon snack at a cafe on the coastal road where were were charged a very good price for very average food. 

I imagine during the peak season it gets very crowded and is far too hot but October was a perfect month for hill walking – though of course rain could be experienced at this time of year. 

Business Proposition? 

Friday 3 November

The forecast today was abysmal with heavy rain and lightening predicted from 10 am onwards. We were certainly going to get a soaking as we had two mountains to climb. 

Following a quick breakfast at Slimz, we were soon on our way up to Buffavento which lies at 945 metres or so above sea level. The approach road was another narrow single track road that was unguarded on the shear cliff face to the south. It seemed we were the first visitors to arrive at the car park and a steep 40 mintute trod soon saw us trying to get a decent view of the island amongst the swirling clouds and mist. Whist the visibility was not the best, we must have chosen the least windy day to visit the “buffeted by winds” castle.

Buffavento Castle

View to the west from Buffavento 

Buffavento Castle

Some of the final steps up to Buffavento

We met a few tourists on the way down  including a retired British couple in their seventies who bragged that they had walked from Beşparmak with no maps or water. Bonkers! We then set off for St Heraklion. 

As we parked at he side of the approach road the tourist coaches were flocking in. We had a quick look inside the castle entrance and viewing platform but the hordes of guide-led visitors made us decided that we’d enjoy walking around the base of the hill the castle stands upon much more. And that’s what we did.  As we set off we met a couple who had walked up all the way from Karenia. Impressive. Though our walk was quite short there was one very steep and loose pass to walk down on the east of the castle, which saw Cliff and I using our walking poles. Plus  a steep climb and scramble up a gorge on the west side which was great fun. 

St Heralion Castle from the Approach Road

View of Kyrenia from St Heralion Castle 

St Heralion Castle 

You can see from the photographs that we avoided the bad weather that was forecast though we could see some parts of the island were quite badly affected. 

On the return through a very crowded rush-hour Kyrenia we stopped at the Çıraklı pastahane for Turkish coffee, Ayran and teli-kaydıfı. Çok lezzetliydi! It was very tasty! And a bargain. 

In the evening we went to Remzi’s restaurant in Esentepe where we had another typical feats of meze and shish kebabs. Remzi was a great host, his family made us very welcome and supplied us with lovely homemade food. This was probably my favourite dining experience on my the island – though we never had a bad one. 

Today’s Walks

Thursday 2 November

It has got to Thursday and though we’d planned to visit all of the three castles on the Beşparmak Mountains up until this morning we still hadn’t managed one yet so we’d better get cracking. 
We breakfasted well at “Slimz” cafe again (but still no Turkish tea unfortunately) before setting off east along the main coastal road and then south and up through Kaplıca to the Kantara Restaurant. 

Abandoned Church in Kaplıca

We parked opposite the restaurant and then set off south on the road to Turnalar (and Boğaz) and then, after a couple of hindered metres, turned east on a little used rough track which runs along the south of the mountain ridge. On leaving the car we were followed by another dog (a Labrador cross that we named  ikinci köpek (the second dog though this one didn’t seem a stray and appeared to belong to the restaurant. Anyway, he followed us the whole way around the walk. We were soon at the Kantara castle and enjoying the views from the fortifications which are an amazingly well preserved condition. 

Kantara Castle (from one of the approach tracks) 

View towards Karpaz Peninsular from Kantara Castle

Whilst there, we met a family from Kazakhstan who were being guided by a student from there who is living in Cyprus. Their teenagers were desperate to practice there English on us which was at quite an advanced level even though it is their third language. They wanted to know what the British think about their country which is always a tricky question when it’s not really well know to most Brits and those that do know it have probably got a very distorted view (from  the film Borat). 

Three Old Gits on Tour at Kantara Castle

On the return we had tea at the Kantara restaurant where ikinci köpek got a good hiding and a scratch on the nose from the mother of the kitten he had chased up a tree. 
It was getting late but Bob and I wanted to get a few more miles and so Cliff dropped us off in the foothills of the Beşparmak to the south Esentepe and we walked bank from there. We found signs to an old curch (Antiphonitis) which desperately wanted to visit and explore but we were running out daylight and had to park the idea. As we reached the main road the sun had set and we walked into the village in darkness. 

We had another fine traditional Turkish dinner in the Esentepe restaurant and we were treated to patlamış mısır (popcorn) as we chatted at the end of the meal. 

We had a great laugh that night as we mimicked some of the local ex-pat Brits many of who seemed to be certain type of southerner with a strong accent who have a typical banter of “you wot, you wot!” This was only to each other – of course!

There are a lot of unsightly abandoned villa and hotel developments all the way along the northern coast of the island. Apparently the banks pulled the plug (during the global recession which started in 2008) on many construction projects during a boom period (which was fuelled in part by land ownership issues). There is supposed to be a moritorium on new projects – though this does not appear to be being adhered to fully. If you’ve bought or are even renting near to one of these it must be quite dissapointing. Some support needs to be given to get them all completed.   

Kantara Castle Walk (you can drive or walk up the road in the centre of the track that we walked) 

Walk from Beşparmak Hills to Esentepe

Wednesday 1November

We had great Turkish breakfast at Slimz Cafe (which on the main road and a couple of miles west of Esentepe) that is run by a Turkish guy who (by his accent – and as we confirmed with him on a later visit) had clearly spent a lot of time in London. His Turkish breakfast was excellent – though I was quite shocked to find he did not serve Turkish tea. There’s no demand he said which gives you some idea of his regular clientele. 

We took a day off from hillwalking today –  though still managed to cover around 7 miles on our walks on and along the historic city walls of Famagusta and a tour around the ancient ruins of Salamís. These are both high recommended trips if you’ve even only a passing interest in the history of the island. 

Walks around Salamís and Famagusta

On the Martinego Bastion (of the Famagusta wall) we had a very  interesting and informative chat with Maria who was born in the USA but has Cypriot parents. She was doing a survey of the resoration works that were underway and have been funded (surprisingly to us at first) by the EU. The resorations are actually done as part of a reconciliation process and aim to improve relations between those in the north and south of the island who were obviously badly affected by the hostilities during the sixties and seventies. Though Famagusta is in Northern Cyprus (which is de facto administered by Turkey)  it is still seen legally (de juro) as being in the EU as its status has never formally been changed since the declaration of independence. 

Famagusta Walls 

The fortifications of Famagusta were built by the Lusignan Kingdom of Cyprus in the 14th century, and redesigned by Republic of Venice in 15th and 16th centuries before the siege of Ottoman Empire in 1571. The fortifications withstood an 11-month siege before the city capitulated to the Ottoman Empire in August 1571.

Famagusta Walls 

The local cafe (Nar Mutfağı) we went into in Famagusta (just off the main tourist street from the Sea Port to the Ravelia and Venetian Fortifications) was run by two very friendly sisters. They only had a very simple menu but were happy to run out and bring us baklava to have with out tea and ayran which was very accommodating of them. 

 14th Century Ay Nicholas Church, Famagusta

14th Century Ay Nicholas Church, Famagusta

In the larger amphitheater at Salamis three men, who were part of a larger party, spontaneously broke out into song and gave a brief but really high quality impromptu performance to their friends and the other tourists. They were singing some sort of hymns but we couldn’t make out their language though I had a guess it could have been Georgian which turned out to be right. We spoke to one of them (David) who said they were archaeologists on a tour and then he gave us a brief history of the ancient Georgian community on Cyprus which had had no idea about.
Salamis (image copyright of Beyefendi Baba Şah Roka) 

The ancient city of Salamis stood on the eastern shore of Cyprus, at the mouth of the Pediaios River. It was the island’s most important port city, with ships stopping here from the Middle East and from Europe (particularly the Aegean) in antiquity. During the Roman period, Salamis was the largest city on the island, surpassing even Paphos, the administrative capital of Cyprus. The city ran along the shore for about a mile (2 km) and reached about half a mile inland (1 km). At its peak a population of around 100,000 existed. 

Salamis (image copyright of Beyefendi Baba Şah Roka) 

Salamis was founded around 1100 BC by the inhabitants of Enkomi, a Late Bronze Age city on Cyprus, though in Homeric tradition, the city was established by Teucer, one of the Greek princes who fought in the Trojan War. After the Jewish revolt in Judea in AD 66-70, the Jewish population of Salamis increased. In AD 115, however, the Jews of Cyprus revolted against the Romans, leading to severe consequences at the hand of the Roman army under Trajan in 117. Many of the Greek inhabitants were killed (as many as 250,000), and Jews were no longer allowed on the island (Dio Cassius 68.32.2).

Salamis (image copyright of Beyefendi Kılıf Simit) 

Salamis (image copyright of Beyefendi Metin Cengiz)  

The culinary highlight today though was found a tiny cafe in Kaplacı (just beyond and to the right of the mosque when approaching on the road up from the coast ) when Bob noticed a neon light in the distance whilst we were just about to leave the village. This was being used by some local guys to play backgammon whilst watching a TV at full volume, which was considerately turned down for us a little after sitting down. There we enjoyed köfte, pirzola (lamb chops), şiş kebabı, salad and pickled vegetables, served with bread and the richest tasting butter I’ve ever had. It was home-made from organic milk according to the owner (who’s name I ashamedly forgot to ask for).

Tuesday 31 October

Our hopes of a traditional Turkish breakfast were again thwarted today as we were unable to find anywhere suitably prepared and open in the village. Still it’s an I’ll wind … We found Ahmet’s lokanta and he was making “tantuni” as we entered. He spoke no English but I found he was from Mersin (in the south of Turkey)  where Tantuni is a speciality. It’s just a wrap filled with veal and spices but it made a very substantial breakfast and was washed down with cold ayran and hot tea. 

The drive up to the Alevkayası visitors centre was quite an adventure in itself as it was so narrow and twisty. On arriving we were stopped at the entrance of the road to Buffavento castle by a young soldier guarding the barrier. Unfortunately the road was closed for military training, evident later by the artillery firing. We got chatting and he told us he was an architect but doing his 9 months national service. “Well you’ve got a very suitable name” I said (his surname was Fearless) which caused him to smile. I then asked “Do you have a gun in your holster?” and he then pulled out a pen from it and said “This is my weapon” which made us all laugh out loud. 

We did a circular walk up to the Beşparmak Mountains. At the start we explored the ruins of an ancient Armenian Monastry (Sourp Magar Monastry) which had been abandoned about a century ago. 

Sourp Magar Monastry

The monastery of Sourp Magar is situated at a height of 510m above sea level on the northern slopes of the Besparmak mountains, near the North Cyprus herbarium.

 Sourp Magar Monastry (Photograph courtesy of Robert William Conway Sharrock Esq) 

Sourp Magar means “St Makarios the Blessed”. Who this St Makarios was is unknown, but the monastery was first established about 1000AD as a Coptic (Egyptian Christian) monastery, and came into the hands of the Armenians about the 15th century,  the quiet surroundings providing a haven for clergymen and laymen alike. The Armenian community in Nicosia used it as a summer retreat, and it became a stopover for Armenian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem.

The upheavals in the Ottoman empire at the beginning of the 20th century resulted in the arrival of thousands of Armenian refugees on the island, and the monastery opened its doors to orphans and to those in need. It also helped feed the hungry by developing farming on the monastery’s lands which ran to around 3000 acres.

We met a few friend on the walk when a stray dog joined us just after leaving the monastry. Despite our best efforts to send it back it stayed with us for the whole 10 miles and 500 metres if climbing. 

Our New Friend

Beşparmak Mountains

Today’s Route

The Bellapais Walk (blue left) and Beşparmak Walk (black centre) in Context

We had a wonderful traditional Turkish dinner of traditional Turkish meze and mixed kebabs at the Esentepe Restaurant- well recommended.