Colourful Balat and Fener in Istanbul
Never mind Ayasofya or the Galata Tower or the bosphorous, my number one must see in Turkey before I set off from London was colourful Balat and Fener in Istanbul. I had busied myself reading and gawping at every photo of this neighbourhood on google days before I arrived at Turkey’s Ataturk Airport. Not surprisingly the first place I headed to on arrival was Balat. Balat, I had read was the old Jewish quarter of Istanbul since the Byzantine era. Just south of Balat was Fener. A quarter which had a sizeable number of Greeks. Fener (Phanar in Greek) is home to a Greek orthodox church and can boast of, Lisesi, the oldest Greek school founded in 1454. The Chora church or Kariye museum, an 11th century Byzantine church, is also within reach from the Greek orthodox church and worth visting.
Both quarters, Balat and Fener had their Ottoman buildings restored with funds from UNESCO and have now become the neighbourhood of choice for art galleries, quaint cafes and photographic and art exhibition spaces.
I trekked from the Eminonu district, past the Galata bridge onto the Golden horn to get to Balat and Fener. The kaleidoscope of colours that welcomed me into these quarters were overwhelming. The first must see was the Phanar Greek Orthodox College (below).
I went up the rather steep hill to view it in its splendour. I could not help but notice the adornments of street art all around me. The kids smiled and came running over wanting me to take photos of them and grinning wildly as they saw themselves in my camera viewer.
Perhaps the most famous photo, or perhaps the most common iconic photo of Balat was one that showed this (below) cylindrical or cone shaped building with two side streets straddling it.
Amongst the labyrinth of Balat and Fener are irredeemably ruined Ottoman buildings side by side with restored buildings. As I walked up the slopes the cobbled and narrow streets brought home to me how historic this area was. It is off the beaten track for most travellers and perhaps not as well promoted as the more stereotypical Istanbul. This was an extremely wealthy area once, populated by wealthy Jews who later, after the earthquake of 1894 migrated to Galata in Istanbul and later to Israel.
My tour of Balat and Fener must have lasted for about 2 hours.
The owner (below) of the Evin shop made my day. Like others in Balat and Fener, English was not understood as well as in the more touristy areas. That, however, did not stop the owner of this confectionery store from trying to explain to me what he had on offer. I must admit I bought pretty much a little bit of everything which did come in handy as great snacks back in my hotel. I also met and asked perhaps the one and only antique shop in Balat if he had heard of portobello road in London, the world’s biggest antique market. He responded with an emphatic yes and humbly mumbled that his, was just a very small shop.
Balat and Fener reminded me of a cosmopolitan corner of Istanbul where religious co-existence was the norm, but above all else was the colour. Colour and history is what gives this place it’s virtue.
The winding alleys were a joy to explore. The standard had been set and I was ready to take on the rest of magical Istanbul!