The suburb where we stayed in Istanbul is called Fener. It’s a Byzantine and Ottoman era quarter, still with some old traditional wooden terrace houses, Greek churches and mosques. In recent years it has become increasingly gentrified with many of its narrow cobbled streets, particularly those closest to the water, now full of cafes, restaurants, antique stores, galleries and small shops.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the ruling Byzantine empire was taken over by the invading Ottomans, Fener became a suburb inhabited by the city’s Greek population. Most of them left in the 60’s and 70’s over the Cyprus dispute, but some are starting to return to what is now a predominantly Turkish area. Fener is currently the home of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Eastern Orthodox) which is housed in the Patriarchal Church of St. George. It is also home to one of the oldest Greek school buildings in the world, the Phanar Greek Orthodox College.
Not far away, in the neighbouring suburb of Edirnekapi is the Church of the Holy Saviour (Chora Museum), a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church with an interior containing some of the oldest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in the world. Despite the extensive renovations which obscured virtually its entire exterior, it was a beautiful building inside and on a site located out of the typical tourist areas.
All of these historical places, together with an absence of modern development makes Fener feel very much like what you’d expect from an older more traditional Ottoman-era Turkey. In a lot of shops the people don’t speak English and perhaps for that reason alone, the suburb does not see a lot of tourists. There is still the sense though that Fener attracts some international travellers, particularly from more religiously conservative Middle East countries like Iran and the Gulf States, but also places like Germany, Russia and China. Several locals commented that a lot more Arabs had been coming to Turkey in recent years. They say Erdogan is encouraging them to come because he wants a Turkey that is more Asian than European.
Our apartment was near the top floor of a slender four-story town house, in a narrow cobbled street, about 7 mins walk from the waters of the Golden Horn. When we arrived our host walked us up the spiral wooden staircase to our rooms and briefly showed us around. He and his partner had purchased the entire building containing three apartments which they rent out with Airbnb and a fourth for their own use. They also recently bought the apartment building next door which is even larger and has Turkish baths in each room. They are still renovating it but estimate it will be ready by Christmas time. He explained that just up the street lived a British man who was really the one who’d introduced them to the idea of buying apartment buildings in the area. “It was he who saw the potential here before anyone else”, our host explains.
On the top floor was an extra room that functioned as a communal lounge and opened out onto a lovely terrace with views of the surrounding suburbs and the Golden Horn. Our host said we had the best access to it because we were in the apartment immediately below. It was certainly very nice and a great place to relax.
On our first evening in Istanbul, our host directed us to one of his favourite local restaurants, Findik Kabugu. We ended up eating there almost every night of our stay. The food was always delicious and the owner Hüseyin spoke good English and was very open to talking with us and making us feel welcome. We always started with lentil soup and for the main I had either the cheese-filled Turkish meatballs or the Turkish ravioli with yoghurt, both speciality dishes. They always had a delicious range of vegetarian meals and salads as well. The food was home-cooked and prepared with care. It was always a place I looked forward to visiting at the end of a busy day exploring the city.