Istanbul: swimming between continents

Daily Sabah
Istanbul: swimming between continents

Straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul offers a unique experience for swimmers, Daily Sabah writes. Every morning, his skin bronzed by the sun, pensioner Metin Çakmakcı rushes to grab a deckchair under a parasol on his local beach on the Asian side of Istanbul. "A sea like this for a gigantic city such as Istanbul, it's not bad," the 74-year-old smiles, pointing to the crystal-clear water facing the Princes' Islands on the Sea of Marmara.

Istanbul, a bustling megalopolis of 16 million people stretching between two continents and two seas, does not immediately bring to mind images of a beach resort. But just like the locals of New York, Beirut and a handful of other global cities, Istanbulites can swim all summer long and return home on the metro with sand trapped under their sandals and salt layering their skin.

"In the old days, you could access the water anywhere," Çakmakcı reminisces. "Now, of course, you have buildings everywhere. The coastline has changed. We all now live on top of each other, in a way." Istanbul officials have added a hundred extra sun loungers to Çakmakcı's beach, creating room for 300 people under 170 parasols just 25 minutes' walk from the pensioner's home.

This year, attendance has shot up, says Sezgin Koçak, who oversees maintenance at the beach. A large part of the spike stems from an economic difficulties that has seen consumer prices soar by 80% in one year.  "A lot of people can't afford to get out of Istanbul anymore," explains Canan Civan, a bikini-clad bather in her sixties. "But even if I had the money, I wouldn't go anywhere else," she adds. "Instead of spending 10 days on holiday, I'd rather come here every day for three months."

Istanbul has 85 accessible beaches or bathing spots between the Black Sea in the north, the Sea of Marmara in the south and the Bosporus Strait in between.

Public or private, some attract a more traditional clientele who cover themselves up in veils, while others come out in bikinis, merrily exposing their skin. Like Turkish society itself, the two often share the same space.

"Istanbulites know you can find a beach 35-40 minutes from the center," the 32-year-old real estate agent Eren Bizmi says, as he tries to start a volleyball game with some friends from work in coastal Şile neighborhood. He declares the Black Sea is best because it is "less salty" than the Sea of Marmara.

Finally, there are the bathers of the Bosporus, who swim between Europe and Asia under the serene gaze of the city's grand palaces. Eren Tor and his friends meet every morning in Bebek, an upmarket neighborhood on the European side of the continental divide. "It's a privilege to be able to swim between two seas and two continents," the 64-year-old pensioner says. The water reaches 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, dropping to 11degrees Celsius on average in the winter. But every day, "even in the winter, even in the snow", Tor says he comes out for his morning Bosporus dip.

Almost all the group have been swimming here since childhood, learning the strait's tricky currents, which can swiftly sweep you away. Levent Aksüt, 92, says he comes to swim "three or four times a week."