Istanbul: Frolicking in the Forest

One of the main draws of Istanbul is its charismatic chaos – just crossing the road can be an adventure and there’s always some sort of sight, sound or smell to scintillate the senses. However, especially if you’re staying in the city for a while, it’s sometimes necessary to escape that madness. Luckily, it’s also really easy to do that. Istanbul has a ton of promenade walks which, once you get out of the central areas, can be mostly deserted. However, if you want to go further afield, Istanbul is also blessed with a gigantic forest right on its doorstep.

The Belgrad Forest (or Belgrad Ormani), named after the Serbian capital, is a huge area to the north-west of the city. It has some small villages scattered across it, but is mainly just a huge forested area with a series of winding trails snaking through it in all directions. It warrants days of exploration to really see it all, but I just settled for a one day trip from the city. Fortunately, it’s really easy to get there from Taksim, the central square in Istanbul. A bus heads from Taksim Square to the village of Bahçeköy Merkez, right in the heart of the forest. I caught bus 42T all the way to the last stop in the village, which took just over an hour. It’s a slow but quite a nice drive through the city, most of it along the bank of the river. The bus was fairly regular, leaving about every 20-30 minutes and cost around 3-4 lira with an Istanbulkart – make sure you’ve got enough money on your card to get there and back since you can’t top up in the village.

After I arrived in Bahçeköy Merkez, I headed through a busy market which seemed to act as the village’s main shopping centre. Stalls here were selling everything from fruit to frying pans. I headed up the main road north out of the village and eventually through the main entrance to the national park. It was free to enter. As usual, I’d recommend having some sort of offline map like unless you intend to get completely lost.

This is particularly important since there are a wealth of options when you get inside. You can stick to the very quiet road which snakes through the trees or, as I did, you can head off the tarmac and into the ‘proper’ forest, where the ground is muddier and leafier. I ended up passing near a dam and doing a loop around one of the reservoirs inside the forest. The walks aren’t difficult but I went to the park after a day of heavy rain so a lot of the ground could be slippery and very, very muddy. Definitely take trainers with good grip and shoes you’re not afraid to get dirty. The mud could often get pretty thick. I’m guessing it was worse because I went after a rainy day, but I can imagine the forest staying muddy for much of the year.

Although it was early March, spring hadn’t quite sprung yet and most of the trees were still dead. It was still very impressive to see row after row of tall trees though. It reminded me a lot of hiking in the forests near to Vancouver. The paths are generally well-defined – the main issue is that there are many crossroads and forks in the path. Predictably, I ended up getting lost, though that was mainly because I followed a route back to a road, which I believed would lead me into the village. However, the road was pretty much impassable because all the mud had been churned up by passing cars. As a result, I had to loop back into the forest down sketchy paths which often didn’t lead to where I wanted them to. It ended up all good in the end, but sticking near to a reference point like the reservoir is definitely a safe bet.

What was really amazing was that I barely saw any other people, even though it was a beautiful spring day. A couple of groups of friends were picnicking or chilling when I first entered the park but when I properly got onto the trails, I literally didn’t see another soul until I got back into the village. It was amazing to have access to total peace and tranquillity just a bus ride away from bustling Istanbul. If the blaring horns and calls to prayer in Turkey’s biggest city become too much, Belgrad Ormani is a truly peaceful, if a little muddy, escape.

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