Resuming our 2008 Eastern Med group cruise, after 4 days in Istanbul we boarded our ship the lovely Oceania Nautica. It is a smaller sized vessel with 684 passengers and 400 crew capacity. We deliberately chose a smaller ship since it can get into smaller ports easier and has a higher crew to passenger ratio. Oceania bills itself as an upscale cruise line with the best food at sea. Dave had listened to some podcasts where past passengers had raved about Oceania, so we decided to give them a try. We were not to be disappointed.
We spent one more night in Istanbul while settled into our balcony cabin on board Nautica. We were anxious to leave but spent the day doing more sightseeing near the dock. That evening we tucked into some of Oceania’s famous food including some great seafood, steak and a colourful desert. The next afternoon we headed out the Bosphorous and caught some memorable pics as we departed Istanbul.
One our group was a military history buff and has been raving about the need to see the monument to the WW I Gallipoli Campaign near the entrance to the Dardanelles, that narrow straight which connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmora. Unfortunately we were to pass this area in the middle of the night. We nevertheless set our watches and rose about 3:30 AM, the predicted time of passing. Incredibly, I think I saw the monument and snapped the poor quality picture below. We would have liked to visit the battlefields while in Istanbul but did not have the time to do this.
We awoke to bright sunshine and were soon at our first port – Mytilene – the capital city of the Greek island of Lesbos, founded in the 11th century. Lesbos, also known as the Island of Poets, is most famous perhaps for the Greek lyric poet Sappho who wrote with powerful emotional content directed at other women. The term “lesbian” is indeed derived from the name of the island. We did not see any tourist evidence of this. In fact, Mytilene was a little disappointing in that we found it to be more of an industrial port, with fewer tourist type attractions. Lesbos was in the news a few years ago when thousands of refugees attempted to cross the rough body of water from Turkey to Greece and sadly, many did not survive. We enjoyed our short stay there and were soon on our way to the next port and more food lol!
Our last two days in Istanbul were jam packed with tourist activities:
Belly Dancing Show
The Blue Mosque
I think it was Sultana’s that our group went to for dinner and a belly dancing show. Granted, these shows are for tourists and not indicative of the authentic culture, we nevertheless had fun. Dinner, drinks, show and transportation were included in the service. Our table was next to the stage and a few of was were dragged up to compete in the show including yours truly. I would rate it 7 out of 10 experience. Lot’s of fun if you played around with it. I was the 2nd to last man still standing. Here are a few pics.
Our private tour guide Gulgun Asutay was a fascinating and talented person. She was extremely well informed about art, church and religious history and could easily answer any of our questions. She was strongly “pro west” and supportive of women’s rights in the Islamic secular state. We had some very interesting conversations about Turkish culture, politics and religion. She also knew how to control a tour group of individuals who like to wander off.
The Blue Mosque also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is perhaps the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul. Constructed from 1609 to 1616 as a rival to the adjacent dark and imposing Byzantine Hagia Sophia, it’s called the Blue Mosque because of the dominating blue colour of its interior. It’s exterior has the grace and delicate lines representative of mosques in Istanbul. At night it is bathed in blue light. It is a functioning mosque that Pope Benedict XVI visited it in 2006. He paused inside for a full 2 minutes with his eyes closed in silent meditation
We were not allowed to wear shorts and had to remove our shoes upon entry. We marvelled at the beauty of the prayer area, the cupola and the coloured glass windows. Because of my modest camera, I was unable to take very good pictures due to the sheer size of the interior space. Here are a few courtesy of Wikipedia.
For me the Hagia Sophia was the highlight of Istanbul. It’s name means Holy Wisdom. Here are some of the superlatives. It is the former Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral which later became an Ottoman Imperial mosque. In 1935 it was secularized and opened as a museum. It is famous for its large dome built in 537 AD during the reign of Justinian. It was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. It is the epitone of Byzatine architecture that changed the history of architecture. It remained the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years.
The great dome of the Hagia Sophia is 107 feet in diameter and 2 feet thick. It has collapsed a couple of times due to earthquakes and some sections were rebuilt. Inside the church there are many restored Christian mosaics as well as Islamist art works side by side. Restoration has been delicate and extensive seeking to keep a balance between the two religious traditions. Gulgun knew the story and history behind every mosaic and explained them in detail. It is very dark and imposing inside, a religious and historical experience we will not soon forget.
Our visit to the Topkapi Palace was memorable too. A museum today, it served as the principal residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s name means “cannon gate”. The seaside palace is spread out over many acres and includes the Ottoman Imperial Harem where the women lived, many buildings such as kitchens, stores, treasury, administration, avaries, gardens and 4 principle courtyards. There are clothing, art works, tools and many more items on display in this indoor/outdoor treasure. We much enjoyed our visit there.
Our visit to Taksim Square involved a short street car ride and slow walk up the grand Istiklal Caddesi lined with shops, art galleries and beautiful late Ottoman era buildings. Taksim Square is a major tourist attraction lined with hotels, boutiques and monuments. Sadly it is famous for many protests including the tragic massacre of up to 42 leftist protesters in 1977 upon the resumption of labour day celebrations which had been banned in Turkey since 1928.
There were many more places we visited such as the Galata Tower and the Obelisk of Theodosius resurrected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Some of our group even crossed over the bridge to Asia. We could have stayed much longer but our cruise ship was now beckoning us.
We stayed at the lovely Hotel Niles in the old city. It was beautifully decorated, had a lovely roof top terrace and was located minutes from the Grand Bazaar. I particularly remember the wonderful breakfasts: home made jams, goats milk cheeses, Turkish olives, salamis, coffee and breads. Turkish coffee is made unfiltered with finely ground coffee beans. The ground beans are as fine as cocoa powder and boiled with sugar and cardamom in a special pot called a cevze or ibrik.
What too was interesting was a leather goods workshop next door we could see people working shifts at. The Bosphorus was visible from the rooftop. The staff were very gracious and accommodating. We were very comfortable there for our 4 night stay. But, Turkish coffee takes some getting used to. I liked it, Marie not so much.
We walked to the Grand Bazaar. It is a huge indoor/outdoor shopping experience with 61 covered streets and 4000 shops. It attracts 250,000+ people every day. In 2014, it was listed as the world’s number 1 tourist attraction with over 91,000,000 annual visitors. We marveled at the colours, fabrics, artisan creations, kiosks, carpets, jewelry, cafes and throngs of people speaking in many different languages. It is a 560 year old marketplace. We were not the first ones to be so overwhelmed! The huge Spice Bazaar near the Golden Horn is jam packed with colourful spices, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, people and vendors. It is just as impressive.
There are carpets everywhere for sale in Istanbul. These are very beautiful. We were walking down the street when a man offered us some unsolicited tourist advice. Then he asked if we wanted to buy a carpet. It would soon become a standing joke “Would you like a carpet with your fries?”
Travelling with a suitcase we were not about to buy a carpet but we came very close. Of course they offer overseas shipping but we resisted the temptation. It is a common experience that many visitors are not adequately prepared to deal with well here. Scams happen. Here is an article on how not to get scammed when buying a Turkish carpet.
Turkish Baths or Hammans are everywhere in Istanbul. They are places of public bathing associated with the Islamic world. It focuses on water. Men and women are separated and each given a private change room. You then start with relaxation in a room with warm water and hot humid air. You then move to an even hotter room with a heated pedestal that you lie on. Finally you wash down in cold water. You can have an optional message too before moving to the final cooling down room. Being adventuresome, we decided to try it. It was very proper, relaxing and cleansing. We enjoyed it. When in Istanbul or anywhere in Turkey, a not to be missed experience that we recommend.
You likely have heard of Ramadan too. But what exactly is it? Simply put, it is a month of increased reflection, fasting and prayer that most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims observe annually. It commemorates when God revealed the first verses of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. It is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. Muslims must fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadam which means no food, no water, no sex, nothing until after sunset. While this sounds harsh, it is actually a period of great joy and celebration spent with loved ones. Muslims keep working during this period and it must be a real challenge to keep their energy up as the work day progresses. At the end of Ramadan, families come together to share big meals and exchange presents in Eid al Fitr- a kind of Christmas time celebration for Muslims.
Ramadan 2008 was nearing its end when we were there. We did not see any visible evidence that it was Ramadan except on one night. In the middle of the quiet street in front of our hotel, a large circular table with 6 chairs was set up. After sunset some women brought huge platters of food – pizza like breads piled high with meats, cheeses, vegetables. Six men in their 40s or so sat down and had a feast – right in the middle of the street. It was an amazing sight. The food looked and smelled so delicious and they looked so happy!
We also went on a road tour, saw the ancient underground water reservoir, visited a carpet factory, a pottery store and small church. Such was the first day of our adventure in Istanbul.