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.
It was the last few days of Ramadan. The public call to prayer that we heard 5 times daily was truly beautiful and unforgettable. Broadcast from loud speakers on tall minarets around Istanbul, there was often an echo you would hear from farther away, adding to the overall mystery. The Koran when chanted like this is very beautiful. But let’s back up a bit.
I bet you knew that Istanbul used to be called Constantinople, but did you know it was called Byzantium before that? Byzas, a figure in Greek mythology, is said to have founded the city named after him, on the Golden Horn in 667 BC. Byzantium became a trading city located strategically between Europe to the west, Asia to the east, the Sea of Marmora and Mediterranean to the south and the Black Sea to the north. The city was taken by the Persians in 513 BC and then by the Greeks in 411 BC.
In 196 AD the Romans overran Byzantium and desecrated it. In 330 AD Roman Emperor Constantine built a palace there after having legitimized Christianity. The city was renamed Constantinople after his death and became the capital of the culturally rich Byzantine Empire which flourished from the 4th to the 15th century AD.
Despite its Roman beginnings, Constantinople remained oriented to the Greek culture and the Eastern Orthodox Church. By the 12th century it was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, well known for its artwork and culture. Sadly, Constantinople was delivered a mortal blow in 1204 AD when it was sacked in the Fourth Crusade.
Left: Christ Pantocrator mosaic from the Hagia Sofia, circa 1261, courtesy Wikipedia
Since the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks had been making steady progress in conquering Anatolia, just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople. Later, the Byzantine-Ottoman Wars would bring about the end of the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, Constaninople fell to the 21 year old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. Sunni Islam was now the state religion and the city was renamed Istanbul.
Right: Mehmed II the Conqueror’s entry into Constantinople, by Fausto Zanaro, courtesy Wikipedia.
Fast forward to the 20th century. Field Marshal Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the First World War. He implemented a series of cultural, economic and political reforms that transformed Turkey into a modern secular nation state. He died in Istanbul in 1938 hailed as a great leader against colonialism and imperialism. The current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has denied that he wishes to reimpose Islam in favour of the secular state. However, his authoritarian style has been criticized both within and outside of the country.
This short tour of Istanbul’s history sets the context for the mashup of architecture, art, history, religious, culinary and cultural experiences and activities we were about to enjoy there on our 3 day sojourn. The city of 16 million awaits us.
In September 2008, we were fortunate enough to visit Istanbul. We were with a group of friends from church and about to embarque on a 2 week eastern Med cruise. We were celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary and had just payed off our mortgage!! Freedom 58!
It was the second trip with these friends so we were accustomed to travelling together. We invited a travel agent specializing in group travel to help plan our trip: Magda Newman of New Wave Travel. Magda did a great job. We had a group information and sign up session. Then she provided all the tickets and documents needed. We had chosen Oceania Cruises as I had heard great things about them and they offered smaller ships.
It was a good time to go. Istanbul was considered to be a relatively safe place then for tourists. Since then there have been some terrorist incidents targeted at visitors but I believe calm has been restored again by President Recep Erdogan. Istanbul is where East meets West. It is therefore a very culturally exciting place to experience if you ever have the chance.
Another key element. We had prearranged for a 2.5 day private tour of Istanbul led by Gulgun Asutay, a highly rated local tour guide. We were not to be disappointed. She is very knowledgeable and is still in business today. Here is a link to a recent video she made of Istanbul. You may not understand the Turkish but you will understand the beauty that we saw there.
So the stage was set. We had done the planning, paid the bill and were ready for another great trip with friends. We flew Air Canada from Ottawa to Franfurt and then Turkish Air on to Istanbul. All went well.
It had been a cold night in Lavacolla – there was no heat in our room. Undaunted we set out early at 7:30 AM. We walked for 2 hours before stopping for breakfast. Dave, his usual impatient self wanted to race. Marie was more patient as usual. The suburbs of Santiago were rather uninspiring – just another busy city (pop. 90,000). Then we rounded a corner and there in the distance we saw the spire of the Santiago Cathedral built over the tomb of the Apostle St. James.
We found our hotel on the edge of the old city overlooking a monastery. It was huge, old and interesting. Our other bags were already there (cruise suitcase and Marie’s backpack we had shipped from Burgos). We then walked 10 minutes to the cathedral. There was lot’s of hugging and congratulations going on with everyone. We were hoping to hear Stephanie the opera singer from Germany sing the Ave Maria in the church. Dave got us our Compostella certificates at the little office nearby. We went to the noon pilgrim Mass and confession. Later that afternoon we went shopping for some new clothes. Wow, that felt good!
Words fail to capture the exhilaration we were feeling! Dave remembers feeling so excited and racing ahead for that first glimpse of the cathedral spire! When we finally walked into our hotel lobby on the edge of the old city, he remembers saying to himself, “Holy cow, we walked across Spain to get here!” When we went to Mass with the hundreds of other pilgrims it was a special moment we will not soon forget. There was a collective feeling of pride and accomplishment but also of remembrance for those who had to turn back along the way for health or other reason. We were taking part in a sacred tradition that had been going on for 1200 years!
Words fail to capture our emotions and feelings at that moment: we wanted the Camino to end and we didn’t want it to end! We were happy it was over yet we were sad the journey was at its end. We’d had enough, but we wanted more. We were exhausted yet energized. How could we ever go back to “normal” after this experience? It was a singular moment – we felt connected – to each other, to everyone else, to creation, to God in a deeper way than before. We did not want this feeling to ever end.
We celebrated with a menu del dia and white wine. The old city is very interesting with plenty of restaurants and shops. It was thronged with fellow pilgrims. Next day we went back to the pilgrim Mass again. This time we saw a few more people we knew and exchanged contact info. The Koreans Kim and Mr. “O” were there, Ainsley from Edmonton, Henning and Randi from Denmark – all smiles.
During Mass they call out the individual names and nationality of those pilgrims who were issued their Compostella the previous day. So we heard our names called out. And today they hauled up the famous botafumeiro – one of the largest incense burners in the world. We were amazed at the speed and height it soared to.
And that ends our beautiful journey on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. Stay tuned for the lessons learned. Thanks for your accompaniment along the way.
We knew we were getting closer to the coast when we saw this fresh boiled octopus called pulpo in Spain. Dave had tried a few pieces with pasta a few days back and quite liked its mild almost beef like flavour. It’s very tender and not at all rubbery. This was a big one that he hauled out of pot for us to photo as we passed through Melide pop. 8000. Melide specializes in pulpo a la Gallega. It was too early in the day to stop and have some!
We had started our third last day on this pilgrimage in good spirits, well rested from the private room accommodation in Palas de Rei. So rested I think we now decided, no more refugios – too many people, no privacy, noise, etc.. Our goal today would be Arzua, some 26 km away. We would cross 5 river valleys and walk on peaceful woodland pathways. The sun was peaking out again.
The purpose of those curious elevated structures in the gallery above we were told was to allow harvested crops to dry. It must rain here a lot we surmised. It was surprisingly uncrowded on the path today. It was a very peaceful. However when we stopped in a bar restaurant for lunch, a very funny thing happened.
Marie and forgotten her sunglasses the previous day at another restaurant stop. Suddenly she spots a man wearing them. When she pointed this out to him, he immediately took the glasses off and gave them to her saying “I was bringing them to you.” Such is the Camino! We continued on walking 20 km today and took the bus the last 6 km to Arzua pop. 7000. We checked into the Hotel Suiza. It was a real treat staying in a hotel with maid service and a restaurant.
We awoke the next day and walked about 20 km through eucalyptus shaded paths with palm trees and fresh blooming flowers. We then hopped the bus for 18 km and stopped for the night in Lavacolla, just 9 km from our destination. We spent that night at the Hostal Restaurante San Paio. We had the Galician style menu del dia with wine for dinner. It was delicious and a very good deal.
As we drifted off to sleep we wondered what it would be like walking into Santiago de Compostella tomorrow. Nothing could stop us now we prayed.
We were now into the last days of our journey. Sarria is the jumping off point for many on the Camino de Santiago as it is the shortest distance that qualifies you for the Compostella – the official certificate saying you hiked the Camino. Brierley has Santiago as 118.2 km from Sarria.
When we arose, it was raining so we dawned our rain gear. The scenery had changed. Galicia looks more like the terrain back home in Canada – forest, streams, open pastures, farms, all very green in Spring. A smell of manure and dung was everywhere. It is a rain forest – very different from the earlier scenery on our tour.
We of course were carrying our packs on our backs. There is a commercial service available that would pick up your pack and deliver it to your next planned destination, relieving you of all that weight. One would then only have to carry a light day pack with lunch, water, TP etc. Not to demean those who use the service, Dave would use it in France 3 years later, we called these pilgrims “day trippers”.
A note on TP. Dave carried a small roll of TP in his pack as you never know when nature calls. For some reason it was often pink in colour in Spain. When you had to go you would wander off the trail and do your business behind a tree. However you will recall there were long sections of the Camino with no trees. Hence it was not uncommon to come upon someone doing their business out in the open – men and women alike. The polite thing to do is look the other way. And that is what everyone did, still it was somewhat trying. Most refugios had separate bathrooms for men and women. However we recall one that had a single unisex bathroom that took us by surprise.
It was getting crowded now. The closer you get to Santiago, the more pressure to ensure you would get a bed each night without reservations. The refugios get bigger and bigger. We hiked the 23 km to Portomarin pop. 2000 and hiked up all those stairs. Rather than check into the 160 bed Xunta Alburgue, we found a private room in the Pension Portamino. It was clean, quiet and dry. Dave was feeling much better and Marie was managing her blisters as best she could.
The next morning we set our sights on Palas de Rei pop. 4500, another 26 km. The rain had stopped, it was cool and we made good time despite the 400m elevation climb. We took a cab the last 5 km. We checked into a small alburgue and shared our room with Henny and Randi who we had met on the train to Leon and seen on the trail several times. We went out to dinner and had a nice evening together. Dave is still connected with Henny on Facebook – he is skipper of a fishing trawler in Denmark and they live on an island. Love Denmark!
So Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32
As we planned we met Pastor Dick at the Triacastela bus stop and bussed it 12 km forward to Samos, site of the famous Benedictine monastery. I think we nievely knocked on the front door thinking they would open it but there was no answer. There were several other doors but no signs inviting one to enter. Reluctantly we decided to cross the street and have a café con laite. Dave was not feeling well and having difficulty swallowing. Both Marie and Dick counselled him to get his throat checked out.
So that is what we did. Dick walked on while Dave and Marie stopped at a convenient clinic a block away. After checking my OHIP card and asking me to fill in a form, I was ushered into a doctor’s room. Trouble was I did not speak Spanish and the doctor did not speak English. Luckily the nurse spoke French and Spanish. I was able to answer their questions in French with the nurse doing the 2-way translating. It was strep throat. The female doctor issued me prescriptions for 2 kinds of antibiotics. We found a pharmacia and purchased the drugs. We were on our way again in less than an hour! The cost was minimal and Dave would soon be feeling better.
So off we walked the remaining 13 km to Sarria. It was a bit of a grind and we had not stopped to buy any snacks for later. We arrived in Sarria and checked into the Los Blasones refugio. Dave went to sleep for 2 hours. When we went out again about 6 PM we were very hungry. All restaurants and food stores were closed – cerado, cerado, cerado – until 8PM! So we decided to go to the 7 PM pilgrim Mass at the Santa Marina church just down the street.
Dave remembers being so hungry and weak, he almost toppled over during Mass. However he experienced a special revelation there. Feeling light headed, I remember gazing around the church at it’s art work, the cross, the statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Priest and wondering if it is all true? i.e. is Christianity and the Church’s witness really true, or just a nice story that we have come to believe in? Momentarily… the answer came back to me, from God himself it seemed, that yes it is indeed all true! That was an epiphany I will never forget. It was a transforming moment!
After Mass we stumbled out, found the nearest restaurant and had a meal in appreciation of the day. Sarria is a special place that we will not soon forget. We would like to go back to this church someday and give thanks.
The sum of the whole is this: walk to be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with purpose. Dickens
Well today would be more than a walk – it was a 30 km long climb up 700 m elevation with and an up and down in the middle as you can see below. So we opted for the bus at least part way.
We knew that today would be difficult. In the refugio last night we started seeing a different group of people. They were extremely athletic looking. Men and women from the Tyrol in Austria, others from Norway. When we asked why they were here they said that they liked hiking in mountains and had skipped the flat parts of the Camino. Interesting we thought!
We took the bus about 30 km on the highway to where the green road connects into O’Cebriero, top right in the adjacent map. We still had about a 4 km hike up a winding highway several hundred vertical feet. It took an hour and we were getting hot again. We made it in good spirits although Dave’s sore throat was making it difficult for him again today. We had met 2 nurses from Ireland at the bus stop and they tagged along too. We could not believe how most others hiked the 30 km and survived to tell about it! We were now in Galicia – the province that Santiago de Compostella is in.
It was quite windy and fog or clouds would roll in and obscure the view quickly – just like Newfoundland remarked Marie. We had breakfast, looked around a gift shop and relaxed a bit before pushing on again.
We continued hiking on a flat plain for about 10 km stopping often to enjoy some gorgeous views. There were lots of small farmyards that we walked right through. As in England, public hiking trails have existed since antiquity. Farmers cannot bar the public from hiking through their land – even when the path goes right by their barn it seems.
Then it was steeply downhill again. After about 15 km we took a cab for the last few km and checked into the private 27 bed Refugio El Oribio in Triacastela. The first person we run into there is Pastor Dick from Arkansas. We spent a pleasant evening catching up while recouperating from the strenuous day. We also met a nice lady from New Zealand. Plans were made to meet up with Dick in the morning. Dave did not sleep that well and he was still coughing a bit.