It’s impossible to do Istanbul in just one day, even when you travel the way Elliot and I do, so we thanked Zeus that our cruise ended with an overnight stay in the city. After a day at sea that included a crap ton of mojitos and even more laughs with our bar crawl friends (what happens on the Rhapsody of the Seas, stays on the Rhapsody of the Seas), we overslept our 6am alarm to wake up panicked at 8:30. My phone, for some strange reason, had gone back three hours and still said that it was 5:30. I had no clue why it did that, because we were going back only one timezone, not three. Regardless, we had to scarf down a mustard and egg sandwich (it was as gross as it sounds) and get ready to make the most of our day in Istanbul.
We had already seen the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, and a Whirling Dervish show at the beginning of our vacation, so we decided to make our first stop the famed Hagia Sophia. It’s also referred to the Aye or Aya Sofya, but I stick with the spelling my Art History professor used. It was his class, after all, that I became familiar with the different mosaics of the Byzantine empire, in particular the Christ Panocrator one. Maybe because it was on my final exam…
The streets were still pretty quiet despite what I considered a late start to the day, yet the fishermen were out in full effect, lining the long bridge that we crossed from the new town to the old with their poles and coolers. The bridge, as you can imagine, had quite the pungent smell from all the freshly caught fish that decorated its surface. Street peddlers joined our finned friends in beckoning the tourists that crossed the bridge, only the peddlers had plastic geometric shapes to offer rather than a seafood taste. It was a long walk from the port to the Hagia Sophia, but it was pleasant without the Mediterranean sun out yet in full force.
The Hagia Sophia is probably the best known of Istanbul’s architectural treasures and is usually synonymous with the Byzantine empire. The original building was constructed between the years 525 and 567 (Isn’t it weird to think that was almost 1,500 years ago?!?) and was originally used as a church under the reign of the Emperor Justinian I. Interestingly, the church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God (the Logos) rather than a particular saint or prophet. It wasn’t until 1484 that under the order of Sultan Mahmed it was converted into a mosque. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia retired from religion to serve as a museum; in fact, it’s one of the most visited museums in the world. It’s famed dome, mosaics, and galleries, and minarets are a sight for architectural and laymen’s eyes alike, but I could easily see how any Byzantine architecture enthusiast (because there are so many?) would just lose his/her shit walking into the church/mosque/museum.
The line to purchase tickets (which were beautiful themselves) wasn’t too long, but the number of tour groups inside was rather annoying. I completely understand the appeal of booking a tour, because you get interesting tidbits of information from your guide, but Elliot and I aren’t huge fans of being told what we are going to see. That was a bit of a problem two days prior in Crete when we had to keep getting called back to our group by Vasilis. I guess the masses aren’t as interested in specific obscure objects as I am. NERD ALERT. The first thing I noticed when walking into the narthex was the smell of Hagia Sophia. I obviously can’t describe it, but it had a smell that I can best describe as “historical”. Anyone else would probably call it “musty old stones”. I dunno, ever since seeing that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams says, “But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistene Chapel..”, I’ve paid extra attention to the smells of archaeological sites and historical treasures. Maybe it’s because, unlike my pictures and blogs, I don’t have to share that experience with anyone else.
Despite the amazing display of tourist fannypacks and selfie sticks, we were blown away by the well-preserved and colorful mosaics that covered the walls and ceilings of the former church/mosque (chosque?). The colors, coupled with the gold leaf that overlay on surfaces, made for a dazzling display, one that I can’t liken with anything else I’ve ever seen. Equally impressive were the massive disks (best way I can describe them) that contained Islamic symbols and Arabic text. After taking in the main domed area of the chosque (I can’t get myself to call it a museum), we walked upstairs to the upper galleries. Not only were were able to get a birds eye view of the domed area below, but we were able to take in the Constantine mosaic and the Mary with Justinian and Constantine mosaic without crowds of people around us. I also got to see my Christ Pantocrator mosaic, although it took some searching and required me asking the secretary of the museum curator where it was located. Totally worth the effort.
It didn’t take us that long to go through the main parts of the Hagia Sophia, especially since the tombs were temporarily closed, so we made the short walk to the famed Topkapi Palace. Located directly behind our first stop, the Topkapi Palace was, you guessed it, the home of the sultans, their families, harems, and workers until the mid-19th century. It is a massive complex area that stands on what was the Eastern Roman Acropolis, and construction was finished in 1478. In addition to the sultan’s apartments, there are three courtyards, the harem apartments, tombs, a treasury and jewel hall, and a throne room. To access all of the sights, it was 45 lira a person, which ended up being around $30 for the two of us. We started off in the sultan’s audience chamber, which looked very Arabian Nights with its lounging couches and opulent decor. The three courtyards were beautifully manicured and had large, shady trees, colorful flowers, and an extravagant fountain. The sun was starting to get hot at this point, so the fountain was tempting us to jump in. Can’t say the workers would be too happy with us doing so though.
There was a long ass line for the Treasury and Jewel Room, so we hydrated while we waited the thirty minutes or so to enter the darkened room. All of the treasures are in cases embedded into the walls, so the tourists moved along the perimeter of the room like an assembly line. Some of the more notable pieces in the collection were Suleiman (also spelled Suleyman) the Magnificent’s (this guy’s turban is like a magnificent giant onion) ivory mirror, a solid gold cradle, a giant diamond, a rock crystal chess set, a bridal brooch that was lain at the tomb of Fatima, the Prophet Mohammed’s daughter, the Topkapi Dagger, and a gold box just full of emeralds and gems. It was almost as opulent as having a miniature giraffe at your disposal. The adjoining room had blue, white, and green tiles much like the Alhambra in Granada. This room contained swords attributed to the comrades of Mohammed.
Our next stop was the Throne Room, where I needed to cover my shoulders and legs to enter. This is due to the fact that there are many holy relics attributed to the Prophet; in addition, no photography was allowed in the space to protect the sanctity of the treasures. Among the various pieces on display, we were able to see pieces of Mohammed’s beard (?!), a bowl from which he drank, and his footprint (!). We were nearing the time for prayer, and we walked by the Imam whose voice was being broadcast over the loudspeaker. He was reading from an OLD (like 1400’s old) Quran, and it was pretty fascinating to see the “man behind the curtain” after hearing the call to prayer so many times throughout our travels.
The nearby Harem Apartments were almost bigger than the sultan’s apartments and had a separate space for the women’s eunuchs. I’m fascinated by that part of history and vowed to read up more on the lives of women and children in the sultan’s harem. The apartments were more modestly decorated but still contained beautiful colors and mosaic pieces. The more impressive rooms belonged, understandably so, to the Queen Mother (the mother of the sultan’s heir) and the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince actually had two apartments, referred to as the Twin Kiosks, and they are considered to be the most stunning of all the spaces in the Palace. The Sultan’s own space wasn’t as lavish as that of his son which tells you the importance placed on his firstborn.
It was getting later in the afternoon, and we still had quite a bit to see, so we walked about a half mile to the Grand Bazaar in search of a doner place that Lonely Planet had recommended. When we got there, they only had lamb kabob, so we sat down at another kebab stop that was right around the corner. Doner Deniz had a really tasty chicken durum kebab that was topped with a chili sauce, and it was light enough that we weren’t in a food coma. While eating, we saw Veronica and Roland walking around and chatted with them for a bit. We recommended that they check out the Basilica Cistern since they were heading in that direction. Despite all the incredible things we had seen in the city, El and I both agreed that that had been our favorite Istanbul sight thus far.
We finished lunch and walked through the famous Grand Bazaar. The word “massive” doesn’t even do this place justice; it’s divided into sections and you need a map to navigate it. The Grand Bazaar has more permanence to it and less chaos than the one Krystal and I had experienced in Morocco; it almost felt like you were in a tented shopping mall. The only thing that we had really planned on purchasing was a leather belt for Elliot; so when we were approached by a guy asking if he could help us find anything, that was what he told him. He led us to the leather section of the Bazaar and introduced us to a guy who sold leather belts. The ones he sold weren’t what he was looking for, as they were a couple hundred dollars and had really fancy belt buckles. I can’t really picture Elliot wearing something like this. We thanked him for his time before going off in search of belts ourselves. We found a stall that had a wall of just leather belts, so we started perusing a bit. The stall owner’s son, only about 12 years old, started haggling with Elliot over the prices and offering deals if he bought more than one. Elliot decided to make this a business learning experience and kept trying to negotiate a better deal for himself. The kid was a pretty good little haggler and was hilarious to listen to. After Elliot would propose a price, the kid would then excuse himself to consult with his father; it was cute because he was clearly an apprentice learning the trade. When Elliot asked for a bigger size in the belts, the kid poked his belly and said “Too many Turkish kebabs!” I about died laughing and wanted to buy ALL THE BELTS just for that kid saying that. Elliot finally decided on three brown “leather” belts (because everyone needs three brown belts?) and gave the kid five liras for his “commission”. Well played, kid.
Armed with our legion of belts, our next stop was the nearby Spice Bazaar. Set up like its sister Bazaar, the area was overwhelmingly pungent with the scents of various spices and herbs. Each stall had small mountains of spices from which people could bag what they wanted. The bright yellows and deep reds added to the sensory effect, and I felt like I was in Wonderland for a bit. We stopped at a stall that advertised fair prices, and a very nice man helped us choose some spices to take home. He explained the difference between Indian saffron (not actually saffron) and Turkish saffron (a mix of actual saffron and sunflower) and helped scoop some spices into bags for us. In addition to the spices, he also sold a variety of tea leaves and had bins of nuts and types of Turkish Delight which, by the way, was advertised EVERYWHERE. We got some spices for my mom and actual saffron strands and Tandoori spice before making our exit of Wonderland.
We had our fill for the day, so we decided to make our way back to the boat. We got lost on the way and ended up in a flower bazaar and then a pet bazaar, which I didn’t even know existed. There was a shit ton of birds everywhere which made for a shit ton of shit, and the space was even louder than the Grand Bazaar. We were absolutely beat by the time we got back to the ship, so we stopped to have a Coke in the R Bar before packing our stuff for the next morning’s departure. We rested a bit before heading back to the R Bar, where the night before we had all agreed to meet to get dinner in Istanbul. Everyone but the Aussies showed up (Ben was still on a ship tour with his parents), so we once again ventured into Istanbul for another Turkish adventure. Hannah, one of the girls from Sydney, had told us the night before about a good place to eat called the Araf Cafe, so we took two cabs to the area in which it was located in Old Town. **Author’s note: I’m not sure if I had mentioned it in my previous post, but Istanbul is divided into the Old and New Cities. Almost everything to see is in the Old City, but the ship was docked in the New.**
Despite Elliot using Google Maps, and the smart brains assembled in our group, we weren’t able to find the Araf Cafe. None of our cell phones worked, so we ducked into an Irish pub (because there’s an Irish pub in every city in the world), the James Joyce, to grab a drink and use their free WiFi to contact Ben. He and his parents had just gotten back from their tour, and it was unlikely that he would be joining us in the city. We agreed to meet up later that night on the ship for one last hurrah. The James Joyce Irish Pub had a decent selection of booze but had a funky smell to it (I told you that I’m on a smell kick) and wasn’t the classiest joint in the world. It apparently has a hotel above it, and the enticing slogan they used to get customers was “You can stay at our hotel.” Thanks for the enthusiasm, guys. The group (us, Shannon, Gabriel, Conal, Isabel, Veronica, and Roland) took advantage of the free WiFi to all become Facebook and Instagram friends. We got some group pictures using the mini tripod that Veronica happened to have with her, and shared life and travel stories. Pamplona somehow came up, and Conal told us that the real race to see was the annual Cheese Roll in Gloucester. He said his explanation wasn’t doing it justice, so he pulled up a video of it on YouTube to prove its gloriousness. It’s hysterical, especially when you see how little the wheel of cheese actually is. Definitely worth a look or ten.
We finished up our Carlsbergs before walking down Istanbul’s version of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. We surmised that this was the big shopping area of the city, and the street was lined with brand names like the Gap and H&M. It was so Western European that it made us forget where we were for a minute. The group decided that food was definitely in order, but there were so many cafes that it was difficult to choose. Almost all of them were tourist traps, not surprising considering the area of town we were in, and the hosts of places tried to entice our big group to dine with them. Elliot pitted two cafes against each other for our business, and a place called Montreal won when they promised us two free rounds of drinks. Gabe quipped it wasn’t exactly normal for 8 Americans (the majority of whom are Atheists) to walk into an Irish pub and later a Canadian bar in a Muslim country. We certainly mixed things up.
We all ordered rounds of the Turkish version of Miller Lite, Efe, and the host, now our waiter, tried to conveniently forget that he had promised us TWO rounds of free drinks. He claimed that he only said one, but the 8 witnesses to his earlier statement proved that to be a lie pretty quickly. He admitted defeat and brought us our second round on the house. The menu of Montreal was extensive, but the food was kinda shitty. Conal and I both ordered cheeseburgers (because why not add to the variety of that night?), and it had to have been the tiniest cheeseburger patty I’ve ever seen. It was like a silver dollar pancake. I was so kabob’ed out at this point though that I wasn’t overly concerned. The bill for all 8 of us ended up only being 180 lira ($60) which was insanely cheap. Gotta love that exchange rate. We had a great time at dinner and all lamented the fact that we had met at the end of the cruise. Poor timing, us.
After dinner, Elliot used Google Maps on his phone to navigate us back to the ship, taking us down some sketchy looking streets while doing so. The running joke that night was that Elliot was actually in the CIA, and that the McDonald’s story was all a ruse. That was the only possible explanation for why he’d have a working phone. I guess that would also explain why we’ve been moving every few years… Hmmm….
Once back on the ship, we met up with Ben and his parents in the Viking Crown Lounge. I chatted with his mom for a bit as she’s a school administrator in Sydney. I loved learning more about the Australian education system, much like I had enjoyed learning about the Finnish system with Marja-Liisa two days earlier. Dominic, a young guy from Arlington that we had met the night prior, joined us in the VCL, and we all sat, drank, and talked to enjoy our last night together. The VCL was dead for awhile, so we were actually able to enjoy conversation with one another. Every person was so much fun, and the personalities in our group just happened to click. It definitely made for a hilarious last few nights of the cruise. Case in point: when “Land Down Under” came on, I asked Ben if that was the song his alarm clock played, and he quickly quipped that he throws his boomerang at it to turn it off. Touche, sir.
After a few more drinks, laughs, and a walk around the mostly deserted ship, Elliot and I said goodbye to our new friends and turned in early. We once again lamented that we had met so late in the trip and agreed to keep in touch (Author’s note: A few months later we had brunch and drinks in Boston with Veronica and Roland). We could have stayed out later, but El and I had a 5:30am departure time, and we needed to get ready for the next leg of our journey. The cruise itself was a lot of fun, and we really made the most out of all of our ports of call, but we weren’t ready to be done with our Mediterranean adventure just yet. Next stop: Aphrodite’s birthplace….