If you missed a prior trip report, or would like a refresher, please click on the appropriate link below:
Day 1 -- When in Rome.
Day 2 -- Bad Sun Rising.
Day 3 -- Let Me Take You On A Sea Cruise.
Day 4 -- Into the Wild Blue Yonder.
Day 5 -- Our (Very Brief) Adventure in the Lost City of Atlantis.
Day 6 -- Ruin'd!
DAY 7 -- Turkish Delight.
Sometime while we slept, our ship sailed through the Dardanelles and exited out onto the Sea of Marmara. By the time we woke up late the next morning, the Bosphorus--and Istanbul spread out on either side of it--was just coming into view under a gloomy veil of mist and heavy rain clouds.
The Equinox docked at the entrance to the strait across from the Golden Horn on the European side of the city, and just before and to the right of the Galata bridge.
We had some time before the "all clear" call for disembarkation came over the P.A., so Lisa and I took a leisurely brunch and admired the panoramic view of the wonderful city spread out all around us. It had started to rain, and a haze hung over the metropolis like an oppressive mantle. Everywhere I looked I saw a mosque surrounded by minarets poking through the skyline of this thronging conurbation of roughly 15 million citizens. I counted 8 mosques before I finally gave up, too excited to be seeing some of them in person later that day:
Some of our friends found us snapping photos on the top deck and took their own pics and vids as well. We briefly discussed our separate plans for the day, then bid each other good luck as the call came through the ship that we were cleared to head ashore.
Being set loose in the thick of a major Eurasian city so uniquely different from our own was at once thrilling and terrifying. But although it took a minute to get our bearings, pretty quickly we fell into the familiar rhythm of city life that is the same the world over. If you've lived in a major world city for all your life like I have, they all start to feel the same. If you can survive in one, you can survive them all. So, despite the exotic nature of this new port of call, Lisa and I felt right at home in no time.
We had a busy schedule for the day, and set to it with much gusto despite the persistent downpour. If you know me, however, you know there's nothing I love more than a big city that's all gloomy and rainy. I felt invigorated by the chill and overcast skies -- so different from the sunny, mid-90s of Rome and the Cyclades we'd left behind. Istanbul was a city I was ready to fall in love with. And as you can clearly tell by this blog entry I wrote during the cruise, I fell hard!
Our first stop was the great Basilica Cistern--aka, the Sunken Palace. Built during the Byzantine era around 1,600 years ago, the cistern was the source of much of the water for the city back when it was called Constantinople. Nowadays it stands at nearly empty its capacity, with only a half foot of water lining the bottom. This makes it easy for tourists to stroll on raised platforms throughout the subterranean levels and admire all the many columns which hold the massive arched roof in place. As an avid James Bond movie buff, I was also too thrilled to be in the same location where Sean Connery tracked down his enemy in secret in the second Bond flick: "From Russia With Love."
We left the cistern and, the rain reduced to a drizzle now, we walked to our next point of interest -- Hagia Sophia.
Once a Byzantine basilica, then a mosque under Ottoman rule, Hagia Sophia now exists as a sort of secular showcase to the dual religions which even to this day exert great influence on the lives of those who call this city home. The massive free-formed dome and Corinthian columns on the inside lay testament to the glory age of Byzantine engineering, while the Islamic writings hanging from the walls reveal that this was once an important holy place to followers of the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. To say I was in awe standing there in the center under the dome is a severe understatement. I was dumbstruck!
After Hagia Sophia, we walked a ways up the main street along Sultan Ahmet Square and stopped at a local café for a quick lunch. I think we were the only tourists in the place, but the staff was nothing but accommodating despite not speaking any English.
We didn't know what exactly was good to eat, but I took a stab and proclaimed it to be "all good!", which seemed to win over our waiter. I asked him to just bring us something popular and he nodded and left. Lisa had found us a neat little table for two near the window on the second floor, and we enjoyed the nice view (and breeze) for a while. Before long, our waiter came back with salad, beans, bread, and a couple of Cokes. We got started on the salad--which was simply DELICIOUS--when our meat dishes arrived halfway through. We both had a dish of beef "kofte", or "meatballs" (flat, long strips of grilled beef, not at all in any shape resembling a ball), and I had an extra dish of lamb kebab brought out for myself.
Oh man, it was absolutely sumptuous! Either I was very hungry, or that was the most satisfying quick meal I'd had in ages! No joke. Fully sated and thanking the waiter profusely, we exited and was glad to discover the rain had stopped. Unfortunately, it would only be a brief interlude.
We crossed the street and made a shortcut through what today is left of the Roman-era Hippodrome. With barely enough time to stop and admire the Obelisk of Thutmosis III, transported from Alexandria by Emperor Theodosius in the year 390 AD, we quickly made a beeline for that towering majesty of Istanbul's most famous religious center of prayer -- the Blue Mosque.
I don't really know that I have the words to fully express how awesome this structure looks from the outside. I've seen it in pictures before, sure, but nothing can describe the feeling of inspiration that overcomes you when you're looking up at it in person. The nearer we got to the courtyard, the more impressive it became. Of course, as soon as we got on the rather long line to enter the mosque, it started to pour what felt like an entire river on top of our heads. I mean, the clouds chose that precise moment to literally OPEN UP and drown us in a deluge. Of course, I'd planned for rain so we had our super tough and durable black New York City umbrellas opened in no time. Others on the line with us were not so lucky. Since my umbrella in particular was rather large, I ended up inadvertently sheltering a few of our neighbors. They were grateful to say the least. There was a great hubbub of activity near the entrance to the mosque, and when our line finally shifted we could see why. A mother cat and her kittens were huddled along a windowsill near the entrance, trying to keep dry from the rain:
I think every woman on the line just about melted from cute overload, because out came the cameras swift and clickity-click! The felines naturally ignored all the attention, and eventually we all moved on. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering the mosque, which I actually thought was nice but which other tourists seem to grumble over. Sheesh!
Inside, the Blue Mosque was even more inspiring than it had been from the outside. It was quickly evident where the structure got it's name, too, as most of the ceiling and upper walls were glazed in a very subtle yet pleasant blue patina. Since this was an active mosque, we had to be quiet and inconspicuous with our movements, despite the fact that we were between services at the moment. We spied a few people praying nonetheless--the men separated from the women--but for the most part the place was empty of all but us tourists. Even still, I didn't feel comfortable gawking like some inbred hick from the sticks at all the architectural splendor on display, so we took a few pics (without flash), a quick vid cap, and then split:
But although we didn't stay for very long, the experience lasted with me for the rest of our trip. It was a solemn and very touching event, displaying to me the respect and reverence Muslims have for their places of worship -- especially ones as sacred as the Blue Mosque. I get the same feeling when I visit similarly important Christian sites of worship, like St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or Notre Dame in Paris. Although I am not a religious person myself, the beauty and sheer brilliance of these places are not lost on me as a non-believer.
Once we left the Blue Mosque, the rain clouds were gone and the sun was shining. Just like that it went from a gloomy March day to a suddenly bright and warm spring afternoon in May. Nothing at all like the torpid July heat wave hell that was currently assaulting the Northeast in America or the southern stretches of Europe. In fact, it was now the perfect weather to go shopping! So we had two choices: head over to the Grand Bazaar, or the Spice Market. Now, we had heard that the Grand Bazaar was a major tourist trap that even locals were reluctant to venture into anymore. If we wanted to shop as the people of Istanbul do, the Spice Market, while not completely devoid of tourists, was the more authentic experience to undertake. So that is in fact what we did. I figured we'd save the Bazaar for our next day's activities, anyway.
What can you say about the old Spice Market? It's pretty big, one. Located at the foot of the Galata bridge just nearby to the New Mosque. And, two: it can get very crowded. But honestly, when you see all the wonderful variety and delicious things on sale, you kind of forget these two points. As the name would imply, the Spice Market is where you go to get all the spices that are normally selling for an arm and a leg anywhere else outside of Turkey and perhaps the Middle East. Saffron seemed to be the most popular spice on sale in particular. I don't know much about spices, but I heard it's pretty expensive here in the States. In Turkey, however, Saffron's only a fraction of the cost. So, we purchased some of that and a few other varieties of spice to bring home to friends: curry, sumac, paprika, oregano, etc.
We didn't do much haggling on the spices since they were already reasonably priced to begin with. In addition to these food embellishments, the market is also famous among tourists for another local staple -- "Turkish Delight"!
Locally it's called "lokum" which, to me, sounds less unsavory for some reason. So that's what I'll call it from now on. Lokum is a confectionery made from chopped dates, walnuts, and pistachios (along with other natural ingredients I couldn't figure out) cut into small cubes and dusted with confectioner's sugar or powdered cream. I never really cared for it the few times I've had some back here in the States (too dry and crunchy), but for some reason lokum tasted absolutely YUMMY there in the stalls of the Spice Market! So we brought back a few boxes for
As you can see, the Spice Market also sells lots and lots of other things, such as: dried fruits, fresh olives, fresh mussels in the shell, cured meats and fresh seafood, cheeses, jewelry, and just a smattering of leather goods. If you really need leather, the Grand Bazaar appeared to be the better place to shop. In fact, although a few shops seemed to buck the trend, it's good to think of the Spice Market as the place to go for foodstuffs, while the Grand Bazaar is where you travel for hand-made and finished products -- like handbags, jackets, and, of course, rugs. Turkey is apparently a mecca for oriental rugs, a fact I had only been vaguely aware of before the trip, but one I would become intimately familiar with in due time.
But, as usual, that's a story for another day. Day 9, in fact, so keep an eye out for that particular trip report.
Deeper into the Spice Market, we entered the covered arcades and this is where I got my first lesson in haggling. We were stopped at one stall selling decent gold and silver jewelry. Lisa saw some bracelets and rings she thought would be nice to have, but the gregarious shopkeeper, in very good English, was trying to get us to buy the lot of them for $350 -- U.S. dollars, mind you! The one bracelet and two rings were very nice, but not THAT nice. Also, I only carried Euros when I was off the ship. I was able to haggle him down to 190 euros, but I didn't like the way he was playing little tricks like running to the back to "confer with his partner" and pulling out the calculator and telling me he was going to give this and this amount of discounts if I would just use my mastercard. Eventually I just had a bad feeling and left. Looking back on it, though, 190 euros wasn't such a bad price for items that really did look and feel authentic. I kick myself for not getting them for Lisa.
By the time we finally left the market behind, it was near 2:30 in the afternoon. Still plenty of time to do things, except we didn't really know what. Eventually we ended up in a popular and apparently fashionable district in town known as Beyoğlu. Specifically we found ourselves on Istiklal Caddesi, a street similar to 42nd street in NYC that ends at the cultural heart of the city, Taksim Square.
All along this street are numerous upscale clothing shops. Lisa went into one and came out with three very nice silk scarves for her trouble. And we didn't even have to haggle the price down! A quaint little cable car ran up and down the avenue, too, but for some reason I could never get my camera out in time to take its picture. I guess I was too busy looking up at the architecture of some of the buildings to notice. Eventually we ended up at a nice popular coffee shop halfway up the thoroughfare, called "Saray". Apparently this is the "it" place to go to when in the Beyoğlu if you want very tasty and authentic Turkish coffee and desserts -- YUM!
My favorite dessert of all? The baklava (above pic, center). OMG! You've never tasted heaven until you've tasted Turkish baklava. I've had baklava from other countries before -- but nothing compares to this! Especially baklava from Saray. Their version of the treat should be declared a national treasure, that's how good this stuff is. Even now I'm suffering withdrawal. I've been searching NYC now for authentic Turkish cafés to see if I can find something that at least comes a little close to what I enjoyed in Istanbul. So far, no luck.
Well, after a great coffee and dessert break, we headed on over to Taksim Square. It's a very big area, but unfortunately we were running late. We had to head back to the ship and get changed into more fancy clothes for an anniversary dinner night--our 5th!--to remember. Appropriately attired, we got into a van with some of our friends and headed on over to the Beyazit district, near the University, to a restaurant I don't think I'll ever forget for as long as I live. Called the "Orient House", I don't know exactly how to describe this place. I guess the best way is to say that it's a cross between a cultural cabaret and a bawdy burlesque show, with more emphasis on the former than the latter.
We sat at one of several long tables in a great big hall with a central stage. Each table had flags at the head nominating the nationalities of those sitting there. Besides our U.S. and Canadian flags, we saw a surprising variety of flags on the other tables: folks hailing from France, Morocco, Italy, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Israel, India, Pakistan, the U.K., Australia, and even Greece! Knowing the incredibly strained relations between Turkey and this last country, you would understand my surprise. But everyone was there to have fun, including me and Lisa! And fun did we have, in spades!
In addition to good food and drink, we had excellent cultural dances and singing to keep us occupied. We were also entertained by not one but THREE professional belly dancers at different stages of the evening performance. The first one--my favorite of the three--I took this brief video clip of, which you'll find below:
All in all, it was the perfect way to cap our first day in Istanbul, and an even better celebration of five years of marriage to the love of my life. We both had a blast, and thanks to Colin and Karen for embarrassing us by letting slip to the emcee that this was our special night. He announced it to everyone in the place during a lull between performances. I shouldn't have been as shocked as I was, but it really caught me off guard and was very touching. Thanks, you guys! :)
But, alas, the night eventually came to an end. We staggered back to our ship (me more so than anyone else, thanks to the rather strong "Raki" I'd been sipping on the whole evening) and Lisa and I took a nice walk along the top deck to gaze at the magnificent nighttime skyline of the city spread out before us like twinkling jewels.
This moment stands out in my memory the most when I think of Istanbul. We called it a night at this point, but luckily for us we still had one more day scheduled in this wonderful place before we would have to set sail again.
Which was a good thing, because we were not yet done with our adventures in Istanbul.
Up next: Day 8.