Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mediterranean Cruise Report -- Day 8

Welcome to my recollections of the wonderful cruise my wife and I took during the month of July, 2010 for our 5th anniversary. This will be an ongoing series replete with anecdotes, history, pics, and even videos taken as we experienced all that our various ports of call had to offer. As usual, click on the pics to view larger versions, and don't forget to also click on the "Vimeo" vids to view the brief live-action clips.

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.

DAY 8 -- Into the City, Again.

Back when Constantinople was under the control of the Byzantine emperors, the local Greek population used to refer to traveling toward the thriving metropolis as going eis teen polin, or: "into the city". Once the Ottomans took over, the Turkish population transformed the phrase until it sounded something more akin to what we call the city today: Istanbul. It was rather appropriate seeing as, twice in as many days now, we ourselves would be heading back "into the city".

We exited the gangway much earlier than the day before so as to get as much time in before we were scheduled to be back aboard the ship by 1:45. The day started out overcast, but not rainy like the one before. Unfortunately, I could see that it was only a matter of time before that changed. We made a quick stop along the Bosphorus after leaving the Equinox and watched some locals practicing their early morning fishing along the wharf. It was a tranquil scene, adding to the sense that I was slowly becoming assimilated into this great, timeless city:

But, of course, time was of the essence so we couldn't afford to stay long. It was high time that we went to see the remainder of the top sites we didn't have time to see the day before. Next stop: the Topkapi Palace.

Built during the 1460s shortly after Sultan Mehmed II conquered the Byzantines and occupied Constantinople, the Topkapi Palace served as the seat of Ottoman rule all the way up until the mid-19th century. Our tour guide drove us up Divan Yolu street and deposited us just outside the Bâb-ı Hümâyûn, or the "Imperial Gate".

From there we proceeded through on foot to the First Courtyard -- an expansive park and parade ground used during imperial times as a welcoming stage for foreign dignitaries to the Sultan's court. It was a neatly planned space, with lovely green lawns and majestic trees lining the paths. We stopped to purchase our tickets midway through the courtyard and continued on up the path towards a magnificent looking gate with two octagonal towers on either side. This was none other than the Bâb-üs Selâm, or the "Gate of Salutation."

I had heard of this gate, of course, while researching the historical Vlad Dracula. It was rumored to be the place where his head had been put on a stake and hoisted high up as a gruesome warning to all other enemies of the Ottoman Empire. Whether true or not, our guide explained that the gate was indeed the site for many political executions. Today, however, the gate doesn't look quite so imposing as the stories would lead you to believe. Past the gate we entered the Second Courtyard, where we visited the Imperial Kitchens and the armory. Afterwards, we stopped near the gate to the Third Courtyard--the Bab-üs Saadet, or "Gate of Felicity"--to enter an interesting looking square kiosk-type building known as the Audience Chamber.

This was where the Sultan would actually hold court and receive official visitors. Exiting this chamber, we entered the Third Courtyard and made a stop to the Conqueror's Pavilion where the treasury is housed. Some of the treasures inside were on lone to various museums, but enough remained to suitably impress. Unfortunately, we were forbidden from taking photos of the precious objects. Gee, I wonder why?

After the treasury, we headed to the Privy Chamber building which today houses some of the most revered artifacts of the Muslim world. In very low-light conditions we saw a cloak once worn by the prophet Muhammad, along with two of his swords and a tuft of his beard. The place also housed what is purported to be the staff of Moses, as well as Joseph's turban, among other holy relics. The building was packed with both tourists and pilgrims alike, which was pretty neat in fact.

Last, but not least, we ventured into the final and most private courtyard of the palace -- the Fourth. This is where we found the day-to-day personal quarters and kiosks of the imperial family, the recreational pavilions, and some of the most spectacular views overlooking the Golden Horn.

After seeing the treasury and the holy relics, however, by this point in the tour I was rather underwhelmed. Or, perhaps I should say I was too overwhelmed and suffering from a little burnout? The others in our group were of same sentiment, so luckily we had come to the end of our time at the Topkapi palace.

Next on the agenda was also our last stop of this abbreviated day, that place I was dreading for so long: the Grand Bazaar. Now why am I constantly putting this place down? It's not really such a bad area to visit, after all. No, nothing like that. I guess it's just that, in all my travels, I truly, honestly hate it when we get to the "shopping" portion of the tour. This is when local vendors run out and all but attack you to come into their stores and purchase something. Ugh! I so despise this.

But, that all aside, I *did* in fact want to visit the Grand Bazaar for the historical value of the place. So, I reluctantly went along for the experience. I mean, I had no choice, really. When we got there, the sun was actually just beginning to peek out, surprising everybody. The entrance to the Grand Bazaar was, as I predicted, totally packed with crowds trying to squeeze through.

And, once inside this enormous centuries-old arcade, it was like all bets were off. We agreed to meet back with everybody at a certain point, and then just basically went our separate ways. Lisa and I were both not really in the mood to lighten our wallets, so we wandered aimlessly through the covered avenues and along downward sloping streets beneath impressive archways holding up the ceilings.

We stopped at a few spots to admire some jewelry, but quickly left whenever the salesperson would come on over to try out his spiel on us. Like I said, we were so not in the mood. I can't really say I saw anything I actually wanted or that we might need, though. We had done enough shopping at the Spice Market the day before. So, before long we got bored and returned back to the meeting spot a little early. As we waited for everyone to come back, I was confronted by an old man who claimed he was from "Long Island" when he learned that I was from NYC, and who tried to sell me some dusty looking rugs. He even tried complimenting me on my physique of all things, claiming that I was very "strong" looking and "like Tarzan". That got a laugh out of me, so I was polite but firm with him to leave me alone. Rather than outright ignoring the fellow like I would normally do.

Eventually the rest of our group showed up and we decided to take a nice walk around some local neighborhoods in the vicinity:

Afterwards, and with great reluctance, we made our way back to the Equinox with just under an hour to spare.

Standing on the top deck and watching the city shrink behind us as we left port, I felt an unexpected sadness fill me. Despite such an exhausting two days traveling all throughout the busy streets and landmarks of Istanbul, I felt there was still so much left to experience. I didn't want to go! But, I knew what I was signing up for when I booked this tour: many different ports, very little time at either. So I consoled myself by promising that we would return here again someday soon.

I also brightened up at the realization that, while we might have been leaving Istanbul behind, we still had one more day in Turkey at the popular sleepy little resort town of Kusadasi to the south. A port which would be the starting-off point to lead us, by land, to the ancient capital of the eastern Roman empire -- Ephesus! To Lisa's dismay, it would mean yet more ruins. A whole LOT more ruins, in fact! But, also, very important sites to me as an ancient history buff. I promised Lisa that we would find something great to bring back with us to remind us of our stay in Turkey. Little did I know how much this would come back to bite me in the ass -- although, in the end, it did turn out to be a nice development overall.

Up next: Day 9.


  1. Hi!
    I came across your blog through game of thrones.. and saw these posts you made about Istanbul, which made me so happy since it's the city I live! actually I'm from İzmir, the city which Ephesus is situated in, and I live in Istanbul for studies. Seeing it through foreigner eyes made me realize one more time how magnificent it is... And also made me miss it, even I've been apart for just 2 weeks now! glad that you've liked Turkey:)

    1. Sukapkin -- thank you for visiting my blog! I miss Istanbul so very much. I've been trying to go back for a longer visit. Of all the cities I've traveled to, none have captivated me so much as the city you call home. I felt so at peace there, despite being a foreigner and not speaking the language. With my dark hair and complexion, I even felt like I fit in with everyone else! :)

      And I'm so surprised -- you're from Izmir? This is excellent! I hope you enjoyed my report from there and Kusadasi. Ephesus was an amazing site to visit, one I shall never forget for as long as I live. And eating pizza while drinking Efes beer on the road to Izmir will forever be one of my favorite memories.

      What a lovely country! I would love to visit again sometime soon. Maybe next time I'll travel to the interior sections of Anatolia. But to be honest, I would be happy just to spend 2 weeks in Istanbul. I really miss the food the most! :)


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