bridge spanning the bosphorus river that connects asian turkey w european turkey (looking towards european istanbul)
Thursday, June 2nd: Istanbul, Turkey
We got an early start off the boat and chose to walk across a bridge that connects Asian Turkey (where our port was) with European Turkey (where the sites we visited were located). The bridge had at least 100 old Turkish fisherman and the views of Old Town were awesome – definitely a good choice. We walked with a couple from Chile, who were pretty hilarious. They really wanted to get pics on their iphones so they could upload them automatically and really wanted us in some of them. It was sweet, kind of.
Our first stop, the Hagia Sophia, I guess is kind of a big deal. It was HUGE. And beautiful. It is a great example of Byzantine architecture with a massive dome and the inside is decorated with marble, precious stones and even pillars from Ephesus. It's a perfect example of the rich religious and cultural history of the region as it was originally an orthodox basilica, then turned into a mosque. You can still seem some early orthodox icon paintings right next to huge islamic script (the largest in the world). It was a sight to see and pictures did not do it justice.
From the Hagia Sophia, it was just a short walk through a park with a fountain to the blue mosque. There are a lot of Turkish guys trying to sell you info books about Istanbul by telling you it is their gift to you then asking for a donation. They are quite the swindlers…more on that later.
The blue mosque was magnificent to look at from the outside. It is still a working mosque and you can go inside for free. We had to be sure our shoulders and knees were covered, and many of the women had scarves around their heads. The inside was covered with more than 20,000 blue tiles (thus the nick name “blue mosque”) and we walked barefoot on sticky (smelly) carpet.
Next we decided to pass through the Hippodrome, which is basically a square with monuments that people (both locals and tourists) gather to eat and socialize and asked a local guy where to find authentic Turkish cuisine that wasn’t a touristy spot. He directed us to a row of shops just around the corner which was a world of difference from the thousands of tourists just behind us at the blue mosque. We sat on a rooftop terrace where we could overlook a few streets and see the coast as well as a playground of a local school and the blue mosque. The view was the BEST part. Warren ordered a “mixed meat” Turkish pizza (scary) and I had what I think was chicken? It was ok tasting at the time, but the rest of the day the seasoning had a very unpleasant after taste. It wasn’t spicy, just very distinct. Not good. I wouldn’t repeat it.
We then headed over to the underground cistern. Everything was very close together in the Old Town that we could walk to any place in a matter of minutes. We were stopped by a young guy welcoming us to Istanbul and offering us directions to the cistern. He then slyly introduced us to his friend who invited us into his shop – where he claimed we did NOT have to buy a thing; he just wanted to show us warm Turkish hospitality. We told him over and over, that was fine, but we were not going to buy one of his rugs. He was nice at first, kind of a jokester. We sat with him and he made small talk and then had one of his workers bring us bottled water. Oh no. Now we felt a little like we owed him something, I did anyway. Then he starts commanding his worker to lay out rugs asking us which ones we liked, to which we responded we were not going to buy anything, but thanks for the hospitality. It became increasingly uncomfortable as he raised his voice and kept shouting, “name your price, name your price!” after saying they retailed for about 150 euro. We declined multiple times and were trying to leave when he asked Warren his favorite number, to which he responded 13. Then the Turkish man proclaimed, “done!” and had the worker put one in a bag and set it on my lap. Warren was beyond mad. I told him just to pay the guy so we could get out of there. I guess it was part of the “experience”, but it really put a damper on the day as we felt totally scammed and taken advantage of. Warren wants to the burn the rug. We will see what happens.
We eventually made it to the cistern with new water bottles from our new Turkish frenemy. It was cool to look at, and knowing that it was built in the 6th century was pretty cool, but we didn’t know too much else about it. There were some statues with Medusa heads that were supposed to be a big deal.
After the cistern, we made our way to the Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Ottoman sultans – which was HUGE! It was very ornate, we were blown away that a family (including a large harem) actually had lived in this huge palace with stunning views of the bay. It was so big, and we didn’t have a whole lot of time, so we kind of breezed through it and tried to appreciate what we could. We tried to see some of the jewels, but there were so many people in those particular rooms we really just walked through.
I was adamant about seeing the Grand Bazaar, which is the largest bazaar in the world, with over 60 winding streets, only accessible by foot. I don’t know why I thought this would be a good idea, after our rug experience. We only spent about 5 minutes there, which I think was a good idea after hearing the stories from other shipmates that night on how they were swindled and got varying prices on the same item at different stores. The people are extremely aggressive.
We caught a cab and headed back to the port, where we ended up having to jog (sprint) to the boat when we were dropped off. The cruise ship left 2 people in Istanbul and had left 8 people in Ephesus. They were serious about leaving on time! And we did NOT want to fly to Greece the next morning. We made it though!