Continuing with the lockdown armchair travel memories, and T is for Turkey. We’ve been there a couple of times on cruises, and we had a week in Istanbul in the late 90s, but I can’t find any of the photos from that holiday. So these pictures are from a day spent in Istanbul during an Eastern Mediterranean cruise in March 2012, concentrating on The Main Sights. So, what do you think of, when you think of Istanbul? Probably one of two places, depending on whether you’re Team Blue Mosque…
Or Team Aya Sofya
It’s a tough call. From the photos, you’d always say the Blue Mosque, but when you’re inside the Aya Sofya, it takes your breath away. We took a tram from near the port into the centre of the city, and headed straight away for the central complex that houses both these magnificent buildings, plus the ancient hippodrome.
I’m not sure Constantine would remember it looking like this, mind. OK, let’s head straight for the Blue Mosque.
Really the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built between 1609 – 1616.
One of the five mosques in Turkey that has six minarets, apparently.
It’s a big tourist favourite, but is primarily a working mosque. It has a relatively small courtyard fountain.
Delightful from the outside…
But its beauty really hits you inside!
Look at that amazing decorated ceiling!
It really is the definition of breathtaking.
It’s beautifully lit too
And the calligraphy is stunning
The pictures tell their own story.
A brilliant place. After the Blue Mosque, we decided to find the Basilica Cistern, a favourite place of ours from our previous visit.
It’s called the Basilica Cistern, because it was built underneath a basilica in the reign of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
It’s an incredibly dramatic and moody place, enhanced by the lighting
With just a little water in there to make some extra-dramatic reflections.
There are two columns topped with Medusa heads
Or, rather, upside down! It’s a dark and haunting place
But, being Istanbul, you’re never too far from a spot of commercialism…
That’s so out of place! Anyway we left the Cistern and returned to the other end of the main square to see the Aya Sofya.
Or Hagia Sophia, if you prefer. It’s been a Roman Catholic cathedral, then it was converted to a mosque, and then in 1935 it was turned into a museum – which is how we saw it. But in 2020 it became a mosque again.
Those colours are extraordinary!
Just take it all in….
The immaculate marbled floor is apparently now covered by carpet
There’s a stunning minbar
Fabulous tiled walls
Ramps lead up to an upper floor
From where you get this great view!
And you can get a closer look at some of the detail
You’re also closer to the mosaics – this is the Deësis mosaic
The Comnenus mosaic dates from 1122
The Empress Zoe mosaic is even earlier
Southwestern entrance mosaic dates from the reign of Basil II (958-1025)
The Aya Sofya even has nice doors!
And a look out of its upper floor windows reveals a fascinating collection of domes!
Yes, I think I am still Team Aya Sofya. Other interesting sights include the Egyptian Obelisk
With its intricate base
And the Serpentine Column
Shoppers, of course, head for the Grand Bazaar
A massive covered market, probably the best I’ve ever visited
It’s a maze where you can easily get lost
You’ll get invited in by the shopkeepers to share a “no-obligation” cup of apple tea
If you believe “no-obligation”, you’ll believe anything!
Great place for lighting
We had a quick walk past the University
But the other place I really wanted to see before we left was the Suleymaniye Mosque
Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and inaugurated in 1557,
It was the largest mosque in Istanbul until the Çamlıca Mosque superseded it in 2019.
Four minarets, each and every one a stunner.
Again, it’s inside the mosque where the whole place comes alive
with its extraordinary ceilings
and just its innate grandeur.
Although, to be fair, it’s pretty grand from the outside too.
Streetlife in Istanbul is pretty hectic, as you would expect
But the views make up for it
And you can easily blend in with the crowds.
And that’s Istanbul – grandeur, magnificence, and the occasional bit of quirkiness.
The prospect of a day’s wandering around Istanbul is something to set the heart racing. Approaching from the sea, your initial romantic vista of Islamic spires and domed promise gets grittier as you get closer; and that basically sums up Istanbul – gritty romanticism. Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed a week’s holiday there in 1999 so it would be interesting to see to what extent, if at all, it had changed over the thirteen years. Well, some aspects had changed a lot, and others have stayed the same, and both are for the better. My memory from the 90s of the areas round the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya is one of rather murky seediness; and if you went to a restaurant in the tourist areas you would get 100% ripped off mercilessly. It would be done with charm and a smile, but boy would your pocket feel it.
I am happy to report that the Sultanahmet district where the major sights are located seems to be much better laid out, with more pedestrianised areas, it’s much cleaner and much smarter; and fearing a rip-off it was with great trepidation that we took lunch at an open air restaurant close to the Blue Mosque – regrettably I do not have its name – but it was a lovely civilised lunch with omelettes and tea and salads and chicken and all sorts of nice things – and it was incredibly cheap. I was amazed there was no attempt to sneakily extort some extra cash out of us. What hasn’t changed is the indomitable cheeky spirit of the Istanbul traders, who spin eloquent and complex stories to convince you they’re your best friend in order to get you into their shop or restaurant; it’s very good-hearted and sometimes extremely funny. So if you get approached in that way just smile and chat back and if you don’t want to do trade with them, simply refuse in your friendliest, most polite manner, whilst still enjoying the banter.
But I’m ahead of myself. Our ship docked north of the Golden Horn so we decided to take the tram at Tophane stop. The tram is a really easy, quick and safe way to get around town. You need to have two one lira coins to travel – you simply insert them into a turnstile machine and it lets you in. Then you can do whatever journey you like. We got off at Sultanahmet because it’s halfway between the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya, two places we were determined to visit; and also close to the Basilica Cistern.
Smilingly refusing offers of guides, we approached the Blue Mosque. It’s a huge complex, built in 1616 to intimidate the Christian Aya Sofya church at the other end of the park. Outside it’s grand and imposing, if austere and grey. Once you go inside, the colours are magical. The ceiling domes are lively and covered with brilliant patterns, the carpets are a vivid red, and of course it boasts those beautiful blue Iznik tiles that give the mosque its commonly known name (really it’s the Sultan Ahmet Camii Mosque). You can wander fairly freely all over the place and visitors are welcomed. It’s one of the highlights of the Islamic Architectural World.
To break up seeing two big religious buildings consecutively we thought we’d next head for the Basilica Cistern. Originally a vast underground storage tank, it was built by Constantine in the 6th century. We remembered this very fondly from our 1999 visit. It can be very hard to locate because it’s completely anonymous and undistinguished from outside. In fact your best bet will be to find the bunch of tourists looking lost and confusedly holding maps upside down and it will be a small door nearby. Once you find it, you get plunged into darkness, down some narrow tricky steps, but eventually you get into the basement. There 336 individual pillars greet you, with lights at the bottom of each of which gently illuminate the whole pool and it’s an amazing sight. You can walk around, and see it from different angles, and simply allow it to take your breath away. The upside down Medusa heads are entertaining; that way round, according to legend, because the builder wasn’t paid and he took suitable revenge. Never swindle a tradesman. You can understand why they use the place as a film location – its atmosphere is a mixture of calm and spooky, and strangely joyous. There’s even a neon-lit café near the exit which looks completely incongruous.
Emerging slowly into the light we were a little peckish so we took our small picnic of stuff nicked from the ship’s buffet into the nearby park area and had a short rest. We gently ignored the chap who tried unsuccessfully to convince us he was a student at Cambridge University studying ceramics, who wanted us to visit his shop. I’m not sure Cambridge has a school of ceramics. Then it was time to join the crowds trying to get into the Aya Sofya. Unlike the Blue Mosque, where you can get in for free with no queueing, the Aya Sofya has an entrance fee and a long line. If you choose to engage the services of a guide you will avoid the queue – it’s up to you. We preferred to rely on our trusty guidebook and remain independent. Aya Sofya was inaugurated in 537 and was a major site of Christian worship until it became a mosque in 1453. It was deconsecrated in 1934 and has been a museum ever since. It’s a wonderful place, luscious on a grand scale with just as much to thrill you on the upper floor as on the ground floor. Blues and golds adorn the inside, with fantastic columns and domes, and the eye-catching Islamic calligraphic roundels that dominate the view. Not only do you have the traditional mosque features to enjoy like the mithrab and minbar, there are also the superb Orthodox mosaics. The dark, wide ramp which leads you upstairs also looks as though it has seen some history. You can spend an easy hour wandering round, and there are loads of photo opportunities. It’s got to be one of my favourite tourist sights anywhere in the world.
Outside, we had a brief chat with a nice chap who assured me was studying hard at Oxford University but just this week was temporarily assigned to directing tourists to his brother’s carpet shop. Because he made me laugh I will give his website a plug. Then it was time to take a look at the other open air sights of the area. Alongside the Blue Mosque is the At Meydani or Hippodrome, the original Byzantine chariot racetrack. There’s not much left to give you an impression of racing champs, but it still boasts the Egyptian Obelisk, transported from Luxor, the Serpentine Column from Delphi and the Column of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, and they’re all worth a look. The four bronze horses that originally decorated the stadium now stand guard over St Mark’s in Venice.
A couple of stops on the tram take you to Beyazit, which is perfect for the Grand Bazaar. Even if you don’t want to do any shopping, you just have to go to the Grand Bazaar. It’s a vast complex of narrow alleys and streets, all undercover, and every trade you can imagine is represented there. Souvenirs of course are everywhere, but there are also high quality jewellery outlets, clothing stores, carpet warehouses and numerous other places. The cheeky cheerfulness of the traders is unmatchable, and you’ll engage in all sorts of bartering, fibbing, flirting, teasing and joking as you go around comparing prices and quality. Mrs C and Lady Duncansby bought a couple of colourful scarves with which they are very pleased – although Lady D was mortified at the ruthlessness of Mrs C’s bargaining skills – and we also got some Christmas tree decorations, as is our usual habit when travelling abroad. I think we wandered around for about an hour and it was a damn good laugh. It’s quite easy to get lost in there though – you need to keep your wits about you as to whereabouts you are, and you may not leave the bazaar the same place you went in, so be warned!
We did, however, escape via our original entrance, he says smugly, and it was conveniently close to Istanbul University’s main building area to get a feel of the student vibe. There’s a rather grand ornamental archway construction overlooking a park, but behind it are some narrow streets thronging with shops and businesses, populated by students piled high with text books and bearing earnest looks on their faces.
Time wasn’t on our side but I love going round mosques and I did want to have a look at the Suleymaniye Mosque. It’s another huge complex, built in the 1550s and, if anything, it’s a lighter and brighter than the Blue Mosque, although it lacks the latter’s predominance of tiles. It felt like a relaxed, friendly place; and some little kids were having a hoot playing outside where you’re meant to wash your feet. Inside its patterned archways are particularly appealing, and the grounds outside also beg for some gentle strolling if you have the time. Being located high on a hill it offers great views of the city; but that meant we needed to drop down to sea level so we could get a tram from Eminonu back to the ship. This took a little longer than we expected, and resulted in our pace and anxieties stepping up a level as we tried to beat the clock.
Nevertheless it was still interesting to pass by some more commercial districts – areas mainly of wholesale outlets and offices, but also some market stalls too. “Where are you from?” called out one man selling his nuts. “England”, I quickly replied, not having the time for too much badinage. “Ah, Leicester City” he romantically sighed as if referring to his own personal Shangri-la. The narrow streets were thronging with people; the wider streets with cars. Despite our proximity to Sultanahmet, I sensed we were in an area where tourists fear to tread; which made it all the more fascinating. Bright red Turkish flag design bunting hung from lamppost to lamppost. It created a colourful contrast with the grey squares and buildings around. If only we had longer time to linger – but the ship was not going to wait for us. Eventually we located our tram stop – we merely needed to cross about eight lanes of unpredictable heavy traffic to get there. Fortunately Hermes’ winged sandals appeared on our feet and the god of travel saw us safely across. A couple of tram stops and we were within sight of the ship. Our personal fitness regimes paid dividends as we strode briskly on and with minutes to spare we boarded the Magnifica. Dubrovnik was beckoning.
After our week or so leisurely exploring the delights of northern Italy, we boarded our ship the MSC Magnifica and started our seven day cruise. The first port of call was to be Bari, in the Puglia district of southern Italy. I’d always thought that ships stopped here simply to refuel but that would be most unfair to this charming city, albeit in a workaday fashion. From what I’ve seen, very little of Italy is what you could term “pretty” – but its natural colour, warmth and architectural styles make it a very pleasing destination. And so it is with Bari. The ship docks centrally so just a fifteen minute walk takes you to the centre of the old town.
There aren’t that many actual “sights” as such, but a good place to start is at the Basilica di San Nicola. We arrived at about 11.00 on a Sunday morning and the church service was in full swing, as you would imagine, so we didn’t linger inside making a nuisance of ourselves. Nevertheless I could establish it has a beautiful ornate ceiling and it’s one of those churches that is light and bright inside rather than dark and austere. It dominates a small square, in one corner of which is a rather impressive statue of San Nicola himself. Off the square are narrow streets with just enough room to accommodate you, the locals, the motorbikes, and the tradespeople who are all jostling for supremacy.
We had arranged to meet Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle Professor Plum and his wife the Lady Plum, as they were touring southern Italy at the same time, as chance would have it. We found a nice little café in the early spring sunshine just off the San Nicola piazza and sat outside and drank coffee whilst we reminisced about old times. From there we followed the narrow streets to the Cathedral, with its impressive tower and dome, and inside it’s full of interesting statues, carvings and artwork. We had a long linger here.
We wandered round to the castle, which is grand and imposing from the outside but when you enter it you realise they charge you to see plaster casts of sculpture and you think, actually, I can spend my time and money better elsewhere. So we moved on and simply followed our noses in a circular direction that took us back to the centre of town. Avon were sponsoring a road running race so the town was busy with spectators. We didn’t see many runners though – I think they’d already finished and set about having lunch, which is precisely what we decided to do. We found a lovely little place to sit outside in a square, the Trattoria Mercantile, where we had pizza and a bottle of Greco di Tufo at an extremely reasonable price. The time flew by but we had the opportunity afterwards briefly to walk around the coastal road admiring the views before we’d completed a full circle and were back at the ship. We bade farewell to Professor and Lady Plum who continued their Puglian Odyssey, and we got back on board the Magnifica for the onward sailing to Olympia.
Of course it’s not Olympia where you dock, it’s Katakolon, but what else are you going to do when you get off your ship in a village artificially extended purely for the purpose of taking hordes of cruising tourists the short drive to Olympia. I hadn’t done my pre-travel preparation properly – not like me at all – and I was convinced we were going to Mount Olympus. Wrong – it was Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games. I would say it is vital to go with a good guide or a good guidebook at least, because if you just wander round by yourself it’s very hard to get a clue as to precisely what you are looking at. It’s an impressive sight overall, although with poor facilities – Mrs C and Lady D would not recommend the Ladies’ toilets. The little town alongside Olympia has a few shops – not bad quality at all – and some bars and restaurants that advertise free wifi, that sadly seem to be only accessible by one person at a time, hence a lot of frustrated people flipping shut netbooks and shaking smartphones. But that’s not the reason you come to Olympia – you come for the history of the birthplace of the games, to stand or run on the running track yourself, to imagine yourself taking the Victor Ludorum and becoming the Local Hero. The track is very interesting, as it’s still completely visible and clear – and is a long “straight line” track, as opposed to the circular tracks we expect to see today. The archway entrance is still in good condition, although a lot of the rest of the site comes across as varying degrees of rubble, which is why you need a guide to make sense of it. The loud and cheeky lady taking us round brought it to life and it was very informative.
From Katakolon it’s a short hop – maritimely speaking – to reach Izmir in Turkey, from whence one of your tourist options is to take an excursion to Ephesus. I’d wanted to go to Ephesus ever since I first saw “Comedy of Errors”, so that I could imagine Antipholus and Dromio in situ, and, wandering around the place, you really get a feeling of how rich and privileged a place it must have been to live. But before you reach Ephesus, first you visit Mary’s House. Yes, this is indeed the Virgin Mary’s house, apparently; for many years it had generally been believed that Mary spent her last years in the Ephesus area, and about 200 years ago a nun had a vision of precisely where her house was, and how it was constructed. Clerics and dignatories identified this building as the one in the nun’s dream; ergo, it’s her house. Of course, it is a holy place, and treated with a lot of reverence. If you go, you will join a queue of people shuffling to get in; you will smile benignly at the nun on duty who will scowl back at you; you will go through the living room and bedroom, both of which look just like chapels, and then you leave. You don’t really get a chance to linger and look around, which is a shame, but to be fair you do get something of a frisson that this just might be where Mary ended her days.
Outside there is a spring where the devout go to bottle some water and drink it or take it home as a blessing. Apparently you should make a wish when you drink the water. Lady D wouldn’t tell us what she wished for, but she’s started doing the lottery again. The long walls alongside the well are completely covered with prayers for the Virgin Mary – little pieces of paper which make an impressive sight. There’s also a humdinger of a wide well outside the house; you wouldn’t want to be stumbling back late after a night at the tavern, guessing the route home in the dark. Between Mary’s House and Ephesus there is a splendid golden statue of Mary alongside the road. It’s really rather beautiful.
And so on to Ephesus. We’ve been to Palmyra in Syria; and unfortunately once you’ve been there nearly all other sites of ruins look like just a bunch of ruins. But Ephesus is special; it covers a considerable area and has a comparatively large number of extant buildings so you really get a good impression of the town as it was. Unlike Olympia, many of the major buildings and sights are well described on information boards, including in English, so you can easily just wander round by yourself, learn a lot and drink in the atmosphere. There are at least two amphitheatres, as far as I recall, and a number of houses, temples and so on. But the big pleasure of Ephesus is the main street, with buildings and mosaics either side, going down a hill towards the Library on the left hand side. The Library is great – it puts you a little in mind of the Treasury in Petra, although Petra is in much better condition. As usual in these places, there are a lot of entertaining things to see – like the directional footprint on a marble slab pointing the way to the House of Ill Repute, and the rather splendid communal latrine. On the way out there are a number of sarcophaguses just lying around in the grass and the carvings on them make it well worth the detour. So I would say a day trip to Ephesus is a must, even if, as on this cruise, by coming directly after a day at Olympia, it means negotiating non-stop rubble for two days.