Day 10 - Istanbul: not Constantinople

Of all our stops on this cruise, this one ranked lowest on my great expectations list, but turns out I really enjoyed our day.  Istanbul is a fascinating city. East colliding with west.  Old world meets new. Full of colours, sounds, movement and the delicious smell of grilled meat!
We walked off the ship that morning and walked straight into Istanbul – no tour groups, no shuttle buses.  Along the waterside, people cast their fishing lines while ferries pulled up, spilling the morning commuters into the streets. Within 10 minutes we were hopping on a tram and on our way to check out the Hagia Sophia.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is like a coat of many colours – an architectural wonder, a Byzantine church, a mosque and now a tourist attraction / museum. It reflects the history of Istanbul, showcasing a city that has been home to the Byzantium and Ottoman Empires. The Hagia Sophia was built as a church between 532 and 537 and was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. In 1935, it became a museum.

Armed with headsets, we spent the next hour or so on our audio tour of the Hagia Sophia, marvelling at the architecture and the mosaics that seemed to cover every inch of the interior.   

The site was extremely busy – lots of tour groups. This was especially apparent in the line for the women’s washroom, which was a good 10-minute wait.  The men’s washroom, on the other hand didn’t even have a line. A couple of elderly Asian women decided to take advantage of that; they managed to get past the big, burly attendant at the door, but seconds later he happened to glance into the men’s washroom.  His eyes widened, his eyebrows hit his hairline, and then he froze. And then he bellowed and rushed into the washroom and emerged seconds later, shooing out the two giggling and unrepentant ladies.  So close!
From the Hagia Sophia, we wandered over to the Blue Mosque. 

 After five minutes or so in line, during which time we enjoyed the view within the courtyard, and steps away from the entrance, the Mosque closed for prayers – so we didn’t get to see the inside. 

So we moved on to the next item on the itinerary – lunch!

We randomly chose a pretty place that had tables set up in the alley where we could enjoy the great weather. The food was really good too.  We’ve had great luck so far with our lunch choices. 

Carolina and Sara at lunch

Sara's lunch
My lunch: lamb chops with grilled peppers and eggplant

An interesting observation about Istanbul (and this is true for most of the cities we visited on our trip):  street vendors sell snacks like fresh watermelon, pomegranate juice, roasted corn on the cob and chestnuts. Nary a hot dog or poutine or other empty calorie-laden indulgence in sight, which probably explains the population’s generally trimmer waistlines. 

After lunch we checked out the underground Cistern, built in the 6th century. It took some 7,000 slaves to build the cistern, which provided water filtration for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times. The Cistern's water came from the Belgrade Forest, 12 miles north of the city, via aqueducts.

The Cistern is approximately 453 ft by 212 ft -- about 105,000 sq ft -- capable of holding 2,800,000 cu ft of water. Marble columns – 336 of them—support the ceiling.  

The columns are 30 ft high, and the majority were recycled from the ruins of older buildings. On a side note, the cistern was in the James Bond flick From Russia with Love.

One of two Medusa heads in the Cistern

Next stop was the bazaar – not the Grand Bazaar.  Wary of being wrapped in a carpet (ok, not really … well, maybe a little) we hit the smaller Arasta Bazaar (I think – if I have the name wrong, Carolina, who set out our itinerary for the day, can set us straight). 

Coffee break

Shopping in the bazaar was a treat for the eyes ---  so many colours, textures and patterns.  The highlight of our shopping, though, was wandering into a ceramics shop and being entertained by the very engaging Double Bubble. I’m not sure what his name actually was, but he made an impression with his repeated entreaties for us to buy the handmade, hand painted bowls that he promised to wrap safely for travel in double bubble wrap.
Photo courtesy of Sara

Photo courtesy of Sara

Photo courtesy of Sara

His technique worked, because not only did we buy bowls, but we followed him into his uncle’s textile shop where I promptly found myself wrapped up, not in a carpet, but in a beautiful embroidered scarf.

And then, sadly, it was time to return to the ship.  Back on board, Roisin and I hit the Lido deck to make the most of the hot tub, pool, munchies and happy-happy hour before dinner.

As the ship pulled away from the shores of Istanbul, I went up to the bridge to get a few shots of the shoreline, while the sound system played  “It’s not Constantinople”  -- how perfect!

A few hours later we were eating again. I chose a Caprese salad, roasted pork belly, and cheesecake.  The pork belly was one of the best meals on the ship so far, and that’s saying a lot since they’ve all been so good. I’m getting so spoiled!