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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2016
World Cruise Sector - Dubai to Southampton
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Saturday 30 April Istanbul - Turkey

We arrived at Istanbul at dawn (0545) and we were out on the balcony to take some pictures as a number of the best views of the major sites are from the sea as it is all very densely packed in the old quarter. There are two possible places to moor and we were once more at the Salipazari moorings which are further from the old town but still an easy walk to the Galata Bridge which takes on to the historic parts. We were ready to go just after 0720 and as we were walking down to see where the gangways were set up the announcement came that the ship was secure and cleared and we ended up being the first through the port gate for what we expected, and turned out to be, a long day with 'All Aboard' being 1730.

A good guide book is essential for efficient independent exploration of Istanbul. It is not a difficult city and the streets are all named and with so many important historic buildings on the skyline it is difficult to become lost. We purchased the DK Top10 Guide in the UK and also the Guide to Istanbul published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality before our first visit. The latter had good detailed information about the 53 monuments and mosques in the historical peninsula that are essential viewing on a short visit, and we used the map with its suggested itinerary in 2012 on our first visit. Of the major tourist sites the only omission on our first visit was the Topkapi Palace, which we did on our second visit - it takes many hours to do justice. We have also not had time to visit many of the museums so some museums such as the Haghia Sophia Museum were on our original agenda but the weather was so good we spent most of the time outside revisiting some of the previous highlights and adding in a few new places. Generally we visited any mosques which were on our route and sought out some of the more famous ones. We ended up walking almost continuously for 10 hours almost entirely on the Historical Peninsula and we did not explore Beyoglu, Pera and climb past the modern 5 star hotels to Taksim Square. We also did not take a cruise on the Bosphorus, another possible on our agenda if the weather had been poor. These, along with the many museums, must wait until our next visit because we will certainly visit Istanbul again. We will now go into more details of our day.

Outside the port gate we were on the tram route across to the Historical Peninsula, and there is usually a HopOn HopOff bus (20 euros) waiting on the other side of the road for those who did not want to walk but not at 0730 in the morning. It was very quiet in the early morning and we followed the tramlines towards the Galata bridge, passing the Nusretiye Mosque, under extensive repair, and stopped to visit the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque which was built by Sinan in 1581. Kilic Ali Pasa was the grand admiral of the Ottoman Navy. It had been our first visit into a mosque in 2012 and left a significant impression and a yardstick to compare other mosques later so we were keen to look in once more. It was also empty which was unusual. Continuing towards the Karakoy Square we looked back at the 70 metre high Galata Tower built in 1348 and giving good views from the viewing balcony. Shoe polish men sat in the square waiting for customers with their little brass capped bottles of polish – very typical and we were to see many more on our travels.

The Galata bridge crosses the Golden Horn and is a double level concrete bridge with the main road and pavements on the top level and lots of cafes and bars underneath. The middle of the bridge can be raised to allow tall ships to pass but the local ferries pass under easily. It was built in 1992 to replace an earlier iron pontoon. It is a very popular place for fishing, with all the gear and bait available for rent and by the middle of the day they are so many they are almost touching. Across the bridge the main monument is the large Yeni Camii or New Mosque. To reach the mosque area the best approach is to take the underpass lined with stalls from Eminonu Square.

It did not open until 0830 so we had a quick look into the nearby Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market which was built as part of the Yeni Camii complex - it was very empty at that time as they were mostly cleaning and setting up. It was built in 1660 and is where the spices originally imported from Egypt were sold. Now there are boutiques, souvenirs shops and turkish delight alongside the spices, and the roads outside have stalls selling flowers, plants, seeds, pets, fish, cheese, spices and olives. There were even large pots of black wiggling things which on closer inspection were leeches.

The Yeni Camii or New Mosque was commissioned in 1597 and completed in 1663, so is the last of the monumental mosques. It is, like all the other monumental mosques built after Sinan, a square shaped mosque with four semi-domes on the sides. The interior is richly decorated with iznik tiling. The really spectacular iznik tiling is said to be at the Blue Mosque.

The next target group of monuments on our itinery were the Topkapi Place, Haghia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. These are always on the tourist itinerary and most of the passengers from the Queen Elizabeth would be visiting two or three of them on the morning tours. The easy way to find them is to follow the tramline from the Galata Bridge. Instead we wandered around the narrow streets behind the Spice Market and just as we resorted to reading the map we started to recognise landmarks from earlier visits and realised we were in the textiles area. Much of the goods have to be delivered by hand as the streets are so narrow and we watched some impressive demonstrations of strength and agility by the porters.

We were by now close to the Grand Covered Bazaar which is "The" place which every tourist wants to visit and and we quickly found one of the dozens of gates - we found that there was some rough and ready security checks on entry. It gets very busy later in the day so it seemed a good time to have a quick look, if that is possible. It is a huge structure built in 1461, covering 54,653 sq metres and is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. It had 2 restaurants, 4399 shops, 2195 rooms, 497 store rooms, a mosque, 10 small mosques, a hama, 19 fountains, 8 wells, 24 hans, a school and a tomb. Not all has survived and now there are 21 gates, 2 bedestens, 17 inns, 66 streets, nearly 4000 shops and employs more than 30,000 people. It is still very large and full of shops and a few cafes. The streets vary in width and in decoration, with some being more recently renovated than others. The first two buildings were the old Sandal and Cevahir Bedestens. Sandal Bedesten, in the southeast corner, is named after a type of silk and cotton fabric being originally the market area for textiles, and spans an area of 2,436 square metres. It is covered by 20 lead-plated domes and was used as an auction house by the Istanbul Municipality from 1914 to 1980. The inner Bedesten in the centre, the Cevahir Bedesten, is roofed by 15 domes arranged in three rows, and was the original place were valuable weaponry and jewellery was sold; it could be securely locked up and guarded at night. It is all well signposted and the exit gates are numbered.

We had no problems exploring and then leaving although not by our intended exit but quickly picked out where we were from the direction of the sun and we quickly picked up the MetroLines and walked down to the Hippodrome.In the Byzantine period the Hippodrome was a stadium where horse and chariot races took place. Now it is a square with three columns and the fountain of Kaiser William II. The fountain is recent – erected on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Kaiser's visit to Istanbul in 1898. There are two obelisks – the Egyptian obelisk is probably the oldest historic artefact in Istanbul. It was originally commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III in 1550 BC and was erected here in 390 AD. The other obelisk is the Column of Porphyrogenitus, and there is also a bronze serpent column of three intertwined headless serpent figures.

 

Alongside the Hippodrome is the famous Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets. The best view of the Blue Mosque is from the ocean. It is difficult to get a clear view of it from the Sultanahmet Square which is a continuation of the old Hippodrome because of the congestion and confusion caused by the thousands of visitors and their tour buses. These thousands of visitors not only want to see the Mosque but they all intend to go inside. We however joined a surprisingly short queue with the only delays being the kiosk where people picked up skirts and headcovering. Quickly putting our shoes in our plastic bags and Pauline wearing a headscarf we were deemed fit to enter. The mosques which have tourists often provide shawls on loan, and here there were also blue wrap-around skirts for those whose knees were not covered. The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque was built for Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616 by a student of Sinan. The distinctive character of the Blue Mosque is the beautiful tile decoration in the interior, not the architecture. There are more than 20,000 blue and turquoise tiles with floral motifs, which combined with the light from the 260 windows explains the name of the mosque.

 

We now walked through Sultanahmet Square towards the Haghia Sophia. First we passed the Hamam of Haseki Hurrem. Haseki Hurrem was the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent and she entrusted the architect Sinan with the construction of this huge rectangular bathhouse with two separate entrances, one for men and the other for women. We could not resist an ice cream from the stall alongside the bathhouse.

The Haghia Sophia had long queues but we had already decided to keep outside as the weather was so good, we are sure we will be back and visit the museums at our leisure. At the end of the wall is the large open space of Sultanahmet Park. This is where all the tours collect people who have previously toured the Topkapi Palace and the Haghia Sophia. The Haghia Sophia is the third church on this site and was inaugurated in 537. The great architect Sinan added the buttresses to secure the building. It is a large single domed basilica and only three others are larger (St Paul's in London, St Peter's in Rome and the Duomo in Milan). The round dome is now slightly elliptical and has a diameter of about 30 to 32 metres and is supported by four columns each 55 metres high. It was converted to a mosque in 1435 and since 1934 has been a museum.

South west of Haghia Sophia is a small building which is the entrance to the Basilica Cistern. We had seen pictures of the inside and it looked interesting; entrance was 20 turkish lira, cash only. The underground water storage area was built by Emperor Justinian (527-565) and since then has been repaired and restored, most recently in 1985-87. It is accessed by climbing down a flight of 55 steps. Once accustomed to the reduced lighting it was an amazing underground water storage area and there were fish swimming happily. The cistern measures 140 metres long by 70 metres wide with the ceiling supported by 12 rows of columns each with 28 columns and 9 metres tall. There is a path around the cistern and the sign "Medusa" indicates where to go to see the two large heads of Medusa which are used as plinths - one is horizontal and the other is upside down so there is no risk of being turned into stone by viewing them. The Medusa heads are Roman and are in good condition.

We came back into the square passing the Haghia Sophia and the Haghia Eirene towards the Topkapi Palace as we wanted to revisit the Burial Places of Sultans, which is actually in part of the grounds of Haghia Sophia. There are five separate buildings and free to visit. The old baptistery was converted into a tomb and Sultan Mustafa I buried there. Next to his tomb lies the tomb of Sultan Ibrahim the Mad. Three other sultans, Selim II, Murad III and Mehmed III are also buried nearby.

We were now almost at the gate of the Topkapi Palace, an enormous Palace, begun in the 1460s and its planning and construction is best described as 'decentralised'. When Fatih conquered the city he decided to build his palace in this strategic position with the magnificent view. Until 1856 all the Ottoman Sultans used Topkapi Palace as their residence. The huge palace complex consists not only of the private residences of the sultans and the harem, but also of a huge kitchen and dormitories for soldiers and other domestics, the meeting room for the Imperial Council, the Pavilion where the relics of the prophet Mohammed and the Caliphs are preserved, the Gulhane Hospital, the library of Ahmet III, the Enderun, the Palace school, the Inner Treasury, the stables for the sultans horses, and also the church of Haghia Eirene which was once used as an armoury and arsenal. It merits at least several hours and preferably several days to visit it in comfort and since we visited it last visit it was not on our agenda this time.

We now retraced our steps to the tram line and started to work our way up towards the Aqueduct of Valens. On the way we passed the Sehzade Mosque. This is one of the first monumental mosques built by Sinan and was founded by Suleyman the Magnificent in memory of his son Mehmed whom the Sultan intended to be his successor on the throne but who died an untimely death.

It was then only a short walk to the Aqueduct of Valens which looks a bit like the Pont du Gard in France. The two-storey aqueduct was built by Emporer Valens in 368, hence the name. It remained in use until the 19th century, bringing water from the Belgrade Forest to the centre of the Great Palace complex, near the Hippodrome. The boulevard is named after Ataturk who was born in 1891, Mustafa Kemal Pasa, and led the Turkish forces to victory at Gallipoli in 1915. He became Turkey's first President when it was declared a republic in 1923.

It was our intention to visit the Suleymaniye Mosque and then end our walking tour. However we took a wrong turn and ended up almost back at the waterside before we realised and started to climb back up. We expected the mosque to be closed to visitors but thought it was still worth continuing especially as we recalled an excellent cafe with views over Istanbul. After a bit of a search we found the rooftop cafe, now the Sehrim Istanbul and settled down with coffee and cakes and a superb view over Istanbul.

By the time we had finished we were refreshed enough continue and visit the Suleymaniye Mosque which fortunately was open. It was built by Sinan between 1550 and 1557 and his mausoleum is here on the site of the house in which he lived while building the mosque. The four minarets indicate that Suleyman was the fourth Sultan to reign in Istanbul while the ten parapets indicate that he was the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman empire. The interior is simple, and yet impressive. The dome is blue, white and gold and it is decorated with iznik tiles. The courtyard is surrounded by a colonnade and the Egyptian pink columns are said to have come from the Hippodrome. Suleyman lies in a tomb in the garden.

Our route back to the Galata Bridge took us downhill. The area was full of lots of useful shops selling food, hardware, equipment, everything you could imagine. The streets were narrow and the goods were moved by men carrying them on their shoulders or pulling trolleys loaded above their headon we saw water ahead and after another exploration into the narrow streets we were back at the Eminonu Square, now full of people. We looked for the cheese stall we had noted earlier and purchased a couple of pieces of local cheese, one cow and one sheep ( the shopkeeper described them as baa baa and moo moo cheese when we were trying to get more information), which will make a welcome contrast from all the pasteurised european stuff on the ship. It was now time to start to work our way back to the ship which was the other side of the bridge.

There were still lots of people fishing on the bridge now with buckets and jars full to overflowing with twitching fish. We still had a little time and we chose a restaurant under the bridge and sat with pints of local Efes beer, looking up at the Suleymaniye Mosque and we could just see the umbrellas on our rooftop cafe. On the other side of the bridge, stalls were setting up selling snacks - last time we passed a man with a BBQ cooking fish which smelled too good to ignore, so we shared a fish and salad roll looking across at the water but it was too early unfortunately. We walked past the supermarket we had noted earlier and picked up an orchid for our room, fortunately it was imported from Holland and being EU should be safe to take home.

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Content revised: 11th May, 2016