Saturday, April 17, 2010

The city on two continents...

Friday, April 16, 2010 – ISTANBUL, Turkey
Turkish saying: One cup of coffee equals 40 years of friendship.

Lovely day in the only city on two continents! We arrived at sunrise to see the fog burn off the towers of the mosques in the distance. We were off the ship early for a bus tour of the city wall which is about 16 miles long with 46 towers. Much of it is in ruin from the medieval ages. We drove past the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Hippodrome and then spent some time learning how carpets are made and shopping in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. There are over 4,000 stalls in the Grand Bazaar and there are 16 entrances and exits – very necessary to keep a close eye on your guide and pay attention!!!! The Spice Market has fresh spices and dried teas of all flavors. And in the most perfect weather with yellow, orange, pink, maroon and lilac tulips in full bloom!!! It made for a beautiful surrounding of the historical sites.

Byzantine Hippodrome was the heart of Constantinople's political and sporting life, and the scene of games and riots through 500 years of Ottoman history. It's now a calm city park called the At Meydani (Horse Grounds). Yerebatan Saray, the Sunken Palace Cistern, is beneath the little park at the northern end of the Hippodrome. Above the hidden cistern is a stone tower that was once part of the city's system of aqueducts. Beside the stone tower is the Milion, the zero-mile-marker on the road called the Mese, the Roman road between Constantinople and Rome.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), with its tiers of magnificent domes and six graceful minarets is one of the most striking and immediately distinguishable structures on the Istanbul’s skyline. Constructed as an Islamic rival to the Hagia Sophia in 1609, it is one of the finest examples of Ottoman architecture and is still used by hundreds of worshippers. The interior is splendidly decorated with thousands of blue and white Iznik tiles embellished with traditional Ottoman flower patterns, and it is this special feature that gives the mosque its name. Its mighty dome (141 feet high and 77 feet in diameter) and six minarets were built by Sultan Ahmet I in 1609 to 1616. The forecourt, with a beautiful fountain in the center, is surrounded by colonnades roofed with a series of small domes. The interior (235 feet by 210 feet) with soaring columns and 260 stained glass windows leaves a lasting impression of graceful accord and open space. Tourists must enter through the north gate and remove their shoes at the entrance (plastic bags for shoes are provided). Modest dress is required for both men and women; also women must cover their heads. Wraps are provided when deemed necessary by mosque officials.

The Ottoman Palace (Topkapi Sarayi) (pronounced "Tope-kahp-uh Sahr-rai-yuh"), built by Mehmet the Conqueror as a Sultan's Palace, consists of a sprawling collection of buildings arranged around several interconnecting courtyards. Located on one of the seven hills of Istanbul with uninterrupted views over the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn, it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost four centuries. Home to nearly 3,000 people, it served as royal residence, harem, state administration and military barracks. One of the most popular sections is the harem, once the quarters of about 300 women who were the sultans' wives and concubines, and their children.

Egyptian Bazaar (or Spice Market, Misir Çarsisi, built 1664) is filled with the fragrance of the exotic East. Spices, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, lokum (Turkish Delight) and other edibles fill most of the shops, though jewelry and other high-margin goods have begun to move in.

Covered Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi) is the oldest and biggest enclosed bazaar in the world. Also known as the Grand Bazaar, it is one of the most enticing and mesmerizing attractions in Istanbul. It is a whole quarter on its own, surrounded by a wall and entered through eleven gates. Consisting of a vast labyrinth of 65 twisting streets crammed with more than 4,000 shops, teahouses, hamams (Turkish baths), mosques, storehouses and fountains. It is a fascinating experience to wander around the alleyways, looking and enjoying, or bargaining and purchasing. You can find almost anything, from meerschaum pipes, carpets and jewellery, to Turkish Delight, textiles, spices, clothing and hand-painted ceramics. Protracted bargaining over a cup of tea is an important institution. Built during the rule of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, the bazaar grew by covering an increasingly large area of shops and streets with roofs, arches and domes. It became the centre of trading during the Ottoman period. Caravans of silk traders traditionally stayed here and rested their camels while selling their merchandise, and many of these ‘hans’ or caravanserais still exist as storehouses today.

We went back to the ship for a quick lunch and then found the magnificent Starbucks for free WIFI. Work and phone calls. Thank goodness for Starbucks!
Still pleasant outside as we look out the window of the café and enjoy the view of the passersby.

After a dinner in the buffet, we took a walk in the city through a fascinating area of cafes. Young people were lounging on bean bag chairs, smoking shishas (not sure how to spell that) of and playing backgammon or chess, watching TV, on the computer or just hanging out. It was a very nice atmosphere and they sold various flavors of apple, orange, cappuccino or tea for the shishas. And the lights on the many mosques were so beautiful! We were so glad we went out for the late night walk. One bridge changes color every ten minutes - blue, red, green…

“The only real elegance is in the mind; it you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.” - Diana Vreeland