Istanbul, Turkey (Day 1)
Istanbul is, of course, one of the great cities of the world, so it needs little introduction. It was founded by the Greeks in the 7th Century BC as the city of Byzantium. It was renamed Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine, who moved his capital here in the 4th Century AD, and remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Byzantine Empire after the name the Romans abandoned, go figure) for more than 1000 years, long after Rome fell. In the middle of the 15th Century it was finally conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who later changed the name to Istanbul. This is the only city that straddles the European & Asian continents, divided by the Bosporus, a waterway that connects the Sea of Marmara south of Istanbul to the Black Sea to the northeast of the city.
We entered the Dardanelles (the waterway connecting the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara) before dawn on April 15, when all of you in the U.S. were getting ready to mail in your tax returns. We had hoped to catch a glimpse of Troy, which is now an archeological site on a hill not far from the water just before entering the Dardanelles. No such luck; we were still in bed when the ship passed that point & it was still dark then in any event, so even if Troy is visible with binoculars from a ship in daylight (which I don’t know) we couldn’t have seen it. But I was up in time to catch the lighthouses on either side of the entry to the Dardanelles.
We passed close enough to see the Turkish memorial to the battle of Gallipoli on the European side. Gallipoli was a World War I attempt by the Allies (mostly the idea of Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty) to take control of the Dardanelles, which would have given them a useful strategic inroad into Turkey. But it was a disaster for the Allies, as a huge number of ANZAC troops (Australian & New Zealander) were landed & slaughtered by the outnumbered Turks, who were dug in well on the shore. Mustafa Kemal (later given the surname Ataturk) was one of the Turkish commanders & I am told that on the monument is an unusually generous tribute from him to the allied troops who died here. The cruise through the Dardanelles in the early morning light was picturesque, with towns & ships & scenic views. We passed a 13th Century Turkish castle on the European side & another fortified point on the Asian side at a bend in the waterway. We then entered the Sea of Marmara for the remainder of the trip to Istanbul, and I went in for a shower & breakfast.
The previous night was a Turkish Dinner in the La Fontaine restaurant. The Prinsendam periodically has special nights in the restaurant, reflecting a country we are visiting or a holiday celebration, in which the restaurant is decorated, the wait staff wears costumes and sometimes the regional cuisine (or at least dishes given regional names on the menu) is served. It is a little silly but fun, so here are a couple of pictures of the Turkish dinner on April 14. Those of you acquainted with a small but adorable pooch named Ezme will be relieved to hear that she wasn’t actually on the menu.
In mid-afternoon on April 15 we finally approached Istanbul. Unfortunately it was a dreary, overcast rainy day & that weather would continue for our entire visit to Istanbul (we sailed out at about the same time on April 16). We sailed right past the Sultanahmet, which is the central part of the old town of Istanbul, so here are a few images from the ship of some of the more famous buildings, many of which we would visit later.
The most important sights in the old town of Istanbul are pretty close together & we had originally planned to walk around the city by ourselves. Then we learned that our one day in Istanbul would be the day Topkapi Palace is closed to the public each week. This was, to say the least, pretty irritating & we wondered what Holland America could have been thinking when scheduling our Istanbul stop for that day. Then we found out exactly what they were thinking. It turns out that, although it is closed to the public, Topkapi is open that day exclusively to tours sponsored by cruise ships. What a boon to cruise lines, since passengers have to pay for their excursions to get into the top sight in Istanbul! Which we did. The Istanbul tour was expensive, but it was a good tour & we saw all the most important places in just 24 hours (hard to believe, really, since there was so much). One thing we learned on this tour is that tulips originated in Turkey, and the first tulip bulbs in Holland were a diplomatic gift from the Turkish Sultan. It was Spring here, of course, and we saw a huge variety of colorful tulips all over Istanbul.
We were docked just across the Golden Horn (a large inlet that divides the European side of the city in two) from the Sultanahmet (the old town area), so it did not take too long to get there by bus (although the traffic in this city is really very bad). Our first stop was the Basilica Cistern, which you may have seen playing a prominent role in the early part of the James Bond movie “From Russia With Love.” Contrary to the movie, you enter the cistern from the street, not through a trap door in the office of British Intelligence. Built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century, its roof is supported by 336 columns 25 feet in height (although about a third of it is now walled off from view). It is a very impressive space, with eerie lighting of the columns in the darkness. Most of the pillars are in the water & visitors stand on wooden walkways.
Originally this entire space was filled to the top with water. After the Ottoman conquest it took about a century before they discovered the cistern, when they noticed people were getting water (and even fish) by dipping buckets through holes in the floors of their basements. The cistern contains some striking evidence of plundering of pagan temples for re-use. Two of the columns sit on huge recycled heads of Medusa placed here only for their structural value as large stones, one uside down and the other on its side. There are also a few pillars that look like they came from another structure.
Next we visited the Spice Bazaar, near the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. Originally built during the 17th Century as an enhancement to the “New” Mosque, also built in the 17th Century, this is known locally as the Misir Carsisi (Egyptian Bazaar) because it was financed by duties on Egyptian imports.
The Spice Bazaar is a long L-shaped building with a curved ceiling that is lined with shops. Most sell spices and/or confections (particularly various kinds of Turkish Delight), but really there is a variety of colorful goods for sale. We had a good time exploring & tasting some of the goods.
Next we drove to the waterfront near our port for a sunset cruise on the Bosporus (although since the sun wasn’t visible there was no actual sunset involved). Pictures were difficult because the boat swayed & the windows reflected the light inside, although for a little while I could stand outside on the back. Nighttime pictures from a moving boat are bound to be less than stellar, but there were a few that may be worth looking at.
Until the 1970’s the only way to go from one shore to the other was by ferry, and there are still a number of very fast ferries crossing the Bosporus. But in 1973 they built the first of two suspension bridges over the Bosporus just above Istanbul (very necessary because the population of the city has exploded since then & the Asian side is occupied mostly by residential communities & many of these people work on the European side). The bridges are lighted at night & the lights constantly change color between red & blue, making a lovely view at night.
So that was it for April 15 & we went back to the ship for dinner, with an early morning the next day. At dinner we met our new tablemates. Istanbul was a major port for passengers disembarking and others joining the cruise. Our tablemates from almost the beginning of the cruise all left in Istanbul. Drusilla and Joyce are sisters (from New Orleans & Nebraska, respectively) who travel together each year, & we had enjoyed their company most evenings & had a very good time (even though our table for 8 usually had 4 empty seats). There was another couple assigned to our table, Jacov & Arita, who had immigrated to Toronto several decades ago from Russia, & they left the ship here to go to Odessa, where they had been born. But they ate in the Lido (buffet) restaurant most nights, so we only saw them occasionally. Our new tablemates were three couples who all boarded in Istanbul & left in Rome. Mike & Ginger are from California, Al and Sandy are from North Carolina & John & Karen are from Florida. We had a great time together. A few days after they all left in Rome another passenger told us that ours had been known in the dining room as “the fun table,” and it certainly was that. Please note that these pictures were all taken on “formal night,” of which this cruise has far too many. While these people all clean up pretty nice, this is not how any of us dressed when left to our own druthers.
Well, I was planning to cover Istanbul in one post since we were there for only 24 hours, but this one is already pretty long so I have decided to save the rest for another episode. So tune in then, since this city has some pretty unbelievable stuff.