Today we arrived at the end of the line (for this cruise, at least)… one of our favourite cities, in fact… Istanbul, in Turkey.
The last time we visited Istanbul was in 2012, travelling on board Fred Olsen’s Black Watch. We fell in love with the place then, and it was with great anticipation that we went ashore today.
One great difference from our last visit was the berth. In 2012, we were parked on the small quay by the old part of the city, providing remarkably easy access to its main attractions. This time around, the Minerva was parked in the main Cruise Terminal on the opposite side of the Haliç – the primary, horn-shaped estuary of the Bosphorus – also know simply as ‘The Golden Horn’. As we had deliberately avoided taking on any tour escorting duties today, to maximise our own free time, we pondered briefly which would be the best way to get into the city before plumping for walking it. There are buses, of course, and a tram passes directly past the port entrance, but walking it turned out to be the perfect choice; it only took us about 30-40 minutes before we’d crossed the Galata Bridge and were in the hubbub that is the centre of Istanbul.
It’s difficult to describe the excitement of Istanbul to anyone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. With a population of over 14 million inhabitants, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, and the the fifth largest in the world. It’s massive, and always busy… even on a Sunday, like today.
Having reacquainted ourselves with the hussle and bustle of the place, marvelled at the lines of fisherman stretching across the Galata Bridge and the non-stop movement of ferries as they pass under the bridge and pass to and fro along the harbourside, we headed towards the first large mosque to greet us – known simply as ‘New Mosque’. As with many of the mosques in Istanbul, it’s free to enter, but visitors do have to take their shoes off before stepping onto the carpet that covers the whole of the interior, and women have to cover their head with a scarf. The inside was beautiful, and quite serene; I’m always amazed by how much of a huge, empty space they are, every surface decorated and lit by lamps that hang from long cables attached to the underside of the great, central dome.
After the mosque, we paused for a drink in a small cafe before heading on up to Hagia Sophia, which was a mosque until 1935, when it became secularised, and was turned into a museum. It attracts huge numbers of visitors, as you can imagine, and we had to join a long queue to get in (fortunately; no matter how long queues seem to get in Istanbul, they always seem to move quite quickly, and you’re never stood around for too long). Inside, the place is magnificent, and quite vast. We headed up to the second floor, to get the best views across its central area, much of which is, unfortunately, currently covered in scaffolding.
We ate lunch in the the Hagia Sophia cafe before heading towards our next destination; Topkapi Palace. We spent a whole afternoon here on our last visit, but the one part of the Palace that we didn’t get to see then was the Harem… which we intended to rectify today. The Imperial Harem is where the Sultan, his family, concubines and eunuchs lived, and was worthy of the extra €15 each – or it will be when they’ve finished renovating it, and opened up the whole of it to visitors.
After the harem, we wandered through the rest of the palace, which was thronged with visitors; far more than our last visit. After battling through the crowds, we decided not to join the long queue for the Treasury, and that we’d had enough. Topkapi Palace is a sprawling, mesmerising place, but the crowds of people milling around it start to get to you after a bit, and we longed to be outside , enjoying the rest of the city…
We walked to the Grand Bazaar, only to find that it is closed on Sundays, which is a pity, but we still enjoyed (if getting slowly lost can be described as enjoying) navigating our way back towards the river. Finally, after walking along several quiet streets, it began to get busy again, until we were back in the hustle and bustle of the Spice Market.
Since 2012, we’ve spent three years promising ourselves that, should we be lucky enough to get to revisit Istanbul, we would treat ourselves to a meal in one of the restaurants that line the underside of Galata Bridge. Here we were again, so we were able to fulfill our promise. Sadly; after having enjoyed another great day in one of the most exciting cities in the world, our meal on the bridge turned out to be a total disappointment. As you walk across the bridge, past the restaurants, their owners (or people trained in the art of luring) vie for the attention of passers-by and try their best to talk them into eating at THEIR restaurant. Having already decided that we’d like to eat somewhere on the bridge, it was only a matter of being lured by the right one. The meal was completely underwhelming. Maybe we’d been spoilt on the Minerva, but I don’t think so. The discount that we’d been promised on entry had to be haggled out of them at the end, and the free pudding came out of a choice of one. The meal felt like something that had been cooked by an amateur chef… we were seriously disappointed, and couldn’t get out of there quick enough, and back to the ship.
The meal thing was a minor blip on an otherwise perfect day. Once again, Istanbul had not disappointed – although, we won’t be eating on the bridge again in a hurry.
Which brings our Black Sea Empires cruise to a close. Back on the Minerva, we headed for the restaurant, were we stuffed ourselves on ice cream and pudding, then, after getting changed, we went up to the Orpheous Lounge where the resident musicians were gathering for an informal, final ‘Jam Night’… a great end to a fantastic day, and a thoroughly memorable trip.