We had arrived! Istanbul was a key reason we went on this trip. My mom had seen Greece before, but she always wanted to see Istanbul. Istanbul is a central location in Ukraine’s history – in the development of its language and religion. Istanbul has two famous religious buildings – the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Dome.
We had booked a VERY LONG tour to see as much as humanly possible around Istanbul during the day. Tomorrow morning at 4:30am we would be heading to the airport. This was our one chance to experience the city.
Istanbul as a port is different from every other port we previously visited. The ship was right up against a dock – but this was not a dock mobbed with stores, nor was it a quiet dock with a longish walk to any public areas. Instead, this was a high security dock. The moment you got off the ship you went right down a ramp into a large industrial building complex. Everything you did here was underground in that fortress of a building. There was a long walk down pristine large hallways, with areas to the side for passport processing and so on. At one point we reached automated turnstiles. Every person had to wave their ship key card over a turnstile to be let through. There were helpers on hand to show you how it worked. My key card took a few tries, but then it let me through.
Once through the turnstiles, we reached an underground bus area. All the busses were lined up. We found our bus at the end. It was a full sized bus. Once everyone was on board, we set out. Even driving out of the building, it showed that this structure was fairly substantial.
We drove for about a half hour through the streets of downtown Istanbul. The tour guide told us some of the history of the city. He told us traffic can get really rough in the city sometimes. He asked us to stay close to him when we were off the bus, so we wouldn’t get lost. He joked that last year he lost someone and this year he came across their bones. He also told us how each of his three wives was a completely different religion – his current one was a Russian catholic. I joked with Jenn via text that, with me wearing my Ukrainian hair band and him having a Russian wife, maybe I would somehow be the one who was ‘lost’ on this tour.
He gave every one of us a fabric bag. This would be used, in mosques, to carry our shoes with us. That way our shoes would not get stolen while we went inside in stocking feet.
At last the bus pulled up at a corner and we all piled off.
We had a short walk to get to the Sultanahmet Square / Hippodrome of Constantinople. This was once a horse / chariot racing arena. Now it was a plaza with tall monuments and obelisks. For example the Obelisk of Thutmose III dates from 1490BC and was brought from Luxor, Egypt to this location in 390AD.
Fortunately for lovers of history, the Blue Mosque is immediately against this park. The Hagia Sofia is only about two blocks away. So it’s, walking wise, quite doable to get to these locations. The challenges involve long lines.
Our tour guide had clearly done this many times before. He knew what timing would work well for managing the crowds and so on. So he moved us fairly quickly to the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) to get us in line there. We joined this line at 10:23am. This mosque required long pants and, for women, a head covering. I always wear long pants and bring a shawl with me for this very reason. Tourists without these things could borrow, for free, long pieces of fabric to wear as a long skirt and/or to cover their head. It was about twenty minutes in line as we went past the fabric station and then up to the ‘shoe area’.
There were no benches here. It was just a ledge in the hallway which had signs that here you had to take off your shoes. You balanced, while standing, and slipped off your shoes. We had our shoe bags so we put our shoes into our bags and carried them. For people without bag, they either carried their shoes in hand or put them into a long cubby rack once we got further in to the mosque. I definitely recommend wearing socks. I wouldn’t want to be barefoot on a carpet that millions of other tourists are walking barefoot on. I wore my rainbow socks.
The Blue Mosque is of course quite lovely and well deserving of its tourist status. It was built in the 1600s as a mosque. There was still some scaffolding up from their renovations, but the tour guide told us we were lucky to be able to see as much as we were. Up until now there was far more work being done.
Once we were done here, we had a long line out. Again there was simply a line in the hallway where people stopped to put on their shoes. No benches. Some people sat on the floor to do it.
At last we were out. We left and walked down long stone walkways amongst grassy lawns. We were going to the Hagia Sofia. He tried to keep the pace reasonable but quick. The reason was this. The Hagia Sofia was going to open soon. There was already a long line at its gates. When it opened, it would let the line in until its capacity was reached. At that point, the line would stop, and people would be stuck in line until other people inside decided to leave.
It was a delicate balancing act. If you got in line very early, you could be standing in line for an hour or more waiting for the gates to open. If you got in line too late, there would be a “capacity crowd” ahead of you in line so you would not get in during that first allotment. So the ideal timing would be to have you join the line just near the end of the ‘initial capacity crowd’ group. That way you waited in line as little as possible but also got into the building with that first group.
We joined the line about 11:06am. It seemed enormously long at the time, snaking around a huge hot plaza. It wasn’t moving for about twenty minutes. Then all of a sudden, when the gates opened, the entire line surged forward. Our tour guide kept encouraging us to stay together and to keep moving. Sure enough, as we approached the gates, warnings were given that the building was near capacity and the gates would close shortly. We got in perfectly and all of us made it in before the gates closed behind us. So that was just about perfect timing.
This building also required head scarves but did not offer free ones. You had to buy one.
In this building there was a larger entry hall where people removed their shoes. There were some benches. We all put our shoes into our bags. The mosque, again, was stunningly large and beautiful. This is a far more ancient building. It was built around 530AD by the Romans as a Christian Cathedral. Then in the 1400s it was turned into a mosque, and all the “Christian” elements were removed or covered up. In the 1930s when Turkey was less religious it became a museum, open to all. In 2020, as Turkey became more religious, it was designated a mosque again, meaning once again the “Christian” historical elements were shielded.
At last we finished looking at the mosque, at noon. We then walked about fifteen minutes to Topkapi Palace. This used to be an actual palace, starting in the late 1400s, but is now a large museum. There are various rooms set up with mannequins to show what the library looked like, what the treasury looked like, and so on.
There were rifle-armed soldiers standing guard at the entry security gates. My mom prodded me to go over to them and recite my pro-Ukrainian mantras in Turkish. She seemed a little too eager, in my mind, for me to get locked up in a Turkish prison. The guards didn’t seem to be the joking kind.
Once we got into the courtyard, our guide gave us a half hour to explore before meeting up again. Mom and I went right to the bathrooms. The men’s side had no line at all. The women’s side had a long line going down stairs. The actual tiny bathroom area only had 3 stalls and no paper at all. The toilet seats were fairly icky. So I recommend finding somewhere else to go.
The palace rooms were lovely, especially the library with its scrolls. We were tired and hungry, though. We’d been on the go non-stop for many hours now. So we went back to the meet-up point and found a bench. We just waited for everyone.
Traffic apparently had really intensified. We had to walk a fairly long way to get to a place where the bus could pick us up. It was 1:30 before we got onto the bus. Then the bus had quite a drive to get to the hotel where we would be having lunch. We didn’t get there until just about 2pm.
The hotel was the Pera Palace Hotel, built in 1892. Agatha Christie stayed here to write – it’s where she set the beginning to Murder on the Orient Express! In that story, the train leaves from Istanbul. Our guide pointed out to us the train station which was featured in the novel.
There was a Middle-Eastern-themed buffet offered which was quite tasty. We were the first group to arrive, so we were able to have a quiet, peaceful lunch. The next group was only just arriving as we were getting ready to leave.
The tour description had said we would next go to a Spice Bazaar, but instead we were taken to the Grand Bazaar which apparently is much larger. We disembarked and walked a short distance to a shopping area. First we were guided into a specific shop where a merchant pushed hard for us to buy his desserts, his pastries, his spices, etc. Then we were set loose for a half hour. The Grand Bazaar was just down the street. It was a mostly-inside densely-packed network of shops. Mom and I went only a short distance into the shops before we decided we just had no interest in shopping any more. Nobody was wearing masks and people were all right up against each other. We came back out.
There was a mosque nearby. There was a person outside who said it was all right for us to go in. We took off our shoes and went in. It was a simple white design and quite lovely. There were a few people in there praying.
It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of walking for today, but because the day was SO long, and there were barely any break times, it actually did add up. I think today was the most walking we did on the entire trip, at nearly 13,000 steps.
Finally about 4pm we were back on the bus and stuck in traffic. We went past the Istanbul Governor’s building, where the governor of the Province of Istanbul works. There were armed soldiers in front of this building, as well as birdhouses on the stone pillars.
It was 5:40pm before the bus was pulling back into the high-security underground complex of the terminal. They had a drug-sniffing dog come over and examine the lower luggage areas of the bus before we were brought to the drop-off area. Then there was a short hallway network before we got to the card-swipe turnstile area.
My card would not swipe.
These cards are plastic with barcodes just printed on them. I have a special pouch in my purse that it sits in, so my card never rubs against anything else. However, in the cabin, the card has to be put into a metal slot in order to turn on the lights and electricity. Apparently over the length of the cruise my card had worn down enough, going in and out of that slot, that the barcode could no longer be read.
I told Mom to go ahead, but of course she wanted to stay with me. The guards examined my card and saw the problem. They then had to call the ship to verify I was allowed to get on board. At least I did have my passport in hand at this point. I wasn’t too worried. Eventually the guards got the all-clear and they allowed me to bypass the turnstiles.
When I got on board I immediately had the front desk cut me a brand new card. I was only on board for one more day, but I didn’t want any issues at all when I tried to depart the ship at 4:30am.
Our dinner tonight, even though it was the last night when most people are packing and dressing casual, was at Prime 7 – the steakhouse. We decided to just keep all our bags with us and hand-drag them down at 4:30am. So we dressed up for Prime 7. The dinner was lovely.
Mom went back to the room to pack. I went around to every public space and took a short video of each one. The sky was dark now and the skyline of Istanbul was quite pretty.
Finally it was midnight. I went to the computer room with my laptop. I ran my midnight to 3am teen writing workshop, which is always immensely fun for me. I am so inspired by my teens. And then I got back to the room. Mom and I tried to nap from 3am to 3:45am, which of course didn’t work very well.
Because now would begin our full day of international travel, attempted on zero sleep :).