25 September 2008

Greetings from the Golden Horn

Monday, 22 September 2008

If only every Monday could start with a lazy morning!  We were at sea today, scheduled to dock in Istanbul, Turkey, at 4 PM, so we took advantage of our vacation time and slept in.  Our route took us through the Dardanelles, a narrow strait the connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.  The first activity on my daily agenda (other than meals, of course) was to be sure to be on deck as our ship sailed through the Sea of Marmara and into the Golden Horn, just before we would have entered the Bosphorus Strait.  We had been told this was a sight worth seeing, so even though it was chilly, windy, and threatening rain, Judy and I made our way to the bow about 2:30.  We got a few photos and then decided to head up to the fifth deck and avoid the crowds on the bow.  It took a couple of tries and a few wrong turns, but we were rewarded with a great viewing spot with not many people.  Shortly after getting up there, we found John on the bow and told him how to find his way to us, but we never saw the rest of the gang.  Turns out everyone else had their own ideas about the best place to watch from.

Some of the things we were able to see as we steamed into port – the Blue Mosque, with its unusual number of six minarets, Ayia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the Suleymaniye Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace, the Palace of Ciragan, and the three major bridges – the Bosphorus Bridge, Galata Bridge, and Ataturk Bridge – as well as the sprawling metropolis of Istanbul.  Istanbul is the only city in the world that crosses two continents – it straddles Europe and Asia – and it is home to about 14 million people.  The European section of the city is the main portion, and it is separated into the Old and New cities by the Golden Horn, a sea inlet which is one of the great natural harbors of the world.  It got its name because it is horn-shaped, and when the sun sets on it in the evening, the water turns a beautiful golden color.  The Blue Mosque, Ayia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, the covered Bazaar, and the Egyptian Spice Market are all in the Old City; Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, and the business districts and centre city of Istanbul are all in the New City.  The Asian section of Istanbul is mainly suburbs, and traffic is a huge problem, especially in the mornings and evenings when people are commuting to and from work.  Like many European cities, driving seems to be more of an art form than a structured exercise – no one and everyone has the right-of-way – it's like playing chicken on steroids.

But I'm getting ahead of myself!  We docked a bit early so we decided to go ashore and just walk around town for a while.  It took some doing, but we were finally able to convince the taxi drivers and bus drivers that we would not be needing their services.  Our destination was Galata Tower, which appeared on the map we had not to be too far away.  Not only that, but we could see it, so we figured we wouldn't get TOO lost.  Galata Tower was built by the Genoese in 1348 on the site of the 6th century Tower of Christ.  It has been used as a fire-watch tower, a prison, and a fortress of some sort, and nowdays it houses a restaurant, a Turkish cafe, and a Genoese tavern.  As we walked down the busy thoroughfare from the port towards Galata, we passed a mosque and decided to peek in.  Before entering a mosque, you must remove your shoes (actually, before stepping on the area before you enter the mosque – we learned this the hard way...) and women must have their heads covered.  Modest clothing (no shorts or tank tops) must be worn by both sexes.  We got there just before evening prayer time – the minarets began signaling the call to prayer just as we were ready to leave.  It is also Ramadan, which means Moslems are fasting during the day, not eating until after sunset, so there were special restaurant and cafe areas set up so that hungry people could eat in a festive atmosphere.  We passed a few more mosques on our way to the tower.  Traffic was crazy, since it was almost rush hour, and the light rail train and buses out of town were filling up.  The train ran right down the middle of this busy street – we had to walk carefully!

We got to the place where we needed to cross the street and head up the hill to get to the tower, and the street we chose to walk up was most interesting.  For starters, it was more like a cobblestone alley.  We passed a WC that was an open storefront, with a wide open door and several urinals.  I don't think so!  Then we went past a number of shoe shine men, one of whom spoke great English and was very nice – the others looked pretty sketchy.  By this time, most of us were panting pretty heavily, and somehow Bob and Rex were leading the pack, leaving the four of us women alone together while Robert and John trailed behind.  This didn't seem like such a good idea, since there were hardly any women out on the streets at all, so I caught up with Bob and sent Rex back to escort the other women the rest of the way up the hill.  Oh, and at the top of the hill was a lovely sex shop.  We can really pick the streets!  We got to the top of the hill, only to realize we needed to turn and go up a little farther, but it wasn't too bad.  The tower was very cool looking, and it was open, although only Rex and I were planning to go up into it if there were stairs involved.  When we saw there was an elevator, we all shelled out our Euros for a ride up.  What they don't tell you is you ride up five stories, then walk up a carpeted spiral staircase with very narrow treads for the next two (I would have said four) stories.  I'm pleased to report we all made it and it was worth it!  You could go out onto the ledge (OSHA would have had a field day with this one!) and walk all the way around the tower, taking in the whole city and of course, taking lots of pictures.  The views were just magnificent!

Unfortunately, the restaurants were closed until the next day, so we walked back down the stairs and went to a little cafe in hopes of getting some adult beverages.  But no, we are in Moslem territory here, so we moved along.  We found another little bistro around the corner called Kiva Han, and we ascertained that they did serve wine and beer, so we took a seat.  The proprietor spoke a little English, and sitting near us was a Turkish man, dressed in a business suit and cowboy books, who spoke English and enjoyed talking with us.  He was on holiday and had lived in Germany and Texas – most interesting.  A couple of observations – almost EVERYONE in Istanbul smokes, and many of them smoke American brands.  I've seen a lot of the Marlboro Man around here!  Also, there are tons of cats all over Istanbul – it sort of reminded me of Rome.  They were everywhere!  Anyway, we enjoyed our respite at the restaurant and took a few group photos with the tower in the background. 

We took a different street back down the hill, and passed many different doorways, shops, and even a little cemetery (fenced in).  We saw children out playing and men working and shopping – very few women were out and about, and those that we saw were mostly businesswomen.  We passed a bakery where some delicious looking bread and bobolis were selling fast.  We got back to the port with no trouble, and from there we decided to part ways.  Robert and Nancy were going back to the ship for dinner, but the rest of us were going in search of a restaurant for dinner.  Soon after we started off, we met a young woman who told us there wasn't anything nearby, so the Smarts and Woodys decided to go back to the ship after all.  Rex and I walked on, though, sure we would find something soon.  I guess it depends on your definition of soon...  We walked about half an hour, passing the University, Dolmabahce Palace, two big soccer stadiums, a beautiful tree lined avenue (in front of the Palace, which was lovely at twilight), the bus terminal, a ferryboat terminal, more buses and taxis, and we finally found some cafes along the waterfront.  By this time, we were almost to the foot of the Bosphorus Bridge, which entertained us with a stunning LED (way to go, Cree!) light show.  The bridge is a suspension bridge, and the light show was great!  We had some grilled lamb, grilled chicken, grilled pork (just one kabob of each) and some fried meat balls in addition to sharing onion rings (nothing special – frozen round ones like you could find here, although they were served with salsa and French fries!) and a garden salad.  Two things we still don't know – why Greek salads have no lettuce, and what the hell is a garden rocket?!?!  We had about three cats as dinner companions – one who wouldn't leave until two bigger cats showed up.  They were very persistent, but we were hungry so they stayed hungry. It was getting chilly by the time we finished, but we walked down closer to the bridge and watched the light show for a while, then walked back to the taxi stand/bus station/ferry terminal and caught a taxi back to the ship.  It was about 9 PM by the time we returned, but no one was out looking for us yet!

We went up to the Crow's Nest bar to watch the bridge some more, and found John and Judy up there.  We had a drink with them and then called it a night – we had to rest up for our Ottoman Wonders tour the next morning!

Walking does Galata good,


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