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Cruise Diva Goes Ashore in Europe:
The Mediterranean
Sights to see & things to do

Istanbul, Turkey

With one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, the sprawling city of Istanbul spans two continents. Modern buildings are poised alongside monuments that reflect a diverse and ancient history and reminders of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Istanbul is a heady mixture of sights, sounds, smells, and cultures with a new discovery around every corner.

Diversions

Cruise ships dock at the pier on the European side of the Bosphorus where transportation is available into the city. Bus and tram services and taxis are relatively inexpensive and cruise lines often also provide shuttles.

Many sights in the old city are easily explored on foot and a good place to begin is at the Hippodrome, once a center for sports, theater, and political gatherings. Over the centuries other structures were built on top of the Hippodrome and all that remains today is the serpentine column of Emperor Constantine and the Obelisk of Theodosius.

From there it is a short walk to Istanbul's most famous landmark, the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, or the Blue Mosque, so called because of the Iznik tiles that line the interior walls. Small domes first come into view, precursors to the main dome and minarets that achieve their objective of lifting the eyes heavenward. Only worshippers are allowed entrance through the main door; visitors are admitted through a side passage. A word here about clothing—respectful attire is required and knees and shoulders must be covered. Rugs cover mosque floors and shoes are removed before entering (wearing socks is advised). The tiles, frescoes, and stained glass windows of the Blue Mosque are quite beautiful.

Continuing your walk, the next stop is the nearby Hagia Sophia, the Church of Santa Sophia. The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 by Sultan Ahmet to surpass the beauty of this building, Emperor Justinian's 6th century AD Christian church. When it was converted to a mosque in 1453, all mosaics and paintings were covered, as mosques cannot contain drawings of humans and animals. Now a museum, Hagia Sophia is undergoing restoration and the results thus far are magnificent.

Next stop... Hey! This looks like Sleeping Beauty's Castle! Sure enough, Disney modeled that familiar structure after the Royal Gate of Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Sultans. Through the gardens and courtyards, a variety of chambers contain such treasures as eight-pound emeralds, the 86-carat Spoonmaker diamond, and the Topkapi dagger set with three large emeralds. Other rooms house gem encrusted thrones, priceless silver, porcelains, and holy relics. Don’t miss the cool breeze from the Bosphorus on the Balcony of Life. Tours of the Harem are also available.

Dolmabache Palace, a must-see that is not on ships' tours. The palace is administered by the Turkish government with its own guided tours and visitors are required to pay in Turkish lira (an exchange booth is located next to the ticket window). Cameras are allowed inside but there is an additional charge for picture taking.

The Palace and Harem are in separate sections and a one hour tour of the Palace alone is available or a two hour tour of both. This is the ultimate—the palace to end all palaces. Imagine a sultan with more grandiose ideas and worse taste than you thought humanly possible. Then picture a tranquil setting and place the most ostentatious building and contents on it. Hollywood couldn't have created this opulent setting; it's too much crystal and marble, too many mirrors and immense chandeliers, and it's everything a palace is expected to be. This is how sultans should live! The Palace and Harem guides are well trained and answer questions in addition to presenting their narrative.

If cruising is once again on your agenda, this time on the Bosphorus, tours are available along the waterway at the heart of Istanbul. Separating the European city from the Asia Minor city, the Bosphorus' strong current from the Mediterranean meets the current from the Black Sea causing it to churn and sparkle in the sunlight. Lining the banks on both sides are "wooden houses," the splendid homes of the well to do, some dating back to the 1600's. A leisurely boat ride may conclude at Sadberk Hanim Museum, a privately owned museum established in one of the waterfront mansions. The Turkish and Islamic art, costumes, and archaeological objects are as fascinating as the building itself.

From the river, you’ll spot the Fortress of Rumeli Hisari at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus. Amazingly, in 1452, 10,000 workers built this Ottoman fortress in just four months. From here, Mehmet the Conqueror controlled the strait and was able to conquer Byzantine Constantinople.

Other interesting attractions include the Suleymaniye Mosque and underground cisterns. 

Shopping

With over 4000 shops, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, or Covered Market, contains an amazing array of merchandise. You may think dropping bread crumbs to find your way out is a good idea but soon it becomes apparent that there is a scheme to the layout of the bazaar’s maze—with jewelry down one way, leather items down another, and so on. Fleet-footed runners deliver a bottomless supply of tea to refresh weary shoppers while they make their selections. Shop for rugs, onyx, leather goods, meershaum pipes, and more. Accepting a cup of tea or soft drink is a ritual of Turkish hospitality and doesn’t obligate you to purchase anything, but bargaining if you don’t intend to buy an item is considered very bad form.

Fashionable shops are located in the Taksim, Sili, and Nisantasi districts. In the Topkapi district daily flea markets are held and the Misir Carsisi, or spice bazaar located next to the Yeni Mosque, is a treat for the senses. Finding things to buy is an easy matter as persistent street merchants will urge you to examine their silk scarves, leather items, and watches as you walk along. Don’t be surprised to see signs on shop doors in English proclaiming, “Sorry! We are open!”


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