The Sultans of Swing

September 24, 2005
A day to regroup and catch our breath before the next whirlwind of travel - we spent the day doing laundry, ironing, packing, and just generally getting ready for the next leg of our adventure. Since these are our last few hours in Amsterdam, and we have nothing else to write about, we thought we would share a couple of fun facts with you about the city's canals. Did you know that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice? The city's 100 canals are about 10 feet deep, crossed by some 1,200 bridges, fringed with 100,000 Dutch elm and lime trees, and bedecked with 2,000 houseboats.

September 25, 2005
Today was a pretty busy travel day. We were up at 7:00 and on the road to Paris by 8:30. Unfortunately, we over estimated the driving time (by about 2-3 hours), so we got to the airport by 2:00, but our flight wasn't until 8:00. We passed the time by having a leisurely Sunday lunch at the Sheraton Hotel in Charles de Gaulle. Our flight was delayed about 30 minutes as the in-bound aircraft was late. We finally landed at Heathrow a little after 9:00 and then the real fun began!!

The airport was so busy that there were no gates/jetways available, so we first had to wait about 10 minutes for staff to come and direct the plane into its standing area, and then we waited another 10 minutes for a qualified person to arrive to drive the steps!! We boarded a bus to take us to the main terminal, where we waited in line at immigration for 40 minutes. On the upside, we didn't have to wait on our baggage and we were able to immediately clear customs.

We needed to catch the "Hotel Hoppa" shuttle to our hotel - well the Hoppa doesn't hop out of terminal 4!! So, we thought we would just bite the bullet and take a taxi (it was 10:30 at this point and we were exhausted). We had been in the taxi queue for 15 minutes when the supply of taxis just dried up, with some 20 people in front of us still waiting. We abandoned the taxi plan, went back to the terminal, caught the Heathrow Express to terminals 1-3, walked about 2 miles to the shuttle stop, waited a further 10 minutes for the correct bus, boarded, paid GBP 6 and finally arrived at our hotel at 11:15. The first room we were given was used and dirty, so it was back to the lobby for reassignment. We got settled in for the night and collapsed into bed around midnight.

September 26, 2005
Another travel day today, but this time things went very smoothly. We got checked in this morning, passed through security and went to one of the cafes in the departure area for breakfast. Mark had a BLT and I had pancakes - both were excellent. After we ate, we went to the British Airways lounge to wait the last 20 minutes until our flight boarded. BA has now settled their dispute with Gate Gourmet, so our flight had full catering available. The flight was a bit shorter than we thought at only 3 hours and 20 minutes. Upon arrival, we immediately got into the queue for visas. It was so easy (especially compared to the process to get our Russian visas) - we walked up to the window, handed over our passports and $20 each and a stamp (like a postage stamp) was slapped into our passports. Then, we proceeded to immigration, where we sailed through - no landing cards to complete and no questions asked (not how long we were visiting, where we were staying, if we were here on business or holiday, etc.).

Blue MosqueWe got our bags, cleared customs and officially arrived in Istanbul! The hotel had arranged complimentary transportation - our driver was a very nice young man and he got us to the hotel in about 20 minutes. We are staying in the Sultanahmet, which is the most ancient area of the city. Our room overlooks the Hippodrome. The Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia (more about these later) are also both within a couple minutes walking distance.

After a short break to get settled in, we went out for a walk to see the immediate area. The mosques are really incredible - their domes and minarets dominate the "skyline". We had dinner in the hotel restaurant - it was so lovely. Mark had lamb and I had fish, which was served whole and on the bone, so I had to fillet it. We had baklava for dessert. It was absolutely gorgeous!! To finish the meal, we had apple tea. It is very similar to cider, but served warm and with sugar added. As with all tea here in Turkey, it is served in a small glass as opposed to a cup.

Soon after we sat down, the last call to prayer sounded from the Blue Mosque. The sound of the call is truly indescribable. It is quite lyrical and definitely spiritual - I certainly find it inspirational. Sitting outside in this beautiful city with the floodlit Blue Mosque at our doorstep made for a truly magical first evening in Turkey.

Haghia SophiaHaghia Sophia  MihrabSeptember 27, 2005
Breakfast is included with our stay at the Alzer and is served on the terrace on the 6th floor. The views are amazing! After a really nice breakfast, during which I had my first glass ever of cherry juice, we made our way to the Haghia Sophia, or the "Church of Holy Wisdom". It is more than 1400 years old, having been built during the 6th century. It was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian in 537. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque, adding the minarets, tombs and fountains. The picture to the right is of the mihrab, an ornate niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca.

Original 6th Century MosaicThe picture to the left is of the ceiling in the mosque. Under the archway, you can see what remains of the original 6th century golden mosaic.

Basilica CisternIn the afternoon, we went to the Basilica Cistern, a vast underground water cistern laid out by Justinian in 532 to satisfy the growing demands of the Great Palace. For a century after the conquest, the Ottomans did not know of the cistern's existence. It was rediscovered after people were found collecting water (and fish!) by lowering buckets through holes in their basements. In the depths of the cistern two of its massive columns rest on Medusa head bases. These bases are evidence of plundering by the Byzantines from earlier monuments. We both really enjoyed the cistern - it's undoubtedly one of the most unusual attraction we have visited anywhere in the world.

Base of ObeliskWe also stopped to explore the Hippodrome, the gigantic stadium at the heart of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. It is thought that the stadium held as many as 100,000 people for such events as chariot racing. Emperor Constantine adorned the central line of the stadium with obelisks and columns from Ancient Egypt and Greece. The oldest of those remaining is the Egyptian Obelisk, built in 1500 BC - it stood outside of Luxor until Constantine had it brought here in the 4th century. Can you imagine having something like an 1800 year-old obelisk transported from Egypt to Turkey just so you can use it to decorate a stadium?


September 28, 2005
We lingered over breakfast on the terrace this morning, just enjoying the views of the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. Then, we decided to take the city sightseeing tour bus. It is supposed to operate like a "hop on / hop off" bus, but there were only 2 stops. We decided to just go on around - the tour took about 95 minutes.

Overlooking the Golden HornMan Selling Pastries in TaksimThe route took us past the Topkapi Palace and across the Galata Bridge to the Asian Continent. The new city lies on the Asian side of the Bosphorous - it is very much like any other modern city except for the minarets appearing in the skyline. It was a very good chance for us to see more of Istanbul, away from the immediate area of the hotel (the old city). From a tourist perspective, most of the sights are centered around Sultanahmet, which is good in that everything is within walking distance from our hotel.


Living Like a Sultan
We toured Topkapi Palace Museum this afternoon and honestly, were a little disappointed. I think we expected something a bit grander and posher. The complex is huge and contains some beautiful tile work, but so much of the palace is closed to the public or subject to a separate entrance charge. We did pay the additional fee to see the Treasury - I really love looking at all of the jewels, thrones, etc. Also, there was a nice exhibit on imperial costumes but we felt that the exhibits on porcelain and armory were very lacking.

A few interesting items in the museum's collection include:
- The mantle once worn by the Prophet Mohammed. Visitors cannot actually enter the room in which it is stored; instead you look at it from an antechamber. And, you don't look at it exactly, you look at the gold chest in which it is stored. Night and day, holy men continuously chant passages from the Koran over the chest.
- The Topkapi dagger (1741), with three huge emeralds, among many other precious stones. Commissioned by the sultan, it was intended as a gift for the Shah of Persia, but he died before it reached him, and was brought back to Istanbul.
- The (purported) skull and arm bones (encased in a golden "arm") of St. John the Baptist.

As it was after 4:00, we decided to leave the Archaeological Museum for another day.

September 29, 2005
It rained overnight and continued well into the day today. We were at breakfast with several other people, and we all just lingered around until well after 10:00 (when they stop serving), as none of us were very motivated to leave the hotel, and after all, there was coffee left!

We spent the rest of the morning in our room trying to plan the next leg of our trip. I am returning to North America on Sunday for two weeks, but Mark is going to stay here in Europe, so we were searching for accommodations.

Mourning WomenThe rain let up just before 2:00 and we ventured out for a quick bite to eat at a local cafe and then on to the archaeological museum. We really enjoyed the museum, particularly the Alexander Sarcophagus, a fabulously carved marble tomb from the late 4th century BC, which is thought to have been built for King Abdalonymous of Sidon. It is called the Alexander Sarcophagus because its sides depict Alexander the Great winning a victory over the Persians. A similar, but less grand sarcophagus, the Sarcophagus of Mourning Women, isBabylonian Road shown at the left.

The museum also has an incredible collection of antiquities from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). Pride of place definitely goes to the monumental brick friezes from Babylon's main entrance, the Ishtar Gate, dating from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC).

I forgot to mention a couple of items yesterday. First is that there are a large number of free-roaming, tame cats in the city. They seem to make the rounds at the local restaurants, begging for scraps. One actually crawled right into my lap yesterday - but, I didn't have any food! Second is that everywhere we go (and I mean everywhere!), we are approached by Turkish individuals wanting to sell us anything and everything from postcards to Turkish carpets. As a result, we have dubbed one "alleyway" that we have frequently passed through as "the gauntlet" - there are so many little restaurants, cafes and shops along it and the proprietors all stand just outside of their establishments and "hawk" at you to come inside! Today, we figured out a route (which is a bit longer distance) to avoid running the gauntlet.

Our two favorite "lines" by Turkish entrepreneurs are:
- As we are exiting the Archaeological Museum - "Are you going to the Blue Mosque? No? Well, then now is the perfect time to sell you a carpet."
- As we are passing by a series of stalls - "Sir, Madam, please come in (said with a sweep of the arm pointing toward his establishment) and let me take your money."

Turkish Fabrics at Grand BazaarSeptember 30, 2005
Let me show you how it's doneWell, we couldn't put it off any longer - not if we wanted to buy souvenirs, so today, we took a deep breath and headed to the Grand Bazaar. Our tour book says "Nothing can prepare you for the Grand Bazaar" and that about sums it up. It is a covered labyrinth of shopping covering over 75 acres, a network of more than 60 streets and 4,400 stalls! And, at least 2,000 of them want to sell you a rug! After a relatively successful negotiation, I came away a couple hundred lira poorer, but with several beautiful items and I also managed to escape without purchasing a rug. (I didn't know Mark was taking this picture at the right - if you could read my mind, it was saying "give me that calculator, I'll show you how to calculate a 40% discount!)

Suleymaniye MosqueFrom the Grand Bazaar, we strolled through a few other shopping districts. The first district was predominantly clothes and shoes with a few stores carrying household linens. Then, we moved into the tableware district and finally, the cookware district. We have never seen so many stores filled with pots and pans - there had to be at least 200 (and surely we didn't see them all!).

We made our way to the Suleymaniye Mosque. It was built above the Golden Horn on the grounds of the old palace between 1550-1557. The grounds also contain the tomb of Suleyman (founder of the mosque), his daughter Mihrimab and his beloved wife, Roxelana.

This is my last night in Istanbul and we had a lovely meal here in the hotel restaurant. We shared a shrimp casserole to start - it was just a little spicy and really gorgeous. I had fish and Mark had chicken, both of which were really nice. We skipped dessert but I did have a glass of apple tea. A lovely end to my Turkish visit.

October 1, 2005
I left Istanbul today to return to North America for work. Before I left for the airport, we toured the Blue Mosque. It is just steps away from our hotel and the muezzin wakes us every morning at about 5:50 with the sunrise call to prayer. There must be 8 speakers on the minaret to broadcast the call - there is no way you can sleep through it! The Blue Mosque takes its name from the mostly blue Iznik (Turkey) tilework decorating its interior. It is truly lovely, although we think it is at its best when floodlit at night with seagulls circling its 6 minarets.

As I will be away for the next two weeks with the computer, there will be no further updates to the on-line journal until my return to Europe on the 17th. We'll let everyone know when we're back up and running.