We are off again on another adventure, this time to Turkey and Greece for three weeks. These are two countries that we have not yet visited so we are looking forward to this trip. We are also travelling with our good friend Faye J. This trip was organized by a travel agent that Faye uses for her many travels. This is different for us, as normally, I do all the organizing and a lot of what we decide to do happens when we arrive in a country. We will have some free time as well as many organized tours.
We left Calgary on May 29th and flew to Istanbul via Amsterdam. The first part of the trip is in Turkey for twelve days and continues on to Greece for the remainder of our trip. Itinerary for Turkey is Istanbul, Cappadocia area, Izmir/Sirince/Ephesus, Bodrum, a cruise on a goulet and back to Istanbul for a flight to Athens.
In Greece, we will spend time in Athens, then onto the island of Crete where we will be in Chania and Heraklion. Would have liked to see more of the Greek Islands, but you never know, there may be another Greece trip in the future.
First of all a little history of Turkey. It has the oldest known human settlement (7500 BC) and is said to be the “cradle” of the world’s oldest civilizations. It presently has a population of some 80 million people.
Turkey is a peninsula, surrounded by three seas: the Black Sea on the north side, the Aegean Sea on the west side and the Mediterranean Sea on the south side. As of 2019 the U.N.estimates the population of Turkey to be 82.8 million. The capital of Turkey is Ankara.
The following information was taken from the CIA Worldbook site, which I refer to when doing research on countries that we are visiting.
“The Turkish Government conducted a referendum in April 2017 in which voters approved constitutional amendments changing Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. The amendments went into effect fully following the presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2018.
Turkey is a land rich in natural resources some of which are coal, iron ore, copper, chromium, antimony, mercury, gold, barite, borate, celestite (strontium), emery, feldspar, limestone, magnesite, marble, perlite, pumice, pyrites (sulfur), clay, arable land, hydropower.
The country is among the world’s leading producers of agricultural products (50% of the land is agricultural) ; textiles; motor vehicles, transportation equipment; construction materials; consumer electronics and home appliances.”
Turkey is divided into seven geographical regions and each has particular foods, accents and folklore.
Since 2018 the country has suffered a decline in its economy due to some of the political views/turmoil, some terrorist attacks and actions on interest rates.
Found these little known facts of Turkey on a postcard that our travel agent gave us.
– Turks gave the Dutch their famous tulips
– Selcuk near Ephesus is the city where the Virgin Mary spent her last days. I know we will see Ephesus, so not sure if Selcuk is on the itinerary.
– The first church built by man (St. Peter’s Church) is in Antioch.
– The Temple of Artemis and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus are two of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
We flew from Calgary via Amsterdam to Istanbul and arrived about 4:30 pm, a long day. We were met at the airport by our guide Yasemin, who will be with us during the next 3 days. Istanbul built a new airport about 3 years ago and it is very large and modern and about a 40 minute drive to our hotel; which is located in the old part of the city.
Driving to the hotel we cross the Bosphorus Strait which separates the Asian and European sides of the City. Our hotel is located on the European side. There are 3 suspension bridges crossing the strait.
The city of Istanbul is the only city in the world located on two continents, Europe and Asia. It sits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Some 20% of Turkey’s population lives in Istanbul and it’s present population is 16 million. 65% live on the European side and 35% reside on the Asian side of the City. The average age of the population is 32 years of age, so very young when compared to other major cities in the world. Due to the huge population and the growth of Istanbul over the centuries, most of the green areas and trees in the city have been cut down for development sake. Jasmine tells us that the locals say that if they see a green area in the city, it is either military or cemetery!
On our way to the hotel, Yasemin also mentioned that Istanbul is the 5th most crowded city in the world. 99% of the population in the city are Muslim and it is presently Ramadan and will end on Monday evening. There are also Armenian Christians, Greek Orthodox and about 20,000 of the Jewish faith. She also told us that the city has 3,000 mosques, 300 churches and 22 synagogues. Driving in we saw many, many minarets and mosques. The country is a secular society where state and religious institutions are separate. When a couple gets married, there must first be a civil wedding and if they wish, a religious celebration may follow.
The city has one overall mayor and 39 district mayors with counsels. You may have followed the news regarding the mayoralty election here in Istanbul over a month ago. The election was deemed to have had some issues and the outcome was declared invalid by the present Turkish government. It was reported that the government did not like the outcome (the winner was not of the existing ruling government, but someone more liberal), so has called a subsequent election for June 23rd. This also happened in the capital, Ankara and in Izmir; both large cities. Our guide tells us that she feels that due to this situation, more people will come out and vote and that the outcome will be the same and she is actually hoping for a larger majority. As you can guess she is liberal minded. It is felt that the present State government is felt to be very conservative idealogies.
Most of the industries that I mentioned before are located in the Istanbul area. Jasmine confirmed that major industries are car manufacturing (Fiat, Mercedes Benz, Toyota, Citroen, etc.), textile and leather goods manufacturing (Hilfiger, Armani, Burberry, etc.) and the third main source of revenue is tourism. Tourism did take a hit a few years ago due to several terrorist attacks.
Yasemin told us that the minimum wage is about 400 Euro per month, so this low cost of labour is a benefit to the manufacturing sector. The main agricultural area is in the Aegean and Mediterranean areas of the country. Cotton is one of the main crops which is used in the textile industry. Unfortunately the country still deals with an unofficial unemployment rate of 12%.
The transportation in Istanbul is excellent. They have an underground, even with one line running under the Sea of Marmara which joins the Asian and European sides. A light rail transit system, trains and ferries. Jasmine tells us that it is very economical to use the public transit system and people are encouraged to use it to help lower the number of vehicles on the road. Taxis abound on all the streets.
Turkey does have four seasons. Yasemin indicated that on occasion even Istanbul gets snow; but it usually melts as soon as it lands. In the north part of the country they can get huge amounts of snow and at times the children don’t attend school for weeks at a time due to the amount of snow.
On our drive in from the airport we also see part of a Roman Aqueduct built in the 7th Century by the Romans. They also built a system of cistern’s to hold the water. The aqueduct no longer functions and neither do the cistern’s. Some of the cistern’s are so large, they are used to day for functions. Also see some of the ancient walls along the way in the Sultanahmet area, near our hotel.
We had read that when in Turkey we should use bottled water and Yasemin did confirm this. She indicated that the water from the taps is only to be used for bathing or washing clothes. The city grew so fast and the officials weren’t able to deal with the infrastructure needed to deal with a proper water system.
Even the best hotels do not have potable water. Our hotel provides bottled water in the rooms. The thing that bothers us the most is all the plastic…..what on earth do they do with it. We even have problems in Canada with recycling our plastic and we probably don’t use half the plastic they do here. What a pity!
Our hotel is located in the Sultanahmet district, which is the old part of the city. We finally arrive at the hotel around 5:30 pm and we are all very tired. We take time to unpack and freshen up and head out for dinner. As we are walking around trying to get our bearings, we pass by many restaurants. Outside all the restaurants there are men trying to beckon you into their establishments. These guys are so quick and have the greatest lines. When I kept walking by one and shook my head no, his response was “You are breaking my heart”. None of us are too hungry as we were well fed on our flights. We opt for a small restaurant where we share a few appetizers. Cold beers enjoyed by Faye and Robin and I opt for a glass of wine.
Jet lag keeps me up for part of the night, but Robin doesn’t ever having problems sleeping. He always tells me that is because he has “pure thoughts and a clear conscience!”. Since it is Ramadan, there is a call to prayer at 3:30 in the morning…..yes a.m. Good thing I was awake. After the call to prayers, the dogs started barking! The Muslims are supposed to be fasting in daylight hours during Ramadan, so that is why the prayers take place so early, so that they can eat after the prayers but before sunrise. Normally the Muslims are called to prayer five times a day. Women are also allowed in Mosque, in a separate area, but not on Fridays; as this is only for men. Our guide tells us that most practicing Muslim women pray at home.
Yasemin has told us that not all Muslim’s fast nowadays and many even drink alcohol and smoke on a regular basis. I guess that this would be similar to non-practicing Catholics. Must say that they are very liberal when it comes to Ramadan here in Turkey; the shops and restaurants are all open, liquor is available and all historical venues are also open. We were in Morocco once during Ramadan and everything was shut down.
On Friday morning, Robin, Faye and I head out to discover our neighbourhood. This area is know for its old wooden built homes which date back to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. A lot of them have been restored as homes, while others turned into small hotels. Some of them are very well taken care of and restored, while some have been allowed to fall into disrepair, which is unfortunate.
We continue on our way, simply walking down streets randomly and come across the Small Haghia Sophia mosque and continue on and find the small Arasta Bazaar which is located just below the Blue Mosque. We stop at the first bazaar shop we see….so like a tourist!. It is a chocolate, dried fruit and tea shop; who can resist. A young man waits on us and he spots that we have bought a box of green tea in a plastic bag that I am holding. We had stopped at a small corner store to buy the green tea. I always find it amazing how observant these merchants can be and that they pick up on the slightest clue. He tells us that loose tea is much better for you and proceeds to show us his teas. All the teas are on shelves and in drawers and he picks up a paddle full of the tea so that you can smell it. He gave us a sample of pomegranate tea which was simply delicious. Below is a picture of the loose teas as they were so colourful, all natural ingredients.
He then sells Robin some nice dark chocolate nuggets filled with coffee flavoured filling. Faye tries the chocolate/hazelnut log and cannot believe the flavours. She resists buying any, which is hard; as hazelnuts are her favourite. The young salesman tries to sell her some but she insists that she would gain weight if she ate all of this chocolate. He then tells her that he can also sell her a diuretic slimming tea, so she can buy the chocolate and the tea and therefore enjoy the chocolate and not gain weight! You would have to see this young man. He told us he was from Syria and was tall and very thin. Faye told him he didn’t need the tea and could eat all the chocolate he wanted!
We continue wandering down the mall and come across a Turkish towel shop that has a Canadian flag hanging in the window. Needless to say, we have to go in. Both Faye and I have indulged in purchasing Turkish towels back in Canada and we both say that once you have used a turkish towel, you will never go back. What a lovely shop, it belongs to a Canadian lady who lives in Turkey. We consider buying some bed coverings, but decide to wait. They will ship to Canada as do most shops. Such a lovely variety of Hamann and Turkish bath towels….hard to resist.
We make our way back to our hotel as we have our first tour this afternoon with our guide. On the way to the ferry terminal, we stop at Taksim (meaning “to distribute water”) square. In ancient times the square was used to “distribute water” to the citizens of the area. The Republic Monument is situated here. Turkey gained its independence in 1923. Taksim is a busy nightlife, shopping, dining district and is the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, which is lined with 19th-century buildings housing international shopping chains, movie theaters and cafes. Many embassies located in this area as well. We also note the construction of a new mosque just off the square and Yasemin says that the locals did not want the mosque built in this area, not sure why, but they lost their cause.
Today, the square is surrounded by police fencing and some very serious looking police riot vehicles, water cannon guns and lots of police presence. The square was the location of the 2013 anti-government demonstrations and concerns exist that there might be trouble on this anniversary day. Not something we would see at home!.
We make our way to the boat/ferry terminal in the harbour and we begin the trip on the Golden Horn, which was the original port during the Byzantine period. Legend has it that the Golden Horn name comes from the fact that this is where the trading of goods took place and gold was the currency used. Another story is that the name comes from the color of the water at sunset as it shines with a gold color because of the reflection of the sun.
Once we leave the harbour, we cruise into the Bosphorus strait. Sailing on water is a great way to see the skyline of a city. The Bosphorus is the body of water that joins the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Lots of large transport ships use this shipping lane. We are told that ships travel in one direction for eight hours and the other direction for the next eight hours. By the way, the Sea of Marmara joins the Aegean Sea which eventually joins the Mediterranean. I actually had to look up a map of the region to get my bearings and that finally made sense. We begin by sailing under the Bosphorus bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges and view the beautiful wooden mansions along both shores. Yasemin told us that one Russian tanker lost control some time ago and smashed into one of the mansions. No one was injured…..can you imagine seeing a bigger tanker coming toward you while you are having coffee in your living room!
Along the shore the beautiful Dolmabahce Palace is a striking building. It was built in the 19th century and was the administration centre of the Ottoman Empire.
In the distance on one of the hills of the city, we can see the Galata Tower. This is one of Istanbul’s most recognized symbols. It was first built of wood as a lighthouse in 528AD and was originally called the Great Tower. At one time the tower was damaged and was rebuilt in stone in the 1200’s.
We pass a couple of islands on which one stands the Maiden’s Tower. According to one myth it was built by an emperor to protect his daughter who he saw die of a snakebite in a dream. It is said that his efforts proved futile as a snake hid itself in a fruit basket and bit her anyway. Today it is a restaurant.
We spend a couple of hours touring and following are just some of the views from the ferry.
On the way back to the old town, we discuss the education system. In schools, the children first learn Turkish and some then decide to take another language (french, english, german, etc). When it comes to high school; two choices are available. Private schools or public schools. One must write an exam and they need to excel. If the child does well they can attend a private school and it is paid for by the government. If your child does not do well in the exams you have two choices…attend a private school and pay or attend a public school. Yasmin tells us that the education offered in the public schools is basic and that it is much better if one can attend the private schools. There are some 40 Universities in the city of Istanbul.
The new government has changed the laws and children are not mandated to go to school after grade 4. This horrifies Yasemin, as does us. She feels that this is one of the many laws that the new government has changed in trying to bring the country backward vs progressing into modern society. Knowledge is power!
We drive through the Nisantasi Tesvikiye neighbourhood which has very high end shopping and home sell for two to three million U.S. dollars as they have a view of the Bosphorus.
We visit the Basilica Underground Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. It is nicknamed “The Sunken Palace” due to all the columns and was built in the 6th century. It provided the water needs of the imperial palace and other residents living in the area and later used as a water source for the Topkapi Palace gardens. It is supported by 336 columns and the cistern could hold up to 100,000 tons of water ( 3 million cubic feet). The columns are not identical as they were taken from older buildings that were no longer in use. Some are in the Doric style and others Corinthian. One column draws special attention due to engraved pictures resembling eyes and tears. It is said these tears pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern.
There are also a couple columns with sculptures of Medusa on the pedestals of the pillars. These are said to be guardians of the cistern.
At some point, the cistern was no longer and use and during renovation work that took place between 1985-87, 50,000 tons of mud were taken out and walking platforms were placed in the cistern and opened to the public for viewing.
Some of you might recognize the cistern as it has been the location of several movies including the James Bond “From Russia with Love” and in the “Inferno” with Tom Hanks. The cistern normally has some water in it with fish abounding. It is presently undergoing some restoration so the water has been emptied. It is often used for concerts and private functions. It is hard to describe how huge this place really is.
We walk to the Hippodrome, where chariot races used to take place. It could hold up to 100,000 people. It is now a public square which hosts many events. Along the square there are 2 columns and 1 obelisk.
Our first day has been full and we are hot and tired. Decide to head up to the terrace on the top of our hotel to have a “cold one”. I am not normally a beer drinker, but with this hot weather the beer is going down very well.
Below is a view from our terrace and in the distance you can see all the tankers waiting to cross the Bosphorus.
At supper we were given a complimentary desert of “Kunefe/Kanafeh” which is made with a thin noodle like pastry which is soaked in syrup and layered with cheese and some nuts. It was followed by a glass of “raki” which is a sweetened anise flavoured liqueur….wouldn’t want too many of these, goes straight to one’s head.
In a corner of the terrace, I noticed a baby seagull. The waiter told us that the mother hated him, every time he approached the mother would start squawking and sure enough that did happen. Quite amusing to watch as he would walk back and forth. We mentioned that Turkish was a hard language and that we were even having a hard time with the simplest of phrases. He told us that after 10 beer we would be able to understand the Turkish language!
Once again today I was taken aback when a shopkeeper in the market spoke to me in French. Seems to happen to me all over the world; makes me proud of my french heritage. Faye made an observation that all of the people working in the shops are men. For the most part this is very true, we have seen very few women working in the shops.
We head out early for our second day of touring with Yasemin. Our first stop is the Blue Mosque. To enter the Blue Mosque, women must be dressed modestly and their heads must be covered. Men must wear long pants. We were aware of this and dressed appropriately but for those that did not, there was a small shop that rented long skirts (for both women and men) and scarves for women.
The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616. It’s official name is Sultan Ahmed Mosque (commissioned by him) but is known as the Blue Mosque due to it’s 21,000 hand made blue tiles in the interior. A nice interior courtyard before one enters the mosque. It has 260 windows. As with a lot of historical sites, the mosque is undergoing a restoration, so some areas were closed off. This did not take away from its’ beauty.
One of the most distinctive elements of this Istanbul mosque is that it has six minarets, as opposed to the usual two or four of most of the city’s mosques. In the history of the Blue Mosque, legend has it that this is because of a misunderstanding – when the Sultan decreed there should be altın minare (gold minarets), the architect heard altı minare (six minarets). This caused some controversy, as the only other mosque with six minarets at that time was the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca – a problem the sultan overcame by ordering a seventh to be added in Mecca. Our guide told us that some believe that the architect did this on purpose to save money!
On the tiles, the images are those taken from nature, such as flowers or geometric designs. There are no pictures of humans or animals as the Koran indicates that Muslims are to pray directly to God. For this reason one will never see any statues in a mosque.
Tourists can only access the mosque at certain times as it is still used for Muslim prayers on a daily basis. Yasemin tells us of the five pillars of Islam
1) God is one and Mohamed is the prophet
2) One must pray five times a day
3) One must fast during Ramadan
4) One must go to Mecca at least once in a lifetime
5) One must be charitable
It is believed that it is better to go to Mecca at an older age; as your sins are forgiven. When you go to Mecca you cannot borrow money to go and you must leave money behind for your family.
Some of the elements of a mosque are the minaret (where the muezzin calls people to prayer), the mihrab (a niche that shows the direction one should pray), the minbar (where the Friday sermon is given) . Men pray on the rug in the main part of the mosque and the women pray behind screens or on the second level.
I should apologize to my Muslim friends if any of my writings regarding the Muslim faith is incorrect.
Our next stop is the Hagia Sophia, which is just some 500 metres from the Blue Mosque. This was a former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum. Built in AD 537 at the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was famous in particular for its massive dome; which is 56 metres high. The amazing thing is that this building incorporates not only Muslim symbols, but Christian ones as well. In our travels, this is the first time we see this. The readers may recall that we visited the Andalusia province of Spain last year and many mosques converted to churches and vice versa. but every time a church was converted to a mosques, all the Christian symbols would be removed and the same applied when a mosque was converted; it would only have Christian symbols.
Partial Christian mosaics can still be seen on the second floor of the Museum. Beautiful gardens surround the property.
It has flying buttresses to support the structure; an outer and inner narthex and a cistern was built under the church to stabilize it in case of earthquakes.
There are two resident cats at the Hagia Sophia museum. One is called Gli and has slightly crossed eyes and has its own Instagram account with 12,400 followers. Gli just sits there while everyone takes his picture…..possibly looking for more followers!
Yasemin asks us if we want to go see some turkish carpets and we all agree. She tells us that the shop we are about to see is very famous; the owner will spend time with us, explain how the carpets are made and show us various carpet styles. He does not pressure anyone to buy anything. Upon entering the shop, we are shown how the carpets are woven. There is a lady who is weaving and we are told that it can take any where from 1 to 2 years to weave an average size rug, depending on the pattern. This lady’s fingers are moving so fast, we an hardly see what she is doing. She is weaving a carpet with silk fibres, such beautiful colours. Faye tries her hand and does one knot….so somewhere out there in the future, there will be a carpet with one know done by Faye. We are offered tea and are shown various carpets. Robin and I succumb to the beauty of these handcrafted carpets as does Faye. Carpets are being shipped home!
Turks were nomads and lived in tents. They made woven rugs to sleep on and used natural substances to dye their carpets.
Off to the 15th century Grand Bazaar which is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops on a total area of 30,700 square metres and 22 different gates. The vendors sell leather goods, jewellery (mainly Armenian designs), turkish rugs, scarves (silk and pashmina), ceramics, lamps, antique shops, silver and souvenirs. Hang on to your wallets!
Oh….some fake silk scarves as well. Why do I know this? Yasemin takes us to her favourite “ethical” vendors. In one scarf shop we enter, she introduces us to the owner and I start to look at the silk scarves. He tells me that these really aren’t silk and brings me to the inside of his shop to look at the “real silk” scarves. I was telling Faye that it is nice to go to these places with a guide as she takes you to the reputable vendors. I kind of smile when I write this as I wonder if this vendor would have tried to sell me the “not so silk scarf” had we not been with Yasemin! Oh well….I am now the owner of a beautiful pashmina….like a need another one!
We make our way to Topkapi Palace. The following is taken from their official web site:
“Topkapı Palace was not only the residence of the Ottoman sultans, but also the administrative and educational centre of the state. Initially constructed between 1460 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and expanded upon and altered many times throughout its long history, the palace served as the home of the Ottoman sultans and their court until the middle of the 19th century. In the early 1850s, the palace became inadequate to the requirements of state ceremonies and protocol, and so the sultans moved to Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the Bosphorus.“
There are four courtyards in the palace compound; but each one was for a certain group of people in the palace. For example the Sultan and family had their own courtyard, with a swimming pool, then the Harem had theirs, etc. Each group also had their own turkish bath, their own kitchen and eating area.
We were also told that the Mother Queen was also a very important figure, especially if the new Sultan was young. She also would have had her own quarters. 36 Sultans ruled during the Ottoman Empire.
By the way, I learnt that the word Harem meant “forbidden”. In other words, the harem women were forbidden to men, except for the Sultan that is. It is said that the Sultan had his favourites and the favourites had their own suite of rooms and their own garden, of course. The women of the harem were served by Eunuchs, normally young black boys that had been castrated. In some instances they were also deaf and mute; that way they could not report what they had seen or heard.
Yasemin told us we really must watch some Turkish shows on Netflix…Magnificent and Kuzgun. Must look these up! Tried to look them up, but the internet in the cave hotel in Cappadocia is not that great.
We visited the Justice Tower, the clock room and then the arms/armour room. In the justice tower, there was a screen in the upper wall and it is said that the Sultan would sit there and listen to what the counsel was discussing.
We then visit the royal kitchens. Apparently they could serve up to 3,000 at one time.
Stopped for lunch in a restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus. Always so nice to see all the boat traffic, beautiful setting. I finally tried Serber, a cherry drink; it is sold in markets, in restaurants and from street vendors. The drink is made of pomegranate, ginger, raspberry, tamarin, cherry, strawberry, rose water, rose-hip, cinnamon and carnation. Must say it was very refreshing in this heat and I have had it a few more times.
Yasemin takes us to one of her favourite restaurants near the spice market. We took the tram from the palace to get there. We told her that we just wanted something light to eat. We shared Igli Koftl (a meatball made of lamb, bulgar and walnuts) Lahmacun (Turkish pizza) and Fistikli Kebap (kebab with lamb, beef and pistachio). Pistachios are grown and Turkey and is widely used in cooking. Great views of the harbour.
Talking of food, I love the fresh fruit I am enjoying every morning for breakfast, along with their Turkish yogurt. Have also tried Cigara Boregi – a deep fried pastry rolled up to look like a cigar, stuffed with cheese….very yummy!
Our last stop is the Spice Market, which was built in 1664. On the outside are all the spice vendors and the inside shops are selling dried fruit, teas and very similar goods to the Grand Bazaar. Needless to say, one finds Turkish Delight everywhere. I am not a fan of this confectionary, so have not indulged.
We finish our tour with Yasemin and we take the tram with her back to our hotel. She has been a delight and had made our time in Istanbul quite memorable. We feel that we have only scratched the surface of this vibrant city and wished we could have spent more time discovering the many museums, market and experience daily life in this wonderful place.