Family Cruise Diary: Istanbul, Turkey and a day at sea
Posted on October 30, 2010 at 11:56am Madrid / 5:56am Cincinnati by Kelly Larbes
Tuesday, October 5 – Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul became my favorite port before we even docked. We didn’t dock until noon so it gave us plenty of time to sleep in and watch us sail through Bosphorus, the Istanbul Strait that connects the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea with the Black Sea. It is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. Its shores are densely populated on both sides with the city of Istanbul. It was fabulous seeing all of the mosques rise majestically from the compact clutter of buildings.
Our family’s first stop in Istanbul was Mom’s pick: the Suleymaniye Hamam, a beautiful Turkish bath built in 1557. We found our way there winding through the maze of streets in Spice Market using Kyleen’s GPS, a birthday gift from her parents which she loaded with Turkey maps including outstanding walking directions (and public transportation directions — it had lots of fun features). Once at the hamam we changed into our swimsuits, hamam-provided towels, and silly uncomfortable clogs. We were directed into the main haman room where we were tortured and pampered for the next hour and a half.
The first step was detox: we sat and layed on a hot marble stone slab under an impressive dome sweating all of our insides away. The heat was generated by logs of wood burnt in the furnace, and not electricity. It was 140°F and I had never felt anything like it in my life. Sweat continuously streamed from my pores and the dome seemed to sway a bit as I tried to decide if I might pass out. I didn’t. I wondered if people ever did and thought how people die in this kind of heat.
Jay convinced me to lie down and relax. For a few seconds it felt like the skin on my back was going to sizzle, but I grew accustomed to it. I relaxed a bit as I stared at rays of light from the small holes in the ceiling of the dome.
No one can ever convince my Dad to relax, so it was a lost cause in the heat of the hamam. There were several small galleries off the main dome used for the massages. Most were empty, so Dad paced back and fourth walking wherever he could. He had the men’s changing room key around his wrist and we could hear his anxious jingle wherever he walked.
After what seemed like hours, and was actually a very long 40 minutes, it was our turn for the massage. There were four masseuses and six of us. Mom and I took one for the team and stayed in the heat 20 minutes longer and watched as the others got doused in water, covered in soap suds, and rubbed into a relaxed stupor. I prayed that the water was cold and a thumbs up from Jay indicated it was.
It was finally our turn. Mom and I were led to the same room and directed to sit on the floor next to our massage table and a faucet continually pouring water into a basin that the masseuses used during the massage. As the masseuses left to direct the rest of the family to a changing area, I quickly plunged my arms into the nice cool water and threw as much as I could onto my body as it overflowed the basin. Mom laughed at me and waited patiently.
When my masseuse returned he used a bowl to poor the water all over me. It felt glorious. He used a bristled mitt to scrub and scour my body of all its dead skin. Then he poured more cool water. He directed me to the marble massage table and used soap suds and strong hands for a wonderful muscle relaxing massage. I felt unhinged from my head to my toes. My skin was so soft and smooth. I would say it was the best massage I’ve ever had, but I don’t know if that is fair to say since I was tortured with heat first. It was definitely the most memorable spa experience I’ve had.
Afterwards we were wrapped tightly in towels and joined the rest of the family in a room for water and relaxing. There was one other couple there and we talked about their travels with them. It really is a small world; the guy was from Wapakoneta, Ohio. I wanted to ask him if he knew Kent from So You Think You Can Dance, but it seemed unlikely since he hadn’t lived there in years. We did confirm that he knew of Kent on the show, at least. The couple was traveling with Disney on Ice; I also wanted to ask them which characters they played. My excitement from the So You Think You Can Dance reference and Disney on Ice was making me feel like a real nerd, so I mostly kept to myself enjoying my relaxed stupor.
We eventually plied ourselves from the cushions, changed, and headed out into the chaos of Istanbul. We visited Galeta Tower for the best view of Istanbul. It was crowded, but we made it to the top at the perfect time to see the city and the sun setting.
Wednesday, October 6 – Istanbul, Turkey
Today was a sightseeing-packed adventure. Everywhere was crowded, but it never felt like the Disneyland disarray of Athens or Rome. We started at Topkapi Palace and on Kevin’s instructions headed straight to the Imperial Harem to beat the crowds. It was a good idea because we had many of the rooms to ourselves to enjoy the magnificent opulence and intricate tile work. The harem was home to all women who lived and worked in the Palace and they usually numbered over 1000. The Sultan’s mother was the queen bee here and often reigned mercilessly. It was amazingly decorated, but came with a twisted ugly history of concubines, slaves, stranglings, drownings, and more. Few girls who entered the harem ever left again.
The rest of the buildings on the palace grounds followed a similar style to the harem with magnificent tiles and amazing domes. The Imperial Treasury stood out with its vast collection of artworks and ridiculously large jewels belonging to the Ottoman dynasty. The most valuable was an 86-carat pear shaped diamond.
After a picnic lunch in the park-like setting at the entrance, we made our way to Hagia Sophia, a towering mosque-like structure. It was inaugurated in 360 AD and served as the cathedral of for over 1000 years. Later, it was converted into a mosque for about 500 years and most recently opened as a museum in 1935. It is famous in particular for its massive dome (182 feet tall) and is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It was the largest cathedral in the world for its first 1000 years until the completion of the the cathedral in Seville, Spain in 1520.
On the walls we saw a mix of different mosaics from various centuries. The most memorable decorations were gigantic circular-framed disks hung on the columns in the mid-1800s with Arabic inscriptions on them. These made the Hagia Sophia very identifiable when it appeared momentarily in an awesome movie we recently watched called The Fall (click here for the trailer).
Next was The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia aren’t far apart and there was a small pretty park in the middle that offered a beautiful views of both. Built in the 1600s, the Blue Mosque is still a practicing mosque, but is now also a popular tourist attraction. I couldn’t imagine trying to pray there with all of the tourist commotion. The interior was beautifully decorated, but it lacked the tranquility of less visited mosques like we visited in Sarajevo.
We made a quick visit to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It was much cleaner and more organized than I expected, but not so clean that we weren’t ripped off by a dirty vendor. Jay and Dad both wanted a t-shirt and needed a size L. We only saw an L and an XL of the style we liked, so we asked the vendor if he had another size L. He asked us to wait and he returned with another size L folded and sealed in it “original” clear plastic wrapping. We bought both and moved on, only to realize once we were back on the ship that he had taken us for fools and succeeded. He had simply opened the bag, colored in the white X on the black tag with permanent marker, carefully repackaged the shirt and sold us an XL as a L. It would’ve been nearly impossible to distinguish it in the the dimness of the bazaar without opening the package and the vendor clearly knew this. We were angry for a second, but couldn’t do much more than laugh at the discovery. Luckily we were able to shrink it in the dryer and it fits just fine.
The day out ended with a boat ride on the Bosphorus giving us a closer look of the mosques and elegant homes that lined the banks of the strait. The regality and conspicuous display of wealth in the homes along the banks took me for surprise in Istanbul. Many were swanky and beautiful. We watched them go by from the roof of the boat, but eventually watched from the windows downstairs as the air grew colder and the wind stronger. It started to rain just as we left the boat and it was the perfect time to head back to our ship.
Thursday, October 7 – Day at Sea
We were ready for a relaxing day at sea after our long day of sightseeing in Istanbul. We slept in just late enough to get our favorite breakfast waffles; the ship had amazing waffles that we ate every morning — addicting! I spent most of the day reading, working on a blog entry, and playing ping pong. My friends from my old job at Landor would be proud of my improved ping pong skills. In the afternoon we played trivia and got last place, which we attributed to the abundance of “old people” questions catering to the majority population on the cruise.
The evening was another formal night and more delicious food. After dinner we went to the ship’s theater for a Broadway-themed show and I was unexpectedly impressed with the singers. They sang a few of my favorite Broadway numbers, including “Seasons of Love” from Rent. It always leaves me with a smile.