A continuation of my TopDeck Turkey diary. If you haven’t read the first post in the series yet go and start here.
The first full day of our TopDeck Travel tour and we were in for an early start. In order to see all the things our tour guide Alex wanted to show us before we left the bustling city of Istanbul we had to be ready to leave with our luggage in the tour bus by 7.30am… and it wouldn’t be the last time we had a working-day timed wakeup call on this trip. I’m not too bothered about early starts, though, which is a good job!
Our chariot for the week!
We took what seemed to be the long route into central Istanbul for our sightseeing tour, which gave Alex an opportunity to tell us a little bit about the day, something about himself, and a little bit about the culture of the Turkish people. It was interesting to see all the shops apart from the small grocers were closed as it was Sunday – no Sunday trading hours here. Once we were in the centre our sightseeing proper, making a beeline straight for the Blue Mosque as it gets very busy later in the day, before working our way around some of the other key cultural and historical buildings.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is a current and “working” mosque much like the Cathedrals back home, that tourists like me can simply wander in to have a look around. Well, I say wander in, but as you might imagine there are some cultural rules that you must follow in order to go inside, and a queue that takes you via a kiosk where they check you have fulfilled the requirements. In short, women, you should be covered up so the shape/lines of your body cannot be seen – loose fitting clothes, shoulders and knees covered, hair covered with a scarf. If you are deemed to be inappropriately dressed the mosque will provide you with a dress/scarf to put on over the top of what you are wearing – I admit everyone with the provided dress looked a bit like they were playing Mary in the nativity play. Being aware of the religious traditions I had come armed with a scarf to cover my hair and so didn’t have to wear one of the communal gowns, and although it felt a bit odd to be so covered, was very happy to partake so as not to cause offence or upset to those using the mosque for worship and prayer. Of course you must also remove your shoes before stepping inside (socks are fine).
Inside the Blue Mosque. Direction helping carpet and incredibly ornate decoration.
This famous and quite spectacular mosque is very ornate and beautiful inside, matching up with the outside which is covered in marble. I was intrigued to find out how everyone always prayed in the right direction (towards Mecca), and realised the carpet has darker red sections which show where to pray. Handy! There is space inside the Blue Mosque for 4,000 people to pray, and a further 3,000 outside, which is just incredible, what huge numbers! Women, of course, aren’t allowed to pray in the main sections with the men, they have to go up onto the gallery floor or behind the screens at the back; Alex explained that this wasn’t necessarily discrimination but more about modesty. Actually I learnt a lot about Islam, about the call to prayer, who Mohammed was, the fact they saw Jesus as a prophet with miracles but not the son of God, how Muslims are taught to live alongside those of other faith. As a Christian, in fact as anyone, going inside such a famous mosque was a very interesting experience and one that I would recommend to anyone. Just go and learn and understand the world around you.
There have been no blood sports in Turkey through history (they were more interested in saving Christians than sending them to the lions or Gladiators), so a hippodrome was built to allow chariot racing to take place. Alex did describe how it was the scene of a bloody massacre though, when 50,000 people were kettled into the stadium and killed there – nice. These days there are three monuments in the centre of the now-public-gardens, each with its own little quirk – an obelisk stolen from Egypt, a serpent without its heads (one is apparently in the British Museum) and a now naked obelisk built in Istanbul but without its brass plaques.
It was here I really started to notice the number of stray dogs and cats around. They are technically owned by the municipality, who tag them when they have had their vaccinations to keep the public safe. Incredibly tame, they would come and sit next to you or walk alongside you. And of course there were also lots of street vendors selling pretzels and corn on the cob. Mmmmm corn.
Gardens outside the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia, the other side of the Hippodrome from the Blue Mosque, was built as a church rebuilt from “recycled” stone and columns sent from all over the Empire including Egypt and Syria after that massacre in which it was all but destroyed. It was a very important church in its time, seen as a symbol of Christianity in that part of the world. However, after 700 years of trying, Muslims won the war against Christians in Istanbul and turned it into a mosque. They moved the altar slightly so it faced Mecca instead of Jerusalem, and so it would be difficult to turn it back into a church built some massive plaques that are bigger than the doors to hang on the walls. The Emperor has his own entrance, and there was a ramp (not stairs) to the top floor so the Empress could be carried up to the gallery area without an uncomfortable or bumpy ride!
Inside the Hagia Sophia – once a church, then a mosque, now a museum. Just huge.
Now a museum rather than a working mosque, Hagia Sophia is very beautiful and has lots of remnants of both the Christian and Muslim uses of the building. Frescos, mosaics and ornate decoration remain, and there is lots of restoration work to ensure it is there to tell its story for many more years to come. Costing 30 Turkish Lira to get in, we spent an hour or so listening to Alex tell us about the building and exploring the place on our own. Entrance fees are not included on a TopDeck tour so you have to find the cash each time, but it’s well worth going inside these places. Fascinating stuff.
Fresco inside Hagia Sophia.
The Emperor’s palace is on the top of the hill overlooking the Bosporus River, possibly one of the best views in Istanbul. It is absolutely massive and the 30 Turkish Lira it cost to get in could easily turn into a full day out.
It was built as a home for the Emperor and his family, but also for his army and big occasions too (the kitchen staff apparently fed thousands of people every day). It’s very ornate everywhere, lots of fancy pillars and marble cladding, it must have cost a lot to build! Most interesting to me were the relics that were on display, making it a bit like the Vatican in some ways. I took a look inside the “room of lies” as I heard someone call it – David’s sword, Moses’ staff, Abraham’s saucepan, Joseph’s turban, the arm and hand of John the Baptist, and the footprint of Mohammed. Naturally I can’t and won’t comment on the authenticity, but it was intriguing to see the respect these items were being given (another place to cover the hair) – an Imam sits and reads the Quran in there 24 hours a day. In another exhibit there were jewels perhaps more impressive than those in the Tower of London (only perhaps!); a box of emeralds caught my attention, it was like someone had picked a pile of pebbles up from Budleigh Salterton beach and chucked them in a box. So green and shiny!
Alex, who was able to explain things to us without us needing to pay for guide books or audio guides, explained a lot about the Ottoman Empire and the fact they were always at war and some were trained to fight with their bare hands rather than with weapons. I also learnt that Turkey had sided with the Germans in the World War I (still in the time of the Empire), but stayed neutral in WWII. They helped to rebuild Germany after both wars and are now compulsory friends. At the end of the Empire when they became a Republic they negotiated with UK and others to end war in their country, and as a result the Bosporus River is free to freight, meaning the only link between Black Sea and Europe can remain open for trade.
A cistern is basically a water store, but this particular one is absolutely massive and sits underneath a large chunk of Istanbul. Cisterns were needed in Istanbul as there is no natural water source, meaning these tanks were life savers to its people. This particular one was built with recycled columns again, brought from all over the Empire – it was fascinating to see the lovely ornate columns making up the structure that would effectively never be seen by anyone when finished, as it would be completely flooded with water. There were, for example, a couple of rather spectacular Medusa heads that were used as props for pillars, not even set the right way up! Costing 20 Lira to get in (just under a fiver) this one is a quick visit but well worth it, it’s strangely beautiful with the low lighting and shallow water.
Ornate pillars and Medusa heads inside the Basilica Cistern. Recycling.
Before we left on our bus for the first proper journey of the tour, I had lunch at a Kofte (meatball) place, got some traditional Turkish ice cream which is whipped rather than churned (I think), popped to a local market (open despite being a Sunday) for some important snacks and iced tea. Istanbul is a great city and I definitely could have spent a number of days wandering around and taking in more of what it had to offer. I definitely missed out on the funicular railway and Taksim Square, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market to name just a few. I shall need a return visit. I will be back.
Once settled on the bus and on our way we were given loads more information by our guide Alex, who was always full of stories and information to help us understand what we were experiencing. We drove over the Galata Bridge and then over the Bosphorus Bridge, taking us from Europe into Asia (a whole continent to tick off the bucket list!). The Asian side is actually quite different to the European side, which surprised me for some reason.
Heading over the Bosphorus Bridge / Bosphorus River on our way into Asia.
After about 1.5 hours we stopped at a motorway service station, which was actually a Burger King. I remember this one as there was a Bride and her wedding party all sat outside in the sunshine eating whoppers and the like, which was more than a little odd. Big white wedding dress, flower bouquets, nice sparkly shoes, tiaras and posh hair dos, men in suits with button holes, women in hats – what a bizarre place for a wedding reception.
Another hour on the road and we stopped for another break (plenty of stops, which is always good), this time for dinner. I had Gozleme, my first taste of this Turkish pancake type thing (and not my last during the week). From there it was more bus time to our hotel in Ankara, the capital city. It was about 4.5 hours travelling in total today, and after leaving Istanbul in the middle of the afternoon it was late when we arrived and we pretty much sorted out our things and went straight to bed. Thankfully our driver seems expert and keeps everything gentle; no sickness on our bus!
The first day on the tour was eye opening with regards to the history and culture I learnt, but also a great easy introduction to being a TopDecker. I went to bed happy that this was going to be a really great week.
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Thank you SO MUCH to TopDeck for inviting me to join them on the tour. TopDeck covered my flights and the tour itself in return for coverage here on Splodz Blogz, and I covered all other expenses (including food, entrance fees and excursions) myself. I definitely recommend this kind of travel to anyone who wants to explore somewhere new without any hassle. Take a look at the TopDeck website for the full range of tours available.