Topkapi Palace was built in the fifteenth century and was the sultan’s residence for 400 years. It was here that all the nation’s intrigues and decisions took place.
We only had enough time and energy for a whizz round the palace – a great shame given its evident splendour. Blame this on the Galata water supply which reversed our plans for the day.
We concentrated limited resources on visiting the harem, which Jude remembered as special from her visit about 20 years ago. The visit starts strangely: you go down steps, underground, to the eunuchs’ guardrooms, including a prison room with bars. Things then get grander and more beautiful as you pass through to the limited number of the many rooms of the harem open to the public. There is a sense of a highly organised community, with the concubines apparently leading a life of some pleasure, with the sultan’s mother in charge. What I had not appreciated was that the harem had two meanings: not only the place of the concubines, but also the private quarters for the sultan’s household – his wives, children and relatives – as well as chosen courtiers.
So many beautiful blue tiles in the harem
Sultan's room in harem
Veiled woman carries the phone on a long stick, usually used by tourists for selfies
Our first view of Topkapi Palace had been from our boat. The vast palace complex dominated the peninsula of the Old City, with a welcome and rare oasis of green gardens and inviting white buildings. these more than lived up to their promise. Pity we did not have enough time and, in my case, energy to do them proper justice.
Afterwards Ed took the usual combination of tram and then walk uphill to get back, while we took a taxi with probably the worst driver ever. He weaved in and out of traffic, talking into his mobile phone, lighting cigarettes, taking prohibited U turns (fairly common) and leaning across my seat to call out to friends on the other side of the road (without slowing down). When he braked abruptly, jolting Jude and the children in the back, Jude the Stern took over and reprimanded him firmly. She said afterwards that she was on the point of abandoning the taxi.
So, on to the Grand Bazaar with its 66 streets. A feast of colour.
An awful lot of predictable tat, but some stalls I wouldn’t have minded stopping at – except the slightest pause in your footsteps and you are prey.
Ed was the first – willing – victim. I discovered he has a love of ceramics and bought a couple of handsome bowls. Then it was my turn: some place mats and coasters.
Not wishing to tire the children we pressed on – except we passed endless Turkish delight and nougat stalls. And at each one the children were offered something to eat. Often people leant over to stroke their hair and exclaim at them. There is a definite dearth of European visitors and the two children with their near blond hair stand out like magnets. They also appreciated Maddie’s enthusiasm for the sweets.
I too had thought I did not like Turkish Delight but discovered there are many which taste more like nougat than the sweet jelly like concoctions.
Finally we tore ourselves away and crossed the Old Town again for the final treasure to visit: Topkapi Palace.
This morning there was still no water. That settled it: today’s schedule had to be rejigged to start with a visit to a hamam.
Jude had found that the Suleymaniye was just for families. So we off we set, not really knowing what to expect.
This hamam was designed in the 16th century by Sinan, probably Istanbul’s greatest architect.
We entered the big entrance hall and were ushered up to carpeted changing rooms. Ed emerged dressed in a bath towel, Jude had put on the shorts and bikini top provided, covered with drapes. One look at the size of the bikini top and i opted for my swimming costume as the foundation garment.
We passed through a couple of ante chambers, each progressively warmer, to the heart of the hamam: a beautiful room with the heated slab as the centrepiece.
There we sweated it out for about half an hour, hopefully sweating out the toxins, periodically sluicing bowls of water over ourselves and each other.
By the end I was definitely feeling a bit overcome. So was Ella, who stuck it out but did not add it to her list of favourite experiences.
Then the (male) attendants arrived: a strong serious Asian for Ed, a good looking young man for Jude and a kindly, considerate one for me. Ed was ushered off to a different chamber while Jude and I adjourned to another (children are not allowed to be treated)
Feeling like a lump of meat, I was helped into my marble slab and the attend rubbed, scrubbed and washed me head to toe in a mass of lather. At this point (whenJude was covered in lather) Maddie, suddenly and justifiably announced she wanted out. The young attendant saved the day by dousing the girls in a sack of foam – and better still carried out the much needed hair wash effortlessly.
Washed, rinsed and squeaky clean we adjourned to the cooler if the warm rooms and finished with drinks all round.
A strange experience and undoubtedly laid on for tourists, but I’m glad to have done it once, in a beautiful building In service as a himam for centuries.
Time for lunch before tackling the next activity. We took potluck on a cafe which turned out to be distinctly tacky and language barriers caused confusion. But the view of the Bosporus was good, the food not bad (though we had no idea what we had ordered) and Ella and Maddie loved their ice creams.
Yesterday was mainly for the grownups. A day of – what Ella says, with an air of patient resignation – sightseeing. Today was a day for everybody, a day on a boat.
This was the luxury day of the holiday: six hours on our very own motor launch. The kind I have always dreamed of having (that is when I graduated from dreams of sailing boats to something easier to control). Apart from a luxury dining cabin which we never used, there was ample seating outside and, better still, a large sun deck above (which I could only get to when the boat was calm).
We were looked after very professionally by a steward called Attila, who was discreetly helpful as I struggled with my balance.
One of the more mortifying and distressing aspects of this trip is realising how lack of balance – exacerbated by non functioning knees and ankle – is becoming a serious issue. I was further hampered when climbing ladders on a rocking boat by not being able to grab things with my right hand.
It was another glorious sunny day as we whizzed out, passing the famous sight of Galata Tower on our left and on our right, the giant Süleymaniye Mosque, then the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and finally Topkapi Palace, which we have not yet visited. And as we came out into the Bosporus opposite was Asian Istanbul, stretched out as far as we could see on the left. This trip reinforced our sense of the sheer size of Istanbul- 15 million people living in one of the world’s five most populated metropolitan areas (actually a taxi driver has just insisted 20 million plus 3 million foreigners (Syrians etc).
We were heading out to the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.
Ella, in particular, was in seventh heaven and soon wanted to clamber along the side, to be right in the bows. Maddie of course wanted to follow, escorted by Ed, and the three of them spent much of the outward trip there, getting pretty drenched and causing me some nervous anxiety (I have never liked being with children in danger of falling off cliffs or being swept out to sea.)
Two cool girls wait for tram to where boat will arrive
Hospital on Asian side
Station on Asian side
Maddie: it doesn't matter if I fall in. I have a life jacket. Anyhow, I can swim.
Looking through the cabin to Ed and the girls in the bows
Ella on upper deck
Ella on upper deck
We headed for Büyükada, the largest of the islands (I was disappointed not to see the house where Trotsky lived).
We landed at the Turkish equivalent of a seaside resort, complete with Italian ices, and opted to use our limited time ashore on a pony and cart trip rather than lunch.
If you can ignore the undernourished look of the two ponies nobly dragging the five of us up and down the coastal route, it was quite a jolly trip.
Me looking manic as I try to avoid closed eyes
The island was apparently originally a holiday resort for rich Greek and Jewish families, and certainly some of the houses were large and comfortable. We were struck by the number of clapboard houses, reminiscent of American colonial or Wild West films. Then, just time to grab a huge and delicious ice cream corner and our crew arrived to take us back on board.
The next stop was to a picturesque cove so Ed and Ella could have a swim!
Attila weighed the anchor and then set up a ladder into the water at the stern. After an initial hesitation until Ella was persuaded the jellyfish were harmless, they both jumped in – and declared the temperature as warmer than the St Laurent le Minier (our benchmark for I y water). Maddie tried to follow suit and bravely got into the water, but quickly declared it too cold.
Reassured the jellyfish are harmless, Ella jumps
Maddie goes down - but then decides it is too cold
The two swam round the boat and then Ella asked for the landing board to be lowered. She would have been jumping off this all day, but it was time to set back.
This time we passed along the Asian side. As well as a complex of docks we saw some huge army barracks which are, I think, the site of the hospital set up by Florence Nightingale.
Then back to the familiar landmarks – the various palaces and mosques. Maddie is particularly proud of her ability to spot Galata Tower.
Only fly in the ointment of a wonderful day: there was no water in our appartment.
After a late lunch, we packed in yet another visit: to the Spice Market. Built in the 17th, with elegant vaulted roofs, this bazaar is an intoxicating feast of colours and smells. Spices compete for attention with Turkish delight, olives, nuts, fruit and coffee.
We resisted their allure and, wilting, return to the now familiar comfort of Galata Tower.
Today we visited Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The grownups were blown away by their magnificence, the children less so … …
This time we took care to arrive early and hired a guide, partly to fast-track the queues.
Hagia Sophia is an intriguing mix of church and mosque, the decoration and functionality of the two eras now completely intertwined.
It was originally a church, built in the sixth century. We started the tour under gigantic arches which made me think of the Colysseum in Rome. Then, through gloriously decorated inner colonnades we were first taken to the upper galleries, where we were shown some splendid Byzantine mosaic scenes, many either covered over in the later Islamic period or the faces blanked out. Out of the windows we caught enchanting glimpses of the Blue Mosque, and through the arches into the church/mosque, even more breathtaking glimpses of the main nave, which we then went down to visit.
The sheer size, with its gigantic central dome is a tribute to the engineering skill of its (Greek) architects.Following the 15th century Ottoman conquest of the city, the church became a mosque, with appropriate modifications. A Nihrab was added (just off centre, in order to face Mecca) and outside, of course, four minarets.
As we walked across towards the Blue Mosque, we looked back, taking yet more photos. I must say that before coming I had never heard of Hagia Sophia. Now I know it is a jewel equal to the Blue Mosque.
Once within the precincts of the Blue Mosque, I put on my headscarf. Jude was provided with headscarf, another to cover her shoulders and a skirt to cover her immodestly short dress! The girls were delighted to be able to dress up with headscarves also.
The Blue Mosque, or rather the Sultanahmet Camil, is breathtaking : huge domes and half domes supported by four enormous columns, and everything covered by the most beautiful hand decorated tiles – 20000 of them. The wow factor when entering was almost as much as when I saw the Taj Mahal.
We completed our visit to the wonders of Sultanahmet by going underground, for a tour of the Basilica Cistern, built by Constantine. The Romans were always good at plumbing, and this complex was designed to hold 80,000 cubic metres of water. It is architecturally impressive, with 336 columns built in rows, nowadays atmospherically illuminated .
Jude and Ed have rented an AirBnB apartment for four days. It is a stone’s throw from Galata Tower, on a Hill the other side of the river from the old city where I have been living.
It is a spacious quirky apartment, with its own hamam (not yet tried out). The family arrived just after me, somewhat dazed by the long journey and, in Jude and Ed’s case a ridiculous fortnight of nonstop court work.
Just the moment to explore the roof terrace several floors above, with drinks and nibbles. The children loved the space, while we basked in the afternoon sun, marvelling at the views of the old city in front and the Asian side of Istanbul to one side, and everywhere glistening water. Behind us was the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese colony in the 14th century.
Ella and Maddie treat the rooftop as a big stage.
Hazy view across the water to Hagia Sophia
Almost as high up as top of Galata Tower
We are in the Beyoğlu district here, the centre for trendy shops and active nightlife . So supper at a restaurant buzzing with life was far removed from the little corner places I have been frequenting in the Old Town. It was quite late when we returned to our flat the children were tired, but amazingly well behaved during the meal.
Istanbul has a mind boggling number of mosques. Perhaps the two most important are Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque).
I had promised Jude I would not go into the Blue Mosque before she arrived. But I thought I would visit Hagia Sophia this morning. This was first a Greek Orthodox Church, then a mosque and now a museum
Well, that was my plan. But my start was too leisurely and I found a queue – including hundreds of school children – snaking round the square.
So instead I decided to stroll around, drinking in the splendour of this amazing park. At first it was the splendour of the gigantic, red walled Hagia Sophia that took my breath away.
Then I reluctantly turned away from it – and was seduced by the white shimmering domed roof and six delicate tall minarets of the Blue Mosque, beckoning from the other end of the long esplanade.
i was not the only one captivated apart from the inevitable Japanese and Korean tourists, most admiring these monuments appeared to me to be Turkish. But when I offered to take a photo of a young girl with her mother and aunt, it turned out that they were from Algeria. It was the girl’s first visit, but the two older women had been to Istanbul several times why, I asked, had they perhaps family here? No, they loved the beauty of the place and it’s central role in world history.
I walked on, to the esplanade beside the Blue Mosque, with further monuments and buildings I was particularly taken with a large red building with remarkably few windows.
This turned out to be the early 16th Ibrahim Pasha Palace. (Ibrahim Pasha and the Sultan had been best friends, but Ibrahim got complacent, had grandiose ideas (like the building of this palace) and the Sultan ordered his execution.
Then time to get back to my hotel and checkout before going to meet Jude and family
As I am here for just over a week, I can afford to take a day to recover.
First stop was the office to report the absence of tumbler in my room, the more disconcerting absence of water half-way through my shower, and to pay the ten euros I could not find at midnight.
I found this budget hotel TT Guest Rooms on Booking.com and I will give it five stars. I’m paying 31 euros a night for a clean, spacious room, which turned out to be quiet after midnight and in the morning, 200 metres from the main thoroughfare and tram stop, and from one of the Old Town landmarks: the column of Constantine.
Perhaps it’s biggest asset is its general manager, Yašar. He is genuinely a good support to passing travellers. He sorted out the missing tumblers, explained the water problem was works going on in the street, explained where to get an Istanbulkart, the equivalent of an Oyster public transport card and stressed that I should call his mobile any time I had a query.
I did just that at lunchtime, asking for advice about a local cheap lunch place serving Turkish food. He told me where to go and appeared a few minutes later to instruct the manager to give me a plate with a selection of dishes. Not the best Turkish food I have eaten, but close to the hotel and a fascinating experience. Yašar explained it was where all the locals went for a quick lunch. I was surrounded by men tucking into huge plates of food at the equivalent of Formica tables (no other women, but I am used to this from my Indian travels). Everyone was drinking Ayran, a cold yogurt drink which I also enjoyed. I shared the table with a friendly young man who asked “where are you from?” And then apologized because he knew no more English.
When I met Ašar in the morning he ordered me some tea, and I, to make conversation, asked if the portrait on the wall was Atatürk. It was, and I replied what a great man he had been. This opened the floodgates. Ašar explained that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had basically created modern Turkey, introducing many new laws and practices, including the establishment of family, surnames. And he in turn was given the surname Atatürk, meaning “Father of the Turks”.
I asked Ašar how to say ‘Thank you’ in Turkish. When I struggled over the long ‘teşekkür ederim’ he added I could use the shorter Arabic ‘شكرا’ (which I remember from my brief attempt at learning the language.
Does that mean there are links between the two languages, or that lots of people also speak Arabic, I asked. No, said Ašar, it is that people have some knowledge of Arabic from reading the Koran. He recalled how as a boy of about twelve he was sent away during the school holidays to a school whose aim was to teach the boys how to read and study the Koran.
i asked if there was ever a move to translate the Koran into Turkish. Yes, this was apparently one of the proposals of Atatürk, but Muslim opposition led to this being dropped .
Time to get moving, so I made my way up the steep hill to one of the main roads through the Old City, Yeničeriler Caddesi, (you can see why I’m struggling to remember Turkish words). The road itself is a tramway and on either side there is a jumble of little shops and stalls
I stopped at one stage to admire the lovely mosque on the other side of the road.
An elderly shopkeeper, speaking good English, offered me a stool to sit on (I was walking with my stick) . I declined but added I was admiring the beauty of the mosque. The right thing to say: he turned out to be a devout Muslim and spoke eloquently of the purity of Muslim architecture and went on to explain how the whole of life needed to be focused on Allah, even in one’s dreams. I sought to neutralise the situation I said I was personally not a believer but thought it important to listen and try to understand others, and to understand how we could all live in harmony this seemed to please him, and I said good bye.
i wandered along the road to the Column of Constantine, erected in the 4th century AD (now a battered relic) to officially commemorate the city of Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) as the capital of the Roman Empire.
I was attracted by the sight of not just one mosque, but another in the distance
As the day wore on I became increasingly aware of just how many mosques there are from my hotel bedroom I hear what seem to be three competing calls to prayer, their loudspeaker systems ensuring maximum coverage.
But just now I was walking towards one of the largest, the splendid, baroque Nuruosmaniye Camii Mosque next to the Grand Bazaar (which I am instructed not to visit before Jude and family arrive tomorrow).
I spent quite a while admiring its splendid harmony and in the afternoon – after buying a scarf (forgot to put one in my bag) went inside, where I would have loved to take photos too.
View down from mosque towards bazaar entrance
View down from mosque towards bazaar entrance
My other big activity of the day was people watching, at best when sitting in front of a baklava and strong cup of Turkish coffee – both very delicious. (This was my mid-morning breakfast). I was struck by the tremendous variety of dress among the women: Many were veiled, but others looking just as they would anywhere in the modern world. I got the impression of a people very much at ease with themselves. There were, as I would expect, many more men than women.
What contact I have had has been friendly and courteous the man who sold me the tram ticket, for example, came out of his booth and showed me how to top up my Istanbulkart. Others from who I have asked directions have spoken no English but taken the trouble to point out where I should go – and greeted me like a friend later in the day.
Even the men trying to sell me tourist stuff have not persisted (maybe this will change in the bazaar) there have been one or two huge Asian tourist groups, obediently following the leader with his flag. I asked one woman where her group came from: Korea. But I am struck by how few European tourists I have seen so far. They are mainly young couples so far no children that will change tomorrow, when my two grandchildren arrive!
The journey took twelve hours door to door, and I arrived towards midnight, feeling distinctly limp.
I took my time driving to Marseille, but luckily I had left lots of time before checking in. I needed it, as it took 40 minutes to deal with parking. I had prereserved in a long-term car park, referred to as P7. After three circuits of a complex network of roundabouts, still no sign of P7 – just P1, P2, P3 and P4 – I finally spoke in the intercom of one of these to get directions, by which time I was fizzing.
P7 was of course the furthest end to terminal 1, where my blood pressure was not improved by incredibly long queues to check in and then to get through security. The actual journey calmed me down: Turkish Airline staff were good and we were served a free meal and drinks (bit different from the money grubbing on Easyjet).
Istanbul Airport was very modern, but the scene outside the baggage area reminded me of India, with a chaotic mixture of taxi drivers and touts.
Luckily I had prebooked and drove to my hotel in solitary state in an eight seater, and paid half what appears the going rate. My first night-time impression of Istanbul was of avenues of ultra modern blocks, until we reached the old historic center where I was staying.
i collapsed in my comfortable but too warm bedroom, relieved to have arrived