Sunday, 2 September 2012

Return to Istanbul

Today we are at large in Istanbul, showing Alex the city Simon and I got to know rather better than expected thanks to the unpronounceable volcano in 2010. We've also arranged to meet Nefise for lunch. So we're up bright and early and even manage a formal breakfast in Windows befre Spirit docks at 9am. We're among the first ashore and make a beeline for the taxi rank but the driver quotes us a fixed price in Euros so we move on to the next rank. Here the driver agrees to use the meter but once we're in the car goes back on his word. Frustrated, we pile out of the car and head for the tram station.

It feels odd to be in a place that is both so exotic and yet familiar. We enjoy pointing out the landmarks to Alex as we trundle towards Sultanhameht; both the famous places and the ones that bcame significant to us. Once off the tram we walk briskly towards Topkapi Palace to beat the tour groups; a not entirely successful strategy as it's much busier than we remember.

We show Alex the palace, including the harem and the treasury that we nicknamed the Museum of Bling. He's particularly taken by the enormous diamond which, legend has it, was found on a rubbish dump and exchanged for 3 spoons by a street pedlar. By the time we finish there it's almost 12, so we head to the Hippodrome to meet Nefise.

We've decided to eat at the Grup restaurant where we and the Walters met every night for dinner after we got stuck. Nefise has brought a friend called Cihan who speaks excellent English. We have a most enjoyable lunch but are rather taken aback when Nefise and Cihan insist on paying - they are most insistent so we concede, but agree later to send a gift from England to say thankyou. They insist on walking us to the Blue Mosque - where Cihan explains that the chains draped under the entrance were to fordce the Sultan to bow as he entered - and we insist that they both let us return their hospitality in the future.
There is a massive queue for the infidel entrance to the mosque, so we settle for a stroll round the courtyard and move on to the cistern, stopping en route for a photo of Alex next to the sunken pillar that was our meeting point on our previous visit. There's a queue but it moves quickly and we're soon inside. Alex is fascinated by the fish, some of which are enormous. We work our way over to the back corner to see the two Medusa heads and speculate about how they came to be here; we agree that they and all the other columns were salvaged from other buildings.

We pass along the street behind Aghia Sophia to admire the traditional wooden houses, then take Alex to see the two hotels we stayed in before and visit the parrot from the Safir, who has moved to another hotel. He looks significantly more motheaten than I remember. Next stop is the New Mosque which is crowded but apparently more with Turks than tourists. A boy is dressed like a prince for his circumcision, playing happily with his sister, either oblivious to or resigned to the ordeal in store. The spice market behind is our next stop and Alex is captivated by the colours and aromas. Finally we go round he corner to the horticultural section which also includes baby rabbits, chicks and leeches.

We catch the tram back across the Galata bridge and return to the ship. As usual, the call goes out for latecomers to identify themselves. At our departure time the gangway has been stowed but one passenger is apparently still absent. Half an hour later we're still dockside, although it's unclear whether weare waiting for him or a gap in the traffic - it's a ridiculously busy waterway.
This is a port where our balcony really pays off: our view is of the two principal mosques and Topkapi Palace. We enjoy some marvellous views as we sail away and turn towards Asia. Later at dinner, Alex hails this as one of his standout days. Mine, too.

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