—5 May 2012—
We had a slightly later meeting time of 9:15 in the theater. Usual routine, with several buses required for the number of passengers who selected this most comprehensive tour. We were first for a new bus, so got seats right behind our guide, Hilda. The buses were the nicest and most comfortable we have experienced so far. The radio system was more upscale, too – 150€ to replace instead of the 80€ in Rome!
We went first to the Blue Mosque. An active mosque, we were required to remove our shoes. Glad I planned to wear socks! The tour provided us with disposable bags in which to place our shoes, which we carried with us during the tour. With one pair of Size 13’s, we had to pack our bag carefully, but it worked. We followed Hilda’s orange umbrella with the number 8 to the middle of the mosque, where she told us about the building and the muslim customs, as well as gave us some indoctrination on navigating hazards to tourists while in Istanbul. Her English was heavily accented and her fallback was French, but she enunciated with deliberation and was very understandable for the most part. It helped if I could see her while she was speaking.
Our next stop was the Grand Bazaar, and specifically the state-sponsored store for a rug preview and weaving demo. We were served tea and treated to a demonstration of the art of hand-tying rugs, and then given a dizzying glimpse of one beautiful rug after another, including a real flying rug! Well, one of them men presented it in such a way that it appeared to fly into the center of the display. It was so impressive, we fell for it! We bought 2 rugs – a 7’x10′ wool one and a 3’x5′ silk one. They tried to get me to buy jewelry, too, but I resisted.
We went to the quick food restaurant Hilda recommended and split a kabob wrap and a pastry made of angel hair, pistachios and sugar (baklava-like). We also tried a yogurt drink recommended by Hilda. Got it down, but it tasted like sour milk to me. 😦 We headed down the street in search of the covered part of the bazaar, turned back thinking we were heading the wrong direction, asked and learned that we hadn’t gone far enough, and retraced our steps. We only had a few minutes left. I was disappointed, expecting colorful tents, but this was a building with shop after shop of the same merchandise – jewelry, scarves, and cheap Turkish stuff aimed at tourists. We bought nothing. We returned to the appointed meeting place along with the rest of the group. Hilda was late. She finally appeared and led us to the corner to wait for our bus. Finally, we were on our way. Hilda had brought a sample of Turkish Delight candies to pass around, and then took orders for that and for apple tea. We ordered one of the latter for $8.00. (So glad we didn’t buy 4 candies for $25, because Jerry got 4 for $10 in Ephesus!)
On to the Hippodrome, once a Roman chariot racetrack and now a square, linking Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque; Hagia Sophia (meaning “Divine Wisdom), a great church built by Emperor Justinian, later a mosque and now a museum (according to Rick Steves, Paris’ Notre-Dame, or the Statue of Liberty without her torch, would fit under the dome); and the Basilica Cistern, a vast sixth-centurey subterranean water reservoir built with recycled Roman columns.
We returned to the ship with our sweets or tea in good time. There were rumblings from some who were, I thought, overly critical of Hilda, so I made sure to submit a favorable critique to the cruise excursion desk. We had our happy hour as the ship got underway and departed Istanbul, skipped Cruise Critics get together in favor of dinner at Raffles buffet, and went to the Rockin’ Music show… so-so.