Istanbul: Entering a spectacular metropolis by sea

After disembarkation, our morning itinerary hit the high spots, all in walking distance of one another:

Decorative ceilings and walls inside the Blue Mosque. Not all tiles really are blue.

The floors are covered with carpets, providing comfort to those praying at floor level — and to visitors who also must remove their shoes. The gargantuan carpets are machine made these days.

The mosque is supported by huge pillars, and our guide said they were built with wood on the inside because wood is flexible and can give under the pressure of an earthquake, important in earthquake-prone Istanbul.

• Topkapi, a word that means Cannon Gate, dates from the 15th to the 19th centuries and is a walled complex of buildings with three gates, each of which leads into a sizeable courtyard.

Visitors relax in a courtyard of the former Ottoman sultans’ residence, Topkapi Palace. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle in the background houses relics linked to the Prophet Mohammed and other religious relics.

Nowadays, anyone can walk though the first gate, which gives access to what amounts to a public park, with pathways, flowers, trees, a restaurant, also a very old Greek church.


An outdoor cafe in the outermost courtyard at Topkapi Palace. This courtyard is open at no charge and functions like a public park.

Visitors need tickets and will pass through security, with X-ray machines as at an airport, at the second gate. This second courtyard includes the kitchens and the divan or meeting site for the sultan’s council. It is a little like a public park, too.

In the third courtyard, we found long lines of visitors waiting their turn to enter palace buildings that are now museums with displays that include one of the world’s largest diamonds and a number of religious relics, some said to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed.

I skipped the museums. I have seen them, but also it was a beautiful sunny day for a walk beyond the third courtyard (on a path with no gate) to the fourth courtyard. In this last open space, there are great views of Istanbul on one side. On the other side, Konyali Topkapi Palace Restaurant overlooks the Bosporus.

The one-day cruise excursion did not allow time for another large piece of the Topkapi complex, the harem. A second entry ticket is required to visit its numerous little rooms and courtyards.

The entire Topkapi Palace Museum covers more than 11 acres.

The rosy exterior of the Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest church.

After the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque in the 15th century, the mosaics were covered in plaster; they have been gradually re-exposed since the building became a museum in the 1920s.

Hagia Sophia is looking a little better these days, now that a

major restoration has been completed. When I visited in 2008,

Mosaic seen on entering Hagia Sophia. A Byzantine emperor is shown bowing before Christ.

scaffolding rose to the huge dome that covers the nave.

Interior surfaces are covered in multicolored marble, and the golden mosaics are a wonder. Also, the building has a dramatic rosy exterior.

However, the dark interior — although a marvel of sixth century architecture — is fascinating, very important historically and hard to love.

Our next destination, also in walking distance, was the Basilica Cistern, an underground reservoir that dates from Roman times. A lighted path built over the water takes visitors from the entry to exit. The cistern tells much about the Roman way of life, but seems an odd way to remember the Roman Empire.

From here, we drove to our lunch site, located on a pleasant pedestrian street called Nuruosmaniye. No one ever heard

Nuruosmaniye, a walking street in central Istanbul. The entrance to the Grand Bazaar is at one end.

of that, but it leads into Istanbul’s fabled Grand Bazaar.

As I wrote in my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, the city’s Grand Bazaar, a covered shopping mall nearly 550 years old, has 80 streets, 4,000 shops and 22 entrances.

I have shopped there and the results are easy to spot in my home. The most charming mementoes are porcelain coasters and bowls decorated in willowy red and blue tulips.

Our Istanbul guide said the tulip was the symbol of the Ottomans because the flower is shaped like the word for Allah when it is written in Arabic.

Our word tulip originates from the Turkish word tulbent, meaning turban, and the flower itself made its way to Europe from Turkey.

With that in mind, our last hour in Istanbul offered still another opportunity to admire carpets, artistically rendered tulips and other things quintessentially Turkish. The bazaar’s very eager merchants can be tedious though.

The author, Nadine Godwin, is the author of  Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler. The Grand Bazaar and the story of the tulip are both featured with nearly 700 other items in the text.

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