In my most recent blog post, we embarked on a cruise throughout the Mediterranean. I’d love for you to continue the adventure with us as we head to Istanbul, Turkey and the beautiful Greek island of, Lesbos. I’ll finalize our voyage in an upcoming post that will include the final ports of call and some more stories about our shipboard life.
“Oh, tell me… tell me all about it!”
When I last left you, we had visited Venice, Olympia and Athens. By this point in the cruise, we really hit our stride and had fully immersed ourselves in everything Holland America’sNieuw Amsterdam had to offer. We were overeating delicious food (and then trying to work some of it off in their state-of-the-art gym), spending time in the casino (maybe too much time… literally every casino worker knew me by name), taking in shows and making friends all over the ship. We found a couple of other families with small children, but for the most part – we were in the minority (not fitting into your typical “cruise-goer” demographic). I’ll tell you what… if you ever want affirmation about your kids cuteness – go on a cruise with thousands of grandparents missing their grandkids. They were all so happy to pay us compliments about Julia that it made us excited to take her anywhere on board.
Julia made friends wherever she went
She gained a large following of fans
That grew the longer we were on board
Midway through the cruise, we arrived in Istanbul, Turkey. This was to be the only port mid-voyage that had an overnight stay, allowing us two days to explore the massive city. To describe Istanbul as “massive” is underselling it. The city boasts a population of nearly 14 million people in the urban area alone and is ranked as the second largest city in the world ranked by population within city limits [source]. It is the only city in the world that stretches across two continents (Europe and Asia). Istanbul is home to over 3,000 mosques and welcomes nearly 12 million visitors each year. These are just a few of the fun facts about this amazing city, so yeah… massive really undersold it! If only there was some sort of book… kind of like a dictionary… that would give you alternate versions for specific words…
When we got off the ship on the first day, we took a bus directly to the Grand Bazaar. This location was ideal, because it would afford us the time we wanted to shop and then walk around that particular area of the city. We walked through the gates of the Grand Bazaar and our mouths dropped. I still remember the first time I went to a flea market. My great aunt Barbara took me to a market in New York when I was 8 years old. I was awestruck by all the amazing things that could be found with just a little looking. She bought me a brand new GIJoe Cobra Stun vehicle that I probably still have in a basement somewhere to this day. If I could reconstruct that image of my first market in my mind, with all my boyish enthusiasm and multiply it by a hundred – it couldn’t reach the level of awe I found myself in as a man standing in the Grand Bazaar. You can even factor in the fact that I had a wife repeatedly telling me, “I’m ready to shop – make sure you have plenty of Euro’s handy” weighing on my mind!
Main Gate of the Grand Bazaar
Shops extend around the outside of Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is like nothing we’ve ever seen. It is an enclosed market that ranks among the oldest in the world. 61 city streets house 3,000 shops that eagerly accept the money of up to 400,000 visitors every single day. This does not include the open air markets that have been built around the Bazaar and dominate many more city streets. Originally, each shopkeeper was allotted a 6′ or 8′ dolap (stall) in which to showcase their wares, the finest of which were kept hidden in drawers. The market was erected after the Ottoman Empire between 1455 and 1460. It reached it’s final form in the 17th century and not much has changed since. The main reason for the collective, enclosed space were to prevent against theft, fire and uprising. Even though the Turkish Lira is the currency of the country, merchants accept US dollars, Euros or Turkish Lira.
Jen and Julia enter the Grand Bazaar
Some teas for sale
The Turkish nargile (hookah) became popular during the Ottoman Empire
Jen and Julia with a Turkish flag behind them
Julia was fascinated with the beautiful lamps
Jen and I pause for a picture in the market
We didn’t notice any food vendors or restaurants inside the Bazaar – it turns out, the merchants have been bringing their lunches in boxes called sefertas for hundreds of years. However, they can get simple dishes like döner kebabs delivered right to their stalls (although, it’s more common for one of the merchants to bring back lunch for the entire shop). What I did notice quite a bit (and became somewhat fascinated with) was the bustling tea delivery business. Turkish tea is a huge part of the culture throughout the country. Tea is most often consumed in Turkish households – offering it to guests is a part of Turkish hospitality. It’s no different in the Bazaar; the custom of drinking tea blends the important tradition hospitality with the other main component for drinking the tea – the social congregation of men. Tea runners (as I was calling them) would skillfully whisk past the crowds and deliver un-spilled tea by balancing the cups on a tray with a long handle. What fascinated me the most was that I never saw any money exchanged for the tea. I imagined the tea runners marking how much tea a merchant drank and collecting on the tab at the end of the week. I have searched the internet to prove or disprove my theory of a “tab” system – but I could not find anything. Any Turkish merchants or Tea Salesmen reading this – please weigh in.
Guys like these would run all over the market, delivering tea
*photo credit – flickr: photographer unknown
We spent hours navigating the maze that is the Grand Bazaar before we realized the sun was setting. Our intention was to walk the city around after we’d shopped. We had the flexibility to stay out as long as we liked because our ship wasn’t leaving until the next day; although we agreed that we were ready to head “home” for the night and set out early the next day. It turns out that it was a good thing we did! The ship was hosting a Turkish Taraf – a poolside party complete with live music, a Turkish belly-dancer, exotic drinks and spicy kebabs. An outdoor pool party is always a great thing, but if you have the shimmering city lights and uplight mosques of Istanbul framing the backdrop (and did I mention the belly-dancer), there is no greater party combination in the world (this is coming from the guy that was basically the President of Parties in college).
A variety of wine was served at the party – live band in the background
The Blue Mosque at night
The quarter moon looked exactly like quarter moon on the Turkish flag
They were grilling authentic Turkish food
The belly dancer takes the stage
She recruited guests to help her move and move their own hips
The pool was decorated with lights
The crew dressed the part
The scenery was beautiful
The next day we got an early start – with so much of the city left to take in, we wanted to get in as much as physically possible. We decided we would try to beat most of the crowds and start with the mosque’s. Specifically, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – which sit opposite one another. We only ended up touring the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – or Blue Mosque, as it’s commonly called due to it’s blue tiles that adorn the inside walls. The mosque’s construction began in 1609 when it was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I to not just rival the Hagia Sophia, but to surpass it. The mosque has an unprecedented six minarets (still the only mosque in Istanbul with six to this day), which garnished the wrath of the public. The display of six minarets was preserved for the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca – therefore the Sultan was criticized for incorrectly thinking that he was the man. The prevailing urban legend is that there was a miscommunication in which the Sultan told his architect he wanted gold minarets (altin minare) and the architect understood six minarets (alti minare). Seems fishy to me – sounds like he concocted a scapegoat to shift the heat off himself. Ultimately, he corrected the situation by shelling out the dough to build a seventh minaret on the Prophet’s mosque in Mecca. Whatever the correct history, it was fascinating to absorb in the first person.
We started our day before the city really woke up – just shop keepers setting up
Sulton Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque)
Approaching the mosque
We had fun playing in front of a fountain
Julia steals my hat – I guess she wanted to block the sun
Hagia Sophia Mosque
All female visitors are required to wear proper garments
The ceiling and some of the blue tiles that are the reason for the nickname, Blue Mosque
The mosque sees a large number of visitors every day
It’s impossible not to gaze upward at the amazing display of over 20,000 handmade tiles
Jen and Julia in the mosque
Family photo in the mosque
Another family photo
After the mosque tour, we headed northeast by foot to the Topkapi Palace. The palace was the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. To this day, the residence consumes more land mass along the shoreline than any other single property and has been deemed by UNESCO as “the best example of ensembles of places of the Ottoman period.” We were very excited to see the palace, but unfortunately it was closed and so we had to settle for a stroll through the public gardens.
Inside the gardens of the Topkapi Palace
This unique tree appeared as if it had tattoos
After a long walk to our next destination, we first wanted to stop and have lunch. I had been dying for one thing since arriving in Turkey – a döner kebab. We found a restaurant that looked perfect and ducked inside for lunch. Just prior to walking in, we heard the adhan, called out by the muezzin from mosques across the city – amplified by loudspeakers. More commonly known in English as the call to prayer, this unique chant is called out five times a day, summoning Muslims for mandatory worship. After lunch we entered the famous Spice Bazaar – the center for spice trade in Istanbul. The market is the city’s second largest covered market behind the Grand Bazaar.
Döner kebab – a mixture of meat, usually veal and or beef with lamb and sometimes chicken
The only thing better than a freshly made döner kebab is one that you slice yourself!
Entering the Spice Bazaar
Merchants showcase their wares, including the ever-popular, Turkish Delight
Here you can find most all spices, from hot curry to sweet paprika
The markets in Istanbul seemed endless – this is departing the Spice Bazaar
The ship hosted another party, this time a “sail away” party that included wonderful wine
As well as delectable and authentic treats
After our trip to the bustling city of Istanbul, a little bit of unplugging was just what we needed. We easily accomplished this on the island of Lesbos, Greece. This Greek island in the northern part of the Aegean Sea is Greece’s third largest, with a bustling capital (Mytilene) and 200 miles of coast line). Some ports were too small for our monolithic cruise ship, and so we had to use the tender system. All large cruise ships are equipped with smaller boats that can transport passengers from the ship to land when arriving in smaller ports of call. Generally, you are assigned a group number (depending on how quickly you arrive to collect it) and then send ashore in that order. Surprisingly, we arrived fairly early and got to shore just in time to snatch up one of the few remaining tiki huts on the beach. After that, it was clear sailing – nothing but relaxing and sitting in the crystal clear water. Oh, and one more thing… skipping stones. The ocean was just full of perfect stone-skipping rocks. I could easily average six skips but got as high as fourteen skips – the crowing achievement of the day, only to be topped by making the final table at the Casino’s Blackjack Tournament later that night.
We rode in the tender to get to Lesbos
A view of our boat from the tranquil setting under our beach umbrella
Julia poses for a picture
Skipping rocks with Daddy
Julia wanted to try on her now – she almost got the hang of it
The water was so clear it was fun to just soak
The sun wore Julia out – she was asleep on the ride back
Two beers and a cigar – oh man, oh man! Relaxing on the ship as we sail away
I’m posing for a picture with my girl, little did I know what she was up to under my hat!
Blackjack tournament final table. Got knocked out doubling down on 10 against a dealer 6. It would have given me an unbeatable chip stack with three hands left. The winner had no idea what he was doing which put me on tilt
The casino would send up desserts and bottles of wine with their compliments. Perhaps I was too frequent of a visitor??
We still have plenty more adventure to come… please tune back in to the final section of our cruise in the next post.