Wednesday 9th December
When I was growing up there were three series of computer games I was addicted to, Championship Manager, The Sim City series and Age Of Empires. I believed that once I was older and no longer had to go to school I could stay up late and divide my time amongst all three creating the best football team, city and civilisation respectively. Reality is of course rather different and two of the three have been consigned to memory (my urge to play what is now Football Manager occasionally gets to much).
Age of Empires was arguably my favourite of the three and it was playing the series I first heard of the Byzantines (my civilisation of choice) and their great capital city Constantinople. The Roman Empire which had grown to big split in AD395 and whilst the Western half of Europe gradually fell in to the dark ages the Eastern half survived. Byzantium prospered and slowly expanded with Constantinople becoming the Imperial centre previously held by Rome. The Empire lasted until the great walls of Constantinople were finally breached by Mehmet II in 1453. The legacy Mehmet II left would have made even the Great Caesar nod with respect and the Ottoman Empire lasted until the end of the First World War when it was finally broken up.
Turkey took on more significance when on my travels I made long lasting friendships with Australians and New Zealanders who had visited Gallipoli and specifically Anzac Cove, the Ill fated Allied landing site of 1915. I had already started planning a trip to Turkey (further fuelled with encouragement from Lucy) when in February 2015 after receiving some junk mail I’d got in a magazine I noticed a hugely discounted tour around the time I wanted to go. It seemed to good to be true and did some research to confirm the company was legit. The deal was for two people though I was fairly sure I could find someone to travel with. Sure enough Marcus an old work colleague and looking to catch the travel bug took up the offer though once booked we had to wait nearly 10 months until we actually left.
The flight was 17.20 and I don’t remember ever having a flight at such a civilised time and almost made me too relaxed on the way to the airport (a bit of edge adds to the adventure). As we were going to Turkey we had an extra check at the departure gate and then I had a full body search before my coke (bottle) I had forgotten about was confiscated. Marcus, the relative newbie to travel made no such mistake and had also mastered packing light, something I have still failed to achieve.
I had never heard of Freebird our airline and first impressions were not great when the TV screen froze during the safety video forcing the air hostesses to do it manually. During the (admittedly) bumpy take off I quickly settled in to napping, reading and blog writing whilst Marcus clutched the seat before falling asleep for the duration waking up every now and then to claim he was resting his eyes.
We landed on time but we were a big group, it seemed everyone on the flight was on the tour and there were 12 coaches in total though most including ours were admittedly only half full. It did however mean that it took well over an hour before we actually left the airport and then were delayed further because some people had boarded the wrong bus. On the way our guide Volkan provided us with details and eventually we arrived at the hotel where we had a welcome drink and a light snack because no one had eaten dinner.
Marcus and I went to the room and unpacked, both gradually realising items we’d left behind before finally turning off lights around 3am. We knew we and everyone on the tour would only get a few hours sleep because we had to be up at 6.30am.
Thursday 10th December
After waking up and showering we went down to breakfast. There was a big selection including a really nice chocolate pastry, chicken sausages with scrambled egg and various cheeses. By the time we boarded the coach my stomach felt well stocked for the day ahead.
Volkan gave lots of facts as we passed various ancient structures on our way from our hotel to the old town including a Roman Aqueduct. The highlight of the journey for me was seeing my first glimpse of the Great Walls of Constantinople. Volkan also told us about the Hippodrome which had a capacity of 100,000 which is more than most modern stadiums and could hold 1/3 of the Ancient adult population in the city.
After getting off the coach Sultan Aahmet Square we walked towards the Aya Sofya, consecrated as a in 537 and converted to a Mosque by Mehmet in 1453 and became a museum in 1935. It really was a quite stunning interior with a beautiful dome and lots of interesting artifacts including Ottoman Medallions and mosaics. A section of marble in the main floor on the lower level marks where the the Byzantine Emperors were crowned however Mehmet was also crowned there as the first Ottoman emperor to symbolise continuity.
The upper level was accessed by an atmospheric ramp which took much less effort than steps. On this level there were a number of lovely mosaics representing historical events including one of Constantine and Christ. The grave of Enrico Dandolo who had ransacked Constantinople in the 4th Crusades is also buried on the upper level and there were some Viking inscriptions. On the way out we saw a sarcophagus to the Empress Hagia Sofia and a mosaic of Mary and Jesus.
Next we made a short walk to the Topkapi Palace the first stage of which was built by Mehmet after he conquered Constantinople and after his death home to various sultans between the 15th and 19th century. It was very busy with lots of school parties but I’m sure less busy than in summer. Unsurprisingly the gates to the palace were grand and two scary looking soldiers with guns stood guard. The size was quite overwhelming and there were four courts for us to explore each of which included different buildings including the kitchens, a room of elegant clocks and the Imperial Council Chamber.
Unfortunately the Harem the Sultans “private” apartments cost extra and we didn’t have time to visit so we mainly explored the fourth court which contained a number of summer pavilions. As it was winter however there were no flowers to view in the garden. There was a gilded canopy called the Iftariye Kameriyesi which had a lovely backdrop of Istanbul behind. From the fourth court it was also possible to see the route of the famous orient express railway. At one point I went to the toilet and when I returned Marcus had a huge crowd of school children around him all asking him various questions and trying to get selfies with him. Volkan later said it was because the school children thought he looked like a famous rapper.
By the time we arrived at the Sultan Ahmet Mosque it had started raining. As we waited outside Volkan suddenly remembered he had to go back for Mr Logi who had difficultly walking and disappeared. We’d been given headsets and Vulkan had forgotten to turn off the mic which meant as he went away the sound slowly faded and replaced with a distant crackle. Marcus and I pretended to use ours as walkie talkies saying “Valkan please confirm if you have located Mr Logi. Over.” Gradually the crackle returned and then we could pick up Volkans voice, celebrating a successful mission. I don’t think the rest of the group experienced this amusement as they sought to stay warm.
We removed our shoes and the women in the group had to wear head scarf’s before we could enter. It was another lovely interior and the colourful tiled mosaics inside (specifically the Dome) means it is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque although other colours were also included. A small area of the wall was a different colour and contained a rare Kaaba of Mecca black stone which it is believed came from Heaven. On the way out I didn’t realise the marble was wet which meant my socks were damp when I put my shoes back on.
After walking through the site of the Hippodrome we arrived at our lunch venue where we had a side salad and soup as a starter. The main course consisted of döner Kebab meat, marinated chicken pieces, a spring roll and rice which I had it with my first Efes of the trip. Marcus described it best by saying it was a fancy kebab meal. The dessert was baklava which I had with a Turkish coffee which was unfiltered, very grainy and I wasn’t a fan. Marcus said his first one was sweet and it had gloop at the bottom which resembled melted chocolate and as it had been sweet I encouraged him to try. He wasn’t impressed as it turned out it was all the coffee grains.
After leaving the lunch we went on a brief walk through the Hippodrome Square where we saw the oldest standing structure in Istanbul the Obelisk of Theodosius. Originally built around 1549 BC and placed in the Amon-Re temple in Karnak it was transferred to Turkey in AD 390. There was also another rough stone obelisk mostly destroyed by the 4th century crusaders and the remains of a spiral column which once had 3 serpent heads at the top. Finally we saw a fountain which Kaiser Wilhelm II gifted to Sultan Abdulhamit II In 1898 which incorporated the initial of each to symbolise the friendship between the two nations.
Unfortunately for us the coach got held up in traffic so we were waiting nearly 10 minutes before our driver Mr Bekir turned up. It was bitterly cold. When the coach turned up I waited until everyone else was on board before getting on because I knew that some of the young at hearts were suffering more than me. The journey to the boat was short but when we arrived the light rain had finished.
Whilst most of the group dived in to the covered, warm section of the boat I made my way to the top deck because I’ve never let a bit of potential hypothermia and frostbite get in my way. It was really windy and I had to ensure I had my London Underground legs (sea legs) on so as not to fall over board. There were however some nice views and whilst there was an audio commentary eventually I decided to find Marcus inside.
Opening the door it looked like a refugee centre because everyone was huddled together and wrapped up in big jackets. I found Marcus at the back having a nap and had one myself before going back up on deck because it was dark and I thought I could get some nice night photography shots. By now the wind had also eased but it was still just as cold. As we entered the port we came in to close to another boat and the tires of each scraped against each other and some seemed to burst with the pressure.
After we arrived back in the hotel Marcus and I blasted the room with heat to thaw out before we went down for the dinner buffet. This time I tried a dark Efes which was a bit stouty and whilst I tried to pretend I wasn’t interested in the overly sweet desserts I eventually relented. There was another good choice of food and after the first day I was feeling quite impressed with how everything had gone.
After dinner we went to the bar for a drink of Raki. We weren’t sure how it should be served but the bar tender advised us to have it with water which turned the drink a milky colour, hence the nickname “Lions (courage) milk”. I don’t like aniseed so I closed my eyes and knocked it back as quickly as possible though it wasn’t the worst thing I’ve had. Later we learnt we should have sipped it. Having drunk our night cap we went up to the room for an early night as everyone else had done.