Wednesday Oct 8, 2014

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Old Istanbul (formerly Byzantium, then Constantinople) featured large in several of the most glorious empires of all time – from Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperors Constantine and Justinian, to the Ottomans, Crusaders, Selcuks and more. Modern Istanbul, a city which spans two continents, is crammed with sparkling mosques, amazing mosaics, sprawling suburbs, crowded bazaars piled high with carpets and gleaming brass and copper and gold … plus dazzling sultans’ palaces right out of the pages of ‘Tales of Arabian Nights’.

Our gorgeous hotel was nestled in the heart of Istanbul’s celebrated Old City, within walking distance of many famous sites. If you stuck your head out the window, you could hear the muezzins’ wailing calls-to-prayer from the nearest minarets and smell the thick black Turkish coffee they serve here in the streets. Mmmm …

We spent our first afternoon wandering and meandering, sauntering and shopping, in the crowded city streets – returning in the evening for a classy Welcome-to-Turkey dinner at (according to our guide) “the best seafood restaurant in town”. Then, the following morning (Sunday), we headed out for a Big Day amongst Istanbul’s most enduring landmarks:

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  • the Byzantine Hippodrome, centre of life for more than 1000 years, where chariot races and competitive athletic events used to take place …
  • the incredible Hagia Sophia, which started out as a Christian cathedral, then became a Moslem mosque, and is now a magnificent museum …
  • the crawling-with-tourists Topkapi Palace, one-time home of the Ottoman Sultans from the 16th to 19th centuries, featuring treasures galore (and a nice coffee-shop!) …
  • the Yerebatan Sarayi – a vast Byzantine water-reservoir that’s lain under the streets of Istanbul since back in the 6th century
  • the fabulous Blue Mosque, renowned for its six minarets, a zillion beautiful blue Iznik tiles, unique architecture and marble latticework.

It was a fabulous day – and a long day. And our Kiwis were let loose that night to dine where they wished: our fancy hotel … or a quick kebab from a local eatery … or an authentic Turkish, sit-down-on-cushions feast at a nearby restaurant.

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Upon our return to Istanbul (two days later, after our Gallipoli excursion), we woke up, made our beds, brushed our teeth, and enjoyed an on-foot jaunt through the aromatic Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Then we clambered aboard a private ferry for a leisurely small-boat cruise around Istanbul’s crazy-busy harbour and out into the Bosphorus (the narrow waterway that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea).

Our final stop for the day was the famous Grand Bazaar. This immense marketplace dates back to when Istanbul was Constantinople, and offers more than 6000 shops (all under cover) selling handmade carpets, leather, ceramics, tiles, gold, copperware: it’s all here by the tonne. While the men tried not to look bored, the women bargained and haggled to their hearts’ content!

Finally, in the evening (our last in Turkey), we celebrated our Midlife Madness Farewell Dinner at a posh Turkish eatery, where we were wowed by a live show featuring bosomy belly-dancers, foot-stomping Cossacks, and songs-from-around-the-world (including a rousing haka-performance by three of our very own blokes).

A great late night was had by all – phew! – so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to join my gently-snoring wife in bed. ZZzzzzz …

TOMORROW: All good things come to an end, and the time has come for us to say “güle-güle” (goodbye) to Turkey and the Mediterranean. Don’t miss this finale …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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