Monday, May 27, 2013

Istanbul, Turkey

We were happy that this cruise included Istanbul on its itinerary because it's a city that we have been wanting to go to. Istanbul is Turkey's largest city with a population of 14-15 million. It is the only city in the world that is part of two continents, Europe and Asia, with the Bosphorus strait separating the two continents. Since we were entering Turkey from the mouth of the Bosphorus strait we had the unique privilege of viewing both the European and Asian shores.

European Turkey 
Asian Turkey
Istanbul is full of exquisite mosques (there are around 3,000) and throughout the day you can hear praying from minarets that echo through the city. We learned that Istanbul is a very tolerant city in regards to religion. Most of the population practices Islam, but it's a personal choice as to how religious one wants to be. So you will see women dressed from full burkhas to traditional headscarves and conservative attire, to tight jeans, tank tops and pony tails. Christians and Sephardic Jews make up the other religious populations.

We first went to the Blue Mosque (called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) which is so named because of the blue tiles surrounding the interior walls. It was built between 1609 and 1616 and is still an active mosque. Before entering everyone is required to take off their shoes and women need to wear a head scarf.

My attempt at a headscarf 

After visiting the Blue Mosque we walked to Topkapi Palace. The palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years. The palace was also a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings including a treasury holding precious objects like Muhammed's cloak and sword, and Noah's staff.  Unfortunately, it was forbidden to take pictures inside.

The Imperial Gate

Gate of Salutation: Entrance to the 2nd courtyard

View from the palace
After spending a good amount of time here we then had a delicious Turkish lunch, consisting of tzatziki, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, and kebabs.

Our yummy appetizer. 

After lunch we walked to Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia is an important monument for the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. It was first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum and has many sights to see of both Christian and Muslim importance. It is a stunning building with a lot of history.

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without heading to their two famous markets: The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar). The Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest markets in the world and is home to over 3,000 shops covering around 60 indoor streets. The Bazaar has everything a shopper in Istanbul would want, from a colorful array of rugs, scarves, and fabrics, to teas, lamps, hookahs. We enjoyed wandering through this large maze of shops, making left and right turns on a whim in order to head towards the quieter back lanes away from the hoards of people. One Turkish specialty that we bought here was Lokum, also known as "Turkish Delight". It's a sweet snack that can contain a variety of nuts, and comes in various flavors such as fig, rose, strawberry, orange, and lemon.

One of 21 entrances 

One of the streets
One of the many Lokum displays
The next day Jon and I took a stroll across the Galata Bridge. The bridge connects the old city with an area known as Beyogu and is alive with men fishing, locals connecting from one part of the city to the other, and restaurants serving fresh fish.

The top part is covered with fisherman and the bottom part is restaurants.
We headed to the Spice Market, which is located right near the bridge. This market is smaller than the Grand Bazaar and we found it to be less crowded with better prices. They sell similar products here as the Grand Bazaar, but there was definitely more selections of spices and teas. It was fun looking at the different spices and teas out on display, and we ended up buying quite a few goodies to take home with us.

The Spice Market/Egyptian Bazaar

On our way back across the bridge and back to the ship we stopped for some Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is unique in that it is very thick and contains a heavy layer of sludgy grounds at the bottom that you aren't supposed to drink. It is typically served with water, but with Jon's they also served us some Lokum and a shot of Turkish almond liquor.

We really wish we had more time in this exquisite city! It is so different than any other city we've been to and we were just enchanted by what it had to offer. I guess this means we'll just have to come back in the future some time! Next up, Kusadasi!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Santorini and Mykonos, Greece

We finally made it to Greece! We had been trying to figure out how we wanted to tackle this vacation and after a lot of research we decided to take a cruise with Celebrity Cruises. The cruise started and ended in Rome, and headed to Santorini, Mykonos, Istanbul for two days, Kusadasi for Ephesus, Athens, and Naples (where we got off a day early). For 10 days we ate to our hearts content, relaxed on our balcony, and enjoyed our last major trip of our two year European tour.

The day after we embarked the ship we had a sea day, which also happened to be my birthday. We rented a private alcove on the top deck and spent the day reading and sunning ourselves. After a bunch of visitors and a lot of traveling it was nice to sit and do nothing as we crossed through the straights of Messina in our quiet and exclusive area of the boat.

The day started out chilly, but warmed up quickly!

Our private alcove

The next day we arrived at the islands of Santorini. Santorini consists of three islands with Thira being the largest and most inhabited island. The islands are basically what's left after an enormous volcanic explosion. They form a circular shape that is remnant of a volcanic caldera (a caldron-like volcano).

After taking a tender to the island we hopped a bus that took us to the beautiful town of Oia (pronouned eee-ah) located at the northern tip of the island, where we spent some time wandering the tight paths and alleyways. The town is known for its dwellings built into the rocks, including their iconic blue domed churches and luxurious private suites. These elegant white and blue buildings look out onto a beautiful view of the caldera and sparkling Aegean Sea.

We also spent some time in the main town of Fira. At a nearby restaurant we ordered some Greek specialties consisting of fried tomato balls (tomatokeftedes), mashed fava beans, tzatziki sauce, and pita bread. Delicious!

Fira is located on top of a cliff and there are three options to get back down to the boat: cable car, donkey ride, or walk. The cable car line was at least 45 minutes long and we felt bad using the donkeys who didn't look well taken care of. So we hoofed it and tried not to slip on the steep footpath covered in donkey poop (although one of us did end up slipping).


Donkeys trotting up the footpath

Fira from our balcony. The footpath we walked down zigzags on the left.

The next day we went to the island of Mykonos. Mykonos is known as a non-stop party island with beaches catering to young crowds looking to drink and bare all at their nude beach bars. In the summertime it is packed with party-goers, celebrities, fashionistas, and cruise chip crowds looking to either enjoy the outdoor party scene or the charming towns and water-view restaurants.

Approaching Mykonos from the ship

We started walking around the main town of Chora and noticed just how lost you can become in this town. The streets of Chora were purposefully made into a web of mazes in order to trap pirates that would come to invade the town. Once the pirates started getting lost in the twisted network of roads, the  natives would sneak up and attack them. We definitely got lost a bunch of times, and since every building was very similar looking we weren't sure if we were somewhere new or had just made a large circle. We took a side alleyway that led us up a bunch of staircases where we ended up at a large windmill. Windmills are an iconic feature of Mykonos, but have not been used since the middle of the 20th century. The views from the top were worth our trek up some long staircases and quite a few turns down below.

We knew we wanted to spend time at a beach, but wanted a more relaxing atmosphere. We took a taxi to Kalafatis Beach located on the other side of the island. The beach was empty, chaise lounges were untouched, and there was an outdoor restaurant on the water. The weather was cool and somewhat cloudy, but as long as it wasn't raining we were happy.

Eggplant appetizer
Pita Bread
Stuffed tomatoes and peppers

Going to the beautiful islands of Santorini and Mykonos was a great start to our vacation. The islands have their own qualities and individual characteristics making each one a unique vacation destination. Up next... Istanbul!