Before I flew to Istanbul, I purchased a tour on Viator. It seemed as though my Hilton was not terribly close to the old part of town and I didn’t want to have to worry about how to find my way around from attraction to attraction. Once I checked into the Hilton, they’d given me an envelope with information about my tour pickup at 7 am the next morning. Since I didn’t arrive until 2 am and it was hard to shut my eyes with that view, I was up and ready to go after only 3 hours of sleep. I was their first stop and actually pretty far from the rest of the stops in the older part of the city. The streets were very narrow, hilly, cobbled, and I couldn’t tell if there were any sort of traffic laws at all.
We picked up a Brazilian woman and her mother next. They were very sweet, but the mother only spoke Spanish and Portuguese. The next couple was an older husband and wife, let’s just call them Betty and Tom, who loudly proclaimed they were from Americans from AL. The last couple was an Asian couple. The man was Chinese but lived in London and the woman was from Chicago but lived in Hong Kong. As soon as they got in and we started off to visit the Blue Mosque, the American woman started complaining loudly that she’d forgotten her walking cane. The husband told the driver we needed to go back and get it. We turned around and went back for the cane. Foreshadowing!
When we finally got to the Blue Mosque, we climbed out of the van and walked through the Hippodrome. Our tour guide Hakan (means royalty in Turkish) told us about the chariot races they used to have and about the slaughters that took place there. It was kind of hard to hear some of it because Tom kept interrupting with questions Hakan had already answered and Betty was talking loudly over both of them. At one point she let it slip they were actually Nicaraguan. I wish she had led with that!
We made our way up to the Blue Mosque. Because it’s still a working mosque, we had to take off our shoes inside and the women had to cover their hair. I’d done my research and knew this so I’d worn a pretty pink scarf And only had to flip it up over my ponytail. Betty had a scarf on as well but made everyone stop so she could get one of the loaner scarfs they had at the kiosk on the way in. Hakan took us in and explained to us the different parts of the mosque. He told us a bit about the history and pointed out the beautiful blue tiles that give it its name. Then he gave us about 20 minutes to look around and take pictures.
We were to meet up outside the building, so I snapped a few shots and then went out to get my shoes on before the meetup time. Everyone else showed up soon after. Except Betty and Tom. We waited a few more minutes for them and then Hakan went in to get them.
From there, Hakan took us to a spot with benches between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque so we could get a picture with all the minarets. The Blue Mosque is unusual because it has six and most mosques only have four.
Our next stop was Topkapi palace. According to Hakan, top means cannon and kapi means a gate so it’s actually named cannongate palace. It was a five-minute walk from the Mosque, but Betty had to stop and rest a few times. Her cane opened up and became a chair so we would all stop so she could unfold it and sit for a minute before we continued. I was secretly overjoyed when I overheard Hakan mention they’d only purchased a half day ticket and would be leaving us before lunch. Sadly, Betty heard they were serving lunch and told Tom to extend their tour.
We walked to the first gate. Next to the gate was a fountain. Hakan said it is an important Turkish custom to serve your guests a drink and that fountains play a really big role in Turkey. Giving water is similar to giving life, and because this was the Sultan’s fountain, it was magnificent! It was also fed from the Basilica Cistern which would be a stop later in the tour.
The palace was beautiful. Hakan told us every Turkish citizen has to serve some time in the Army. It’s less if you finish college. When he served his time, he was stationed at the palace as a palace guard.They had a few of them stationed around the grounds and a lot of them were posing for pictures with tourists. He told us about the different gates (the first one was the prettiest, but the Gate of Felicity had the best name) and the different exhibits inside. Then he turned us loose and told us we had 45 minutes to explore before we would meet up again in the last courtyard. I hit the jewelry exhibit first. I wish I could have taken pictures because the diamond crusted coffee cups were absolutely amazing and you’d have seen why I need them in my life. Also the candlesticks? Well, let’s just say Austria would have been jealous. Each one weighs 105 lbs and has 6,666 diamonds.
The calligraphy was impressive, but I didn’t understand a word of it so I didn’t spend a lot of time there. I strolled through the rooms of relics and peeked at the stick Moses used to part the Red Sea and what I think might have been body parts or hair from Mohammed. It was getting really crowded and I couldn’t see the signage very well, so I’m guessing that’s what those were.
I decided to give up and use the balance of my time getting all caffeinated up. There was a cafe that overlooked the water and had delicious coffee. I got a cup and a seat on the patio.
I made it back to our meeting point a couple of minutes early, like I do. Everyone but Tom and Betty showed up shortly after. When Betty finally arrived, she unfolded her cane and plopped down on her seat and said Tom was coming when were we going to eat? Before Hakan could even finish the itinerary she said “I’ve got diabetes and can’t go too long without eating” stuck her hands in her pocket and whipped out a sandwich. Tom came strolling up a few minutes later and we headed out of the palace.
I thought Tom and Betty would be leaving us at that point. Imagine my delight when they announced, very loudly, they’d be staying all day. Hakan said our next stop was the Basilica Cistern. He took us down a cute little cobblestone street beside the Hagia Sophia. The street was very steep, so when we got to the bottom we had to stand around and wait for Betty and Tom to catch up.
At the Basilica Cistern, Hakan got us tickets so we could skip the line. The cistern is underground and it’s about 500 centuries old (or so) and of course that means no lifts. Also, it’s constantly dripping water so the stairs are very slippery. My third floor walk-up condo has perfectly prepared me for situations like this, so I had no problems keeping up. Tom and Betty? Not so much. As we waited I asked Hakan if there was a lift to get Betty out of there. He looked at me like I was nuts, but I knew what was coming!
The cistern is amazing and was probably my favorite part of the tour. It was very dark and they have a lot of dramatic lighting on each of the columns. There are also two Medusa heads one is upside down and the other is sideways. After Hakan gave us a brief history he gave us 10 minutes to go and take pictures and meet back up. When I rejoined the group, Tom and Betty weren’t anywhere to be seen. I got kinda excited when I thought that might mean they’d given up. We climbed the stairs up to the street and regrouped. That’s when Hakan said “where are they, they were supposed to meet us up here” and went back in to find Tom and Betty. Turns out they were just getting some ice cream. They finally emerged so we could continue our tour…