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|Cunard Queen Victoria 2012
Black Sea and Turkish Splendours - Part 3
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Today was the maiden visit of the Queen Victoria to Constanta, Romania. Constanta, previously named Tomis, is the oldest city in Romania and was founded in 600 BC. Legend has it that Jason landed here with the Argonauts after finding the Golden Fleece. Romania is became part of the EU in 2007. It has its own local currency and is about 3 times the size of Scotland. Constanta is on a similar latitude to Genoa in Italy. Bucharest, the capital of Romania, is 125 miles west of Constanta..
The port has an area of just over 15 square miles and is the largest port on the Black Sea and one of the largest ports in Europe. The ship moored on time and we planned to catch the shuttle bus which went to Ovid Square where stands the statue sculpted in 1888 by Ettore Ferrari of the Roman poet Ovid who was exiled to Tomis at the beginning of the first century AD. From there it was easy to visit the nearby Turkish Mosque, the Orthodox Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, the Casino with its beautiful views over the harbour, the Lighthouse and perhaps a museum. We were warned to be especially careful going ashore here; although it was a maiden for the Queen Victoria the staff had been here before and we presumed had problems with pickpockets.
However a friend from the gym suggested we go on the Danube Delta River cruise tour – her husband did not want his ticket and there were no refunds. We purchased a second ticket at the tour check-in desk and by 0815 we were walking down to our tour bus having only started to eat breakfast at 0745.
The disadvantages of the tour were that it departed at 0815, and that the drive to the town of Tulcea the gateqay to the Danube Delta was just over 2 hours. We did pass by the distinctive Casino, built in 1909 in Art Nouveau style, and admired the coast of Constanta from the bus. We could see the cathedral in the distance, built between 1883 and 1885. We decided there did not seem to be a lot of interest in the town so the tour was a good idea.
The journey by bus was mainly through the flat agricultural land of the Dobrudgea region and our guide who was at the university studying in english gave us a good description of the history of the region and an update on the current situation in Romania. The land stretched into the far distance, with apparently few farm houses, and on the horizon we admired hundreds of new large modern windmills. We saw a few tractors but mainly the land seemed to be worked by people, and we saw horses and carts used to carry people along rough roads. Our road was uneven, narrow and slow but there seemed to be an agreement that tour buses had priority and most cars were driven slowly and pulled in to let us pass. Towards Tulcea the climate changed, the land was less flat, and there were more grapes under cultivation.
Upon arrival at Tulcea there was a short walk along an uneven pavement to our waiting boat. Cunard had booked 3 boats for the 6 tour buses. The cruise began by steaming along the main river, but then we turned off into a small river, about the same width as the K&A canal, and only just wide enough for two boats of our size to pass. The speed limit in the small river is 40, and many little speedboats rushed past us, making enormous wash on the banks. In spite of all this the fishermen smiled, and some showed us their best catch, and we applauded. Our cruise ended at a small lake where we were able to turn around by pushing the front up onto the bank and then rotating by using the engine. We had been told we should go further and return by a different way, but we simply retraced our route.
The Danube Delta became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991 and there is said to be 300 species of bird and 45 freshwater fish species. We had expected to see lots of wildlife, and the trip was advertised as being an opportunity to see pelicans, white herons, grey herons, spoonbills, kingfisher and grebe. Our first sighting of wildlife was two cows and then we saw nothing for a long time until there was then one grey heron and one white heron. The lake, which was really more like a swamp, had more herons and we spotted the bright blue flash of a kingfisher on the way back. Otherwise it was a real disappointment and we have more birds on the River Thames than we saw in the Danube Delta.
Lunch was seated and served and comprised a nice large piece of fish with some vegetables, then a pork steak with vegetables and finally a piece of 'madeira' cake, washed down by local white wine and sparkling water. Our table was not full and so we won extra glasses of wine each.
We rejoined our bus knowing we had a 2 hour bumpy journey to look forward to but as always it seemed quicker to go back and we saw more of the centre of Constanta because we took a different route. It was Sunday and so the town was quiet, the roads had been very empty and we returned to Queen Victoria on time. The journey was marked at 130 kms from Constanta to Tulcea.
Istanbul, Turkey We had seen Istanbul when we passed by on our way to Yalta, so already had the chance to admire the famous skyline and the Blue Mosque. Now we were going to immerse ourselves in the excitement of the city, which is at the cross-roads between Europe and Asia. Early in the morning we collected the pilot for the journey along the narrow Bosphorus. It is not permitted to navigate at night and we reached the first of the two bridges just after sunrise.
The castle of Rumelia is at the narrowest part of the Bosphorus and the building was completed in just four months in 1452. It is a strategic point and there is a matching small castle of Anatolia on the opposite bank, built one hundred years earlier. This is where we went under the first of the two Bosphorus bridges. The flag of Turkey flew proudly from buildings on both sides of the water – Turkey seems to have the highest flag poles in the world. After the second bridge the marble facade of the Dolmabahce Palace dominated the waterfront. It was completed in 1856 and has 46 reception rooms and galleries, is lavishly decorated in gold with huge crystal chandeliers, Gobelin tapestries and French furniture so that it rivals the Palace of Versailles.
A good guide book is essential for efficient independent exploration of Istanbul. It is not a difficult city and the streets are all named and with so many important historic buildings on the skyline it is difficult to become lost. We purchased the DK Top10 Guide in the UK and also the Guide to Istanbul published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. The latter had good detailed information about the 53 monuments and mosques in the historical peninsula that are essential viewing on a short visit, and we used the map with its suggested itinerary. Of the major tourist sites the only omission was the Topkapi Palace, which we saw from a distance but did not visit, it would have needed too much time to do it justice. Generally we visited any mosques which were on our route but did not visit museums. The weather was glorious and we did not want to spend too much time indoors on our first visit to Istanbul. We walked continuously for 8 hours on the first day and then for another 3 hours on the second morning. We only visited the Historical Peninsula and we did not have time to explore Beyoglu, Pera and climb past the modern 5 star hotels to Taksim Square. We also did not take a cruise on the Bosphorus. This must all wait until our next visit because we will certainly visit Istanbul again.
Outside the port gate we were on the tram route across to the Historical Peninsula, and there was a HopOn HopOff bus (20 euros) waiting on the other side of the road for those who did not want to walk. It was very quiet in the early morning and we followed the tramlines towards the Galata bridge, passing the Nusretiye Mosque and stopped to visit the Kilic Ali Pasa Mosque which was built by Sinan in 1581. Kilic Ali Pasa was the grand admiral of the Ottoman Navy. It was our first visit into a mosque so left a significant impression and a yardstick to compare other mosques later.It was also empty which was unusual. Continuing towards the Karakoy Square we looked back at the 70 metre high Galata Tower built in 1348 and giving good views from the viewing balcony. Shoe polish men sat in the square waiting for customers with their little brass capped bottles of polish – very typical and we were to see many more on our travels.
The Galata bridge crosses the Golden Horn and is a double level concrete bridge with the main road and pavements on the top level and lots of cafes and bars underneath. The middle of the bridge can be raised to allow tall ships to pass but the local ferries pass under easily. It was built in 1992 to replace an earlier iron pontoon. It is a very popular place for fishing, with all the gear and bait available for rent and by the middle of the day they are so many they are almost touching. Across the bridge the main monument is the large Yeni Camii or New Mosque. It was commissioned in 1597 and completed in 1663, so is the last of the monumental mosques. It is, like all the other monumental mosques built after Sinan, a square shaped mosque with four semi-domes on the sides. The interior is richly decorated with iznik tiling. The really spectacular iznik tiling is said to be at the Blue Mosque. To reach the mosque the best approach is to take the underpass lined with stalls from Eminonu Square.
It was impossible to ignore the Egyptian Bazaar or Spice Market which was built as part of the Yeni Camii complex. It was built in 1660 and is where the spices originally imported from Egypt were sold. Now there are boutiques, souvenirs shops and turkish delight alongside the spices, and the roads outside have stalls selling flowers, plants, seeds, pets, fish, cheese, spices and olives. There were even large pots of black wiggling things which on closer inspection were leeches.
The next target group of monuments was the Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. These are always on the tourist itinerary and most of the passengers from the Queen Victoria would be visiting two or three of them on the morning tours. The easy way to find them is to follow the tramline from the Galata Bridge. Instead we wandered around the narrow streets behind the Spice Market and just as we resorted to reading the map we saw the Sirkeci Post Office ahead of us. It was obviously a Post Office because of the PTT sign and the flags. Instead of looking for the tramline we chose a more direct route which went through the Istanbul Government buildings and emerged at the corner of the park around the Topkapi Palace where we met the tramline.
We had already admired the Topkapi Palace when we cruised past Istanbul. It is an enormous Palace, begun in the 1460s and its planning and construction is best described as 'decentralised'. When Fatih conquered the city he decided to build his palace in this strategic position with the magnificent view. Until 1856 all the Ottoman Sultans used Topkapi Palace as their residence. The hugh palace complex consists not only of the private residences of the sultans and the harem, but also of a huge kitchen and dormitories for soldiers and other domestics, the meeting room for the Imperial Council, the Pavilion where the relics of the prophet Mohammed and the Caliphs are preserved, the Gulhane Hospital, the library of Ahmet III, the Enderun, the Palace school, the Inner Treasury, the stables for the sultans horses, and also the church of Haghia Eirene which was once used as an armoury and arsenal. Haghia Eirene is one of the oldest churches in Istanbul and was built by the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. It has been used lately as a concert hall and exhibition centre, and was damaged by the earthquake of 17 August 1999. It is a very large palace, spread over a wide area, and merits at least several hours and preferably several days to visit it in comfort.
Continuing our walk along the tramlines we were soon alongside the wall of Haghia Sophia, which was closed on Mondays except for pre-booked tour groups. At the end of the wall is the large open space of Sultanahmet Park. This is where all the tours collect people who have previously toured the Topkapi Palace and the Haghia Sophia and there was a Cunard meeting point. This is the third church on this site and was inaugurated in 537. The great architect Sinan added the buttresses to secure the building. It is a large single domed basilica and only three others are larger (St Paul's in London, St Peter's in Rome and the Duomo in Milan).The round dome is now slightly elliptical and has a diameter of about 30 to 32 metres and is supported by four columns each 55 metres high. It was converted to a mosque in 1435 and since 1934 has been a museum. If we visit Istanbul again, and it is not a Monday, then the Topkapi Palace and the Haghia Sophia would make a good combined independent day out.
Tour groups were coming from the Topkapi Palace so we walked through the gate and into the park, as far as the Archaeological Museum, before returning to Sultanahmet park. Here, finally, we got a clear view of the famous Blue Mosque with its 6 minarets. First we passed the Hamam of Haseki Hurrem. Haseki Hurrem was the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent and she entrusted the architect Sinan with the construction of this huge rectangular bathhouse with two separate entrances, one for men and the other for women. The best view of the Blue Mosque is from the ocean. It is difficult to get a clear view of it from the Sultanahmet Square because of the congestion and confusion caused by the thousands of visitors and their tour buses. These thousands of visitors not only want to see the Mosque but they all intend to go inside. We joined a long queue, mainly of Cunard tour groups, and eventually were rushed into the mosque so that everyone could look inside before prayers. Quickly putting our shoes in our plastic bags and Pauline wearing a headscarf we were deemed fit to enter. The mosques which have tourists often provide shawls on loan, and here there were also blue wrap-around skirts for those whose knees were not covered. The Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque was built for Ahmed I between 1609 and 1616 by a student of Sinan. The distinctive character of the Blue Mosque is the beautiful tile decoration in the interio, not the architecture. There are more than 20,000 blue and turquoise tiles with floral motifs, which combined with the light from the 260 windows explains the name of the mosque.
Alongside the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome. In the Byzantine period it was a stadium where horse and chariot races took place. Now it is a square with three columns and the fountain of Kaiser William II. The fountain is recent – erected on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Kaiser's visit to Istanbul in 1898. There are two obelisks – the Egyptian obelisk is probably the oldest historic artefact in Istanbul. It was originally commissioned by Pharaoh Thutmose III in 1550 BC and was erected here in 390 AD. The other obelisk is the Column of Porphyrogenitus, and there is also a bronze serpent column of three intertwined headless serpent figures.
The next famous place which every tourist wants to visit is the Grand Bazaar. The direct route from the Column of Porphyrogenitus passes the Puat Pasa Mosque and the Cemberlitas column. We followed signs until we reached the Nuru Osmaniye Mosque and then found an entrance to the Grand Covered Bazaar. It was a huge structure built in 1461, covering 54,653 sq metres and is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world. It had 2 restaurant, 4399 shops, 2195 rooms, 497 store rooms, a mosque, 10 small mosques,a hama, 19 fountains, 8 wells, 24 hans, a school and a tomb. Not all has survived and now there are 21 gates, 2 bedestens, 17 inns, 66 streets, nearly 4000 shops and employs more than 30,000 people. It is still very large and full of shops and a few cafes. The streets vary in width and in decoration, with some being more recently renovated than others. The first two buildings were the old Sandal and Cevahir Bedestens. Sandal Bedesten, in the southeast corner, is named after a type of silk and cotton fabric being originally the market area for textiles, and spans an area of 2,436 square metres. It is covered by 20 lead-plated domes and was used as an auction house by the Istanbul Municipality from 1914 to 1980. The inner Bedesten in the centre, the Cevahir Bedesten, is roofed by 15 domes arranged in three rows, and was the original place were valuable weaponry and jewellery was sold; it could be securely locked up and guarded at night. It is all well signposted and the exit gates are numbered. We had no problems exploring and then leaving by our intended exit.
It was our intention to visit the Suleymaniye Mosque and then end our walking tour. The exit from the Grand Bazaar on the western side was close to Istanbul University. Although we could not walk through their grounds we followed the wall until we reached the famous Suleymaniye Mosque. It was built by Sinan between 1550 and 1557 and his mausoleum is here on the site of the house in which he lived while building the mosque. The four minarets indicate that Suleyman was the fourth Sultan to reign in Istanbul while the ten parapets indicate that he was the tenth Sultan of the Ottoman empire. It was now approaching 1300 and we expected the mosque to be closed to visitors but we were allowed to enter, provided we sat down and did not take photos during the worship. After a busy morning we were pleased to have the excuse of sitting on the carpet, and it was interesting to watch as a number of men carrying their shoes in bags walked or ran into the mosque to attend prayers. Here there were also free tourist leaflets, but only in german.
It was still early and there was so much more to see in the area so we tried to cut through the narrow streets to find the Aqueduct of Valens. Our guide book showed it look like the Pont du Gard in France so was obviously large and significant. It was difficult because there was a lot of construction and reconstruction work in the area but eventually we reached the main Sehzadebasi Street and the Sehzade Mosque. This is one of the first monumental mosques built by Sinan and was founded by Suleyman the Magnificent in memory of his son Mehmed whom the Sultan intended to be his successor on the throne but who died an untimely death. We looked around everywhere for the aqueduct and even wondered if we were above it because our map showed it on top of the Sehzadebasi Street. However we soon saw it, and the best view is close to the junction with the Ataturk Boulevar which passes underneath it. The two-storey aqueduct was built by Emporer Valens in 368, hence the name. It remained in use until the 19th century, bringing water from the Belgrade Forest to the centre of the Great Palace complex, near the Hippodrome. The boulevard is named after Ataturk who was born in 1891, Mustafa Kemal Pasa, and led the Turkish forces to victory at Gallipoli in 1915. He became Turkey's first President when it was declared a republic in 1923.
The final place of interest in this direction is the Fatih Mosque, or the Mosque of Mehmed the Conqueror. While he is well known his mosque is not as well known as the others. The women walking in the area were not dressed in western style and so Pauline took out her headscarf while in the streets. The mosque is thought to have been built between 1463 and 1470 and was then destroyed by the earthquake of 1776 and rebuilt. The earthquake of 1999 also damaged the mosque and there are displays of the stages of the restoration work. The entrance to the mosque is through a monumental courtyard with an impressive ablution fountain. The tomb of Fatih is a separate building with a canopy, at the side of the mosque.
Our route back to the Galata Bridge took us along Itfaiye Street with its garden and meat stalls, then to the Zeyrek Mosque which was being repaired, and along Haci Kadi Road. We were weary and loitered outside the Turkish Bath but lacked confidence to explore. Something else to add to our list for our next visit, perhaps. As we wandered around the narrow streets and small shops we remembered we wanted to buy some ground Turkish coffee to take home, so found a shop which sold enormous bags of tea and were lucky. The young man inside could understand our english, and once he realised we did not want the local delicacy, Nescafe, it was only necessary to agree payment. The area was full of lots of useful shops selling food, hardware, equipment, everything you could imagine. The streets were narrow and the goods were moved by men carrying them on their shoulders or pulling trolleys loaded above their heads.
Soon we saw water ahead and after another exploration into the narrow streets we were back at the Eminonu Square. We sat on the steps, ate one of the simit local round sesame breads, and watched the world rush by. It was now 1700 and the square was filling with people, and there were lots of people fishing on the bridge with buckets and jars full to overflowing with twitching fish.
After dinner on board it was dark and the most famous buildings were floodlit. Our original plan had been to go out again and find a bar to soak up the atmosphere but we were just too tired.
The next morning we had an early breakfast and were out again at 0745. The Queen Victoria would be departing before lunch and we had to be back on board before 1130. There was plenty of time to walk over the Galata bridge to buy some souvenirs in the Spice Market: boxes of turkish delight and pepper grinders. We then went to look for the Orient Express Railway Station which we had not found previously. The Sirkeci Rail Station was just visible from the ship and was close to the ferry piers on the far side of the Galata bridge. Officially opened in November 1890, the glamorous terminus for the Orient Express service was built by a german architect. The station also houses a railway museum with the Orient Express silver service and a superb restaurant serving Turkish food on Platform 2. It was also the only place we found that sold postcards.
With plenty of time left we wandered through the narrow streets, finding new areas to explore. We passed the Hoca Pasa Mosque and visited the Hobyar Mosque before arriving by accident in the material quarter where the shops were a mixture of traditional mens tailors and material shops. We emerged on the side of the Spice Market and spent our remaining local currency on a turkish-made backgammon set. It was heavy, and so was all our turkish delight, so it was time to go back. Our final coin was swapped for a cheap bracelet at the entrance to the port and we were back well before 1100 having completed all our shopping and spent all our money.
There were no other cruise ships nearby and it was straightforward to loose ropes and move forward into the Marmara Sea, avoiding all the ferries and little fishing boats. Tonight there was a Turkish menu in the Lido and although we do not usually eat in the self-service in the evening we could not resist the temptation to try local food. When it was getting dark we passed a smaller cruise ship heading towards Istanbul and wondered if it might be one from Voyages to Antiquity which would be in the region that evening. Later the Queen Victoria passed through the Dardenelles and Gallipoli (or Galley Poly as our Port Lecturer pronounced it).
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