Saturday morning I had breakfast on my balcony as dawn broke over the Bosphorus. I gazed, mesmerized, as the waters shifted from grey to gold to cobalt blue as the sun rose and the city of Istanbul started to stir. The lilting sound of the call to prayer wafted across the water instilling a sense of place. It was the perfect ending to a fabulous cruise from Venice to Istanbul. As the sun reflected golden on the water I reflected on my outstanding week with Celebrity Cruises.
Breakfast on my balcony
I met up with Amy from Celebrity Cruises, Monica from The Travel Hack and Elle from Bird in the Hand to spend a week cruising the Mediterranean. Our ship, Celebrity Equinox, is a floating island, and every morning we’d wake to a new location, a new view and new experiences. I’d leave my curtains open every night so I could see each day’s new dawn from my pillow.
As soon as I woke and saw my new view I was out of bed and ready to explore. And I’m so not a morning person! This was my second cruise with Celebrity and I loved every minute of it. I’d been unsure about my first cruise. Would there be enough to do? I’m a doer, an explorer and find it hard to sit still for long so I didn’t want to be lying on a sun bed for a whole week. Well, there’s loads to do. All the time. In fact you could end up needing a holiday after taking a cruise! Of course when the ship’s docked there’s exploring to be done on land but on a sea day there’s so much to do too. Spinning classes on deck, a workout in the gym or a Pilates class. There’s a theatre, artworks all over the ship and even a basketball court. I took a fantastic yoga class overlooking the water and came out feeling refreshed and invigorated.
The Equinox Spa
I also visited the ship’s spa and had a deep tissue massage. Susan, who had magic fingers, managed to seek out every little knot and made sure all my stress and tension just melted away. The next day I was walking on air and my back has felt loose and relaxed ever since. In fact I still feel fabulous – even after a week back in the office.
The Persian Garden
Food on Board Celebrity Cruises
The award-winning food on board Celebrity ships is exceptional and we ate at most of the ship’s speciality restaurants; Blue, Tuscan Grill, Murano and even at the Captain’s Table. We also chatted to the executive chef and two head chefs who set up a little cooking demonstration for us and took us on a tour of one of the ship’s galleys which was fascinating. Imagine cooking for nearly 3,000 guests three times a day.
Victor, Equinox Chef
Avocado, Salmon and Crab Starter
Our Celebrity Cruise Route
We took just part of this Mediterranean cruise and began our voyage in beautiful Venice before sailing across the Adriatic to spend a day in Dubrovnik seeking out scenes from Game of Thrones and gorgeous little cliff-side bars.
Bridge of Sighs, Venice
The Apothecary, Dubrovnik
As you can imagine exploring Venice and Dubrovnik was pretty exhausting but a sea day followed and with a bit of pampering in the Spa we were rejuvenated and ready for a stop at the Greek Island of Mykonos. We explored the blue and white alleyways of Mykonos and Little Venice and climbed the hill overlooking the town to check out the iconic windmills. We also took an excursion to the tiny island of Delos birthplace of Apollo.
Our final destination was the fascinating city of Istanbul.
Istanbul from the Bosphorus
Hagia Sofia Mosque, Istanbul
Of course, between each port-of-call, were some pretty amazing on-board experiences. I’ll be sharing with you some of the highlights in the next couple of weeks so stay tuned for posts on these and the destinations we visited. Find out some surprising facts about what goes on behind the scenes on a Celebrity Cruise ship and check out some views from a cruise; photos of the cities we visited seen from the ship during sail-away and arrival. Some of the best I’ve ever experienced and from a totally different perspective as we sailed past.
Huge thanks go to Celebrity Cruises who hosted me on this amazing cruise, however, all views and opinions are entirely my own. You can read all my Celebrity Cruise posts here 🙂
Aya Sofya, Hagia Sophia or, in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is a mighty structure defining the heart and soul of Istanbul, melding the characteristics of a city that crosses time, continent and culture. If you only have time to visit one sight in Istanbul this is it.
Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Constantius I as a Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia had a hard life and survived an earthquake, fire and revolt over a period of 916 years before being converted to Aya Sofia Mosque in 1453. Four minarets were added and the vast, domed building remained a mosque until 1935. At this time Ataturk proclaimed that it should become a museum where symbols of both religions would be housed side by side to pacify both faiths.
Hagia Sofia Dome
Head upstairs, or rather up wooden ramps, for a spectacular view of the main atrium and nave from the balcony above the main entrance. Bathed in diffused golden light the people gathered below gauge the scale of the building. The central dome, reaches 55.6 m above the museum floor and is supported by four pendentives adorned with winged cherubs.
Hagia Sofia Mosaics
Ancient frescos and gilded mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Christ, restored after the mosque became a museum, are displayed under the magnificent dome alongside 19th century leather medallions gilded with the names of God (Allah) and Mohammed in Arabic lettering. More mosaics, uncovered after the Hagia Sophia became a museum, line the upstairs gallery and give an idea of the grandeur of the original decoration inside the Church.
This is a majestic, beautiful building that inspires a sense of awe and one where I felt compelled to stay awhile, even after having seen all there was to see, just to soak up a sense of time and place and the essence of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or to give it its official name Sultan Ahmet Camii, is both a place of worship and a major tourist attraction receiving four to five million visitors every year. Facing the Hippodrome in the centre of Old Istanbul, its grey cascading domes and six minarets are one of Istanbul’s iconic views, the interior is just as stunning.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
This was my first visit to Istanbul and Sultan Ahmet Camii was high on my must-see list along with Hagia Sophia Mosque and The Basilica Cistern. Since they’re all in close proximity in the Sulthanamet this is the perfect place to start exploring the city.
Sultan Ahmet 1 became the 14th emperor of the Ottoman Empire in 1609 at the age of 13. In a sort of mosque face off he ordered the building of a new mosque to rival the nearby Hagia Sophia. The Sultan demanded the mosque have ‘altin minaret’ or gold minarets. His architect misunderstood and built the mosque with ‘alti minaret’ – six minarets instead. The only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was the Haram Mosque of Mecca. The religious leaders of the time were so outraged that the Sultan sent his architect to Mecca to build a seventh minaret so that the holiest of mosques could retain its superior status.
The Blue Mosque Courtyard
We approach the mosque from the West side near the Hippodrome for our first, close-up, glimpse. This is the best place to appreciate the mosque’s perfect proportions rather than from Sultanahmet Park. A step through the tall wooden gates and into the large square courtyard and we’re face to face with the spectacular dove-grey domes, marble walls and gold-tipped minarets.
At this point most people just stop and stare and the courtyard is busy with people gazing upwards in awe. The mosque is beautiful with its gently curved domes appearing to bubble upwards. We stay for half an hour exploring the courtyard enjoying the beautifully ornate cloisters and the views of the domes.
To enter the mosque itself we exit the courtyard and head around the outside to the south door which is for tourists. This also helps the prayer part of the mosque retain its sacred air. Worshippers enter through the main door after using the ablutions area.
As the mosque is a place of worship dress code is strict. Before we could enter I made sure my legs, head and shoulders were covered. We also took socks with us as shoes had to be placed in plastic bags before we could enter. Recently officials have become stricter and now there are more stringent checks to ensure that visitors dress appropriately. Robes are handed out to under-dressed tourists so if you don’t want to wear one of these don’t dress inappropriately. I visited again in 2014 and despite being covered I was still handed a robe to put on over my clothes.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the mosque is cool and we notice an air of hushed calm as visitors become aware of the beauty inside. A lone worshipper immersed in prayer kneels on the deep red carpet. The building is a work of art and earned the moniker’ Blue Mosque’ because of it’s ornate decoration. More than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles in traditional Ottoman patterns adorn the walls and ceilings. Lilies, carnations and tulips are depicted throughout. We were able to see some of the tiles from the ground floor although the majority are on the upper levels and out of sight.
The interior domes are intricately tiled, painted and decorated with verses from the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. We padded across the carpeting in our socks, necks craned upwards. Softly coloured rays of light filtered on to us through the 260 stained-glass windows.
Where: Meydanı Sokak 17, Sultanahmet, Istanbul
When: Open daily from 09.00 till 1 hour before dusk. Plan your visit to arrive mid-morning as the mosque is closed half an hour before until half an hour after prayer time – 90 minutes in all.
Prayers happen five times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at dusk. Avoid visiting a mosque within half an hour after the ezan is chanted from the Mosque minarets. On Friday the doors are closed at 11am and open again an hour after noon prayer.
Entry: Free but donations are gratefully accepted.
I have something of a sweet tooth and adore anything sweet and sugary. Turkey didn’t disappoint when it came to sweet treats and confectionery, some of it too sweet even for me, and that’s a first… The Spice Bazaar in Istanbul had stalls piled high with endless varieties of Turkish sweets and sugary scrumptiousness.
All sorts of varieties sold by this stall (below) note the Turkish Viagra right in the middle – also seen elsewhere labelled Ottoman Aphrodisiac!
Lokum, to use it’s Turkish name, has been produced since the 16th century and it’s basically made of solidified sugar and pectin. Turkish Delight in Turkey is firmer than I’ve had in the UK, slightly more chewy and much subtler. As well as the lemon and rosewater flavours there are dozens of variations on a theme; pistachio, almond, walnut, chocolate, ginger, clove and coconut to name but a few. My particular favourite was pomegranate with pistachios. Scrummy.
Baklava is a highly syrupy pastry made with layers of phyllo (filo) pastry, chopped nuts, syrup, and cut into cubes. It comes with a variety of luscious fillings, such as pistachio, hazelnuts and almonds. There’s also Kunefe, a ‘shredded wheat’ variety, of Baklava which looks like little bird nests or rolls stuffed with nuts and other goodies. Are your fillings screaming yet?
There are many confectioners in The Sultanahmet where you can try different varieties of Turkish Delight before having a box made up of favourites. Prices ranged from 38TL – 68TL per kilo and boxes could be bought in various sizes from a quarter to 1 kilo. And, in case you’re wondering, they did all make it home to friends and family!
From Pamukkale, we said goodbye to our host Mehmet and the amazing food at Melrose House hotel and took a coach down to the Bodrum Peninsular on the south-west coast for the third stop on our mini Tour of Turkey. This was a shorter daytime journey of just 4.5 hours so we were able to see some of Turkey’s beautiful scenery en-route and with cold towels and refreshments it was a much easier journey than the night bus to Pamukkale. We’d booked five nights in Bodrum; time to see the town and surrounding area and to kick back and relax after the previous full-on five days.
We arrived late in the afternoon into the port at Bodrum; white-washed buildings bright with the sunshine, glorious blue skies and all presided over by the impressive 15th century Ottoman Castle of St Peter. Such different scenery from the dry volcanic rock in Goreme and the travertines of Pamukkale.
At the far end of the bay is a modern marina crammed with sleek, white yachts, smart shops and eateries. As the bay curves round towards the castle the yachts thin out and all types of vessel jostle for space along the quayside. Fishing boats display the day’s catch in wooden crates packed with ice – the gleaming fish and seafood is as fresh as you’ll ever hope to eat.
Gulets, traditional Turkish boats, with varnished wood, polished brass and crisp, soaring sails moor alongside smaller vessels which hug the harbour walls. Fishermen tout day trips to passing tourists and it’s worth checking out the prices for some great deals on day trips here.
Check out tours, trips and activities in and around Bodrum here
Sightseeing in Bodrum was to have included the Castle of St Peter built by the Knights of St John and the town’s main landmark, the Museum of Underwater Archaeology, The Mausoleum – one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, a boat trip and some general meandering through the town. First stop, however, turned out to be the clinic. Mister’s foot and leg up to his knee were now seriously swollen from the wasp sting and so he spent the next day attached to a drip and was finally discharged at midnight. As always we had travel insurance and were covered for everything from taxis to and from the clinic, treatment and food whilst there and, of course, the medication for the next week. I’d like to know what type of wasp was the culprit because from what seemed to be just a minor sting caused a lot of problems and the scar remains months later. Not just your average wasp it would seem.
Due to the Big-foot situation we kept the rest of our stay in Bodrum fairly relaxed and didn’t get about as much as we’d planned. We had a wander around the town, with frequent Efes stops to help the swelling. All types of ‘genuine fake’ designer goods, souvenirs, rugs, cushions and local handicrafts overflowed into the shaded alleyways and we spent a fun half-hour perfecting our bartering techniques – or so I thought as I’m sure the shopkeeper ultimately got one over us but he was happy, we were happy and my Mum now has a delightful pair of Turkish slippers – not sure she’s so happy…
Beyond the shopping area is ‘bar street’ filled with bars (obviously!) and restaurants which look out onto a narrow shingle beach. Many of the bars and hotels have tables and chairs placed right at the water’s edge. Great for a drink whilst dipping our toes in the water and taking in the views across to the castle. Halikarnas, the largest outdoor nightclub in the world is in this area of the town – there’s something for all ages in Bodrum.
Bodrum Boat Trips
A day out on a boat is a must-do when on the Aegean and the deck of our smart wooden Gulet was kitted out with comfy cushions. A cool breeze fanned the heat and a good supply of Turkish Efes beer, and a delicious seafood lunch kept all seafarers happy. The sea was the purest blue and so clear we could have counted the pebbles on the bottom. Shoals of sparkling fish darted through the blue and we moored in a secluded bay, backed with pine-clad hills, and swam in the wonderfully warm waters.
We didn’t see as much as we’d originally planned in Bodrum but our few days there turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered!
Resting on a plateau above Pamukkale’s Cotton Castle in Turkey are the remnants of Hierapolis ancient city. With views over the dazzling white travertine terraces and 17 thermal springs, this town is home of the original spa break. Hierapolis and Pamukkale come neatly paired so if you’re visiting Pamukkale I recommend you take a wander through the nearby ruins of Hierapolis as well.
A Visit to Hierapolis
We enter the ancient city of Hierapolis at the South Gate having been dropped off at the top of the hill by Mehmet in the hotel minibus. This means no steep climb which is just as well because the late September sun is screaming down on us and Mister’s wasp sting is looking pretty angry. I leave him with his foot in a shallow spring – will the waters work their magic? – and head up the hill to investigate the well-preserved theatre.
Constructed around 200 BC the theatre held up to 20,000 spectators, the stage buildings are decorated with detailed reliefs and there is VIP seating at the front; the views from the Gods at the top across the Lycos Valley are stunning. Over the centuries the city of Hierapolis has been hit by several earthquakes and in 1334 a huge quake led to abandonment of the site, however, the theatre withstood the tremors due to the strength of the vaulted passages underneath.
Hierapolis Gate to Hell
Gateway to Hades – photo credit Wikipedia
I leave the theatre and follow the path down past the remaining foundations of the Temple of Apollo – dedicated to Apollo Lairbenos founder of the city. Had I crossed to the other side of the temple I’d have confronted the Gate to Hell – I’d have definitely sneaked a peek even if just to tempt fate! Named the Plutoniumthis small cave was believed to be the domain of the Roman god Pluto (Hades in Greek). Toxic gas was, and still is, emitted from an underground spring. The eunuch priests were the only ones with the power (or the savvy to hold their breath) to enter the cave and emerge unscathed. The small animals and birds they took with them didn’t survive. In recent years two tourists have died here and the subterranean entrance is now closed off – the fumes can apparently be heard bubbling through the underground spring as they rise to the surface.
Hierapolis Antique Pool
We bypass The Antique Pool – it’s warmed by hot springs and the water holds segments of ancient marble columns. You can also visit Doctor Fish to get your feet nibbled – but not really our thing. I hope it looks a little more antique inside…
We head down Plateia, the main street of Hierapolis, which runs for half a mile from the south gate to the monumental Arch of Domitian which serves as the northern entrance to the city. It has three arches and two towers, and was originally two stories high. The gate led into a colonnaded street known asFrontinus Street which was the centre of the city during Roman times.
To the left of the gate are the pillars of the latrine – the most public and the most ornate gent’s toilets I’ve ever seen – not that I’ve seen many gent’s toilets.
We pass through the Gate of Domitian and come to The Necropolis or graveyard which has three different areas, north, south and west. The north is the largest with more than 1200 graves including tumuli, sarcophagi and house-shaped tombs from the Hellenistic, Roman and early Christian periods.
Tomb with a view…
As long ago as 190 BC people travelled from afar to Hierapolis to take the waters and heal their ailments; although looking at the size of The Necropolis – the largest in Anatolia – it would seem that the waters were somewhat lacking. They certainly didn’t help Mister’s wasp sting – at least not half as much as the large, ice-cold Efes we had when we got back to Pamukkale town…
Hierapolis and Pamukkale visiting information
Entrance fees to Pamukkale and Hierapolis are 35TL (Aug 2017) to both attractions and entrance to the Hieropolis Museum of Architecture is a further amount. It’s also an extra cost to swim in the Antique Pool
Visit in spring or autumn to avoid the high-season crush. Start your visit with a stroll through Hieropolis and save your descent down the travertine for just before sunset. It’ll be quieter, cooler and the white terraces will glow golden in the last rays of the sun as the moon rises behind the plateau.