Encouraged by the travel lecturer on board, we got up at 5:50 a.m. to look at the skyline of Istanbul as the ship made her way up the Bosporus to the Golden Horn. It was hazy out, but strengthened by reasonably good coffee and pastry we stared over the railing until the sun came up and the buildings became more visible.
It became quite beautiful — although while dawn on the Bosporus sounded like it would be high on my romantic index, there is something about standing among some two or three hundred red-eyed tourists that doesn’t exactly create an intimate moment. I did see a few couples holding hands — and one couple where a young woman watched the scenery go by in her partner’s arms — so there were romantic possibilities for people who were able to shut out the rest of the world and only see each other.
After breakfast and a serious amount of additional coffee, I left the boat to meet Turkish friends of my friend Lana. Lana’s husband Lyn had met Selim and Nadire at a medical meeting (all three are doctors) and convinced them to write books on treatments for disabled children for a global charitable project. It is a special kind of person who will write a medical text without receiving money for it — and Selim and Nadire are certainly exceptional people. Selim - tall, thin and a bit bookish — and Nadire — small, fit and sexy with big and frequent smiles — looked younger than people who had three children over the age of sixteen. They were sailors and athletes as well as coauthors and parents and described themselves as centrist Moslems. They whisked me away to the Grand Bazaar.
I love the Grand Bazaar. I love the high vaulted ceilings and the branches off the main aisles that beckon with the promise of thousands of new booths. Everywhere you look there are colorful wares competing for your eyes and senses. I am happy just browsing and looking around.
But of course I did more than look around. I bought a small turquoise bracelet for my daughter, an old sword for my son (he collects them) and a jade bracelet and antique Persian book illustration for myself. I ogled carpets and dishes and scarves and silver — but managed to fend off the impulse to buy it all.
It’s an overwhelming place — and yet, not impersonal. I had a great conversation with the man who sold me the Persian illustration (he had amazing drawings and paintings in his pint-sized booth) and we ended up taking pictures together. I had to be dragged out of there.
I was anxious and pleased, however, to be invited to Selim’s ancestral home, a traditional wooden building in a changing neighborhood. There I met his brother and sister-in-law who offered me tea and a mini introduction to Sufi theology about sexuality. His brother, having been told I was a sex and relationship expert, explained to me that his Sufi religion had little-known teachings about sexuality and its deeper connection to spirituality and transformation. He invited me to return some day and meet some of the masters of the religion who could tell me more. He was gracious and I was rapt and intrigued.
After that we went to see the gorgeous mosaics at the Chora Museum. The former Byzantine church is as it should be, said Selim. Modest on the outside, artistic within. I took about fifty photos of the intricate religious mosaics, and then we left the divine to concentrate on feeding our mortal bodies.
Selim and Nadire went to the modern street they like best — Istiklal Caddesi — a cross between the broad shopping streets of Paris and the Ginza in Japan. We went to an excellent restaurant, Haji Abdullah, which was on a side street off Istiklal. It was composed of three large rooms decorated with Turkish art and big jars of stored fruits and vegetables.
The custom in Turkish restaurants is to go up to a counter filled with all the appetizers and some of the main dishes and pick out selections that look good to you. Salim, Nadire and I were famished by the time we looked over the choices and they ordered just about everything on the display counter. There were artichokes in olive oil, glorious string beans, mashed eggplant and lamb, stuffed grape leaves, lamb shank, grilled eggplant, chopped tomatoes, steamed fish and some sweet red goop with strawberries in it that looked and tasted like liquid Jello. Selim said that foreigners often found it too sweet and I was no exception. After this feast we went to Selim’s favorite chocolate shop where he bought a creation that resembled profiteroles smothered with chocolate sauce. It was not wonderful and Selim agreed that it was not its usual quality.
My hosts had a wedding to go to that night and invited me to relax at their place while they were gone and stay over night. But it was the last couple of nights of the trip and I thought I should rejoin my group.
They dropped me off at the ship and I rejoined Janet and her family. We had dinner and discussed the last and final day in Istanbul. Janet’s brother had hired a guide and tomorrow we would do all the usual tourist spots — the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Cistern. They had toured Topkapi museum while I was with Selim and Nadire and loved it (I had been there twice before and while I enjoyed seeing the Harem quarters and the baseball size emeralds and diamonds, I had no desire to go a third time). A couple of the group, against advice, had gone to the more modern Dolmabahce Palace and regretted it. The tour is boring, the rooms are garish and there really is absolutely no reason to see it.
So the next day we did the tourist sights and they are popular because they deserve to be. The Blue Mosque is huge with some beautiful tiled walls, but once I am in hoards of tourists I find it I hard to connect with a place. This was also true for Hagia Sophia — although Selim’ s brother had urged me to connect with the female spirit of the space. I tried — but the people distracted me. Hagia Sophia has a rich background, however, of being both church and mosque, and though now a museum there is a feeling in this place of the hundreds of years of religious history that have enlivened it’s interior.
The next stop, the Cistern was new for me. It was constructed long ago using scavenged Roman pillars to create a holding tank for city water. Dark and lit at the base of the pillars, it is a mixture of creepy and romantic — more the former than the latter — but definitely worth seeing.
So that was it. We had disembarked the ship that morning — really quite sad to say goodbye to the Azamara’s excellent staff and pampering. I thanked Philip Herbert, the hotel manager again for his kindness and for the wonderful room he had given us — and had several embraces with waiters and other people who had taken exceptionally good care of me.
We transferred for our last night to the Intercontinental Hotel, a chain frequented by Janet’s brother. It was big, glitzy (crystal struts for the winding stairway in the middle of the lobby that went from the first to the second floor) and our room was quite lovely with a nice view of the city and the hotel pool.
It was international style however, and except for European plugs for appliances we could have been anywhere. Some people love the predictability and elegance of such hotels and I like them in the United States. In Europe however, if I can, I prefer something more local. Still, it was a beautiful hotel and well run.
So, how do I rate the trip on the romantic meter? The Azamara was an excellent ship and an easy place to be lovers, tour the islands and watch the sunset. The food, service and spa services were first rate. Our room, the next upgrade from a balcony room, was terrific. It had a big enough balcony for a small table and chairs and a lounge chair. Some of the nicest moments on the trip were spent on that balcony, drinking good coffee and watching one island after another go by. The other balcony rooms were nicely appointed and came with a personal valet, but suffered from modest bathrooms and downright awkward and small showers.
My favorite romantic place on the trip was Santorini, hands down. The views from the town of Oai were breathtakingly beautiful. For monuments, Ephesus of course, but in particular, the relatively new reconstruction of elegant Roman homes. And finally, Istanbul. A city of life, diversity, political contradictions and endless shopping, restaurants, neighborhoods and monuments to explore. This was not my first trip to Istanbul, and it won’t be my last. Next time I want to see much more of Turkey, a land of beauty, art, and mysteries of history.