There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Stone Circle: Part 3 Sandon Bank to Swynnerton

Six weeks after the end of Part 2, the Seven Stars on Sandon Bank still looked as sad as only a derelict pub can look. Alison, Francis, Mike and I pulled on our boots in preparation for setting off west while Lee prepared to go south. Once we had pointed out which blue beer mug on the OS map he was standing outside, Lee agreed to join us walking west.

The Seven Stars, Sandon Bank
Looking as sad as only a derelict pub can
A stroll down the lane and a kilometre of easy field paths brought us to Marston where we rejoined the official Stone Circle route we had left above Hopton Heath. Walking on through the village, if three well separated houses, two farms and graveyard can be described as a village, we retuned to the field paths.

The pattern of the day began to become clear. Francis, whose Duke of Edinburgh scheme commitments have had him out walking every week, and Lee who has been visiting the gym, strode off into the distance. Mike and Alison plodded along behind apparently discussing weighty issues, while I wandered along on my own, taking occasional photographs of those in front and those behind.

Francis and Lee stride off into the distance...

Silaging was in full swing and we watched a huge machine hoovering up the cut grass and depositing it in a trailer driven alongside. A large field was cleared in remarkably little time.

...while Mike and Alison discuss weighty matters

We heard the A34 long before we reached it. High-speed traffic is difficult to judge, but we reached the central reservation safely, climbed the stile over the crash barrier and made it to the far verge. I have driven that road hundreds of times and never seen anyone brave (or stupid) enough to cross it, or even realised there was a stile.

Approaching Whitgreave, squadrons of swallows swooped backwards and forwards above the lane. This seems a bumper year for swallows, though Francis says swifts have been much less successful. We passed a pond with an excellent duck house, though not, presumably, bought at public expense.

Not the home of the local MP, Whitegreave

A footbridge took us across the M6 and from there to Shallowford we crossed fields of cereals while skylarks fluttered and sang above us. Six weeks before it had been Blackthorn flowering in the hedgerows, now it was Hawthorn, with its white - and occasionally pink - flowers and distinctive scent.

Isaac Walton’s cottage soon came into view. I failed to photograph it (what an amateur!) but if you want to know what it looks like, click here. I crossed the little bridge at Shallowford every working day for sixteen years, but I had never before approached it over the fields; it is amazing how different a familiar place can feel when seen from an unfamiliar perspective.

Three kilometres of road walking followed, though the roads were tiny and free of traffic. Here we were deviating from the official Stone Circle Route which follows the B-road to Norton Bridge before turning off alongside the railway.

The verges were thick with wildflowers: cow-parsley, speedwell, campion and many more. A chiffchaff sang, its brief performance followed and outshone by the liquid tones of a bird Francis confidently identified as a blackcap, ‘though the last time I heard a blackcap,’ he continued, ‘it turned out to be a garden warbler.’ I wondered how he knew this one was not a garden warbler. ‘It’s a blackcap’ he said, enigmatically, ‘you rarely see garden warblers.’ I was about to point out that we had not seen this bird either when he added, ‘Blackcaps prefer hedges, garden warblers hide in thickets.’ Looking about, I observed that hedgerows and thickets are not always distinct entities.

More cereal fields took us to bridges over first the Meece Brook, then the railway. Here, weed killer had been used to mark the path. It is not pretty, but I assume its preferable to having walkers crashing through the crops on whatever line they think might be right – it also excludes all possibility of navigational errors.

I wonder which way to go in this field?
Across the bridges and climbing round Lower Heamies, our path was blocked by a crop of rape growing so thickly as to be impenetrable. We had to walk round the field head, overgrown and deeply rutted as it was. With my ankle still sore from the Ramshaw Rocks I found this painful, and my problems were not eased by the plentiful stinging nettles. A bird sat on top of the rape, singing at us; Francis thought it might be a meadow pipit but was too busy failing to avoid the nettles to make a firm identification.

Alison among the nettles
With tingling legs we crossed the low hill, descended past an army shooting range to Yarnfield and found our way to the Labour in Vain. Although it is the second closest pub to home, this was, surprisingly, my first visit. A pint or two of Hook Norton, low in alcohol but full of character, and the landlady’s cheerful co-operation with Mike’s rewriting of her menu ‘I don’t want pickle or red onion and crisps, I want pickle and red onion but no crisps…’ might persuade me to venture there again.

The present inn sign shows a farmer sowing a crop while a flock of birds render his work futile; the old sign showed a couple trying to scrub a black boy white. Considered no longer suitable it was removed some fifteen years ago amid grumbles about ‘preserving traditional pub signs’ and, inevitably, ‘political correctness gone mad.’ We walked outside and sat in the garden – it was just about warm enough after our morning’s exertions. The old sign hangs outside the back door in the area frequented by recalcitrant smokers. As a painting, it is both a pleasing piece of early twentieth century whimsy and a historical document in its own right, but attitudes have moved on and it is now undoubtedly inappropriate for display on the public highway.

Wooded lane out of Yarnfield
It had been a long morning and a late lunch, so the afternoon was short. A pleasant wooded lane took us as far as Highlows Farm and then a kilometre and a half across Swynnerton Park brought us to the road behind Swynnerton Hall, from where it is a brief step to Dandly Towers. It was a simple stroll compared with December’s epic crossing of Swynnerton Park; this time the route was uncomplicated and sunshine replaced the blanket of snow and mist. The very last field was the finest wild flower meadow of the walk, carpeted in the usual buttercups and clover, but with other blue and yellow flowers I only wish I could identify.

The road behind Swynnerton Hall
And so, ten weeks after we set off, we finished in exactly the same place as we started. The 60 km walk is described as the Stone Circles Challenge, though this moderately fit sixty-year-old did not find it particularly challenging – at least not when taking three days over it. It can hardly be described as one of the world’s great walks, there are no hills to climb, rivers to ford or sweeping vistas to see, but it is a very pleasant walk and surprisingly varied. Mostly it crosses rich farmland, some of it arable, some grazed by cows or sheep, but there are also woodlands, streams in hidden dells and country villages. Even better, it started and finished on my own doorstep; what pleasanter way to spend three unusually sunny, and completely rain-free spring Saturdays?

The Stone Circle

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Istanbul (3): The Topkapı Palace and The Grand Bazaar

The Topkapı Palace was the home of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 until Abdül Mecit moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1856. It sits on the broad tip of the Sultanahmet peninsula alongside Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

Unlike European palaces, it is not a single building, but a series of pavilions in four courtyards – a stone version of the tented encampments of the earlier nomadic Ottomans.
Haghia Eirene, Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

The first courtyard is, and always was, open to anyone, though entering by the Imperial Gate may not have been an option in days gone by. It once housed a bakery, a college and a hospital; still there are the imperial mint, the 6th century church of Haghia Eirene – rare among Byzantine churches in that it was never converted into a mosque - and the fountain where the imperial executioner washed his hands and sword after nipping off a few heads. We strolled towards the Camelot towers that guard the entrance to the second courtyard, stopping only at the ticket office on the way.

The executioner's fountain
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
There is little in the second courtyard, the peacocks and gazelles of Ottoman times are gone, so we walked diagonally across it to the harem entrance, which requires another ticket. Guidebooks say you must arrive early to see the harem but turning up at 9.45, several hours after dawn prayers had been called, we may not have had the place to ourselves, but we were hardly fighting the crowds.

My idea of a harem is based on the adventures of Jim Dale and Kenneth Connor among the Vestal Virgins in Carry on Cleo. This may have little to do with history, but the idea of a life of ease and comfort, albeit in a gilded cage, is not easy to shake.  In the Topkapı harem, the walls are covered with blue tiles, giving the rooms a hard, cold feel particularly on a day that was not conspicuously warm. The few furnishings – maybe there would have been more and softer carpets and couches when the palace was in use - offered little comfort.

Inside the harem,
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The western system of kings having one wife and, therefore, one clearly defined oldest son to inherit the kingdom, has the advantage of clarity, even if it lacks quality control. With multiple wives, the status or ambition of a prince’s mother often trumped primogeniture. The sultan generally had dozens (occasionally hundreds) of sons, so succession was a serious problem. After Beyazit I died in 1402 (before the Ottomans took Istanbul) there was an eleven year interregnum while his sons fought over the succession. This was not good for the empire, so it became standard practice for the prince who grabbed the throne to start his reign by executing his brothers and half-brothers. By the 17th century such barbarous practices were no longer acceptable and it was part of the genius of the Ottoman sultans that they found a solution that actually made the problem worse.
Courtyard of the concubines,
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

On ascending the throne an emperor would now imprison his brothers in ‘the cage,’ a suite of rooms within the harem where they were tended by deaf-mutes, eunuchs and concubines. Being confined in luxury was an improvement for the sultans’ brothers, but not necessarily for those around them. More than one sibling was plucked from the cage to become emperor whilst having a very tenuous grasp on reality. Ibrahim the Mad (sultan 1640-48) was reputed to enjoy archery, but only using live human targets, and had all 280 of his concubines sewn into weighted sacks and dumped in the Bosphorus on the basis of palace tittle-tattle. These stories were disseminated, possibly even invented, by those who deposed him; there is no hard evidence for their truth – and none that he was anything remotely like a competent ruler.

We emerged from the harem into the third courtyard which contains a tiled pavilion that was once the library of Ahmet III, but is more remarkable for the artefacts housed in the pavilions around the edge.

Temporarily daunted by the queue for the treasury we took a quick look at the collection of imperial clothing. The Sultans were not, apparently, large men, at least not in height, and it was interesting working out exactly how some of the garments were worn. Fashion, it seemed, changed remarkably little over four hundred years.
In the third (or possibly fourth) courtyard, Topkapı Palace

Facing up to the Treasury queue, we shuffled round the four rooms in a slow moving crocodile. Peering into the recessed display cases we saw many expensive but rather useless objects. Jewelled flasks, bottles and arrow quivers might be beautiful but are of little use as flasks, bottles and arrow quivers, though a diamond encrusted suit of chain mail scooped the prize for pointless opulence. The 86-carat ‘Spoonmaker’s diamond’, the world’s fourth largest cut diamond, was allegedly found on a rubbish tip in the 17th century and does have a certain beauty. There is also a throne, a gift from the Persian Nadir Shah.

The Topkapı dagger - so-called only since it co-starred with Peter Ustinov in the 1964 film 'Topkapı’ - was made as a return gift to Nadir Shah. Unfortunately, the Shah died before the dagger was delivered and it was brought back to Istanbul.

View of the Bosphorus
from the fourth courtyard of the Topkapı Palace, Istanbul

A box of several dozen emeralds, some of them very large, for which no use had been found, seemed a fine example of conspicuous excess. To be fair to the Ottomans, when it comes to flaunting unused wealth, their treasury comes a distant second to that of the Shahs of Iran. In one room in Tehran, they gathered together all the justification ever needed for a revolution.
Across the courtyard are treasures of a different kind. In chronological order they are, the saucepan of Abraham, the staff of Moses, the sword of King David, the hand and part of the skull of John the Baptist, the mantle of the Prophet, and various strands from his beard. I know nothing of the history of the mantle or beard and it is possible that they are what they are claimed to be, but for the saucepan, skull, staff and the rest mere skepticism would seem foolishly naïve.

One tiled pavilion gets to look a lot like every other tiled pavilion
Topkapı Palace, Istanbul
The fourth courtyard has views over the Bosphorus on one side, the Golden Horn on the other and several pavilions in between. The problem with tiled pavilions is that it soon becomes difficult to tell one from another. The word translated as pavilion is ‘köşkö’, from which we get ‘kiosk’ – a word from which we have stripped the grandeur along with the accents.

Seeing the palace easily took up the whole morning and at lunchtime we headed down towards the Galata Bridge. Beyond the bridge a couple of ornate boats grill fish on deck and provide inexpensive fish sandwiches for a steady stream of punters. Siân and James recommend them, but we headed under the bridge to the more formal fish restaurants.
Fish sandwich, anyone?
By the Galata Bridge, Istanbul

A trolley of fish was wheeled up and various suspects examined. They were sold by weight, and the waiter popped them on the scales and I mentally calculated the cost. It was not cheap, these things never are. According to Lynne I then had an attack of meanness; I rationalized my decision by saying the fish was not the freshest I have ever seen. Straight out of the Bosphorus, we were told, but any Portuguese restaurant would invite you to choose from shinier, healthier, fresher fish than these.

We settled for the basic ‘portion of Sea Bream’, which may have disappointed the waiter, but it is his job to make me happy not vice versa. It was acceptable if a little dry and overcooked. The ‘complimentary’ fruit salad and Turkish coffee were far better.

We again walked back via the spice market and Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is a vast network of roofed streets – to call it a covered market is like calling the Grand Canal a ditch. There are areas for clothes, carpets, gold and silver, antiques and anything else you might wish to buy. Lynne and I are not great shoppers, but it was still fascinating to walk through. We ended up with several boxes of Turkish Delight, some extraordinarily expensive Iranian saffron (Turkish is much cheaper, but lacks the richness of smell, flavour and colour) and a coffee pot to replace the one we bought so cheaply in Egypt (we soon discovered why it was so cheap - it leaked).

Inside the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
That evening we returned to the restaurant we had visited on our first night. It was small and unpretentious, little more than a lokanta, though it served alcohol. We were recognised and welcomed, which is always pleasing. We decided to share one main course and add a series of vegetable dishes and from the reaction of the management we were doing nothing unusual. Steak and rice, green beans, aubergines, cheese and bread, were all washed down with a large glass of Raki – similar to Ouzo but with a rougher, just-distilled edge. It was our best meal in Istanbul.

The city has been officially called Istanbul by the rest of the world since 1930, but the name has been used locally for a thousand years. We spent most of our time in the old quarter, which has an exotic charm, but even here it is seems (and there are those who disagree) to be a city whose soul is Islamic, but whose heart is European. It is the only major world city to straddle two continents, but modern Istanbul is, if not in the European mainstream, not far from it. The vast rural hinterland in what was once called Asia Minor, may be another matter – I have not been there…yet.

We saw most of the major sights in three days, but it was hard work and there is much more to Istanbul than this. It is a city worthy of a longer stay.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Istanbul (2): The Cistern and the Dolmabahçe Palace

Istanbul is home to some of the world’s greatest mosques; it was, however, one of the smallest that most affected our stay. The Direkli Mosque, fifty metres from our hotel, may be tiny and the minaret may be merely a token, but it possesses a state of the art sound system. Dawn prayers were called, it seemed, by a muezzin sitting on the end of our bed.

After breakfast, we walked back into Sultanahmet, this time heading for the Basilica Cistern. Built by Justinian in 532 AD to supply water to the Great Palace, the cistern was lost during Ottoman rule but rediscovered when they found the locals going fishing in their basements.

The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Descending the 52 stone steps, we entered a cavern considerably larger than a football pitch, its 9 m high roof supported by 336 columns. Fed by a system of aqueducts from a source 20 Km north of the city, the water is currently about a metre deep. When in use it was considerably deeper, but there is still ample to provide a home for hundreds, if not thousands, of carp. Walkways allow the visitor to stroll between the columns to the present end of the cistern (a third of it was bricked up in the nineteenth century). The columns are a mixed bunch, being recycled from various sites in Constantinople and further away. Two, at the far end, have been placed on Medusa head pedestals. In one case the Medusa is inverted, in the other turned through 90º. The idea may have been to negate the petrifying power of the Gorgon’s gaze, or perhaps it was the easiest way to make them fit. Opinions are divided.

Inverted Medusa head pedestal, Basilica Cistern, Istanbul
Back at ground level we made our way to Gülhane Park which surrounds the Topkapı Palace (the dotless i indicating a vowel unstressed almost to the state of nonexistence) and found our way to the buildings containing Istanbul’s archeological treasures.

The Museum of Oriental history concentrates on the Babylonians and Assyrians, and has a truly remarkable display. The glazed friezes from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate caused some excitement, but the Assyrians are Lynne’s specialist subject and she was thrilled to find all her heroes were there; particularly Sennacherib, Shalmaneser IV and Tiglath-Pileser III. These 8th and 9th century BC kings were present as statues and also represented by the clay tablets so carefully scratched out in the cuneiform writing Lynne learned to read and translate at university.

Babylonian lion, Museum of Oriental History, Istanbul

It is a shame that most of the names we know from the dawn of history are of warriors with outsized egos. The contribution to human progress of Sennacherib and his cohorts was, I suspect, largely negative. I also never cease to be amazed that at least three times in history doting parents have looked at their newborn son lying gurgling in his crib and one of them has murmured, ‘I know, we’ll call him Tiglath-Pileser’.

Across the courtyard, the Museum of Archaeology houses a collection of ‘more recent’ artefacts from Sidon in modern Lebanon. The featured exhibits are a series of elaborately carved marble sarcophagi. The finest shows Alexander the Great hunting on one side and fighting the Persians on another. There are also two busts of Alexander, which are, more or less, contemporary with him.

Outside the park we looked for a light lunch and found a faux-Ottoman nargile café where trendy youths puffed away at the water pipes which have recently become unaccountably fashionable. We settled for Turkish coffee (this time excellent), Baklava and a plate of mixed Turkish Delight. It looked pretty and tasted wonderful; as a lunch it may have been low on fibre, but there was plenty of sugar.

Light lunch with ample sugar
Baklava, Turlish Delight and sweet Turlish coffee
We took the tram down to the Golden Horn, across the Galata Bridge and on to the end of the line. A ten-minute walk past the Beşiktaş Football Stadium brought us to the Dolmabahçe Palace.

Here comes the tram
Sultanahmet, Istanbul

The Ottoman Empire reached its zenith in 1529 when the armies of Süleyman the Magnificent reached the gates of Vienna. His son, Selim the Sot, seemed less capable of focussing on military expansion - or indeed on anything at all. For three hundred years the Ottoman Empire, like the Byzantine Empire before it, gradually decreased in size, power and wealth.

Realising they were falling behind, a series of nineteenth century sultans set about reform and modernisation, importing European ideas wholesale. In 1856 Abdül Mecit I decided the latest phase of modernisation would involve moving out of the Topkapı Palace, the homes of the Sultans since the fifteenth century, and building himself a whacking great European style palace beside the Bosphorus. Exactly how he thought this would help, particularly as he lacked the money to pay for it, is a mystery.

Lynne at the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

The Dolmabahçe Palace, the fruits of Abdül Mecit’s labour, is huge and magnificent, or at least it hangs somewhere between magnificence and bad taste. Despite being built largely in the baroque style the palace includes harem quarters, suggesting the sultan’s commitment to Europeanisation was, at most, partial.

Inside the entrance is a salon where visiting ambassadors waited to see the emperor. It was built to impress. We walked through the ground floor offices before climbing to the Sultan’s quarters via the ‘crystal staircase’, a double horseshoe staircase with balusters of Baccarat crystal. The Sultan clearly intended to live in comfort, but his main bathroom, carved from solid alabaster, may have been better to look at than to use.

After the First World War put an end to the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, had an apartment in the palace. He died there at 9.05 on the 10th of November 1938. Officially, all the palace clocks are stopped at 9.05. Unofficially, that is not quite true; it seems beyond the wit of humanity to have all the clocks telling the same time, even when they are stopped.

The Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

We descended to the Ceremonial Hall, designed to hold receptions for up to 2500 people and lit by the largest chandelier in Europe, all four and a half tonnes of it. Although it was made in England, Trotter’s Independent Traders did not win the contract to clean it. The hall is a huge domed room, but only the third largest domed room we had seen in the previous thirty hours.

For a while we sat in the gardens in the sunshine watching a couple of dolphins making their way up the Bosphorus. It was almost warm enough for Lynne to remove her pullover, but not quite.

A place to sit and watch dolphins
Bosphorus Gate, Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul

The tram took us home, perhaps not by the most direct route, but certainly the quickest. In the square by the Beyazit tram stop we bought some hot chestnuts; their sweet chewy flesh a perfect accompaniment to a drink before dinner. Hot chestnuts stands are common on the streets of Istanbul; I do not know if they have disappeared from English streets or I now live in the wrong place. If they have gone away, they should be brought back immediately.

For dinner we let a tout con us into a restaurant on the fourth floor of a nearby hotel. There was nothing obviously wrong with the restaurant, it was smart and well appointed - but empty. We ordered different lamb dishes which were satisfactory and reasonably priced, but there is little pleasure in being the only customers in an empty restaurant. After our main course the management seemed to lose interest in us, so we paid the bill and did what many Turkish people do, we went to a café for dessert. A glass of tea and a mixed plate of Baklava and Kadayıf is about as good as desserts get. The usual description of Kadayıf as ‘shredded wheat soaked in syrup’ does scant justice to its sticky loveliness.

Before turning in we checked the weather forecast. Almost the whole of southern Europe had spent the day bathed in warm sunshine, temperatures in Rome and Madrid had been in the high twenties and even in the north, temperatures over 20º were expected to continue in London and Birmingham. The exception to this rosy picture was Europe’s southeast corner. Being so far south and relatively close to the Mediterranean I had naively expected sunshine, but Istanbul was forecast to be no warmer than 14º - though rain was, fortunately, considered unlikely.


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Istanbul (1): The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia and the Bosphorus

Istanbul is vast. The homes and businesses of its fifteen million inhabitants - twenty per cent of the entire Turkish population - cover both sides of the Bosphorus and sprawl down the European coast of the Sea of Marmara. The centre and most of the history is on the European side which is split by the Golden Horn, a magnificent name for a modest jellyfish-filled creek running off the side of the Bosphorus. To the north is the modern centre, to the south, on an easily defended peninsula bounded by the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, is the ancient capital of first the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empires.

Old Istanbul has narrow, cobbled streets, mosques by the hundred, bazaars by the dozen, and one modern - if usually packed - tramway running round its edge.

Sultanahmet is the tip of the peninsula and we walked there from our hotel, following the tramway and passing the Column of Constantine on the way. Erected in 330 AD in what was then the forum, it once supported Constantine dressed as Apollo. He fell off in 1107 and the 35m stump, though carefully preserved, looks rather forlorn, crammed between tramway and shops. Interred in the concrete base is the axe Noah used to make the Ark, Mary Magdalene’s oil phial and the leftovers from the feeding of the five thousand. If you believe that, you may also believe it contains one of Shergar's hooves and Lord Lucan's left arm.
Constantine's Column, Istanbul

Peeling away from the tramway, we descended the hill to the hippodrome. Built in 200 AD, little now remains of the 100,000 seat stadium but the space is preserved, as are some of the monuments marking the spina, including the obligatory looted Egyptian obelisk.

The obligatory looted Egyptian obelisk
Hippodrome, Istanbul
Turkish football fans are renowned for occasionally losing their sense of proportion, but they are nothing compared to the fans of chariot racing. Fighting between ‘the Blues’ and ‘the Greens’ in 532 developed into the Nika Revolt. The Emperor Justinian eventually restored order by massacring 30,000 Greens in the Hippodrome. Given the number of tourists it is hardly a peaceful place today, but it is free of murderous Romans.

Byzantium was founded in the 7th century BC and spent its first millennium as an increasingly prosperous trading centre. It was of no great political importance until being rebuilt in the early 4th century AD by the Roman Emperor Constantine, who modestly renamed it Constantinople. In 395 the Roman Empire split and the city became first the eastern capital and then, when the western empire disintegrated in 476, the sole capital. A Greek speaking empire no longer containing Rome could hardly be called ‘Roman’, so it became known as the Byzantine Empire although the capital had not been called Byzantium for two hundred years. The empire reached its zenith under Justinian, he of the Hippodrome massacre. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Constantinople was Europe’s largest and richest city, but the empire was undergoing a slow but inexorable decline. By 1453 nothing was left but the city, now surrounded by the emerging Ottoman Empire.

Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottomans in 1453; the resulting westward flight of the city’s cultured elite helping to kick-start the Renaissance.

The great palace of the Byzantine Emperors stood next to the hippodrome, on the site now occupied by the Blue Mosque. Built between 1609 and 1616 for Sultan Ahmet I it was the last great mosque of the Ottoman classical period. It was criticised for its size and splendour at a time when the empire was struggling, and for its six minarets – a sacrilegious attempt to rival the architecture of Mecca.

A graceful cascade of domes and semi-domes
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
We entered the walled courtyard, which covers an area as the big as the mosque itself. From here the building, too big to photograph satisfactorily, is a graceful cascade of domes and semi-domes. It remains an active mosque so there is no entrance fee, but that does not mean there no queue. Leaving the courtyard we found the eastern entrance and a patient line of people waiting to funnel through a narrow arch. As in all mosques visitors are required to remove their shoes, but with the number of tourists and a one way system in operation the usual system of leaving your shoes in a rack is not practical. We filed past the plastic bag dispenser and took a bag each. Based on a non-randomised sample of two it would seem that 100% of the handles break as soon as you try to carry your shoes, so you end up clutching them to your chest. Signs request women to cover their heads; scarves were available, but those who reached for them were told, ‘no need, don’t bother’.

The dome of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

The blue tiles that gave the Mosque its name dominate the vast interior, but there are pinks and greens, too and they along with over 250 windows give a feeling of space and light. The huge interior sits under a vast dome set upon another even bigger dome supported by ‘elephant leg’ pillars, too fat to be elegant. Despite this, and the crowd, it has an air of calmness and serenity.

At the exit you find yourself looking across 200 metres of gardens at another massive domed building.

The first Haghia Sophia burnt down in 404 and the second was destroyed in the Nika Revolt of 532. Justinian, being a devout Christian (the sort of devout Christian who murders 30 000 people in a hippodrome), immediately set about building a new church. Completed in 536 it is considered the greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire and it is obvious how much the Blue Mosque, built over a thousand years later, owes to its neighbour.

Haghia Sophia, Istanbul
With the arrival of the Ottomans, Haghia Sophia became a mosque. The four minarets, rockets on ugly concrete pedestals, added little architecturally, while internally Islamic decorations were added but the ancient Christian mosaics were left undamaged. In 1935 the building was secularised and is now a museum.

We sat in a café between the two buildings watching the empty tour buses roll past. They drop their cargo outside the Blue Mosque and pick them up again after Haghia Sophia. After drinking Turkish coffee in many different places, this was our first in Turkey. It was disappointing, but that is what you get for using a café in the heart of the tourist area.

Queue negotiated and money paid we entered Hagia Sophia. The space inside is even bigger than the Blue Mosque but just as crowded. Fewer windows and the lack of shiny tiles mean the interior is dark and sombre. The floor plan is clearly that of a basilica, but the fittings are Islamic. There is a mihrab to locate the direction of Mecca, a minbar – performing the same function as a pulpit, but very differently designed – and marble platforms for reading the Koran. A marble circle marks the spot where the Byzantine emperors were crowned. This is the omphalos, the centre of the world. The last time we visited the centre of the world it was in Beijing, on the spot where Chinese emperors were crowned. Travellers may notice inconsistencies in mondial centrality, but the ego of emperors varies little. Above, Christian mosaics sit easily alongside Arabic calligraphy.

Lynne at the Centre of the World?
Ompholos, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
A gallery affords a closer look at some mosaics and reveals others that cannot be seen from the ground. Over a thousand years old, they have been recently restored and are a remarkable sight. An exhibition of photographs of the restored mosaics stands in the north gallery. Photographer Ahmet Ertuğ’s work is impressive and connoisseurs of irony can enjoy watching people photographing photographs while standing with their backs to the originals.
Constantine, Virgin & Child, Justinian
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Like any tourist honey pot, Sultanahmet offers a wide range of overpriced restaurants serving mediocre food. We were pleased to find a rooftop terrace which provided a reasonably priced cheese salad and a beer. To quote our daughter Siân, ‘Turkish food is meat, bread and salad in varying combinations’. The meat tends towards dullness, but the bread is good and varied, white and brown, flat breads and leavened breads, and the salads are crisp and fresh, containing something apparently unobtainable in England – tomatoes that actually taste of tomato.

Rooftop terrace overlooking Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
As the sun was shining, though it was not warm, we decided on an afternoon trip on the Bosphorus, so we walked down to the Golden Horn. The waterbuses have their berths around the Galata bridge, and those doing trips for tourists soon make themselves known to any obvious stranger.

Surprisingly, most of our fellow cruisers were Turkish. The sun shone from a largely blue sky, but the wind was keen and we huddled together on the open deck. Pulling away, we looked back at the Süleymaniye mosque on its hill above the dock. Finer than the Blue Mosque, though less visited, its profile is the most instantly recognisable view of Istanbul. We passed under the Galata bridge, dodging the dangling lines from the fishermen above, and made our way across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar, better known in English as Scutari where the Selimiye barracks, the site of Florence Nightingale’s hospital, still stand.

The Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul
The Bosphorus is 30 Km long and in some places as narrow as 600 m. We passed under the first Bosphorus bridge and cruised north along the Asian shore for an hour to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge built where the Persian emperor Darius assembled a pontoon bridge on his way to invade Greece. Nearby is an Ottoman castle constructed in 1452 just before the assault on the city. We returned along the European shore. Both shores are lined with the houses of the wealthy. On the Asian side there are a couple of nineteenth century palaces, while on both sides there are carefully landscaped neighbourhoods of large, comfortable modern dwellings.

Beylerbeyi Palace beside the Bosphorus
Our walk back across the centre of the peninsula took us through both the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, of which more later. That night we dined at a Lokanta, a cheap restaurant where much of the food is displayed in metal containers by the entrance. Neither of us ever eats Doner Kebab (or, in Turkish, Kebap) at home, but we made an exception because we were in Turkey. We felt no need to repeat the experiment.

Leavings the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge, Bosphorus