istanbulphotos by Jane Frotton

So, with a quick view of Athens behind us, and a great night’s sleep in a beautiful hotel right in the city,  we boarded a bus for the short trip to Lavrion Harbor to meet our ship, the Celestyal Crystal, a Greek shipping liner that fortunately is considerably smaller than those floating feeding stations that accommodate thousands on 10 to 16 decks and long walks to restaurants and lounges. Another advantage to a smaller ship is hitting some of the islands the big boys can’t get into, which means fewer lines, smaller crowds, and friendlier natives.

But before even seeing more of Greece, we were treated to  a charming cruise through the Dardanelles, that narrow strait that connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Named for one of the mythical sons of Zeus, it’s 38 miles long but very narrow and up to 300 feet deep in some places. Water is flowing in both directions through the strait because of two different currents, which must make it kind of tricky for the captains.  It’s reported to be one of the most hazardous, most crowded and most potentially dangerous waterways in the world, but you’d never know all that from our cruise through. They said we were a bit late getting to Istanbul because of the tricky currents, but there again, a friendly, fun-loving and very efficient crew made up of people from all nations made it most enjoyable.

Before you arrive on land, you can see the bridge across the Bosporus that connects Asia and Europe, making Istanbul the only city in the world that spans two continents.

And what a city it is.

A Muslim nation, the people of Turkey are more anxious to show off their beautiful city, their ancient treasures and their wonderful families rather than talk about any differences in thought or creed, They’re warm hearted, friendly, smiling, and very welcoming to visitors. As magnificent as their ancient wonders are, they are up to speed with modern conveniences as well. We had lunch at a Best Western, dining on peppers stuffed with rice, beans and black olives as an appetizer, then meatballs, chicken, Turkish potato salad, string beans, another mixture of fresh vegetables and lots of fruit…watermelon, honeydew, pears, peaches and grapes.

istanbul 2

Clearly a must see in a city filled with castles and palaces, museums, and libraries, is Topkapi Palace, a sprawling series of walkways and courtyards connecting the several buildings that were once the residence of the conqueror, Mahmet II, who had it all built in the mid-1400s.  That’s 700 years ago! First a residence, once a seat of government, at another time a school to train Turkish soldiers, it’s been a museum for most of the 20th century and remains a popular spot for visitor and tourist alike.

A day or a week isn’t enough to explore all of Topkapi, but you can get an idea of the wealth and traditions here as you stroll through rooms filled with collections…of ceramics and glass, arms and armor, clocks, manuscripts and costumes, more correctly the actual royal wear of the early Sultans.

Istanbul is also the home of the Haghia Sophia, or Church of Holy Wisdom which was built in the 6th century and is a living gorgeous tribute to architectural achievement. It was built on top of two churches which had been built in the 4th century, and is filled with magnificent Byzantine mosaics seen nowhere else.

Of course a visit to Istanbul also has to include a visit to the Bazaar, street after street filled with shops, vendors, hawkers, stalls and coffee shops, and where it’s possible to buy anything from exotic spices and teas to  magnificent carpets and silks. Crowded? Always! Safe? Certainly seems that way! Fun? Beyond a doubt!
 
With only one day in Istanbul we headed back to the ship and a short cruise to Kusadasi, the second of three Turkish cities we visited, and once again were greeted by friendly folks happy to show off their country.

We arrived in Kusadasi in the morning, but had enough time for Msgr. Selemi, who accompanied the OLPH-St. Agnes group on the trip organized by Nuovo Tours, to offer mass aboard ship. It was obvious from the number of crew members who attended the mass, simply offered on a table in the entertainment lounge, with pita bread and table wine consecrated by Selemi during the mass, it was a rare opportunity for them, and one they appreciated. For the passengers, it was a time to give thanks as well as hear some stirring words from Selemi on the sites we had seen, the sites we were still to see, and  the Apostles who had walked the very same lands we were walking.

istanbul 3After walking through magnificent ruins built, like just about everything else, on the side or top of mountains, and seeing the incredible construction that was done thousands of years ago with primitive tools and lots of manpower, we arrived at Ephesus, one of the greatest ruined cities of the western world, built by the Greeks more than 1,000 years before Christ but now part of turkey after centuries of rule under different nations depending on the outcome of various wars.  The highlight here, however, was not of war, soldiering, or architecture. Ephesus is reported to be the city where St. John took the Mother of God after Christ’s crucifixion and cared for her for the rest of her time on earth.

That…and the miracle I believe I witnessed there…..is another story.