Hello everyone and Happy Belated New Year! As you can see, I took an extended hiatus from my reviewing my vacation, but I’m back to complete this journey. I will likely have one or two additional posts after this one to complete the comprehensive review. It’s very hard to believe that almost three months have passed since this incredible trip, and we are already looking forward to our next adventure!
When I last wrote, we had just completed a fulfilling and exhausting trek through Athens, Greece. We returned to the Norwegian Jade that night and settled in for the night with dinner in the Grand Pacific dining room and some dancing in the Spinnaker Lounge. On this particular night, Mr. B and I taught a group of Europeans how to do “The Wobble”. Good times were had by all!
EPHESUS, TURKEY – DAY 5
The fifth day of our 10 day cruise was another port day (this was a VERY packed itinerary). We had booked a tour to Ephesus through our Cruise Critic Roll Call: shout-out to CruisinShawnie for making the tour arrangements! Seventeen of us met at the port terminal in Izmir for our guided tour to the ruins at Efes (or Ephesus).
There are two major cruise ports for Ephesus: Izmir and Kusadasi. The latter port makes DIY travel to Ephesus a much easier experience than Izmir. BVB Tip: If your ship ports in Izmir, I strongly suggest a guided tour due to the scarcity of public transportation. Our tour cost us $45 per person (and they accepted US Dollars). It was VERY chilly when we arrived on land, but our guide told us the temperatures can reach up to 120 degrees F in the summer! (Be Forewarned!)
Our tour guide was Mert – pronounced “Matt”. He was a very knowledgeable and thorough tour guide; granted, I had no basis of comparison. The ride to Ephesus took about an hour from Izmir through the very scenic Turkish countryside. Upon arrival to Ephesus, we were handed our entry tickets and directed into the site.
The ruins at Ephesus were excavated from a mountain valley and are EXTREMELY well preserved. In fact, the site remains a work in progress; according to Mert, we won’t see the complete excavation completed in our lifetime. (!)
Our tour also included a visit to the Terrace Houses, which would be a separate entrance fee if you go independently. Built into the mountainside, the Terrace Houses offer a glimpse into how the wealthy residents of Ephesus lived. These ruins are in great shape and many of the frescoes and mosaics were preserved by the archaeologists.
Our tour guide gave us some time to explore the Library of Celsus and the Stadium, which seated 25,000 people at full capacity. We were also treated to a recreation of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra’s visit to Ephesus…Mert said “I believe you have a word for this in English…C-R-A-P”.
As we exited the archaeological site, Mert warned us to be cautious of the various vendors trying to aggressively sell items. This was our first introduction to Turkish salesmen, but ended up being NOTHING in comparison to our 2 days in Istanbul. Hubby and I opted to LOOK STRAIGHT AHEAD and made a beeline to the tour bus.
From there, we did a drive-by of the Temple of Artemis. For it to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, I expected to see more. I think my group did as well; no one wanted to get out of the tour bus to take photos.
Mert took us to a local restaurant/rug weaving shop where we dined on Turkish meatballs, salad, fruit and rice. It was much more appetizing than it sounds, lol. Then came the obligatory rug weaving demonstration/sales pitch. I read plenty about this in my pre-cruise research, and noticed that a weaving demonstration was a part of almost every tour in the area. They served us our choice of apple tea or Turkish coffee (sidenote: stir the coffee continuously!) and flung rugs at us with reckless abandon.
After a brief stop at a textile shop, Mert took us back to the cruise terminal and bid us a fond farewell.
That night aboard the ship, I took a whirl at karaoke and blessed the crowd with my rendition of Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know”. I’m still waiting for my record deal, by the way.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY – DAYS 6 AND 7
After a fairly uneventful night at sea, we woke up the next morning in Istanbul. This port was an add-on after Egypt was eliminated from our itinerary; we were both disappointed about the change in itinerary but we decided to make the most of it. People kept telling me that Istanbul is “magical”, so I kept an open mind. Sailing into the port is quite an experience; Istanbul has a remarkable skyline, with the turrets from the many mosques looming in the horizon.
We sailed past the Bosphorus Bridge (pictured above), which separates the European side of Istanbul from the Asian Side. Yep; the city of Istanbul spans two continents, the only city to do so. With enough time, you can ride a ferry from coast to coast to say you’ve visited both continents. We did have time for that, but chose to exercise other options.
We teamed up with another couple we met during the cruise for our day of sightseeing. Hubs and I had already exchanged our US Dollars for Turkish Lira (TL) in Florida, so we were set and ready to go. Our companions had not exchanged theirs yet, so we waited for them as they crossed the VERY busy major road to the bank across the street. I don’t know what kind of exchange rate they got…we might’ve come out better exchanging before our trip.
From there, we walked about 500 yards to the closest tram stop. For 3 TL we rode the tram from the port to the Sultanahmet tram stop, which is in close proximity to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topapki Palace. (This was SOOOO easy to do – I personally wouldn’t waste money on a Hop On/Hop Off Bus unless you plan to see ALL of Istanbul). Our first port day was a Monday, meaning that Hagia Sophia was closed, so we headed to Topapki (which is closed on Tuesdays, FYI). We had very little background on the palace, outside of my Rick Steves guide. Our cruise director offered an educational session about Istanbul the day before arrival, but we slept through it. Or were eating. Or something.
We had a hard time locating the entrance to Topapki…the signage could’ve been better, but we eventually got there. Entry fee was 25TL per person; the Harem was an additional 15 TL. We skipped out on the Harem, since our ship didn’t arrive into port until 1 and the palace closed at 5. (It really took us awhile to get there). There are some VERY impressive displays at Topapki..the men in our group were ooh-ing and aah-ing at the weapons collections, while we were drooling at the jewelry. I’ll be honest; my companions weren’t overly impressed with Topapki Palace. Personally, I thought it was pretty cool; it just shows the importance of having context when you visit a place.
After leaving Topapki, we decided to find the Spice Market. The sun was starting to set and it was starting to get very chilly, so we decided to save the Grand Bazaar for Tuesday. We eventually stumbled across the Spice Market, which is situated right near a very impressive mosque and the Eminanu Tram stop.
The Spice Market was my first true introduction to Turkish sales pitches. Yes, once we left the cruise terminal there were plenty of men trying to get our money, but the Spice Market was a whole other experience. At first, it’s what you expect; you walk past, a salesman beckons you to his shop, you politely decline with some form of “no thanks”. In the States, that would usually suffice. In Turkey, it’s followed up with “why not?”.
I wasn’t ready for “why not”. I’ve never been asked “why not” before. I had no retort. “Because…” isn’t strong enough, and I really had no reason NOT to stop at the shop other than not feeling like it. These guys don’t give up with a no…they keep hounding you for the sale. It was so bad that I eventually asked Hubs to stop touching merchandise and attracting unwanted attention. We were advised to tell shopkeepers that we were Canadian, as they have a perception that Americans had mountains of money to burn and therefore increase prices. (And Canadians don’t?) At one point, Hubs and I created our own language as we walked through the halls, just to confuse the shopkeepers. I think it worked.
After our Spice Market experience and buying a few lovely pashminas, we found the tram and headed back to the ship for dinner and a Turkish belly dance show. And more karaoke.
Day 2 started the same as Day 1; met up with our companions, went to the bank so they could exchange money, hopped on the tram. Clearly Tuesday is a MUCH busier day than Monday…people were packed into that tram like sardines. I don’t even know how we managed to get on the thing, honestly. There was no personal space to be had. We again got off at the Sultanahmet stop with plans to visit Hagia Sophia. The group was so unenthusiastic after our Topapki experience, but I wasn’t leaving Istanbul without visiting this museum. Entry fee again was 25 TL. We used the signage and my guide book to understand the museum a little better. And I think it’s safe to say that everyone was officially blown away when we entered the main center of the church and saw the massive dome. (I felt validated by their reactions).
We toured the remainder of the museum, exploring the upper galleries and mosaics, before exited into the main garden area. We decided to visit the Sultan Tombs (located to the left of the museum exit, at no extra charge). Out of reverence, you are asked to remove your shoes before entering the tombs, which not only house the remains of the Ottoman sultans, but their ENTIRE family. (Wife, kids, in-laws, etc). Some of them had 20-40 tombs inside….very unique experience.
We took a few pictures of the Blue Mosque but decided not to go inside, instead heading over to the Underground Cistern. We couldn’t find it at first, and found a Water Closet instead (W.C.) They charged .50TL to use the toilet, but thankfully, they had toilet paper! (BVB Tip: you need to carry around your own supply or wetnaps, as TP is not a guarantee).
After double-backing down the street, we came across the Cistern. It’s in a fairly nondescript building, which is why it was very easy to pass by. This sight is NOT to be missed and is worth every bit of the 10TL they charge to get in. I can’t even describe it – it’s just COOL.
After leaving the Cistern, we found our way to the main attraction: The Grand Bazaar. The first shopping mall and one of Istanbul’s biggest draws, the Grand Bazaar contains hallway after hallway of shops, booths and cafes..over 3,000 to be exact!! It’s completely overwhelming and totally awesome. We walked through for awhile, eventually bidding adieu to our companions and tackling the remainder of Istanbul on our own. We got lost; wonderously, marvelously lost, eventually ending up back in Sultanahmet. We sat down for lunch at a small place called The Pudding Shop that Mert in Ephesus had told us about…I’m thinking it was a tourist trap. Especially when a tour group arrived for lunch. We had Turkish meatballs and enjoyed the FREE wifi (!) before dragging our exhausted bodies back to the ship. Istanbul kicked our butts.
That night, back on the ship, we changed into our all-white gear and sat down for sushi at Lotus Garden restaurant. Norwegian’s signature event, the White Hot Party, was that night and did NOT disappoint. It was the highlight of the cruise for me!
The ship really got to rocking during the party….we thought it was due to the sweet moves were bustin on the dance floor, or maybe the cocktails…but no. The sea had gotten a little rough. We really felt it heading back to the cabin, as we wobbled down the hallway. At first it was cute…but our next day was a sea day….