Historic Istanbul, Turkey

sIstanbul has long been a lure for travellers in pursuit of the exotic, the city where Europe and Asia meet in harmony yet where the whiff of an alien culture is obvious.   Just over a hundred years ago, it was as far as the sensible person on the Grand Tour would venture and it was the stopping place for that most exotic form of transport in those days, the Orient Express.   It was where Christians met Muslims, a city of fewer than a million people, the city with a well-preserved heritage from Byzantine churches to Ottoman palaces.

Sunset in Istanbul
Sunset in Istanbul

Today’s world travellers venture much further in their quest for exciting destinations but Istanbul still manages to stir the senses.  This derives from many things, from the faces of its citizens who hail from many regions of the country and on whose faces is written the country’s history, the magnificent architecture ranging from early 5th century to present day designs in glass and steel, and from the mosques and churches with their mosaics and fine carpets that point to the continuity of the two cultures side by side.

If you have only one day there, perhaps on a cruise ship, then the two most important sights are the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque.  But if you have longer, than take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus and have a fish sandwich at the end of it (fresh fish from the Bosphorus fried on board and slapped between two pieces of bread).

The following places should be included in your tour.

On the Banks of the Bosphorus, Istanbul
On the Banks of the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Basilica Cistern

A magnificent underground reservoir with 336 columns each one 9m high beneath a high vaulted ceiling.  Visitors walk through this forest of pillars on raised wooden boards above carp-filled waters which reflect the columns.    It was built in the 4th century during the reign of Constantine the Great and creates an impressive atmosphere.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapı -palace
Topkapi Palace with Bosphorus in Background

Topkapi is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive until today.  Situated on the site of the first settlement in Istanbul, it commands an impressive view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.   Once home to the Ottaman Empire’s ruling sultans from the mid 15th century to the mid 19th century this sprawling palace was turned into a museum on orders from Ataturk in 1924.  Inside it consists of richly decorated chambers, pavilions overlooking the Bosphorus which were part of the private world of the harem, and holds some of the fantastic diamonds and other jewels of the  Court.  Most famous of these is the Topkapi emerald-encrusted dagger.  Television still shows the Jules Dassin film of the same name, Topkapi, starring Melina Mercouri, Peter Ustinov, Maximilian Schell, and Robert Morley which was about the attempted theft of this famous emerald. If you have never seen it, catch it next time it is screened: it is well worth watching.

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul

Said to have been founded by Istanbul’s first  Ottaman ruler, Mehmet ll, the Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous souks in the world.  It is a town within a city, miles of alleyways lined with over 4,000 shops which makes it an easy place in which to get lost.  Everything from jewellry and carpets to Turkish delight and fake handbags is for sale here.  The salesmen are experts at their job and you need to be firm if you don’t want to buy a silk carpet (which they can ship home for you) or a rug or a kelim. Caveat Emptor.

The Blue Mosque

Its real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque but everyone knows it now as The Blue Mosque, the only one ever to be built with six minarets.  One of the most famous monuments of Turkish and Islamic art it is a fine example of classical Turkish architecture.
The architect, Mahmet Aga decorated the interior in jewel-like colours and it features stained glass, marble latticework and thousands of beautiful blue tiles which give it its name.  It was built in the early 17th century and was originally part of a larger complex of baths, public kitchens, a covered bazaar, a hospital, schools and a caravanserai, few of which survive today.

If at all possible, try to view the mosque from the sea when, dominating the Old City skyline, it is breathtaking.

Aya Sofia

Hagia_Sophia_Pan_compressed

The Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, was responsible for the commissioning of this Christian church in 532 AD, the crowning glory in Christiandom’s crown for a millenium.  Under the Ottamans it became a mosque but it is now a museum, famous for the seemingly unsupported vast dome of golden mosaics and stained glass windows.

Hagia Sofia interior
Hagia Sofia interior

Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sofya or Haga Sofia) is one of the most visited Museums in the world.   Used as a Christian church for 916 years, it was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed and remained so for 482 years. In 1935, a decision by Kemal Atatürk and the Council of Ministers, meant that Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, which it remains to this day.

Hagia Sophia is open for visit every day except Mondays.

Istikal Street Monument
Istikal Street Monument
Istiklal Street
Istiklal Street

IMAGES PROVIDED BY TURKEY TOURISM

Honfleur – Normandy’s Prettiest Port

Honfleur Port

Now that the Eurostar has put so many French towns and cities within reach of the UK, the big decision is where to go. Yes, Paris is wonderful, but there are many other lovely places within a few hours of London, or just a hop across the channel from Dover or Portsmouth, and one of the loveliest is Honfleur.

Of all Normandy’s coastal resorts, Honfleur is the prettiest – it is like a postcard come to life – with its yacht-filled harbour lined with cafes. Most people will be familiar with the look of the town from the dozens of Impressionist paintings in which it features, from local-born painter Eugène Boudin to Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir and Monet, who followed Renoir from Paris to paint the ever-changing light.

Honfleur Houses

Today the town still acts as a magnet for artists and there are probably more galleries than cafes or restaurants, and more bad art per square metre than anywhere else in France! Of course there is good art too, and you may pick up a bargain, but you will have to fight off the new rich oligarchs who now make up most of the tourists.

Blue Door, 17th century House
Blue Door, 17th century House

Its exceptional geographical position makes Honfleur an ideal base to discover the route du cidre or the route des fromages, for walks around the Seine estuary in the steps of the impressionists, for visits to the bustling resort of Trouville, to historic Rouen, and to the Pay d’Auge valley for some of Normandy’s best cider and cheeses. Its harbour invites one to sit and relax over a coffee and cognac, lunch like the locals on the local moules, and watch the manoeuvering of boats in the harbour while the sun goes down.

Mussels and Cider in Honfleur
Mussels and Cider in Honfleur

Normandy’s fertile countryside supports a rich dairy industry and prolific apple orchards, the basis for its cuisine based on the three Cs – cream, cider and cheese. And from the cream of course, comes the famously rich Normandy butter and from the apples comes the famous Calvados.

There are beaches to die for in Normandy, as indeed some did in the Second World War, and visits to the famous battlefields can be easily arranged. There is a small beach in Honfleur but it would not suffice as a ‘holiday beach’, but is adequate for a day’s sunbathing.   Honfleur

A few things not to miss.

The Vieux-Bassin, (old dock) in the heart of the town, and the high, narrow old houses which overlook the harbour on three sides.

Saint Catherine’s Church built entirely of wood.

Honfleur Wooden Church Spire

Old Wooden Church, Honfleur
Old Wooden Church, Honfleur

The Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Chapel has relics of the first explorations that marked the beginning of the first colonisations in New France (Canada). One of the oldest sanctuaries in the area still stands on the plateau de Grâce, surrounded by ancient trees.

The Eugène Boudin Museum houses paintings by the 19th and 20th century painters from Honfleur and around, who followed Boudin – Dubourg, Jongkind, Monet, Courbet, Dufy, and others. Also on display are drawings and paintings bequeathed to the town by Eugène Boudin.

Les Maisons Satie Museum paying tribute to Erik Satie, musician and composer born here in 1866.

The Greniers à sel (Salt granaries): these date from 1670 and were used for storing up to 10,000 tons of salt at a time. Today these vast stone buildings are used for exhibitions, concerts and conferences.

Honfleur, charcoal statue outside antelier

And find time to take a trip around the estuary, stroll along the backstreets where you will come across little museums, odd statues and traditional markets and discover the spirit of old Honfleur.

Syracuse, Sicily: Greatest Greek City in the World

Syracuse (often spelt Siracuse) in south-east Sicily, is often overlooked in favour of the more touristy Taormina but the visitor to Sicily should not miss this city that was described by Cicero as the greatest Greek city in the world.

Assaulted by Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arabs, Normans and Spanish, Sicily has absorbed these foreign cultures and made it her own, perhaps best exemplified by the Cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, the delightful pedestrianised square in the heart of Ortygia, the island in the centre of Syracuse.

The façade of the cathedral is 18th-century and like so much of Sicily’s architecture, it was erected following the earthquake of 1693. It is actually built on successive altars to the Temple of Athena, the doors of which were said to be made of gold and ivory. Round about the 17th century the temple was transformed into a Christian church which later became the Cathedral. Walk down Via Minerva to view the outside of the Duomo and see how nothing was wasted: the giant Doric columns of the Greek temple to Athena were incorporated into the church that superseded it.

Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the duomo
Ancient Greek Pillar still supporting the Duomo

Syracuse Town

Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa
Courtyard in Piazza Duomo, Siracusa

The Piazza is regarded as one of the most beautiful in all Italy with the Cathedral on one side and various Baroque palaces dotted around the square. Day and night the piazza is a scene of energy and life as the ground floors of the once-great palaces now mostly operate as restaurants, cafés and bars.  On a warm evening there is no better place in Syracuse in which to sit and enjoy an espresso or aperitif.

A Bridge Links Old and New Siracusa
A Bridge Links Old and New Syracuse

There are two main areas in the town, the archaeological area which includes Greek and Roman theatres and remains, and Ortygia, a small island that feels more like a tiny peninsula, with beautifully restored Baroque buildings, a number of fine hotels and some great restaurants.

The Archeological Area

Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Siracusa
Temple to Apollo in Piazza Archimedes, Syracuse

In the Neapolis Archaeological Park situated in the northwest of the town, are a number of well-preserved Greek and Roman remains.

Greek Theatre, Siracusa
Greek Theatre, Syracuse

The main attraction is the Greek theatre (not to be confused with the more often photographed Greek Theatre in Taormina which has as its backdrop the snow-capped Mount Etna) where the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides are still performed from May to the end of June each summer as they were more than 2,000 years ago.

Started in the 5th century when Syracuse was one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world, the theatre is considered to be one of the most perfect examples of Greek architecture to have survived and can accommodate up to 15,000 spectators in its 59 rows.

The Ear of Dionysis

The nearby fragrant lemon grove was once an old stone quarry used at one time to house 7,000 Athenian prisoners of war, the limestone dug from it in 500 BC being then used to build Syracuse.

The Ear of Dionysis 4

Wander into the vast man-made chamber known as Dionysius’s Ear, a 20m high pointed arch cut into the rock face which owes its name to a visit by Caravaggio in 1608. Used as a prison, the excellent Cathedral-like acoustics meant that the prisoners’ conversations could be heard from outside.

There is also an impressive Roman amphitheatre, approximately 140m long, built in the 3rd Century AD where traditional blood sports took place, gladiators and wild animals providing the blood-letting that was so much part of these offerings. The hole in the centre is believed to have been a drain for the blood and gore – as one guide told me – or, a space for scenic machinery – as another guide told me!

Roman Amphitheatre, Siracusa, Sicily
Roman Amphitheatre, Syracuse, Sicily

The Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from the park and if time allows, it is worth a visit.

Ortygia, 2,55 Years of History

At only 1km by 500m, the best way to see Ortygia is just to wander through the area admiring the Norman buildings and the Baroque decorative facades. Enjoy the sun at one of the cafes in the area sipping a café or an aperitif, or lunch al fresco at one of the many good restaurants on this tiny island.   Take a picnic and sit on the seawalls and admire the fish that swim lazily in the clear waters of the bay.

Clear Waters of the Bay in Siracusa, Sicily
Clear Waters of the Bay in Syracuse, Sicily

One could easily walk past the Fountain of Arethusa. filled with white ducks and surrounded by walls of greenery, as it looks so unpretentious but it is one of the most important sights in Syracuse.

Legend has it that the Arcadian nymph Arethusa, fled underwater to Syracuse to rid herself of the amorous advances of the God Alpheios and the Goddess Artemis transformed her into the freshwater spring that we see today.

The ruins of this Doric temple stand incongruously in the middle of the town (you can’t miss it as it’s on a main thoroughfare), on one side of which is a bustling market with sellers hawking clothes, handbags, umbrellas and anything else that will sell.

Temple to Apollo 4
Temple to Apollo, Siracusa, Sicily

It seems such a pity that the Temple is not isolated so that visitors could enjoy it in tranquillity, but then it was probably full of bustling life when it was in use back in the 8th century BC when it was at its most active. It is the oldest temple in Sicily and over the centuries it has been a Byzantine church, a mosque and a Christian church.

Citrus from Sicily
Citrus from Sicily

Plato visited Sicily several times as did Simonides and Pindar, and Aeschylus sang of its beauty. Its enormous military power made it capable of withstanding attacks from Carthage and Athens and it remained powerful until the Arab conquest in 878 when it lost its supremacy.

 

See also, Syracuse: The Other Bits

Today Syracuse is a pleasant town in which to spend a few days – more if you want to travel beyond it, say to Noto, a perfect day out.

Arethusa Spring, Siracusa
Arethusa Spring, Siracusa