- Make sure your passport is up to date. That means you have at least 6 months left after your planned return to Australia.
- Check if you need visas or vaccinations. Visas can be tricky and depend on the passport you are travelling on as well as where you are going. Your travel agent will be on top of this – and also will know if you need vaccinations.
- Travel Insurance. Essential. Check the fine print. Look for what isn’t covered as much as for what is, (what if you get hit by a bicycle, break a tooth and need dental care, get sick and miss your tour??)
- Copy the important documents (passport, itinerary, insurance details) and leave the copies behind with a relative or friend.
- Have a well-packed carry-on. Be prepared – if you are travelling budget you may need a pillow, eye shade, water, snacks, something to read, a screen. Take a few essentials in case your luggage is mislaid
We have another day in Istanbul after disembarking from the ‘Minerva..
We disembarked early in the morning and headed for a hotel which we have booked in the Old Istanbul. We thoroughly enjoyed our time on board ‘Minerva’, it has something no other cruise we have done has, though we believe that Saga (which do not sail to Australia) has a similar ambience. The cabins are quite simple compared to those on other ships – even the suites which have balconies, however the public areas are like an English country house, spacious and friendly with comfy armchairs and cosy sofas. There are a number of different areas to sit including an excellent library, classified in the Dewey system (though don’t look for a catalogue). There are two bars and two restaurants – both served by the same kitchen, but one casual buffet style and the other formal. Many of the passengers are serial travellers with Swan Hellenic and were discussing past and future cruises and making plans to meet up again at the next cruise. It felt like belonging to a friendly English country club.
After dropping our bags we headed for Topkapi. This was an option on the excursion program yesterday but we had already booked Old Instanbul. Topkapi Palace is like a small town. The residence of the Ottoman Sultans constructed in 1478 it was lived in until 1868 it has 4 courtyards and beautiful gardens in and around the buildings. There is
a library, kitchens, and the famous harem – a town within a town. The Imperial Treasury has gifts to the sultans on display and there are audience galleries, schoolrooms and Turkish baths. While it is very splendid and well worth a visit, it is a little tedious after about an hour or two. This is because it is room after room beautifully decorated with tiles and marble. These rooms have little furniture except the occasional low ottoman sofa. It would be far more evocative if, for example, the kitchens were set up as they are at Hampton Court Palace in England for example with models of the food and people who would have used them, actually acting out cooking and food preparation. It was a beautiful sunny day however and we enjoyed our time wandering through the gardens. After about 4 hours we set off the find the Spice Market. This was well worth a visit, though it is hugely disappointing not to be able to bring any sices home. I am even wary of bringing home Turkish delight unless it is sealed. The Spice Market or Egyptian Spice Bazaar, is in a very old part of town, under cover and seems to extend for miles. Dozens of stalls selling the same produce make it difficult to decide, but finally I settle on a few boxes of Turkish delight – after tasting it – and ask for them sealed. Our evening was planned to be in a meze house in Taksim, but after taking the tram and funicular to get to this part of town we decided it was too seedy – and that the area around the Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque looked like they had better restaurants. Next time we need to know where to go as I am sure that Istanbul has some great innovative food. We ended up eating in a run-of-the-mill cafe… have an average meze plate and a meal cooked in a claypot known as guvec – not a meal to celebrate
We arrived in Istanbul in the early morning with a mist on the Bosphorus, and a sunny day in store. Istanbul is a enormous city, growing from the around 1.5 million when Martin first visited in the late 1960s to around 14 million. With the two bridges connected the Asian and European sides of the town it is bustling and busy with ferries criss-crossing the Bosphorus and a very modern efficient tram system (very simple to use and well-worth using if you staying anytime and want to explore on foot).
This began with a tour of the Blue Mosque, with its intricate blue tiles covering every conceivable wall and roof space, 6 minarets and stained glass windows pointing to the huge dome. It was crowded even early in the day and as it is a functioning mosque it was necessary to take off one’s shoes and for the women to cover their heads with a scarf not a hat!).
Finally we visited the Hagia Sophia, originally built as a Christian church under Constantine the Great, and rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. Justinian certainly left his mark on Istanbul, he was determined that this building would suprass all others in splendor and it is certainly awesome. Taken over by the Turks and turned into a mosque as it remained, being rebuilt and renovated until 1935 when Mustafa Ataturk had the foresight to turn it into a museum. It too is certainly worth a visit and will impress with its grandeur and incredible feats of civil engineering.
Our next ports of call were Varna and Nessebur in Bulgaria. We disembarked at Varna early in the morning after sailing through the night. Today Varna is a major tourist destination in the region.
A watery sunshine and a chilly breeze greeted us as we took a bus and walking tour of the sights of the city. As with so many towns around the Black Sea the history goes back to Roman times and earlier, and there are many Roman ruins around the harbour side. As with the other cities we have visited it too was an important link in the Ottoman empire, it see-sawed between control by the Bulgurs and the Turks for centuries,
We were taken to the Roman Baths where it is possible to get a picture of just what a big enterprise these were and how sophisticated Roman engineering was. We also visited a Roman market place where the mosaic floor was remarkably preserved despite a flood in recent years which had ruined some of the mosaic. On the down side it is all a bit fusty and in need of a clean, but it remains remarkable.
The Ethnographic Museum was another stop. This is in an Ottoman town house built by one of the upper classes almost entirely of wood. It houses local crafts and folk costumes and was an interesting overview of the culture of the region. Other tours we were offered today included the Balchik Botanical Gardens, Balchik being a coast town just outside Varna, and the tour included a tour of the palace built in 1936 by King Ferdinand of Romania for his English wife Queen Marie. But as we only had a half day in Varna only one tour was possible. Often we will take ourself off to explore, but when a ship only calls into a port for a half day, unlees you have made private arrangements, taking a town tour is really the only way to see a place – sometimes you will find the port is out of town and just getting into town can talk precious time. We left Varna at lunchtime and headed to Nessebar, also known as Nesebar. Sailing into the port in the late afternoon sun was magical. It is a very pretty port and you can see why it is a major resort, not just for local but also British and German tourists.
We had a night and a day in this town, so as soon as the ship had docked we set off to walk the old part of town, right beside the port. This town too is steeped in history – going back 3,000 years. One of the most important Byzantine towns on the west coast of the Black Sea in Byzantine times, it has many churches, Roman ruins and 19th century wooden houses. It is also has a vibrant tourist sector with many shops, cafes and restaurants.
The excursion we chose the next day was the Bulgarian Village. We set off in a bus which took us on a tour of the country side and gave us a quick look at the resort of Sunny which has around 500 tourist hotels and sandy beaches. The village we visited was Goritsa, a sleepy little village populated by many retirees, where we visited the tiny local Orthodox Church, located in a small house, as this was the only way these Christians could worship in the time of the Ottoman and Muslim domination. The priest and his wife spoke very good English and gave us an excellent overview of how their church operated and their lives.
There followed morning town at the home of a local family who greeted us with the traditional home-baked bread which you eat sprinkled with a mix of cinnamon and salt (delicious), home-baked sweets and cakes (a baklava of course and other sweets baked with filo, shortbreads including kourabiedes, and homemade cheese. The master of the house also made very good wine and had a distillery making rakia. They were warm and welcoming and it was a delightful interlude.
A visit to the local majoy followed and we were back at the ship by lunchtime. More time to explore in the afternoon then we sailed for Istanbul in the late afternoon
Batumi, Georgia is our port of call on the following day. The sun shines and the air is chilly in the early morning as our guide leads on a walking tour of the city. As with all guides, Salome is very proud of her city and it is certainly putting on its Sunday best on this day. The building sparkle in the early morning sun, especially the odd folly that may become a hotel with a ferris wheel attached to the side high off the ground and a shiny spear pointing to the heavens.
The afternoon offers a special performance of the Adjara Company of Song and Dance at the State Musical Centre. This has been organised for the ship’s passengers and proves to be a captivating performance. The Musical Centre is modern with good acoustics and the performance is a precise and coalourful display of Georgian dance and music. We are treated to musicians and singers as well as dance performances and come away with a lasting memory of this part of Georgian culture.
Trabzon, further along the Turkish coast, is our next port of call. Established round the 7th century with expectations that it would be part of the great caravan route to Persia, it is a port that you are unlikely to visit unless you travel by ship. Steeped in history of course, the port does little to give this away, it is industrial looking and in the seedy part of town. We have not chosen to do a tour of the city and visit the Agia Sophia founded in the mid 13th century, but to take the bus trip to the Sumela monastery.
It has been rescued and is currently being restored. Attached to a sheer rock cliff, like a wasp’s nest, the monastery is an amazing feat of engineering by the monks and their workers. Self-sufficient with a bakery, a kitchen, water supplied by an aqueduct, a library and student’s rooms it is entered via the guard room after climbing steep stairs through the forest.
We set sail from Cannakale in the late afternoon and headed down straits towards the Bosphorous and Istanbul. By 6.00 a.m. we had reached the outskirts of the city that was once called Constantinople and by the time we were up we were passing under the first of the great bridges. The morning was misty, the sun was watering trying with an orange glow to be seen through the thick grey clouds, but without success.
Next day we set off to explore the Plaka by daylight and explored the narrow streets and laneways of the old town beneath the Acropolis. After sampling ouzo in an ouzo bar – yes at 11.00 a.m.! – we caught one of the tourist buses and did a tour that took us to the Acropolis (which we didn’t climb thinking we might come back) and down to the port Piraeus. Beautifully warm sunny weather and a good reintroduction to Athens, which reminded us of Buenos Aires with it’s broken footpaths, graffiti and abandoned building sites. We couldn’t leave Athens without finding a Lukumades bar. We loved these Greek sweets when we were here before and we found a modern take on the old bars in the Plaka. Two enterprising young guys are filling them with chocolate and banana cream as well as the traditional honey and cinnamon… we preferred the traditional…. of course they too are accompanied by Greek coffee!!
Our adventure in Norway ended in Bergen. The new adventure would begin in Athens, Greece 2 days later. Our last day in Bergen was very wet… not unusual for Bergen we were told, in fact quite normal. It is didn’t deter us from riding on the cable car up to the top of a mountain and looking down on a toytown Bergen through the mist and raindrops. The best way to see Bergen, whether it is rainy or sunny.