Turkish Discovery On The Rotterdam, Part Two: Istanbul and Dikili

Text and photos: Kalle Id

This is second part of Kalle Id’s report from a ten-day cruise exploring Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline onboard Holland America Line’s 1997-built Rotterdam, this time  Istanbul and Dikili. Read the first part of the report here.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013: Istanbul

Our second day in Istanbul dawned cloudy and slightly gloomy – although still much lighter and more pleasant than Finland at this time of the year. To give us more time exploring Istanbul, we had decided the previous night to order breakfast in the cabin. This is always something of an adventure, as the names on the cabin menu – which I’m sure are perfectly self-explanatory to most American passengers – can result in a surprise for us from different cultures. For instance, V-8 juice and sausage links turned out to be quite different from what I expected. And even such mundane and supposedly self-explanatory things like ham slices turned out to be different from what we expected.

In any case, after breakfast we headed out of the ship and walked across the Galata Bridge to our destination of the day: Topkapi Palace, the former seat of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire. We only stopped to buy some souvenirs to give relatives (a fez and a mouse mat made to look like a turkish carpet) and greet some local cats.

To our utter horror, the entrance courtyard of Topkapi was filled with local schoolchildren – it seemed a large portion of Istanbul’s schools had chosen this day to visit the palace. Unperturbed, we pressed on, and somehow never saw any of the dozens of children again after getting inside the palace complex.

Topkapi is not a palace in the traditional sense of the word. It is laid out like an Ottoman nomad camp, with three large courtyards flanked by low buildings housing different functions. Hence the palace was more of a series of separate buildings and pavillions in a park than a single building.

Topikapi gardens
Topkapi’s second courtyard, with the palace’s most unifying theme, gardens, prominent on display.

The first place we decided to visit once inside was the Harem, the entrance to which incurs an additional charge of 15 turkish lira (about 6 euros or 8 US dollars, the entrance to the palace having coast 25 tl). This was listed in many travel guides as the place to visit at Topkapi. In hindsight I have to say that while it was interesting, it was not all it was cracked up to be. The thing that makes the harem interesting is the exotic image we have of harems here in the west, and when you take the people and most of the furnishings out of the equation, you’re left with just walls. Prettily decorared walls, but just walls never the less.

A display room in the harem (the only display room in fact), giving a glimpse of the harem’s eunuch servants lived

But Topkapi is so much more than the harem. There is a treasury, a display of perfectly preserved clothing of the Ottoman Emperors, and an exhibit of holy relics of Islam (many of which are also holy relics of Christianity, the religions sharing so much common roots). The latter’s main exhibit was Mohammed’s cloak – stored in a solid golden crate, so that you actually only see the crate. (The cynical atheist in me immediately wondered if there’s anything inside at all).

Unfortunately there was no photography allowed in any of the exhibits listed above. This was particularly unfortunate with the treasury, as now I have no way of showing you the intricate workmanship and downright opulence of the multitude of gold-and-jewel artifacts. These ranged from downright beautiful, exquisite things to items that had clearly been crafted just to include as much of gold and jewels as possible, without a thought given to how they are presented. The objects in the latter category reminded me of nothing so much as Louis Vuitton bags. (I’m sorry, I just don’t like Vuitton at all).

In terms of achitecture, the most interesting buildings of the Palace are at the northern corner of the complex, furthest from the entrance – which meant we almost missed them, thinking we had already seen everything there is to see. The Circumcision room (actually a separate building) and Baghdad pavillion are amongst the latest additions to the complex and also some of the last examples of traditional Ottoman achitecture added to the palace. The courtyard between these also offers splendid views across the Golden Horn.

The Baghdad Pavillion, built in honour of Sultan Murad IV’s recapture of Baghdad from the Safavids (the then-ruling dynasty of Persia) in 1638.

In the end we had spent almost the entire day at Topkapi; by the time ewe exited the complex, we only had about 1½ hours of time left before we needed to head back onboard the ship. This left us with the dilemma of whether or not to go and see the Hagia Sophia? I was of the opinion that such a short time would simply not be enough to see the former church and mosque now turned into a museum and we would just be left with a bad feeling for not having had time to explore things properly… but Maria convinced me otherwise. And it was good she did, as it turned out we had just enough time to see the place – although we certainly could have wasted more time there.

A view from Topkapi Palace across the Golden Horn, with the Rotterdam beautifully framed by the autumn leaves.

The Hagia Sophia… what to say about it? I’m sure all readers are familiar with the name and the building at some level (after all, it does appear in the James Bond film From Russia with Love). Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, it was the largest cathedral in the world for just shy of a thousand years (from completion in 537 until the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520). In the inside, all of original Orthodox Christian mosaics were plastered over when the building was converted into a mosque… but fortunately several of these have been at least partially restored.

Having seen the two key sites of Istanbul during the day (and convinced we’d need to return later for a longer visit), we headed back onboard the awaiting Rotterdam. After watching the departure on deck, we headed for early dinner (or late lunch, depending on your point of view) in the buffet, being far too exhausted after the day in Istanbul to entertain the idea of dressing up and heading to any of the waiter-service restaurants. While there, we were greeted by a language I wasn’t expecting to hear onboard: Finnish. It turned out we were not the only Finnish passengers onboard, as there was a second Finnish couple there – veterans of over a dozen cruises on Kristina Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Costa and HAL.

The Ocean Bar, where The Neptunes play.

After dinner, it was time for the evening’s show at the Showroom at Sea, comedian Adrian Walsh. Never heard of him, but he was rather funny… though the show was clearly aimed at the 60+-year-olds – who did make up the vast majority of the audience – which did mean some of the jokes were lost on us 29- and 30-year-olds. Adrian Walsh was followed by sitting at the Ocean Bar (which this time had free seats) listening to the ship’s jazz trio The Neptunes before retiring to bed.

Thursday, 14 November 2013: Dikili

The Rotterdam at Dikili roads. As you can see, the weather still didn’t quite favour us.

The fifth day of our cruise dawned while we were at anchor outside the Turkish town of Dikili. The town itself has very little to recommend it, and the reason for the Rotterdam calling here was something nearby but inland: the ruins of Pergamon, the city with the second-largest library at the antiquity, after the more famous Great Library of Alexandria. So tight was the competition between the two libraries that the Egyptians refused to sell papyrus to Pergamon. This in turn forced the people in Pergamon to invent a new material for writing on – parchment. Indeed, the word “parchment” is derived from the name Pergamon.

However, we decided not to take up the option of going to Pergamon. Having spent the two previous days rather intensely exploring Istanbul, before that walking long distances in Volos (and add to that the grueling traveling to Piraeus just days before), and knowing we would have another intensive day ahead of us tomorrow, exploring Ephesus, we decided a day of exploring Dikili would be just the ticket to gather strengtht for the next day.

Access to Dikili was by a tender and I must say that this was surprisingly slow. My previous experiences at tendering are both from ships of MSC Cruses where things went surprisingly smoothly and quickly. Even though you’d expect a Dutch ship to be more efficient than an Italian ship, the opposite turned out to be true. Then again, we weren’t in a hurry so I’ve got little reason to complain.

The first thing that greeted us after getting off the tenders at Dikili main square was the common element of just about every Turkish town: a statue of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Although the cult of personality around him reminds a western viewer of nothing so much as Stalin, Atatürk is remembered and revered not only as the Father of Modern Turkey (indeed, “Atatürk” means “Father of Turks”), but also as the architect of democracy and liberalism in Turkey.

As said, Dikili was a small town and quickly explored. But with the benifit of hindshight, it was a very good destination, for it was not a tourist place at all. Sure, there were hotels, but compared to the three upcoming Turkish ports, which all definately qualified as tourist traps, Dikili was very genuine. We walked around the town, looked at some shops, tried Turkish Coffee (which was surprisingly tasty… and I say this as someone who doesn’t like coffee), and made some friends with local cats (again). All in all, Dikili was a very pleasant break-day to have between the intensive ports visited.

Back onboard we had quick lunch at the Buffet (hey, we’re Finnish, we love self-service) and settled in The Crow’s Nest to watch our departure and meandering through the Greek isles (and the mention of Greece is not a typo. When sailing between the Turkish ports, we sailed through Greek territorial waters). Although it must be said that it got dark so quickly there really wasn’t that much to see outside.

Although theoretically a single space, The Crow’s Nest is divided into three areas with different decors and ambiences. Here is the port side, decidedly the most nautical of the sections.

This evening’s entertainment was the brilliant concert pianist Jason Ridgway, who treated us with about an hour of absolutely superb solo piano. Ridgway’s performance was also the first time that anything in the onboard entertainment touched on the area were were sailing in at any way, with two very different arrangements of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” (“Turkish March”).

After mr Ridgway’s performance there was a chance to buy a CD of his performances, and we jumped at the chance, deciding to buy two (one for ourselves and one for Maria’s mother). Ahead of us in the line to get Ridgway’s signature was an elderly woman named Adeline, who told Ridgway she was learning to play Liszt’s Liebensraum no. 3, a piece that appeared on Ridgway’s CD but that he had not played in  the night’s performance. Long story short, Ridgway promised to try and play it on his second performance of the night.

After Ridgway’s first performance we headed to The Mix bar to listen to a very different kind of pianist, the Rotterdam’s Piano Bar entertainer Les, who was offering a 70s and 80s hour suitably just as we were there. The man was rather skilled and as such it is no surprise the bar was packed. After a while of listening to Les it was time for Ridgway’s second performance – where he did play Liebensraum no. 3, despite not having had any time to practice it between the two performances.

Day Five towel animal, which I presume was either a swan or a peacock.

After listening to monsieur Ridgway for a second time, it was time to head for bed and the day exploring Ephesus that was to follow.

Third part will follow soon. Read the first part of the report here.

This report is originally published in MaritimeMatters.com.

Finnish version of this trip report is published in Finnish maritime magazine Ulkomatala.

About the author
Kalle Id is a Finnish maritime historian, photographer and journalist, with a Master’s Degree in history from the University of Helsinki. He is a regular contributor for Cruise Business Review and Ulkomatala. In addition, he has contributed to magazines such as Ships Monthly, MaritimeMatters.com, Ferry & Cruise, and Laiva. He is an author of two books on maritime history: Silja Line from De Samseglande to Tallink (Ferry Publications 2014) and Tallink – The First 25 Years (Ferry Publications 2015).


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