There is something magical about Istanbul. Nothing is impossible.  The hills should mean that using a wheelchair is difficult. So should the narrow roads, crowded trams, bazaars packed with people … But it’s not. Well, it’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.

Using a wheelchair in Istanbul is challenging, but can be fun.

The trams are accessible and are free for people in wheelchairs. But accessing a tram can be intimidating. The first time I went to board a tram I backed off because the carriage I was near seemed full – then I watched as at least a dozen people squeezed in past me. The next tram came by a few minutes later (Istanbul trams are very frequent and T1 will take you just about everywhere you want to go), I told my husband to stay close because, come what may, I was going to get on that tram!  I gripped my rims, moved with the flow of people into a carriage already seemingly full, and magically, there was space for me, and everyone else too.  I don’t know how it happens, but there’s always room for one more. My next problem, I thought, was going to be getting off because I’m stuck in the middle of a crowd of people. But no, a few “pardon, pardon” and again, magically space appears for me to wheel through.

The thing to do in Istanbul is to confidently take your space.

Footpaths disappear or are blocked by cars, so wheel on the road. Best is to wheel in the middle if the road. When a car approaches from behind you’ll hear a small toot- the driver is simply letting you know that he’s there (and most drivers are men) and at the next available opportunity he would like you to move to the side to let him through. No hurry. My husband was a bit wary of doing this at first, but it’s fine. Roads are very narrow and often one way, but one lane roads become two lanes and can go both ways. Two lames become three … No one seems to care.

Topkapi Palace has ramps that are well signposted and are usable. Not having to queue means that you don’t wait hours, literally for the main attraction, the treasury. The harem is a little difficult to access by wheelchair because there are one or two steps at every turn. I used my crutches to walk around, and a strong helper would be needed to help negotiate the few steps. 

The Archaeological Museum has a stair climber and is completely accessible.

The Blue Mosque has it’s own wheelchair that a wheelchair user must transfer into because nothing that touches the ground can touch the carpeted area. I preferred to walk with my crutches because of the crowds in the tourist mosques, and to get close to the art. To do this I wheeled to the outside carpeted area, took my shoes off and placed my feet on the carpet. Usually I can stand up on my own but because of the confined space I needed my husband to lift me to standing. My crutches were ok in this mosque. I did not find another mosque that had a wheelchair to use inside, so it’s likely that the Blue Mosque is the only mosque that a wheelchair user may be able to visit. The Hagia Sofya is a museum so wheelchairs here are fine.

If you can walk with crutches you will be able to visit most mosques. All the usual customs must be observed, head scarves, long sleeves, long pants or skirt for women, covered shoulders and long pants for men.

If you need to wear shoes to walk, I suggest visiting the Dolmabalche Palace first, grabbing some spare plastic elasticised shoe bags, and put these over your shoes before stepping onto the carpeted area. Grab a few more to put over your crutch tips in case you are asked not to put your crutches on the carpet. I approached wearing appropriate clothing, wheeled up and immediately began unlacing my shoes and indicating that my wheelchair would be staying outside. I always asked for an ok from whoever seemed in charge before I went inside or as soon as i was inside) some mosques had security guards, some had men who were making sure that women were dressed appropriately, most had someone hanging around inside or outside).

At the Dolmabalche Palace only the bottom floor is accessible to wheelchairs and you will need to go in a separate entrance. You will need to approach a security guard. The palace can only be seen as part of a guided tour. The gardens are lovely, and there is a beautiful view over the sea. In a wheelchair you  won’t get to see the best bits of the palace but remember its free! If you can walk with crutches go on a guided tour. I walk very slowly but the my guide was very patient and the staff did everything to cut corners. 

I went on a cruise of the Bosphorus and the crew and leader were incredibly helpful. They were prepared to lift me in my wheelchair over the bow onto the wharf if I wanted … And because I wanted to use my crutches they just about lifted me on and off. They realised immediately that my left foot drags and one or other invariably held ropes down for me. They were very observant and cottoned on quickly to how they could help. The leader assigned a crew member to me when we went ashore near the fortress so that I could go as far as possible.

The streets are much steeper on the Taksim side. We tried to wheel/ walk up one street in attempt to get to the Galata Tower. I never give up, but I finally conceded that we needed a taxi to get there. The taxis are quite cheap, but be sure to ask the driver how much it will cost to get to your destination before you get in the taxi. Even though the taxis have meters, the drivers turn them off. We got some pretty good deals and got to see some really interesting back streets, because once you’ve agreed a price the driver will go the quickest way possible. There are near misses, sharp corners and squalid streets but just go with it! If the taxi doesn’t look big enough to fit your wheelchair, remember that everything fits everywhere in Istanbul!

And everyone wants to help. We were wheeling down the street that was too steep to wheel up, and I say we, because I was using my gloves to slow the wheels and Peter was holding the chair, when we encountered steps. Some nearby workmen gesticulated wildly that they wanted to carry me in my wheelchair down the steps, and when I chose to use my crutches, one burly guy insisted on carrying the chair down and waiting with it til I got down.

It seems that people in Istanbul love a trier!

Finding toilets can be a problem. There are accessible toilets at the New Mosque near the Spice Bazaar, at the Tokapi Palace, and at the Archaeological Museum. There are usually toilets near mosques but these are not usually accessible, have steps and may not be western style. Water is not clean so if you need to use catheters I suggest you use small disposable ones and lots of hand sanitiser.


Disabled Access in Prague

First, a little about me so you can put my comments into context. If you want to know more, read the tab “About Me”

I am an incomplete paraplaegic, injured at T7/T8. I walk short distance with crutches, can climb steps (but i need assistance if they are high), and my wheelchair has hooks to carry my crutches when I am not using them. I am a 57year old woman living in New Zealand. I am very fit and my upper body is strong.

First the negatives:
Prague is not wheelchair friendly. If you have excellent wheelchair skills and can negotiate kerbs you will face gutters that are five or six inches deep, and there are few kerb crossings. Your best bet is to use side roads and wheel along the road. The Old Town is flat, but across the Charles Bridge, some hills are quite steep, so a wheelchair user will need to be strong.

Often landmarks and attractions are described as wheelchair accessible but there are always at least one or two steps. The funicular and Petrin Tower, for example are described as accessible, but the slope up to the funicular is at least one in eight. Then there are two steps to the first carriage. It’s possible to wheel to the tower and take the lift half way up, but coming back to the funicular there are about eight steps to the nearest carriage. 

Some of the trams are low and have a button that a wheelchair user can push to alert the driver that the ramp is needed. However, only once did the driver step outside to put the ramp out, but that may have been because we didn’t want to risk the tram moving off without us so my husband manoeuvred me and my chair on board. The older trams have very high steps that I was able to climb using my crutches. 

The positives:
If you are less skilled in a wheelchair, like me, you will need a strong helper. If you can use crutches, and have a strong helper, most of Prague becomes accessible.

And if you stay in the Old Town there are some easily accessible attractions:

The Old Town Square with its astronomical clock is often described as the prettiest in Europe. It has lots of good cafes from which to watch the world, and zillions of tourists, go by. It’s entertaining to watch all the cameras up in the air as the hour strikes. It’s especially entertaining to watch at night when all you can see is the clock and hundreds of led screens!

Its an easy and pleasant wheel across the Charles Bridge. 

There is a ramp down to Kampa Island which has a very nice park, views over the river and cafes. It’s a good place to have a picnic.

There is a lift up the Old Town Hall to the top where there are some great views. 

It’s an easy wheel through the Havel markets where you can buy fresh produce and the usual tourist stuff as well as some very nice art. 

It’s an easy wheel to Wencelas Square where all the modern shops are.

There are concerts every night at lots of different venues … the Mirror Chapel, the Mozart Cafe (it has a lift), St George’s Basilca …

If you’re not prepared to wait for a low tram that us wheelchair accessible, use a taxi- they’re not that expensive because Prague is compact

There are accessible toilets at the Prague castle near St Vitus, near the Charles Bridge on the Old Town Side, and on Kampa Island.

Be Careful:

The room in my hotel was described as a disabled room, but there were no bars in the shower or toilet, I could barely reach the shower hose when standing, and there was no seat in the shower. The room could be accessed from the garage rather than the front door where there were eight or more steps, but there were two steps up from the garage!

Everyone in Prague seems to assume that someone in a wheelchair will have a helper, and that one or two steps are no barrier. 

Other than that, Prague is worth the effort and having to rely on a helper just so you can see this picturesque city and experience its incredibly talented musicians.

I am an incomplete paraplaegic, injured at T7/T8. I walk short distance with crutches, can climb steps (but i need assistance if they are high), and my wheelchair has hooks to carry my crutches when I am not using them. I am a 57year old woman living in New Zealand. I am very fit and my upper body is strong. I write this so my comments can be put in context. If you want to know more, read the tab “About Me”

Useful Information:
If you are driving in Italy take your disability parking permit with you. You will be able to park free on the street or in a parking building. You may need to produce photo identification showing the disability or handicap symbol when you use a parking building. In some parks you will need to get your parking chit validated. Italy is trying to cut down on white collar crime so you will nearly always be given a ticket (for parking or for entry to an attraction) that has to be validated. If all the designated parking for the disabled is being used you can use other parks for free. The only parking places to avoid are those disabled parks that have a number because they are assigned to a specific person.

Cities and towns in Italy offer people with disabilities and a companion free entry to all civic and state owned attractions. Many privately owned attractions offer free or discounted entry to people with disabilities. 

People with disabilities do not need to queue for tickets to attractions but can go straight to the ticket office. I suggest either getting the attention of a security guard or going to the ticket office for tour groups and people with reserved tickets. You may need to produce photo identification showing the disability or handicap symbol. I used a New Zealand Operation Mobility Card, some countries have parking permits with ID, otherwise I suggest a letter from your doctor with an Italian translation.

Many hotels, motels and hostels have rooms that are modified for use by people with disabilities. These are usually on the ground floor because even if the building has a lift it often won’t fit a wheelchair in. Contact accommodation directly and be careful to clearly and precisely specify your needs.

It can be difficult to visit towns in Italy because the roads are cobbled, and often steep. However, if you are prepared to have a helper, it is well worth the effort and inconvenience. Also, if you are prepared to accept the help of strangers and explain how they may help, Italians  will go out of their way to help and leave your dignity intact. You don’t have to speak Italian. Body language works, and if you speak English, most Italians understand you well enough.

I visited the following towns in August/September 2012. They are in Umbria and Tuscany (although Tivoli us in Lazio, an hours drive from Rome) Here are my comments on accessibility.

The Hotel OC Villa Adriana has a ground level room with excellent facilities for people confined to a wheelchair. The hotel had a half price special and the room cost us 48euro a night, including breakfast. It is three star plus quality. The staff were extremely helpful and understood my mobility needs. 

The receptionist booked a golf cart to carry me and my husband around the Villa d’Este, a terraced garden with hundreds of fountains. The cart and entry was free.

I visited Hadrian’s Villa. Not all of the grounds are accessible by wheelchair, but the Canopus Pool and other great places are. I can walk with crutches, so I took my wheelchair and crutches and managed to see the entire area. There is an accessible toilet at the main entrance. The attendant has the key.

Old Tivoli is on a steep hill. It could be negotiated in a wheelchair but only with a strong helper to help push up hill on lightly cobbled roads. I walked  down, then up again using crutches. 

The restaurant Sibilla is wheelchair accessible and is in a superb location above the river. The food is wonderful and the ambience is superb. (it’s set beside temple ruins)

Civita di Bagnoreggio
Civita is inaccessible by wheelchair. I walked with crutches across the kilometre long bridge, then up steps. It took me a long time. We stayed in an old monastery which had steep steps up to it. The bathroom has a wet floor shower. If you can walk up steps on crutches, and can walk the distance, it’s really worth the effort to stay the night. Fantastic. Otherwise, give it a miss.

I am not aware of any hotels in the historic centre of Orvietto with disabled facilities. If you are wheelchair bound you will probably need to stay in the town of Orvietto. I stayed in Hotel Virgilio in the square opposite the duomo. There is a lift but a wheelchair will not fit in. I used my crutches. You can park near the duomo for free and for unlimited time if you display a disabled parking permit. 

If you use the funicular to get to the historic centre, you can use a bus to ride to the duomo because the buses have ramps. 

The duomo is wheelchair accessible.

I used my crutches to climb down St Patrick’s well, and to go part way through the Underground Caves. The guides are very helpful.

The town is flat so you can wheel its length, less than a kilometre. There are a few steps into the duomo but a helper can help negotiate them. There may be a step into the Santa Maria but it can be negotiated with a helper. There is also a portable ramp kept at the information centre to access the church, the Etruscan Museum and the toilets. A newly renovated church that has been converted to a museum has a ramp.

Il Tomba, an excavated Etruscan tomb about one kilometre away, can only be negotiated with a helper strong enough to tip your chair on its back wheels and push. You will be able to be drive up close to it, providing the driver takes the car back to the car park. You can also be driven to the top of Il Cavore, an Etruscan road that has been carved out and has walls that are from three to twenty metres high. You should be able to wheel down the dirt road.

This town is on a steep hill. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to the main square where the duomo and enotecas are. The main road was too long and steep for me to use my crutches so I used my wheelchair. The surface is cobblestone and at times I needed my husband to help push me. The enotecas here represent one vineyard, so choose one (or try more than one!) Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the specialist wine here. There is an accessible toilet in the square.

Montalcino is also on a steep hill. We had no problem parking at the top  of the hill, and used the disabled parking permit. I was able to independently wheel to the enoteca at the top of the hill. I suspect that the rest of the town will be the same as Montepulciano, a struggle for someone with mobility impairment. The enoteca here has Brunello wines, (special wines to the region) from every vineyard and you pay according to how many wines you want to try, and what quality wine you want to try. You get a wine master all to yourself, and they seem to be able to cater for many languages. It’s very entertaining.

I could wheel around this town but the big problem is a lack of toilets, western toilets, let alone accessible toilets.

San Galgano
There is plenty of parking, the road is level but unsealed. I could wheel independently through the ruins. There is an accessible toilet. Most people walk the half kilometre to the chapel on a nearby hill, but disabled people can drive up. There are a few steps into the chapel so I used my crutches. The view from the hill is great, so even if you can’t get into the chapel (although a helper may be able to get you up the steps) its worth going there.

San Gimignano
This town is also on a hill. There are at least three parking lots, all of which have parking for the disabled. A disabled person can use the park and ride buses for free, but they have steps, so unless you can climb them your best chance of visiting this town in a wheelchair is to park in the car park outside the front gate entrance and wheel up to the hill to one or both of the squares. It’s over a kilometre. You may need someone to help push you up the steeper bits.

If you can walk with crutches and climb on the bus, leave your wheelchair behind. Have the bus driver drop you off at the first square (it has the well). The second square with the duomo is about a hundred metres away, and the fortress is another two hundred metres. An enoteca is just below the fortress.  You can catch the back down the hill.

There are accessible toilets in the Piazza Duomo.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact the local commune to get authorisation to park in the TZL.
Instead I parked in the Campo car park which is about 400 metres from Il Campo. The path is wheelchair friendly. However, I used my crutches to get around Siena. From Il Campo there are steps up to the Baptistry and more steps up to the duomo. 

The duomo has wheelchair access but to get to the duomo  by wheelchair you would have to park in a parking building on its level. 

Florence is great to people with mobility impairments. I emailed their office that deals with people with disabilities and they were very helpful. I emailed in English. Contact details are:
upd@serviziallastrada.it  free call number 800.33.98.91 
They authorised me to drive and park in the ZTL. 

Florence is flat but the paths and roads are cobblestones. Still, it’s not too difficult to get around in a wheelchair. Most of the attractions have accessible toilets, eg San Lorenzo, Ufizzi, Del’Accademia, and have ramped access.

Tuesday 18 September

I am not looking forward to our transit in Abu Dhabi. We have asked at Istanbul airport if we can have all our boarding passes issued from there. We do not want a repeat of our experience in Abu Dhabi four weeks ago when it took so long to have our boarding passes issued.

Unfortunately Istanbul airport cannot access the Etihad system to issue the boarding passes, but suggest we check in on-line. Peter is able to, but for some reason I am blocked from doing so. 

I ask the flight attendant on the plane for help, not expecting much. But when we disembark, the Etihad ground crew issue our passes in less than five minutes. Four weeks ago the Etihad ground crew had refused to do this and had sent us to the transit area to issue the passes. I am very happy, and grateful to the cheerful young man who helps us, but I am angry that the ground crew had previously been so unhelpful. The man who is my “minder” says that what happened to us previously is typical of the lack of service from Etihad ground crew, and that there have been many complaints … That the air crew is excellent but the ground crew are terrible …

We go straight to the lounge and Peter falls asleep – out like a light – curled up in an armchair.

We have hours and hours here, but the lounge is comfortable, the food is good and the people are friendly and helpful.

The next stage is a long flight of fourteen hours to Sydney. I don’t expect it to be too bad. There are movies to watch, and both Peter and I seem to be able to sleep for five or six hours on these long hauls.

We have an hour in Sydney, time to eat some more, it seems that all I’ve done for the last thirty hours or so is eat!

Back in Wellington we are greeted by a freezing cold southerly and rain. Easy to curl up in a warm bed. Peter and I are more worn out by the long flights than we realise. We sleep for fourteen hours! We must be getting old …

Well, we will just have to fit more travel in before we get any older!

Maybe Paris again, and driving through Provence …

Istanbul – Days 9 to 11

Sunday 16 September

We have no specific plans for today. Peter wants to visit the Turkey and Istanbul Arts museum, and there is a “little” Aya Sofya we would like to see, both within walking distance.

The Arts Museum is a real gem! It’s not a great start for me though, because the security guards insist on taking me up the two flights of stairs using the stair climber. Stair climbers are impossibly slow, but I appreciate the guards’ concern.

Turkish art revolves around calligraphy, tiles and carpets. I am fascinated by pages from the Qu’ran. Although the illustration is not as elaborate as those on the bible pages slaved over by Christian monks, the calligraphy is beautiful, often forming shapes which add even more art to the text. 

State documents are art. These documents were written out by famous calligraphers who were considered great artists. They are written on scrolls and the elaborate calligraphy with shaped text makes beautiful art. There are legal documents transferring land title, and we are amused to see one legal document about water rights, indicating how much water could be drawn off at various points on a river! 

While we are looking at calligraphy pages we start talking to a woman who is visiting Istanbul because it is the setting for historical novels written by someone who has become her favourite author. The novels sound interesting, I’ll look up the author and her books. We have turkish coffee at the museum cafe with her and her husband. The cafe is not only a place to drink coffee but provides its history and education into how Turkish coffee is made. Peter is delighted, and he buys a fabulous coffee set. All we need is the Turkish Delight to go with it.

We take a tram to Little  Aya Sofya, Kucuk Aya Sofya. As I make my usual preparations to enter a mosque i am welcomed by a very kind elderly man who stops vacuuming the floor to greet me. He has a lovely smile and kind eyes. He smiles and talks to me in Turkish and that would be a problem except that his son is nearby and he speaks good English. 

Surprisingly, we are able to walk anywhere. Even the mens prayer area is not roped off, and we are allowed to walk there. Kucuk Aya Sofyis was built at the same time as Aya asofya, and has been restored. It has been plastered and repainted but interestingly some pieces of the original building have been deliberately and carefully left in place. An original grey marble column, a  piece of cornice, bits of wall. Its great to be able to imagine how the mosque would have looked originally.

The prayer niche faces east so is off centre because the original christian church altar did not. 

It’s prayer time and we prepare to leave but we are invited to go upstairs to watch. 

There are only three other tourists here and the mosque seems “untouristy” so I am surprised to se a small tour group as we leave. 

The son of the man who met us, walks up the street to get a taxi for us to go to the Imperial FatihMosque. This is very kind, and very helpful because he asks about the fare in Turkish. Also, there is no public transport near the mosque and having checked the map, we are not sure we could find our way there through the maze of steep winding narrow streets. 

The crazy taxi driver gets us there in ten minutes! He speeds, weaving and threading his way around moving cars and pedestrians. He drives us through back streets that take us past where the ordinary local people live. The buildings are three or four storeys high, neglected, dirty and close together. The area appears squalid.

The taxi driver drops us somewhere near some steps that lead toward the mosque. Taxis don’t take you to a specific place, they drop you off somewhere close by – usually in the middle of the road. They simply stop in the lane near where they decide they will drop you off …. There seems to be no enforcement of road rules. Cars go down one way streets the wrong way, turn two landed roads into three lanes, thread their way through intersections that are always blocked …

We have our lunch sitting on a ledge beside a park in front of the mosque. There are many, many, many cats. They are scrawnier than other cats we have seen, and are foraging for food. I think this area is poorer than other areas we have visited. There is a park outside the courtyard with trees and benches outside. Families sit here but it seems dirty and grubby with rubbish strewn about.

There are very few tourists here but many local families. We watch the locals as they pass by. I notice that a lot of women, especially young women, are wearing black burkha. It is not full burkha, but seems unusual to me because the head piece is pinned under the nose so that only the eyes and nose are visible. Women are wearing full burkha, most wear burkha that shows the face, and as elsewhere, some wear a head scarf with an odd looking trench coat over a dress. Almost every woman is wearing one of these types of dress. Women around this mosque seem more strictly dressed than elsewhere.

Peter watches an interesting little by-play. He sees three men, one of whom is wearing a suit, and two of whom are wearing Saudi style of dress (flowing white head scarf held in place by a ring around the top of the head, and flowing long white skirt). Two women dressed in full black burkha, with a young boy, approaches one of the men and speaks to him. He pulls out of his pocket some paper that Peter soon realises is a wad of money, peels off a note and hands it to her. The women leave.

Imperial Fatih Mosque is not what I expected (I didn’t really know what to expect). It was built in the fourteenth century but restored in the eighteenth. Consequently the walls are plastered and painted, there are no tiles and little remains of the original other than the fountain outside, part of the old wall and the original mihrab. The mosque is very big. it has four domes around  the central dome, a popular design. 

There are many families who are there to pray. Young boys run around and play noisily in the men’s praying area. Nobody minds. There are many more women here to pray than i have seen in other mosques, perhaps because it this seems primarily to be a place for families. 

The fountain in the courtyard is elegant with brass taps and made of the same pale grey marble as the walls.

There are no trams or buses near the Chora Museum, the next attraction we want to visit so we hail a taxi, which is Not difficult to do here. 

Byzantine art is supposed to be main attraction at the Chora Museum but for us it is the roman construction. Chora means outside, and the christian church was known as such because it was originally outside the city boundaries.  The church became a museum in 1948 and shows off beautiful mosaics and frescoes telling stories about the life of Jesus. We have seen so much wonderful art like this in Italy, particularly at Orvietto and Siena, that we are more interested in the building itself. It was built in the fifth century and is wonderfully Romanesque. It is a small church so there is something particularly attractive about the rounded vaults and arches.

Because there is no public transport we have to leave by taxi. The taxis have us over a barrel so we pay a small fortune. But at least we are able to establish the fare before we leave.

We go to Platinum to drink apple tea and have a snack. This is the restaurant with the entrance to the excavated palace! We are able to look at the roman ruins. And they’re amazing! Definitely on the must do list. We go downstairs from the restaurant and we are immediately in the Roman Magneum Palace, built in the fourth century AD.  We are surrounded by brick vaults and arches leading in different directions. The area extends under the restaurant and probably those on either side.  Part of one arch is propped up by a piece of wood jammed into a corner, and I can’t see any supports so I try not to think about the weight above us. These brick arches have been here for 1800 years so the chances of them collapsing right now are slim. I briefly wonder what safety requirements Turkey has for developments like this. The restaurant has trucked out 600 truckloads of dirt and rubble to excavate. I’m glad they have, and we can stroll around something that would normally be roped off. Even in Tivoli we couldn’t walk inside the ruins. This is great!

What an end to a day!

Monday 17 September

Over breakfast we chat with a charming young French woman who is a professional photographer. When she travels she likes to people watch and photograph locals. We exchange plans and where we have been. It is interesting how many “odd” things we have both been interested in, for example, in the Old Bazaar we made as much of the architecture and friezes as we did of the merchandise.

We have visited almost all the attractions that we had planned. The couple we met yesterday had suggested we visit the Beyazit Mosque, near the Old Bazaar, because it has not been restored since  it was built in the early 1500 s.

On the way to the tram station I overhear a tour guide talking about a column that is the remains of an arch built by Constantine in the 300s. This was used as the reference point to measure all distances throughout the zero man Empire!! I love how Istanbul has  little historical gems  like this, everywhere! 

The tram turnstiles have been disabled – trams are free this morning! Til 1pm. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is a holiday because even though it is a Monday, many men are out with their girlfriends or wives and children. The trams will be busy! But we have become very good at getting on and off trams at peak hour. The first time we tried, we missed the tram because we were too timid to push our way on. Now we simply move forward and know that somehow space will appear! That is the Istanbul way, whether you are driving like a madman, walking through a crowd or getting on a tram. Also, when you get out of a taxi in the middle of the road you know that somehow traffic will continue to flow around you, so you barely check to see if the way is clear. The same when crossing a road. Wellingtonians are not the best jaywalkers in the world, people in Istanbul have turned it into an art! The difference between the two cities is that pedestrians here are accountable for their actions. They take the evasive action, not the drivers who ignore them. And unlike in Wellington, pedestrians don’t thump the bonnets of cars who have every right to be on the road. Surprisingly, we have not seen any collisions …

First we look near the Old Bazaar for some shorts that will fit the slimmed down version of Peter, before we check out how far the ferries travel up the Golden Horn. Surprisingly we find short sleeved shirts (all mens shirts are long sleeved), then look for shorts. We find some nice longs and as i suggest to Peter that we cut them down, the shopkeeper suggests the same … Done! 

We walk/wheel a few hundred metres to the Beyazit Mosque. It’s very big and has not been modified or restored since it was built around 1500, although there have been some repairs. It is in the same style as the Aya Sofya. We have discovered that this Roman structure has influenced the style of mosques all over the world. The Ottomans based most of their mosques on this design and given how far their empire spread they had enormous influence on the architecture of mosques. 

After seeing the Beyazit Mosque I realise that the painted interior design of restored mosques is true to the original, but that the art of painting friezes seemsvto have declined since the 1600s. The patterns in the friezes here are intricate, detailed and colours are well balanced. Although pieces of friezes are missing, plaster is chipped and there are bits that are broken, it is splendid as it is because of the beautiful painted designs. 

The fountain is very large, made of pale grey marble, has a flattened dome of zinc, and has a magnificently gleaming golden crescent at the top. The courtyard is lovely too, with it’s painted domes, peacock feather details, and detailed column capitals. I like it very much.

We leave just as prayer time begins. Young men and women keep coming, they are running in. The young women are dressed in ordinary clothes and as they rush in they grab a scarf from a box – not tourist scarves – they obviously do this all the time. The mosque is near the university (and the Old Bazaar) and I wonder if they are students.

We are hoping to visit Pierre Loti Hill and a nearby mosque. We need to use a ferry.  Buses go there but they have three steps to climb and we are reluctant to use them. 

I have read that work is being done on the ferry terminals and we are not sure if they go as far as Eyup, where the Pierre Loti Hill is, or even Feron which is closer. We walk/wheel toward Eminonu where the ferries leave from. We see the most extraordinary sight on the way!  Police are supervising the towing away of a parked car … The car is swinging in mid air as the tow truck uses a crane to lift the car up and over the adjacent parked cars, swinging perilously close to one. The car is attached somehow by chains to the crane, so up and over and onto the back of the truck it goes, swinging all the way! 

We check to see if the ferries go as far as Feron where we can see a Greek Orthodox church and a mosque. They don’t. There is a park like strip alongside the Golden Horn so we try to find a way on to it, but it is blocked by construction work on a new bridge across the Golden Horn. We continue to walk hoping that at some point the green belt will open up. We come to a major traffic interchange where cars travel very quickly. A few people play chicken but its more dangerous than anything I’ve seen here in Istanbul. 

Its frustrating. We consider getting a taxi to Feron but we are both feeling too relaxed to attempt anything that requires thinking. 

Instead we catch a tram to Eminonu, where can look again at the Rusten Pasha Mosque. After having seen so many Mosques that are decorated with painted designs, i want to remind myself how the mosques that are decorated with tiles compare. The tiles and tile patterns are individually superb works of art, but surrounded by so many different designs i find it difficult to relax and feel the peace that the mosques offer….Interesting.

Returning through the Spice Market, we buy some Turkish delight to bring back home with us. We are offered various flavours to sample first. Mmm. I didn’t think i liked Turkish Delight – til now!Then we catch the tram to Guilhane to chill out in the park there. 

Dinner is interesting. I share my chair with my new friend, a little white and ginger spotted kitten.on my other side sitting on a ledge is another kitten. They like my chicken …. But as a reward for my generosity my little friend washes himself and sits tight against me for over ten minutes … And then goes looking for another friend to feed him good restaurant food. And compete with all the other cats roaming the restaurant. 

Nasty thought … I ask our waiter if anyone ever puts cat on the menu.  He offers to Have one cooked for me, and asks which portion I would prefer … Fortunately he’s joking … 

Tuesday 18 September

We wake to pouring rain and a thunder storm. It rained a little yesterday morning but the shower quickly cleared. This rain is heavy! 

It is our last day here, we must be at the airport by 6.30 this evening.
We decide to head to the Old Bazaar simply because it will enable us to keep dry … 

We wander through the maze of covered streets. Surprisingly there aren’t many people so we can see the decorated ceilings and arches more easily. It is amazing to think that this bazaar has been here for over five hundred years. I watch people from all over the world go by. I see some young women dressed in vibrantly coloured matching headscarves and burka – one in pink, the other in yellow -with some older women in burka, and they are taking photos of each other. 

With no particular direction to go in we enter the antique bazaar, the oldest part. The alley is just wide enough for my chair. There are antique swords and daggers, antique jewellery … I hear a voice. I turn and an elderly gentleman places a beautiful opal bracelet on my arm and says he has some beautiful things for me. I’ve been joking with the vendors and I’m confident now that I can enjoy their banter and leave without buying something and not offending them. There is something compelling about this soft spoken man. I am sure his technique has beguiled many, many women who have ended up buying something from him in the same way I do! I really like the turquoise and marquasite bracelet and we agree on a price. It is a wonderful way to remember Istanbul. I ask him if he has some earrings that might match the bracelet. Of course! When I explain that I want something finer, he sends his assistant to get something. I like what he brings but we are running out of lira. I can only offer much less than the price he offers, but he accepts. His is his first sale of the day, my purchase is the last of our holiday!

It has stopped raining so we leave the bazaar and head for the Findikli tram stop where we have seen a park beside the Bosphorus. It is cloudy but pleasant and we can watch the boats or read.

It’s time to return to the hostel to pick up our luggage and head to the airport.

The people in Istanbul are amongst the friendliest, kindest and most generous I have ever met. They are always offering to help. If I stand waiting for Peter, someone will ask if I am all right. The men are outgoing and smile and joke and chat. The women are quiet, but when I smile they always smile in return. One of the ladies who worked in the breakfast cafetaria at the hostel kissed us on both cheeks when we said goodbye.

Farewell Istanbul. I’ve enjoyed the history, the entertainment, the mosques, the art, the food, the bazaars and the people.

Istanbul – Days 6 to 8

Thursday 13 September

Today we want to visit the Rustem Pasha and Suleymaniye Mosques, but first we will stop at the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. As we wheel/walk down the road towards the museum we notice what seems to be the remains of a large ancient Roman building. The elderly Turkish man sitting by his shop tells us that it is a fourteen hundred year old Roman Palace, Magnaura. Some Australians walk past and are also interested because they have seen these rooms from inside a restaurant on the other side of the block. I have been surprised by how little of Constantinople seems to remain, so I am very curious to know more about it. We have seen what appears to be the remains of Roman walls beside the sea, and occasional brick ruins that also seem to be Roman, but no one seems to take any notice of this amazing history.

All is explained at the Mosaic museum! It is not a mosaic museum related to the ottoman Empire as I had thought. It is the excavation of a fabulous courtyard that was built as part of a huge Byzantine palace complex built from what is now Sultanahmet all the way down to the sea! Constantine had made Constantinople the centre of the Empire in the fourth century, beginning the Byzantine era, but some big battle had destroyed large parts of the city and Justinian had ordered its rebuilding and expansion. Archaeolologists are still uncovering the Roman remains which have been buried under metres of rubble as the city was built and rebuilt. In particular, the Ottomans destroyed most of the Roman buildings when they conquered the area, only leaving constructions that were useful to them – the Aya Sophia, the city walls.

The courtyard is extraordinary. Mosaics, like most art, reveal a lot about the culture and society of the time when they were made. Mosaics depict animals, scenes from everyday lives, heroic actions, ideals and myths which tell us how the people lived, worshipped, dressed and what was important to them. The decorative patterns, shapes, colours, materials used and the execution of the mosaics tell us more.  These mosaics would once have covered a huge area and indicate how vast the palace was. Much of the mosaic courtyard has been broken under the rubble of later building, but it is remarkable how much there is, because it had to be put back together like a jigsaw puzzle.They show mythical beasts, like the griffin, as well as real animals like the lion, tiger and snake. They show hunting scenes. They are exquisite, beautifully executed with wonderful colours.

There are few visitors here, and we almost have the place to ourselves. Most of the mosaics are underground and extend under the Arasta Market (where we were taken after our “guide” showed us the Blue Mosque). The Blue Mosque was built over the top of one of the palaces, as was the Topkapi Palace. With all this tourist activity around the mosaic museum I’m left wondering why  this attraction is not more popular – as we approach the museum six huge coaches pass us (millimetres from either side of the Roman walls that border the road), then another five, and as we leave more stream past. All on the way to the Topkapi Palace  and the Blue Mosque, all unaware that they are passing through the extraordinary history of an Istanbul that was Constantinopal. Many will stop at the hippodrome or Basilica Cistern unaware that they are part of Constantinopal, capital of the Byzentine Empire from around 350AD to 1550AD

We move on so we can visit the Rustem Pasha mosque. It was built around 1560 and was the first octagonal mosque, with the large central dome supported on four smaller domes. It is A small mosque with lots of narrow steps to reach The courtyard.There are tiles not only in the courtyard but throughout the inside of the mosque covering the columns, walls, minbar and mihrab. There are geometric and floral designs in beautiful shades of blue, purple, green and red. There are so many different designs  it’s hard to keep count. There are large designs made up of tiles of different designs. The domes have many small round glass windows that let in lots of light. The windows are “double Glazed” with about a metre depth within the two layers of glass. All the mosques and buildings seem to use walls that are at least a metre deep.

I am eager to see Suleymaniye mosque  because it can be seen easily on the skyline from anywhere in Istanbul. From a distance it appears large with many domes and seems to made from brilliant white marble. It is also on top of a steep hill. With Peter’s help I wheel up the steep winding narrow road that is not much wider than a path. As usual pedestrians compete with cars and trucks for space, and scooters and motor bikes weave through everything. Men with carts loaded with goods complicate the “flow” of traffic. I’ve learnt to squeeze through narrow spaces and claim my place. Peter is more cautious … But I make better progress. And it’s safer too because everyone around me can see where I am going.

We arrive as prayers begin so we wait where there is a fabulous view over Istanbul and the Bosphorus. We can also see how extensive Suleymaniye really is. There are many surrounding buildings, a hospital, hospice, school …

Inside the mosque everything seems very simple. A white stone interior with very little tiling, columns made of marble, painted Arabic symbols on painted discs, and the inside of the domes are painted with simple patterns. The central dome is astonishing. The mosque was built around 1550 yet the painting inside the central dome is very European. There are roses and other flowers painted in detail within painted arches and against a deep cream background. It looks very French! There are Intricately patterned stained glass windows including two rose windows, just as you’d find in a medieval Christian church

I buy yet another scarf from a market outside the mosque. Market and mosque always together. It turns out that markets were built beside mosques so that the rents would pay for the upkeep of the mosque.

We realise that we’re not far from another mosque, Sokullu Mehmet Pasa. A tram ride, a short but steep walk, and a few directions from friendly locals and we’re there.

It’s a small mosque but very interesting. There are a few boys of about fourteen who are rocking back and forth on their haunches reciting the Quran. A few boys of about seven or eight are running around playing noisily. There is a cemetery around two sides of the mosque and there appears to be a single large building annexed to it, rather than a number of smaller buildings. I think this is a Qur’an school.

The outside seems simple and is made of granite. There are very high columns and arches in front. I saw only one minaret. In the centre of the courtyard is a very pretty ten sided fountain made of marble and with a zinc roof with wide brim and peaked top. 

Initially the inside also seems simple with mostly granite walls. However, there are large blue tiles with white arabic writing, one wall with extensive tiling, and the “pulpit” is white marble capped with turquoise tiles. The main dome is painted with a red and blue design on cream and has very lovely blue tiling at six points. There are eighteen arched windows with small glass holes so there is plenty of light.There are four small domes around the central dome. Every window has coloured glass, the most ornate around the windows on the main wall. Under some of the arches around the outside are mosaic tiles in mostly irregular but repeated patterns in white, red and black. The grouting is “raised” by a few centimetres.  Once again, this mosque is very different from others, the main similarity being the way the inside of the domes are painted.

The official shoos off the few of us that are there, ourselves and one other couple, then shuts the doors. The older boys go in. It seems that a lesson is about to begin.

Friday 14 September

I have swum in the Black Sea! Off the back of a boat!

Today we are cruising up the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.

We’re picked up from the hotel. The pictures advertising the trip has lots of young people jumping off the boat and swimming in the water. Turns out most of the people are about our age! 

The boat is not very glamourous but that’s ok, they’re not phased by my wheelchair (Turkish people call it a car!). We move away from the wharf but the boat idles for about twenty minutes then returns to the jetty to pick up more people.

First stop is a bit of a dud. There is a mosque here that is usually the attraction, but it’s closed for renovation – and has been for a year … I’m not sure why the itinerary remains the same, because there really isn’t much here other than Starbucks, a few market stalls, a Greek orthodox church that’s closed, and a derelict looking building that might be some Roman ruins – or not. 

However, I have my own little adventure. I am the last to leave the boat. Peter is waiting to help me over the bow, onto the steps and off the boat, when a worker grabs my arm, blocks the way and says “is dangerous”. Sure enough, the boat has been pushed off the wharf by waves and the distance between me and the shore grows. The boat motors backwards. As long as I can grip the rail with one hand I’m surprisingly ok as the boat rocks and heaves. Every time the boat attempts to dock,the waves crash against the wharf. I’m quite proud of myself as I stand solid on the pitching boat. Peter probably feels worse. He’s standing alone on the wharf(with my chair) the other tourists having moved on. Eventually the boat docks and I’m off.  

The Bosphorous cruise is brilliant. I’d recommend it any day over the option we had been advised to take, that is, to use the public ferry that takes an hour and a half to go up the Bosphorus, you spend three hours at the end of the ride, then return by the public ferry. The good thing about the public ferry is it costs only 25TL, but you don’t see much and you don’t know what you are seeing. The IBO cruise is expensive, 75euro, but you get a personal tour of the Ottoman summer Palace, a tour and explanation of the fort Romlio, a commentary of real estate, properties and landmarks we pass, and we go all the way to the Black Sea where we swim off the back of the boat. And a really good history lesson about the layers of history here, going back eight thousand years to the Samarians.

The summer palace is on the Asian side of Istanbul, and was one of four palaces built by the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. The luxurious lifestyle broke them financially and politically. The summer palace is smaller than Dolmabalche but is still extravagant, and is also European in style. Ninety tons of gold was used in building the four palaces. This one has gold on the top of all its columns and all the ceilings have frescoes that are heavily gilded. The central staircase is cantilevered. It leads to an entrance hall that includes a large fountain! The crystal chandeliers here were made in France. There are numerous large handmade Turkish carpets. The furniture and furnishings are French. The Sultans prayer room, instead of being simple, has a large crystal chandelier and lavish furnishings. There are no kitchens because all food was prepared at Dolmabalche and sent across by boat, then dishes etc returned there by boat!

The lavishness of the palace has been overtaken by more modern real estate. We see numerous mansions with private jetties, elaborate boathouses, mosques, gardens and swimming pools. A house set back from the water, up the hill, recently sold for US 120 million.

I climb up to the fort, Romlio, because the tour guide organises another crew member to accompany Peter and me at my very slow pace. The view is great and the history very interesting. It was built by the Turks in the fifteenth century to successfully lay siege to Constantinopal.

Then the swim!

And all the while the day is glorious … Blue sky, warm, no wind … Perfect

We finish the day by having dinner on the hostel rooftop terrace. The night is warm and still,  the lights across the water are twinkling, and when the sunset prayers are called, the moment is magical.

Saturday 15 September

We haven’t seen the Archaeology Museum yet and it’s on my ” must do” list. Now I see why it’s so highly rated!

The Ottoman Empire spread throughout Asia Minor, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and parts of Russia. In the eighteenth century the Sultan ordered the governors of these regions to send all archaeological finds to Istanbul. These are in the Archaeology Museum – items from 4000BC!
The Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great from fourth century BC.  Carved from a single block of stone the marble relief sculpture rivals anything from the Renaissance, including work by Michaelangel. 

Numerous sarcophagi and temple freizes with detailed marble relief, and in excellent condition. Other sarcophagi in the style of Greek and Egyptian … All amazing …the Pergammon Museum  in Berlin may have stolen the Pergammon altar, but Istanbul has the best examples of this type. I wonder how vigourously Turkey has lobbied Germany for the return of the altar.

The Gezer calendar, a tenth century gardening guide written in Hebrew on stone!

An inscription on the side of a tunnel linking Jerusalum to a spring in case of siege.the inscription explains the purpose of the tunnel. Seventh century BC

Within the Archaeological Museum complex are the Tile Pavilion and the Ancient Orient Museum.

In the Tile Pavilion are examples of ceramics made during the Ottoman rule. There are ceramic bowls, plates and wall tiles. There is a tiled niche, built in1432 and consisting of mostly colourful blue tiles laid together to make different designs.  There is also the Fountain of Life featuring a peacock made from tiles of which the outstanding colour is gold.

The Ancient Orient Museum is absolutely mind blowing. It contains archaeological treasures found within the Ottoman Empire,  areas of the Near East originally known as Babylon, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Sumaria and so on.

Pre- cuneiform and cuneiform tablets made 3000 to 4000 years ago. My eyes are opened to the obvious and I really see the similarities between what we do now and what and has been done for thousands of years. We buy and sell property, we marry and divorce, we have school books for our children, multiplication tables, bookkeeping, we write poetry …  One tablet is a hymn describing sacred marriage, said to be the oldest love poem. It was written around 1900 BC. Another clay tablet is the first written treaty between two independent empire/countries. It is a formal declaration between the Hittites and the Egyptians to maintain peace between each other, to defend each other against invasion, and contains an extradition clause … The first piece of International Law! A copy hangs in the United Nations! Another tablet is a written record of the sale of a house … There are  more examples of commerce and everyday living.

A 4000 year old measuring stick to standardise for trade the lengths of a foot, a finger, fourteen fingers, a yard and so on. 

Standardised weights such as a talent and a shekel.

The Ishtar Gate from Babylon! We have seen part of this in the Pergammon Museum, but here are tiles depicting not only the lion, but also the donkey, the camel and other animals. 

We spend over five hours at the museums … It is overwhelming, unexpected, delightful, awe inspiring, exhausting, unbelievable and absolutely unmissable. 

As we leave we spot the Guilhane Park. It’s shade by trees , has a fountain and pool, and we will probably come back another time to chill out here.

To ease our brains we catch a tram to Kabatas to see the Dolmabalche Mosque. We missed it on our visit to the palace. I’m so glad we came back! It is decorated in the same way as the palace, with the same style of giant crystal chandelier, European style painting of flowers on the ceiling, stuccoed marble columns, marble pulpit,  large arched windows that open onto the Bosphorus … And no tiles! And no tourists! We hear the prayer call, so we quickly leave as many local hurry into the mosque. 

We take the nearby funicular up to Taksim Square which is touted as something worth seeing. It’s not. The Independance monument celebrating Turkey becoming a republic, provides a good photo opportunity, but there seems to be nothing else. There is a street that steeply slopes down to the Golden Horn, and is said to have many quirky shops and cafes, but Istanbul is full of those! We head back down to the tram, stop off at Eminonu to buy some cheese and fruit, then call it a day.

Istanbul – Days 1 to 5

Saturday 8 September

It’s frustrating that even though we leave for Istanbul early in the morning and the flight there is less than two hours, it still seems to take the whole day to get there.

We arrive at our hotel in Istanbul at about 4.30pm. There are a few steps to the ground floor where our room is but the rooftop terrace is on the third floor, 56 steps to climb for a glorious view over Istanbul, the Bosphorus, and the Marmara Sea. I’m so glad I can climb steps!

From the rooftop I can see that houses are tightly packed in. As the sun sets we go for a walk to see where everything is in relation to the hostel. We go to the Blue Mosque and look at it from the outside. It is lit up like fairyland. We go into the courtyard and I ask about using crutches in the mosque. Near the mosque is a lovely fountain around which local families and tourists congregate. The sunset call to prayer rebounds through the city on loudspeakers. All the hawkers stop and wait til the call is finished.

We return to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop. Lovely.

Sunday 9 September

Now that we know where the hotel is relative to the Blue Mosque, the Basilca Cistern and the Topkaki Palace, we decide to visit the palace first. I didn’t realise how big it is! The harem is within the palace but it has a separate entry fee – It seems that I gain free entry to attractions in Istanbul, so that’s ok by me.

The harem is actually the private quarters of the sultan, the Queen Mother and the concubines as well as the guards and eunuchs. And the princes too, at least until they are sent away to other countries to learn about affairs of state (I wonder if that’s at the age of puberty?)
The harem is very interesting,as well as very beautiful, because it explains a great deal about how the Sultan and his family lived, how the household functioned, and the roles of the women in the household.

I am amused to see that in the middle of paths between rooms are pebbled strips with patterns formed from different shades of grey pebbles. I am not surprised to learn that these are the paths on which the sultan rode his horse. There are mounting blocks at strategic points.

The first rooms are those of the eunuchs, and behind these, with views over the sea, the chief eunuchs. The walls are tiled with frescoed ceilings. As we progress though the rooms they become progressively ornate. The rooms of the concubines have baths and open to a courtyard. The rooms of the Queen Mother are being restored but I can see glimpses through the temporary walls and ceiling … They have high ceilings and the walls are tiled floor to ceiling with various elaborate designs. 

The bathhouses (hamams) of the Sultan and Queen Mother separate the Sultan’s apartments from the women’s quarters. They are built of marble and lots of gold.

The Sultan’s rooms are large and covered with tiles of various and beautiful designs. The effect is astonishing.bThere are also tiles with inscriptions from the Qu’ran. Some rooms have delicately intricate mother of pearl inlays. And plenty of gold.  Windows have stained glass.

The chamberlain’s courtyard overlooks a large pool (empty). One of the sultans rooms also overlooks the pool so he could watch his children play in the pool.

The portrait room is interesting because many were done by Italian renaissance artists. One, particularly notable, was done by Veronase.

The Treasury is extraordinary! So much wealth! There are three rooms. All contain priceless treasured. The first holds the sultans seal, items made of pearls, and golden thrones.

The second holds gifts from other rulers, including some sumptuous thrones. One from India has thousands of pearls and diamonds, another is made of ebony with mother of pearl inlay.There is the Topkapi dagger, made of gold and diamonds with three emeralds each more than four cm in diameter – as big as golf balls! There is a Faberge vessel with the faberge seal and the signature of the chief designer. A ewer and basin is made of 22ct gold and Chinese jade. 

The third has the most precious items including jewellery, decorative weapons, and sultans headgear with huge diamonds, emeralds and rubies, but most spectacular is the spoon makers diamond, a cut and polished 86ct diamond surrounded by 49 smaller, but still big, brilliant cut diamonds. Also there are sultans’ rings made of gems, including one made of a sapphire 1cm in diameter. There are two matching solid 22ct gold candlestick holders each weighing 48kg, sultans headgear with a square cut emerald 4cm across with huge ruby and many pearls,  a baby’s cradle, a box about 15 x 30 cm filled with emeralds, a solid emerald box, and more …

We have lunch at the only restaurant near the palace. The palace consists of many small individual rooms and pavilions built on terraces leading down towards the sea. The restaurant is near the sea, has wonderful views, and even though it is very busy it is quite peaceful. 

The fourth courtyard has the sophia mosque. It is small and simple … Peter’s first visit inside a mosque. The chamber of the chief physician is nearby but is closed. Next is the Revan pavilion and Baghdad pavilion both built to celebrate the conquest of cities. They are beautifully tiled. Baghdad has a dome, Revan a flat, beamed ceiling. Both are simply furnished and have recessed cupboards with delicate mother of pearl insets. The main furniture are low sofas under windows along all the walls. Both are octagonal, built in the 1660s. Outside the Baghdad pavilion is an Iftar pergola with gold roof. This is where sultans broke their fast for Ramadam.

The Circumcision chamber has fabulous tiles inside and outside, and is the last of the pavilions to have classical Ottoman designs before a strong western influence in the eighteenth century.

There is a Library pavilion with recessed bookshelves with mesh doors. It is tiled and domed. It no longer contains books, they are held elsewhere to protect them.

We had entered the palace through the harem, but we leave through the gates of Facility (the actual entry and where the sultan was crowned, and where major events were held)

It has taken us most of the day to see Topkaki Palace, despite not having to queue. The  Basilica cistern is still open so we take the opportunity to visit. I would like to descend by the steps, but staff insist that i use the stairclimber. I can hardly refuse, they want so much to be helpful! The cistern was built in the sixth century as a holding tank for water and is connected by a viaduct to a nearby forest.There are huge tall columns laid out in a grid pattern. Fish swim in the water, about 30cm deep. There are brick arches to give strength to the cistern, and the Romans built walls 4metres thick, coated with waterproof cement. Two columns in a far corner of this vast cavern have medusa heads carved into their bases. One head is upside down, the other is on its side. There presence cannot be explained.

We wander through the square, and sit in front of the fountain again. There is a man blowing his whistle trying to keep kids from the edge of the fountain, without much success. All sorts of people gather to sit around the fountain. Old people, very old people, young couples, tourists, families …

The Sunset Prayer call is at 7.40pm. There is something romantic about the sound of a single voice chanting, calling to the city.

Monday 10 September

Today we are shown such great kindness and generosity that i begin today’s story at this point. It is about 3pm and Peter and I cross the Galata Bridge from where we can see the Bosphorus on one side and the Golden Horn on the other. It has been straightforward to get onto the bridge, then to leave it, however, it now seems impossible to cross the road toward the hill on which the Galata Tower stands. Everybody climbs over barriers and chains but that is not possible for me. Peter also wants an espresso coffee but cafes only sell American or Instant coffee. It’s altogether frustrating …

Eventually we find the road that will take us to the tower but it is very, very steep. Peter begins to push my chair up the uneven cobblestone road while I wheel as well. I suggest that I walk up the shallow steps beside the road while Peter carries the chair. We have often done this. After a few metres an elderly gentleman stops us to suggest we use a small metro that goes up the hill past the tower and I can walk more easily down to it. He speaks excellent English and i think his accent is French, but no, he is Turkish, he says, aTurkish Jew. He explains that first we must backtrack to the metro station. The gentleman suggests we use a taxi, after all it will only cost about 10 TL – what a GOOD idea! He offers to organise it for us so the taxi driver will understand. He goes on ahead to get a taxi and have it waiting for me! So kind and thoughtful! 

But there’s more. As the taxi leaves, this very kind man thrusts a 20 TL note into the driver’s hand. He smiles and says it is his pleasure. 

The universe really is smiling today. As I step out of the taxi I see a sign “espresso”. Peter is happy. We are truly blessed.

Which brings me back to the beginning of the day when we visit the Blue Mosque (called so because there are so many blue patterned tiles inside that a blue light seems to glow from them). As we arrive, a very nice young man offers to help us. He tells us he is not a tour guide and we do not pay him. Peter suspects there will be some hook,but we don’t mind because he leads me through the process of entering the mosque clean. He explains to the guard that I will use my crutches, and he helps me to get the wheelchair to the area where I must take my shoes off, and how I will do this. An alternative is to transfer from my wheelchair to the mosque wheelchair which is kept in the clean area. He has told us that he will give us VIP treatment, and he has … We have not had to queue (an hour at least), he has arranged for me to walk barefoot with crutches inside the mosque, and now he explains the meaning of the various tiles, the minarets, the domes, the meaning of the Arabic plaques on the walls, and pointed out some important features. ( there are so many people! And the smell of feet is almost unbearable, I don’t understand how people can pray with the noise and the bad smell!)

Turkish people love cats. They are everywhere … Dozens and dozens, sleeping, playing, wandering … They ignore people, not even a twitch if someone comes near or there’s a sudden movement. They are all fat and well fed. There are many at the Blue mosque, and we see a guard shooing away a dog as it comes near. Cats rule here!

As we leave, he takes control of my wheelchair and tells us he will lead us to his family’s shops…. ! We meet his uncle at the carpet shop. We’re sorry but we don’t want to buy carpets … We hear a good story though about how he is good friends with Jim Bolger and Helen Clark because he was the guide for NZ prime ministers at Gallipoli celebrations for nine years and he has stayed with Jim Bolger … We are treated to apple tea at his cousin’s shop where ceramics are sold, and we are shown his store where he sells scarves. His family’s shops are in the sultan’s old stables, now the Arasta Bazaar. It’s all good fun and I feel a bit sorry for him so I ask to buy a tile with Arabic on it that apparently means something like “I am very fortunate, don’t be jealous of my fortune” . I nearly keel over when he tells me how much. I don’t mean to haggle, I simply tell him that it’s too expensive for me to buy. Down comes the price. I don’t want to lead him on, but the price comes down again, and again. It’s still too much, but we’ve had a good time and it will be a good memory, especially as we fell for his “trick”, and I feel bad for him, so I buy it. Anyway, he showed me how to enter a mosque with my crutches, so i’m very happy. As we leave and pass near the mosque we see one of his cousins telling another couple exactly the same things he told us. I laugh, it’s been fun. (Later we meet a couple to whom the same thing happened, except they had to pay for their “tour” as well as go shopping!)

We hop on a tram to Eminonu, so we can wander through the Egyptian spice bazaar, mmm yum, the smell spices is strong and so good.

We stumble on the New Mosque (Yeni camii) built in 1556, so it is older than the Blue mosque. The columns are tiled using similar tiles to those in the Blue mosque. It is very serene, quiet, there are few tourists, men are praying.

We cross the Galata Bridge, the Bosphorus to our right, the Golden Horn to our left. The view toward the palace and Sultanahmet is spectacular.

We can see the Galata Tower and we decide to walk/wheel to it, but the streets are very steep, and the roads difficult to cross … And that’s when that very kind gentleman from the beginning of my story, steps in to help. He says he wants to help because he admires my strength … Both Peter and I have previously commented on the friendliness of the Turkish people. There are always offers to help -to carry the wheelchair, to hold my arm, to give us directions, to make way for my wheelchair, to talk about kiwis (so many know kiwi slang, like “no worries” ), we were offered some cookies that a young girl was sharing with a friend …  So this very kind gentleman facilitates our journey to the Galata Tower.

The Galata tower was built at about the same time as the Basilica Cistern, the 6th century, under orders of the same Roman. I wait while Peter climbs it, but when he comes back he tells me that there is a lift and only 66 steps to climb to the top from there. Easy, so I wait in line and as soon as I am near the entrance a man clears the way for me, puts me and Peter in a lift and up I go! The view over Europe and Asia Istanbul is fantastic. The skyline over Old Istanbul is all minarets and domes. It’s beautiful. I can see so much;  the Marmaret Sea, the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the skyscrapers in New Istanbul and Asia Istanbul … This would have been a great watch tower for the Romans. We walk slowly round the outside. There are many people here with us but Peter says it is not as crowded as when he first went up. 

Going downhill is much easier, until we come to some steps. They are a lovely double staircase but tricky for me. Some workmen are nearby. They fall over themselves offering to carry me, in the wheelchair, down the steps. They are so nice! And they are disappointed when I insist on walking down the steps with crutches. One man gallantly carries my chair to the bottom while Peter helps me down. The man waits at the bottom with my chair. He is delighted when Peter says”Tea sugar dairy” (the man who met us at the airport told us to say that when we wanted to say thank you – not quite like that, but to remember it that way.)

We make our way back to the tram station, but to get there we have to cross a very busy four lane road. We walk some distance away from the tram to find a controlled crossing, then walk all the back again. Istanbul traffic is crazy. If you mix Florence with Rome, add in motor bikes that drive on pedestrian strips, cars and buses that seem to drive wherever they please – we saw a bus being given a ticket by a policemen – roads that are much narrower than those in Italy … You have chaos. And that chaos is Istanbul.

Riding on trams is just as crazy. Everybody squeezes on board, then squeeze around bodies to get off again, and it seems to work. Trams come every few minutes, and every tram is full. The first time we used a tram we didn’t think we could fit in the carriage so we didn’t get on but waited fir the next one. Now we know that in Istanbul space just appears like magic. I wheel in through the doors even when people are blocking my way … And, snap, the space opens and my chair is in!

The trams are completely wheelchair accessible. I could roll on and off on my own, if I dared. Going home, I squeeze into a full carriage and Peter follows. And we’re back to the hotel. The end of another day.

Tuesday 11 September

I’m not sure what the Hagia Sophya is. I had thought that it is a mosque, but, no, it was a mosque, but originally it was a Christian Cathedral built in the sixth century. Now it is a museum where some Islamic features have been left in place, and some Christian art has been restored. 

There is a long queue when we arrive but a security guard lets us in, saying”welcome to Miami”. He takes our bags to be xrayed and jokes with Peter,”you have a bomb?” Peter tells him he has two. The guard  roars with laughter. Incidentally, he has a pistol in a gun holder on his hip.

From this visit, and with what we learnt from our visit to the Topkapi Palace, we learn a lot about the history of Istanbul. Now a lot of what we have seen makes sense. The Byzantine Empire seems to have begun in the sixth century when Julianius expanded Constantinople. Or perhaps it began when Constantine moved the centre of the Roman Empire here. Whatever, museums and churches here talk about  the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and I now realise that Byzantine has its roots in the Roman Empire. Julianus  ordered the building of the Basilica Cistern, the Galata Tower, the cathedral we have just visited, and other monuments. The Cathedral seems to have been the centre of Constantinopal. In the sixteenth century the Ottomans conquered the city and it became Istanbul.

Ataturk,  in 1935, restored the Christian aspects of the church, stripping tiles and exposing mosaics of the madonna and child, Jesus and Saints, all from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Some of the original Roman architecture from the sixth century was also exposed – the red brick vaults, barrel arches and archways, as well as corinthian columns, marble floors and raised altar. It is now a museum that shows the coming together of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Christian and Muslim icons sit side by side. In the sixteenth century intricate marble lacework was added to the column capitals, walls were tiled, elaborately carved marble preaching platforms added, and on the outside are minarets. All these features can be seen now. We spend nearly two hours there searching out the Christian features that were revealed and the Muslem features that remain, trying to visualise each stage of the church, as well as appreciate the unique view of a madonnas and child mosaic between two Islamic discs with Arabic writing. Amazing!

A cat sits near the altar, smiling at the thousands of tourists passing by. It is completely at ease, and enjoys every scratch or pat offered. When a woman comes near and opens her handbag the cat is suddenly alert, standing at attention, then jumping on to a pillar to get close to her. When the woman gives the cat some food it quickly eats it, then reaches out to the woman for more. It pats her hand, puts her paw in the bag, and after eating more, jumps up again and puts her head in the bag, just about climbing in and disappearing. The cat is obviously healthy, well fed, happy and very tame enjoying the company of people. I have never seen a cat in a museum before, but I think that in Istanbul they can go wherever they want!

Peter has only one pair of long pants with him and he needs to wear them each time we enter a mosque. Everywhere we go there is a mosque. So we head to the Old Bazaar to buy more long pants. I have read that time and patience is required here, so we prepare ourselves for a frantic, crowded place where vendors are persistent, even pestering. In fact, the Bazaar is a really interesting place. It is probably the world’s first indoor mall. It is walled and there are a number of stone gates through which to enter. The ceilings are arched and decorated. It is airy and there are not a lot of people … Yet. The vendors are persistent, but it’s a bit of a game really. I smile a lot and thank the men, they are all men, and wish them a good day as I keep wheeling. The few times I stop the vendors work hard to find what I want, but if I clearly describe what I am looking for they apologise if they do not have it. I learn to look discretely … The worst thing is to be vague, because you’re sure to buy something you don’t want! The best thing is to be friendly. But if you show any interest in goods, it’s impossible to get away!

There are also shops on the streets immediately outside each gate, and that’s where we find Peter’s pants. There’s no hard sell in these shops so it’s easy to look at different places.

It’s getting busy now and I’m feeling hemmed in. We look for the mosque  expecting it to be quieter. And it is. We sit on the steps to eat lunch, then go inside. It’s so peaceful! A few men are saying prayers and there are a couple of other tourists. Other than that we are on our own – with the security guard. The inside is very light, and there is a gentle flow of air through it. The marble is very pale blue, the inside of the dome is white with the usual lacy designs, but there is little tiling. Only the arches have stripes and these are alternating pale and dark blue. It is a very beautiful place.

We wander through the bazaar for a little longer but soon leave and catch the tram back to Sultanahmet where we sit in front of the fountain eating ice cream, two ice creams – each!

We are too tired to go far for dinner, so eat at the hostel. There is always music being played, and suddenly we realise that there have been at least two NZ songs, April Sun in Cuba by Dragon, and Wandering Eye by Fat Freddys Drop. A couple of nights previously we had heard How Bizarre by OMC.! Apparently backpackers give them music and the workers play what they like of it. They like kiwi music!

Wednesday 12 September

We book the Whirling Dervish show for tonight, and a cruise on the Bosphorus and Black Sea for all day Friday. Sorted!

We start out a little later than usual because we have to wait to book these activities. First we want to visit the Dolmabalche Palace then, if there’s time, visit the Rustem Pasha and Suleymaniye Mosques, or if not, the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.

The Palace is very, very opulent. It was built in the mid nineteenth century as a grand gesture to demonstrate the power of the Ottoman empire at a time when it was in decline. The sultan wanted to modernise and westernise the empire so the palace is of Italian and French 
design. For one thing this means that the Ottoman style of having many stand alone pavilions making up one palace is abandoned for the western style of putting all rooms under one roof. For another, rather than building in marble it is built of interlocking wooden beams, and the pillars and columns, apart from those in the grandest rooms, are wooden, painted to look like either marble or tufo. The palace is decorated and furnished with European fittings. Because of its construction the number of people who can be in the palace at any one time is limited, and we must visit in groups and with a tour guide.  

The interior is the most decorative, opulent, expensive, expansive I have ever seen. We start at the entrance room. It is very impressive. There are two large crystal chandeliers, two standing chandeliers, the floors are beautiful wooden mosaics partly covered with red carpet runners, and the ceilings are cleverly painted with creamy lacework to appear three dimensional. The wooden ceiling beams are also painted in the same way. In the corners there are ornate fireplaces with crystals that match the chandeliers and that reach the ceiling. (All the crystal objects were made in Britain.)

Then, wham, we see the crystal staircase. The balustrades are all made of delicately twisted and ornate crystal! It is a grand central staircase that splits at the centre into two. Above this is a huge chandelier. It weighs two and a half tons … But is apparently the smallest of three large chandeliers!

Every reception room has ceilings that are gilded with gold, have huge crystal chandeliers in the four corners, contain priceless porcelain vases, hand made carpets, intricate parquet floors and Louis 1V style chairs. Rooms have floor to ceiling windows that let in plenty of light, and have sea views not obscured by the heavy brocade drapes. The Ambassadors Lounge, where official visitors were first taken, includes a white- bear rug. the Acceptance Lounge, where the Sultan received these visitors, has the second largest crystal chandelier, gilt wallpapers, enamelled and bejewelled tables, a matching pair of two metre high porcelain vases, the largest handmade carpet in the world … Smaller rooms are as richly decorated and also have huge gilt framed mirrors. The richly decorated lounges go on and on. Finally, the Exhibition Hall, still used today for state receptions, is the grandest room of all and has a crystal chandelier that weighs nearly five tons.

Our official guide leaves us to make our own way to the harem, or family quarters.

We take our time, then wait outside the harem for the next guided tour in English. The family living quarters are lavish. There are six hammams (Turkish Baths). The walls, floors, columns and basins are  made of a special translucent Egyptian marble carved with beautiful designs. Guest and family rooms are gold ornamented and furnished with marble tables, and drawers and cupboards with pearl inlay. The fireplaces in every room are made of decorated porcelain and gold. Every bedroom has an adjacent salon. Less ornate is the room used by Ataturk, the first President.

Peter rescues my wheelchair from the front entrance, comes back to me and we look for a nice quiet spot to have lunch. We sit in front of the Palace by the sea. 

We return to the Egyptian Spice bazaar. Its easier than the Old Bazaar to find our way around and the aromas are so nice. I buy three scarves, one very lightweight white, an even lighter deep purple and a turquoise one. It’s difficult to resist looking through the scarves because the colours, patterns, weights, fabrics and variety is so great.

We’ve booked to see the Whirling Dervish show tonight. We’re early so we walk through a few nearby alleys. We see old men, two per checked tableclothed table, playing backgammomn. Another group of three men have three cell phones on the table and they appear to be gambling on whose will ring first! 
The show is in an old hammam and is limited to one hundred seats. It is essential to book, it is so popular.  Traditional music is followed by the Whirling Dervishes, a ceremony that consists of men twirling for 25 minutes.Although it provides entertainment, it is a form of spiritual discipline that requires years of training, beginning when boys are very young.  The movement is graceful and mesmerising. The image of the flowing skirts, the rotating movement stays with me and seems to grow stronger. 

We catch a tram then walk back to the hostel, passing the Four Seasons Hotel. We are stopped and introduced to the Four Seasons cat. He is big, white and orange, and neutered to keep healthy. Tje staff member holds him on his back in the crook of his elbow, just the way Amy hold Superfudge. The cat is completely relaxed and smiling. The man explains that the hotel has adopted the cat and that all cats in Sultanahmet are sleek and healthy because they are fed good restaurant food, but cats in poor areas must feed from garbage. Dogs were tagged about five years ago and neutered, so in another five years there should be no homeless dogs roaming the streets. We see only old dogs.

We don’t get to see the mosques, so we will go tomorrow.