Day 2 - Monday - Istanbul>
The day began with a briefing on the terrace of the Ottoman Hotel (there are probably hundreds of hotels here with the same name!). Our Explore tour guide was called Neil, and he'd been doing the same tour for around three months. With a bit of luck, he would have already acquired the essential local knowledge that we could tap him for, like where not to exchange cash, what scams to look out for and what local brew is recommended (OK, that last one was purely for me, and for the record, the local brew appeared to be ... Tubörg. The Danish lager. Brewed in Istanbul)
The view from the terrace was right out across the Marmaris, and over to the East I could clearly make out the outline of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). That was to be our first destination of the morning, with a walk through the not-quite-yet bustling streets of downtown Istanbul.
We were told at the briefing about the drivers in Turkey being, well, of the adventurous kind. While pavements are the realm of the pedestrian (except for where you have to negotiate around cardboard boxes, potholes or surprisingly situated stairwells to basement shops), the roads are for cars and cars alone. Forget about pedestrian crossings - the cars have right of way. Well, strictly speaking they don't, but trust me when I say that you are not in a position to argue on this one.
Neil told us they believe in 'Kismet and Kadur' - or Luck and fate. As he put it, "If a car just misses you, it's luck. If you are hit and injured (or worse), then it was fated." We bore these words in mind at every junction.
We had a walking tour of the old part of Istanbul (or ancient Constantinople). That's a damn lie, actually. There was no walking, it was all running! Beginning at Constantine's Tower, and passing an Egyptian obelisk taken from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, we hot-footed it to the Blue Mosque. Our guide, Sergun, left us with little time for taking photos.
The Blue Mosque, strangely enough, is grey. So, why the name, I wondered, and the answer lies on the inside. Having removed footwear and covered up any particularly showy areas of skin, our group went inside the mosque to discover the incredibly ornate Islamic Iznik tile work, which was predominantly shades of blue.
There is freedom of religion in the secular republic that is Turkey, but 98% are Muslim through choice. There is a minority that want to see a more strict Islamic state with the introduction of Sharia law - which was so popular back in good old Afghanistan, as you may recall - but they are very much the minority here. And even though there are calls to prayer five times a day, not once did I see anyone actually react to this by praying wherever they may be. Apparently, Fridays are the most important day to make your ablutions (again, we saw no evidence of this during the holiday). Anyway, back to the mosque ...
One reason why the decoration is so ornate, possibly, is because images and icons were not allowed - probably something to do with not worshipping false deities. The Arabic calligraphy is also incredibly artistic. I have no idea what it says, but I like it all the same.
Having taken the obligatory photos, we headed back out and took our shoes back out of the plastic bags provided. It was a little blowy outside, and I saw one bag catch a gust and blow back inside the mosque, tumbleweed-style, across the carpeted floor. I dove back in to try to catch it, doing my good deed for the day. However, I realised fairly quickly that I'd actually committed a faux pas, as I'd already put my shoes back on and was presently desecrating this place of worship. As I grabbed the bag, I could hear one of the mosque attendants flapping, shouting something in my general direction. Oops. Well, I was trying to do the right thing!
Directly facing the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul's famous landmark, the Aya Sofia. Unlike other mosques in the city, this began life as a church but was converted. Inside the Christian decoration has been covered by huge medallions with Arabic calligraphy. We didn't get to see this first hand (on this occasion) as we went straight on past towards Topkapı Palace.