Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Many a year, I’ve hosted Thanksgiving dinner party at my house. One November, a newsletter landed in my email box with an incredible deal. Renaissance Cruise was offering a 5-day Mediterranean cruise from Istanbul, Turkey to Athens, Greece, with a 2-day stay at a 4-star hotel in either city. It was a steal at $650, including the flight from New York City. Granted, there was an additional $300 for government fees, port charges and visa, but the airfare to Turkey alone would cost that much. I immediately called my husband. Vision of the movie “Midnight Express” danced on his mind, so he hesitated on Turkey but was thrilled about visiting Greece. Good deals are irresistible; I made the reservations the next day. We would be spending our Thanksgiving holiday in Turkey.
We drove from Boston to New York City to catch our flight to Istanbul, Turkey. At the JFK International Airport, we changed some money just in case we needed some Turkish Liras for tips or a taxi. Fifty U.S. dollars instantly turned my husband into a multi-millionaire! We later learned that Turkey’s inflation was spiraling out of control to the point where even the locals preferred to hold U.S. dollars. Every day, the exchange rate fluctuated violently, sometimes by as much as 6,800 liras! Everything was in millions of liras, a number so cumbersome the locals didn’t even bother to use the last three zeros.
We arrived in Istanbul, Turkey after a nine hours flight. Renaissance representatives waiting at the airport whisked us away to our hotel. After checking in, we attended a welcome briefing, where we picked up information about the cruise and all the available tours. Renaissance Cruise was a family of ships designed to provide excellent service, fine dining, reasonable prices and exotic ports-of-call. Our ship The Renaissance R1 was the first in a series of eight 684-passenger ships.
Thus began our adventure in Turkey. Our hotel, located in the outskirts of Istanbul, overlooks the Sea of Marmara. We wandered into the local neighborhood town, and managed to ask some people in English for a restaurant recommendation. We have a set of close friends from Turkey and have tried a lot of their food, so we were undaunted. At the restaurant, we just went up to the display case that was showcasing all kinds of meat and fish, and pointed to what we wanted. Our meal of mixed grilled chicken and fish served with vegetables were excellent. The unfiltered coffee, however, was not something we could get used to. The next day, we went on a whirlwind tour to see the highlights of Istanbul. Our first stop was the Basilica cistern, which provided water for the Imperial Palace. The underground cistern with Medusa column bases might appear familiar to some people, as the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love” was filmed on location here. Next, we toured the impressive Topkapi Palace, where sultans and their harem live during the heydays of the Ottoman Empire. Spice lovers would love the intoxicating aromas of the herbs and spices at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.
After we completed our tour, we took a taxi and went out on our own to explore the Grand Bazaar. We had read about it, but nothing prepared us for the astounding size of this medieval looking market. With over 58 covered streets and 1,200 shops, you can literally get lost in the maze. The bazaar is organized by specialty. There is a lane lined with leather goods, another with carpets, another selling only jewelry, and so on. Between them are a few restaurants and cafes. So we walked into a carpet store at the carpet alley. The shopkeeper sat us down, offered us some tea, and asked us some questions regarding our preferences on colors, patterns, and size. Then he proceeded to give us a lesson on carpets – the knots, the type, and the stories behind them. His assistants began to unfurl one carpet after another. As soon as we made a gesture, the carpet was set aside. We were off to some serious carpet buying. At the end of the show/entertainment/education, we bought two small rugs. We paid good money for them, and probably got ripped off since we are hopeless at bargaining. Our friends had urged us to visit the Blue Mosque, and when the merchant also insisted that we went before the mosque closed for the evening, he volunteered his friend to drive us there. We didn’t want to carry the carpets with us, so we left them at the shop to be picked up later. When we returned to the Grand Bazaar, we could not find the carpet store! We were sure we got scammed. After going round and round the labyrinth of shops for what seemed like hours, we finally found the store. We picked up our carpet and left the bustling market; we had enough excitement for one day.
Our ship was supposed to leave Istanbul on a Wednesday evening. It was timed so that the R1 will pass through the Straits of Dardanelles between 7 am and 9 am the next day, Thanksgiving Day. The Dardanelles is a body of water that is 38 miles long with a width varying from four to three quarters of a mile separating the continent of Europe from the westernmost tip of Asia Minor. This strategic strait was the site of naval conflicts over the years. The ancient city of Troy, best known for the legendary Trojan War, lies southeast of the Dardanelles. Cruising down the straits would have been an interesting sight to see. Unfortunately, due to some technical difficulties, we did not cast off from Istanbul until the next morning. By the time we reached the straits, it was completely dark.
Luckily, we had plenty to do. It was our first day on the R1. We spent the day exploring the ship, getting our bearings around our “home” for the next five days. The dining options on this cruise were different from other cruise lines. The R1 had four restaurants, two of which needed an advance reservation, if you wanted to dine there. Most of the restaurants had open seating, mostly with tables for 4 to 6, and a few for 2. Much to our delight, the dress code was casual. Our first day at sea was Thanksgiving Day, and we were excited to learn that they would be serving a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. We sat with two other couples and shared stories about our experiences we had had in the city. They were better at bargaining than we were. As for our dinner, the chef did a good job serving up a pretty authentic Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. We like cranberry sauce on our turkey, and that was the only thing missing.
From Istanbul, we cruised to Kusadasi, Rhodes and Crete before disembarking in Athens, where we stayed on land for another two days. Overall, it was a fantastic trip. As it turned out, my husband discovered he liked Turkey better than Greece. New experiences will change your feelings and thoughts about places.So, when traveling, keep an open mind!