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  1. We are all too familiar with two masterpieces of architecture: the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sofia. I have seen so many pictures of Haghia Sophia that perhaps it has lost its ‘wow’ factor. Sadly part of the interior is blocked off and in scaffolding.


    I think that colours my perception, added to the fact that its feeling of sanctity has been compromised due to being turned into a museum. Nevertheless you have to pinch yourself when you remember that it was built in the 6th century and is still the largest church in the world. The glittering mosaics are astonishing, and the massive, low-hung brass candelabras leave a lasting memory.



    Strolling across the square between Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, I think the sight of these two iconic buildings must be one of the most breath-robbing experiences in the world. Look to the left and you have the glorious Blue Mosque (the Sultan Ahmet Mosque), its six minarets reaching heavenward, creating a feeling of sublime perfection and balance.


    Look to the right, and you are overwhelmed by the solid power of Haghia Sophia.


    Some people say it’s not basically a beautiful building. I beg to differ. Okay, so it was undoubtedly improved by the addition of the four Ottoman minarets, but balanced with the Blue Mosque opposite, this is an area of architectural glory that few other cities can match. I could walk up and down here all day. Pity there’s so much else to see.

    I have to visit the Blue Mosque twice since it is so crowded the first time that I feel nothing but a sense of disappointment. My second visit, earlier in the morning before the cruise ships disgorge their one-day sightseers, is much more successful. Beauty that confirms what the guidebooks say. But it’s not blue. The Iznik tiles and painted domes are a profusion of colours. I wonder if the blue originally referred to the outside, where the blue-grey stones contrast sharply with Haghia Sophia’s predominantly pinkish ones.


    Three mosques in Istanbul make an even greater impression on me. The first is the New Mosque (actually 17th century) because it was the first of the ‘tiled’ mosques I entered, because it was not full of tourists and because it was commissioned by a woman – one of the powerful harem ladies. My first visit brings a lump to my throat. I stand entranced for many minutes.


    The second really is a new mosque, opened in 2009, the Sakirin Mosque in the Karacaahmet  cemetery across the Bosphorus in Üsküdar (Scutari) on the Asian side. This one was designed by a woman – at least, the interior was. A candelabra of glass water droplets cascade from the ceiling in a glorious array, reflecting the spidery patterns of windows and balustrades and the simplicity of the circular, cerulean mihrab. It’s beautiful – what more is there to say?



    Lastly a mosque built by a reputed scoundrel of a wealthy nobleman in the 16th century. I set out on my own, since it is our last day, and some of the group are suffering from cultural exhaustion, as we have spent the morning ‘doing’ museums. They declare that they are ‘mosqued out’ and do not wish to accompany me. Instead they wish to ‘waste the next four hours’ and ‘ride the tram to the end of the line, get off and have a cup of tea’, (which we all know is a thinly-disguised euphemism for something stronger)

    I plunge into the Spice Bazaar, wondering if I’ll ever find my way out, until I spot an old sign at the bottom of some stone steps, indicating the Rüstem Pasa Mosque. I head upwards in some trepidation.. It is dark and isolated here. Am I being foolhardy? I emerge onto a charming, narrow courtyard adorned with shrubs in tubs and find myself in front of the mosque, which reputedly houses the best and most profuse selection of Iznik tiles of all the mosques in Istanbul.


    Surrounded by a ceramic flower-garden of sumptuous splendour, I can only agree.




  2. As an Indian Art anorak it is somewhat of a departure to find myself travelling with a different set of anoraks, namely a bunch of Crimean War groupies.

    My good friend and fellow-writer, Jay, happens to be married to one of them, so when she discovered that they were going to Istanbul to tick off a few more Crimean War must-sees on their list, she invited me along. Now I have long wanted to see this enigmatic city and it didn’t take much persuasion.

    Including me, we are a motley crew of seven geriatrics, four females and three males who are married to three of the females (not me, I hasten to add! Which makes me the odd one out). The male members of this group are under-powered and need regular top-ups at convenient recharging points aka any watering hole that sells beer.  The females aren’t averse to the occasional drop of the honey-coloured liquid either, all except me – firstly I hate the taste of the stuff, and secondly I’m ever mindful of the fact that what goes in must come out.  Public amenities are rare outside the centre and even there they are not always an experience that bears repetition: it’s not so much the cleanliness, which generally isn’t bad, it’s the fact that locals lack that very British concept of ‘the queue’ and you can find yourself repeatedly pipped to the pissoir, so to speak (okay, poetic license, I know I'm a woman!).

    We are staying at the Avicenna Hotel, five minutes away from the back of the Blue Mosque. The Avicenna is one of those old wood-clad Istanbul houses that appear, on first impression,  picturesque and quite humble from outside but reveal a maze of rather grand marble staircases once you get inside. There’s a nice, reasonably-priced  restaurant on the second floor, with views across the Bosphorus.


    The rooms, however, revert to the humble nature of the first impression. Not much space to swing a cat (and there are plenty of those in Istanbul), and a bathroom that ensures you watch your diet during your stay – or you might find yourself trapped in the shower. The view through my window is of a decaying backyard,  a tumble down building and a railway line. The end of my hairdryer rolls off onto the floor whenever I knock it, Jay has no shelf over her basin, resulting in a fight between her hairdryer and a glass – the hairdryer won. The shower is mean – it lulls you into a false impression of lovely warm water and then suddenly switches to freezing. One  couple in our group has had to move rooms after repeated plagues of ‘little black insects’. Not that they minded because they were getting tired of being entertained by bathroom activities from the room next door. Nights are enlivened by feline vocal duelling challenges outside the window. Oh yes, and you have to pay for everything, including the tea bags on the tea  tray, and the thoughtfully provided bottled water, in spite of a notice warning you not to drink the tap water. I circumvent this by boiling up a kettle of tap water daily and letting it get cold. Which reminds me – there’s no socket where the kettle stands, so I have to pick it and its base up every time I boil it and take it across the room.

    Having said all that, don’t let me put you off. I would stay there again. The beds are comfortable, the safe in the room is big, easy to set and fixed to the wall (don’t laugh – I’ve frequently come across safes that can be picked up and carted away!) Breakfast is lovely – especially the yoghurt. Wi-fi is free and the fastest I’ve experience anywhere. And the location, five minutes stroll from the Blue Mosque, is perfect.