Port and Shore Excursions
The Suleymaniye Mosque was well-kept with the most beautiful view of Istanbul. We could see Equinox and the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia. The courtyard was spacious and beautiful and there were way less visitors so less crowded than the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia.
While visiting the Blue Mosque, we had to cover our hair and shoulders using our scarves. The mosque provided big squares of covering for those who didn't bring their own. We had to take our shoes off and put them in a plastic bag at the entrance. We had to carry the shoes ourselves while we're in the mosque. The Blue Mosque has 6 minarets and inside the Mosque one could see beautiful Iznik tiles in different shades of blue.
I booked Tour #4 (1.5 days Private Istanbul Tour) for 10 people with Ephesus Shuttle. Each paid US$116. I communicated with Fevzi from Ephesus Shuttle and his responses were always prompt and helpful. I highly recommended Ephesus Shuttle for private tours in Istanbul and Ephesus. The pace of the tour was good in general with a few exceptions. We were not happy with the driver for not showing up to take us to lunch on the 1st day. We ended up walking uphill to the restaurant and that took us over 15 minutes.
We were given over 2 hours to spend at the Grand Bazaar which is one of the oldest and biggest covered markets in the world. There were close to 60 covered streets. We spent a lot of time at one store to buy many of those ceramic Turkish dishes, kept bargaining until we got 8 small (2") ones for US$10. Then I bought some silk book marks with Turkish patterns or attractions on for US$1 each. There were lots of stores that sold Turkish costumes like bra and belt sets. My friends bought 2 leather jackets there with instant alterations while they waited.
Hagia Sophia was built in 532 AD which, IMO, was more elegant and well-decorated than Blue Mosque. It used to be a Christian Church but now it's a museum with Muslim calligraphy.
One of the cruise highlights for my husband was the Turkish Night Out where he could watch different belly dancers dance. I paid US$80 per person for Ephesus Shuttle to pick us up at 8 p.m. from the ship for a Turkish Night Out and they took us to Kervansaray Restaurant & Night Club. The food was below average from a fixed menu (everyone there attending the show had the same food). The female singer was not up to par, but the belly dancers were very good and they even claimed to have the #1 belly dancer in Istanbul. The show with knives was good!
There were lots of spices, teas and other souvenirs on sale in the Spice Market. The best was its location which was close to Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn with the floating restaurants. Lots of picture opportunities nearby even if you are not interested in shopping at the Spice Market.
The Topkapi Palace used to be the residence of the Ottoman Sultans. We moved from room to room to view the Treasury and particularly enjoyed the view of Istanbul from the terrace.
This was the place I felt we were really rushed. With lots of visitors we didn't have enough time to take decent pictures. The Underground Cistern was the largest underground water reservoir in Istanbul built by Justinian I. Special lighting made the cistern even more beautiful. I loved listening to the legends associated with the cistern.
It's believed that Jesus' disciple, John, spent his last years in the region around Ephesus and was buried in the southern slope of Ayosolug Hill where the basilica was located. Nothing much special to see.
It was like the landmark of Ancient Ephesus, with the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates next to it. It was really amazing to see just the facade of the whole library.
As soon as we entered Ancient Ephesus, we saw the Baths of the "State Agora". Then we passed by "The Bouleuterion" which housed the meetings of the Council as well as musical performances and contests built around 100 A.D. The Market Basilica was a 160-m long arcade, also built in the 1st century. We continued to walk in the heat and finally arrived at Terrace Houses. Our guide gave us the ticket to enter the site and it was amazing. The extra cost of $10 was so worth it. It was great to see the 5-minute live presentation next to the Great Theatre.
The ground was extensive but the house itself was small. It was claimed that Mary went to Ephesus with St. John in 37 A.D. and lived there until her death in 48 A.D. IMO, the "Wishing Wall" outside the House of Virgin Mary was even more striking than the house itself.
When we stopped at the Temple of Artemis, it was so sad to see what used to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World had only 1Â½ columns left. DH stood in front of the half column to show how big the column base was.
Compare to the rest of Ancient Ephesus, these houses were way better preserved and the excavation only started in 1960's. The Terrace Houses were located on the hill opposite the Temple of Hadrian and were also called "The Houses of the Rich". There were 6 residential units on three terraces and now they're covered with protective roofing. The mosaics on the floor were clearly visible and the frescos have been consolidated. We visited 2 of those 6 houses. It's incredible to see what was excavated but it was very dusty and stuffy inside the enclosed space.
We wanted to be adventurous so instead of getting a taxi, we boarded the Celebrity free shuttle to take us to the port entrance and we walked for 10 minutes to the Civitavecchia train station. It was just 1 straight road if you keep walking by the water and as soon as you see the Hotel della Ville you need to cross the street and walk up the ramp, otherwise you'll have to take your bags up the stairs right in front of the station. Train fare was 5 to Roma Termini (fast train 9). We got on the regional train and the journey was 1 hour 10 minutes long (fast train took only 45 minutes).
We bought a 3-day Roma Pass with unlimited use of public transport. We visited many famous attractions: Navona Square, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia, Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, Capitoline Museum and St. Peter's Basilica.
The panoramic view of Rome from Gianicolo Hill & the local tours with "Enjoy Rome" - the Catacombs and Roman Countryside (3 hours) and the Ancient & Old Rome Walking Tour (3 hours)- were amazing.
The best part was that they gave us time to walk on our own, then offered us cable car tickets to go back to the shore where the ship docked. Sometimes the line-up for the cable car could be as long as an hour, so allow ample time to get to the port before the last tender departs.
As we checked http://www.cruisetimetables.com (a very important & useful site, check and plan accordingly!!) and knew that there were 3 other cruise ships docking there on the same day, we decided to join the ship excursion SO01 (CA$79.75 per person) - Village of Oia and Santorini Island - to take advantage of visiting Oia first, instead of taking the cable car or donkey to Fira with the crowds. Besides, there was no need to queue up early for the tendering tickets. The wine tasting was good and the view was incredible! IMO, Oia was more beautiful than the well-known capital, Fira. Both thumbs up for this tour!
We drove from the winery to the town and went past lots of beautiful sights. After dropping us off at a parking lot, we were allowed to explore on our own in the Village of Oia and had ample time to take pictures and walk around. It's unfortunate that we had to leave the village before sunset, as I heard that Oia has the most beautiful sunset in the world!
We were taken to Oia's Santo Winery to enjoy a few glasses of wine and the beautiful scenery. We were given about 30 minutes to spend there, plenty of time to sample the red and white wines and enjoy the incredible scenery of Oia.