A Travellerspoint blog

The journey IS the destination

Istanbul Take 2

semi-overcast 22 °C
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We have closed the loop (so to speak) and spent our final few days in Turkey where we began our journey - in Istanbul. Returning was like coming home in a way as we felt we knew our way around. This feeling of familiarity was further enhanced by reconnecting with Arif, the travel agent we discovered in Istanbul. He organised our travel and accommodation, as well as many of our tours, on a section by section basis This gave us the freedom of only needing to plan a couple of stops in advance so that we could go where the mood took us. Arif and his colleagues greeted like long, lost friends when we returned which was lovely.

Even after seeing a great deal of the country, on returning to Istanbul we couldn’t help but remain impressed by this spectacular city. Of course most of it was the same but some things had changed in the 4 weeks we’d been away. The square in front of the Blue Mosque where we’d sat and rested on our second day was being dug up. The wisteria had finished flowering. The riotous displays of tulips had been replaced with salvia, marigolds and begonias. The springtime city that greeted us at the end of April now looked and smelt of summer.

We spent our last few days covering off the Essential Istanbul Checklist as well as just wandering the city at our leisure.

The Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar and a Bosphorus cruise took up our first day. We had been warned that the Grand Bazaar was pretty crazy but, as were were now seasoned Turkophiles, it didn’t faze us as much as it may have when we first arrived in Istanbul. We felt fairly confident about what was fair value for money, knew how to respectfully terminate a sales pitch that we didn’t wish to be involved in and generally found we enjoyed the buzz of the place. The Turks have a great sense of humour which makes social and commercial interactions quite easy really. Opening lines from stall holders such as, “how may I hustle you today” acknowledge the nature of the game both vendor and purchaser are involved in. During the past few weeks we found that we were able to engage in quite lengthy conversations with people even when they knew there would not be a sale at the end of the chat. In fact, getting a commercial transaction off the table early often proved to be the key to better conversation in the end. We found many, many people who were happy to help the lost or confused traveller (us), often literally going out of their way to do so, even when they knew there was nothing in it for them.

The Spice Bazaar was like the Central Market on steroids. Some beautiful produce displayed in fetching ways, making for great photo opportunities.
Our cruise on the Bosphorus was a great chance to see just how far the city extends. 1.5 hours up the river and we were still well and truly within the city limits (and our cruise began somewhere in the middle of Istanbul!). One thing that really struck us was the lack of business high-rise in the place. The city is so old that its heart and much of its infrastructure was developed pre-skyscraper. While there’s certainly a lot of high-rise, in the form of 20 storey apartment blocks to accommodate the population, there really isn’t a sense of domination by the big-end of town. Having said that, Istanbul is a highly commercial city, it’s just that the commercialism is primarily the domain of the small to medium businessman/ woman rather than corporate giants. Small corner shops, local butchers and greengrocers and family businesses thrive. From a tourist’s perspective this means that interactions are quite personal and that mosques, palaces and key landmarks are visible from afar - helping to give us our bearings as we traversed the city.

On our final day we caught a tram and funicular to Taksim Square (= Victoria Square, Adelaide). The shopping boulevard that extends from the square is quite Parisian in style and attitude. With minimal vehicular traffic allowed in the wide boulevard and the street itself lined with beautiful old buildings, we strolled our way back towards the river. We spent the best part of of 4 hours wandering lanes, poking in shops etc. Brian found more socks but had to part with 10TL for 3 pairs this time. Ah the curse of being in the big smoke!

Eventually we came to a narrow, steep street that seemed to be the musos corner of Istanbul. Small shop after small shop filled with a vast array of instruments from modern electric guitars and drum kits to hand-hewn whistles and traditionally-crafted bouzoukis. Thought of Neil and Marty in particular and how they would have lost themselves for hours in this part of town. Walking over the Galata bridge towards our accommodation we pondered about how many other little haunts like this we had not had the opportunity to discover.

As we came to “that time of the day” (G&T o’clock) we decided to take our libations to Gulihane Park, a large public park beside the Topkapi Palace where many people go after work. It seemed fitting to watch Istanbulis at play/ leisure in the early evening light before heading out for our last Turkish meal. Of course once we got there we wondered if there were laws about public drinking that we may not be abiding by, so we had to be a little surreptitious about what we were doing. Felt a bit like sneaking a drink into a school social!

We now wing our way to Singapore for 2 days before heading home. We’ve had a fab time but have missed our kids terribly so it will be great to see them again. And , who knows, they may be so pleased to see us that they won’t even mind sitting through a family slide night of the almost 4000 photos we have taken!

When I began this blog we didn’t know what places we would visit and what adventures were in store for us. As we come to the end of our trip I reflect on Chappie’s maxim about travelling , “The journey IS the destination”. And it certainly has been!

Posted by 50inturkey 31.05.2012 20:16 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Dusk and dawn over the Dardanelles

Gallipoli Peninsula - Turkey

semi-overcast 23 °C
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As dusk descended on the Dardanelles, Brian and I arrived in the small port town of Eceabat to explore the Gallipoli peninsula. With requisite G&T in hand we began our first evening by sitting on our hotel balcony watching the last light of the day fade, gazing across the Dardanelles and up the Sea of Marmara towards Istanbul. Not a bad introduction to the area.

Yesterday we took 2 tours. The first to the southern part of the Gallipoli peninsula, where English and French troops were particularly active, and the second to the significant Anzac sites. Having a Turkish guide made the trip all the more interesting as we were given perspectives and insights into the Gallipoli story that we had not gleaned before.

For the Turkish people the Gallipoli peninsula marks the rise of Attaturk and modern Turkey. Consequently, it is revered by Turks and attracts many, many local tourists (especially on weekends when we happened to be there). Evidently, a few years ago the Turkish government decreed the area so important that all Turkish school children are required to visit the area as part of their education. The government provides transport to assist schools to travel to the area. The parts of the peninsula that were the sites of significant Turkish victories or Turkish memorials were very crowded. However, the blend of local and foreign tourists (mostly Aussies and Kiwis) seemed to heighten the sense of shared tragedy, with many Turks literally reaching out to shake hands or acknowledge us with a nod or a slow smile.

The area around the Anzac battlefields is now a national park. It is far greener and more forested than it was in 1915. Consequently, landmarks such as Anzac Cove have a tranquillity and beauty about them that masks the severity of the conditions faced by WWI troops. However, where the steep, sharp, sandstone ridges were evident I couldn’t help but be struck the enormity of the task that faced those who landed in the wrong place on April 25. The contrast to broad, flat Brighton Beach (the intended landing spot) was considerable.

For me the most significant moments of the tour were standing in the sea at Anzac Cove looking up at the ridges and also viewing the Turkish and Anzac trenches. The labyrinth of narrow, winding trenches was made all the more heartbreaking by seeing how close the Turks and Anzac troops were to each other. Many a time there was only 7-10 metres separating the front lines of the opposing forces. At that distance they would have heard each other speak, cough and groan before going ‘over the top’ to engage in combat – incredible. This close proximity to each other was heightened by the ultimate futility of the Anzac campaign (Australian perspective). The Anzac troops advanced about 1km from April to August, the Brits and French about 3km. Much of the action was in small areas such as Lone Pine (the size of a soccer pitch) and The Nek (about the size of 2 tennis courts). And yet within the 5 months, for these small advances and eventual withdrawal, in a very small geographic area, half a million men lost their lives (Allies and Turks combined). All my year 12 Wilfred Owen poetry about the futility of war came flooding back to me.

Brian and I couldn’t help but think of our fathers while we were at Gallipoli. We felt the history of the area may have been even more significant to them. We were also struck by the fact that the majority of the graves we saw were of men in their 20s. These were the young fathers of a generation who died. While the Anzac story is men’s history, the knock on effect for women and society more broadly was considerable.

Our day of touring began with the most amazing sunrise over the Dardanelles. An orange-red sky that seemed to capture the significance of the day ahead for us.

Posted by 50inturkey 28.05.2012 07:05 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Where 'old town' means old town

Bergama (Pergamum), turkey

storm 19 °C
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Bergama reminds me of a bit of a slightly down-at-heel, old, Australian country town that is all the more delightful for its lack of gentrification. There is nothing pretentious or ‘touristic’ about this place so we feel like we are getting the ‘real deal’ here.

That’s not to say that tourists don’t come – they do. The town is the base for exploring the ancient city of Peragamum which includes the Acropolis and the Asclepion. However, most tourists pass through the town on day trips with less stopping to explore beyond these sights.

The Acropolis (developed in the 3rd. and 4th. centuries BC) is quite extensive, stretching some 3km down a steep hillside to the town of Bergama itself. It contains, what by now seems the usual array of, temples, a theatre, agoras (commercial areas), gymnasiums, palaces and houses. The theatre is unusually steep as it is set directly into the gradient of the hillside.

We are almost finding we have become blasé about ruins with another column top or sarcophagus impressing us less than was the case initially. However, we are also getting better at ‘reading the ruins’, recognising a stoa from an agora from a hamam and spotting the difference between Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns. Consequently, we no longer feel the need for guided walks which means we can move at our own pace.

We had a spine-tingling moment atop the Acropolis. We visited on a Friday, the holiest day of the Islamic week. As we were at the highest point of the windswept ruin gazing over the town, the midday call to prayer began in the numerous mosques below. While we have heard this call on a regular basis the sound seemed to fill the air more than it had before. It was quite ethereal, as if the town was singing to us or rising up to meet us somehow. If you closed your eyes there were shades of the eeriness that pervades Midnight Express.

We walked the 3kms, through the full extent of the ruins back to town. I must confess that this was not really for the exercise or the history but more because I couldn’t face the cable car trip back down in the windy conditions (vertigo at work). However, our walk meant we had the lower reaches of the site to ourselves and that we exited into the backstreets of the old town. No ‘restorated’ houses here – these were old homes in operation in whatever condition they happened to be in. Steep lanes, women in doorways, washing flapping, kids at play and not another tourist in sight. A great little sojourn by happenstance.

Following lunch, where I discovered a new dessert – künefene, we journey on to the Asclepion. The Asclepion is touted as the first hospital or medical centre in the region. It’s more like a health farm really. Set on the plain near the town where the calming winds and natural springs supposedly brought solace and health to those who needed it. The main treatment program seemed to consist of taking patients to underground sleeping rooms, where they recounted their dreams to seer-like priests. These priests would interpret their dreams and determine treatment on the basis of this diagnosis. Consequently, Bergama still holds a psycho-analysis conference annually.

The Asclepion was surprisingly intact compared to many of the ruins we have seen. There is also a theatre and library within the complex, testament to the therapeutic powers of the arts I reckon.

Supposedly, death was forbidden to enter the Asclepion. We think the high success rate may also have had something to do with the fact that pregnant women and the terminally ill were not to be admitted!

We have been using the local dolmus (public minibus) service to get around quite a bit in Bergama. This has been a bit of a challenge at times as English has not been as widely spoken. However, with a map in our hands, we have always managed to find at least one friendly Turk on board who has been able to let the driver know where we need to alight. The dolmus system is pretty good. There is no timetable but buses run regularly (every 10-15 mins). There are no set stops, you just hail the bus to get on and call out when you want to get off. There are no tickets, you just pay at some point on your journey. Beginning, middle or end, it doesn’t matter but everybody pays. There are no sections within the route, a single fare takes you as few or many stops as you wish to go - 1.5 to 2TL (= $A.70 to 1.20) depending on the town.

Bergama has proved to be a really interesting wayside journey and we thank our friend Kitty for recommending it so highly. Brian thinks the place is great because he managed to 2 pairs of socks for 1TL each (about A$0.70). He's considering taking orders and shipping them to friends.

Posted by 50inturkey 26.05.2012 02:39 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Sights, civilizations and celebrations in Selcuk

Selcuk - Turkey

sunny 28 °C
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Our past 2 days have been spent touring some of the archaeological sites for which the Anatolian region of Turkey is justly famous. This area was largely developed by the Greeks and Romans and charts the development from pagan times, to Greek gods, to Christianity and Islam. While some relics date back to 2000 BC the majority of the action (and remaining evidence) occurred from 1000 BC to 600 AD.

Ephesus is the big drawcard in the area and, as such, is pretty packed with sightseers. However, the crowds seemed to thin the longer we were there and we were able to get many moments to ourselves which we thought may not have been possible. The scale of the ruins was enormous. We spent about 3 hours wandering what really felt like a city. There were baths, temples, meeting places, a library, a theatre, a school, houses and market districts etc. all in varying stages of completeness. The pics probably say more than I possibly could except to say that we were in awe of the level of social complexity that gave rise to the city and the skill of the marble sculptors. However, I do need to say that it was a big buzz speaking on the stage of an ancient theatre designed for an audience of 25,000. Certainly the biggest venue I’ve ever played.

We also visited Mary’s House – a chapel built in the house where the Virgin Mary is purported to have died. While not of a Christian persuasion myself, the history buff and Sunday school raised child in me are fascinated by seeing so many biblical tales come to life on this trip. Mary’s House is high on a hill in a peaceful municipal park setting. The tranquillity of the place is palpable. There are also strong connections between St John and the Ephesus region. He is supposed to have brought Mary to this area, then moved to Patmos and returned to the region again at the end of his life. While this trip is certainly not a pilgrimage, our inadvertent journey along the trail of St John has been interesting none-the-less, and provided a continuing historical thread for us.

Our final stop on day 1 was the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. The temple was “a bit pissy really” (quote Brian French) with a lone column of the original 127 columns standing forlornly in stagnant marshland. We did venture to the museum where we were able to get a better impression, via models and statues, of the Temple’s former splendour.

Our second day in the region was spent visiting Afrodisias, another ancient city of considerable size that is still undergoing excavation. Here Brian got a chance to run, Chariots of Fire style, in a stadium designed for 30,000. There were quite a lot of school groups touring when we were there. It was interesting to watch the interaction between teachers and students and the kids themselves. Many were keen to practice their English with us or wanted their photo taken.

We then went on to Pammukale, famous for its series of pools set along bleached-white calcite terraces. Again a bit of a tourist-mecca but most seemed to stay in a fairly restricted area. We walked the length of the terraces through lukewarm running water which took about 45 mins. By the end of our journey there were very few people with us, which made the experience a little more intimate.

We stayed at a fab small hotel in Selcuk, Akay Hotel. It was situated smack-bang between the Isa Bey Camii (mosque – 1375 AD), the Bascilica of St John (6th. century AD) and the Temple of Artemis (600 BC). I can’t speak highly enough of the hotel owners. They went out of their way to help us. Most importantly, they sourced tonic for our gin, a very important requirement for us at the end of each day. They also presented us with tall ice-filled glasses at the end of a long travelling day so that we could enjoy our G&Ts ice-cold on the little terrace outside our rooms. When we felt like baklava after dinner one night they raced out and picked some up. When Brian needed another trip to the berber, they drove him there. It felt much more like we were staying with friends than staying in a hotel. And everything was done with a smile and sunny attitude. Just delightful.

Our time with Sabina and Chappie has now come to an end. Today they headed to Istanbul while we have moved on to Bergama. It was great to share a travelling birthday party with them (Sabina, Brian and I have all turned 50 in the last 6 months). Lots of laughs, adventures and memories that we can return to for years to come. All birthday parties should be this good!

Posted by 50inturkey 24.05.2012 10:50 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Blissed out in Patmos

Skala and Grikos

sunny 22 °C
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Patmos proved to be the quintessential Greek island that we had been hoping to find. The main town, Skala, is set on a serene and tranquil harbour. The boardwalk is lined with tavernas, small shops and a main square that is the heart of local social life. Atop a high hill, overlooking the island is the village of Hora, home to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian and the Monastery of the Apocolypse. The main Monastery was established by agreement between the ruler of the day and the clergy in the 11th. century. This manuscript is housed in a museum within the monastery, along with many other pre-printing press parchments. The museum is also home to artworks, including a painting by Greco, artefacts and iconography dating back to 1 A.D.

The monastery itself is protected by fortress-like surrounds and is an imposing sight that can be seen from all corners of the island. However, the most fascinating aspect of the monastery is that it still in use today. Greek Orthodox monks live within the fortress walls and practice their faith and traditions as they have done for centuries. Eating is a communal affair, with a bell rung to call the monks for lunch each day. The monastery bells and monks’ chants can be heard across the island, accentuating the spiritual feeling of the island.

The main chapel within the monastery is a sight to behold. Whilst small and dark, it is frescoed from top to toe. An intricately carved, gold-plated altar runs the length of one wall from floor to ceiling. Unfortunately no photos could be taken inside the chapel itself.

Part way down the hill from the main monastery is the Monastary of the Apocalyspe. This monastery has been built around and the cave where St. John wrote The Book of Revelations. The chapel in this complex is very small and set inside the cave itself. We happened to visit on a Sunday during mass. We were drawn into the chapel by the sound of male voices, chorusing in a Gregorian chant style. Inside a small congregation of not more than 30 locals were crammed inside the chapel, mostly standing as there were very few seats available. The mass was quite literally a moving feast as parishioners circumnavigated the cave ‘rooms’ within the chapel to receive the sacrament and pay homage to icons that were of particular significance to them. We felt quite humbled to be part of the service.

We spent a spiritual day of a different kind at Grikos, a small seaside village surrounding a picturesque horseshoe-shaped bay. We spent a lazy day exploring the coastline, lazing on the beach and lunching at a seaside taverna (the only one open for business at this early stage of the tourist season). We pretty much had the beach to ourselves, aside from the yachties who moored for lunch and the odd tourist who wandered past. On a small hill above Grikos rests a little chapel built on the ancient public baths where John is said to have baptised Patmians.

The houses of Patmos are whitewashed affairs that cascade down hillsides. Veggies, citrus trees, geraniums, bougainvillea and roses in almost every yard. The seawater is crystal clear. We could see the sea floor in the main harbour that was deep enough to accommodate a large cruise ship that sailed in for a few hours at one point. Religious tourism is a major source of income. Our affable hotel owner, Theo, said, “thank God John chose Patmos (to write Revelations) instead of Leros (a neighbouring island)”. An Aussie-born waitress, who said she came for a holiday and “did a Shirley Valentine” told us that although Patmos does not see a lot of tourists, those who do come make an active choice to be there. And that they were all the nicer for it as they often had to go out of their way to get there.

Yesterday evening we sailed to Samos, where we are only stopping for one night as we head back to Turkey this evening. We are staying on the harbour and had beautiful sunset views of the town as we strolled the promenade last night.

Posted by 50inturkey 21.05.2012 05:46 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

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