Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

After exploring Ephesus and the Basilica of St John the previous day, on Sunday the 4th of March we went to the Isa Bey Mosque, the Temple of Artemis, one of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Ephesus Museum and had a walk around the town.

The mosque was a nice enough building, still apparently functioning as a place of worship. The Temple of Artemis, while at one time impressive enough to be counted a Wonder of the World by Herodotus, is now a fairly unimpressive ruin, with one and a half rebuilt columns, a few ruined walls and a large pool. The most interesting part of visiting the Temple was all the terrapins sunbathing on the side of the pools. We saw a few by the side of some pools in the ruined chambers. Then, as we got to the large pool at one end, there were dozens of large ones that all tumbled into the water when they saw us.

The Ephesus Museum had various interesting relics – statues of Artemis with either many breasts or testicles covering her torso, for instance. Later in the day, we walked to the other side of the town with the aim of maybe walking up a hill. We went over the railway, passed a mosque and through a residential area. When we got to the foot of the hill, a bunch of children came to us and started demanding we take their picture – we went back pretty quickly.

We were back at the railway station the following morning, to get a train to Izmir Airport. From there, we flew to Athens.

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I’m pretty behind on my blogging. We’re already in Albania, but I’ve yet to say anything about the latter part of our stay in Turkey or anything about Greece.

We left our Istanbul hostel before dawn, got a shuttle minibus to the airport and flew to Izmir, a city on the west coast of Turkey; the flight was less than an hour. From the airport – after hanging around while Habiba’s mum tried unsuccessfully to reserve tickets and seats – we took a coach to a bus station – or otogar – in Izmir. We found a place to take a minibus to Selçuk and, with half an hour before it left, we decided to get breakfast.

The food took quite a while to prepare – fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe – so we tried to eat quickly. The bus guy saw me standing up and wolfing down food and he made reassuring, plenty-of-time expressions. When I went out ahead of the others a few minutes later, he was taking our bags off the minibus. I told him we were ready and were taking the bus, so he loaded our bags on again. I then had to stand half on, half off the bus while we waited for Habiba to retrieve her mum from the bathroom. Then, when they got on, everyone was looking for me, not realising I was already seated. Fun.

Selçuk turned out to be a lovely countryside town, nestled in a dry, Mediterranean valley strewn with olive orchards. We stayed at Atilla’s Getaway, run by Atilla, a Turkish Australian. He was very friendly and attentive – we were the only guests there most of the time, so we received lots of attention. The hostel was a few kilometres outside Selçuk and he provided a shuttle service at regular intervals; however, being the only people who needed shuttling, he and his staff took us back and forth whenever we wanted. They also cooked decent breakfasts and dinners for us.

Our first sightseeing expedition was to take a taxi to the House of the Virgin Mary. This is an old, pretty stone house on a hill several kilometres from Selçuk that is supposed to have been where Jesus’s mother lived out her life after Jesus’s execution. Inside, it’s been made into a little church, where people reverently shuffle through the front door and an antechamber, into the main room and out through a side room.

Although there is a local tradition about it, the house became famous only after an 18th century woman had a ‘vision’ of the place. Catholics searched for it and a hundred years later, a German decided he’d found it. Supposedly, the woman’s descriptions were amazingly accurate, right down to the ‘rectangular stones’ the house was built from – so few buildings utilise rectangular masonry, so it must’ve been the place.

I made a point of expressing my doubts about the whole story, and Habiba and Noor made a little fun of my scepticism. For a building that’s supposed to be two thousand years old, it’s in pretty good condition. Additionally, while several popes have visited the place, the Church doesn’t officially recognise it as what it’s claimed to be because of the lack of evidence.

The next day, we walked from the hostel along a dirt road on the side of the valley to Ephesus, or ‘Efes’ in Turkish (which is also the name of a Turkish beer). Ephesus was once a port – although the sea is now some distance away – and the most important Greek city in Asia Minor. What remains now is a large complex of ruins in the countryside. We reached a little townlet at the upper gate with cafés and souvenir shops and entered there, passing by a small amphitheatre and various ruins, along marble-paved streets with several semi-restored doorways and façades, until we got to the two most impressive ruins, the Library of Celsus and the 25,000-seater theatre.

Because of the scale of the site and the way in which it’s all linked together by streets, you get a better sense of, or you can better imagine what the place was like a couple of millennia ago. We took our time wandering around, taking lots of photos, reading the signs. It wasn’t too crowded; there was a sprinkling of tourists and an exuberant school group. By the time we reached the Library and theatre, however, we were getting tired and were ready to head back to town. There were several cats around the ruins. At the lower exit, a family was having a picnic near the toilets (which doesn’t sound too appetising, but the WC was a very pleasant building) and they were surrounded by about a dozen cats. Quite amusing.

Later, we wandered around the market in Selçuk, had lunch and went to the ruined Basilica of St John, another impressive ruin – although not quite on a scale with Ephesus. It was overlooked by a castle on the nearby Ayasoluk Hill, which we didn’t go to.

While Istanbul had been wintry, with clouds, snow and strong winds, Selçuk had perfect weather. The skies were mostly blue and, while the air was cool, it turned out to be quite warm in the sun.

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While, of course, we wouldn’t have travelled to Turkey without expecting it to be nice to some degree, we were pleasantly surprised by the country. It’s quite unlike any other country I’ve been to; it has a pretty unique mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture and climate.

Coming from a city like Seoul that is dominated by its modern office and apartment buildings along with a few pine-covered mountains, Istanbul was a great contrast. The thing you notice most about the city, especially the touristy Sultanahmet area, which is where we stayed, is the mosques. They tend to sit on top of the hills, minarets arrowing into the sky, each looking much like the Hagia Sophia. Periodically, the call to prayer goes out from all of them, echoes bouncing back and forth across the city. There’s an undeniable beauty to the spiralling songs, but the whole idea of everyone stopping what they’re doing five times a day to worship some mythical being is the mark of totalitarianism.

On a happier note, Istanbul was also remarkable for the number of cats. It was like visiting Ulthar. Every café and restaurant seems to have a suprisingly well kempt stray lazing by the doorway. Mostly, they seemed clean and healthy – and friendly, too. We petted quite a few and they readily lifted their heads for a scratch. One of the friendliest cats I encountered was at the ruins of Ephesus. It was a pretty small white and ginger bitch who purred enthusiastically as she rubbed up against me. I didn’t pet her, however, as her ears were horribly infected, red and swollen, the tips nothing but scab. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, though.

Having had a less than totally pleasant time in India, I’m always on my guard when it comes to being approached by strangers when in foreign lands. Our experience in Turkey, however, was quite benign. People wanted to sell their services, but they left you alone if you said No, thanks. One man approached us as we got off the bus in Selçuk and I was automatically suspicious, but he turned out to be very helpful, offering us information about buses and taxis and then pointing us towards our hostel’s meeting point when we told him what we were doing.

As you might expect from its East-meets-West status, Turkey has both western- and eastern-style toilets. The sitting toilets have a little spout thing that sticks out from the back of the bowl rim and doesn’t appear to do anything. Many toilets also have the ability for the user to customise the amount of flush. For instance, some toilets have a kind of double-sided button on top of the cistern; you push one side down to flush and you push the other side down to stop it.

We had our share of Turkish coffees while we were there, too. It’s very bitter, thick stuff served in a little espresso-style cup. You need sugar or syrup in it to make it palatable. The last third or quarter of the cup is a gritty sludge that it’s inadvisable to drink; if you stir the coffee, you mix that sludge in with the rest of the drink. Tea was likewise served strong and black in little urn-shaped glass cups. We like our capuccinos, but they tended to be pretty mediocre in Turkey.

On the subject of food, my overriding impression is that Turks like their bread. Coming from South Korean, where the bread tends to be sweet and crappy and many people literally confuse cake with bread, the amount of good bread on offer was a pleasant change. Habiba was ecstatic about our hostel breakfast in Istanbul – a buffet of green and black olives, feta cheese, tomato, cucumber, egg and thick slices of crusty, rabbit-shaped bread. Rabbit-shaped because each loaf was cut down one side of the top before it finished baking.

Many meals would come with a basket full of such bread. Most of the meals we had were very good. They tended to be somewhat saucy and oily and pretty mild. After red pepper-heavy South Korean cuisine and our own spicy cooking, a lot of the meals seemed quite bland. A couple of highlights were bruch at a place in Istanbul called Van Kahvatlı that had lots of bread and cheese, and in Selçuk, we went to a restaurant called Wallabies where I had a chicken curry that was mild, but tasty.

Overall, we were very happy to have visited to Turkey. Looking around the shops and stalls in places like the Grand Bazaar, you realise you could come here just to buy beautiful things with which to fill your home. I limited myself to one cat ornament. We only went to two town, and it seems like we could have visited a dozen places and been just as impressed with each one. Another time, maybe.

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After the travails and drama of Monday, Tuesday, our first full day in Turkey, was a pleasant relief. We had an en suite room to ourselves at our hostel, Sydney Hostel Istanbul, which consisted of little more than three beds. One of the beds was a double, so Habiba and I slept there; the other bed got piled up with our belongings. While the room was tiny, the free breakfast was a buffet of bread, olives, cheese and salad, so we had no complaints about the place on balance.

First port of call on Tuesday was the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was originally an Orthodox church and is about 1500 years old. It later became a mosque – it’s filled with Islamic-style designs and calligraphy – and was made a museum in the 1930s. It’s a genuinely magnificent building and from the outside looks like a agglomeration of different buildings all piled on top of each other. Inside, the domes soar high above and the space is strung with chandeliers that hang down to what seems only a little above head height.

We queued up outside, waiting to buy our tickets, and turned down various offers from guides. Once inside we wandered around and took lots of photos – I didn’t take as many as I’d have liked because my camera battery ran out of juice. From the grand ground floor, you’re able to walk up a dungeon-like corridor to an upper level for a bird’s eye view of the tourists below.

Some highlights of our visit included the beautiful mosaics – partially destroyed – an example of grafitti made by a Viking on a balcony. Most amusing of all, was a cat that was lying with its head and front paws on one of the powerful lamps by the pulpit or mimbar. It drew a big crowd of people taking photos.

The reason the cat was on the lamp was that it was very cold in Istanbul at the time – it was snowing a lot of the time and the wind was often fierce. We had to wrap up in multiple layers, and still it felt pretty bitter. We had been expecting the weather to be, if not warm, then much milder than that.

We also had a look around the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, crossed the Galata Bridge and had a look at Galata Tower (but didn’t go in; Galatasaray football club takes its name from this area), walked up Istiklal Avenue – like a Turkish Oxford Street, except with a tramline running down it – and met my friend Peter’s brother – Matthew. He took us to a restaurant for dinner and gave us lots of information on things to do in the city. Peter is an extremely nice guy – and Matthew, despite looking different, is very reminiscent of his brother, even having a very similar voice and mannerisms.

The next day, we visited the Blue Mosque – which is very close to the Hagia Sophia and very similar, although less grand and still used as a mosque – the Basilica Cistern – a very impressive underground chamber filled with columns that was used to store water – and the New Mosque, and we went on a boat tour part-way up and down the Bosphorus. On Matthew’s recommendation, we bought some bagel-like bread called simit from roadside carts and fed it bit by bit to seagulls, throwing the bread into the air from the top of the tour boat while the birds flocked around to catch the titbits.

The day after that – Thursday – we went to Topkapı Palace (the letter ‘ı’ is pronounced like ‘ə’, so ‘Topkapı’ sounds like ‘top-kah-puh’. Actually, the capital form of ‘ı’ is ‘I’; the initial letter of ‘Istanbul’ is not the same and it should be ‘İstanbul’ (‘ee-stahn-bool’). The palace reminded me of places that I visited in India, like Agra Fort. It’s a large, slightly labyrinthine complex of buildings and courtyards built largely of marble. We looked around the treasury rooms and saw various amazing artefacts like pendants formed from emeralds the size of a child’s fist, gold pitchers, writing boxes and the like covered with tiny designs. In the armoury section there was a gigantic sword that must have been seven feet long, along with golden maces and rifles that looked more like fine antique furniture. We decided not to go into the Harem because we were cold and tired and it cost almost as much again as the entry fee.

In the evening, after packing most of our stuff and going out for a leisurely cup of coffee, we met Habiba’s friend Neslihan and she took us for dinner. We were shown a big tray of side dishes, from which had chose several, and we ordered fish and roast vegetables from the menu. We also had a drink called rakı, which is clear in its undiluted form, but you add water to it and it clouds up like watery milk; it tastes like aniseed. The meal turned out to be our most expensive yet.

The following day, we got up very early to take a minibus to the airport, from where we flew to Izmir, south-west of Istanbul, on the Aegean coast. From Izmir, we took a couple of buses and arrived in Selçuk (‘sel-chook’), home of Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis.

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To Turkey

Our flight plans for travelling to Istanbul were a little complicated. Habiba was due a free flight provided to her by her employer; I wasn’t. Habiba’s work got her a flight with Emirates, stopping in Dubai; I got a flight with Aeroflot, landing in Moscow for a couple of hours.

We got to the airport in plenty of time for Habiba’s earlier flight. We even watched the season three finale of Breaking Bad. We said goodbye and Habiba went through security to get her midnight flight. I had to hang around the airport until lunchtime for mine. I played an on-line game, Realm of the Mad God for a couple of hours – finally deciding I didn’t like it that much – and walked around a lot. I lay down on some seats and slept for a couple of hours.

In the morning, after getting some breakfast, I lined up nice and early to check-in. The airline staff were asking people where they were travelling to and sending people to specific check-in desks. I overheard someone in front of me saying the plane that were supposed to be boarding was still in Moscow.

When I was eventually seen by the check-in staff – who were all working very hard – I was booked on to a Lufthansa flight via Munich; then I was walked to the Lufthansa check-in desks. The upshot was that I was to arrive in Istanbul a couple of hours later than we’d expected. I left messages for Habiba about the situation on Skype, Facebook and via e-mail.

My first flight was eleven hours. I ate a couple of meals – quite tasty – wrote my previous blog post, watched a couple of films – Cowboys and Aliens, which was rubbish, and The Adventures of Tintin, which was pretty decent – and started reading The Road. I arrived in Munich to find that the free wifi didn’t work, so I used one of the free internet computers – no response from Habiba.

When I arrived in Istanbul, I bought a visa, passed through Immigration and went to the bathroom preparatory to getting my bag and meeting Habiba. I was just going in when I heard my name on the PA system; the message asked me to go to the information desk. I picked up my bag, went through Customs and searched for Information. Habiba was there – crying and pissed off.

She hadn’t been able to get on the internet, so she didn’t know that I was going to be late – and she kind of blamed me for it – because she didn’t have any other target for her ire. She’d only just been able to get hold of information about my change of flights. We took a bus to central Istanbul then a taxi to our hostel, Sydney Hostel Istanbul. Habiba’s mum, Noorunisa, was waiting for us.

The following day was to be much less unpleasant.

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