Paris… finally

Last month i realised a long time ambition to travel to Paris by Eurostar. What had took me so long? More than the cost it was the perception that Paris was far away. I couldn’t just nip over on the train for the day; yet that is exactly what i ended up doing. It was disorienting to find that this strange city, so different from London, wasn’t far away at all – at least not via high speed train: St Pancras International to the Gare du Nord took just over two hours. Not the most thrilling of journeys, mind: grass, concrete and barbed wire mostly.

I’m not sure what i expected Paris to be like but i know i approached it in a spirit of trepidation. Would it be too big, too busy to be enjoyable? Would the people be as unwelcoming as their reputation suggested? Would it be all Tourist Sights? Or would it feel just like anywhere – that is just like nowhere, just another city full of shops and streets?

In the event it was neither as overwhelming as i’d feared, nor as different as i’d expected… and yet in some ways more different. Walking down from the station i first passed a fifty-something man clad in slit-sided white pantaloons and a tight fitting gold lamé top and then found myself in a street full of Asian shops – that’s Asian in the British sense, i.e. South Asian. There were places with names like “Wembley Foods”. For a moment i felt as though i’d got on a train going the wrong way and ended up in Birmingham or Manchester instead!

But no, i truly was in Paris. Little Pakistan gave way to Middle Eastern shops and then i began to see signs to the Pompidou Centre. This houses the Museum of Modern Art and was on my list of probably-must-see sights. First though it was time to get coffee. When i’d visited France back in the 80s as a teenager cafe owners never seemed to speak English; but this time the proprietor switched to my language the instant he heard my accent. Nor did he seem particularly self-conscious or resentful about this (my other memory of communicating with the French in the 80s was that when they did speak English they gave the impression it was a great concession on their part).

On to the Museum which had some magnificent sculptures by Giacometti, Arp and Calder. The big discovery however was a sculptor i hadn’t heard of called Etienne-Martin: his work included strange sculpted ‘coats’ which reminded me of the armour that Samurai used to wear. In an immensely pretentious section celebrating porn as art i came across a poem i liked. I wrote down a fragment of it:

My image leaves the city… It crushes the fruit against its breasts / It spreads sand over its stomach / It slides fish in between its legs

Love the line about the fish. The artist (and poet?) was called Evelyn Axell.

After the museum i went to see the Seine. To my eyes it was a rather ordinary looking river for such a magnificent city but i did like the way the main road ran alongside it, much lower down than the city itself. The traffic seemed to flow by the city, rather than through it. And the bridges decorated with the heads of lions: wonderful. There were also pet shops – lots of them. I found that amazing, charming even. Think about it: can you imagine coming across streets of little neighbourhood style pet shops in a street right in the centre of London?

Notre Dame Cathedral is on one of the islands in the Seine. It was a disappointing place. From the salvation candles which were available at varying prices depending on the quality of the saint through to the priest waiting in a booth which resembled one of those cubicles you see at banks the whole thing felt like a money-making enterprise. There was nothing spiritual about the cathedral; it felt more like an IKEA store or garden centre, especially with the crowds snaking through the aisles.

The Louvre wasn’t disappointing, but it was bl**dy frustrating! I spent most of my time there lost. Still, i did get to see the Mona Lisa which isn’t as small as i’d been told. The bright colours of the Renaissance paintings in that part of the museum are wonderful but it was far too packed with tourists. I preferred the serenity of the Ancient World – even if, as with the British Museum, the wealth of exhibits is really a testament to colonial looting. Best of all were the turquoise tinted friezes in the Assyrian section. I also visited the special exhibition which traced the history of Saudi Arabia: from prehistoric stone tools through to early Islamic gravestones and beyond.

Then it was back to the Gare du Nord to catch the train home. So much remained unseen! Yet Paris did have one last surprise in store for me: the Gare du Nord has the most extraordinary installation – part sculpture, part machine, part dance, part dream. Impossible to describe, impossible not to watch.

Two more hours or so and i was back in London which felt like a much bigger, fiercer city than Paris despite being much more familiar to me. In fact, what struck me about the latter was that it felt less like a big city and more like a blend of small towns, most of which i never got to see. Next time though…

Trip 2010: back to Turkey… and for longer than expected

The trip diary for the remainder of the days i spent in Turkey is a bit more basic than for the earlier part, mainly because i wasn’t expecting this part of the trip to last for quite as long as it did and was too busy dealing with the uncertainty of the situation to make notes each day. From memory…

Thursday 15 April

This time my cabinmate on the night train was a Greek although i didn’t find this out till the morning as he was asleep when i got on the train. I made my bunk up in no time; in fact i felt like a bit of an old pro to tell the truth! As was the case on the journey to Thessaloniki i found myself half-asleep half-awake, listening to the train moving over the railway track, for much of the journey. Not that i minded: i love the sound and the sensation of a chugging train, especially a sleeper train. On the one hand, the feeling of being sheltered and taken care of; on the other the feeling that we are hurtling towards some magical destination. By dawn we were nearing Istanbul and when my roommate got up and we put the bunks away i saw the very same towns and suburbs appear that i’d seen on the evening of my journey to Thessaloniki. Only the order of their appearance was reversed! Eventually, i realised we were nearing the end of the journey. We weren’t quite as close as i first thought however and there were some more areas of Istanbul to pass through (the city is huge!) before we did get to Sirkeci. At one point we travelled alongside a yard containing several stray dogs. A man came out of a building and threw a stone at one of them and laughed. Human beings, honestly.

At Sirkeci my cabinmate and I said our goodbyes. I was thrilled to be back in Istanbul. “Civilisation!” i said to myself. I had a day of book-buying ahead of me but first i needed my breakfast. I can’t remember now whether it was while i was eating breakfast or later on during the day that i received the first text (from my mum) about the eruption of an Icelandic volcano. Surely it was later – after i’d spent hours rushing round Istanbul, convinced that i had only one day left in the city. The warning about the volcano sounded ridiculous, surreal even: the very idea that an event in Iceland could have any relevance to me in Turkey! In fact, to be honest, it sounded like someone’s idea of a wind-up. About five minutes after the first text another arrived about the same subject. This one was from my son. In it he urged me to check whether or not my flight would be going.

Back at the hotel i tried to find out but couldn’t. I shrugged and decided i’d find out in the morning. I’d got my books anyhow including three books F had recommended to me. Two of these were novels: Dear Shameless Death by Latife Tekin and A Mind At Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The other was a memoir called My GrandmotherFethiye Çetin‘s book about her Armenian grandmother who lived most of her life ‘disguised’ as a Turk. I also bought a book of poetry by Nazım Hikmet. More of an extravagance was the book (two books as it turned out) that i bought at the Istanbul Modern about the work of the painter Erol Akyavaş. Oh well.

Friday 16 April

In the morning it quickly became evident that my flight would not be going. The news didn’t upset me nearly as much as it did some of the other guests who began to discuss flying to Madrid, where the airport was still open, and getting a train or more likely several trains home from there. Mind you, they were German. It was easier to decide to stay where you were if you were British. The idea of being stuck at Calais did not appeal.

I arranged to meet up with B but once she arrived we were at a loss to know where to go. I think we first headed back up to Beyoğlu and the bookshops where i bought yet more books of poetry: Oktay Rifat, Cevat Çapan and Ataol Behramoğlu this time. Then it occurred to me that she would really like the museum of modern art. In fact, when i’d been there the week before i kept thinking of her and wondering what she’d make of the paintings. Off we went, down the hill. It was much more fun going round the museum with B – even the paintings i didn’t like seemed more interesting when there was someone to discuss them with; plus, the fact that B (unlike me) is actually artistic meant that she noticed things that passed me by. I showed her ‘my painter’, the afore-mentioned Erol Akyavaş. Eventually, it was time for her to go to work however and i was forced to allow her to escape.

Saturday 17 April

Immediately after breakfast we were informed by the lady on the reception desk at the hotel that there would be no flights for at least another two days. Would we like to extend our reservations? My answer: yes, please. I had already been thinking about what i would do if – as had seemed likely the night before – i had to stay in Istanbul a bit longer. My favourite part of Istanbul – of those i’ve been to so far – is Kuzguncuk. I’d assumed i wouldn’t have time to visit it again during this trip but now i had the opportunity i was determined to do so. I took the ferry over and walked along the road to Icadiye Cadessi, just as i’d done the previous year. The only difference was that this year i knew where i was going. By the time i arrived it was lunchtime and i walked up the street looking for the cafe i’d been to last time. I couldn’t recall its name for the life of me but i was sure if i saw it…

Suddenly i recognised it: Pita Kuzguncuk. As i walked in the proprietor looked up and saw me. I was absurdly pleased to realise that she recognised me from my visit the year before. She greeted me and asked me how i was. Did i live in Istanbul? It was rather wonderful. Being in a strange city for any length of time does that to you though: you develop a craving for human contact – for another human being to greet you as an individual and for that moment to be transformed into a person, not just a body passing along streets full of millions of other bodies. I had quiche. I had lemon cake. I drank tea. Then i left and it was back to being anonymous again.

Kuzguncuk houses

Kuzguncuk street view

View from Kuzguncuk

Synagogue in Kuzguncuk

Church door in Kuzguncuk

Another house in Kuzguncuk

Another view of Kuzguncuk

Still at least i was in Kuzguncuk. I wandered about photographing the pretty houses, painted many different colours. I also photographed the tree-lined roads, the synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church (this was once an ethnically mixed neighbourhood). Running out of things to snap i followed the road up the hill, noticing how gradually the look and ambience of the area altered. By the time the road terminated at the top of the hill it was a lot less quaint and a lot less affluent. A man stopped me and asked me where i wanted to go. When i tried to explain that i didn’t want to go anywhere he looked at me like i was mad.

Afterwards i explored the nearby neighbourhood of Harem and then took the boat back across the Bosphorus.

Sunday 18 April

My great idea for Sunday morning had been that i would take a walk, heading west out of Sultanahmet. At first all went well but i very quickly got lost. In some streets there were no signs or plaques to tell you what they were called; in others i could see the names but couldn’t find them on the map. F told me later that street names are forever being altered, so perhaps it wasn’t just the fault of my lousy map-reading skills. Finally, i found myself outside the gates of Istanbul University. From there i was able to find my way back to Sultanahmet where i sat for a while in a cafe. I half-heartedly considered re-embarking on my walk westwards but couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for the idea; then i remembered that my friend Ö had recommended that i visit Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.

Istanbul University gate

Haydarpasha

Parade on Istiklal Cadessi

Off i went on the ferry, a different one than i’d taken to Üsküdar the day before when i’d visited Kuzguncuk. Kadıköy is further south. The boat was chock-a-block, a fact which ought to have made me suspicious in itself. When we arrived at our destination i found it was a shopping district, snighing with people. No matter which way i turned, which street i went down, i couldn’t break free of them. I couldn’t work out what they were buying: none of the shops looked especially impressive or interesting; although admittedly few shops do look impressive or interesting to me other than bookshops. After about an hour of battling the crowds i gave up and returned to the dock. I made one last ditch attempt to explore the area, heading towards Haydarpaşa Railway Station which i could see in the distance but abandoned it when i found my route blocked by a bus station. Enough already! I returned to the European side of the city and trudged up the hill to Beyoğlu where i watched a mysterious procession of people wearing letters of the alphabet.

Monday 19 April

My extended holiday was extended even further on Monday when it became obvious that i wouldn’t be flying home that day and probably wouldn’t be able to fly the day after either. I’d arranged to meet up with B and F again if i was still in Istanbul on the Monday and at 10 am B arrived. I’d had the idea the evening before that i’d like to visit Balat and Fener, old neighbourhoods of Istanbul. According to the guidebook these were best accessed via the Golden Horn Ferry. We hit a snag however: it was by no means obvious where the Golden Horn Ferry sailed from. Eventually, we found the dock – or i should say B found it, mostly by asking everyone she met until we got there. We boarded a ferry we’d been assured would take us to Fener and take us to Fener it did; the only problem being that it didn’t stop but just sailed straight on! It was the same story at Balat (or was Balat before Fener, i can’t remember). We were stuck on the boat until it reached Eyüp, quite a bit further west along the Golden Horn than we’d wanted to go.

Cemetery in Eyüp

Old men in Fener - 2010 april 19

Fener
Once off the boat we tried to work out how we could get back to Fener. Again, it was B who sorted it out: apart from speaking Turkish she’s also charming. I stuck to my dumb tourist impression; i’m quite marvellous at it. The best solution seemed to be to take a taxi which we did. On arrival we set off in search of the seat of Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church: the Ecumenical Patriarchate is still based in Istanbul although this is nowhere near as important as it was in the past; Greece, Russia and other predominately Orthodox countries have their own national patriarchates now.  I have to confess we never found this elusive location but we did walk up and down a fair few hills, peek at the ruins of a church through a locked gate and chat with the locals. This was the friendliest neighbourhood i have ever been to in Istanbul. From the man in a workshop who got B to bring me in so he could say hello to me, to the ladies sitting on chairs by the side of the road, to the young men who proudly recited the Muslim profession of faith (the Shahadah or, as we used to call it when i was a kid, the Kolyma) in English – everyone we met in this conservative, run-down neighbourhood was welcoming.

When we’d finally accepted that we were never going to find the church we took a taxi back to Taksim Square and found a cafe to recuperate in. Later F joined us and we sat chatting for a couple of hours. A wonderful day and, truth be told, i wasn’t all that bothered about the phantom church: it was just a destination to aim for; i didn’t care whether we ever arrived.

Tuesday 20 April

This was supposed to be my first day back at work! I’d emailed work on Monday to let them know i wouldn’t be there – although i suspected they would guess. As there was still no sign of flights resuming i headed off with the idea of – finally – visiting the Islands. I was unable to find the dock from which the ferry departs however. Stubbornly, i refused to ask anyone (i hate asking for directions!) for hours. By the time i gave in and found that the ferry now departs from Kabataş i’d lost all enthusiasm for the trip (and probably wasted too much time too). Instead, i headed up to Beyoğlu where i spent what turned out to be my last day in Istanbul (as opposed to the airport) making one last tour of the bookshops and exploring some of the back streets. I bought yet another book: a biography of Nazım Hikmet called Romantic Communist.

It was later this day that i realised i’d had just about as much of Istanbul as i could comfortably take in one trip. There were just too many people and too few places to go to get away from them. I couldn’t restore myself in my usual fashion, with a walk along the waterside, because in Istanbul main roads run right next to the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. There’s no equivalent of the Thames Path.

Wednesday 21 April

Finally, it seemed Heathrow had re-opened! Turkish Airlines’ website showed that a flight had departed for London but there was no other information – in particular no information about what those people whose flights had been cancelled earlier in the week should do; nor was anyone answering the phone at the airline. I came to the conclusion there was nothing else i could do but go to the airport. Once there i discovered crowds of other stranded passengers. It was hard to work out what to do as there were no signs, no members of staff giving out information. It was a Dutch couple who’d been trying to arrange a flight for the past two days who eventually explained the procedure to me. They pointed towards a row of counters at the far end of the departures hall and told me that the key thing was to get a ticket (from a dispenser hidden amidst the sea of would-be passengers). Once i’d got one it was just a matter of waiting for three or four hours to speak to a member of staff. I was one of the lucky ones: when i did reach the counter the lady was able to put me on a flight the next evening – once she’d managed to locate my original booking (which had been purged following the flight’s cancellation) anyhow.

I’d checked out of my hotel before leaving for the airport. I knew that once i got there that would be it and i was right. I couldn’t bring myself to leave for fear that something would happen while i was away from the airport: there would be an announcement of some kind; i’d get back to find all the flights had been re-allocated and i’d lost my place. It sounds crazy now but it’s an easy frame of mind to get into in that sort of situation. I spent the night sitting in a chair in a 24/7 Starbucks in the Arrivals hall. It was a comfortable chair and though i got no sleep i did at least get plenty of reading done; in fact by the time i got back to Britain i’d read most of the books i’d bought in Turkey and Greece.

Thursday 22 April

One week since i’d returned to Istanbul from Greece – and what a week! I stayed in the Starbucks till about 10 am, mainly because i couldn’t think of anywhere better to go. My flight wasn’t due to leave till 7 pm. I decided i’d better return to the Departures hall however… just in case; and when i got up there i noticed that Turkish Airlines had a check-in desk open. I forget what they were calling it: communal check-in or something like that, but it occurred to me that perhaps i might be able to check in for my flight already. That would move me one step closer to a secure seat on the plane! I approached the desk and my luck was in – i could indeed check in. The relief as the lady handed me my boarding card is something i can’t describe; but immediately i started to worry: perhaps this still wasn’t final, perhaps they could still turn me back. B had said she would come to see me off at the airport but in my paranoia i was unwilling to wait even a couple of hours on the ‘wrong side’ of Passport Control. I wanted to be ‘safely’ inside the main part of the airport. It was irrational of course and i regret it now, as it means we never got a chance to say our goodbyes.

In any case, even once i passed Passport Control i still worried. It wasn’t until i was actually on the plane and it had taken off that i relaxed. Only then did i start to feel sure that i was on my way home. Four hours later the British coastline appeared below us and i almost cried with relief. Finally. Home.

Trip 2010: Greece part 2 – Xanthi & Alexandroupoli

Monday 12 April

Woke up cold despite the extra blanket I’d put onto the bed and hungry. Again i would need to seek out breakfast for myself; unlike in Turkey it doesn’t seem to be routinely provided in Greek hotels. I could hear the sounds of city life from outside the window although when I checked my iPhone it wasn’t yet eight. Downstairs the relatively friendly lady who’d checked me in the night before was gone and had been replaced by a relatively unfriendly man. I think this is the man I’d spoken to on the phone from Istanbul; he has the knack of sounding offended by anything you ask of him.

“Do you speak English?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, a bit.”

“Is it possible to get a map of Xanthi?”

[Offended tone] “Yes, here.”

And so on.

A short walk from the hotel i found a nice cafe: chic yet comfortable and somehow very ‘continental’. They sold beautiful fruit tarts and… filter coffee! I was also surprised to discover the assistant spoke some English. Mind you, I notice the Greeks use English quite a bit in advertising: the babywear shop across the road has a sign on the door saying “HOME” for instance – although I suppose it could be a Greek word.

Looking out of the window as i breakfasted i noticed the many Muslims in the town. They’re mostly Turkish-speaking and identify as ethnic Turks, it seems, although some Muslims in this area speak Bulgarian (and are known as Pomaks). I say ‘it seems’ because the Muslims of Xanthi rarely speak any minority language loud enough for it to be heard; it’s only when you’re standing close to people that you hear snatches of conversations in Turkish. The women dress conservatively in headscarves and long coats, which are almost all black. One younger woman had opted for a slightly different style: super-elaborate headscarf plus the slinkiest skirt I’ve seen since I arrived in Greece. It just about reached her knees. Ah well, at least it was black. The men, on the other hand, dress in ordinary western fashion and are indistinguishable from the Greeks – at least to my untrained eye. Greek women, by the way, dress like women in any other part of Europe; the days of dark dresses for mature ladies and conservative hemlines all round are long since gone if the towns i visited are anything to go by.

Xanthi rooftops

After breakfast i had a good wander round the Old Town, which is wonderfully pretty. I was particularly taken with the doors of the houses: each seemed to be unique. It’s bizarre that I only saw two other tourists. None of the buildings are actually that old though – the ones I saw all dated from the mid-19th Century or a few decades later; yet sadly many of them are in a poor state of repair. Given their touristic value this struck me as odd. Despite an abundance of dark red plaques affixed to the walls, providing information in Greek and English, none of the buildings appeared to be open to the public either.

An old Muslim lady stopped me as i was sight-seeing (aka ‘getting lost’) and began asking me urgent questions about something. Of course I had no idea what that something was – although, bizarrely, the one word i could identify was ‘Papas’, which i believe is Greek for ‘Pope’! Eventually I got her to understand that I was foreign. She laughed and walked off.

Greek flag in old Xanthi

Around lunchtime i found that much longed for oasis… a bookshop selling books in English (albeit only a few) and with a helpful assistant to boot. I bought a book called Tormented by History* in which a pair of Turkish and a Greek historians compare the development of their respective nationalisms and a novel by a Greek writer called Vangelis Hatziyanndis**. It’s about a beekeeper’s son (of all things!) and won a Greek literary prize for best first novel in 2001. This turned out to be a great read, although its treatment of paedophilia was problematic to say the least.

In addition, I bought a map of Thrace. It covers both the Greek and Turkish portions. The Turkish place names are given according to their normal Turkish spelling but for many of them a Greek language name is also shown or/and a transliteration of the Greek pronunciation of the Turkish name into the Latin script – for example Çerkezköy is rendered ‘Tserkezkioe’. Who is this for? If it’s to help Greeks pronounce the Turkish name then why isn’t it written in the Greek alphabet?

The bookshop had a cafe upstairs, but it was deserted. The helpful shop assistant had followed me up however so i felt obliged to order some tea. It was strange sitting there all by myself but not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the sofa on which i was sat; from a distance it looked like leather but it was actually made from plastic – white plastic. Plastic is like concrete: it quickly starts to look dirty as it wears; and these sofas are no exception. Alas, modernity!

A door in Xanthi

Xanthi door

Xanthi door

In the afternoon i did some shopping (as usual I had been overoptimistic about laundry facilities and was running out of clothes) and some more sight-seeing. The friendly lady who served me in the clothes shop had spent part of her childhood in Australia and was now regretting her decision to return to Greece, although she told me she preferred Xanthi to Athens where she’d been born. She advised me to go to the top of the hill above the Old Town if possible for a panoramic view of the town, which i did (it was a nice view and i saw a tortoise). I also fed some hungry cats; the moggies of Istanbul live lives of plenty compared to the scrawny creatures i encountered in Greece.

Tortoise near Xanthi

Back in the town, this time the newer section, i encountered the spectacle of two “American Indian musicians”, sporting the kind of costumes (feathered headdresses, etc) that you normally only see in movies and old sepia photographs. Amerindian these men may well have been (though not necessarily from the US), but musicians they most definitely were not. The music was ‘pre-recorded; occasionally they would inject a note from a wooden flute or bang a drum but it was almost at random. Behind them were hung two huge posters. One showed Jesus ascending to Heaven, the other two enormous bunny rabbits (each about three times as big as Jesus).

Eventually, tired out by my exertions and curious to know if i had any emails i took myself off to an internet cafe i’d seen opposite the bookstore i’d visited earlier. This was in fact the first internet cafe i’ve ever visited in my life. It was half full, mostly of teenage boys playing World of Warcraft and the like (with intense concentration – there was no conversation), and strangely dark. I wrote the first two instalments of my Trip 2010 saga there and savoured the feeling of connectivity, this being my first chance to use the internet since arriving in Greece – free internet access doesn’t seem to be a part of Greek hotel culture any more than breakfast is. An incidental discovery: Greek keyboards are even harder to get used to than Turkish ones!

And that, apart from another trip to the nice cafe for cake and tea, concluded my day in Xanthi.

Tuesday 13 April

Woke at eight – so much for my plan to out of the hotel by then. After repacking my rucksack (for some reason this gets harder, not easier, as a trip progresses) I went down to pay the bill. The evening before I’d been assured I could pay by card but the antiquated PIN terminal wouldn’t work; how can one of these already be antiquated? Chip & Pin has only been around for a few years. Ended up settling by cash and then took a taxi to the train station, where I bought my ticket to Alexandroupoli and discovered I had a two hour wait for the train.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to buy the ticket for the night train from Alexandroupoli to Istanbul at this station too. No harm in asking anyway. After a conversation with two members of staff, one of whom spoke quite good English, it transpired this was indeed possible. Only problem: payment is only possible by cash. At first I despaired as I’d handed over most of my cash at the hotel but then – miracle! – I found an extra 40 euros in one of my pockets. I felt relieved to have the ticket. Given how few tickets were left when I went with B to buy the ticket from Istanbul to Thessaloniki one day before travelling, it seemed entirely possible that there would be no tickets left when I got to Alexandroupoli. I was also given a piece of information which was to dominate my stay in the town: i was to go to the “Old Station” for the night train, and not the new one which all the other trains go to. The lady repeated this information several times.

Xanthi Railway Station

The train was like the one i’d travelled on from Thessaloniki but thankfully the journey was shorter. Indeed we only seemed to pass through one town of any size and this was Komotini, notable for the fact that it’s the only town in Greece where Turks form a majority of the population (although only just). I’ve read that Turkish communities in Greece tend if anything to be more conservative than those in Turkey; ironically, by remaining in Greece, they avoided the secularisation of the Turkish republic. As we drew into Komotini a lady in a seat not far from mine stood up and donned a long black coat and headscarf before disembarking. I wondered whether she’d taken the coat and headscarf off to avoid problems on the train or was putting them on to avoid problems in the town.

Soon i was in Alexandroupoli, which initially looked quite promising, not least because I could see the sea as the train drew in. I quickly realised my mistake however: this is one of those places which somehow lack a soul. It’s very short of decent cafes too, although I found one eventually called Elemento 41, situated, as these places often are, next to a bookshop (which alas had scarcely any English language books). After struggling for about a quarter of an hour to decipher the Greek characters on the menu i selected one of a handful of dishes on offer whose name was given in English: a Greco-Burger! I also drank lots of tea, as it turned out they had real Japanese sencha on offer (!) and not made from bags either – no, this was loose tea in a pot, served with complimentary biscuits and sweets. The complimentary biscuits and sweets were a feature of Greek cafes in general and one i really liked. You never knew what they’d give you but it was always good.

Apart from cafes just about everything in this town seems to shut at 3 pm at the latest so I’d missed the museums and ended up spending the afternoon wandering about at random. One of the things i noticed was the curious relationship the town has with the nearby Greco-Turkish border: the town is as Greek as Greek can be and there’s much less evidence of the Thracian Turkish minority; yet here for the first time i saw road signs pointing out how close Turkey is – just 44 km (27 miles) away. I never saw any soldiers but i did see photographic displays featuring images of the military in the windows of shops. It was quite odd.

The other thing i noticed was how beautiful the dogs were. There were lots down by the seafront. I couldn’t work out whether they were strays or just pets out for a wander (apart from the few who were wearing collars). Many of them appeared to have some Labrador or Golden Retriever ancestry. Thankfully, neither the Greeks nor the Turks have yet been afflicted by leash-mania and consequently their dogs are calm and self-contained, just as i remember dogs being in my childhood, and not neurotic or aggressive like so many dogs in Britain are these days.

For a while I sat on a wall near the sea reading my Greek novel (the only one it appears i’m going to be able to buy!), but the temperature started to drop and the seafront is not actually very pretty in Alexandroupoli: the water looks dirty and oddly dark. In the end I gave up and returned to my hotel.

Photos of soldiers in Alexandroupoli

Wednesday 14 April

Woke to the sound of drizzle. I made my way into town to look for something to eat, eventually (inevitably?) settling for coffee and and a piece of complimentary cake at Elemento 41. The search for breakfast was nothing in comparison to the quest for the Old Railway Station however. No-one seemed to be able to tell me where this was; when i did get directions they were invariably wrong. Even the stationmaster at the New Station couldn’t help me: he directed me to a grey building further along the track which turned out to be a row of shops! At one point I was stopped by a police car; they were obviously suspicious of the way i was wandering along the road, examining every yard and driveway for signs that a railway station that might be hidden away inside.

The policemen were actually very nice when they realised i was merely lost, but Alexandroupoli isn’t the friendliest place I’ve ever been to in my life and the endless grid pattern of the streets gives it a dreary feel which doesn’t help matters. I’ve also noticed that although there are even more English language signs here than in Xanthi, fewer people speak English (the Greek paradox?).

Music book at Alexandroupoli Ethnological Museum

Giving up (temporarily) the search for the Old Station, i decided to check out the town’s museums before they closed. I’d read about two but could only find one in the end: the Ethnological Museum, which collects together household items typical of the traditional culture of the region – a culture which seems to have survived into the first half of the Twentieth Century, but is now completely gone as far as i could see. There were women’s costumes featuring leaf patterns, aprons and coin decorations, and lots of different kinds of headgear. The men’s costumes were less spectacular apart from the footwear: clogs/slippers with great ‘bobbles’ at the end. Some of the costumes were not in fact Thracian but Cappadocian or Pontic, reflecting the influx of refugees in 1923. Other exhibits included tools used for farming and a music book, featuring a kind of notation i’d never seen before. Not many people seem to come to the museum; the caretaker had to switch the lights on for me.

Alexandroupoli's old railway station

Later that day the hotel manager (a lovely man who spoke very good English) gave me directions which enabled me to (finally!) find the old railway station***. The sense of relief! I really was starting to wonder if i’d ever see the place. It was a grey building (which explains the stationmaster’s mistake) but much further along the main road than any of the buildings people had directed me to. I celebrated with a Nutella-laden crepe pancake (Is there anywhere in the world Nutella has yet to reach!? Is there anywhere which has resisted it?) and some ariani, Greek ayran.

Afterwards it was just a matter of killing time until midnight (i tried to sleep but it was hopeless). Then i got my stuff together and walked along the dark street to the station – an eerie experience yet i felt completely safe. I found it deserted apart from a stationmaster, tucked away in his office, and an arthritic old dog trying to sleep on the platform. The dog woke up when i arrived and i fed him some treats, wondering if i was to be the only person to board the train and worrying vaguely that it might not stop. After about twenty minutes one other passenger arrived. He was followed, quite a bit later, by a whole group of people who seemed to be policemen and railway officials. At around 1 am (late as usual!) the train pulled in and we were off. Back to Turkey!

Signpost to Turkey in Alexandroupoli

* Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey; ISBN: 978-1-85065-899-3; Uzut Özkırımlı & Spyros A. Sofos; pub. Hurst & Co (London, 2008)
**Four Walls; ISBN: 978-0-7145-3122-9; Vangelis Hatziyannidis; pub. Marion Boyars (2006)
*** The easiest way to find the “Old Railway Station” is to proceed along Dimokratias Avenue (Leoforos Dimokratias/ΛΕΩΦΟΡΟΣ ΔΗΜΟΚΡΑΤΙΑΣ) eastwards from the centre of the town. You cross the railway line (it will henceforth be to your right although you quickly lose sight of it behind the shops which line the road) and continue on (remaining on the right side of the road) for about 300 metres till, just after a branch of Alpha Bank, you see a boat shop on the opposite side of the road. You should now see a sign (on your side of the road) for the railway station which is a grey building (see photo above) and is set back from the road down a short drive. These directions should get you there – at least as long as the Alpha Bank branch and boat shop stay open!

Trip 2010: Greece part 1 – Thessaloniki & the journey to Xanthi

Saturday 10 April

Arrived in Thessaloniki at around 11 am and was relieved to be able (finally!) to withdraw some euros and have something to eat and drink. Thirteen hours (the train ran slow) with just half a bottle of water – nightmare. Hotel: OK but grubby; still, beggars can’t be choosers. I’d paid a deposit when I booked, although neither I nor the hotel manager could remember how much this was and it took her ages to find out. When I took out my credit card to pay the outstanding balance she smiled and asked: “You don’t have cash?” This, i was to discover, would be a recurring experience in Greece: everywhere you go there is a reluctance, often even a refusal, to take card payments. According to an article i read (in The Economist i think) this is to avoid having to declare the income for tax purposes.

Walked up to the old city walls. There’s a platform where you can get a great view of the city. You don’t seem to be able to go up on the walls themselves though.

View of Thessaloniki from platform next to the old city walls

Walked back down via the Vlatadon Monastery where i saw a fenced off area containing graves (of monks?) and found a ‘bookshop’ which had very few books but was instead full of lots of disappointing icons (why does the Orthodox tradition depict Jesus and his mother looking as though they’re suffering from jaundice!?). The shop was presided over by a plump, worried looking woman who never stopped knitting as she listened to a radio programme that sounded suspiciously like a soap opera.

I was unsure whether to go into the church as (a) I don’t know the Orthodox etiquette (I was trying to watch the visitors to see what they did); and (b) I felt bit of a hypocrite since i’m not Orthodox. In the end I went as far as the vestibule and peered in from there. The church was quite full, despite there being no service in progress; and as people left, more would arrive. I don’t know if Greek people are always this religious or whether they’re visiting because it’s Holy Week (according to the Julian Calendar). The one thing I didn’t see, but had expected to, was monks.

Greek Orthodox roadside shrine in Thessaloniki

Next I visited the house where Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, was born. This is in the grounds of the Turkish Consulate and isn’t accessible from the street; instead you use the intercom system at the Consulate’s main gate to request entry: a strange experience – like i was sneaking into some secret sanctuary. I half expected to be asked for a password! A smiling man came down and let me in. He took my passport, explaining he’d give it back when I left, and then told me to wait at the entrance to the house for his colleague who would unlock the door. I wondered at the emphasis on security. Are the Greeks hostile to the museum? Or is the caution just a product of the difficult history that Turkey and Greece share? Certainly, I never noticed a single local so much as glance at the place as they passed outside. In a way this is strange as the building stands out from those around it: apart from being pink it’s also the only old building in the street. In fact, there are very few Ottoman houses in Thessaloniki it seems. If the Turks hadn’t insisted on the house being retained as a museum there would be nothing to show the current generation of Thessalonians what this area of their city used to look like. Ironic in a way.

At first I was the only person in the House (except the official), which was unnerving as he followed me around, observing me the whole time. It was a relief when some Turkish tourists arrived half way through my visit (he watched the Turks too, which was interesting). The house had been nicely restored to look much as it must have done when Atatürk lived there – except for the many photographs, newspaper article reproductions and books about the Great Man (I assume he didn’t collect memorabilia about himself).

Most interesting was a bedroom in which some of Atatürk’s clothes were displayed in glass cabinets. They looked smaller than i’d expected. A few of the shirts were slightly stained with age, one pair of trousers was frayed. There was also a collection of household utensils such as spoons and tea glasses. It was touching to see these things; it’s when we see objects from someone’s everyday life that we realise they were real, a flesh and blood person like ourselves and not just a character in history. I liked the school report cards on one of the walls too: he seems to have struggled with his German and Russian studies a bit.

Rotonda

Later I walked along the road to see the Yeni Hamam (from the outside only) and the Orthodox church next to it. I walked into the latter by mistake, thinking it was somehow connected to the Hamam. This is a mistake that is easy to make as, unlike a Catholic (or Anglican) church, an Orthodox church doesn’t have a steeple and is topped with a domed roof not unlike that of a mosque – or at least this was the case in northern Greece. Another difference is that the church is decorated with paintings (icons), rather than statues, of saints. It must still have been Lent according to the Julian calendar, yet the images of the saints weren’t shrouded (is this only a Catholic tradition?). On two tables lay odd displays of pink things: flowers, toys, sweets.

Also had a look at the Rotunda, the Arch of Galerius and some very impressive ruins, before continuing down to the seafront where I saw horse-drawn traps and the famous White Tower.

If i’d had the energy i’d have liked to have explored the seafront area more as it was a very interesting, not to mention attractive, looking place. I didn’t have the energy however and i was extremely thirsty: it was time for a teahouse. Alas, unlike the Turks, the Greeks aren’t great tea-drinkers and take a ‘homeopathic’ approach to the beverage. Still the bar-cafe in which i ended up had attractions of its own, in particular a friendly cat who wandered about the place, acting for all the world as though he were the proprietor: leaping up onto bar stools, examining the customers, inserting himself into conversations. An equally friendly lady (who seemed to be the actual proprietor) brought me a little dish containing a few pieces of ‘Turkish delight’ (although I’m sure they don’t call it that here!) with each pot of tea. I didn’t recognise it at first. When i asked her it what it was she thought for a moment and said: “It’s like cheese”. Like cheese? Incidentally, the public presence of women is one of the big differences between Turkey and Greece. In Turkey you are largely served by men, apart from in governmental settings or very modern shops and cafes. Not so in Greece.

Thessaloniki seafront

All in all, Thessaloniki was actually a pleasanter experience than i’d expected (i’d been given the impression there was little to see there, which is definitely not true) and there was only one disappointment: my failure to find a bookshop selling contemporary Greek fiction in English translation. All i was offered was Homer!

Sunday 11 April

Woke relieved to find no creepy-crawlies had appeared in the night (yes, it was one of those hotels). Breakfast didn’t seem to be included so I washed, dressed, packed and left hoping that the Starbucks I’d spotted the previous night across the road would be open. It wasn’t: Greece observes Sunday closing, predictably I suppose. Shame: i was curious about what sort of food Starbucks serves in Greece. The stuff on offer at their coffeeshops in Turkey was much better than in the UK.

Arriving at the Railway Station i immediately hit a snag: the lady behind the counter curtly informed me that the next train to Xanthi was full; I would have to wait till 3.41 pm to travel which meant that i wouldn’t get there till nearly 8 pm (assuming the train got there on time which in Greece seems rarely to be the case). It was a good job i’d given myself two nights in the town.

On the plus side, the man at the cafe where I bought breakfast was thrilled when he discovered I was a Liverpool supporter. Good job he doesn’t realise how nominal that support is! There were about 6 cafes at the station, along with a mini-market and… an Orthodox chapel! I’ve never seen anything like it. As I was buying my ticket I noticed a service was underway: going to church in a railway station – how bizarre! Mind you, there are roadside chapels everywhere you go in Thessaloniki. Icons are even more ubiquitous; you see them displayed all over the place: hotels, shops, cafes. It’s like a Greek version of the photographs of Atatürk you see in Turkey. I wonder if the Kemalists got the idea of having people display those photos from the Orthodox tradition of venerating icons? Two definite parallels with Turkish culture: the love of worry beads/rosaries and the display of the big blue eye which is supposed to ward off evil.

So, this turned out to be a day spent sitting in railway station cafes, drinking (a memory of) tea and watching Greek television: a black and white documentary about the German invasion of Greece during WWII, a report on the Greek economic crisis (not that there’s any sense of crisis on the streets of Thessaloniki), a programme about Greek folk music and how the instruments used for it are made. Old problems, new problems, no problems.

Thessalonki-Xanthi train journey

When the time finally came to get the train to Xanthi i found that it had already been standing at the platform for ages. Everyone else evidently knew this would be the case and so most of the seats were taken. Mind you, i seemed to be the only foreigner on board. The train was quite comfortable: blue padded seats with metal footrests. I found it disconcerting that i couldn’t find the places we were passing through on a map but they were just villages. This is a sparsely populated part of the country: very green and very flat but with mountains in the distance. One thing i noticed for the first time was the amount of graffiti in Greece. Interestingly, this is often in the Latin alphabet. Also, on a hillside in the middle of nowhere: a shop with a big sign saying – in English – ‘Cash & Carry’. The Greeks tend not to transliterate English words, which makes them stand out more; i could never work out if there was more English used in signs than in Turkey or whether the English was just more noticeable.

Towards the end of my journey i got talking to the nice Greek girl sitting next to me (whose name was Yulia). She helped me decipher the station announcements which i found unintelligible; i dread to think where i’d have ended up without her assistance. I wish we’d got chatting earlier as she was very interesting to talk to. She’d visited England twice as her brother was a student at Cambridge and she’d also been twice to Istanbul. However, whereas she’d liked England (despite the rain) she wasn’t keen on Turkey at all. We were just getting to her reasons, which appeared to be mostly to do with the male-dominated nature of Turkish society, when we reached Xanthi and I had to depart (scrambling across the rail tracks). From the station I took a taxi. The driver spoke no English but barked at me in fragmentary German: “Aufsteigen!”, “Vier. Halb. Euro.” Still, he got me to my hotel: cleaner than its Thessaloniki counterpart but with all the charm of a multistory carpark.

Trip 2010: Last day in Istanbul (for now)… and the night train

Friday 9 April

My last day (for the time being) in Istanbul and i was lumbered with a backpack! Only afterwards did i realise i could have left it in a locker at the railway station. I started my day by trying to book my hotel rooms in Greece via the hotel computer. This was difficult as some sites wouldn’t work properly but i eventually got a room sorted out for Thessaloniki, which was the most important place to have accommodation, given that i would be arriving there sometime the next morning.

Afterwards i headed to Gülhane Park where i read for a while and then began the unpleasant business of phoning hotels in Xanthi and Alexandroupoli (having abandoned my hope of visiting Edirne as the journey looks too convoluted). A shame but i will get there one day. The first hotel i phoned was full but after that, to my relief, i had no problems and within a quarter of an hour i had all the necessary reservations made – and was feeling the usual embarrassment at the anxiety that making phone calls causes me.

Gülhane Park - 2010 April 9

I went to a cafe to recover – the same one i’d visited the day before with B. Alas, without her presence the waiters were nowhere near as attentive and left me to shiver. In the afternoon i decided to tackle the Archaeology Museum, which – thanks be to God! – had a cloakroom where i could leave my rucksack. The museum has three parts but i spent so much time wandering about the stelae and sarcophagi in the main building (assuming that the museum would stay open till six o’clock) that i ended up not seeing the other two (the museum in fact shut at quarter to five). Another time.

I found the information panels nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves: a great emphasis seemed to placed on “the Anatolians” whilst the Greek contribution was subtly downplayed. I recalled reading last year, when i was preparing for the Lycian Way, that the Greeks claim the Lycians were a Greek civilisation while Turkish historians describe them simply as speaking an Indo-European language. The truth of the situation, whatever it is, seems to me less interesting than the way in which it’s contested – the way that past and present interact.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums (courtyard)

As i’ve said, i ran out of time. Of the things i got to see the clay tablets with their ancient inscriptions were among the most interesting. Unlike graves these felt personal; you could almost imagine the scribe marking the clay. I found the way in which proto-alphabetic and cuneiform writing systems seemed to co-exist fascinating. We tend to assume the former supplanted the other as it was introduced, being to our eyes so obviously superior, but it seems that wasn’t the case. Even more moving were the ‘door’ graves, gravestones which were decorated to resemble doors, which would provide entry into the next world for the deceased person. This type of grave marker was typical of poorer people, whose families couldn’t afford elaborate tombs and the inscriptions were usually simple statements of affection. Sometimes there was also a reference to the untimeliness of the death. No dates however as far as i could see – but how did people date events then except in reference to their ruler?

When i left the museum the old man in charge of the cloakroom insisted on helping with my backpack. Bless him. I tried to dissuade him, worrying that, given the weight of the thing, he’d put his back out but he smiled and ignored me. Once outside i was at a loss to know what to do with myself as there were still hours before my train departed and the streets were, if anything, even busier than they had been earlier in the day. The mere thought of boarding a tram brought on waves of claustrophobia.

Sirkeci Railway Station

In the end i hung about the area, buying myself a fish sandwich and a cup of tea. It was cold and when i went to Sirkeci (the railway station) the only place with any heating was the waiting room. I divided my time between trying to keep warm in there and taking photographs: the station is quaint and lovely; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old novel. A mad Irishman arrived. He began to engage an invisible companion in a heated debate, although i couldn’t work out what he and ‘his friend’ were arguing about. Later, when we were boarding the train he turned up on the platform with his bags. I began to wonder if he was travelling with us but he stayed on the platform muttering and occasionally shouting. He was still there when we left. Perhaps he’s always there.

The train itself was small (just four carriages) but comfortable. I found myself sharing with a young Turkish man (the only Turk on the train as far as i could see). I never learnt his name but he politely explained that he worked for a trade union and had a business meeting in Thessaloniki. He spent the evening typing away on his laptop while i looked out of the window at the suburbs and small towns we were passing through and wondered what the border crossing would be like.

Plaque on the Istanbul to Thessaloniki night train

I was also trying very hard not to think about water as i had just half a bottle to last me more than 12 hours. All that time waiting for the train and only at the last minute had it occurred to me i would need something to drink – and of course i discovered i had nothing smaller than a 50 Lira note which none of the station’s stallholders would change.

Finally, my roommate finished his typing and we pulled down the bunks. These were surprisingly comfortable but i made the mistake of choosing the top one. Not only did the rungs of the ladder cut into my feet as i climbed it because they were angled, but being the cackhanded individual i am, i kept kicking the ladder over. I think the Turkish trade union official got very tired of me. He soon fell asleep however and i was left awake, listening to the train rattling its way to Greece. I was too excited to sleep.

Boarding the night train

At the border we first stopped on the Turkish side at a place called Uzunköprü where a man came on board and took our passports away to be checked. We didn’t even have to get out of bed! We just handed him them from our bunks. My roommate was the exception: he had to go across to one of the buildings on the opposite platform and get a visa. It seemed odd that it was the one person native to the country we were in who needed a visa, but the rest of us all seemed to be EU nationals. Later another man came and announced he was from ‘baggage control’ (all customs announcements were in English). We did need to get up for this as we were required to open our luggage ourselves. It was all over and done with quickly however.

Pythio Railway Station (from Wikipedia)

On the Greek side (Pythio*) a similar process involving Greek officials occurred, except this time instead of ‘baggage control’ we had ‘customs’ and, as no-one had anything to declare, this was even more of a non-event. The Greeks were in fact the most charming customs officials i’ve ever encountered. They were both young men – perhaps new to the job? – and apologised for disturbing our sleep. Customs officials – apologise!?

And then it was done and we were on our way again… through Greece!

* The photo of Pythio Railway Station shown above is from Wikipedia. It was the early hours of the morning when we passed through it so i couldn’t really take a photo.

Trip 2010: arrival in Turkey and the first two days

Tuesday 6 April

After a tortuous journey to Heathrow Airport (everything that could go wrong did) it was such a relief to be on the aeroplane that i barely noticed it taking off.  The meal was the usual Turkish-Cuisine-As-Recreated-By-A-Race-Of-Androids but airline food has its own particular magic. Perhaps it lies simply in the wonder of the fact that we are eating in the sky or perhaps it’s down to the mysterious allure of the little tin foil covered plastic pots in which it’s served. Four hours or so later and we were there – well, theoretically; but of course there was the ordeal that is Atatürk Airport to negotiate first. Once again i managed to choose the queue containing the dreaded Person-With-A-Problem-With-Their-Passport, although thankfully whatever the problem was it was soon resolved.

Grabbing my luggage (yes, it was there!) i made my way to the Metro Station, trusting (hoping?) that i would instinctively remember how to get to Sultanahmet. Half way there though it dawned on me that it would be better to change at a station called Zeytinburnu rather than the one i’d changed when i’d come last year. Near miss number one: i almost got on a train going the wrong way. Thankfully, two Turkish men guessed where i was going (to the area where all the foreigners go!) and guided me to the right platform.

I found the hotel itself without too much trouble. It was more upmarket than the hostel i’d stayed at the year before but less friendly. I guess you can’t have it all.

Wednesday 7 April

Awoke and realised i was in Turkey! After breakfast (this was the only day i managed to beat the Germans to the buffet) i first had to recharge my phone. Bizarrely my room had no power outlet so i had to sit in the main reception area and wait. As soon as it was done, i set out to reorient myself. I walked down towards Eminönü, following the tram line, and crossed Galata Bridge. It was a lot colder than when i’d been in the city the year before. I made my way to Beyoğlu and withdrew some cash – i’d brought only 25 TL with me. Then, after a stop at a cafe i set off to look for the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. What a mission it turned out to be! I found my way down to the main road along the Bosphorus without problem but then couldn’t locate the Museum. Where the map seemed to be saying it should be there was nothing. An old Turkish man insisted it was inside the university building a bit further on. This seemed doubtful but i went there anyway. The security guards (Turkish universities are obviously tough places!) looked at my guidebook and shook their heads, pointing further along the road.

A building near the museum of modern art

Finally i found it the Museum. I was relieved but also, irrationally, angry. I felt somehow as if someone had been playing a game with me. Inside it was – truth be told – very much like modern art museums the world over: all white walls and glass. Most of the paintings on the main floor did little for me, although i did marvel at the pretentiousness with which they were described. Downstairs however i found the work of Erol Akyavaş* (1932-1999). His work fuses Islamic calligraphy with modern art and is stunning. The one i found most interesting seemed to incorporate views of a wall. The paintings of Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu were also interesting; he used lots of brown and the finished works often resembled calligraphy (in case it isn’t obvious by now: i love calligraphy). Finally, in an exhibition of photography i found a fantastic and grotestque (or fantastically grotesque if you like) panel of photographs by a Russian photographer called Petr Lovigin: masks, wheelchairs, cows, sheep, kites and fishing rods.

When the Museum closed i made my way back up to Beyoğlu to meet my friend Ö. We met last year when i was walking in the south of Turkey and apart from a brief email exchange we’d had no contact since so i was a bit nervous. Would we even recognise one another? In fact, i did recognise him but i was astounded to see how different he looked in his business suit. Somehow it was as though i’d expected him to show up in the shorts and t-shirt he’d been wearing when i’d last seen him. He led me through a maze of back streets to a small cafe where we ate and then we walked about the city chatting. We finally parted company at eleven o’clock. He had a two hour journey back home, which he’d have to repeat the next morning to get to work.

Thursday 8 April

Finally BF Day had dawned – the day on which i was finally to meet my my internet buddies, B and F. After breakfast i took up my post outside the hotel wondering how i would recognise B when she arrived and how she would recognise me. Soon a beautiful lady in a bright pink coat appeared. Instinctively i thought to myself: “This is her”, but as my instincts are far from infallible and i had no idea how i would extricate myself from the situation if she turned out to be some random Turkish woman (who in accordance with the Law of Sod would of course not be able to speak English) i stayed where  i was – even when she started looking about uncertainly. Sultanahmet is Tourist Central; Turks rarely seem to venture to the district unless they work there, but still… maybe she was here to meet someone else. I briefly imagined hordes of British tourists all meeting up with internet buddies for the first time. Only when i saw her dial a number and heard my mobile ring in my pocket did i know i was right: this was B.

Tiled wall in Topkapι Palace

She too had guessed i was the person she was looking for but like me wasn’t quite confident enough to take the plunge and approach me.  When my phone started to ring she rushed forward to greet me. It was an amazing moment, meeting after a year’s correspondence. F was going to be late because at the last minute someone had called and asked him to write out 200 wedding invitations (apparently his calligraphic skill is legendary amongst his friends). In the meantime – after buying my train ticket to Thessaloniki – B and I repaired to a cafe near the Haghia Sophia where we chatted over tea warmed by a heater which one of the waiters pulled up close to us. Predictably her English was much better than she’d suggested; it only made me feel worse about my lack of Turkish. She gave me a CD by a musician called Stephan Micus as a present. I’ll have to wait till i get home to listen to it though.

Topkapι Palace corridor

When F appeared we drank more tea (my kind of country!) and then headed over to the Topkapı Palace Museum to check out some Ottoman history. The most interesting part of the museum was the harem – not the steamy sauna of Western imagination, but instead the living quarters of the Sultan and his family. The tiles which decorate the walls are pretty spectacular: shades of blue, turquoise and red in flower-like patterns. F told me that the tiles are extremely expensive to make; enough for a wall would cost thousands and thousands of pounds. The red dye is especially costly. As F pointed out it, it stands out from the rest of the tile;  if you run your hand over the top, you can feel the bumps it creates. I preferred the turquoise colour though.

Topkapι Palace - another view

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent in cafes: eating, drinking and chatting. Eventually B had to leave us (sadly). F and I took the tramway and funicular railway to Beyoğlu, where he showed me the best places to buy English language books. I found a book called Living Poets of Turkey, which has some excellent poems in it and a collection of Nazim Hikmet‘s poetry in English translation. F also pointed out some novels to me. I hope to go back to the shop to buy them when i return to Istanbul at the end of my trip; i didn’t want to carry them across Greece**. Later we went to a restaurant where we talked about everything under the sun (he is one of the rare people on this earth who can talk as much as me!) till it dawned on us that we were the last people left in the building and that the staff were waiting to close up. All in all, a great day!

* Unfortunately, i was unable to find a link to a page with a good selection of his artwork. This one at least has plenty of information about the artist himself.
** As it was, i had to leave the book of engravings and photographs that F gave me as a present with the staff at the hotel in Istanbul. I have to hope they’ll hand it over when i return!

Last year’s trip to Turkey

I’m off to Turkey again next week. When i went last year for the first time i hadn’t yet started this blog, but i did record my impressions in a series of emails to friends. I thought i’d edit them a bit and present them here, so people can see what a wonderful time i had. Hopefully, it will be just as good this year – but without the face masks!

The first email was sent on the evening of Saturday 9 May, the day after my arrival:

I arrived as per schedule yesterday and, along with all my fellow travellers, was met by face masks and thermal scanners at Istanbul airport. I made my way to my hotel via the metro and tram systems, dodging “helpful” locals who wanted me to know that i’d much prefer their establishment. Exhausted by this accomplishment i then collapsed on my bed (after sending the obligatory “hello, i’ve survived” text to friends and family, those with mobiles anyway).

Today i journeyed over to the Golden Horn to buy my digital map and then took the ferry over to Üsküdar, changing continents as i did so! I followed instructions passed on to me by an Iranian-American doctor i’ve been chatting to on Twitter and found my way to a little artsy café, tucked away on a back street in an area called Kuzguncuk. It was only a 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal but there wasn’t a tourist to be seen. The food was great but even better was not being hassled or scammed, which is what happens in the cafés round here in Sultanahmet (the historic and therefore the tourist quarter).

I came back via Topkapı Park where i befriended a cat which was being hassled by a Turkish toddler. It was a poor skinny little mite and i would have liked to have fed it but i didn’t have any meat or cheese on me. One of the things i don’t like about Istanbul is the treatment of animals. I’ve seen three or four half starved stray dogs since i got here, standing around looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in the world. The stray cats look a bit healthier and are treated with a bit more kindness but not with much more understanding. To be fair though, this is the first predominately Muslim country where i’ve seen people with pet dogs and those animals do look well cared for as do the much more commonly seen pet cats.

Istanbul itself is a stunningly beautiful city. At times you feel like you’ve wandered onto a film set, it’s just too exotic and spectacular. Apart from the mosques with their minarets there are the rows of beautiful old houses, typically painted shades of ochre, the surprisingly numerous parks and the Bosphorus which is a strange blend of sea and river (i can see it from where i’m sitting in the hotel). Of course, there are slums too, but even those look better in the sunshine.

The people themselves are a strange blend of traditional and modern. It’s most noticeable in the women. You see girls that could be from London or New York and others that are are scarfed and clad in long coats. Obviously you can see the same dichotomy in the UK but those are mostly second generation immigrants. On the surface, at least, everyone seems to coexist happily enough.

Tomorrow i will probably explore the European side of Istanbul. If i can overcome my horror of crowds i might even visit one of the famous sights such as the Blue Mosque or the Topkapı Museum. And then on Monday i’m hoping to either go on the Bosphorus cruise or go on a cruise to the islands.

Tuesday morning of course i move on to Fethiye and the Lycian Way…

It’s a shame there wasn’t able to find time to write another email during my time in Istanbul because on this first day i was really just adjusting to the shock of being in a new city, a new country; but after that i was too busy exploring. Reconstructing the next few days from memory, two places stand out: the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I stood for the best part of twenty minutes leaning on a great stone wall on the upper level of the Haghia Sophia. It had been worn smooth, that wall; and my mind filled with awe at the thought of the number of people that would have taken – thousands of them. I felt surrounded by ghosts. Mind you, i also felt surrounded by cameras: all around me i could hear and see their flashes going off, as people photographed the famous Byzantine mosaics.

Sultanahmet, Istanbul - 2009 May 9

It was quieter in the Blue Mosque (thankfully). I remember being captivated by the intricate patterns of the decorations and pleased to find i could read some of the Arabic inscriptions. Even more than the Haghia Sophia the mosque radiated tranquillity and serenity. Mind you, unlike the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is still a place of worship – still alive, if you like. Coming out, i was depressed at how few people made a donation to the man on the door; and even more depressed to hear a group of blue-rinsed American women discussing “how many mosques” it’s necessary to see in Istanbul before you can say that you’ve “done them”.

A lane in Kuzguncuk - 2009 April 9

I had no intention of trying to ‘do the mosques’ or any other kind of building. With only one full day left in Istanbul i didn’t want to spend my time indoors. Instead i went on a boat trip along the Bosphorus which turned out to be a magical (if rather windy) experience. At at the far end we disembarked and followed a (not very well marked out) path to the ruins of a castle , accompanied by a friendly local dog.

Dolmabahce Palace seen from the Bosphorus - 2009 May

The next day i wandered around the modern centre of Istanbul, Beyoğlu (which i preferred to Sultanahmet), before heading off to the airport. There i sat all night in the waiting area (gazed at with suspicion by a group of Turkish pilgrims) so that i wouldn’t miss my onward flight to Dalaman Airport. I was off to the south and the next part of my trip: a walk along part of the famous Lycian Way. A few days later (15 May 2009), i sent the following update:

I am now in a backpackers’ hostel called George House in Faralya, a small village one day’s walk into the Lycian Way. I originally planned to stay here for no more than two nights but it’s such a wonderful place i have decided to stay one extra day.

That’s not the only reason actually: the fact is the Lycian Way is hard going! Most of the paths are scree rather than mud based, which means that the ground often slips under your feet. Moreover, the paths are rarely level: you are either being taken high into the mountains (in the morning) or back down towards sea-level (in the afternoon). Think Mt Snowdon – and this is the ‘easy bit’! Add to that the weight of the pack (and i kept mine relatively light) and the heat of the sun and you soon start to feel exhausted. Spectacular scenery though and at one point i came across a herd of horses wandering around by themselves in a copse.

Back to the hostel: what makes it so special? Well, it’s a simple place but the owners are very friendly and hospitable, providing free Turkish tea all day long, delicious breakfasts and evening meals and on one occasion spontaneously producing a cake that one of the ladies in the family had baked. The hostel is perched up high on a cliff above a tiny strip of land called the Butterfly Valley. You feel miles above the world here. There’s a lovely swimming pool (which hardly anyone but me seems to use) and breathtaking views of the sheer cliffs on the other side of the valley. There is a path from the hostel down to the beach but it’s extremely steep and at one point you have to use ropes to lower yourself down. As a result i confess i’ve just not bothered. The best thing about the hostel though is it’s one of those places where people actually talk to one another – not just in the sense of chitchat but also conversations of depth about issues such as art, politics, religion, literature, philosophy… you name it!

Amongst the other guests at the moment there’s a deeply thoughtful young Turkish man, an Argentine-Canadian engineer (and would-be photojournalist) and a very eccentric Czech architect/photographer, who is obsessed with European culture and the dangers of Islam. A young German couple have just left: they were philosophy graduates and very serious. Up until yesterday we also had a Taiwanese teenager touring Turkey by himself. He was a quirky boy, in many ways older than his years, and his attempts to learn Turkish from the Turkish man via his heavily accented Chinese English were quite comical.

Finally, we have Brian, an Australian in his 50s of ‘independent means’. He lives in Turkey and is trying to develop new walking paths in this area. Brian is a real character: dramatic and intelligent, gossipy and mysterious, industrious and laid back. We discussed Kate Clow, the creator of the Lycian Way. He has a number of criticisms to make of her, the most serious being that she mapped much of the trail along routes that had been identified as sites for potential new roads. As these roads are built the picturesque goat tracks are replaced with wider bulldozed lanes and then, inevitably, asphalt roads. This explains why to my surprise the first half of the goat track i followed on Wednesday showed up on the digital map that my GPS uses: the map makers include planned roads as well as ones already built. Bryan feels that the Lycian Way is doomed as a long distance path for this reason, but he also thinks there are many other tracks which could be joined together as walks, tracks which do not lie on routes intended to be converted into roads and which should therefore remain inviolate for much longer.

I may go for a (backpackless!) walk today from here to Kabak, the next place along the Way and then come back here tonight. Then i can skip the Kabak leg of the trail tomorrow and move straight on to the next leg. There are regular dolmuşes (minibuses) so getting to Kabak shouldn’t be a problem. Alternatively i may just swim in the pool and sit around reading my book, a novel by a Turkish writer called O.Z. Livaneli called ‘Bliss’. I bought it in İstanbul, despite strong resolutions not to burden myself with anything more to carry. Well, what do you expect me to do when i find myself in a street with four or five bookshops!? I don’t regret it in any case as it’s turned out to be a great read. I will probably leave it here when i finish it to supplement the meagre selection of English language books in the hostel library. Either the Germans are far more generous in donating books or the English language books are more popular and so get taken more often.

In fact, far from going on a ‘backpackless’ day walk to Kabak so that i could skip it, i went on as far as Kabak and then no further. The heat was overpowering and the next section of the path sounded rather uninspiring; the real reason i went no further though was because i’d fallen in love with George House and wanted to return.

About half way between Faralya and Kabak

George House

Horse in a copse on the way to Faralya (from Ovacık)

Tree with a Lycian Way waymark

Yellow and gold wildflowers near Faralya

Purple wildflowers

The sea was blue!

On Tuesday 19 May i emailed my friends:

I’m back in George House in Faralya after 3 nights in Kabak where i investigated the coastal trail and swam in a deserted crystal clear cove (giant flat boulders beneath turquoise seas). In many ways though the best bit was the walk to and from Kabak. The path climbs up and then follows a ridge most of the way before descending at the other end. The profusion of different wild flowers up there is startling and there are turtles/tortoises. We met one during our walk back this morning and he rather reluctantly condescended to be photographed before lumbering off into the undergrowth. Kabak itself is also beautiful. The hostel where i stayed (The Olive Garden) is perched up high above the bay and the view is glorious, particularly first thing in the morning.

Tomorrow i will travel to Kaş (via Fethiye). I’ve got two days there before i have to travel back to Fethiye and then (alas!) back home.

My trip to Kaş, a pretty town on the south coast, turned out to be quite an experience in itself, as i wrote after my arrival:

Arrived in Kaş yesterday afternoon after an unexpectedly wonderful day – despite intermittent heavy rain. After spending my final few hours at George House discussing languages, mapping and the journey of life with Brian the Australian and Öner the Turk i reluctantly took my leave and headed up to the main road to wait for the dolmuş to Fethiye.

While i was waiting a Turkish family (man, woman, little girl) came past in their car and stopped to ask about the route to Butterfly Valley. They asked me where i was headed and offered me a lift. We passed the journey with the parents demonstrating how much English their 3 year old daughter already knew before she eventually fell asleep. When we got to Fethiye they commented that they might as well carry on since it was still raining and in the end they took me all the way to Kaş (stopping at places like Patara Beach on the way), where they insisted on buying me dinner. Now that’s what i call hospitality! They were very interesting people too, not least because Sylvia, the wife, is a member of the Armenian minority. We had some very interesting discussions about the way Turkey is headed and also about Turkish films and literature; they were very pleased that i knew anything about these things as it’s not their usual experience of foreign tourists.

Anyway, i’ve signed up for a boat tour today and then i want to go back to the bookshop i found yesterday down a little side street. I bought a Turkish novel in translation (albeit not a very good translation) and i’d like to buy some more. I won’t be doing any more trekking now so the weight of the books isn’t a problem.

I note that by this point i was signing myself off ‘the Turkish Adventurer’! The boat trip was more interesting than i expected it to be, in large part because of the conversations i mention below:

I’m back at the hotel now following my boat trip round Kekova island: interesting, but more for the conversations than the ruins. Somehow, outside of Time Team, remains of ancient buildings soon start to blur into one another: this is a Lycian wall because their stone architecture was influenced by the techniques they used to carve wood; whereas this one is Roman because the wall is built from stone blocks and this one is Byzantine because it’s built from bricks. By the time we arrived at the Ottoman Era i was lost and, if i’m honest, bored.

We were meant to be able to swim as well but the relatively cool weather and rain put everyone off except one Turkish couple. Mind you, apart from me, a Turkish family (the afore-mentioned couple plus their young son & a set of grandparents) and a French-Canadian couple the other people on the trip were all elderly Germans, members of a watercolour club. Once we got out of the harbour they got out their painting kits and began working in earnest. No conversation was possible.

Conversation was possible however with the French-Canadian couple, Alain and Marie. They were lovely people, retired teachers who now enjoy travelling the world. We talked about how they feel about being Canadian: Marie said that in Canada she identifies herself as Quebecois, not French-Canadian but is nevertheless not a Quebec Nationalist. When she travels abroad she does identify as French-Canadian, largely because she doesn’t think many people would know what Quebecois means, but also because she is proud of the positive reputation that Canada has: liberal, tolerant, inclusive.

I also had some great conversations with Dilek, our guide, a funkily fashionable girl: purple cargo pants, pink nail polish, long henna tinted locks. She lived in London for 5 years and misses it. People complain about London when they live there, she says, but it has something distinctive and eclectic about it which you find yourself craving when you leave. I said she’s probably right but i still want to leave!

We also talked about Turkish attitudes to travel and cultural diversity. She confirmed what i’d read – that it’s expensive for Turkish people to travel abroad: passports are expensive and they have to pay a tax to leave Turkey on top of the expense of the visa for the destination country. And that’s assuming they can get the visa. At least three separate people have told me they’ve been refused visas for Britain and these are educated people looking to visit as tourists, not would-be dole artists.

She said that the problem goes deeper than that however: the intense propagation of Turkish national identity has tended to make people both inward-looking and wary of diverging from the norm in any way. Some people actually take a pride in the fact that they have no desire to travel outside Turkey. She advised me to visit İzmir, which she says is the most modern and forward-looking city in Turkey, much more so than İstanbul. Mind you, she does come from İzmir…

After more conversation about Turkish novels in translation, the pros and cons of commuting and her forthcoming 3 month trip to Guatemala to learn Spanish we returned to Kaş and the hotel. Then i set off to re-find the bookshop i’d discovered the previous day. This was easier said than done. For a small town Kaş has a lot of nooks and crannies. Eventually i did find the shop and bought two more Turkish novels in translation – and was rewarded by a joyful smile from the owner. I don’t think she sells a lot of those books.

Tomorrow, as i think i’ve already said, i have to return to Fethiye. I can’t believe that will be my last day! Tonight though i am going to pretend i’m staying here forever. And, more immediately, eat the dessert the waiter has just brought me.

That was the last email i wrote during my trip. The next day i took a (very comfortable) bus back to Fethiye, which i realised almost instantaneously was not a place i wanted to spend any time in. After lunch, i caught a bus to Dalaman Airport, which was even less inviting, and ended up travelling to Istanbul a day early after changing my ticket. I spent the night in the airport. My final memories of Turkey are of wandering aimlessly about the stacks of Turkish Delight piled high for tourists seeking last minute presents. No matter, it was a great holiday. Here’s hoping this year’s will be just as good. I leave you with this picture of Ollie, Turkey’s greatest dog and a resident of the Olive Garden guesthouse in Kabak:

Ollie, possibly the friendliest dog in Turkey