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


Morecambe & Hamlet: the Christmas double act

Morecambe and Hamlet: one unexpectedly disappointed, the other just as unexpectedly thrilled.

I went to see the play Morecambe about the comedian Eric Morecambe on the 23 December as my pre-Christmas treat. Well, that was the idea. Eric Morecambe was my childhood hero. I have half a dozen books about him or Morecambe & Wise as a double act, the DVDs of their TV series – you know the sort of fan. More to the point, i also saw and loved the show which the Right Size did about Morecambe & Wise some years ago, so when i read about the new show – and read its rave reviews – i got very excited indeed. The fact that Ernie was reduced to a puppet in the play did vaguely perturb me, but i shrugged the feeling off. None of the reviewers had suggested this was a problem.

On the night though i realised i should have paid more attention to my misgivings, as within five minutes of the show’s start it was clear that it simply didn’t work. Not for me anyhow. The play was a monologue, but Eric’s comedy was all about conversation: on stage, ‘in the flat’, ‘in bed’. Without the ebb and flow of that conversation between him and Ernie the jokes felt flat and clunky. On top of that the actor, Bob Golding, had a voice that was too high pitched and a tendency to gabble his lines – unlike Eric who knew when and how to leave spaces.

So that was that. I left at the interval and, making the best of the situation, went off to the supermarket to finish my Christmas shopping. Fast forward to Boxing Day and i decide to watch David Tennant in Hamlet, which i’d recorded earlier the same day. I was in two minds about whether to bother and, after the Morecambe debacle, the glowing reviews were more suspect than seducing. In the end it was the lack of an alternative that induced me to press play; there just didn’t seem to be anything else on worth watching.

As with Morecambe i realised my error of judgement within minutes: the production was marvellous! David Tennant, who i’d previously dismissed as a gurning ferret, was simply a revelation in the title part; and both Patrick Stewart (Claudius) and the actor who played Laertes were great. In fact, the whole cast was good or better. The actors played their roles in modern dress, which initially i wasn’t sure about; but which very quickly made total sense – and the language! My God, i’d never realised just how beautiful that play is.

I suppose the moral of the story is the old one about being wary of assumptions. The people behind Morecambe probably assumed Ernie was more or less superfluous and i assumed that David Tennant couldn’t act. Wrong, wrong.

A limerick about a lemur

A lemur in far Madagascar
Was partial to partly cooked pasta
When asked was it more
Healthy when raw
He said, “Well it helps me go faster.”

Found this limerick* in a book of email correspondence between me and a friend. It’s the first entry in the book, which she made as a keepsake for me, and is dated the 15th August 2000.

What a decade it’s been! I don’t just mean the big things which have happened during that time: that relationship, the MSc, the depression; but the small things too: the subtle changes in hopes, dreams and fears. Still, i remain fortunate in my friends and our conversations. And whether or not i remember to say it, i remain deeply grateful for both.

* One of my better efforts. You would not want to read the worse ones, believe you me.