Friday, June 29, 2012

A week of books and movies

Hello all! I thought you might like a bit of time to read all the Turkey posts, but I'm back now! I've been having an entertainment-filled week, so I will report on that.

First, Rock of Ages. I went in with low expectations due to reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but it was amazing. I felt like dancing out of my seat but thought it might annoy the people behind me, and also considered hands-above-the-head clapping, but dismissed it for the same reason. My flatmates also liked it, and we shared our guilt over the fact that none of us have been to the stage show, which is probably better and has been showing in the West End for a while (this is a common conversation, also undertaken after seeing War Horse and Mamma Mia). The story of Rock of Ages was perhaps a little well-worn, but it's a feel-good musical, people, and the songs were pretty awesome. And the dancing. Especially loved the Alec Baldwin/Russell Brand duet.

Next up was Snow White and the Huntsman, which I enjoyed though found myself distracted by outside thoughts every so often and had to remind myself to focus-on-movie. It's a very pretty movie, though I thought the Snow-White-as-chosen-one thing was a bit random. Was this because she's not so much a chosen one in the original story, or some other reason? Do I just have a thing against chosen ones? I like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. Is it a boy/girl thing? I hope not. I get the feeling the chosen-one stuff was weighted more towards the end and not introduced properly, though that might just be because I didn't notice it towards the beginning. Anyway, I didn't mind too much, and enjoyed the motion-master effects of the seats in front of me, especially the explosions (they have motion-master seats in my local theatre!).

Final movie of the weekend was Men in Black 3, which I loved. They have so many little by-the-by jokes in their world building so you're laughing much of the way through, and then there's a twist at the end that I thought was really well-done but won't say anything about. Definitely recommended.

And in books! I finished Garth Nix's A Confusion of Princes, which was hilarious and addictive. I loved the voice of the main character, and the fact that the MC is already guaranteed (and feels entitled to) an extraordinary destiny rather than the normal-character-finding-extraordinary-destiny trope that you see a lot.

I think I am using too-many-dashes.

Moving on to the next book (yes I have seen/read this many things this week. I am catching up on my entertainment): Maureen Johnson's The Name of the Star. This is a Jack the Ripper ghost story set in modern London, and seriously freaked me out, especially as the next door neighbour has recently started making loud banging noises in his back garden at 11 o'clock at night which may or may not be the sound of bodies being dismembered. I really enjoy reading books set in London while in London, because sometimes you know the places you're being shown and get a little thrill of recognition (this happened with the last Cassandra Clare Infernal Devices book too - she describes an alley that I walk down almost weekly!). Anyway, The Name of the Star has lots of awesome things to recommend it: ghosts, London, murder investigations, evaluation/criticism of the media, boarding school, brave heroine, secret lives, disguise, the Tube... So, yes, it's good. Go read it :-)

Have a good week!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Turkey Days 7 and 8: Pamukkale, Night Buses and Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

I'm back in London now, and it's about twenty degrees cooler than it was in Turkey. Back to work tomorrow...

The day after Ephesus and our Turkish bath, we got a shuttle to the train station for our train to Denizli, a town further inland famous for cotton. The train was very full and we took a while to find seats, and once we did I spent the remaining three hours sleeping, or looking it the window at the tall hills and fields and towns. From Denizli we took a bus to Pamukkale, which is famous for its white terraces.

When I was tiny, we used to get pizza from a place with a poster of the terraces displayed proudly on the wall, and I always wanted to go there. I was very excited when I saw it was included on the itinerary, and it was just as amazing as I'd thought. You can see it as a white section of hill as you approach, and then as you get closer the white resolves into cliffs and terraces and tiny dots of people moving up and down. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant where the owner performed dramatic caricatures of each of our nationalities (including an attempted haka), then reapplied our sunscreen to every bit of exposed skin and walked up to the terraces.

At first it looks a lot like a ski slope, but when you get right on the travertines you feel the rough calcium beneath your feet and see the rivulets of water and patterns in the stone. I decided the texture was most like dragon skin, and if anyone ever needs to take a plaster cast of a material for a movie or some such thing, they should go to Pamukkale.

In the eighties the terraces had hotels built on top of them and a road following them up (actually on the travertines. Can't quite believe it) but when they became a World Heritage Site they demolished the hotels and replaced the road with artificial pools. The pools still look particularly man-made, but I guess they're a lot better than the road and the hotels. You're still allowed to walk on the travertines as long as you don't wear shoes, but you're not really supposed to swim in the pools because it contaminates the water that should be forming the travertines. Lots of people do, however, and I wondered if they had some kind of system in place so that the water is directed over the natural travertines when the tourists aren't there, and over the man-made parts (which don't matter so much in my opinion) when they aren't. The natural pools didn't have any water running over them when we were there, so hopefully they're doing something like that.

By the time we reached the top my feet were a bit raw and everyone was very hot. There are ruins of the ancient city of Hieropolis at the top, as well as a swimming pool with real ancient columns in it and a place where you can have Doctor Fish 'give you a pedicure' (eat dead skin off your feet). Five of us tried the Doctor Fish and spent the first few minutes squealing and clutching at the sides of the tank as all the other customers sat looking sophisticated. It got better after that, and after the fish and the Turkish bath we were confident there was no dead skin anywhere on our bodies.

We wandered around the ruins a bit and then made our way back down the travertines, which I think was better than coming up with the whole white expanse spread before you and the plains below and the mountains in the distance. Absolutely incredible.

We had our last group dinner on the roof of a hotel beneath grape vines and left the Aqueduchess to continue her journeys in Cappadoccia, where they filmed the cave-house bits of Star Wars. The rest if us took a bus back to Denizli before getting a luxury night bus all the way to Istanbul. I managed to sleep about half the way, but by the time we got to Istanbul I was very tired. Our airport shuttle didn't leave until 1pm, so we spent the morning wandering the Grand Bazaar and using up most (or in my case, all) of our money. I think I got some good deals - best was 75% off, but that was more because I didn't have the correct change than because of my skill in bargaining.

It was sad to say goodbye to our group, but I think we'll stay in touch. Glamgirl and I were on the same flight back to London. We ate far too much free sample Turkish Delight in Istanbul Airport and searched for chocolate and Swiss army knives on our stop in Zurich airport. I found chocolate in the shape of a Swiss army knife, and then we boarded the plane with the least hassle I've ever encountered - no lines, just scan your own ticket, show your passport and walk onto the plane where everyone was very calm and reserved. I was amazed by the flight attendants' ability to switch immediately between French and English and German.

Now considering a trip to Barcelona. Hmmm.



Turkey Day 6: Ephesus, Selçuk and a Turkish Bath

I think my body is now about thirty percent sunscreen.

We got into Selçuk around noon and had lunch on the terrace roof of our hotel, looking out over the town and up to the medieval castle on a hill in the middle of the city. Again, lots of beautiful mezze and then a choice of fish, beef or chicken. The beef came on kebabs stuck artistically into half a tomato. We spent the afternoon wandering around Selçuk looking at the Basilica of St John, taking pictures of the one remaining column of the Temple of Artemis and visiting the museum, which has artefacts from Ephesus including lots of statues of Eros, most of which I found very creepy (little wise winged baby staring at you? Creepy). I especially found a gigantic emperor's head creepy, because it was carved to look like a baby's face. Lots of beautiful ancient jewellery and glass bottles and weapons, as well as marble upon marble upon marble.

At four o'clock it was cool enough to go to the ancient city of Ephesus, it being only about 32 degrees Celsius. We entered from the top and wound down through the valley, passing fields of columns and huge stones laid out for cataloguing as well as the smaller amphitheatre built into the hill. When you stand in the centre of the amphitheatre you hear your voice echo around.

We walked along ancient marble-paved streets, saw a bath house and a public toilet and lots and lots of cats who were very happy to pose for us.

At the bottom of the valley stands Ephesus's great library, which was the third biggest of the ancient world with 125,000 scrolls. They have done a lot of restoration work on it, and you've probably seen a picture of it with its tall pillared facade.

Inside there are two shafts that you can take flash pictures down and get back glimpses of the tomb inside. From the great library you walk through to the wide expanse of the agora market place with its double columns on all four sides, and then up to the grand amphitheatre where Bono's sung a concert. They're still restoring the amphitheatre, so I'd love to see what it looks like when it's all finished. Today you're allowed access to the bottom set of tiers and the stage with its incredible acoustic. The wind would have blown off the sea and carried voices even farther two thousand years ago, but the sea's now around eight kilometres away because of silt build-up.

Dinner was to be at a hotel up on the hill. Our transport arrived: a van and an open jeep. Glamgirl, the Aqueduchess, Pistachio Girl and I claimed the jeep and clutched the roll bars as we hurtled up the hill between houses and rugged fields. The hotel had a terrace with a view over the whole city, and a swimming pool. Within five minutes we were floating in the pool with drinks and taking in the scents of the barbecue.

The setting sun lured us out to take pictures, and then we had a beautiful dinner in the gathering dusk while three tiny pet dogs scampered around our feet. Our guide taught us some Turkish dances, one of which was a Turkish take on musical chairs where I came second. We all agreed that it was the most incredible place to have a meal, on the terrace looking over the city with its basilica and castle as the sun set behind the hills and the stars came out.

But the day was not yet over! We still had a Turkish Bath to go, an experience that many of the group viewed with trepidation. The atmosphere in the waiting room was thick with nerves, and many jokes were made about tea towels (the attire we were to wear into the bath house, though we were allowed togs/swimsuits as well).

The bath house itself is a domed room with shower stalls along two walls and a circular marble platform in the middle. The air is hot and humid, so much so that you need to take a cold shower at regular intervals. After about ten minutes of lying on the hot marble, the production line was put into motion: first the right-hand side marble bench, where the man scrubbed you down with scrubbers and exfoliated half your skin off in rolls, and then the left hand bench where another man soaped you up, slung you around the slippery marble and poured cold water over you. We had an extra oil massage after that in another room, with olive oil, and then got back to the hotel around 1am. A long night, but it was worth it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Turkey Day 5: Ayvalik, Cunda and Swimming in the Aegean

The lack of sleep is building up. Others in our party sleep on the bus. I slave away writing blogs.

I last left you, if memory serves (and I am dubious about the quality of its service), on the bus to Ayvalik. Ayvalik is a lovely little town with fishing boats and cobbled alleyways crisscrossing the hill, and not so full of foreign tourists. Our hotel is in a beautiful former French embassy, with a courtyard in which we eat breakfast (by far the best breakfast so far, with spiced eggs and lime jelly mousse slice and filo-feta rolls), shutters, marble steps and painted ceilings. There's also a little alcove full of Turkish cushions where we spent a lot of time.

We walked along the waterfront and chose the boat we wanted to take out the next day, and then took Turkish taxi-buses (dolmus) to Cunda Island (pron. Junda) for dinner. Cunda has lots of restaurants all along the wharf, and we sat under a shade with the sea lapping away just feet from us. Dinner started with mezze: tsatsiki, red chopped-up stuff that was really good, eggplant, salad and bread. Then the fish came out completely whole and the waiter skilfully removed the bones right at the table. The sun set and the stars came out. A few cats wound round legs. Comments were made about this being an eating holiday - we've had a lot of very good food so far.

There was a tea/shisha house down the road, walls open to the elements and benches and cushions laid out. Locals sat and played cards or backgammon or smoked shisha, and we sat cross-legged in a square enclosure and drank tea and bira until the imam in the nearby mosque began the call to prayer at 11 o'clock. On the dolmus ride back to Ayvalik I sat in the boot on a little bench with Glamgirl, the Aqueduchess and Pistachio girl and arrived at the hotel with all bones intact.

There was a bit of free time the next morning so Kiwi Glamgirl and I explored the streets, climbing all the way to the top of the town's hill and their huge flagpole. There are stray cats and dogs everywhere in Turkey, and Ayvalik is no exception. At every corner was another photo opportunity: a beautiful house half in ruins, a young cat posing prettily by a door, the view down the cobbled alleyway to the sea. Ayvalik had a large Greek population that had to leave in the twenties because of a population swap, hence the ruined buildings. We'd stood staring at the view from the top for quite a while and I kept hearing clopping noises, which I didn't think that much of until Glamgirl noticed the horse in the dry-stone building below us. A bit further down the hill we found some goats in a house and a few more dogs happily wandering the streets.

At half past eleven we met everyone at the wharf and boarded 'Bambi', a wide wooden boat with benches and tables below and a deck above. The prow had a sort of plank extension where you could recreate Leonardo Dicaprio's King of the World moment, so we did that. Multiple times. You do actually feel like you're flying, if you can't see the boat below you and the sea is disappearing behind.

Bambi anchored in a small cove with incredibly clear water with a few other boats. This seems to be a popular thing to do for Turkish tourists, though we were the only foreign tourists, and the semi-locals jumped off the top deck into the crystal water. The sea was quite salty and buoyant, though not as warm as I'd expected. This first bay had warm and cold spots, and we spent much of our time finding the warm spots, or standing in the island's beach and spotting little striped fish. I jumped off the top deck, counting in bir, iki, uç (1, 2, 3), and feeling my stomach drop away as the sea rushed up.

When we emerged form the water, lunch was being served: salad, bread and freshly-fried sardines. The only sardines I've experienced were the horrible canned sort, but these were really good. I wasn't sure about swimming after eating, but when we got to the next cove the water was too inviting. You really needed a waterproof camera to capture the beautiful blue sky, the boat serene in the water, the islands with ruined churches atop them and the dark shadows of Greek mountains to the west. At one point Glamgirl got a text welcoming her to Greece and advising her of the roaming charges.

The next stop had much colder water and we didn't stay as long, and though I meant to get in at the stop after that, an icecream boat appeared and I had to get icecream in half a melon. The icecream was interesting and sort of stretchy, but amazing in the sun on a boat among Turkish islands.

Some of the other boats had slides, and one looked like a pirate ship. We advised our guide that, next time, we'd like a slide please. It was a lot of fun jumping off the deck, though, and we had a good time dancing to Turkish music.

Dinner back in Ayvalik was tost, a sort of toasted panini with meat, cheese, pickles and capsicum. There was a beautiful little cat sitting right by my feet with the most upright posture and open, hopeful face (I know I don't deserve anything, but I'm a good little cat, really I am, and very polite too), and quite a bit of my meat was given to the cat. The cat received it with its paws, ate it, and looked hopefully for the next bit. It gave Puss and Boots a run for his money with its sad face, too.

On the way back to the hotel we passed a cake shop and were lured in by the baklava, which was much cheaper than in Istanbul: three pieces for two lira, or the equivalent of about 60p. There was also an amazing chocolate pudding that tasted like chocolate mud cake batter and had profiteroles buried in it and pistachios on top.

The landscape is so much like New Zealand with its hills and sea. So far today I've struggled out of bed and managed to catch the bus which was moving away as we ran towards it, and I think now we've reached our destination. See you at the next wifi hotspot...

Edited to add: Oh! I forgot to mention the electrical fire on the boat! And the girl who had five changes of bikini for the boat ride, and managed to wear them all. There, I've mentioned them now.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Troy and Çanakkale

So I'm still on the bus I was on when I wrote yesterday's post. You'll be pleased to know we haven't fallen down any cliff faces into the sea (I was a bit worried there for a while, but we're back on solid sea-level ground now). The island of Lesbos can be seen just off the coast, and lots of the buildings we pass have solar cells on the roof. (At least I think it's Lesbos. That's what someone said.) The towns we've been past seem quite efficient: lots of houses in a small close-knit area, sometimes apartment buildings, surrounded by semi-wilderness. You do see quite a few skeletal buildings, some of which haven't ever been finished and some of which are ruins.

The reason I got up at 6.45 this morning was to catch a bus for Troy with the Aqueduchess. We crossed the Dardanelles by car ferry and set tyre on Asia for the first time, and it wasn't long before we were alighting outside the ancient city of Troy. I'd heard there wasn't much left, and was pleasantly surprised to find lots and lots of obviously-ruinous stones and some very well-preserved city walls. There were nine different cities on this site in nine different layers, which makes it difficult for archaeologists because to get to the first layer you have to dig down and destroy the other eight layers.

They have a large replica Trojan horse you can get inside and have your picture taken, so we did that while our guide explained that a likely theory for the horse is that it was actually a tribute statue to Poseidon. The layer that's generally accepted as the layer of Homer's Illiad was destroyed in an earthquake, so the theory goes that, rather than soldiers hiding inside a large wooden horse, the end of the war was aided by an earthquake. Poseidon is the Greek god of earthquakes and horses as well as the sea, so the Greeks may have built a horse statue to thank him for his aid in defeating the Trojans.

The foundations of the Homeric watch tower are still there hulking in front of the five-metre thick cementless wall of the citadel. You walk into the passage leading to one of the gates and turn a corner (the corner is to prevent battering rams being used), climb some steps and come across more ruins, and more and more beyond them. Roman numerals are everywhere, showing what layer a particular set of ruins belongs to, and our guide was good at explaining what each one was. The oldest town on this site existed five thousand years ago and held a thousand people, while the newest two were Greek and Roman cities. At one point there are three wells that were used for sacrifices - the wells would fill with blood rather than water.

I was impressed by the Homeric main ramp from the lower town to the citadel, which is still pretty flat after three thousand years. You wouldn't want to try to drag a battering ram up it.

I would have liked to stay longer at Troy, but we were back on the bus and arriving in Çanakkale by eleven. We had the most beautiful lamb kebab for lunch, sat in a cafe on the waterfront and then boarded the bus for Ayvalik, which is where I am now. I currently have Internet but may not for some time, so I'll post this now and give you all the details on Ayvalik later.

Hosca kalin!

Turkey Day 3: Gallipoli, Eceabat and Buses

I'm on a bus again! Buses in Turkey are nice. They have free refreshments and personal TV screens, though all the movies and television shows are in Turkish... They also come down the bus with some kind of perfumed liquid, which may be hand sanitiser or may be cooling liquid or may just be an attempt to make everyone smell nice (not that we don't smell nice. I hope). The bus trip from Istanbul was over five hours and we went past lots of Turkish flags, drove over some nice new roads and some old potholed roads and saw slabs of marble stacked up in heaps at the side of the road.

We got into Eceabat at about one o'clock and had lunch at the hotel: yoghurt soup, chicken stew and salad. The yoghurt soup was interesting. Once that was done we took a smaller bus out to Gallipoli, where Australian, New Zealand, Indian, French African, Irish and British troops held land for eight months in 1915.

We started at North Beach, where they now hold the Anzac Day memorial service. The beach slopes up to steep ridges and an outcrop of rock they called the Sphinx. Some landings were made here, but most were made at Anzac Cove, the next beach over. The area is full of memorials and cemeteries - over a hundred thousand soldiers died in the area over the eight months. It's so incredibly peaceful now - absolutely beautiful beaches and views out over the Aegean, birds singing and waves lapping the shore. The cemeteries are very well kept, with flowers between the stones and trees shading the graves.

Our guide was impressive. He used to be a university lecturer, but had been guiding Gallipoli tours for twenty-five years and knew all the battles date by date, blow by blow. Usually you hear about the landings and how they came before dawn and had to fight up the steep hills/cliff faces against heavy enemy fire. In fact, there were only eighty-six Turkish soldiers at the top of the hill, and the charge to the first ridge was over quite quickly with little loss of life on the Allied side. The battalions landed in a place that was thought to be unsuitable for landings, so it wasn't as heavily guarded as another beach where the British landed and sustained heavy casualties.

The point of the Gallipoli landings was to eventually control the Dardanelles and so the shipping route from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, opening a supply route to the Eastern Front. The entrance to the Dardanelles was heavily fortified, so the plan was to attack at Gallipoli and cross the twenty kilometres of peninsular to the Dardanelles inlet, bypassing the fortifications.

The remainder of the campaign, when the Turkish army was more prepared, was a long and bloody battle involving almost a million soldiers. The area is very hilly, and while the Anzacs and Allies held more land than I'd thought, it would have been very crowded with so many soldiers living in dugouts in the hills. At times the trenches of the front lines were less than two metres apart, and there are stories of people singing to each other across the lines, and one where a Turkish soldier carried a wounded Australian soldier back to the Allied line. You can still see the winding trenches (winding to minimise the effects of blasts blowing through), and the barbed wire poking out of the earth. They also had a system of tunnels that looked extremely claustrophobic.

The landscape reminded me a lot of the hills around Wellington: scrub presses close to the clay hillside and the stones show through where the hill falls away. It's quite a bit drier, but I could have been walking the tracks around Makara in late summer. Pretty affecting to compare the two, while the guide talked about the forays and defence of the two armies, and how many people had died fighting over this little piece of land. In the end, the Allies decided to retreat, and moved their hundred thousand troops out into the Aegean in one night. Allied commentators say that's the only part of the campaign that went well: not one casualty.

Back in Eceabat (by the way, c in Turkish is pronounced as if it's a j) we had dinner in a restaurant with a patio and grape vines for a roof. There were lots of mezze to try, and I had a good chicken kebab for a main. At one point a trio of cats had a disagreement beside our tables. We sampled some local Syrah at the hotel which was very good, and I stayed up much later than I should have considering I'd had five hours sleep the night before and had to get up at 6.45 the next morning.

I possibly may not have Internet for a bit. We shall see.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Istanbul Day 2: Mosques, Spice Markets and the Aya Sofya

I've had about five hours sleep and I don't do very well on five hours sleep so I'm not sure how coherent this post will be. I apologise in advance.

So. After a nice Turkish breakfast we set out on a walking tour of old Istanbul. Our first visit was to the Blue Mosque, which was just as crowded as the day before, and quite noisy. We recovered in a cafe in the square near the sixteenth-century university, where I tried Turkish coffee for the first time. It is thick, though possibly not quite thick enough to stand your spoon up in (I'd heard you could do this) and comes in a small cup. The coffee is ground up very fine and stirred in so you drink quite a lot of grounds, but it's not as unpleasant as when you drink normal coffee grounds - in fact it's quite nice. At the end you're left with about a centimetre of coffee grounds in the bottom, which you can use to tell fortunes.

The next stop was the Sulaimayne Mosque, which I enjoyed a lot more than the Blue Mosque - far fewer people and richer, more vibrant decorations. The architect considered this mosque his master work and spent a lot of time getting the acoustics right, so when you speak the sound softly echoes around the building. Even with people talking it's very peaceful and you just have to sit and gaze and take it all in. The windows high up around the dome throw light on the gold, red and blue paintwork and white walls, and electric lights glow gold on high ledges and low chandeliers. The garden of the mosque looks out over the city and harbour, and I was amazed at how high we'd climbed.

Back out on the streets we wound through lots of little alleyways and streets with steps. We saw one building covered completely in colourful randomly-applied mosaic tiles, which gave an interesting inside-out bathroom feel, and many ancient-looking walls with ivy holding higgledy-piggledy stones together. Our third mosque of the day was quite small (compared to the previous ones) and reached through a winding medieval staircase. It's called the Rustem Pasa Mosque and is, I think, more deserving of the name Blue Mosque than the Blue Mosque is. The blue tiles in this one are a deep royal blue and come right down to the ground, whereas the ones in the other mosques began above eye-level, I guess to lead your thoughts towards the heavens.

A few more turns through the cobblestones streets and we were at sea level again. Our guide suggested fish-in-bread for lunch, so we picked a brightly painted and gilded boat at the dock and got our fish-in-bread for five lira (a little less than three pounds). The boat was wildly rocking on the wakes of ships going past, to the point it almost looked like it might tip over, and service had to stop until the water calmed again. You'd have to have very good balance to work in that fast-food place. The fish was pretty good, though I seemed to have received the entire group's share of bones and spent a lot of time picking them out from between my teeth.

We had an afternoon full of free time, so we split up. My roommate Kiwi Glamgirl and I took a wander through the spice market and spent a lot of time in one shop where the man poured spices into our hands to sample and let us smell all the beautiful teas. We came out with quite a bit of tea, some spices, Turkish delight and a pepper grinder apiece, and could have bought a lot more (the man told us we were shopping like students when we kept saying 'no! That's enough! Enough!').

We dropped our purchases at the hotel and followed the tram line up to the Aya Sofya, which is the former church-mosque-now-museum straight across from the Blue Mosque. It was built in the fifth century, if my memory's giving me the right info, and is absolutely huge. It's still in the top five biggest religious buildings in the world. The interior was originally covered in mosaics but then plastered over when it became a mosque, but they've uncovered some of them so you can see. The entire building seems to be made of marble and the domed ceiling soars above you - it's so high they had to build it three times before it would stay up. There are lots of Roman arched everywhere, and it was incredible to think that the reason you only see round Roman arches is that they hadn't yet invented pointed arches when they built the Aya Sofya.

We climbed up stone ramps, round and round and round, to get to the gallery where most of the mosaics were and to look down on the vast floor below. As in the other mosques, low-hanging wrought iron frames held sparkling lights and the walls were decorated with flowers and Arabic calligraphy. I tried to get some pictures of the vibrant stained glass windows, but they never seem to show up properly on my camera.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the surrounding parks and shops (we were given some apple tea by one of the shopkeepers) and sitting on the grass outside Topkapi Palace. We met up with the rest of the group for dinner at a fill-a-plate style cafe, where I had a very rich moussaka, and then walked across the bridge and took pictures of the sunset and peach-lit mosques.

Our guide was very enthusiastic about taking the second-oldest metro on the world up to Taksim. The metro, unlike the oldest metro in London, actually looks like it was built in the nineteenth century, with brick walls and only one carriage. It reminded me very much of the Wellington cable car, because it runs on the same principle: two cars on cables that start at either end of the track and cross in the middle.

This side of the river is more where everyday Istanbulites spend their time, away from the tourists. The are seventeen million people in Istanbul, and while the streets weren't that crowded (I.e. you could walk in a straight line without banging into anyone for most of the time) there were still so many more people than you might expect at nine o'clock on a Sunday night. Most of the people at the cafes and restaurants and bars were men, so I guess the women mostly stay at home.

We climbed many flights of a spiral staircase to get to a roof terrace open to the night sky and had a good time chatting and getting to know our group better. I ordered a mojito in a bottle, expecting it to be mixed with rum or vodka, but it turned out to be a mojito-flavoured beer. I do not like beer. I managed to get through about half of it, concentrating on the mojito taste and not the beer.

By the time we got back to the hostel it was nearing midnight and we had to catch a bus at six-thirty a.m., hence my five hours sleep. I'm now writing this on the bus to Gallipoli (probably should be using this time to sleep... Meh...) and looking out the window at the very New Zealand-esque landscape. Sunnier and drier, though.

(Are we nearly there yet?)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Turkey Day 1: Wanderings, the Blue Mosque and Catamarans

Merhaba! It means hello. I've almost got the hang of thank you (tedeshekkurler, sp.) and now I just need to memorise a few more words like excuse me and sorry-I-stepped-on-your-foot. It's amazing how you can mutter a word over and over and over to yourself in your head, but when it comes time to use it, it's completely gone.

This morning I got up rather late (explaining to myself that, as Turkey is two hours ahead of the UK, I was actually getting up early) and had breakfast in the hostel cafe, sitting on cushions around a little table. Breakfast was interesting, so I'm sorry but I have to detail it: feta, two kinds of olives (I thought one kind was huge blueberries and got very excited until I bit into it), cucumber, bread and apricot jam. Just as I was getting ready to go, they were carrying large TVs outside and attaching them to their mountings. When they turned them on, there were the All Blacks doing the haka! It was a live game against the Irish at Eden Park with what I think was Turkish commentary - funny to hear Turkish-Turkish-Turkish-Man of the match-Turkish-Heineken Cup-Turkish. I watched about ten minutes of that and then decided I should really get out and find the hotel where my tour starts. I wonder what the score was.

Again, I managed to find the hotel with only prior consultation of a map. Unfortunately, the tour had changed the hotel so I got directions from the first hotel that I didn't really listen to and then spent about half an hour wandering to the right hotel, situated three minutes walk from the first one.

Bags dropped, I set off for the turquoise sea I'd seen down one of the roads (had a revelation today - turquoise must come from Turkey, right?) and crossed over a bridge to what I thought at the time must be Asia, but looking back on it probably wasn't (Istanbul is situated on both Europe and Asian continents, but there are three parts to it, two in Europe). There were lots of fishermen throwing their lines off the bridge and coming up with multiple small iridescent fish, and people selling bait and bottles of iced water.

I wanted to go back to Sultanahmet to check out the Blue Mosque, and I was reasonably confident of my ability to get back because you can see the Blue Mosque with its six minarets from a long way off, as well as the Hagia Sofya beside it. Just look for the two gigantic Mosques, I thought to myself.

No one told me there were more than two gigantic mosques.

At one point I got four gigantic mosques all in my camera shot at the same time (though some were very tiny), and none of them were the Hagia Sofya or the Blue Mosque. Surely they don't need that many gigantic mosques - what about a few smaller ones? Must be to confuse lost tourists...
The actual Blue Mosque

I did find my way back (just follow the tram tracks...) and bought myself a turquoise scarf so I could go into the mosque. I took lots of pictures of the courtyard, with its marble paving and pillars around the edges and latticed fountain in the middle, and then found that the mosque had just closed for midday prayers. So I sat against a wooden door in the shade of the courtyard corridor roof and listened to the call to prayer from the minaret loudspeakers.

It's a haunting sound. The Blue Mosque call was answered by another mosque further away, and then another one beyond that, so there was a kind of layered echo fading into the distance. While prayers are on, they have a lecture in another building for tourists wanting to know more about the Mosque, telling you why it's called the Blue Mosque (blue tiles inside), showing pictures of other mosques including an open-air one, and translating the calligraphy. It was really interesting (and there was a teeny tiny kitten outside). I'd noticed before that mosques are decorated only with flowers or calligraphy or abstract patterns, and this is because they do not want to have any representation of anything that might be worshipped (no idols etc.), while flowers are supposed to remind you of the gardens of paradise.
Teeny tiny stray kitten outside the mosque

To get into the Blue Mosque as a tourist you pass through a small arched passageway, take a plastic bag for your shoes and make sure you're properly dressed. It seems it's more important to have your legs and arms covered than your head (as a woman), because lots of people were using the scarves provided as shawls or sarongs and not covering their heads. No one was yelling at them, so I assume this was acceptable (though I'm not sure about the girl using hers to do a sexy pose for her boyfriend's camera...).

Everything in the mosque draws you to look up. The domes stretch high above, coloured and patterned, and beautifully-wrought iron frames hold golden lights just above your head. I should mention at this point that my camera does not talk to my iPad, so I don't have any way of posting pictures at the moment. I plan to put them up when I get back! (now done)

When I was finished staring at the huge pillars and beautiful paintwork, I made my way down the hill to the sea, where about a dozen catamarans were having races. There was quite a bit of wind, and at times one side lifted out of the water as they sped along.

I walked a bit further and found many, many people sunbathing and a few happily caught in a very strong current that was carrying them parallel to shore. In one place a man had set up a frame of balloons and a gun, and I guess you could pay to shoot the balloons, or the ferry that was just beyond the balloon frame. Your choice. Later, I saw another man doing the same thing in front of what looked to be a major water pipeline. Possibly they weren't real guns.

We had our first important meeting as a tour group back at the hotel. There are quite a few Australians on the trip, and I'm sharing a room with a New Zealander. There are also a few Americans and English people, so i think it will be a good mix. We went out to dinner at a nice restaurant where I had Adana kebab and baklava (I've been walking past windows full of baklava all day going mmmmmmmm). I think I possibly haven't drunk enough water today because I have a headache, but hopefully that will go away with sleep...

I'm very much enjoying the air conditioning in my hotel room.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Airport Adventures

I'm on holiday! And you know what that means - lots and lots of posts, probably intermittently posted as I have access to Internet. I will try not to bore you with what I had for breakfast each day. Well, actually, I can't make any promises.

I had tickets for a flight from London City Airport this morning at an early-ish hour, but because City is in the city and not an hour or two out by train, I didn't have to get up until half past six. I was extremely pleased with this, especially when it only took me twenty-five minutes to get to the airport. You can't get anywhere in London in twenty-five minutes, but I did it. I got to the Docklands Light Rail (aka the slow robot roller coaster) stop and caught the DLR with time enough to get the front 'driving' seat, muttering to myself all the while 'driving the DLR, I'm going to be driving the DLR...'. Unfortunately I was facing the wrong way, so I was actually right at the back. Ah well.

Upon trying to check in, I found my flight had been cancelled due to high winds. I had been a bit dubious about the winds thrashing the trees around, but thought of all the flights I've taken out of Wellington airport and hoped it would be fine. My airline thought not, however, so I waited in line for forty minutes to change my tickets. Planes were flying out of Heathrow, so in the end I was put on a direct flight from Heathrow to Istanbul rather than the stopover-in-Zurich flight I'd been booked on.

Now I just had to get to Heathrow. The airline got us a black London cab, which took us all through central London and then out to Heathrow, which for anyone wanting to know is a hundred pound journey. I have a cancellation buddy who's been changed to the same flight as me, and when we were getting to the end we looked at each other and hoped we weren't expected to pay the fare. Luckily, no.

So I am currently sitting on a Turkish airlines flight wondering which movie to watch, or if I should brush up on my Turkish. I know there's a word 'Merhaba' (sp.) but I can't remember what it means...

Turkish airlines also has the longest safety video I've ever seen, and tells you to remove all sharp objects from your person when you use the emergency slide. I never thought about that... (and actually, what sharp objects would you have on you after going through security?).

To be continued....

Now I'm sitting in my hostel trying to figure out where the day's gone. It's 8.30 at night already and I'm sure I got out of bed only a few hours ago. I watched Another Earth on the plane (interesting, very atmospheric movie. You never actually get to see the other Earth. I think I liked it, though) and then Singing in the Rain, which I've seen parts of but never all the way through. I walked past the Blue Mosque and what I think might be the Aya Sofya to get to the hostel, which I found without really consulting a map - very proud. Next step: food.
Aya Sofya and watermelon

Update: had a Caesar salad for dinner at a nice outdoor cafe and there was a cat with HUGE eyes staring at people from under the table.

Monday, June 4, 2012


Much to report!

First, being a very long four day Queen's Jubilee weekend, my boiler has decided to not make hot water. This is ever so slightly frustrating. Service people may not come for a few days. I am considering taking a bath like they did in the centuries before hot water, by boiling it on the stove and carrying it up to the bath. I wonder how long it would take?

In other news, Queen Elizabeth II has now been on the British throne for sixty years! There are lots of things happening to celebrate, including street parties and parades and concerts and a gigantic picnic in Hyde Park. On Saturday we held a barbecue in our back garden where people dressed up in Hugo Boss suits and red heels and pearls (not all on one person) and toasted the Queen whilst surrounded by bunting. The weather actually turned warmish for a while, and the sun came out and everything. The barbecue fell over at one point (this is what happens when you let the boys handle the barbecue) and the fire came out and sat flaming on the ground, but we put it back in the barbecue and there were no other incidents apart from people over balancing and destroying the back fence.

Yesterday was the Thames Pageant, when a thousand boats sailed/motored/rowed seven miles down the Thames. I was very lucky to know a friend who works at the National Theatre, which was having a barbecue for all its staff and their guests on their many balconies. We got a nice spot looking over the river through some trees, and sat on our chairs with our Pimm's while the boats went past. First off was a boat with church bells on it (though you couldn't really hear them ringing for all the crowd noise), followed by the Gloriana, a beautiful rowed barge that looked like it could have come from the sixteenth century. Unfortunately I didn't get a good photo of the Gloriana, but here's one of a gondola rowed by Italian gondaliers. I'm not sure why they are dressed like smurfs - I saw quite a few people dressed like this so there may have been a particular reason behind it. Most likely not involving smurfs.

There were row boats and canoes and kayaks and an ancient waka that had come from a museum in the the Netherlands. I was very excited by the waka (Maori war canoe) and kept pointing and yelling 'waka!' but nobody really knew what I was talking about. The pointing meant I didn't get a very good picture, but here is the picture I did get:

Observe the umbrellas. It hadn't quite started to rain yet, but it was well on its way.

It wasn't long before the cheering increased and the royal barge came sliding into view. I clicked away madly (while watching the barge itself) and hoped I'd get some good pictures. I was pretty resigned to not seeing the Queen as I didn't think I could pick her out and didn't know what colour she was wearing, but the boat itself was very impressive - all done up in red and gold. It wasn't until I got home and looked at my pictures on the computer that I realised I'd caught a picture of the Queen! So here it is, my impressionist photo of the Queen and Prince Philip, and what I think might be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Kate is wearing red, the Queen is wearing white).

As the royal barge went past, the National Theatre pulled up banners and ribbons and giant screens, and Joey the puppet horse from War Horse the musical ran along the top of the building and reared. I did get a picture of this, but this coverage by TV is much better and gives you a sense of the incredible skill that gives life to Joey.

Your brain just doesn't process that it's not a real horse. Apparently they've introduced Joey to a real horse, and the real horse got pretty freaked out.

They'd closed the Thames barrier, which is like a dam that stops the tide coming in and allows them to control the depth and flow of the water. It was amazing to see the river so calm. I also heard a rumour that if anything bad happened, one plan was to open the barrier and then the royal barge would zoom right out of there.

I think that would make a good movie.

It was raining pretty hard by now, so we went inside and collected our chocolate brownies and watched the television footage. Then we remembered that the band from One Man, Two Guvnors was doing a gig outside, so we braved the downpour to see if they were still there. They were! Soaked to the skin, but still playing to the crowd of umbrellas and flags and people with their hair plastered to their scalps. They started into Hey Jude, and everyone was na-na-na-ing and having a great time in the freezing rain. The atmosphere was amazing.

(Their suits are actually maroon. That's how soaked they are.) So that's been my jubilee weekend so far. How has your weekend been?