My mother and William Turnbull, the author of this article, joined me for a week in Turkey while Claire was away, attending her mother’s wedding. I forced our swift schedule on them; they forced relief from The Budget on me. Willie offered to write this article. I gleefully accepted, but insisted that the title be “Gosh, Prayers and Broken Windows.” “Gosh” because Willie – who hadn’t, like me, been travelling for months – used the word (perhaps too often) to express his newfound wonder. The “Prayers and Broken Windows” had more to do with Willie being Scottish, and await his explanation.
Lying in bed, awakened by the familiar 6am call to prayer, I enjoyed the sun shining through the gap in the curtain and the fresh breeze coming in through the front window. It eased the rather tight feeling in my head and gave relief to a mouth that felt like a drain.
It then occurred to me that something was not quite right. The front window in our room at Homeros Pension could not be opened! I remembered practising my whirling dervish impersonation on arriving home last night, after sampling the local refreshments. I recalled, with some embarrassment, that I had lost my balance and fallen through the window, much to the amusement of my travelling companions! Thankfully we were on the ground floor!
We had arrived in Turkey five days earlier. Our purpose was to travel with Iain down the Aegean coast. Claire had secured time off for good behaviour, to attend her mother’s wedding back in Cape Town. On arrival at Istanbul airport we met Iain and after he had passed the motherly inspection, we went to pick up our hired car and set off to drive to our first destination, Çanakkale.
We arrived late in the evening, having driven through Bursa and Bandirma. We had stopped for our first taste of Turkish food at a rather plain looking roadside café. I had some reservations about Iain’s insistence on the backpacker approach to everything, but I was proved wrong: the food was delicious, prepared with style by people who cared about you enjoying your experience.
I had driven on the right hand side of the road without incident until our arrival at Çanakkale. Exhausted after a long day and a long flight, I forgot that when you drive on the “wrong” side of the road, you go around traffic circles the “wrong” way too. Fortunately nothing was coming the other way and once my passengers had stopped freaking out we arrived safely at our accommodation.
The Anzac Hotel is situated in the centre of Çanakkale, on the clock tower square. We spent our first evening in Turkey in a lovely little bar a stone’s throw away, listening to folk music and chilling.
The following day we crossed the Dardanelles to the Gallipoli Peninsula. The place was just crawling with history. In my experience, historical places incorporate sadness, laughter, amazement and wonder, and this was no different. The numbers of deaths, particularly from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs), stood out. So did a letter from a young Turkish soldier to his mother, ending with a plea not send any more underwear as he had enough, and the rise at Gallipoli of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, who survived being shot when a bullet hit his pocket watch.
We saw the remains of the trenches where soldiers from either side were facing each other with guns at a distance of as little, in some places, as six feet. A large number of men were “presumed” buried at the Islamic cemetery, because the actual whereabouts of their bodies is unknown. The reflections of General Birdwood, Commander of the ANZACs, were displayed on a marble plaque: “The Turkish soldier will give his life for his country without hesitation. He is a tough and brave soldier, but, when a ceasefire is called, he is gentle and humane. He will bandage the wound of his enemy and carry him on his back to save his life. Such a soldier hasn’t been seen before on this earth.”
The following day we visited Troy. My personal knowledge of Troy was limited to the story of the wooden horse and other stories from the Iliad. My travelling companions knew more than me but we were all amazed at the fact that the site contained artefacts from nine different Troys, ranging from 3000 BC to 600 AD. We hired Mustafa Atkina to guide us around the site and were astonished to learn he was the author of a book on Gallipoli that we had bought the day before. His knowledge and ability to relate the tales of the different eras of Troy were fascinating and thought provoking. We now possess two signed books, the one on Gallipoli, the other on Troy!
That evening we drove south along the Aegean to Behramkale, the site of ancient Assos. A rather tricky, winding single track road leads down to the harbour, where we decided to stay. The harbour is surrounded by bars and hotels, which all have panoramic views of the mountains, the sea and the Greek island of Lesbos. We walked around for hours totally amazed at the quiet, scenic beauty of the dusk falling before our eyes.
We spent the evening exploring the various bars, enjoying a beautiful seafood meal and learning the popularity of the Turkish drink raki. Iain and I were quite happy to stick to the “sip of raki, sip of water” method that our tutor indicated was the Turkish way. Heather, however, decided to show them the Zimbabwean way, which involved downing the raki in one go and having a sip of the water as an afterthought. The locals now have an entirely new respect for Zimbabwean women!
The next day we moved on to Bergama to explore the ancient city of Pergamum, and arrived in the evening at the lilac Anil Hotel. A walk round the town after supper showed us some hideous, garish rugs, carpets and furniture. I have to comment that not even my grandparents, noted for favouring unsightly furniture, would have entertained these tastes. We noticed that every bar and café was populated by men watching sport, playing cards or board games, or simply socialising. We wondered what the women did.
The following morning we visited the ancient city of Pergamum, where the highlight was the huge amphitheatre. The acoustics of this were truly amazing and one can only wonder at the atmosphere when the amphitheatre was filled for a performance. The views of the surrounding countryside were also magnificent, the ancient city having been built at a height and position that protected it from enemy attack.
Our next stop was a complete mistake. We were aiming for Selçuk, but our drive through the confusing streets of large and busy Izmir got us a bit lost and we ended up in the seaside town of Çeşme. Iain, who had slept most of the journey, was not very happy with driver and navigator, but after he had devoured dinner in the No Problem Restaurant and had the benefit of a full English breakfast the next day, appeared to have forgiven us. Traditional Turkish breakfasts involve cheese, olives and salad things. Iain never seemed to be happy until he could eat some “proper food” and excesses of the aforementioned articles were invariably left on his plate.
We met some interesting people in Çeşme, including a couple from Dundee, Scotland, who had come on holiday seven years ago and never returned! We chatted long into the night with some of the local youths who gave us their views on modern Turkey. It was such a pleasure to chat to these young people, whose views differed significantly to my own. They listened and laughed and agreed to disagree on a range of political and religious topics.
We spent the following morning visiting the Castle of St. Peter, with its splendid views of the Aegean Sea and huge yachts moored in the harbour, and then headed for Selçuk.
Selçuk’s Homeros Pension is a family run hotel. It has rustic rooms on one side of a narrow cobbled street, topped by a lovely rooftop terrace with views of the surrounding countryside. On the other side of the street there are additional bedrooms and a dining room. The owner’s mother, a lovely old woman with a charming smile, who wore Turkish breeches with the crotch almost at her ankles, had only one ‘English’ expression – “Ya wekom”, which was her reply to any expression of gratitude from a guest.
On our first full day in Selçuk we visited the ancient city of Ephesus. I had not realised that Turkey contained so many biblical sites and stories. Ephesus is widely recognised as being the resting place of St. John the Apostle and the Virgin Mary. John is supposed to have brought Mary to Ephesus, where he set about gathering support in the Aegean region for the new religion of Christianity. St. Paul is also known to have visited Ephesus in 53 AD and the story is contained in his letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament. Whilst the site does contain some reference to John and Mary, it is the times of the Roman Empire and Hadrian, in particular, that the city is famous for.
The site boasts a beautiful library and a huge amphitheatre, but for me the two most interesting places were the public toilets, within the baths, and the brothel. The ‘public’ toilets, for men only, covered a large open plan area, where affluent Romans could sit, side by side, doing their business (perhaps reading their daily tablets!) whilst discussing affairs of the day and the local gossip. The direction to the brothel was indicated by a suggestive carving on a paving stone, beside a carving of a purse, pointing left. Those without money to spare were directed right, toward the library.
After our visit to Ephesus we decided to visit the Selçuk Hamam, a Turkish bath. Having ascertained that they operated on a unisex basis we donned our wraps and headed for the large steam room. We were relaxing in the steam, on the central raised platform, when a couple of extremely large Turkish gentlemen grunted, indicating that one of us should come over. All of a sudden Heather and Iain were behind me, obviously meaning that I had ‘volunteered’ to go first. The first of the gentleman pulled and pushed me, none to gently, into a horizontal position on the slab and started to scrub me all over with a large long-handled scrubbing brush. Little rolls of brown and disgusting looking dead skin gathered all over my body. Then it was a bucket of water over the head and off to the next large gentleman and his slab. He soaped me down and performed a brisk, brutal massage, followed by a repeat of the old “bucket of water over the head”. Strangely I felt good and lay back to watch the other two having their turn.
Covered in fresh towels in the reception area, we drank the magnificent apple çay presented to us. I had become quite addicted to the refreshing tea during our travels and had not yet touched coffee.
In Selçuk, we spoke to a family of Kurds who owned a bar we visited a few times. They had some particularly sad stories of oppression, but believed Turkey was their home and that things would work out for them. One of the family told how, whilst doing his national service as a young man, he was punished for talking to his mother on the phone in Kurdish. The fact that she was unable to speak Turkish didn’t help his case.
After dinner one night we met a real mixed company in one of the bars, including an Irishman who had come out four years earlier for a six week job who was now married with two Turkish children, a couple of Turks and an Armenian. We drank a mixture from all cultures. As usual the Irishman would not accept that the Scots are the authority on whisky, and forced us to drink large Jameson’s whiskeys with our usual Scottish malts.
The walk back up the huge mountain (Iain said it was a slight incline) was difficult. So difficult that at one stage Iain tried to carry Heather, but she fell off his back onto the street! At about the same time I dropped to my knees and leaned forward. Iain said it looked as if I had converted to Islam and was praying. He also mentioned the strange experience of holding the hands of the two much older people, to lead them home. I’m sure that boy has hollow legs as he matched me drink for drink. I have to say, however, it was good to see him when he eventually surfaced the next day. I almost recovered just looking at him!
All during our stay, Iain and I had been giving Derviş, the owner of Homeros Pension, a hard time for no keeping enough beers in his honesty bar on the terrace. On our last night he emptied crates of beer into the large fridge, enough to keep an entire rugby team refreshed for a weekend tour. Iain mischievously decided that we should hide them, to make him think we had drunk them all. So we hid them behind a huge freezer on the lower terrace. Unfortunately the next morning we forgot all about it and only remembered when we were halfway to Afyon. Heather was not particularly impressed at having to be the one to phone him and tell him about the prank.
It took most of the day to drive from Selçuk to Afyon, known in the past as Afyonkarahisar (Black Fortress of Opium), which is inland in Western Anatolia. We could only spend one night there as we had to be back in Istanbul to meet Claire, who was arriving the following evening. After dusk we settled for a meal in the our hotel, the Çakmak Marble Hotel, followed by a visit to the hotel spa. We were seated at a table near the entrance to the hotel’s dining room but could hardly hear ourselves speak because of the loud music. Heather asked the waiter if they could turn it down a bit. She was completely mortified when the waiter pointed out the live band further down the room!
The next morning we took a stroll around the town and the first thing that we saw was the castle. I was awe struck. I am from a country that has many castles; Edinburgh and Stirling are two of the most formidable you will see. This castle, however, was straight from a Grimm fairy tale. The view from the town gives the impression that there is no way up to this castle. It is perched atop an enormous rock and there are sheer drops of hundreds of feet on three sides. It looked completely impregnable. What a sight! Getting closer we saw the seven hundred odd stairs leading up to it. I somewhat regretted that we did not have time to go up, but in a way I was also slightly relieved. It was some climb.
Some of the older parts of Afyon were like scenes from the Elizabethan era because the old Ottoman homes looked exactly like Tudor houses. From our vantage point on the hill above the town it was impossible to count all the mosques in the vicinity. They seemed to be everywhere, a forest of minarets projected from the city. Whilst wandering around the town we peered in a window at a woman baking. Immediately she appeared in the doorway with a sample for each of us and would not hear of payment.
After all too short a time, we had to make our way back to Istanbul to meet Claire. We did not realise that it was the end of the three day holiday period following Ramazan and that what seemed like half of Turkey would be making their way back to Istanbul. If my initial thoughts were that Turks are bad drivers, this confirmed it. There do not seem to be any rules and if you don’t keep up you’re out! After a scary drive witnessing the odd accident, we made it back to the ferry point at Yalova, only to find that the ferries were all fully booked. We had three options: spend the night where we were, drive round the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul, or try for another ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul, and take a taxi from there to meet Claire in Sultanahmet, on the European side. Heather prevailed with the third option, with which we disagreed at the time but soon realised was completely right. After enjoying a party atmosphere crossing, on this final day of the country’s most important religious holiday, the taxi ride was hair-raising. I’m glad I didn’t have to drive.
What a wonderful experience. And it wasn’t over yet. We were to spend a few days in Istanbul with Iain and Claire and the crew from the Spotted Cow in Farnham. Thank you to Iain and Claire for letting us share part of their travels, and thank you for letting me contribute. I now have a new respect for their ability to write these articles regularly.
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