Sunday, September 16, 2007

Carpet Sale Now On!

from John:


"Hello, can I help you?" We had just arrived in Erdirne after a tortuous border crossing from Bulgaria. After almost three hours in thirty degree heat passing through exit and entry formalities (immigration, customs, duty free, toilet break, immigration, customs) our bus had dropped us on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere with four others with the promise that another bus would come along and take us to Erdirne. Amazingly one did. And it dropped us exactly where we wanted to go. But now we were wandering up and down Cheap Hotel Street (there's one in every town) trying to decide whether to stay at the comfortable but more pricey hotel we had looked at or the cheaper rough and ready one (with bathroom cubicle stood Tardis-like in the corner of the room). A man approached us with this greeting. As hardened travellers we tend to ignore anyone who approaches us because in 95% of these cases the person has alterior motives. But the man was well-dressed and spoke English and we gave him the benefit of the doubt. We explained our dilemma and he told us that he was home from working in Germany but he knew of another cheap hotel and described to us where it was. And we said thank you and he left us. All very low-key but the incident has been repeated many times since our arrival here in Turkey. I love it.

We liked Erdirne - a small city with a handful of sights and not many foreign tourists, which invariably means that the locals are not too jaded or cynical with you. It's famous for an annual oil-wrestling festival which we missed, possibly........ On our first night a new supermarket had sponsored a band to perform in the central park - a Turkish Cat Stevens - and the place was packed with families munching bread rings and singing along to the songs. It was windy and we were glad of the cooling breeze. The next day we visited three mosques - the most significant being built by a famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, who believed it was his best work. It was a wonderful and peaceful building set in green gardens, with lots of impressive tilework and other detail. The main building was large and unusually bright thanks to row upon row of windows. We ate lunch in a tiny cafe with six tables and were looked on as novelty punters, lots of attention and smiles all round. We tucked into lamb and aubergine stew with a bowl of thick yoghurt and a baker's van of bread. This meal has been repeated on many occasions since but I'll never tire of it.

From Erdirne it's a short trip to Istanbul - and our first experience of wonderful Turkish buses: air-conditioned, spotlessly clean and cake and coffee served, mmm. Istanbul bus station has four levels and is the size of Chorlton. Thankfully it's on the metro line which connects with a modern tram so relatively easy to navigate into the heart of the old city where we stayed. Our guidebook tells us that the population is 16 million and the city famously straddles the Bosphorous, linking European Turkey wýth Asian Turkey. It is inevitably touristy but equally exciting and as it has spread over several hills there are great views everywhere. The seas are full of boats - ferries, tankers and cruise ships - and the shorelines are busy with commuters crossing back and forth. It did not feel too crowded or busy as we wandered around - many Istanbullus go to the coast for their hols - but there was still a bustle about the bazaars and a long queue for fish butties on the seafront. We spent a few days here, but saved the famous sights for our return in November when we hope to meet up with my mum and dad. Istanbul has a reputation of hard-selling carpet salesmen, but we only brushed with a couple, so we probably don't meet the right criteria as possible punters. Thank goodness.

One evening we were approached by a policeman with a machıne-gun strapped across his protective jacket. "Can I help you? Are you lost?" Poor guy was bored guarding a government building and we ended up chatting for a while, showing him our map of Turkey and where we planned to visit. It was fine until the subject switched to football. As we talked the snub nose of his gun kept jabbing me uncomfortably in the ribs. "United or City?" he asked. City, I replied. "Good. I can't stand Manchester United. I hate Rooney!" Me too, I said with some relief. I had visions of him gunning down United fans as they walked past.......

Our journey onwards south took us by ferry to the Asia side and then by bus to Iznik, known for it's blue tiles that adorn so many Ottoman mosques. It's a small town on a lake and is surrounded by fruit orchards. Our friendly hotel manager greeted us with tea and a quick run-down of the sights. He also suggested a walk out to the surrounding villages which we did on a couple of days. In the fierce sun we trudged, listing all the fruits we could see growing: peaches, apples, pears, grapes, figs, plums, cherries, olives (are they fruit??). At one village we bought cold drinks and engaged in mime with two old fellas who came out to chat to us. They fetched us grapes to eat and when an ice-cream delivery truck pulled up the driver gave us choc-ices. It was all spontaneous and gave us a great feeling. We walked down to the lakeside for sunset one weekend evening and the shore was full of picnicking Turks sat on actual carpets with samovars of tea bubbling away. Despite Turkish coffee being so famous (ly awful) it appears that Turks actually drink more tea than the English............and they grow it all themselves.

Originally our journey was to roughly follow the old Silk Route - a name for several historical trade routes from China across Central Asia to Europe. In the city of Bursa, home to the Ottoman dynasty, we came across a han, an urban caravanserai dedicated to the silk trade. Built in the 1400's its courtyard is now used by several teashops and a small mosque, but in the upper corridors are shops selling silk clothing. Bursa is a modern busy place with a few monuments - the tomb of Osman being the most significant. Osman was the founder of the Ottoman dynasty in the 14th century. The Ottomans were so named so that they would never ever be confused wıth the Osmonds. Bursa is also the centre of peach production and now is the time to eat them. They are bigger than cricket balls, sweet and juıcy and ever so cheap, so we have sampled a fair few. They are competing with Romania's cherries and Morocco's oranges as our favourite Fruit of the Journey.

We continued southward to a stop at Egirdir lake - a quiet town where we could swim in the clean waters and enjoy some fresh air. Our pension was run by a family of women, quite rare, who went out of their way to be helpful. Well, they bought a new backgammon set. From here we headed on to Fethiye with some intrepidation. The Turkish coast is awash with tourists in high season, although many people in Fethiye were asking why there were so few British this year....... We had been looking forward to our holiday with Isabell, Fiona, Dave and the children at a villa just inland at Uzumlu and it turned out to be just ideal for us. We really enjoyed being with them and playing with Alice, Megan and Tom in the pool. The weather has been very hot, so the opportunity to swim in a pool each day, read and eat well was gratefully seized. Each evening we could stargaze and look out for shooting stars and satellites overhead. We befriended the local butcher on our regular forays into the village for food and ice-lollies. You could see him smiling and rubbing his stomach in contentment each time we approached. And Isabell and Gayle on an evening stroll were invited into a garden by some women preparing savoury pancakes. On another day we took a boat trip along some of the rocky bays from Fethiye. The water was crystal clear and inviting to all but to yours truly, a reluctant swimmer when he can't put his feet to the floor.......... The fortnight passed too quickly for us and the goodbyes were terribly hard for us. It took a while for the melancholy to lift.

Our onward journey overnight brought us eastwards into the heart of Anatolia. We had a stop in a village below the ruins of Hattusa, the ancient capital of the Hittites. These people are mentioned in the Old Testament, but nothing more was known about them until an archeologist ın the last century unearthed what are believed to be the official archives, carved on tablets. These have been translated and recount the life and times of the Hittites including all the football results (Hittites 3 Assyrians 1 sounds like a storming match, marred only by trouble after the game) plus the oldest known peace treaty, which was drawn up with the Egyptians. Needless to say there's not much left of a 5,000 year-old city - but we spent a pleasant day wandering around the site which spreads out over a few hills.

Amasya, our next destination, is a small town set in a narrow valley along a river. Above on the cliffs of the hillside are a clutch of tombs cut out of the rock face. These were about as impressive as they sound (not much, eh?), but the town itself had a lively streetlife with much promenading along the riverside and wonderful Carte D'or ice-cream. When in Rome.........we promenaded and ate ice-cream. (Traditional Turkish ice-cream has an added ingredient to make it chewy and melt-resistant, but it's pretty awful. One day I saw a block of the stuff being chopped up with a meat cleaver - it took some effort.) A woman sitting next to Gayle started chatting under pressure from her mother-in-law who obviously wanted to know where we were from, were we married, what were our jobs - the standard questions. When Gayle asked why she chose not to wear a headscarf she explained that as a school teacher she is not allowed to wear one in school. But it was still the summer holidays! We failed to find cheap accomodation in Amasya. We spotted what looked like a cheap hotel, not in our guidebook, but turned around at the entrance when three Russian prostitutes emerged. Sometimes we criticise our Lonely Planet guidebook, but it often does the job required.

Our journey continued with a third nightbus over the rolling plains of Eastern Anatolia - at least this is how I imagine the landscape having never actually seen it!! There were some last-minute shenanigans at the bus station, unusual for Turkey. The man at the bus office changed our ticket for another bus company and seats on the back row. We acted outraged. Tea was offered. He tried to explain it was a better bus but after a bit of huffing and puffing and making a phone call he got us two seats in front of the back row. It killed some time. Tea was offered again. Eventually he shuttled us and two others in his beat-up car to a petrol station on the edge of town where we were eventually bundled aboard the passing bus. To Erzurum. Now, where's that??