Sunday, 21 June 2009

The Fortress of Europe, Istanbul


The Fortress of Europe (Rumeli Hisarı in Turkish) sits on the European shore of the Bosphorus just before the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. During our time living in Istanbul we have passed this impressive structure many times, both on the water and on the road which runs alongside it, but, until a couple of weeks ago, we hadn’t actually visited it. Now that we have, I can report that it is well worth a visit, and that the 3TL (about £1.20) entrance fee is an absolute bargain!

The huge fortress was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 as his first step in the conquest of Constantinople. He chose the site as it is at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus and directly opposite the Fortress of Asia (Anadolu Hisarı) which had been built on the Asian shore by Sultan Beyazit I in 1391. By controlling this vital Byzantine supply route, Mehmet was able to lay siege to the city and prevent its re-supply by sea.

Mehmet planned the layout of the fortress himself, but wanted the construction to be completed quickly. To this end, he took charge of the walls and assigned responsibility for the building of each of the three main towers to his three viziers. He warned them that they would be executed if the work was not finished on time. Unsurprisingly, they succeeded in their task and, using 30,000 men, this major engineering feat was completed in just four months!

Following the completion of the fortress, the fall of Constantinople took less than a year, after which time the fortification was no longer needed for its original purpose. In subsequent years, it was used as a Bosphorus toll booth, a barracks, and a prison, before falling into disrepair. It was restored in the 1950s, and today the structure is a majestic reminder of its military past.

Once you’ve paid your entrance fee, you are free to wander at will. The grounds within the fortress are lush with trees, flowering shrubs, and scented ground-cover plants, offering a real oasis of calm away from the hustle and bustle of the city. There are plenty of benches provided to sit and read or just contemplate your surroundings. If you’re feeling energetic, you can clamber up steep, uneven stairs and access the ramparts and towers, from where you will get fantastic views of the Bosphorus. There are no barriers or hand-rails anywhere, so watch your step as you are climbing!

Being slightly off the beaten track, the Fortress of Europe never gets overrun with visitors, so take your time and marvel at this magnificent structure.

TOP TIP – Make a visit here part of a more extensive exploration of the European shore of the Bosphorus, as described here:
http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2009/06/my-favourite-bus-service-in-istanbul.html

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

My Favourite Bus Service in Istanbul – Route 25E - The European Shore of the Bosphorus


My ‘favourite bus service’ – this is a real contradiction as, of all the ways of getting around Istanbul, the bus would usually be my choice of last resort; the transport to use when there is simply no alternative. Generally speaking, Istanbul buses are incredibly overcrowded, hot, and uncomfortable. Passengers are jammed on like sardines in a can, and, just when you think you are going to suffocate from all the smelly bodies crushed around you, the bus stops and yet more people are shoe-horned on! So, when I talk about my ‘favourite bus service’, it is tempered with reservations.

Having said this, route 25E is a great ride, especially if you time it when it’s not too busy. Get on at the start, find a seat by an open window on the right-hand side of the bus (as you face forward), and enjoy the journey.

The 25E starts from Kabataş and follows the European shore of the Bosphorus right up to Sarıyer. It gives you a whole different perspective than the one you get from the water. It is a frequent service (every 15 minutes), so hop on and off and explore some of the pretty villages along this shore. Alternatively, stay on until the end, look around the attractive fishing town of Sarıyer, and then walk back. Apart from the most dedicated hikers, it is not really feasible to make the entire journey back on foot to Kabataş in one day, especially if you want to stop and enjoy the sights along the way. It is a distance of about 13 miles, so, if you’re in town for a while, do it over a couple of days.

So, let’s begin at Sarıyer and work our way back. As I said, Sarıyer is a fishing town with a long history. Even today, many of the local inhabitants make their living from fishing, either as crew on one of the many boats in the harbour, or by working in one of the fish restaurants for which the town is famous.

From Sarıyer, walk south along the pathway which borders the Bosphorus, and the next village you will come to is Büyükdere, where, if time permits, you should visit the Sadberk (unfortunate name in English!) Hanım Museum (open every day except Wednesday, 10.30am – 6pm). This museum is housed in two typical wooden yalıs, or summer houses, which belonged to the wealthy Koç family. The museum is named after Sadberk Hanım, the wife of the industrialist Vehbi Koç, and is home to an eclectic collection of items that she accumulated over the years. Some of these are displayed in a series of tableaux giving a fascinating insight into 19th century Ottoman society.

Continuing south from Büyükdere, you will pass several impressive buildings which were the summer residences of 19th century European ambassadors to Turkey. Some of these are still owned by foreign governments, as indicated by the array of non-Turkish flags fluttering in the breeze.

The next place you will come to is Tarabya, a pretty little fishing village set around an attractive cove, marred only by a huge concrete carbuncle at its entrance. For the whole time we have lived in Istanbul this has been a massive empty shell – a real blot on the landscape, but, at the time of writing, work has begun to finish it and turn it in to some sort of shopping and office complex. Hopefully, it will be less of an eyesore when it is completed.

Tarabya was originally settled by wealthy Greeks in the 18th century who called the place Therapeia because of its healthy climate. It is still an exclusive resort with up-market restaurants and expensive boats moored in the harbour.

South of Tarabya Bay, you continue your pleasant walk by the shores of the Bosphorus, stopping to marvel at the fishermen who, here, do not restrict themselves to rod and line, but instead use lead weights and large, four-pronged hooks attached to the end of lengths of thick twine which they throw into the fast-running waters to catch bass. They catch a glimpse of a fish and throw the line just ahead of it; the fish is attracted to the shiny lead weight as it looks for all the world like a minnow, which would make up its normal daily diet. The bass go to swallow the weight and are caught with the hook and hauled in. Other fishermen don wetsuits, masks and snorkels and lie very still in the fast-moving shallows. When they see a bass, they use a harpoon gun to catch their prey. Both methods appear to be very successful, if a little gory!

As you carry on, be careful not to miss the Huber Köşkü, a very ornate 19th century yalı, complete with towers, now owned by the government and used to entertain foreign dignitaries.

Throughout your walk, notice at different points along the route how the road has been constructed in front of houses and yalıs which once enjoyed a position fronting on to the Bosphorus, complete with jetty and mooring for a boat. These houses are now left with a small stretch of stagnant water and a busy road as their view, along with a consequential drop in the value of their property. As a result, many of these once-splendid summer houses have been left to wrack and ruin. One of the saddest sights is a hotel struggling to keep going, with its pool and restaurant, which would have overlooked the Bosphorus, now affording a vista of lorries, buses, and cars, accompanied by the associated noise and pollution.

Continuing southwards, you will come to Yeniköy, which is best viewed from the water as, here, thankfully, the road has been built behind the handsome 19th century villas which define the waterfront of the village.

Next, you will arrive at İstinye Bay, a huge natural cove and the largest inlet on the Bosphorus, home to a still thriving fishing fleet as well as countless pleasure craft. Having walked around the bay, you will come to Emirgan Park, well worth a stop, especially in the spring when it is full of stunningly beautiful tulips, as written about here:

If you are doing this walk over two days, now would be a good time to hop on a bus back to Kabataş and plan to resume at the same place another day.

From Emirgan, it is a pleasant walk along the banks of the Bosphorus to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. Just past the bridge is the entrance to the Fortress of Europe, which is a ‘must see’ (see separate posting). Having spent an hour or two here, continue on to the fashionable (and expensive!) village of Bebek, famous for its upmarket restaurants and waterfront cafés. Here, you will find a branch of Makro, one of the very few places to purchase bacon and ham in Istanbul, but you will need a second mortgage to do so!

Also in Bebek is the Egyptian consulate, a gorgeous Art Nouveau palace built by Abbas Hilmi II, the last khedive of Egypt. I have seen photographs of this building, but, unfortunately, for the time we have lived in Istanbul it has been shrouded in scaffolding and safety netting as it undergoes a major renovation, so I have been unable to see it for real!

The next place you will come to is Arnavutköy, a village boasting a number of ornate Ottoman-era wooden houses.

From Arnavutköy, continue southwards to the Bosphorus Bridge, the first bridge to be built across the straits which divide the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Also known as Atatürk Bridge, it was finished, symbolically, on 29th October 1973, the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of the Turkish Republic.

Just beyond the bridge is the suburb of Ortaköy, which, as well as being home to the very attractive waterfront Mecidiye Mosque, is a trendy place, both during the day and at night. There are lots of craft shops, bars and cafés where locals like to gather to see and be seen. Ortaköy is also famous for its ‘kumpir’, jacket potatoes crammed full of assorted fillings – Russian salad, cheese, beetroot, red cabbage, coleslaw, diced turkey ‘ham’, olives, etc., etc.. They are widely available all over the city, but they are the speciality here in Ortaköy, and there are numerous sellers to choose from. For me, I would prefer the jacket potato without all of the messy stuff served with it, but whenever I have tried to order anything other than ‘full kumpir’ I tend to be looked at as if I’ve got two heads!! The same thing happens if I do manage to get a kumpir just with butter and cheese and then proceed to eat the whole thing including the skin (the best bit if you ask me!) – Turkish people never eat the skin!

From Ortaköy, you might be as well to catch a bus back to Kabataş as all of the attractions along the route now are best viewed from the water. If you do walk, you will be walking on a pavement next to a busy road with high walls to your left. You will catch the occasional glimpse of opulence as you pass the gateways to the Çırağnan Sarayı, formerly an imperial residence, and the Bosphorus Palace, both now 5-star waterfront hotels. You will also skirt the outer walls of Dolmabahçe Palace where you can pause to photograph the motionless soldiers whose duty is to guard the side entrance.

Returning to Kabataş, you can be satisfied that you have indeed explored the European shore of the Bosphorus.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Field Trips for EFL Students


Obviously, if you are teaching EFL in an English speaking country, then the opportunities for your students to use their newly acquired language skills are endless. Every time they leave the classroom they have the chance to practise – whether that is when shopping, eating out, travelling on public transport, socialising with fellow students of different nationalities, eavesdropping on the conversations of others, or simply walking the streets. The teacher can turn such experiences into more formal learning activities by organising field trips to the supermarket, a café, or to the cinema, for example.

The situation for students studying EFL in their own countries, however, is very different. Their classes are monolingual, so the temptation is always to lapse into their native tongue with their classmates. Outside of the classroom, students have little opportunity to speak English. As an EFL teacher in this situation, you have to be a little more creative, but if, like me, you are fortunate enough to live and teach in a place which attracts large numbers of English-speaking tourists, then you have a solution.

Taking groups of students to a popular tourist attraction and getting them to speak to tourists is a great confidence booster for them, but to get the most benefit requires some preparation. It is not enough merely to accost total strangers in the street; you need to have a plan.

For lower level students, having a questionnaire is always a good idea. That way they know what they are going to say to people, and are less likely to get tongue-tied and nervous. Writing the questionnaire is a useful classroom activity in itself, and the students can practise on each other, or on students in other classes, before venturing outside. Subjects for the questionnaires should be innocuous – reasons for visit, length of stay, country of origin, etc. Controversial topics, like religion and politics, should be avoided.

For more advanced students, general conversations with tourists should be encouraged. To this end, a range of open-ended questions should be explored and practised in class beforehand. Again, subjects which may cause controversy should be discouraged. When rehearsing the use of these questions, it is important that the teacher highlights any cultural differences which may arise between the students and the people they are talking to; which questions are inappropriate and why?; what misunderstandings could cause problems?.

Whichever level students you are dealing with, you need to role-play conversation openers before you let them loose on the public. Get them to write possible introductions and try them out on each other in front of the group. Encourage feedback – what works and what doesn’t work? I live and work in Istanbul, where tourists are often approached by strangers in the street who invariably want to sell them something. Consequently, they walk around constantly on their guard, ready to rebuff the advances of anyone who comes near. So, in the preparation for a field trip, we have to discuss ways to overcome that suspicion. It is also important to tell students not to be disheartened if they suffer rejection. This makes for a fun-filled activity with some students playing themselves, earnestly trying to engage someone in conversation, and others acting the reluctant tourist!

Having prepared thoroughly, you can launch your students onto the public! If possible, choose a location with plenty of seating – somewhere where tourists are likely to take a breather to consult their maps and guidebooks. In Istanbul, we have the perfect location – an area between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, where there are plenty of public benches.

In my experience, students are always nervous at first, unwilling to make that first move, but, once they have and have had their first successful encounter, particularly if it is with a native speaker, then they are delighted and want to do it again and again. Field trips such as this have, in my time in Istanbul, given the students the confidence to repeat the exercise at a later date without me being present. They have also led to friendships being made with tourists agreeing to maintain contact with students via Skype after they return home. To those people, and to all those who have had conversations with my students in Istanbul over the last two years, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

And to all tourists in foreign parts in the future, if a student approaches you and asks you to spare five minutes to help them practise their English, then please say yes. If they try to sell you a carpet, you have my permission to be as rude as you need to be to get rid of them!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

The Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars, Istanbul

Probably not near the top of many tourists’ ‘to do’ list when in Istanbul, the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars is, nevertheless, well worth a visit; whether you arrive at it by walking up the western shore of the Golden Horn from Eminönü, at the end of a walk from Chora Church (as described here: http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2009/05/walk-from-ulubatl-to-golden-horn-taking.html), or by ferry to Fener (the same service used to visit the Rahmi M Koç Museum, as explained here: http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2009/05/rahmi-m-koc-museum.html)

However you approach it, the church is a striking sight. Looking for all the world like many a European-style, gothic church, it sits incongruously on the shore of the Golden Horn, seemingly in splendid isolation so that it can be better appreciated in the crowded and frenetic city of Istanbul. Of course, I am neglecting to mention the very busy road which runs in front of the church, between it and the water, but it really is possible to ignore it. Believe me – visit in the spring when the daffodils are in full bloom all around it, and you could be in an English county town or a pleasant, green Austrian valley.

There is, though, more to the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars than its unusual appearance in its Istanbul location. On closer investigation, you learn that the entire church and its contents are made of cast iron! It was made in pieces in Vienna, Austria in 1871. These pieces were then transported on 100 barges along the Danube, across the Black Sea, and down the Bosphorus to Istanbul, where they were put together like a giant Meccano set. An unusual idea and one which, you could argue, was not really necessary! However, the result is stunning. In the beautiful interior, you feel compelled to touch the pillars, pedestals, and other fixtures and fittings, and are genuinely surprised that they feel cold – the ageing process has given them the appearance of old, weathered wood which you expect to be warm.

The church was built to serve as the main church of the Bulgarian community living in Istanbul, and is still owned by their descendants today. There is no entrance fee to visit, but please put something in the collection box to help with the upkeep of this beautiful and unique church.

Monday, 25 May 2009

A Walk from Ulubatlı to the Golden Horn taking in the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, Istanbul


One of the most impressive sites in Istanbul is, for me, not the better-known Aya Sofia or Blue Mosque, but, rather, the Church of St. Saviour in Chora (Kariye Müzesi in Turkish), home to some of the very best Byzantine mosaics and frescoes anywhere. It is not the easiest place to get to, so tends to be missed by tourists other than those on organised tours, whose coaches drop them off a couple of streets away and picks them up again an hour later. Of course, you could just hail a cab and get taken to the door, but a much more interesting thing to do is to walk there, taking in some of the surrounding area and local colour.

Take the Aksaray – Havaaları (Atatürk Airport) tram line and alight at Topkapı-Ulubatlı. You will emerge from the tram station next to a section of the city’s ancient walls, which you should follow northwards. These walls were built by Theodosius II in 413AD. The choice is yours – you can either walk inside the walls, in which case you will be walking through a less than salubrious area of Istanbul which has been earmarked for redevelopment, but, which, at the time of writing is something of a half-demolished shanty town with grubby children and scrawny dogs running around, or you can walk outside the walls on the grass. Either way, you should walk uphill for about 15 minutes until you reach Edirnekapı, one of the gates in the Theodosian walls. You will know you’ve arrived by the number of minibuses congregated there.

To your right, you will see the Mihrimmah Sultan Mosque, commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent’s favourite daughter, Mihrimah and built in the 1560s. At the time of writing, the mosque was closed for major restoration work, so I am unable to verify what I am about to say, but a student told me that the mosque is noted for its many stained glass windows and for the fact that it occupies the highest point in Istanbul.

From here, continue along the inside of the walls towards the Golden Horn. You will cross a busy road, Fevzi Paşa Caddesi, after which you should take the second road on the right, Kariye Bostanı Sokak, following signs pointing the way to the Kariye Müzesi (Chora Church). At the bottom of the hill, turn left and you will see the church, fronted by an attractive square filled with cafes and souvenir stands.

The entrance fee is 15TL, but is well worth paying, especially if you manage to time your visit so that it doesn’t coincide with one by several coach-loads of tourists from one of the cruise ships which will invariably be moored on the Bosphorus. The museum is open from 9am to 4.30pm every day except Wednesday.

There has been a church on this site since before the city walls were built, but the building you see now mainly dates from the 11th century and is not particularly remarkable, but, once you pass through the door and catch your first glimpse of the interior, you will be blown away by the beauty both of the famous mosaics and the lesser-known, but equally striking, frescoes. Virtually all of the interior decoration dates from 1312. The mosaics depict the lives of Jesus and his mother, Mary, and are absolutely stunning. The frescoes are thought to have been painted by the same masters who created the mosaics, although no-one knows for sure. Whoever was responsible, the paintings are indeed remarkable, with a sophisticated use of perspective and exquisitely drawn facial expressions to rival those painted by the Italian master, Giotto. For several hundred years, whilst the building was being used as a mosque, the mosaics and frescoes were covered with layers of plaster and whitewash. When these layers were carefully removed between 1948 and 1959, the paintings and mosaics underneath were surprisingly intact, giving us the spectacle which we can all enjoy today. Make sure you take the time to savour this amazing collection of art.

On leaving the Chora Church, it may be time to stop for a bite to eat. Choose between a snack at the Kariye Pembe Köşk, or splash out on a full-blown (but expensive) lunch at the Asitane restaurant next door. I haven’t sampled the food there, but my students tell me that it is amongst the best in Istanbul.

To continue your walk to the Golden Horn, take the first street on the left past the Kariye Oteli. This is Neşler Sokak. Turn left at the bottom of the hill and then continue along Fethiye Caddesi for around 30 minutes. This walk is largely uphill through an interesting shopping district with plenty of local character to keep your interest. At the top of the hill, the road bends around to the right and becomes Marıyasizade Caddesi. Follow this, past more unusual little shops, for about 10 minutes until you come to a police station where you should turn left on to Sultan Selim Caddesi.

You will pass the huge, open Roman Cistern of Aspar on your left, built in about 420AD and now used as a sports ground. Just beyond this, is the Sultan Selim Mosque, well-used as a place of worship by locals, but with little of interest to tourists. Its best feature is the fantastic view down to the Golden Horn which you get from the lawn in front of the mosque. You do, however, get an equally good view from the road which skirts the outer perimeter of the mosque’s grounds.

From here, having taken in the panorama, giving precise instructions as to which road to take becomes a little difficult as there are many narrow, cobbled streets with closely built houses on either side. What you need to do is keep going in roughly a straight line downwards! You are aiming to reach the water of the Golden Horn. The streets are very steep in parts, so make sure that you’re wearing sensible footwear!

If all goes according to plan, you should reach level ground and be in sight of the water to your left. At this point, it is up to you, but I suggest a short walk further up the Golden Horn to the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars. This is well worth a visit, and is described in a separate posting. Alternatively, if you time it correctly (5 minutes past the hour), you could get on the ferry at Fener (very close to where you are), cross to Hasköy on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn, and visit the superb Rahmi M Koç Museum, which is also described in a separate posting - http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2009/05/rahmi-m-koc-museum.html.

Whichever you choose, I hope you enjoy your day in this less famous district of Istanbul. Please feel free to add your comments!

Bodrum, Turkey



We never intended to include Bodrum in the itinerary for our round-Turkey trip last summer. As I have said in an earlier posting (http://http://worldteacher-andrea.blogspot.com/2009/05/hisaronu-guilty-pleasure.html), I associate the place with young British holidaymakers looking for sun, sea, and sex, washed down with plenty of alcohol; as such, it is a place we would normally avoid like the plague. However, when planning our tour, we really liked the idea of leaving Istanbul by train and returning by sea, a wish that could only be realised by taking he twice-weekly service from Bodrum. With this in mind, we made our travel arrangements, including a one-day, two-night stay in the town as our ferry from Rhodes did not match up with the boat to Istanbul on the same day. In the event, the service to Istanbul was cancelled, so we were unable to return home by sea, but, by the time that happened, all of our other arrangements were in place, so we were stuck with our time in Bodrum.

We hoped that the resort would exceed our expectations (remember Hisarönü?), but, on this occasion, we were to be disappointed! The whole place had a scruffy, untidy air with litter everywhere. The beaches, such as there were, were man-made and not at all attractive, and, yet, they were, like every other part of the town, extremely crowded, largely with lobster-red, beer-swilling, British and German tourists. Eating out on the two evenings that we were there, was, we found, an expensive business compared with elsewhere in Turkey, and the food was, at best, mediocre.

Bodrum’s only saving grace, well worth its 10TL entrance fee, was the castle perched above the town and affording spectacular views of it and the surrounding area. It was built by the Knights of St. John from 1406 to 1522 on top of the remains of Turkish and Byzantine fortresses. It is billed as the largest monument constructed by the English outside of England, and is certainly an impressive structure. It was relinquished to the Turks on January 5th, 1523 after the conquest of Rhodes. The castle is well-preserved. Parts of it house interesting collections including an underwater museum. The gardens within the castle walls are also well-maintained, and offer a pleasant, shady place to rest a while away from the searing heat.

So, to sum up, if you are in Bodrum, don’t miss the castle, but, if you weren’t planning to be there, then don’t make a special journey!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Jeep Safari, Hisarönü

I have already posted about our stay in Hisarönü, and have reluctantly admitted that we enjoyed it far more than we thought we would, given first impressions. However, there was one day during our two-week stay in the resort which lived up to our worst expectations – that was the day we joined a jeep safari!

Whenever we stay anywhere, we like to get out and about and see the local area, whether by hiring a car, or by booking ourselves on to one or two organised tours. Hisarönü was no exception, so, on our second day in town, before really talking to any of our fellow guests about available trips, we went around most of the numerous agents and chose some tours to go on. Many of the agents (in fact, probably all of them) were offering a jeep safari, promising a ‘wet ‘n’ wild’ day of water fights and other pre-arranged soakings at intervals whilst being driven around the countryside and taken to one or two places of interest. These agents promoted the ‘fun’ aspect of these trips, and advised guests to arm themselves with plenty of water, and something to deliver it with, before departure. Absolutely not our thing at all!! Nevertheless, we really wanted to see some of the local history and culture, so we were really pleased when we found the one agent in town who was offering ‘a different jeep safari’ – no loud music, no water, no organised jollity – just a pleasant drive through stunning scenery, with visits to the ancient site of Tlos, the natural wonder which is Saklikent Gorge, and a lunch on a platform over the river included. It sounded perfect, so, having obtained assurances from the agent that the blurb on his boards was indeed true, we booked it.

Later that night at the hotel, we mentioned the tours that we had booked to a regular visitor to Hisarönü, who told us that there was no such thing as a jeep safari without water and that we would, after all, spend the day soaking wet and loving every minute of it!! We were slightly unsettled by this news, but put it to the back of our minds. After all, the agent had promised us, hadn’t he?

Well, it turned out that our fellow hotel guest was right, and our agent was guilty of the most blatant case of misrepresentation ever! On the morning of the safari, we were collected from our hotel early in an open Landrover which already had six passengers occupying most of the available space. We were then driven the short distance into town, where we parked up at the roadside and waited for the rest of our ‘convoy’ to arrive. Despite the early hour, the sun was already hot, and we applied more sunscreen while we waited. When our convoy numbered approximately 20 vehicles, we left town, passing several other equally large convoys which were still parked up and waiting, filled with mainly sunburned British holidaymakers grinning inanely or being raucous with no regard for still-sleeping residents.

Once out of town, we whizzed through the Fethiye area, with no time or opportunity to photograph the rock tombs which we glimpsed as we sped past them at breakneck speed. About 15km on the other side of Fethiye, we turned off the main road and our speed slowed somewhat as we began to climb into the hills. We barely had time to register the beauty of the surrounding countryside, however, before we were surprised (understatement of the year!) by our first drenching of the day. A teenager with a large and powerful hosepipe was standing in the entrance to a garden and caught us full force in the back as we passed (we were side on to the road). We weren’t just a little damp – we were absolutely soaked and not best pleased! We were both holding cameras at the time which we quickly put away, but then the question was what to do with our bag as the floor of the Landrover was awash. And so the pattern was set for a horrible day where we were incessantly bombarded from the verges, driven under strategically placed, purpose-built dowsing devices, or attacked by fellow holiday-makers with water pistols, pump-action water machine guns, or improvised water bombs. It was a truly grim experience! We were barely allowed to dry off all day, and spent the entire time squelching around in wet clothes feeling miserable and uncomfortable.

We did pass Tlos, but didn’t stop, and could hardly enjoy the view as we were being sprayed with water at the time. Subsequent stops at a trout farm and at Saklikent Gorge were equally unsatisfactory, as was lunch which, rather than being a pleasant relaxed affair by the river, was actually taken army-catering style at long tables under a makeshift canvas awning. The absolute low-light of the day was a visit to ‘therapeutic mud baths’ – in reality, a shallow stretch of river where most of our convoy were persuaded to strip off and cover themselves from head to foot in foul smelling mud from the river bank. They were then encouraged to let the mud dry on their bodies so that it could be washed away by yet more high pressure hoses conveniently supplied by locals as we drove through rural villages!

As daylight faded and the temperature dropped, we pulled in to a service station where the jeeps were washed, and where we were forced to wait around for over an hour fending off offers to buy photographs taken during the day as a memento of our trip.

The entire tour was aimed at the lowest common denominator of Brits abroad – lots of swearing, water fights, and throwing mud around. I’m well aware that many people would find the whole experience a great deal of fun, and would probably consider us to be a pair of old misery guts, but it is just not our idea of a good day out! What’s more, I hate the idea that this is the only impression that many Turks have of British holidaymakers, and so assume that we all behave in the same way!

Rhodes Town

We took a couple of days out of our tour around Turkey last summer in order to visit Rhodes. Mark’s tourist visa for Turkey was due to expire, a fact which meant that he had to leave the country, even if only briefly. The obvious choice was to nip over to a Greek island, many of which are closer to the coast of mainland Turkey than they are to Greece. Mark had visited Rhodes before, but only once, and it had been many years previously. I had never been there. The ferry services to Rhodes tied in with our planned tour, so we took the decision to go there. We crossed from Fethiye and returned to Bodrum, having spent a very enjoyable two nights and three days on the island.

We confined our visit to Rhodes Town itself, an old walled city with UNESCO World Heritage status. Our hotel was within the walls, what turned out to be an easy walk from the ferry terminal, once we’d navigated our way through a warren of narrow cobbled streets. We spent the majority of our time in Rhodes Town walking – exploring every corner of this amazing, historic city. When we had walked for hours and needed a sit down, we stopped for a drink in a pavement café or, on one occasion, hopped on the dotto train, which took us out of town to the top of the hill behind it, affording us stunning views of the city, the sea, and glimpses of distant land masses.

The Palace of the Grand Masters was a highlight of our trip with its stunning mosaics and grand rooms. We were grateful to spend time in its cool interior as respite from the searing heat of the day. Another place worth a visit was Our Lady of the Castle Church – be careful not to miss the doorway leading outside to a courtyard where there are remains of intricately designed pavements.

The recently restored Hospice of St. Catherine should also be on you ‘to-do’ list. At the time we visited, it was not well advertised, and we happened on it by chance. There was no entrance fee, and we were free to wander the rooms and marvel at the cobbled (outside) and mosaic (inside) floors, supervised by just one elderly, very sleepy security guard.

Rhodes Town is a super place just to roam around – there are photo opportunities around every corner. When we had explored almost every inch of the interior of the city, we went through a gateway in the inner wall, and walked inside the moat around the entire circumference of the walls. It was a very pleasant walk with far fewer people than we had seen inside the walls, and plenty of chances to sit on a grassy bank to enjoy the sunshine.

The harbour area of Rhodes Town was also very picturesque. A good way to explore it is to take a boat trip.

Having explored all day, and become extremely footsore, it was fantastic to be able to eat wonderful food (pork was a particular treat after a year of a pork-free diet in Turkey!), drink sublime wine, and listen to charming Greek music in the fabulous garden setting of a restaurant we came upon close to our hotel.

All in all, a superb destination, which I would definitely recommend.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Tulips from Istanbul

When it’s spring again
We’ll bring again
Tulips from Istanbul ….

Doesn’t sound quite right? Well, perhaps it should. Maybe dear old Max Bygraves misled us for all those years by suggesting that these beautiful spring flowers originated in Amsterdam.

The truth is that tulips originally grew wild on the Asian steppes in modern-day Mongolia, and were brought to Europe courtesy of the Ottoman Empire. They were given the name tulabend ehich means ‘turban’. Our name for the flower is a corruption of this word.

Tulips were first propagated in large quantities in Holland, but were later reintroduced to Turkey by Mehmet IV (1648 – 1687). The reign of his son, Ahmet III, is known as the Tulip Period because of his fascination with the flowers. He used to hold tulip festivals in Topkapı Palace on moonlit nights, among a profusion of tulip-filled vases and caged canaries. Tulip designs can be seen on Iznik tiles dating from this period, and the flower is still an important national symbol today.

One of the most colourful events of the Istanbul year is the Tulip Festival, which takes place annually from late April until early May. Tulips in myriad colours and varieties can be seen throughout the city – on traffic islands, along the verges, in the parks, and by the sea. There is usually a spectacular display in Sultanahmet, especially in the garden which lies between Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Gülhane Park, next to Topkapı Palace, is another place where you can see these beautiful bulbs. However, if you are in Istanbul at the right time of year, then the very best place to see tulips is Emirgan Park, which sits on the western shore of the Bosphorus. It is not the easiest place to get to, but it is well worth the effort. Take the 25E bus from Kabataş, and get off just outside the gates to the park. Walk up the hill and spend a pleasant few hours enjoying the vibrant colours and floral perfume of the park.

TOP TIP – go to Emirgan early in the day. It is a very popular picnicking place for Turks, who have a nasty habit of leaving all of the debris of their lunch on the ground for somebody else to clear up (this is despite numerous waste bins situated throughout the park!). The overall effect is to turn a pristine area into an eyesore resembling a landfill site

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Hisarönü – Guilty Pleasure

An English resort in the hills behind Fethiye in southern Turkey. A two-mile long ‘strip’ of English pubs offering a nightly diet of karaoke and Elvis impersonators; ‘greasy spoon’ cafés serving full English breakfast; wall-to-wall premiership football on big screen TVs; Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Italian, fish ‘n’ chip, ‘everything-but-Turkish’, restaurants; English newspapers on every corner; ‘Azda’ and ‘Morison’ supermarkets to stock up on those holiday essentials like baked beans, large bags of crisps, and cans of lager! This is what awaited us when we booked a very cheap two-week hotel stay in Hisarönü in August 2008.

Not being people who have ever been big on cheap package holidays to the sun, we had never heard of Hisarönü. I realise now that it is a well-known destination for those looking for a Blackpool or a Brighton, but with guaranteed hot weather. It’s the sort of place that we have studiously avoided in the past, just because it is not what we are looking for in a holiday. We tend to choose holiday destinations which are ‘off the beaten track’ – places where we are unlikely to hear cries of, “Be quiet, Kylie”, and, “Harrison, leave your brother alone”, or, “Go get your Dad another beer, Sylvana!” Does this make us snobs? Some would think so. Do we look down on those who enjoy this sort of holiday? Not at all, but we have never thought it ‘our cup of tea’. I guess that we have always been grateful that places like Benidorm (showing my age now!), Aya Napa, and Bodrum existed, if only so that we knew where not to go on holiday! You see, I mentioned Bodrum there. In my mind, I associated Bodrum with the Brits in Turkey – planeloads of loutish youngsters descending on the resort daily in the summer months and wreaking havoc. Bodrum was in my radar – on my list of places to avoid – at least one of our nephews has been there, for goodness sake (not that any of our nephews are louts, I hasten to add!)!

Hisarönü, however, was not on my list – I’d never heard of it. I booked our Turkish-owned hotel (one of the few in town, it transpired) on-line, months in advance of our trip. I suppose that the price should have alerted me, but I was just surprised and grateful that we were able to afford to put two weeks ‘r and r’ in the middle of our month-long cultural tour around Turkey. Some comments I read on holiday forums after I had booked (‘lively pubs offering happy hours every night, for example), made me realise that perhaps this wasn’t the sort of place we would usually go to, but, by then, it was booked, so we decided that we would make the best of it, and that I would not research further.

In the end, Hisarönü provided us with a great holiday! After recovering from the initial culture shock of being bombarded with all things English during our taxi ride from the bus station along the entire length of the ‘strip’, we embraced the place and all it had to offer. Perhaps it was because we had been living in Istanbul for so long, and had been deprived of all those familiar pleasures, that we were able to enjoy it. I’m not sure why, but I know that we had a good time!

Our hotel was clean and comfortable with a lovely pool. We met some interesting people with whom we were able to converse properly in our common language. We ate in all of those traditional ‘British’ restaurants – we had Indian one night, Italian another, and Chinese twice. It was a joy after being limited to Turkish cuisine for so long. We even had fish ‘n’ chips – a real guilty pleasure! Once, we had a ‘bacon butty’, the bacon having been supplied by a thriving local butcher’s shop – there is a corner of non-pork-eating Turkey that is forever ‘Porkland’! We also enjoyed evenings in pubs, and my husband watched his first live Spurs game in well over a year. We did what many Brits do on holiday year-in, year-out, and we really enjoyed it, even if part of us felt that we shouldn’t! For us, it was the right holiday at the right time.

Would we go again?
Probably not!!

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum, Istanbul


One of the less well-known attractions of Istanbul, the Koç Museum is definitely worth a visit. If you are only in the city for a short time, then there will obviously be more important sites to see, but, if you are there for a longer period, if you have children with you, or if this is a return visit to Istanbul, then you should add the Koç Museum to your ‘to do’ list.

Located on the shores of the Golden Horn, the best way to get to the museum is to take the ferry from Eminönü, and get off at Hasköy. The ferry leaves from the north side of the Galata Bridge (just beyond the bus station) every hour (50 minutes past the hour at the time of writing).

The museum is open every day except Mondays from 10am to 5pm (7pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and costs just 9TL to get in (4.5TL for children). There is plenty to see, and you should allow at least 4 hours for your visit (longer if you choose to have lunch in one of the fabulous restaurants on site).

The museum was founded by the head of the Koç industrial group, one of Turkey’s most prominent conglomerates, in 1994, and is an eclectic collection of industrial artefacts from all over the world, as well as from Turkey. Rahmi Koç himself lived and studied in both England and America, and you get a real sense of this not being your typical Turkish museum. The Koç family have bought many items at auction in Western Europe and America, and had them restored to their former glory in their own workshops. They have also had a myriad of other items donated by individuals or companies. The result is a massive collection of stuff which is displayed in an interesting and informative way, with explanations in both Turkish and English.

The museum is housed in two separate buildings – a new one on the water side of the road, and a superbly restored and converted Byzantine forge on the opposite side. The entrance is in the new building, but your ticket gives you access to both. Unusually for Istanbul, the museum is fully accessible to disabled people, with ramps and lifts to all floors.

Many of the exhibits are to do with transport. There is a wonderful collection of cars, including everything from ugly Turkish Anadol models to a glorious pink Cadillac and a majestic 1965 silver Rolls Royce. There are trams and railway locomotives and carriages, including Sultan Abdül Aziz’s ornate railway coach, which was fitted out in England using duck-egg blue silk. Outside of the building, there are aircraft, such as a DC3, which you can climb on board, tractors, machinery, a ferry, a U.S. tugboat, and, even, a London Routemaster bus. There is also a submarine moored in the Golden Horn, for which there is an extra, small, entrance fee. Back inside, there are large collections of boats, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, motorbikes, and steam powered vehicles, many of which originated in the UK. There is also a series of old-fashioned shops, fully fitted-out, including a toy shop, a cobbler, a ship’s chandler, a chemist, and an optical instrument maker.

Other attractions include a Microsoft-sponsored display of computers (you will be shocked to be reminded of how far we have moved on in such a short time!) and a really interesting, interactive display called ‘How Things Work’. There are dozens of buttons to push which children of all ages will love.

In the old building, there are huge collections of model trains, cars, ships, and steam engines, as well as exhibits about astronomy, photography, and navigation.

Currently, there is also a fabulous exhibition of miniature rooms created by Henry Kupjack. This temporary display will continue until 15th September, 2009.

With or without children in tow, this is a great day out!

Check out http://www.rmk-museum.org.tr/

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Göreme Open-Air Museum

The Göreme Open-Air Museum, located about 2km out of town (the road sign says 1km, but that’s a lie!) is well worth a visit. It is open every day from 8am to 5.30pm, and it’s a good idea to make the effort to get there early (perhaps you could visit on the day when you have already got up early to see the hot-air balloons – see separate posting on Göreme, Cappadocia), as it gets extremely crowded, especially during the summer months.

The museum consists of a number of rock chapels dating from the 10th to the 13th centuries – the Byzantine and Seljuk periods. Many of these house amazing frescoes.

One of the highlights is Karalik (Dark) Church, which, because it gets very little light from the outside, has some of the best preserved frescoes with the brightest colours. The walls are richly decorated with scenes related to the lives of Mary and Jesus, as well as views from the Old Testament. The pictures in the main apse were painted using the fresco technique where the colour is applied directly on to wet plaster, very rare in Cappadocian churches, and you can still see the fingerprints of the artists on the faces of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist.

The Elmali (Apple) Church and the Chapels of St. Barbara and St. Basil all have original decoration consisting of geometric designs and crosses, painted in red ochre directly on to the rock. They all date from the mid 11th century and are highly unusual.

A visit to the museum will take a good 2 to 3 hours, but, as you leave, be careful not to miss the Tokali (Buckled) Church. It is part of the museum, but outside the confines of it. The frescoes inside are amongst the best in the area. It is the oldest known rock-cut church in the region, and is made up of 4 sections: the Old Church with one nave; the New Church; the Lower Church under the Old Church; and the Parecclesion to the north of the New Church. Today the Old Church, built in the 10th century, acts as the entrance to the New Church and there are incredible frescoes telling the story of Jesus on panels on the vaulted ceiling. In the New Church, the story of Jesus is told again, this time in chronological order, in mainly bright red and blue colours. There are also scenes from the life of St. Basil, portraits of some saints, and pictures of the miracles of Jesus. The overall effect is stunning.

After visiting the Open-Air Museum, it is worth making an extra trek to visit the El Nazar Church, despite it being off the beaten track and having a separate entry charge.

TOP TIP – set out early in the day and wear good walking shoes.

The History and Adventure Tour - Göreme

This day-long tour is bookable through the Heritage Travel Company run by the Kelebek Hotel (http://www.kelebekhotel.com/) (see separate posting on Göreme, Cappadocia), and is an ideal way to experience the diversity of the Cappadocia region in just one day.

Your day begins early with a meeting with your guide. Having spoken to many tourists, I can vouch for the quality of all of the guides. Ours, Mustafa, was excellent – his in-depth knowledge really added to the day’s enjoyment. Your transport will be a new and comfortable air-conditioned minibus and your group will consist of a maximum of 12 people.

Your first stop of the day will be at a panoramic viewpoint just outside the town of Göreme. While you are taking in the stunning landscape, your guide will give you a really interesting talk on the history of the Cappadocia region.

From there, you will be taken to visit Kaymaklı, the widest of Cappadocia’s underground cities. There are over 100 subterranean cities in the area, of which 37 are open to the public. Kaymaklı is 8 levels deep, although only 4 levels have been excavated. It is not an easy visit – there is a lot of walking bent double, going both down through the levels and back up again, but it is absolutely fascinating and well worth the effort. Like the other underground cities, Kaymaklı was a place of refuge for Christians before the Arab invasion, giving shelter to 15,000 people. The air supply was drawn through ventilating chimneys, and huge millstones were used to block entrances to prevent the enemy gaining access. It was an amazing feat of engineering, and during your visit you can marvel at bedrooms, living quarters, kitchens, a church, a meeting hall, storage rooms, wine presses, and some of the 30km of passages. You are able to get a real sense of people living in cities such as this one for months on end.

Your next stop will be at the Kocabeğ Winery at Uçhisar. It is a pleasant enough visit, and you are welcome to try the wines. For me, though, several years working in the wine trade, as well as our years spent living in France, have spoiled me for good wine, and I’m afraid Turkish wine just doesn’t cut the mustard.

You will then be taken to Honey Valley and given time to wander amongst the unbelievable rock formations, making the most of the myriad photo opportunities. You will be shown the cave dwelling where a monk lived a solitary life for 40 years in the 12th century. Unfortunately, 21st century visitors have used this holy place as a toilet, and the resulting stench makes the visit a quick one!

Next stop is lunch, which is taken in a cave restaurant along with many other tour groups. The atmosphere is rather touristy, but the food is good and convivial company and interesting conversation more than make up for the slightly tacky surroundings!

After lunch, you will visit a pottery in Avanos, a small town on the Red River, so-called as it is the source of the local red clay from which the pottery is made. The visit is very interesting; you will see the whole process from beginning to end and one of your group will invariably be invited to re-enact the Demi Moore pottery wheel scene from ‘Ghost’, to much hilarity all round! Seeing the ladies in the workshop hand-painting the intricate designs by eye will be a highlight. There is no pressure to buy, although the on-site shop is vast, and several of our party did succumb.

From the pottery, you will be taken to Imagination Valley, where there are many and varied rock formations, which, given the right light, and if you squint a bit, could be said to resemble a camel, a snail, a dinosaur, or, even, Elvis Presley!

A couple of what Mustafa, our guide, called ‘Japanese stops’ (off the bus, take a picture, back on the bus!) will follow, before you get to the highlight of the whole day – a sunset trek through Rose Valley. Your minibus will drop you off at the top of a deep valley and you will walk for a couple of hours before meeting up with the transport again and being taken back to your hotel. The drop down on to the valley floor is very steep and slippery in places, but, once you get the knack of staying upright, it’s quite exhilarating. The walk along the bottom of the valley takes you through a simply stunning landscape with a photo opportunity around every bend.

All in all, an excellent day out!

TOP TIP – wear sensible shoes – the underground city and the trek would be nigh on impossible in flip-flops!!

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Göreme – Gateway to Cappadocia

Any tour around Turkey should include a stay in the stunningly beautiful Cappadocia region, and the town of Göreme is a great place to base yourself to see the area.

Cappadocia boasts an incredible landscape: the region’s soft volcanic rock has been sculpted into tens of thousands of pillars and strangely-shaped columns by many centuries of wind, snow, rain, and erosion. The pliable rock has been further changed by human hands, resulting in an amazing variety of cave houses, churches, and underground cities.

The Cappadocia region was discovered by Europeans at the beginning of the 18th century. In 1744, Paul Lucas, sponsored by Louis XIV of France, declared that he had seen pyramid-shaped strange houses that had charming doors, stairs, and large windows to illuminate the rooms. He said that these ‘fairy chimneys’, as he dubbed them, reminded him of hooded priests and the rocks over them resembled the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Fifty years later, when Lucas resumed his research in Cappadocia, he defined these ‘fairy chimneys’ as graveyards belonging to Caesarea (modern-day Kayseri). Lucas’s fantastic description was reacted to with both suspicion and interest in the west. Texier, who arrived in Cappadocia in 1833, stated that ‘nature had never showed itself to a foreigner’s eyes so extraordinarily’. In 1838, the English traveller, Ainsworth, described what he saw: “Turning up a glen which led inland from the river, we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones and pillars of rock that rose around us in interminable confusion, like the ruins of some great and ancient city. At times, these rude pinnacles of rock balanced huge unformed masses upon their pointed summits, but still more frequently the same strangely supported masses assumed fantastic shapes and forms. At one moment, it suggested the idea of a lion and at another of a bird and again of a crocodile or a fish.”

When we arrived almost two centuries later, the area had obviously well-documented, and we had seen many pictures of the bizarre landscape, but nothing had prepared us for our first sight of the rock formations – it was truly awe-inspiring!

Göreme itself is an attractive little town in the centre of Cappadocia. It is an unsurpassed example of the harmony of man and nature. People still live in the rock houses or use them as storerooms, displaying an immense reverence for this volcanic earth and history. Not only are there rock houses, but also rock restaurants and hotels which all visitors find amazing. The natural boundaries of the town are formed by the high rocks surrounding it and the fairy chimneys within; it’s a place that offers unbelievable natural treasures.

Göreme serves as a bus transportation hub with coaches arriving from and departing for all other popular destinations in Turkey on a frequent basis. It is easy to book onward travel through any of the agents operating out of the offices around the bus station. If you arrive in Göreme by bus, as we did, and, indeed, as most visitors do, then your first port of call should be the tourist information office in the middle of the bus station. If you haven’t arranged accommodation in advance, then it can be organised from here. If you have, as in our case, the tourist office staff will phone your hotel who will send a vehicle down to the bus station to collect you and your luggage and transport you there. Nowhere is very far from the town centre, but Göreme is very hilly, so you may be grateful for a lift up to your hotel!

There are many hotels and guesthouses to suit all budgets in Göreme. We stayed at the Kelebek Hotel, which I can heartily recommend. We pre-booked on-line (http://www.kelebekhotel.com/), and you are able to choose the room you wish to stay in in advance. We chose a regular arched room in the hotel. The rooms in the fairy chimneys sounded romantic, but we decided that the extra cost couldn’t be justified. I think we made the right decision: we heard other people during our stay complain that these rooms were quite cramped and very hot. Our room was extremely comfortable with a modern en-suite bathroom. You probably won’t spend much time in your room, anyway; the public areas of the hotel are very pleasant – the terrace overlooking the town furnished with Turkish day beds strewn with plush cushions is an ideal place to while away a few hours.

Breakfast in the Kelebek Hotel is extremely good – an expansive buffet of fresh & dried fruit, warm crusty bread, cheeses, cooked meats, eggs, cereals, honey, jam, and delicious cheese pancakes – plenty to keep you going all day! As for dinner, we didn’t eat in the hotel as the menu appeared to be quite limited and rather expensive, and, besides, the choice of eating places in town was incredible. We ate somewhere different every night and it was all good and very reasonably priced. There was a particularly good meze restaurant where we had a sun-dried tomato, pomegranate molasses, and mint salad which was an absolute taste sensation (I’ve since tried to recreate it at home with limited success!). I would also recommend the Dibek restaurant for typically Turkish food served in an authentic setting. You usually need to book in advance (the only place in town where you do), but it’s worth making the effort.

Göreme and the Kelebek Hotel offers a really relaxing, get-away-from-it-all break with some fantastic trekking in the surrounding area. The hotel also offers the best day tours available locally (see separate posting).

TOP TIP – take earplugs with you if you don’t want to be woken up at 5.30am by the roar of hot-air balloons flying over the town. They are a magnificent sight and well-worth getting up to photograph one morning, but you may not want to hear them every day!!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Coach Travel in Turkey

Inter-city bus services in Turkey are frequent and reliable, but would I recommend them? The answer is yes ………. and no! I would wholeheartedly endorse taking the bus during the day, but, for me, the night services should be avoided at all costs. This opinion is based on several pleasant journeys made during daylight hours and two never-to-be-repeated nightmare overnight trips!

There are countless bus companies in Turkey, and, on the whole, the vehicles are modern and very comfortable. They are always clean and well-maintained with large, spotless windows (they are washed at every refreshment stop) giving great panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

Invariably there is a ‘host’ service (it was a man every time we travelled) bringing tea, coffee, soft drinks, water, cakes, and freshen-up towels at regular intervals. In addition, the coaches stop regularly, giving passengers the opportunity to stretch their legs.

The only negative to day-time bus travel in Turkey is the really strong perfume which is pumped into the bus at regular intervals, supposedly to freshen the air, but which has the opposite effect and leaves passengers coughing and spluttering! This situation is worsened if you are seated towards the front of the bus as, although all services are totally non-smoking for passengers, as far as the driver is concerned, he is allowed to smoke and usually does – like a chimney!!

Travelling by bus at night in Turkey is, for me, all negative! The seats which are so comfortable during the day suddenly become terribly uncomfortable, offering no opportunity to sleep. The buses are too warm and too noisy, not only because of the passengers, but also because the radio is invariably left on. Frequent stops to allow people to get on and off, as well as regulation rest breaks, mean that the lights are on more often than not. All of this makes for very long and tiresome nights! Having said all of this, I’m sure that some younger travellers would highly recommend overnight bus travel as a way to save on accommodation costs – we’re probably just too old!

TOP TIP – use the daylight services – leave the overnight trips well alone!!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Konya – Home of Mevlâna


The Muslim holy city of Konya is well worth an overnight stop if you are planning a tour around Turkey.

If, like us, you arrive in town by train (see separate posting), or by bus, don’t do what we did and walk in to town! Both the gar (railway station) and the otogar (bus station) are quite a way out of the centre and the walk, particularly on a hot day with luggage, is not easy. My advice would be to take a taxi.

Don’t worry if you haven’t any accommodation booked. We tried to book on-line before travelling to Konya, but could only find expensive options, so we winged it, and had no problems finding a room, even in August. Just ask the taxi driver to drop you off close to the Mevlâna Museum, and you will have many choices of hotel close by.

We stayed at the Hotel Yaşin, and paid only 60TL for a double en-suite room with breakfast. It was very clean, very comfortable, and the couple who ran the place were very helpful, organising a taxi to the otogar for us when we left.

Konya is a modern, lively city. I think we were there on the busiest day of the year for weddings and circumcisions. Everywhere we turned, we saw either a bride and groom in their marriage finery, or a small boy dressed in the distinctive costume which signifies his sunnet (Turkish for circumcision). This was accompanied by the constant cacophony of car horns as convoys of revellers drove through the streets. However, Konya is also probably the most conservative city in Turkey. There are very few uncovered women and hardly any shorts-wearers, despite the heat. My advice is to cover up with loose, cotton clothing so as not to draw attention to yourself or to offend local sensibilities.

Konya is the home of the Whirling Dervishes, a religious order founded by the sufi (Muslim sage), Mevlâna in the 13th century. The dervishes still whirl and, if you are in Konya on a Saturday evening in the summer, you can enjoy a free outdoor performance of their ritual dance in the grounds of the Mevlâna Museum. We weren’t aware of this, and arrived in the city on a Sunday!

The Mevlâna Museum itself is a highlight of any visit to Konya, and a bargain at only 2TL per person to get in. However, it is extremely busy in season, and I would recommend getting there early in the day (the Turks are renowned for not getting going until after lunch!). It opens at 8.30am every day except Monday when it is closed all day.

You may be surprised, as we were, at the number of tuk-tuk type vehicles to be seen on the modern city streets. These mini-trucks have been adapted to carry many, many family members, as well as produce and the odd sheep! They are a colourful sight!

There are many superb restaurants in the centre of Konya, none of which serve alcohol. If you want a beer, you will need to go out of town – there is a row of licensed cafés and bars on the road leading to the otogar. However, I think you should forego the alcohol and try one of the central restaurants. I can particularly recommend the Rose Garden Restaurant which overlooks the rose garden of the Mevlâna Museum and serves good food at reasonable prices.

When leaving Konya, it is very easy to buy onward bus tickets from any of the agents on the street opposite the museum.

TOP TIP – dress conservatively!

Olüdeniz – Holiday Heaven or Holiday Hell?


Olüdeniz (Dead Sea in Turkish) on the Turquoise Coast of southern Turkey is billed as ‘one of the most beautiful beaches’, and ‘the most photogenic spot’ in the whole of the country. Indeed, before visiting the place, my guide book informed me that, ‘this wondrous place can be reached only by a precipitous mountain road’, thus conjuring up images of a perfect secluded beauty spot.

The reality is very different! The village of Olüdeniz is indeed accessed by a steep road, descending in long curves from the bustling, predominantly English resort town of Hisarönü (see separate posting), but it is hardly remote or difficult to get to. In season, a shuttle bus runs every few minutes from the aforementioned Hisarönü or the slightly further afield town of Fethiye, depositing thousands of sun-seekers and bathers at the entrance to Olüdeniz lagoon.

Before entering the lagoon area itself, you are bombarded with tacky souvenirs shops, as well as loads of hustlers trying to lure you on to one of the many daily cruise boats waiting to cast off. You have to pay an entrance fee to gain access to the ‘area of outstanding beauty’ and, once you’ve parted with your lira, you have quite a long walk along paved and decked walkways to the lagoon. Once there, you have to pay a not inconsiderable sum for the use of a sun-bed (extra if you want an umbrella), which will be very close to the sun-bed on either side, as well as the ones in front of and behind you! If you haven’t had the foresight to take your own refreshments, then the cost of food and drink during the day could well be a shock to the system! If, by the time you arrive, all of the available sun-beds around the lagoon have been taken, and you end up spending the day sunning yourself by the Mediterranean instead, then you will find actually getting in to the sea rather difficult! By the water’s edge there are lots of very slippery, green, slime-covered rocks which you have to negotiate in order to reach sea which you can swim in.

We visited in August and, despite the exquisite turquoise appearance of the water and the cloudless azure sky, the hordes of people present made it nigh on impossible to get a sense of it as ‘the most beautiful beach in Turkey’. It was noisy, incredibly crowded, litter-strewn, and generally unpleasant!

TOP TIP – if you are going to visit, do it out of season!!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Kayakoy - Ghost Village


Kayaköy (rock village in Turkish) is an abandoned Greek village situated 4 km from the resort town of Hisarönü, near Fethiye in southern Turkey. If you are in the area, it is well worth a visit. It can be reached by an hourly dolmuş service from Fethiye, which calls at Hisarönü en route.

The village is located in the Kaya Valley, which for centuries was occupied by both Turks and Greeks. They lived side by side, the Turks involved in agriculture and animal husbandry on the plains, whilst the Greeks lived in the houses on the slopes, earning a living from craft and trade.

After the Turkish War of Independence, in 1923, there was a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The Greek people living in Kayaköy (which they called Levissi) were forced to migrate to Greece, to be replaced by the Turkish immigrants from Thrace who had shared the same fate.

The evacuation took place on June 30th, 1923. The Greeks went, leaving behind 2 large churches, 14 chapels, 2 schools, 2 fountains, 2 windmills, and about 1000 houses, all of which had outdoor toilets and running water, obtained from cisterns which collected rain. It was a large and attractive village. The houses had been built in line with the slope of the land so that they did not block the light or the view of each other. The houses were one or two storey depending on the lie of the land and became more spacious the higher up the slopes they were.

Following the evacuation, the Turks from Thrace who came to replace the Greeks in Kayaköy found the village not to their liking and chose not to settle there. The result is the ‘ghost village’ which we see today. The floors, ceilings, window frames, and doors, all of which were made of wood, have all been looted for firewood. The roofs were flat and made of compressed earth. Over the years, these have rotted away. What are left are empty shells, but with evocative traces of paint, wall decoration, fireplaces, shelves, and, even, curtain rails!

The whole place is incredibly atmospheric. The experience of walking through the village is quite eerie, the silence broken only by the sound of an occasional goat’s bell. You sometimes catch a glimpse of one of these sure-footed creatures trotting between the houses. A wonderful way to spend an afternoon!!

TOP TIP – Don’t visit Kayaköy on a trip organised by a tour operator. Those that do find that their coach will pull in to the car park at the foot of the village and allow them to take pictures for 5 minutes before moving on to the next stop. Instead, make your way there independently which allows you to wander to your heart’s content. (Remember to take plenty of water with you on a hot day!)

TOP TIP 2 – The dolmuş will drop you off outside Muzzy’s place, where you can pick up a free plan and history of the village and where you can have a delicious lunch and even avail yourself of their swimming pool. (Don’t go on a Monday – this is the day for organised tour groups and lunch is a set buffet.)
Check out http://www.kayakoy.net/ for further information.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Taking the Train from Istanbul to Konya

We began our trip around Turkey last summer with a train journey from Istanbul to Konya. As a method of travel, if you are not in a rush, I would certainly recommend it! It costs 45TL (about £19) per person, based on 2 people sharing a 2-berth cabin, and it leaves Istanbul at 7.20 every evening, arriving in Konya at 8.20 the following morning. However, there are invariably delays during the night, so don’t expect to arrive on time.

Tickets can be purchased from the international ticket office in Sirkeci station (on the European side of Istanbul) up to 30 days before departure.

Your train to Konya leaves from Haydarpaşa station on the Asian side of Istanbul, accessible by ferry from Eminönü on the European side. The station itself provides an impressive departure point for your journey. Completed in 1908, it was paid for by Kaiser Wilhelm II as a gift to his Ottoman ally, Abdül Hamit II.

I suggest that you treat your journey as an extension of your holiday, and get into the spirit of it from the off. Arrive early – your train will be in and waiting for you an hour before your scheduled departure time. Your carriage steward will show you to your cabin, and you can make yourself comfortable. The cabins are well-equipped with comfortable seats, which become your bunk beds at night, as well as a small sink (towel & soap provided), a spacious fridge (stocked with water, fruit drinks, and cakes!), and a pull-out table. There are showers and toilet facilities at either end of the carriage.

We had taken a well-chilled bottle of white & some nibbles with us which we enjoyed before departure, whilst watching the train fill up with Turkish families with their countless parcels, bags, and children!

Once underway, we went to find the restaurant car & enjoyed a very pleasant, reasonably-priced meal as we trundled through the city suburbs. Darkness descended quickly, so we didn’t get to see much, but we still enjoyed sitting there sipping our post-dinner coffee.

I am not the best sleeper in strange surroundings so I can’t say that I had a particularly restful night, but the beds were comfortable enough, and I enjoyed opening the curtains at 3am & seeing the biggest, most star-laden sky I had seen since leaving our home in France the previous year! We were both up early & so witnessed a spectacular sunrise before taking advantage of the restaurant car again for a 7TL breakfast.

We then proceeded at a very sedate pace indeed & arrived in Konya 3 hours later than scheduled, but at least it gave us an opportunity to see more of the Turkish countryside than we had anticipated!

TOP TIP: Don’t use the train if you have deadlines to meet, but if you haven’t & you want a very civilised, comfortable journey, then it comes highly recommended!