25/11/10 - 4/12/10 20 °C
Thursday was a weird day, it started at daylight with thunder, lightning and torrential rain and ended with a crazy rush to find a way to get off the island. In between, we had a day of sunshine with occasional cloud, a nice visit to the local produce markets with a walk through the old town.
The day was supposed to be a moving day with the ferry departing Rhodes at 5.00pm. So we planned to stay at the hotel until checkout time (12 midday), store our luggage at the hotel, walk to the markets and visit the old town before having a late lunch then return to the hotel to collect the bags and get a taxi to the port at around 4.00pm. This was a great plan and was progressing fine until we arrived at the port to find that the ferry staff/port staff were on strike – oh crap! We got the taxi driver to return us to the hotel, which he thought was great because of the higher fare, where we booked back into the hotel but our old room was unavailable and they couldn’t guarantee the same rate.
Our plans were in disarray as we tried to cancel our Athens accommodation booking for the next night, no good - we lost a night’s cost for a late cancellation. Liz got on the phone to our travel insurance company to find out what we needed for a claim. We then walked around to find the Blue Star Ferry office to see what we could do about getting another ferry, we found the office and it was open but the bad news was that it didn’t look like the ferries would be running again until Sunday (we needed to catch the train from Athens to Istanbul on Sunday lunchtime). The ladies at the ferry office were apologetic and helpful as they found us a flight to Athens the next day (only cost a few euro more – things are looking up – our only concern was the cost of excess baggage as our limit was 20kg) BUT WAIT we had cancelled hotel bookings in Athens for the next night. Liz tried to contact the internet booking agent and the hotel to cancel the cancellation but had no luck.
We started Friday early to get to the airport and sort out the baggage problem which in the end was a storm in a teacup, my backpack was 17kg and Liz’s bag only 23kg not the 30 she thought – we didn’t even get charged as our total was right on the 40kg limit. We then sat around the airport waiting for our flight which actually left a little early (well on time but for Greece that’s early!), the flight only took at 50 minutes, as opposed to the ferry which would have taken 13 hours but probably have been more interesting (except for drugged David!!!). Once in Athens we caught the metro to the city centre, Liz actually mentioned going straight to the main station to catch the train to Istanbul as she hadn’t been able to book a day tour to Delphi for Saturday and was paranoid about having a day off. We agreed to go to the hotel and see if our booking cancellation had been cancelled (complicated I know), when we arrived at the hotel the receptionist recognised us for the previous visit and had everything organised.
As we checked in we booked a tour for the next day, not Delphi (only available Mon, Wed, Fri and Sun in off season) but to Epidaurus and Mycenae. Once settled into the hotel we ventured out to visit Public, a large department store that sells English books and walk the streets of Plaka with its many shops and interesting people. We came across a food market (meat, fruit and veg really) and Liz was totally unimpressed with the meat market as it had full carcasses of sheep, chicken and rabbits which were skinned but still had heads and in the bunnies case fluffy tails, I think she’s becoming a vegetarian!!!!! I just didn’t like the smell. At the fruit market she tried to buy a few mandarins but they only sold the stuff by the kilo so she went without.
Saturday was early as our tour pick up was 7.30am (at least they collected us from the hotel), we were the first pickup of the 12 people on the tour for the day. We then went to the tour office for those who still needed to pay and then drove back past our hotel (now 8.30am – could have had another hours sleep!) on our way out of town. Our first stop was at the Corinth Canal which is a manmade canal that runs for 6km joining the Aegean and Ionian Seas saving ships time and money when sailing between Athens and Italy etc to the west. As you can see from the photo it’s very steep sided and narrow – amazing that large ships can make it through.
Another hour’s drive and we arrived at Epidarus with its amazing theatre. With a capacity of 14000 and the best acoustics in all Greece perhaps the world (now this sounds grandiose but our guide was very clear – she reminded me a lot of the dad from the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” as she explained about how just about every English word had a Greek origin but she didn’t have a passion for windex like he did!). The theatre was in pretty good shape but the ruins nearby were almost leveled and in parts looked like piles of rocks. In the museum they had some statues but, as usual, they had no heads – if you conquered a place the first thing you did apparently was smash the heads of the statues of their gods/important people, hence plenty of headless statues and occasionally heads and no bodies!!
Back on the bus we travelled another 20 minutes to the port of Nauplia (first capital of modern Greece) with its Venetian fortress of Palamidi and the fortified islet of Bourtzi, this was a quick photo stop before driving on to the Mycenaen centre.
At the Mycenaen archeological site we found an acropolis (fortified city on a hill top with a royal palace) which was interesting as many large stones (up to 120 tonnes) were move and placed as lintels for entrances with only imagination and muscle power to move them! The site was also contained the tomb of Agamemnon (a famous Greek dude = can’t remember what the guide said) as well as a weird bee-hive tomb which the modern Greeks had converted to a sheep and goat shed before it was taken over by the government as an archeological site – you could still smell the goats!
After lunch, provided as part of the cost (but not the wine – I do miss Spain where the wine is included in the cost) we visited a tourist shop where Liz added to her collection of china and I watched a potter throw a small jug. This type of stop is typical on tours as the company must get a kickback for the sale of souvenirs to the tourists who only have this stop to purchase anything before the trip back to their hotel.
It was a long and sunny day starting at 7.30am and arriving back at the hotel at 6.00pm, at least we were the second drop off on the way back. During the day another couple had mentioned that there may be train strike the next day so when we arrived back at the hotel I asked reception to ring the station but, of course, it was closed at 6.30pm on Sunday evening, so we still didn’t know if we would be going to Istanbul the next day – just adds to the experience of travelling besides it’s the off season and there are plenty of cheap hotels available and if necessary flights.
Sunday morning we asked the new guy at reception if he’d heard anything about a strike and he said no – things are looking up but let’s not get too cocky. We ventured out to drop our laundry off and head to the Plaka area again as the Sunday flea markets were on (Lonely Planet suggestion) and Liz was keen for a last look around before heading to the station for our 1.20pm train (hopefully). The markets were interesting with some stalls having large piles of stuff that was not sorted in anyway but just a large mixed up pile of brick-a-brack. Liz was keen to move on as she was over markets!!! So we walked back to the hotel via the laundry (washed, dried, folded and back in the bag – very nice) where we packed up and departed to the station.
At the main station we almost died when we saw the main departure board as it had a large cross over it, here we go again, but no, the lady at the information desk pointed to the platform when asked about the train to Istanbul. After a short wait the train arrived Liz rolled her eyes at it as it looked like a local rattler with only 4 carriages and it was supposed to take us to Thessaloniki in northern Greece about a 6 hour trip where we were to change to the Istanbul connection – that’s the Greek railway for you!
This first section of the trip was interesting as we could watch the scenery as it passed but once it got dark (about 5.30pm) it became a little boring. Luckily the train terminated at Thessaloniki because we couldn’t read the signs at the stations and the further north we got the less English people seemed to understand. Once at Thessaloniki we were impressed by the station (Athens main station is a bit like Broadmeadow station in Newcastle, Australia) as it had shops and a variety of food outlets – you could easily wait for hours at the station but luckily we only had to wait an hour.
Once we were fed and watered we embarked the train – a Turkish train at that – and found our sleeping compartment; we hoped it would only be a double compartment not the 4 berth family compartment it seemed to show on our ticket! Luckily we had the dual berth sleeper which was old but seemed OK, it later became apparent that the air conditioning didn’t function as it was like an oven all night.
The night train was good in that we could lie down and get comfortable but we also knew that during the night we would need to disembark to do passport control and customs for our entry into Turkey. What I’d forgotten was that we needed to go through Greece passport control for our exit from the EU. So we stopped at about 2.30am and over the next 2 hours we stopped woke up and gave our passports to the officials for our exit stamp, then moved on for about 10 minutes where we stopped again for the Turkish official to take our passports and send us into the station office to pay for the visa 30 Turkish Lira each and then we waited until they returned our passports before starting our journey to Istanbul at 4.40am. We eventually arrived at Istanbul main station at 10.30am feeling very sleep deprived, thirsty and plain worn out.
We had no idea where our hotel was in relation to the station so took a taxi (it turned out the driver didn’t have a clue where the hotel was either), so we did get to have a good look around the old city and realised that the Turkish drivers are a lot like the Indians – totally crazy! Our hotel was one of the more expensive of our trip and turned out to be about a block from the Blue Mosque and most of the other historic buildings of the old city, so it was well worth the money.
Once we’d showered and had a short midday nap we hit the streets for some lunch (also plenty of cafes and restaurants around the hotel) and reconnoiter, mostly to find a Tourist Information Centre. Found the important stuff, supermarket, Vodafone and Tourist Centre so we could manage our time in the city. Liz finalised our tour booking to Gallipoli and Troy for later in the week and also a tour of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul for Saturday morning. Hard to come to grip with the fact that that next Sunday morning we catch the plane to Dubai for our first flight towards Australia – where has all the time gone?!!
Tuesday was a great day with the sun shining and we’d had a fantastic night’s sleep. As we walked into the breakfast room of the hotel we found Trev and Chente (Canadian friends from Patras and Santorini) who had been in Istanbul for the past few days – we’d told them where we were staying – and we chatted for an hour about our travels over the past week and organized to meet for dinner that night.
Liz and I set out for the day to explore Istanbul and visit a couple of important sites, so firstly we crossed the road from our hotel and visited the Yerebatan Cistern which is a massive under city water storage 140m long and 70m wide, it contains contains 336 massive stone columns and had a capacity of 100,000 tons of water and was used in a James Bond movie – but I can’t remember which one. Liz kept getting dripped on as we walked around the boardwalks but I don’t know what her problem was as I was only hit once!
We then walked around the old city until we found the Grand Bazaar which is an incredible maze of shops in a large covered building(s). We tried to be very methodical in our exploration but after a few hours we gave up and wandered around checking out the great variety wares available. I was amazed in a carpet store to find a framed photograph of Harry Kewell (Australian soccer player who players for a local Turkish team) in the prominent place while the photo of Bill Clinton was pushed to the side and half hidden – nice to see and Aussie footballer getting recognition!
After the Bazaar we made a beeline for the hotel to get off out feet for a while before going out again for a visit to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque was incredible in its size (the inside seems immense) and the colour that emanates from the walls inside gives an understanding of why it is called the Blue Mosque. We then did a bit more wandering about the street visiting another much smaller bazaar before going back to the hotel feeling pretty tired. We also took the time to take a bit of video of the worshipers being called to the mosque for prayer time at dusk (watch it below).
An early start on Wednesday, so early that breakfast wasn’t even available at the hotel, as we were being picked up at 6.30am by the tour company that was taking us to Gallipoli and Troy. They were a little late arriving at 7.00pm and we joined the other 5 people on our tour, of course 3 were from Australia; law graduates from Brisbane, and the other 2 were an elderly couple for Pakistan. It took 5 hours to reach Eceabat on the Gallipoli Peninsula where we had a nice lunch before meeting our guide for the tour of the battle sites and cemeteries associated with the ANZAC campaign of 1915.
This tour started at Brighton Beach which our jaded but extremely knowledgeable guide told us (he’d being doing the same tours – Troy in the morning and Gallipoli in the afternoon for a number of years) was the gently sloping beach to was supposed to be the actual landing point at dawn on April 25th 1915. Our next stop was the actual beach that the diggers hit on the fateful morning and now called Anzac Cove. The small size and steep slope of this beach made it a really difficult place to land (even to us with no military knowledge could tell it was the worst place on that section of coast to land soldiers).
We then visited North Beach which is the site of the current ANZAC Day service, it’s only a couple of hundred metres north of Anzac Cove and is a relatively long gently sloping beach. The space that the service is held within is fairly small and must be absolutely packed when 10,000 people pack into it on that morning. We also visited the beach side cemetery which was the first of many cemeteries that we visited. It was very humbling and began to have a profoundly emotional effect on both of us – so many young people who’d died before they had really lived, a whole generation of young men lost!
After a short drive we arrived at Lone Pine (Australian Cemetery) which contained, like all Gallipoli cemeteries, a large number of bodies but many that where unidentified. Liz successfully searched for the name of her Great Grand Father listed on the memorial, as he was buried at sea, which was a nice moment for her but still it was a very somber experience.
Further up the hill we visited Johnsons Jolly, The Nek, The Turkish Cemetery and Chunuk Bair (New Zealand Cemetery) all of which were explained along with small individual stories of individual courage, bravery and even stupidity (especially by some British Commanders – but that’s another story). In was a very solemn experience and in many ways I now understand the significance of ANZAC Day more acutely. I also understand the importance of the pilgrimage of Australians to this site and how they must be affected by their visit. As I stood in an Australian trench, now mostly filled in and covered by fully grown trees, it was not hard to visualize the 3m deep trenches and a battlefield unobstructed by trees, an environment of dirt and mud with a constantly blowing wind but what I don’t believe anyone can imagine is the actual sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with being there during the Gallipoli Campaign in 1915.
I could continue with my discussion of my experience on this tour but I will leave it by saying that it was the most emotional experience of our touring over the past 5 months – it stirs emotions about what the core principles of being Australian is all about. However, Liz disagrees and feels that the Australians should have told the British Army where to shove their orders and then gone home.
With the tour complete we were dropped to the ferry for a ride to the Asian continent (amazing that one country exists on both the European and Asian continents) only 15 minutes across the Dardanelles to Canakkale where we stayed at Anzac House Hostel for the night (it was basic but comfortable).
Thursday was yet another fine day, windy (supposedly 280 per year it’s windy!!) but nice and warm, better than Ashlee who’s currently stuck in Scotland due to a blizzard. This was the day Liz went looking for Brad Pitt; OK we were actually visiting legendary Troy but she still checked out every Trojan horse she could just in case he was hiding!
As neither one of us had actually studied ancient history we only had common knowledge and the Hollywood version to base our understanding of this city, so it was educational to learn about the 9 cities that existed on this one site. So the idea I had of Troy and its history which was based on Troy the 2004 movie (starring Brad Pitt and Eric Banna) turned out to be fiction – I was appalled – so our guide gave us the more official version of its history from 2500 BC until now. Neither Liz nor I knew that there were actually 9 cities on the one site but we do understand why as it sits on a strategically important piece of land and that this hasn’t change even through to today.
It was interesting to hear that Troy city number 6 is assumed to be the city where Homer’s story could have been based and that just about every culture has had a piece of this city over its history, including the Greeks and Romans. The excavation is continuing and will probably continue for 100’s of years as; so far, only 10% of the area has been explored.
Once the tour was over we were returned to Canakkale where we were free to fill in the afternoon until we could take the ferry to rejoin the bus (a 16 seater which was small and comfortable) for the return to Istanbul. Liz and I walked the town checking out the stores, testing the baklava and having a little lunch before returning to the hotel where we played cards and chatted with the Pakistani couple. The ferry ride back to Europe was quick and relatively flat and our bus ride to Istanbul was boring as it was mostly dark and, let’s face it, travelling in the dark you could be anywhere. As we arrived back in Istanbul we got a good indication of the size of the city, let’s be blunt, it’s bloody huge with almost 15 million people – it took 45minutes and 30km to drive from the outskirts to the old city centre.
Friday saw us start a little slow as we were weary from our previous two day tours but the sun was shining so we were in for another good day. Our plan was to visit the Spice Bazaar, visit the Topkapi Palace and attend a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony and Sufi Music Concert in the evening.
Our visit to the Spice Bazaar was interesting and I spent the first few minutes sneezing from the pungent odours emanating from the building but after the initial assault I was fine. Those pungent odours were from a combination of the massive variety of spices, cheeses and processed meats available. The bazaar also had plenty of jewellery stores (gold, silver and precious gems galore), linens, confectionary (particularly Turkish delight) and glassware with some stores selling all of them. All the sales people tried to get our attention but by now we knew the routine and politely refused and kept walking, only stopping at those places we wanted. It was a good walk and as usual very interesting. We even found the pet bazaar where you could buy everything from chickens and dogs to fish and leeches.
Having made a few purchases we returned to the hotel for a short break, I wanted to download the photos from the past days from the camera to the laptop, charge the batteries and basically take a break. We spend hours and hours every day on our feet walking around.
We also came across an interesting way of keeping you shop safe – checkout the size of the guard dog in the window!
Once we’d had the break we made our way to the Topkapi Palace (home to the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years) which was about 2 blocks from the hotel. We walked through the Palace gardens to the main entry and entered the Palace where we got an audio guide so we’d have a clue about what we were looking at and more importantly we got a map so that we knew were to go and what to visit. Even at this time of year it was still fairly busy and there were a number of school groups literally running around. The best exhibition was the State Treasury were they had some incredible large gems set in a variety of items from writing sets to sword hilts and jewellery. Liz was most impressed by the 86 carat Kasikci diamond, the fifth largest in the world and it was surrounded by a pile of small (still very large) diamonds. On our visit we also saw a variety of Islamic relics which were held in the Chamber of Sacred Relics.
In the evening we attended a Mevlevi Sema Ceremony and Sufi Music Concert at the Hocapasa Cultural Centre which started well with complimentary drinks and Turkish delight before we entered the auditorium where we were required to stay silent and watch. We firstly listened to the music which almost put me to sleep and I was wondering if I had blown my money but then the dervishes arrived on stage and began their ceremony with them moving in a very stylized way and involved them turning continuously in an anti-clockwise direction with eyes closed and only stopping every 5 minutes to regroup and complete some more moves before starting again – I don’t know how they didn’t fall down with dizziness or in the end throwing up. It was an amazing spectacle and well worth the time and cost.
Saturday we did the Grand Bazaar Tour which involved a couple of workshop visits including one to a silversmith and another to a goldsmith (it was interesting but nobody was actually doing much except polishing). Our guide was very good and knowledgeable and told us about the origin and development of Istanbul and particularly the Grand Bazaar he also took us through the old city on a walk through the open air bazaar that connects the Grand and Spice Bazaars. This open bazaar was very obviously for the locals as we saw many women in traditional Muslim dress and this bazaar sold bridal gear, kitchen items, haberdashery and just about everything but tourist souvenirs. It was very crowded and quite difficult to make our way through.
On our walk we visited a very old hun which consisted of original shops with living areas up above – now workspaces. It looked derelict but still had a couple of workshops. Our visit was actually so that we could walk across the roof and checkout the view – truly unique part of the tour. This entire building looked and smelled like it should have been demolished and we literally worried for our safety as we traversed the cracked rooftop.
Near the end of the tour we visited the Yeni or New Mosque (built in the 1500’s – but still called “new”!) and learned about the rituals and history of the Muslim religion. This was really good as it helped us gain a better understanding of the religion and its supporters – knowledge gives understanding and results in tolerance.
After the tour I dropped Liz off at a Turkish Bath House as she was keen for the experience. When I arrived back she was smiling and looked relaxed and glossy and she explained that they had given her a good body scrub, bubble wash, washed her hair, had good rinse followed by a Jacuzzi and finishing with a 30 minute full body oil massage. Yeh, life is tough for the girl!