Saturday, 10 August 2013
I arrived at Istanbul's Ataturk airport at around 1200. Anna had travelled overland by bus from Greece (where she had been visiting her parents) the night before. It was a nice change to have someone waiting for me but first I had to contend with the huge queues at immigration. In the 400m long queue there were a lot of holiday makers. Possibly the most unusual were a group of fifty year old Russians who high fived each other each time the group doubled back on itself. The scene was made even more unique by the fact they were playing salsa on an antiquainted boom box.
We got a taxi to the very built up Fatih district where we had chosen to stay. After dumping my bags and taking a shower we headed out to take a look at Hagia Sophia , which was virtually next door. It was an immense structure, quite capable of consuming the crowds that swarmed within it. We walked under its immense chandeliers and soaked in the atmosphere. We then went up a very unusual internal ramp to the upper level to look at its ornate mosaics.
Interestingly Hagia Sophia was being repaired. A fifty metre high scaffold had been erected so that workers could repair the main dome. For me this helped put the structure into perspective. You could really understand how it had been the worlds largest structure for nearly one thousand years from 530 to 1530 AD.
Outside in the square we allowed ourselves to be ripped off by ice cream vendors. We then sat down and listened to the call to prayer. The calls of the Blue Mosque seemingly answered by other mosques around.
We had dinner that night at a fixed price menu restaurant close to the hotel. They served us twenty different meze all of excellent quality followed by seafood and fish courses. Included in the price was all the wine we could drink. We lurched back to the hotel very full that night.
Sunday, 11 August 2013
We woke up at six as we had a long way to go. Having no idea what to expect traffic wise, we had decided to get a cab across Istanbul and pick up our car rental from the domestic airport on the other side of the town. Unsurprisingly there was very little traffic and the taxi sped around the orbital motorway, crossing the Bosphorus north of town.
It took us a while to sort out the car and we got going around 0830. Fortunately the motorway was very empty and easy going. All the toll stations have automated scanners which made the journey even easier.
The surroundings were very industrial on the outskirts of Istanbul. This was then swapped for lush wooded mountain valleys. We turned off the motorway as it started curving towards Ankara and then cut through a very scenic gorge. Finally around 1400 we cut out to the coast of the Black Sea at Samsun.
Samsun was very built up with lots of concrete tower blocks. We had thought we might end up staying the night there but since the going was so easy we decided to carry on up the Black Sea coast as far as we could. After Ordu the mountains hug the coast with the towns in turn hugging the foot of the mountains. After a while the towns seemed to merge and we were faced with an endless series of Soviet style blocks of concrete flats.
We zoomed past Unye, which in retrospect would have been the best place to stay, and got to Giresun at 1900. It was not a tourist destination, more a functioning port with hardly anyone speaking English. Here we had an interesting hunt for the only restaurant that had a menu and enjoyed our first pide - a Turkish pitta bread stuffed with meat.
Monday, 12 August 2013
Barhal, Artvin, Turkey
We woke up early again to drive to Trabzon and go inland to find Sumela Monastery . Here monks "found" a very important icon and built a monastery around it halfway up a cliff. Then in 1923 when all the Greeks were kicked out of Turkey the place was left deserted until a Greek monk snuck in and removed the icon to rehouse it in Greece. Now it is just a museum attraction.
Frankly as stunning as it looked the absence of any monks and the hundreds of scrambling tourists even at ten made it a bit soul less. The rock chapel and its murals were very interesting to Anna as they had explanations in Greek of each scene. As we were leaving we had a bit of entertainment as the "Turk Chopper" club turned up in full leathers to deliver supplies to the tourist shop.
After this we went back to the coast road and drove to Rize to go inland. Here we climbed up through tea plantations. Wvery square centimetre of the mountains was terraced and covered in small green tea bushes. After 40km we were high in the mountains, surrounded by clouds with 5m visibility.
Here we almost had the car wiped out as we turned a corner to find an articulated lorry overtaking a car. Fortunately he got his trailer back on his side of the road with a few seconds to spare. After this we descended into the spectacular Coruh valley to drive to Yusufeli. Our luck with roads ran out here. The Arkun dam was being constructed over the Coruh which meant that halfway along the valley the road was being resurfaced so we had 30km of driving on loose gravel followed by another 30km of destroyed road.
We got to Yusufeli at 1800 much later than we wanted and since we knew it was two and a half hours down a dirt track to get to Hevek we had to consider our options. So instead we decided to base ourselves in Barhal which was about half the distance down the side valley. This turned out to be a prescient decision as whilst the rooms in the Karahan Pension were a bit basic, it had terrific food and an excellent deck on which to enjoy the view. On top of this a torrential downpour started the minute we arrived hence we avoided what would have been a nightmare drive.
Tuesday, 13 August 2013
Karagul, Artvin, Turkey
We set out walking a bit late at around 0930. The walk up the valley towards Naznarra was initially very pleasant with fields of flowers covered with butterflies. At the head of the valley the Altiparnak mountains looked spectacular with cloud spilling over from the Black Sea side. We passed a few small farms but after an hour or so we started to hear cracks of thunder and then the heavens opened up.
We had known it may rain as the Black Sea has pretty dismal weather and the Kackar mountains effectively sit between the Sea and the rest of Turkey. However that first downpour seemed terminal. Lightning struck the ground ahead of us, hail stones the size of peas forced us to turn our back on the weather. Fortunately it stopped after a while but it did make us consider whether we were doing the right thing in attempting to spend the night up on the mountains.
We stopped for a while at Naznarra and a farmer, rather alarmingly brandishing an axe, came out to talk to us and offer some incomprehensible advice about a possible short cut. We stopped again around 1400 at Amonsett which was still very much a working village and offered excellent views over then valley with small yalas dotted all the way down.
By this point we were fairly tired on account of being pretty unfit. We therefore did not take it very well when we met a group of Turkish hikers (who had driven to Amonsett) told us it was another three hours to our destination, Karagul. Nevertheless we stumbled on and finally found the aqueducts or canalettes which redirect water from Karagul to the surrounding villages at around 2500m altitude.
Here we promptly got lost and although we made it to Karagul we had to scramble up large boulders and a rather nasty scree slope. The lake was well worth the struggle however, a perfect turquoise pool nestled at the base of the peaks. As it was too late to make it to the official camp we set up our tents by the side of the lake and tucked into our dinner of re-hydrated spaghetti bolognese.
Wednesday, 14 August 2013
Pisenkaya, Artvin, Turkey
It was a cold night at nearly 3000m but our down sleeping bags and new tent saw us through. After a breakfast of re-hydrated egg and ham we set off around eight. The first part of the walk was spectacular, following the canalette to a ridge overlooking the next valley. The disused canalettes offer beautiful walking as without water they offer a dry flat path surrounded by lush flowers and grasses. We sat in a lovely meadow at the top of the ridge with panoramic views over the Barhal valley. We then had a lovely descent off the ridge through a pine forest.
After this though the going got tough. What had probably been a pleasant forest path joining up all the upper villages in the valley had been replaced with a long exposed road with several hairpin bends completely time wasting for walkers. It took about six hours of walking in thirty degree temperatures on exposed dusty roads before we reached the alpine meadows at the head of the valley. The views down into the valley were great but we were so exhausted by the end of it we did not really appreciate it.
The campsite was opposite a small yala inhabited by two guys from town in the summer months only. A lot of the yalas we had passed in this valley were completely unpopulated, a selection of wooden huts were collapsed roofs. So it was nice to see this one being used, though of course the cattle meant more insects. We had re hydrated Korma for tea then dived into our tent to escape being bitten.
Thursday, 15 August 2013
Barhal, Artvin, Turkey
We woke up relatively late and had breakfast. We just had to walk down the valley and back to Barhal so were not in a huge rush. The walk was enchanting, many more flowers than we had seen in the other valleys, thousands of butterflies and no people. Because it was such a narrow gorge all the villages were high above the valley floor on the upper road where they could access the pasture above. One car passed us offering us a lift but whereas we would have given our two right teeth for a lift the day before, that day we turned them down. We were very happy walking!
Around 1400 we made it into Barhal and stopped for a coke before walking the kilometre back to the hotel. Once there we checked in, had a much needed shower then relaxed to an afternoon's reading. The reading however was interrupted around 1600 by the arrival of a party of four American septuagenarians who caused a bit of a commotion by announcing the road was closed. The Kackar valley is a dead end and apparently between Barhal and Yusufeli an articulated truck had broken down and was now completely blocking the road.
We had been stuck in places before, most notably in Mexico when a volcano stopped all flights, so were used to the drill of relaxing and waiting. The hotel staff were very nice and phoned around but the most they could find out was that it would probably be cleared by tomorrow evening. That night the hotel was full as well as us and the Americans there were a party of Turks, an English and South African couple and a Slovenian couple. We all chatted over dinner inwardly panicking that we would never get out!
Friday, 16 August 2013
We had already done all of the walking we were going to so decided to spend the day relaxing on the verandah reading and trying to avoid wasps. I took a few photos of the impressive Georgian church next door which had incredibly survived from the tenth century. The Americans made arrangements to visit more churches by getting a taxi from Yusufeli to pick them up the other side of the blockage. Around 1300 we were told the road was opened and so we packed and set off.
Our next official destination was Cappadocia but it was too far away to make it in one afternoon. Instead we decided to drive to Erzurum Turkeys highest capital and 250km from the border with Iran. Setting off we quickly realised that the only thing worse than a blocked narrow road was trying to get down a recently unblocked narrow road. When we finally got past all the opposing vehicles and got to Yusufeli the drive was very scenic. It cut through the narrow Tortum gorge with had incredibly clear striations on the rock showing how recently the mountains had formed.
We got to Erzurum about 1800 and made our way up to Palandoken the ski resort which overlooks the city. We were tired and did not want to go through all the stress of parking so thought it best to base ourselves in a five star Ski lodge with swimming pool and Hammam. It being summer it was discounted. We got changed and then got a cab back into the centre of town.
I am not sure how much you can say about Erzurum. It has a collection of old mosques in the central square but the surrounding buildings are very modern. So we took our lives in our hands and went into the old quarter to find the fort. Here the buildings had been left to fall down. Perhaps victims of many earthquakes to unfit to live in but too historic to bulldoze. The fort itself was in the middle of a badly lit wasteland patrolled by three youths. We thought better of it and went for dinner.
Saturday, 17 August 2013
Urgup, Nevsehir, Turkey
The next day was a slog to Urgup in Cappadocia. The route took us through Erzincam then Sivas then Kayseri. The road cut through rolling hills and dry pastureland. Late afternoon we made it to Kayseri towering above which is Ericyes, the volcano responsible for the landscape of Cappadocia. As we approached Urgup the landscape changed to black pumice hillsides planted with vines.
Our hotel was spectacularly built into a hillside above Urgup. The hotel had originally been one of the main streets of the town. However in the fifties the authorities had deemed the cave dwellings too unsafe and had moved the tenants down to newly built flats on the valley floor. The Kayakapi Hotel was in the process of converting the stone dwellings into suites under the oversight of UNESCO. That summer they had just completed their first few rooms but eventually it will be a two hundred room hotel with swimming pool etc.
When we arrived it was fairly empty so they had upgraded us to a slightly better class of suite. And better it was, with a living room, bedroom, huge bathroom and personal hammam. All of this had been retrofitted into an existing set of rooms carved out of the volcanic tufa. To top it all we had a fantastic terrace complete with a separate breakfast room which we never actually used. We relaxed on our terrace watching the last rays of the sun then went out for dinner. We went to a place called Ziggy's and had some really nice meze along with our first bottle of the local white wine.
Sunday, 18 August 2013
Urgup, Nevsehir, Turkey
As usual we eschewed tour groups and found our own way around. We found instructions on the internet for walking in the valleys around Goreme and so set off earlyish that morning. We left our car parked near Koya camping and quickly found a trail into the deeply crenellated tufa valleys into which people have been carving their homes and churches for over a thousand years. The valley was almost completely devoid of tourists, was nice and shady and punctuated by the odd cafe where you could stop for a freshly pressed orange juice.
We soon found our first rock church which had literally been carved by hollowing out the rock, a bit like the interiors of churches we had seen in Petra.
As well as the churches there were many more dwellings, many half way up rock faces with carved footholds to reach them. Many also sported windows, dovecots and bee hives. After a while we found the Red valley and had a very pleasant walk up to its head, at which point we transferred into the rose valley which was not as pretty but did feature a couple of literally cavernous churches. We then returned up the valley we came down to where we had parked, a nice three hour circuit.
The afternoon was more car based. We first went to Mustafapasa the former Greek administrative capital of the region where there are a lot of period houses and churches. We had lunch in a small square and then visited St Nicholas, a chapel built around a rock cell where presumably some monk had based himself.
After Mustafapasa we headed North to Pasabagi, the Valley of the Monks, where we were able to see more of the traditional fairy chimneys formed when basalt rocks sit on tufa, which then gets eroded to leave a column. On the way back we stopped for sunset on a rocky ridge.
That night we ate at a more high end restaurant, the food was nice but sadly only we and a party of Italians were the only people in the place.
Monday, 19 August 2013
Pamukkale, Denizli, Turkey
We were sad to be saying goodbye to our brilliant cave room but we had promised ourselves some time by the beach. We had decided to go to the north Aegean coast as we had correctly figured out it was not going to be back to back resorts. It was also only a days drive from Istanbul so we could maximise our time at the beach. But even getting to the Aegean from Cappadocia was a two day affair so we had decided to break the journey at Pamukkale, site of the famous white travertine pools in every tourist brochure of Turkey.
The drive was scenic at first as we cut through the west of Cappadocia but we then found ourselves on an endless plain. Konya, famous for whirling dervishes, sat on the edge of the plain and looked from its outskirts very hot and industrial. We then cut through the lake district on a road which according to our map was scenic but was again seemingly under construction. This was a recurring theme of driving in Turkey, there was a huge amount of road construction and whilst on the motorway this meant being reduced to driving in one lane, as soon as we got on a scenic back road we found ourselves driving on the dirt or loose stones of a one lane road about to be re paved.
We got to Pamukkale around four in the afternoon, checked into our hotel and immediately hit the slopes. The slopes of white travertine that is, although it did resemble a ski slope. We shuffled barefoot up a white slope formed by guiding water laden with chalk run down the mountainside. We were by no means the only people there but by setting off relatively late in the day we avoided most of the tourists. The only slightly galling surprise was that there were not the acres of pools that you see in the photos. A brochure explained that the pools have to be empty of water most of the time otherwise they fill with algae so they are rotated in and out of circulation with only a few filled at any time.
We walked right round the top of the slopes and explored a fraction of the Roman ruins of Heriopolis. On the far side we found some more extensive filled terraces and here were able to get some nice shots of the sun setting over the pools. We walked barefoot back down the slope after sunset, huge spotlights illuminating the white way.
Back in Pamukkale town the hotel was a bit of a disappointment. The internet booking had only given us the option of full board but when we got to dinner we found plates with cellophane encased food already sitting at tables in a near empty restaurant. We decided to give it a miss and instead found a wonderful kebab and pide restaurant opposite the local mosque. The owner spoke excellent English and even a bit of Greek.
Tuesday, 20 August 2013
Berceste, Canakkale, Turkey
We decided not to stick around for breakfast and got in the car early to head down the excellent road towards the Izmir motorway. At this point it is worth mentioning that roads and speed limits are a bit peculiar in Turkey. The motorway speed limit is 120, whilst our guide book was telling has that non-motorways were 90. There are only two motorways in Turkey, one encircling Izmir and the other running from the Greek border through Istanbul to Ankara. However a lot of the A roads are very good dual carriageways and with large distances to cover we had mentally fallen into the trap of driving at 120 or 130 on these. And we were by no means the fastest car on the road.
Anyway we had gotten away with it for nearly two thousand km when suddenly just outside Pamukkale we found ourselves being flagged over by the police.At first I thought our lack of Turkish would put them off. But they persevered and issued us a ticket peculiarly insisting that the speed limit was 110. We took it more or less gracefully but when I went to pay cash they got very agitated. They insisted we could not pay them directly, we would have to pay at the airport (see end of trip for how this panned out). We got back in the car much more attuned to the opposing cars flashing their lights. And flash they did as it turned out speeding fines were a huge money spinner on the West coast highway.
Once past sprawling Izmir, Turkeys third largest city we stopped at Bergama to see the ruins of Pergamon . This was something we had prepared for, having been in Berlin earlier in the year we had taken the chance to visit the Pergamon museum where the temple of Zeus had been relocated by the Germans much like the Elgin marbles had been from Greece. Despite missing a large chunk it was difficult not to be impressed by the site of Pergamon, on top of a high hill overlooking all of the valley below.
We got to the Hotel Berceste by the coast near Assos around five and immediately went to explore the beach. The hotel was an interesting mix, it was a veritable castle built of volcanic stone so kept cool. The rooms were badly in need of updating but ours had a balcony with a good view of the bay and the island of Lesvos. The beach turned out to be the star, about 400m down a lane there was a black sand cove which never had more than about ten couples on it at any given point but still had a couple of not very profitable beach cafes at which to buy ice creams. The other star was the dinner area, a huge terrace had been built a little way from the hotel with sweeping views of the whole bay and from which we were able to watch the twinkling lights of Lesvos whilst having a nice set meal.
Wednesday, 21 August 2013
Berceste, Canakkale, Turkey
We had no beach towels so that was the first order of the day. Sadly it was a bit harder than we thought as the place was so remote there were no shops. We drove to Assos and found a tourist market but this only sold dresses. In the end we had to go a bit further to Ayvachik. After all the messing around it was around 1300 by the time we got to the beach so we just stayed there the rest of the day. Again we had a nice dinner over looking the bay.
Thursday, 22 August 2013
Berceste, Canakkale, Turkey
Today we were all kitted out so just got up and walked down the olive grove lined road to the beach. Here we spent the entire morning sun bathing reading and swimming. We managed a bit of snorkelling, heading over to a small reef to one side of the beach with a few rocks and puzzled looking fish. We were getting too used to doing nothing so had arranged to leave the next day but knew we would miss the relaxation.
It was Anna's birthday so we had decided to treat ourselves to a late lunch at the harbour in Assos. This was definitely where the Istanbul smart set hung out, several decent fish restaurants and a couple of hotels at the bottom of the sheer cliff of Assos Acropolis. We had to drive and park half way down the approach road. We then found a nice restaurant and installed ourselves with a nice bottle of wine from Bozcada and some Calimari and other meze. Our table was literally on the edge of the harbour, if we dropped any bread the fish finished off in short order. After a very pleasant afternoon we went back to the hotel and had another very pleasant dinner.
Friday, 23 August 2013
Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey
We were sad to go but we still had a few things to see in Istanbul so waved goodbye to Berceste. Rather than drive around the entire coast of the Sea of Marmara we made the probably sensible decision to cross the Dardanelles by ferry at Canakkale just a few hours north. We would then work our way up the Gallipoli pennisula and finally zoom through the rest of the European side of Turkey on the motorway. The ferry crossing was very well organised and we quickly got our car loaded. Some Australians heading to the war memorials started chatting to us, but after that we managed to soak in some sun whilst making the crossing from Asia to Europe.
The first hour or so was a scenic drive along the Dardanelles. We stopped for some pide at a fort originally built to protect Istanbul from invasion by the British and ironically used as a barracks by British troops during the Gallipolli campaign. The rest of the drive was quite dramatic as the cliffs along the Sea of Marmara got higher and eventually, just after Yenikoy, the road disappeared altogether and became a dirt track until we were able to get on the motorway just after Tekirdag. After this getting to Istanbul was very quick and only marred by a massive traffic jam near the airport. We finally got to our hotel around 1700.
We had decided that the centre of town was too built up so had elected to stay in one of Istanbul's northern suburbs, Bebek , a sort of village by the side of the Bosphorus. This turned out to be a good call as it was more like staying in Monaco than Istanbul. Our room was on the waterfront had a terrific view of the Bosphorous with a balcony to sit and watch the boats go by on. Along the waterfront were lots of bars and restaurants and even a mosque. There were quite a few yachts moored just offshore and every restaurant had a place to land a boat should you want to dine landside. After sitting in the terrace bar of our hotel and having a bit of a walk around we decided to go to a fish restaurant nearby and had a great time watching everyone enjoy the night. There were even some fireworks launched from the Asian side to round out the night.
Saturday, 24 August 2013
Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey
Our last full day in Turkey. We had decided to take in a couple more sights in the centre of town and so after a leisurely breakfast by the Bosphorus set about mastering Istanbul's public transport system. This turned out to be a bit like London with an Oyster card that pretty much covered every form of transport. Which was as well because we needed a bus and two trams to get to our first location the Kariye museum to the west of the Fatih area.
The Kariye museum is in fact a Byzantine church with the most well preserved mosaics and frescoes we had seen in Turkey. Its hard to explain beyond looking at a few pictures but the church was decorated in the 14th century at what must have been the height of mosaic art and the expressiveness of the figures that was achieved with only tiles is incredible. Even more unbelievable was the fact that the mosaics were hidden behind plaster for nearly 400 years due to its service as a mosque. We walked round several times taking in the detail and trying to identify the biblical scenes.
After this we got back on the tram and went to the Grand Bazaar. Anna and I differed on whether this matched up to the Souk in Damascus but it certainly was huge and the venue for well honed sales pitches. We were not after much and managed to find a great shop to buy tablecloths in where the owner charged us a decent price so we felt no need to haggle. However this was soon made up for when Anna went to buy a head scarf. The master salesman here asked Anna how much she thought one range of scarves cost. Once she answered X that was it, he knew how much we were willing to pay. Strangely enough when he moved onto another range they were double X, then with a bit of haggling Anna got him down to just over X. I strongly suspect we paid double what anyone else would have done!
We then went to the nearby Spice Bazaar which was frankly a nightmare as people were packed into it like sardines. We got what we wanted and got back onto the tram to escape to the civilised environs of Bebek. Here we spent the rest of the afternoon on our balcony watching the ships go by. That night we went out to Bebek Balikcisi, another traditional fish restaurant again right by the water.
Sunday, 25 August 2013
Bebek, Istanbul, Turkey
The next morning we had a lazy brunch by the water and then packed ourselves off to the airport to return the car. Here we had a very time consuming attempt to pay our speeding fine. We asked where we could pay it at the information desk, they told us the cashiers desk. The cashiers desk told us to pay it another cashiers desk. When we got there the person had left for lunch. We then went to the police who were a bit puzzled as to why anyone would want to pay their fine but did make a phone call. They then told us to return to the first cashier's desk where thankfully they finally agreed to take payment. It was a rigmarole and I advise anyone in the same position to get to the airport early.
And that was it, the end of our holiday in Turkey!