Sunday, 30 December 2012

Day 260 – A misleading flag and a rotten tree. (Macedonia)

Having rescued Denner from Greece and finally crossing the border into Macedonia, the first thing that we noticed was how misleading their flag is. As we drove through the border town with a grey sky above us, spots of rain falling intermittently from the sky and puddles scattered along the ground, we found the vibrant yellow sun on a bright red background that is their flag, to be a tad ironic.

Because of the time limit of aiming for Budapest for Christmas that was starting to encroach on our plans (now 16 days to cover Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia and get to  Hungary), we decided to skip the supposedly non-eventful capital of Skopje and visit Ohrid instead. Set on Lake Ohrid which is 288 m deep and the deepest lake in the Balkans, Ohrid is a beautiful old town and a popular holiday destination, especially in summer, for mainly Macedonians and Albanians. We looked into going skiing while we were there, but with only 80cm of snow, the season wasn’t yet open – an amusing concept coming from Australia where the snow season opens and closes on fixed dates regardless of snow fall, and 80cm is considered to be a very luxurious covering.

It was raining heavily when we arrived, but over night it snowed, and here began our encounter with snow that lasted for most of the Balkans. Covered in a layer of white, even with a thick fog encompassing everything bar the few metres in front of us, the town looked extra magical. We noticed that even the piles of rubble appeared stunning under a thick layer of fresh powder. At the top of the old town, set on a hill as is usually the case, was the fort which because of the weather we were the only visitors at, and was eerily quiet. From the Church of Sveti Pantelejmon which was only a little way down from the fort, we saw the lake through a gap in the fog. Wasps of steam rose from the surface and evaporated into the fog producing an incredibly surreal picture, one that Denner aptly donned “smoke on the water”.

On our way through the old town which unlike most old towns is predominantly residential and barely built into accommodation, restaurants and shops at all, we passed the ancient theatre. Much smaller and less impressive than many of the ones we’ve seen recently, such as the ones at Efes and Hierapolis, we couldn’t help but note how incredible the view from the stands was. Built on the side of the hill, the stands face out towards the lake and the distant mountains, the town surrounding it on all other sides. At this point we recalled that having a spectacular view from the stands is something that most of the ancient stadiums and theatres had in common. It’s a shame that by becoming accustomed to shelter and temperature control this is something that we miss out on these days.

We’d heard about an 800 – 900 tree known as the Plane Tree, which at various points in its life had housed a cafe and a barber shop, amongst other things. All day we’d been asking anyone we passed if they could tell us where it was, but we were met with blank stares and confused expressions. We persisted though, sure that the tree was in Ohrid and adamant that we wanted to see it, and eventually we met someone who gave us directions. Located in the centre of the new town, we finished exploring the streets of the old town before heading down to check out the famous tree. As we rounded the corner and the tree came into sight, we each paused and looked quizzically at each other. Was this really the Plane Tree? A sign mounted to the side of it told us that it was, but we found it hard to believe. We were expecting a grand tree, metres wide and stretching into the sky, perhaps an entrance to the trunk, and probably some sort of cafe/gift shop beside it. What we were instead standing in front of was a tree that may have been one or two metres wide if it was whole, but other than a thin strip of bark on either side, the entire structure was held up by black plastic supports. A few rotted braches lay in the mud where they had fallen off the dead tree, and besides a damp bench there wasn’t anywhere to sit – certainly not any sort of cafe. As the main attraction that had sold us on visiting Ohrid instead of any of the other options, this was humorously disappointing.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Day 256 - Squatting in Thessalonika. (Greece)

Day 256  - Squatting in Thessalonika.
The border crossing between Bulgaria and Greece was a breeze – our first EU to EU crossing. We weren’t even stopped at the Bulgarian side, so we continued to Greece where we were asked for our passports and car documents. A Chinese couple on a business trip from their home in Germany stopped us for a chat whilst we waited for Immigration to look through and decide that we were suitable to enter their country. Our passports were stamped both out of Bulgaria and into Greece in the same office.
In order to get to Budapest in time for Christmas, on the day that we left Bulgaria we had seven countries to do in 18 days (Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia). As a result we unfortunately didn’t have much time for each individually and would only get the chance to see a snippet of each place. It is so frustrating to miss so much, but the nature of travelling is that you actually can’t do everything you want. We could have spent less time in Central Asia or Iran and left more for this part of the world, but then we would have missed so much there. So we made our way to Thessalonika in the Northern part of Greece where we had a Couch Surfer to host us.
The great thing about using Couch Surfing is that you get the opportunity to meet people who can show you places and things that a tourist couldn’t possibly find for themselves. Our first evening in Thessalonika was a prime example of this. Our neuro-scientist host didn’t come with us, but gave us directions to a gay and lesbian movie night at a bar in a squat near his house. We arrived at the spot on the map that he had marked and found ourselves at the end of an alleyway, looking at a high wall covered in anxty graffiti topped with barbed wire and void of any sign of life. He had warned us that the entrance may be hard to find and we might have to circle the block a couple of times to find our way in. We discovered a gate at a corner, surrounded with posters and fliers demonstrating the anarchist movement, so making the assumption that this was what we were looking for, we entered the complex from there.
It’s not often that we feel over dressed or fancy, but this was certainly one of them. Through a dark and overgrown garden there was the “bar” where we were greeted by a very well spoken young man in a ripped tracksuit who politely asked us if we’d been here before and whether we’d like to watch an independent German movie. No, we hadn’t been here before and no thankyou, we’d skip the movie in German (we can’t speak German). Well in that case he proposed that we find ourselves something to drink while he switched the movie on, and then if we like he can show us around.
Passing a group of died-hair, pierced young girls who sat at the bar, we helped ourselves to beer from the fridge and were welcome to any of the bits and pieces of spirits and juice lying around. A till lay open on the counter and no one watched while we tried to figure out what was a reasonable price to pay. We sat at a table next to a dusty motorbike helmet and a ripped poster listing events at a film festival and waited for our well spoken, track suited tour guide to fetch us.
The complex was originally a factory up until the 1960s/70s when it became the site of regular protests, as was the fashion at the time (and still is in Greece). After that it fell into abandonment until around 2001 when it was turned into a squat housing 20-30 people at any one time. During this period it was a centre for Thessalonika’s underground, hosting regular music concerts, art exhibitions and other such community events. Now no one lives in it, but it still functions as a kind of illegal community activist centre, with a cafe/bar, a makeshift cinema, a library, BMX and skate-boarding parks and an information centre. Due to neglect by its inhabitants the buildings have fallen largely into disrepair again though and a lot of the events that used to be hosted can’t happen anymore. They are hoping to house people again in the future and return to functioning as a squat, but the Ministry of Culture has recently been given the complex by the government who wants to repair and develop it into something they see to be productive.  Fortunately for the current users of the “squat” though the government doesn’t have the funds to support their plans so are unable to forcefully reclaim it.
Our tour took us through the information centre which was in a sort of foyer to the main building, furnished by makeshift wooden tables on which a wide selection of political propaganda was haphazardly displayed. Various bits of paper were strewn on the ground, torn and muddy from being walked all over. Next to an old-fashioned stove in a corner of the space a doorway led to the library, the walls of which were lined with sparsely filled bookshelves. We were shown through a painted doorway, past a broken shopping trolley and a pile of dusty mattresses to a skate park, which was in use at the time. A vast dark space was ahead, nothing but pillars and a few beer cans in view, until a flight of stairs which took us past an entire burnt out floor (every squat has at least one) to the rooftop. On the way upstairs our guide opened a door to show us a room, but promptly closed it again before we could see inside, explaining that this was a private room, currently being used by BMXers, so we weren’t able to look in at the moment. The stairwell itself was an explosion of political art, every part of the walls making a point, whether in words or in pictures, or often both. The rooftop we were taken to was the concert venue of 10 years ago, now nothing but a dingy concrete space with rubble piled up in the corners. The vantage point from here was exceptional though and we realised just how huge the complex was. We could see the building that was used for housing and the rows and rows of factory floor that has now been left to completely disintegrate.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Day 255 – A breach in Trevor’s privacy. (Bulgaria)

Whilst enjoying the fine comedy from the previous blog (Day254 – Sandwiches, Sashimi and Snow) we were parked just down the street from the venue in the centre of town, right in front of another bar, a restaurant and next to some sort of unofficial taxi rank. Despite the number of people and cars coming and going continuously around our parking location though, we returned to find that we had been broken into, making this the second time on our trip (the first being in Almaty, Kazakhstan: Blog Day 121  - The inconvenience of having one’s carbroken into).

Ben had been driving and I was sitting in the back seat behind him, so as we reached our respective doors and noticed that they were unlocked, each of us thought “oops, I left my door unlocked, that’s a de-merit point”. (We have a de-merit point system which is in place to punish behaviour such as leaving a door unlocked, stalling the car, leaving a window open, spilling something over the car seat, driving off with our stupid electric back window still down and other such mistakes. Each of us gets three de-merits per day and since no one has ever reached the designated three, we haven’t ever decided what happens if someone was to. It would however, be decidedly heinous. The point of the system is to playfully chastise each other and point out each other’s wrongdoings to make us feel better about our own.) Then we both opened our doors simultaneously and at the same moment as I noticed that the grill separating the back seat and the boot was mangled and bits of our belongings were strewn over the back seat, Ben was confronted with an open glove box and strewn cables and chargers all over the front seats. Realising in this instant that neither of us had made a chastise-able mistake, but in fact we had been broken into, our hearts skipped a beat, then I checked all the windows to find no damage, and Ben checked the driver’s door lock to find a shard of key jammed into the butchered hole.

We lowered our back window which is progressively struggling more and more and looked through the boot to find that Tunkles’ bag, Denner’s bag and the bag known as the “souvenir bag” (mainly mine and Ben’s) were missing. We all have backpacks that were safely in our accommodation, and Ben had taken his big bag in as well. Mine had obviously been picked up and moved, but we’re guessing our thieves had to quickly make a dash for some reason, forced to spare my bag. Ben, Denner and our host spread out to search the nearby alleyways and stairwells, while I looked after Trevor and took a closer look at what might be missing. As far as I could tell none of our chargers had been taken, and fortunately I had removed the video camera and Denner’s camera from their usual storage space of the centre console, just that afternoon. Amusingly my mobile phone had been picked up and dropped on the front seat, obviously not good enough to bother stealing. Our document box was still in tact and the tool box was fine. I found the air pump which we replaced when it was stolen in our previous theft incident, and the medical kit, and as far as I could tell, anything that was left loose had been left loose. None of the journals, notebooks and maps in the backseats had been touched.

While I waited for the others to return I endeavoured to clean up the shambles that was the back seat; bending some of the disfigured metal grill vaguely back into place, just enough that the back seats could be pushed back to an angle that could be sat in, and returned some shoes, maps and hats to the dishevelled boot. An array of dismembered koalas and kangaroos that used to be keyrings which were intended to be gifts for people we met along the way, lay disturbingly across the floor.

After a while Ben returned empty handed and disheartened and headed off in the other direction to keep looking. A bit later Denner and our host returned also empty handed and were just about to continue looking in different spots when we saw a shadow approaching us in the distance. Was it Ben? And was he carrying something? The shadow walked under a street lamp and we realised that yes, it was Ben, and yes, he was carrying something. A bag. It was the souvenir bag, ramshackled but full of our belongings; a journal which had been in Denner’s bag poking out of one pocket, a doll from Uzbekistan, some thermals and lots of other things falling out the top. While I tried to contain everything and place it in the car, they all ran off to try and save whatever else had been left in this particular alleyway.

We retrieved basically everything from the souvenir bag, and a considerable amount of stuff from Denner’s bag, although the actual bag and still quite a few of his things are missing. Even when we went back the following day to have a better search in daylight though, we couldn’t find anything of Tunkles’ anywhere. Denner was sure that his ipod had been in the glove box, which was the only item of any sort of monetary value that had been taken. The following day though we panicked for a minute when Denner couldn’t find his passport, then as we were hurriedly rummaging through everything to look for it, I inadvertently stumbled across the ipod in a trouser pocket.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Day 254 – Sandwiches, Sashimi and Snow. (Bulgaria)

After our satisfyingly un-corrupt border crossing we camped in the cold for one night before arriving in Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia, where we were most impressed by the friendliness of Bulgarians. While we were waiting to hear from our Couch Surfing host we spotted our first Subway in many many months, so decided to indulge ourselves in a Sub of the Day. As we parked though, a group of old men sitting at the front of a coffee shop greeted us excitedly and invited us to join them for a cup of coffee. They were most impressed by the stickers from all the countries we’ve visited on our car (though not overly interested in why we have them, more so in the physical stickers themselves) and we struggled through the language barrier to chat with them for the duration of a cup of coffee. We excused ourselves to have our Subway lunch and couldn’t believe it when we received the best Subway service any of us have ever experienced. This sandwich artist’s understanding of the menu was paramount, his demeanour was utterly professional, yet the epitome of friendliness, and his cheese tessellation was perfect. With still a bit of time to spare before meeting our host we found an op-shop where we were most surprised to find that prices weren’t per item, but by weight. That was certainly a first for me!

We met our host at his apartment and he took us on an excellent tour of Sofia’s night life. Our first stop was the opening of a tiny bar, with ceilings so low that our slightly-taller-than-average host couldn’t stand up straight and packed so full that we had to spend most of our time on the pavement. They were giving away local beers to celebrate/promote the opening though and we got to meet most of Bulgaria’s mountaineering community. Our next stop was another bar’s opening, but this one was more like a trendy cafe decorated with records and bookshelves and serving gluhwein as their promotional drink. It ticked over midnight while we were there so seeing it was Ben’s birthday the following day, we all sang happy birthday before going to the third and final destination of the evening.

Sofia is about 600m above sea level and is surrounded by mountains reaching over 2,000m, which in winter are flocked to by snow boarders, skiers and ice-climbers, and in summer by hikers and rock-climbers. The next event in our evening’s schedule was about 1,900m up, past the snow line, at a ski resort chalet with Bulgaria’s free riding community. The road leading up the mountain is a very well maintained cobble-stone road, comfortably wide with stunning views over the city, and reaching snow for the first time on this trip we were very excited.

The following day, which was Ben’s birthday, we headed out to explore Sofia. Although the night life exists, and the surrounding mountains are very beautiful, Sofia is not an overly exciting or pretty city (though it is a very driving friendly city). Our first stop was the war museum which sports an extensive selection of tanks, planes, trucks and guns. From there we circled the city, noting from the car the Sofia statue which honours Sofia’s namesake, Saint Sofia, and the Communist Building, which is a building that was built under Communism. We actually quite enjoyed our quick stop at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral which is a very beautiful church that has not been tarnished at all by tourism. The thermal springs located right in the heart of the city were particularly interesting though. There were many taps lined up throughout a square, packed with men and women – mainly old, a few middle aged – each carrying half a dozen or more 10L and 20L containers. Bulgarian tap water is widely accepted as undrinkable, so although bottled water is relatively cheap, a lot of people – mainly older – cannot afford to purchase it.

After this extensive tour of Sofia, we used Ben’s birthday as an excuse to treat ourselves to lunch at Happy Sushi, a local chain of Japanese restaurants. The food was very nice and although it wasn’t perfectly true to Japanese, it wasn’t far off. I can’t pretend it’s not odd though to watch chefs in a Japanese style open kitchen, kitted out in Japanese chefs’ garb and producing dainty platters of sashimi, yet all tall, dark and quite clearly Bulgarian, yelling at each other in the deep, harsh tones of the Bulgarian language.

Our plan for the next day was to drive up the mountain in the daylight, take in the view and play in the snow. We needn’t have bothered though as the clouds were so low we had barely enough visibility to see the road, let alone the view over the valley. Playing in the snow was fun and it started to snow while we were up there, but we didn’t realise at the time that we needn’t have bothered with that either. As we descended back to Sofia, we kept wondering how far down the snow line was. Surely it had only been a couple of hundred metres from the top on the way up. But it was snowing now, quite heavily actually, and it just kept going even as we approached the city. When we got back to the outskirts we realised it was now snowing there too and the whole city was covered. Suddenly Sofia was much prettier than we’d previously realised. To their credit though, the Bulgarian drivers became very cautious and sensible as soon as the roads became slippery and treacherous.

That evening we went with our host to an interactive stand up comedy show. Members of the audience get up and tell a story – any story at all – in Bulgarian and then the two hosts translate it between them into English. Everyone else seemed to think it was the most outrageously hilarious thing ever, but we just didn’t get it at all. It was only afterwards that we discovered it was because neither the Bulgarian nor the English is especially funny – the hilarity is in the translation. As every single Bulgarian (except our coffee drinking friends from our first day) speaks perfect English, they can spin clever puns and make sneaky comparisons that only work if you completely understand both languages. So that was kind of lost on us, but never mind, it was still quite an experience.


Sunday, 16 December 2012

Day 251 – Bad cops turned good. (Border crossing Turkey to Bulgaria)

Having heard disturbing reports from various people about the levels of corruption at the border crossing between Turkey and Bulgaria, we had considered going to Bulgaria through Greece. It would be a bit of a detour but perhaps it would be worth it if it really was as bad as everyone was making out, and if it really was that bad then two borders crossings might just be quicker than one. Ben did a bit of research beforehand though and found that things had been cleaned up a bit under the general guise of the EU, including the arrests of 30 border guards from this crossing on the basis of corruption. We weighed up the fact that we’ve driven all the way through South East Asia, Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus and not had any problems, and decided to take our chances.

When we entered Turkey from Georgia two weeks previously (Blog Day 237 – Good luck), we felt like we were leaving professionalism and efficiency and entering chaos, but oddly enough we felt like this again leaving Turkey and entering Bulgaria. We sat in the organised single file queue and waited for the Turkish border guards to promptly stamp us out of the country, wish us well on our travels, and send us towards Bulgaria. It wasn’t the same type of jovial chaos as we experienced when entering Turkey, but more of an uncontrolled ex-Soviet wasteland. Approaching the dingy cement booth where we would have our passports checked, we noticed warning signs provided by the EU plastered on all the grey walls. Written in Bulgarian, Russian, Turkish and English they outlined exactly what travellers were and weren’t required to pay.

All drivers on Bulgarian roads are required to purchase a vignette, for which the prices were outlined on the signs (5 for 5 days, 13 for one month and 34 one year). We were informed that these can be purchased either at the border or at any petrol station within 30km of the border. It was highlighted that no one should pay anything at the border if they felt at all uncomfortable and no fees other than the vignette are required. We were also informed that all police in Bulgaria will be in blue jackets with “POLICE” written on the backs, with or without yellow reflective vests and driving white Opal Astras with blue “POLICE” markings, and no one should stop for or pay money to anyone that doesn’t fit this description. It’s slightly concerning when such statements need to be made, but seeing as they do, it’s fantastic that they have.

They guards weren’t particularly open and friendly, but the system ran smoothly, we weren’t asked for any illegitimate payments and the entire process took just under half an hour.

For more information on the vignette there are plenty of web pages if you just search “Bulgarian vignette”.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Day 251 – The hustle and bustle of life lived between two continents. (Turkey)

Having heard many reports on the horrendous traffic and parking in Istanbul, we were prepared for a challenge. Making our way into the very centre of town at rush hour though, we were pleasantly surprised at how bearable the traffic was – not even comparable to Tehran, Bangkok or Phnom Penh. It was heavy for sure, but it moved continuously and the drivers weren’t particularly erratic at all. A tip for anyone planning to navigate a vehicle through Istanbul: don’t listen to any nay-sayer who will try and convince you that it’s impossible, but if you want to get a really great run into the centre of town take Kennedy Cadessi (Street). Parking was a task, but compared to some of the obstacles we’ve overcome, it wasn’t too big a deal. Parking on the street in the centre of town is restricted, in some places it is free, in some payment is required, and there are plenty of secure lots all over the city. You’re unlikely to stumble upon a spot right away, but with a little patience one will certainly pop up.

We had one day with Tunkles before he left us for a week, which we used to visit the main tourist sites – the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya Museum, the grand bazaar and the general sights and sounds of one of the most hustling and bustling cities in the world. We found the Blue Mosque to be a lot more tasteful and less sold out that our cynical selves had assumed. There was no entrance fee even though it is quite obviously only a tourist attraction and no longer a functioning mosque, men were required to have their legs covered, women were asked to cover up including heads, and there were subtle bulletin boards and leaflet stands providing information on Islam dotted all over the outside (not inside) of the mosque. The building was well maintained and despite the crowd flowing through, we were somehow encompassed by a sense of quiet calm. I covered my head as directed, as did many others, but still the majority of tourists ignored the signs and entered with ponytails and necks on display. Regardless of whether this is a valid rule in the first place, and as much as I appreciate the fact that there was no sense of intimidation so women weren’t made to feel uncomfortable, it does bother me that such a rule is put in place yet not enforced and so blatantly broken.

We had high expectations for the grand bazaar, possibly unfairly high, and they were far from met. The issue is probably that after the Tehran bazaar which controls 30% of Iran’s entire economy, spans more than 10km and sells anything you could possibly think of, probably no other bazaar in the world will ever compare. We found the Istanbul grand bazaar to be horribly touristic, audaciously overpriced and as is often the case, a group of shops selling identical items. A few things did grab our attention, but unfortunately the only purchase I really wanted to make was a hat. It just happened though, that it was in the only shop which wasn’t directed for tourists but was in fact a wholesaler where I wasn’t allowed to buy fewer than ten of any item. It was a nice hat, but I really didn’t have any use for ten of them.

We spent our first night in a hostel in Fatih which is the tourist centre of Istanbul, near the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofya, the Saltan’s Palace, the grand bazaar and all the souvenir shops and fancy restaurants. For the remainder of our stay though we were hosted by Yalin who we met on Couch Surfing, and she showed us some incredible impossible-to-find-on-your-own spots. Istanbul is dissected by the fault line between the European and Asian tectonic plates, providing the amusing and entirely accurate terms for areas within the city, “European side” and “Asian side”.  Taksim is a suburb on the European side where young locals enjoy their spare time in trendy cafes down narrow alley ways, up-market clothing stores on the classy main street and off-the-beaten-track restaurants and bars in obscure apartment blocks. Our host expertly guided us through the maze of steep side streets to her favourite restaurant – down an alley way, off a side street and round a corner, through a beaten-up metal door, into a sketchy lift and up to the 6th floor – where we enjoyed real local food that real local people eat. After our meal we were led through more of the maze to some of her favourite night life spots – all completely hidden from the streets and therefore refreshingly void of tourists.

The following night Yalin invited us to join her at a bar in Kadikoy on the Asian side, where her and her dance class were having a Blues night. Once again, what a fabulous insight into Istanbul life, and we got the unexpected opportunity to dabble in the art of Blues dancing. On our way to our evening of dancing we stopped for some street food and sampled a local delicacy. Seafood is very prevalent in Istanbul, and fishing is an integral part of life. The main bridge crossing the Golden Horn in the centre of town is covered all day every day by fishermen, lined up along the edges with boxes and buckets of their catch strewn along the pavement. Seafood is advertised at almost every restaurant and many establishments only sell seafood. We spotted a few blokes standing near the river with trays of mussels, and unlike the roasted chestnut carts which seem to be all over every city in every country, but from which I’ve never seen anyone purchasing anything, these mussel sellers had queues of enthusiastic buyers. We hadn’t summoned the courage to actually try them though until Yalin persuaded us. They are stuffed with a flavoursome rice mixture and the method for eating one is to crack it in half, slot one bit of shell into the other part which is holding the rice/oyster mixture and scoop it into your mouth all at once.

Istanbul is a very water-centric city with two rivers, the Bosphoros and the Golden Horn, running through the centre and a large part of life seeming to revolve around the water. Aside from the afore-mentioned fishing culture and abundance of seafood, not to mention the large amounts of trade that revolve around transportation on the Bosphoros, the ferries that run on both rivers and the cruises for tourists are an important part of Istanbul life. During our stay we enjoyed catching the ferries back and forth between Asia and Europe, never tiring of how humorous it was to change continents several times a day. It did feel a bit odd leaving Trevor in Asia while we explored Europe though.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Day 246 – Breakfast in Asia, Europe for lunch, and back to Asia for dinner. (Turkey)

We arrived in the town of Canakkale in the late afternoon and after exploring the streets a little and satisfying ourselves with well priced donors, met up with our Couch Surfing host. Ibrahim and his family were the perfect hosts, providing us not only with a warm bed, but also some much needed hearty home-cooked meals, expertly made Turkish coffee and above all else an abundance of genuine hospitality and intriguing conversation. We could have happily stayed with them forever, but unfortunately Gallipoli was the only main thing for us to see before we had to keep moving.

The Gallipoli Peninsula is where the ANZAC’s (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) fought the Turks alongside the Allies in WWI. What makes it so devastating and significant is that they were mistakenly (there are several theories on why the mistake was made, or whether it was even a mistake at all) guided to land their ships at an unforgiving cliff face instead of the miles of flat beach surrounding it. Tens of thousands of soldiers were unnecessarily killed on both sides and the battle is looked upon as an overwhelming and horrendous waste of good men. Instead of holding it against the opposing side, most Australians feel a sense of camaraderie with the Turks and regard this as a turning point in their own sense of National identity. ANZAC Day is one of the most important dates in Australian culture and as such Gallipoli is a site that almost every Australian will make a trip to at some point in their lives.  

Not surprisingly Canakkale is riddled with hotels, cafes and bars flying Australian flags and sporting names such as “ANZAC Cafe”, “Boomerang Bar” and “Crowded House Hotel”. This is somewhere we were quite relieved to be visiting during low season as we can imagine the ruckus that a town full of Aussie holiday makers would cause. Aside from this though, we were very pleased at how tactfully preserved the peninsula is. Under-stated grave sites and memorial plaques riddled the whole area, with monuments to both sides, and barely any tacky souvenir shops. A few trenches and bunkers have been left in place and sporadic information boards gave information about various places and events.

The Dardanelles is the thin strip of water which dissects Turkey between the Mediterranean Sea and the Marmara Sea, and also happens to house the fault line between the European and Asian tectonic plates. Canakkale on the East side is therefore technically in Asia, whilst Gallipoli located to the West of the Dardanelles is on the European side. So not only is Gallipoli a significant historical and cultural site, but for us it was also the point at which we had officially successfully driven all the way from our homes in Melbourne, to geographical Europe. Amusingly we woke up in Asia, then went to Europe to visit Gallipoli and returned to Asia (Ibrahim residing in Canakkale on the Eastern side) for dinner and sleeping, before returning to Europe the following morning. We laughed when we learnt that Ibrahim’s brother whilst living in Asia all his life, used to go to school in Europe, and joked about it regularly. We were to have much more of this hilarity in Istanbul which is split down the centre by the fault line between the two tectonic plates, and each area is generally referred to as either the “European side” or the “Asian side”.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Day 245 - Turkish Antiquities: Part 2 (Turkey)

We stayed at a pensione in the touristic coastal town of Kusadasi, which is laden with accommodation, restaurants, bars and tourist shops. We can only imagine that in summer the place would be heaving, tourists filling the streets day and night, lights and noise everywhere, but during our stay it was little more than a ghost town. Exploring the streets in the evening was eerie, with an entire maze of streets reserved only for bars, but all boarded up and lifeless.

From Kusadasi we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Listed and world renowned ancient city of Efes. Not only is it a large and very well preserved example of an ancient city of the region, but it is also the home of the now destroyed Temple of Artemis, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. It was certainly the most impressive of all of the similar sites we’ve visited (Afrodisias, Hierapolis and Troy) and as such the most ridden with tourists – even far away from peak season it was horrendous. We were disappointed though that there is no marking of where the Temple of Artemis used to stand.

Troy was the last of our intended stops before Canakkale and Gallipoli. This was the least impressive of all the ruined cities we visited, but the main attraction there is the replica of the Trojan Horse. Although we were excited to see the horse, and even enter it and explore a little, it was a pretty tacky replica, not really resembling what we suppose the actual horse would have looked like. Tom, Tom and I climbed up the stairwell into the horse and Ben asked a bystander to take a photo of us all together peering out the windows and then ran up to meet us. Only after we’d left did we check the photos and realised we’d chosen possibly the worst photographer of all time. The first photo had us all and the horse in it, but the next three that he took “for good measure” cut out Tom Unkles in one, Tom Unkles and I in another, and all three of us bar Ben in another. Perhaps our bystander misunderstood and thought Ben only wanted a photograph of himself.

Troy was the end of our tour of the Turkish Antiquities, leaving us at the doorstep of the town of Canakkale and the haunting war site of Gallipoli. It wasn’t long now until we’d be in geographical Europe.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Day 243 - Turkish Antiquities: Part 1 (Turkey)

Our first few days in Turkey were a whirlwind of long driving days and covering large distances without stopping to see much. Our aim was to cut through the centre of the country quite promptly and slow down to explore the West coast once we got to it. It’s a shame to miss so much of this culturally and historically rich nation, but our time is running shorter and shorter and unfortunately we just can’t see everything.

 Having said this, we did pause at two lovely towns in the Northern part of the country – Amasya and Safranbolu. The old town of Amasya is laid alongside a river, and with relaxing parkland lining one river bank and traditional Ottoman houses lining the other, it is a beautiful to township to explore. What sets it apart from other quaint historical towns though is that it is nestled between cliff faces, one of which is topped with a castle. Magnificent tombs are carved into the side of the cliff overlooking the town, from which you can get a spectacular view.

Safranbolu is UNESCO World Heritage Listed because of its prolific Ottoman style architecture. It was quite typically touristy with small cobble-stoned laneways lined with European style cafes and souvenir shops, but quaint and enjoyable all the same. The buildings were really very interesting and if you’re willing to go exploring past the central maze of touristic streets, there are some very quirky and unique parts to the town.

Almost at the West coast, we found one of our best camping spots of all time near the sites of Pamukkale, Hierapolis and Afrodisias. The ground was flat, we were away from prying eyes, a camp fire place was already built, we had fire wood, and it wasn’t too cold, but most importantly we had a spectacular view over the valley, reaching for miles in each direction.

Pamukkale was the main site we were interested in, but Denner was using a gooey substance to fix a hole in the radiator and needed us to drive further than it was to Pamukkale, so instead, we visisted Afrodisias first. Set in the hills, away from any major (or even minor for that matter) cities/towns, we were horrified to find that they were charging for parking. This is one place in Turkey where space is not an issue, yet they have blocked everything off to force you to park in the pay parking a kilometre away from the entrance. There is actually a road that leads all the way to the entrance where there are two huge car parks, also blocked off so that not only do you need to pay for parking, but you’re forced to ride their novelty tractor service that runs from the car park to the entrance. In summer I imagine that all this parking would be packed, rendering a need for a tractor service, but still not charging for parking. Never the less there were only two buses and about four cars when we arrived so the whole thing is just quite offensive. We were most perturbed at this and refused to give into their extortion of tourists, so drove a bit along the road where we just parked in a lay-by and walked back.

Afrodisias itself was an interesting ruins to explore, my favourite part of which was the oblong sports stadium that stretched 270 metres and could sit 30,000 people. Although nowhere near as huge and well preserved as Efes, there were far less tourists here and it was still very interesting. We decided to use the same camping spot as the previous night, making that now the first camping spot we have returned to.

The following day had Pamukkale and Hierapolis in hold for us – Hierapolis being an ancient city and Pamukkale being its water source. Hierapolis, whilst being the ruins of an ancient city, is similar in many ways to a lot of other sites. Pamukkale on the other hand is highly unique and incredibly spectacular – one of the best things we’ve seen on this trip in fact – thus overshining Hierapolis in its beauty and intrigue. When approaching the site, you are faced with a wall of gleaming white, stretching as far as the eye can see (it was foggy the day we were there so it wasn’t actually all that far in this case). Even knowing that it wasn’t, it was hard to believe that it was anything other than a hill covered in fresh snow. The white colouring is caused by the high levels of calcium in the springs that trickles over the hill, forming shining blue terraces of the thermal water. Visitors are required to remove their shoes before walking on the area, so during the ascent across the travertines you can feel the difference between the temperatures in the water – some of it is thermal, some a little warm and some freezing cold. The calcium deposits itself in waves, forming unique patterns on the floor; rock hard in some places, soft and squishy in others.

An ancient thermal bath is located at the top of the hill, available for swimming in for the fee of 30 Lira ($15) per person (entrance to the site was 20 Lira per person). We went prepared to swim, excited at the idea and expecting a somewhat authentically styled bathhouse which we could enjoy the thermal mineral water in. As it turns out though, even though the travertines themselves are very intact and un-abused, the complex between the two sites (Pamukkale and Hierapolis) is obnoxiously touristic and quite built up. The “ancient bathhouse” that we were so intrigued about was just a small pool decorated with fake plants, backing onto a row of shops, a tacky massage parlour and a virtual video studio. It was a shame that this part of the experience was so artificial, and after the incredible Pamukkale we were quite disappointed and decided to opt out of taking a dip. This disappointment though was nowhere near enough to take away from the amazing time we had exploring Pamukkale.