Continuing our cruise on the Black Sea we berthed at the charming port of Batumi, Georgia. I say charming with irony as the seafront façade is very European with high-end fashion shops back dropped by the ‘minor Causicus’ mountains. Travelling inland a few hundred metres the shanty towns are tumbling down. Another hundred metres on you come across building sites galore. The target of the wrecker’s ball is dozens of soviet-style apartments, judging by the look of them totally uninhabitable. Donald Trump has set up an office here to catch the wave of development produced by an emerging tourist industry. The first target is for Turkish holidaymakers on the lookout for casinos forbidden by Islamist law in their own country. Multi-story casinos are popping up like mushrooms in new developments of international hotels and apartments. The weather is certainly more moderate in Batumi than Turkey so it’s not difficult to see the place taking off in years to come.
The next day held in store a totally different experience; climbing hundreds of steps up a mountainside and 60 down into the monastery we’d set out for. The air was thin and the oppressive humidity had all but gone. The cruise director had given us a daunting outline of the ascent/descent where I’d perceived no handrails to narrow staircases clinging to rock faces plunging 100s of metres down to deep, lush valleys of pine and streams. 700 metres or so of climbing over gigantic tree roots and walking loose gravel paths all too easy to slip on. I was uneasy at the prospect of the day ahead. However, I thought big tree roots would be harder to miss than the small slippery variety that had tripped me up in the NZ bush a year ago, and I set out with my two trusty tramping poles, and Harry of course.
This was one of the stand-out tours of the trip. It left a wonderful memory.
After Mary had been canonized she appeared in a vision to a monk in Northern Turkey. She asked for a monastery to be built in the area looking down the Altindere Valley. Legend has it two monks set out on donkeys to look for a suitable site. They decided a strategy that left the decision in the ‘hands of the Lord’ although a cynic might be inclined to believe it had been left to the donkeys. It was decided wherever the donkeys stopped, they had arrived at the blessed site.
The sheer cliff has been carved out over the centuries. Layer upon layer of painted frescos revealed by subsequent archeologists from the late 19th century and continues today. Many reveal the Black Virgin and in time this Byzantine monastery drew hundreds of cloistered monks and a city grew within its walls.
We entered the Black Sea from Istanbul three days ago and explored two northern Turkish ports. The onshore expedition included another Turkish Mosque; this one however came with a twist. Originally it had been built as a Christian church within a fortified region built to protect early Christians following the disciple appointed no. 12 after the death of Judas. Ataturk came along in 1923 with his secular politics and removed the church from its ‘Christian’ status into that of ‘museum’. The ‘museum’ remained until just one month ago when it reverted to ‘mosque’. Our guide, for those of you following my posts, is very critical of the current government’s trend toward Islamic rule. He informed us his commentary would be closely monitored by those in control of the ‘mosque’ while we remained in the compound. It was hot and oppressive. I had begun to feel uncomfortable in the high humidity. The prospect of another gloomy mosque crammed with tourists just didn’t appeal so I sought the shade of a portico while the rest of the group trooped inside. After a few minutes our group came out and disappeared into a knave on the other side. Lest I lose sight of them I followed. Looking around the gloom I noticed what I thought to be at the time restoration work; the dome was boarded up and the walls were covered with sheets of hardboard. I’d failed to notice before entering workmen laying red carpet across the stone floors. People had taken their shoes off at the door and here was I stranded on red carpet wearing flip-flops!
It was two days later when Harry was checking this post I got the full story. In the month since the change of status from museum to mosque, the ‘renovations’ included covering the frescoes of Christian origin, hence the sheets of hardboard. Carpet had been laid throughout in order to have visitors remove their shoes. This knowledge on top of the guide’s commentary being bugged no doubt will give you an idea where the current Islamist government is headed. There are general elections here next year and so it’s good we’ve made it to Turkey before the build-up to those.
It was my longest bus trip since Morocco over 40 years ago, twelve hours in total. We arrived in Pamukale, having been promised by our local guide the “best 5 star hotel in town, which wasn’t really 5 star.” This created some curiosity but we were left to discover for ourselves the true meaning behind his words and unfortunately I wasn’t in the most receptive of moods for any surprises.
After a shower and quick change of clothes our hunger was the next thing to tackle. We arrived in the most massive dining room you could imagine seating hundreds of people and bigger than a ballroom. A large annex off to the side housed the buffet. Here we were faced with the usual array of Turkish food interspersed with international fare passing as Russian cuisine. Along with the crowds that began to appear, the volume increased and so did the bustling impatience of Russian diners. It was certainly no more than an average meal and didn’t deliver the array of spice and texture of previous Turkish meals, but after the day-long road trip it ended our day on a more comfortable note.
We made our way back through the reception teeming with children wrapped in towels and hair dripping wet. Some bikini-clad women sashayed down the narrow hall ways where no potted plants or wall decorations were to be seen. The Spa Hotel in Pamukale must be the plainest, most featureless hotel in that international chain. More was to come. Two king-size beds pushed together invited anything up to a group of a dozen to share the space. I pulled what looked like a curtain across the single window, when it promptly fell off its perch and parachuted to the floor. What we needed was coffee, but no. An empty electric jug, cups and saucers were provided; no teaspoons, no sugar no coffee. I thought this was an oversight on the part of housekeeping perhaps and phoned a number destined to connect with Room Service. After dialing three more numbers I was told it would “be right up”. It was and cost me 8 Turkish lira, a bit less than $NZ8. That is 8TL for 2 thin paper tubes of powdered coffee measuring no more than three quarters of a teaspoon in each one, 2 similarly wrapped tubes of sugar and two plastic swizzle sticks.
It was the next day after we’d visited the calcium rich hot springs and terraces I learned the Russian link to all this. Turkey is a short three hour flight from Russia and over a weekend buses ferry tourists into the Resort. Fifteen years ago it was Turkish-managed and quite lavish with indoor pools and spas as well as a large Olympic-size pool outside. Sadly after a profitable 5 years, the underground springs feeding the white terraces began to dry up and in another 10 the tourist destination was in its death throes. The ‘Resort’ fell into disrepair due to bad management and was virtually abandoned. That’s when the Russians picked it up for a song and turned it into a playground for the Russian middle classes.
We visited the Pools and beautiful white terraces the next day, an area pleasantly developed with board walks and planted shade areas to giving respite from the heat. We got up here around 8:30am and already tourists and day trippers swarmed the paths. There was noticeably less water spilling over the terraces than when I had visited in 1976 and unlike then footwear had to be removed before entering the water. This entailed walking over a few metres of rough and sometimes sharp scoria but after paddling in the calcium-rich pools I was pleased to discover my feet had become smooth-soled and I felt I was walking back to the bus on a cloud! The water was a comfortable temperature and I spent quite a while standing ankle deep in the soft water observing the scantily clad Russian girls pouting and posing to the snapping tablets, i-phones, and digital cameras of their friends.
After stopping here for just over an hour we returned to our coaches and proceeded over the mountains and down to the coast. We encountered the only rain on our trip so far. It was heavy but abated when we neared the city of Izmir.
We had visited Troy the previous afternoon in searing heat to see the ‘new-ish’ horse and ancient ruins. A couple of passengers suffered heatstroke. Today we set out for Gallipoli on the southern coast at 6:30am. Ouch! I wasn’t banking on another such start after the balloons at Cappadocia but we piled into our waiting coaches one, two, and three for a short drive to the ferry terminal.
We have an excellent local guide on our bus. He’s an historian and speaks good English. I was looking forward to his commentary as we approached Anzac Bay. He didn’t disappoint. When we’re on site we wear ‘whispers’ that links us to our guide at all times. He is softly spoken and with no other tourists in sight, we were treated to the wonderful atmosphere that prevails around Anzac Cove and North Beach. We proceed on up to Cunuc Bair to the ANZAC memorial. The most moving thing for me however is hearing the story of Turkish mothers waving their sons off to school in the morning all those years ago, never to see them again. The Turkish army kidnapped the boys to fight against the invading Anzacs. The impossible struggle from the seashore to seize the ridges above landing areas became real and it was a quieter group than usual, all of us I’m sure reflecting on the tragedy of the loss of a generation of young men so needed to return, lead and continue building our nations of New Zealand and Australia. All the while mothers in England, Canada and India were left to mourn their sons as well.
We were in and around the Anzac landings and trenches for around 5 hours before re-crossing The Dardanelles back to the port in Chanakkale. We left there at 1:15pm and set out for our long sea journey to Samsun where we‘ll dock and travel inland to Amaysa in Northern Turkey.
As I finish up today’s blog we have left the Dardanelles and cruised back out into the Aegean Sea. A ribbon of light along the coast shows me we have reached Istanbul. Soon we’ll travel the same route down the Bosphorus as we had arrived from the Greek Islands last week. Tomorrow we’ll enter the Black Sea for the next leg our adventure although tomorrow promises to be a day of relaxation; reading, posting blogs and doing pretty much as we please, albeit within the confines of the ship.
Today’s post is written on a bus that departed Cappadocia at 7am. The trip from central Turkey to Pamukale in the south west is 11 hours. Yesterday I elected to spend the day doing as little as possible, shunning shopping trips to carpet factories in favour of pizza for lunch and lounging around the pool in the afternoon.
The day before, our wake up call came through at 4:10am. Two hours later I was being hauled into the basket of an air balloon. For those of you who have taken this adventure, you will understand what I’m describing and to those of you who haven’t I assure you I wasn’t on any mind altering substance. We awoke to a calm star-filled sky promising ideal conditions. I had my fingers crossed it would stay this way until we had a chance to be ‘up-up and away’ and the trip wouldn’t be postponed until the following day to repeat the 4:10a.m wake-up call; repeating the early start would put me off a second attempt.
The experience of driving through the lunar-like country the day before was jaw dropping and inspired oohs and ahs from all of us as we passed though the misshapen structures; volcanic ash and silica molded into ‘fairy chimneys’ after millennia of rain and wind eroding the softer clays beneath them. It had been like driving though Jurassic Park, surreal and disorienting. As we began to rise from the ground in our baskets the world became quieter and quieter as the blast of the burner rings took us higher and higher. The misshapen mounds of volcanic ash and silica beneath us now took on an even more mysterious nature. Unlike a lot of balloons ours was driven by a spinnaker sail that allowed the balloon to manoeuvre sideways, back and forth. What had appeared as a Jurassic park landscape on the ground, above had turned into a fantasy land of fairy story towers with windows and doors leading inside the rock to habitable caves. The burners were turned low and under sail we swept into valleys and whispered over treetops. There were 20 of us in the basket and as the burners quieted so did the people and the silence hanging over the valleys produced a spiritual bubble around us. The sun had risen soon after we launched and the hour spent flying over the landscape produced blushes of soft apricot to pinks over the fairy chimneys. So far it has been the best experience of Turkey, although every day is different. Ballooning in Cappadocia is reputed as being the most spectacular in the world and an experience far more exotic than I could ever have imagined.
Our hotel was carved into one of the strange rock formations yet was a luxurious 5 star lodging with a gym, spa, swimming pool (wonderful), terrace cafes and restaurants. For those having travelled to Turkey, as I have twice before, carrying a backpack and staying in 2 & 3 star accommodation you’ll remember the murky light of 9 watt bulbs and how challenging it was to recover items out of your pack to identify what it was you were looking for, let alone being able to read anything; twilight all day with the lights out and simply dim with lights on in the evening. I was surprised to find it no different in 5 star accommodations now although the beds are bigger and certainly more comfortable than those I remember.
Since beginning this post we have travelled a long way down the coast to Gallipoli. The WiFi signal is extremely weak so I’m unable to upload any photographs for now. I don’t know how long this will last but because our speed is dial-up it may be that you’ll see no more until we get home. Harry will be uploading his collection after sorting and identifying on his website in a couple of months: www.harrymatthews.name
We disembarked the “Seadream I” yacht in Istanbul on Saturday. It really had been a dream of a cruise; from the service on board to the best guides I’ve ever experienced on land; from glorious food to the fabulous clear blue skies we had every day. Dropped off on the European side of Istanbul was a bit of a shock after all the relaxation and champagne of the previous week but we managed to get up to our hotel in Taksim Square with little drama. We set out to orientate ourselves immediately and soon realized we were 5 minutes from the site of all the demonstrations and water canon activity we saw in the papers and on the news a few weeks ago. Everything seemed to have calmed down but the activity of either half-completed or new road construction, we were unclear which, in the vicinity reminded us why the problem had occurred; the government wanted to cut trees down to make way for more earthworks and it was just what the population needed to get in ‘revolt’ mode. Historically the Turks always clash with their leaders once they sense those leaders getting a bit above themselves. Then Atatürk came along in 1923 and brought what was a backward, almost still medieval society into the 20th century. There are statues of him everywhere and his spirit of revolution and change still lives on in a modern form. The area is still tightly controlled and an armoured vehicle with mounted water canon still maintained a presence while the police were armed to quell any sudden gathering. We didn’t linger long and returned to our 5 star hotel in a reflective mood.
The next day we ventured back over to the Asian side and did the bazaars, markets and eateries. This day I returned home, yet more reflective about the differences to what I remembered from over 30 years ago; it might be cleaner but the women are very buttoned up and swathed in heavy coats. Many were in full burka which would have been photo-worthy, if you dared, back in the seventies but today the heavy black attire with just two narrow slits for their eyes was commonplace. A local person had told us these burka clad women were often from the Middle East, simply on holiday up here in the cooler summer. One of our Turkish guides, a good looking guy in his late 30’s early forties perhaps scotched that theory by proudly telling us his wife went to work each day in full burka. Back to the seventies; young women and teenage girls were wearing jeans, blouses with long headscarves draped over their head and shoulders and many tottered along in high heels.
We haven’t been enticed into any gloomy clubs or promises of ‘belly-dancing extravaganzas’ by way of tourist publicity. However the costumes are all on show in the bazaars and outside regular tourist haunts. Perhaps I should snap one up and hold on to it as an ‘antiquity of old Turkey’ because Islamic rule seems to be the direction Turkey is moving. Our guide we have every day is critical of the current government and shows little enthusiasm for the Turkey of today. He’s an avid historian and speaks passionately about the strides Turkey made last century under Ataturk.
We flew east from Istanbul to Cappadocia yesterday to experience hot air ballooning, but more about that in my next post.