Before now I had little idea that the ancient and modern history of Turkey was so fascinating. In fact, until recently I didn’t know that Istanbul is not the capital of this surprisingly green and fertile country! (For the record, the capital city of Turkey is Ankara and it is located on the Asian continent. Istanbul is split between Europe and Asia). It is for these reasons that I am grateful that for our second wedding anniversary and to attend the memorial services at Anzac Cove, we booked a 12 day tour of this historically rich country.
We arrived in Istanbul from Budapest on Monday 21st April, were collected by a driver and transferred to our hotel located near central Istanbul, 10 minutes from Taksim square and the main shopping district. Istanbul surprised me. I don’t know what I expected but the streets were clean of rubbish and dust, the Bosphourus was a great blue divide between East and West that seamlessly blended into one huge mixing pot of 14+ million. Shopkeepers were relaxed, not pushy, stray animals were tagged and well kept and the food was accommodating to vegetarians.
Our hotel was beautiful and comfy. Somehow, without hinting at an upgrade, Dan and I scored a great room on one of the top floors with a fantastic view over the rooftops towards the east. The bed was great, the room was larger than most you would find throughout Europe and the buffet breakfast was satisfying.
On our first and second evenings in Istanbul we gathered with other members of our tour group and strolled down to the Square and High street in search of food. Being on a primarily vegetarian diet, I was anxious about trying the Turkish fare, but it turned out that there are a number of vegetarian options including roast vegetables, a variety of egg plant (aubergine) dishes and zucchini (courgettes) dishes. A salad set us back about 7-12lira while koftas, chicken or lamb streak dish will set you back about 12-25lr. A local draught beer, Efes, cost 7-12lr and a bottled water is 2-4lr. On our second night we drank and ate with our group and our lovely tour guide, Ilker. He showed us a street near the fish market that was full of heaving bars and restaurants. While there was not much space for our group of 9 to sit out on the street and enjoy the atmosphere, we had an enjoyable time sampling the local beers on a rooftop terrace, 5 floors up. Dan also sampled the local raki, an aniseed flavoured spirit of 35-45% alcohol that is served with an equal portion of water (drink the water).
On our first full day in Istanbul our tour group was bussed across the Golden Horn to the very touirsty area near St Sofia and the incredible Blue Mosque opposite. The palace, archeological museum, grand bazaar and underground cistern are also in the same area, within an easy walking distance.
We visited St Sophia, then the Blue Mosque and Archeological Museum before wandering down the hill to the Spice Market. We headed back up the hill, through the grand bazaar and to the underground cistern where we all had a bit of fun playing sultans and sultanas. It was a big day of tourist activity and we all learned plenty of basic history of Istanbul.
Over the next few days we toured the area of Gallipoli and listened to stories of the war in which Australian and New Zealand troops were allied against the Turks. You can read about those two days here.
The sky was getting lighter by the minute on the dawn of our fifth day in Turkey. We had heard that there was going to be rain, but it was a cloudless sky as The Last Post eerily sounded across the heads of 4,500 standing to attention and echoing off the steep cliffs that stood behind. The sun gradually lit up the incredible scene before us. The Aegean Sea lapped at the rocky beach as service men and women and civilians from all over the world watched the flags of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey ascended throughout the national anthems.
Without glorifying war, we were there to remember, honour and thank those who had fought at this exact location for their counties 99 years ago in 1915. We were also there to commemorate those who had served their countries in numerous other wars since, and and those who still defend their countries today. It was an ANZAC Day that I will always remember.
After the dawn service at Anzac Cove we climbed 40 minutes to Lone Pine where many Australian soldiers are buried and where the Australian memorial would take place a couple of hours later. The Australian service was followed by the New Zealand service at Chunuk Bair, a further 45 minute walk up the steep incline.
The rain arrived, respectfully, after the services had concluded as we stood waiting for our tour bus to take us back to our hotel in Canakkale for a comfortable rest after a night on the grass at Anzac Cove.
The following morning we departed the hotel to visit the ancient ruins of Troy and then the magnificent acropolis of the ancient city of Pergamum. Despite being incredibly well known for its Helen of Troy story, the ruins in Troy were not nearly as impressive as the columns, marble and hillside theatre (that could hold 10,000) of Pergamum.
Later we arrived in the holiday resort town of Kusadasi for our two night stay. The hotel was lovely and situated right on the water overlooking the cruise ships and yachts docked in the harbour. At 10pm we headed out to a discotech for a few drinks and a dance. As it turned out, Pasha was a hangout for Aussies on tour and we were soon inundated by an overflowing bathroom situation and drunken OI OI OI`s. This was our cue to retreat to a casual Turkish bar with a live band and a very cosy, family atmosphere. Despite not being able to understand each other, we mingled with a few locals and were able to order a round of Efes (beer) and (very) strong JD and cokes – clearly 30ml was not a standard shot measurement.
We were up for a 9am bus trip the following morning, but I have to admit that there were a few in our party who probably would have felt a little better sleeping off their hang over in the comfort of their room (I’m looking at you, Daniel). In the end, even the biggest party goers were very pleased with our day trip to the incredible ancient city of Ephesus. The marble and stone street, lined with a gymnasium, terraces, a public toilet, temple, statues, memorials, a brothel and a library made it easy to imagine the layout of this city of 250,000.
The city also featured an enormous theatre built into the hillside and the first known graffiti (a Jewish Menora carved into the library steps) and advertisement (guiding shipmates to the nearest “house of love”).
Before lunch we visited a Turkish carpet centre where we learned about the art and value of traditional Turkish carpet weaving and how they extract silk from silkworms. It was a very informative presentation and I was even able to try my hand at weaving a tiny piece of one of the rugs a skilled weaver was working on. We were then wowed with a presentation designed to entice the shopper in all of us.
As we had planned well before our trip, Daniel and I purchased a beautiful, thick Angora wool on cotton carpet to add to our growing collection of art from around the world. Our cotton based rug is our second wedding anniversary present to ourselves to compliment our papyrus paper painting from Egypt for our first anniversary last April.
On our return to the hotel we stopped in at a former Greek village of Sirince, famous for its fruit wine. We didn’t get a chance to sample the wine, but lunch overlooking the tiny hillside town was lovely.
The 8th day of our tour began with a visit to a leather goods store where we enjoyed a pumped up fashion show and tried on some of the jackets. Guess who was one of the two from our tour involved in the cat walk presentation… I didn’t succumb to the temptation to purchase a fine blue “silk” leather jacket, but it was a close call.
That afternoon we drove to Pumukkale where we visited the famous calcium terraces (cotton castles). Some of the thermal pools were empty at the time of our visit, but the view and scenery were incredible.
Of course, with the reflection of the sun off the bright white surfaces, we arrived at our hotel all a little bit pink. But this was nothing that a relaxing soak in a thermal pool at our hotel couldn’t fix.
Day 9 – today is Daniel’s 28th birthday. Unfortunately for him, we were up at 6am for a long day of driving to Cappadocia. We will be visiting a few sites on the way and I am very much looking forward to a few special things in store for us over the next few days… stay tuned!