Thursday 30 April 2015


It was a full day today, spent both under- and overground. Not as far overground as we'd hoped, alas: the classic thing to do here is a hot air balloon ride, and though we saw scores of them going up for the evening session last night when we arrived at the hotel, this morning when we'd hoped to be up there ourselves, it was all cancelled because of winds - which, as it turned out, we couldn't either feel or see in the clouds. But there was plenty to distract us from the disappointment.

Mainly, the reason for the balloons: the amazing rock formations here, coloured sculpted tufa surmounted by basalt caps making one of the most remarkable landscapes I've ever seen. It's not just the 'fairy chimneys', it's the assiduous burrowing into the soft rock that's gone on for 1000 years plus, resulting in a fantasy scenario out of some animated movie, with pointy monoliths drilled through with holes. Inside, it's apparently a constant 16 degrees (bit chilly by Coober Pedy standards, where it's always around 22 degrees), dry and comfortable, and an extension is only a bit of scraping away.
We went to the outdoor museum of Goreme, where besides houses there are lots of churches and chapels with varied degrees of decoration, some quite elaborate, but all of them quite intimate, size-wise. We visited a cheerful, hospitable lady called Fatma, squeezing into her living room hung with carpets on the walls as well as, most unexpectedly, a signed photo of Helen Clark in election doctored-teeth mode (she was a visitor here too). She talked about living underground, and how she had had to educate herself because there was no school for girls in her day (though she's proud her grand-daughter is at university), but seemed perfectly content and certainly happy to welcome more of the Insight Vacations visitors who no doubt have enabled her to install her Nilfisk fridge and a flat-screen TV in her burrow.
Then came a carpet factory, natch - it's Turkey, after all, it's compulsory. The guy at Golden Yarn Carpets runs a slick operation, serving us aniseed-flavoured raqi (or beer, wine, soft drinks or tea) as his people flapped and laid out with great flourish rug after rug in the big showroom. There must have been around 60 by the time he was finished: various permutations of wool and silk, the finest an incredible 400 knots per square centimetre. We watched the women knotting them, but they are so fast and dextrous it's impossible to follow their fingers unless they deliberately do a slow-mo. Beautiful rugs, but expensive, though, again, some people bought them.
After another underground city visit, we morosely watched the balloons go up without us (no spare places in the huge baskets, alas) back at the hotel, and then went to an evening of traditional (and less so) dancing in an underground theatre that started out pretty perfunctory and soulless but soon became energetic and impressive and hugely entertaining, even if the belly dancing was actually kind of creepy to watch.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

On the road to Cappadocia

There was a universal sigh last night when Barçin announced our wake-up time of 6am, and some good-natured heckling about this being a meant to be a holiday but, truly, this country is huge and today some 650km spun under the wheels of the coach as we drove into Cappadocia. Barçin had stories to entertain us along the way, though, the most unusual the account of his traditional circumcision at the unusually advanced age of nine. There were some stops, too: for yummy yoghurt with honey and poppy seeds, for yet another buffet lunch, for a bit of shopping. 
The farmers on the coach were fascinated by the lack of fences, the sheep and goat herds, the old old tractors; while the rest of us just thought, How picturesque, especially against a backdrop of snowy volcanoes. We didn't see any camels but did stop at a caravanserai (which I had only heard about thanks to my Alistair Maclean phase) near Konya, the home of Whirling Dervishes where their founder, Rumi, is entombed under a dome of beautiful calligraphy, with books of more of it in glass cases nearby. Also, his beard is in a box that you can sniff (it's scented, but more likely thanks to regular spraying rather than nine centuries of goodliness).
We went to watch them spin that night, four of them in white robes and gravestone hats under a dome in an old stone han. One was young and got into such a deep trance so quickly that some of us had grave fears he would topple over backwards; but though it was fascinating - especially how long and how fast they could spin without any signs of dizziness - and the light show afterwards was well done, the best bit for me was the initial chanting/singing, which really was mesmerising.

Monday 27 April 2015

Cats, Cleopatra, calcium, crapper...

The pace of this tour is beginning to tell on most of the passengers, who have been taken by surprise by the early starts and long journeys. Our Anzac Day sleep deprivation is a major factor, of course. The thing is, though, that Turkey is so big, and its history and culture so rich, that there is just so much to see. And today we had variety.
We started with religion, visiting the Virgin Mary’s house up on a hill above Ephesus: a little two-roomed shrine, mostly reconstructed, with a holy spring and a Wishing Wall covered in multi-lingual begging prayers, most of them written, quite bizarrely, on toilet paper. One person had come prepared, though, with a laminated printed card. Another had used a hair ribbon and, not wanting to waste its length, requested all good things for family, friends, career, health, love, life… Thorough.
Then we were back in ancient history, exploring the city of Ephesus with the usual elements of processional avenue, tumbled columns, reconstructed archways, tiered theatre, and treacherously smooth and cracked marble flagstones once trodden on by Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, St Paul, St John, and now me. The differences this time were the latrines, a sociable arrangement of holes above a running stream, the holes perhaps a little too snugly spaced for modern sensibilities; and the library, now reduced to a magnificent façade of arches and pillars shading icy marble slabs. There were also, of course, cats and poppies, and this time dogs as well.
For a bit of a break from history and architecture, we visited one of the area’s many leather outlets, Emelda. They specialise in lamb leather here: very fine and smooth, not waterproof but beautiful, and made into super-stylish jackets that were very desirable but, even with all the various discounts applied, still around $1000 each. But some people bought them.
Then, passing distant snow-capped mountains, we went to Pamukkale, to see what we Kiwis recognised as White Terraces. Shame we lost ours to the Tarawera eruption: amazing! So brilliant white that we were glad not to be arriving at midday – even at 5pm they were dazzling. Stepped terraces of corrugated pools of aqua water (tepid, not warm) are hung with stalactites; we paddled through under the stern eye of the whistle-police, keeping us to our area. In a fairly familiar story, much of the calcium-rich springs are now diverted to hotels, but there’s still enough to keep tourists happy.

We finished the day arriving at the Thermal Hotel Pam at 7pm, having started it overlooking the Aegean at 6.15am. This holiday will take some recovering from…

Sunday 26 April 2015

On with the Insight tour

Because of the length and depth of its history, all tour guides in Turkey have to have a university education. On top of that, Insight Vacations is very fussy in their choice of tour directors, and we’re appreciating the result of that: Barcin is excellent. Military history, architecture, Greek myths, religion, languge, traditions, economy, education and even circumcision – it’s all been detailed, illuminating, interesting and a good way to pass the time on the road.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been snoozing too. It’s a comfortable coach with ample leg-room, and we’re all still recovering from Anzac Day. It was good to get some fresh air and exercise at Pergamon, a gondola ride up a hill to the Acropolis, with long views of an aqueduct, and the steepest amphitheatre I’ve ever seen. “There will be an abundance of ancient pillars,” Barcin told us, and he wasn’t wrong: they were everywhere, upright and lying artistically in the grass, decorated with poppies. Some of the best stuff, as at other sites, is now in museums elsewhere – Berlin, Vienna, Boston, London – having been appropriated by archeologists, but there was still plenty to see.
We’re on a well-beaten tourist path, and it’s particularly busy at the moment with Kiwis and Aussies over here for Gallipoli, so the stall-holders were really going for it: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Best price here! Cheaper than K-Mart!” Bit wearing after a while.
It was a lot more peaceful down the hill at Asklepion, ancient Rome’s centre of medicine, as it was meant to be: sleep was an important part of the healing process (though the frogs might have interfered with that). It's a lovely place, with fig trees, pink-flowering Judas trees and lines of cypresses here and there, birds singing, masses of gorgeous poppies (yes, sorry to be harping on, but like the autumn foliage on the New England-Canada cruise in October, they’re both everywhere and glorious), and cats (ditto). And no Keep Off signs at all – they have so much antiquity here that they’re not precious about it. Lots of fun to roam amongst the ruins searching for that perfect cat/stone/poppy shot.

After a long drive through olive orchards and stony hills where solitary herders watched over flocks of sheep and goats, we finished the day on the shores of the Aegean, at a lovely hotel right on the water with a perfect view of the sunset.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Anzac Day, Gallipoli, 2015 - From the uttermost ends of the earth

Right from the beginning, the NZ Government’s stream of emails and texts had warned that visitors to Gallipoli would experience lengthy delays, and urged patience. Well, they weren’t wrong. A very, very long day – all 29 hours of it – was made to feel even longer by so much of it spent just waiting. That’s not a complaint, really, just a fact of life: this is a centenary commemoration, the first, and a very special occasion, and 10,500 people from NZ and Australia had come to be part of it. Even our super-efficient Insight Vacations tour director wasn't able to make 6 kilometres of coaches disappear.

We left our hotel at 5.30pm on the previous day, and struck our first real delay on the ferry taking us across the Dardanelles to Canakkale. Another ferry from the British ceremony at Helles, loaded with dignitaries including Princes Charles and Harry, and various Prime Ministers and ambassadors, was escorted past us by a flurry of coastguard and police boats as we circled in a holding pattern. Then it was a slow trip to the first checkpoint where each coach was eventually boarded by a cheery Australian viewing passes and issuing wristbands; followed by another slow trip to the next one, ditto, with security screening.

Here we waited under the pine trees, watching the programme on a big screen while room was made for us at the Anzac Commemorative Site. After we’d walked a couple of kilometres along the road and past Anzac Cove to the site, we understood: a number of those people who’d arrived earlier – by now, dear reader, it was 2am on Anzac Day, and we were, as the crow flies, really no great distance from our starting point at Assos – were spread out, fast asleep in sleeping bags, on the grassed areas that we’d all been repeatedly told had space for sitting only.

Full marks to the Aussie MC, though, who via the two giant screens jollied and cajoled them (once they’d been woken by a few sly kicks from the new arrivals – oops, sorry, did I wake you?) into making room. We all eventually found a space, though few of us were able to see down the slope to the centre of activity, which was disappointing if inevitable given the topography, and most of the time we stood. Those who’d scored the seats with a view had been there since about 2pm.
So we sat in the dark, watching on the screens the programme of music and documentary – well done, that didgeridoo player, especially – and absorbing the time and place. There were lots of personal touches: letters and epitaphs read, photos flashed up. Every so often we were told what had happened at that moment 100 years before, which was pretty special, and at one point the Sphinx and other cliffs behind us were lit up while we stood in the dark and listened to the recorded sound of oars in the water, and real nightingales singing.

The sky began to lighten, and, at 5.30am, 12 hours after we’d set off, the ceremony began. It was well done. Our Prime Minister John Key’s speech was good but the Aussies' Tony Abbott’s was too long and rambling and sent me briefly to sleep. Prince Charles did a reading, there were letters read by students, there were hymns and prayers, and three anthems, all sung well, even ours sounding jaunty and un-dirgelike for once. The Last Post and Reveille were sounded with only one bum note, and then it was all over.

Was it special? Yes: to be on the spot where it all happened, exactly 100 years later, to have visited the cemeteries, stood on the beach, looked at the gullied cliffs, was special. To be in a crowd that had come so far, who were my people, who included direct descendants, children of Gallipoli soldiers even, and war veterans, was special. Was it emotional? No. Perhaps because over the last few days we had heard so many stories about the battle, had become so familiar with the facts; or maybe because we were all so tired, having (apart from the selfish sods in the sleeping bags) had nothing more than snatched moments of sleep all night. Whatever, no-one I spoke to felt emotional at the Dawn Service, although everybody approved of it. The nearest I got to a lump in the throat was seeing the silent convoy of naval ships passing by in the background as the sky lightened and the bagpipes were played, perfectly spaced from the horizon to the foreground, cruising slowly, respectful.
Last in, first out. We shuffled away from the site and along the road again, watched by armed soldiers and hearing skylarks, and set off up Artillery Road, an unsealed track up the hill to Lone Pine. 
Here the Aussies split away for their service and, after peeling off a few thermal layers (it hadn’t rained or been seriously cold all night) we carried on another 3km up and down the narrow road past small cemeteries, past the Turkish memorial to the 57th Regiment, past the opposing trenches in the pine trees, to Chunuk Bair, where so many died, and we waited. And waited: for the Turks to have their service and for everyone to arrive. We ate our hotel-supplied breakfasts, and chatted and compared notes, and watched the Lone Pine service on the screen.
At 1pm we were allowed through from our holding area where the Defence Forces had been looking after us, and my seat was behind and to the side of the tall memorial, facing the dignitaries and with a clear view of the Ataturk statue (its unfinished plinth renovation hidden beneath Turkish flags). We had music from the band and the Youth Ambassadors, Charles and Harry arrived to press some flesh (“And have you been awake all night?”), all the bigwigs got settled, a soldier positioned himself with his semi-automatic on the rear platform with the TV cameras, looking outwards; and the service began.
It was good. It felt familiar, like family. John Key’s second speech was even better, Harry did a reading in his remarkably unposh accent, Charles laid a wreath, there was a solid Maori element, and the Last Post and Rouse, on a 100 year-old bugle engraved with battle names, was perfect.

So, was it all over? Hardly. We filed back to the marquees and waited another five hours for our bus to arrive. Five hours! But people were cheerful, the Forces and especially the MC were focused on maintaining morale (“Anyone feeling sick? We have a doctor here. Anyone feeling really sick? We’ve got a chaplain”) and though there was some fading, there was no real complaining. We were brought hot soup and tea and noodles, and when our buses finally arrived, there was a corridor of high-fiving Defence people to walk through. They did a great job.

We got back to the hotel sometime after 11pm, about 30 hours after we’d left, most of us having had nothing more than snatches of sleep. Was it worth it? Oh, yes.

Friday 24 April 2015

Turkey x2

After a luxuriously late and leisurely start and what’s turning into the usual hard-boiled egg/cheese/tomato breakfast, we drove the short distance from Assos to Behramkale. Up top of the hill here is a temple to Athena, but though there are picturesque pillars around the marble floor, and tumbles of stones in the grass, and it’s all so, so old, 6th century BC, it’s upstaged by the location. We looked out over the Aegean towards the island of Lesbos and Greece itself, and towards the Gallipoli peninsula, and along the coast.
To get there, we climbed up the cobbled road that winds through the village where all the people, it seemed, had set up stalls selling souvenirs, food and handicrafts. Women in headscarves were crouched on the ground knitting pretty scarves of satin ribbon, or demonstrating toy spinning tops, or gesturing quite shyly towards their goods. One stall had huge striped wooden spiders that were really quite gruesome, but a lot of the stuff was attractive.
It really was so lovely, to sprawl on a beanbag in the sunshine, drinking a tulip glass of tea, and watch not just the people, but the cats, chickens, dogs and turkeys (!) doing their own things around the edges of the human activity. The birds were singing, then the muezzin began the call to prayer…
And then we had a free afternoon, to snooze, do laundry, wander across the road to the beach to enjoy the poppies growing amongst the pebbles. So relaxing.


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