Pre-holiday preamble: First flight in nearly seven years; uncertainty over BA cabin staff’s threatened 12-day strike; snow and ice; cold weather sore dry eyes; trying to figure out an angle to pitch to publications on my return; … not exactly ideal conditions for getting into holiday mode.
There’s plenty to see in Istanbul, especially as a solo visitor. And, being a Moslem country, it should make Christmas less demanding.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t check the guide books before booking travel and hotel and hadn’t realised the considerable distances involved in my original goal – to follow in the footsteps of St Paul. So it was plan C, with the focus on Istanbul and Ephesus. The latter meant catching a 6am flight, but more anon.
After the terrible hotel in Tunisia all those years ago, cleanliness is my highest priority when booking hotels. Misery is definitely having to sleep on a manky mattress, so I would rather pay more and be stress and germ-free.
Luckily for me, Air Miles suggested the Sirkeci Konak, a boutique hotel with wonderful reviews. It certainly gave me a much-needed comfort factor prior to travel and, through their preferred travel agent, I booked three tours, including that flight to Ephesus.
Interestingly, for a non-Christmassy location, St Nicholas, aka Santa Claus, lived in Patara, near Myra. But then Turkey is full of agreeable surprises if you like history.
I took advantage of BA’s online check-in facility, printing off my boarding pass, ready to drop off my case at one of the ‘Fast Drop Off’ points, and treat myself in duty free. Because England has a tendency to fall apart at the first sign of snow, the plan was to leave early to make sure of getting there on time. However, I was trying hard not to think about 22 being a Master Number day…
Tues 22: Despite the strike being called off, there was still a lingering concern of wildcat action, plus of course the dire weather, so I didn’t start to relax until 10 to 11 in Carluccio’s (Disgusting meal, btw. Cold scrambled eggs and mushrooms that felt like chewing leather.).
The drive up to Purple Parking was fairly uneventful. There were the usual morons on the road despite the snow and ice, but I got there in one piece. Way too early to check-in though, and the ‘Fast Bag’ service was a slow bag queue, with a lot of seriously angry customers.
The Fast bag service had changed to two hours before check-in – ie the ‘normal’ checking in procedure. However, in their infinite wisdom, no-one saw fit to tell any of us. So as the ‘Fast Bag’ queue was joined with travellers and their trolleys piled high with enough bags to clothe the third world, people started getting seriously furious. One smartly dressed woman was on the ‘phone apparently complaining at high level. Not that it got her moved any faster.
In fact the only woman who got in faster was a burkha clad one, with a baggage mountain on her trolley, who not only jumped the queue, but lied about her flight.
(I heard her change her story when she saw who was getting through faster, and was surprised none of us lynched her, but the overweight officious Asian guy looked like he’d get a kick out of kicking us out of the terminal, so we said nothing. Actually, I said a mental prayer asking for him to go before I got to the head of the queue – and HALLELUIA – he went.)
Also making matters worse were two BA staff who were so appallingly rude, they are lucky I didn’t deck them with my suitcase. Later, two other BA office staff who had been called to help out made up for their colleagues’ bad manners, actually treating us like human beings and not cattle to be prodded into herding bays.
M&R had the opposite problem to me, having to catch a much earlier flight, so we just made do with a garbled mobile message instead of spending a little time together in Terminal 5 (which may be large, but is not very well laid out nor has any decent eateries.)
I was not entirely free of stress until my baggage was checked in, as the allowances are quite confusing. I also got frisked TWICE within twenty minutes.
For those who haven’t flown for a while (ie me), there are two lots of security checks, and yes, shoes, belts and jewellery have to come off. Carry laptop. Empty pockets. God alone knows what caused the beeps but they weren’t officious or unpleasant, so I didn’t do a Diana Ross. Not that I would in these tense, nervy, times.
Finally got on board only to discover 14 bods who had checked in were nowhere to be found. The plane was then delayed for about an hour with the knock-on effect of arriving at the Sirkeci Konak in the early hours of the 23rd.
The palaver of getting on board (as well as getting to the airport was so energetically depressing that I (still at time of writing) have no desire to fly anywhere for a very long time.
Wariness in case cabin staff spat (or worse) in my food made me buy some food at the airport (cf comments made on the BA Facebook page). I don’t think they could have, given the foil containers, but in any case, it wasn’t anything I wanted to eat.
Despite being a BA plane, with Brit staff, it already feels like a foreign land. On the plus side, it was incredibly easy to get a visa (£10/E15) at Istanbul airport, albeit with a massive queue and the usual queue jumpers, and even easier to get a taxi to the hotel – and a wonderfully warm welcome despite being the ‘next morning’. And with an early start to not look forward to.
Tues 22 pm: I buy a lot of books from Amazon. Unfortunately, I rarely get a chance to read any or many of them, relying on ‘dip reading’ as and when. An unintentional benefit of the endless delays, was realising I picked an excellent choice for holiday reading – and actually being able to read it.
Given that my original intention was to try and follow in St Paul’s footsteps, Antony Flew’s There Is A God has put me back in the mood for why I chose Turkey. An easy read and a wonderfully honest account of his spiritual journey.
Wed 23: (very early hours) The Sirkeci Konak is CLEAN. Thank God. Clean room, clean linen – roasting hot though and it took me a while to drop off. View from the window of the backside of a dull office block, but I don’t expect I will be spending much time inside.
Later: Annoyingly, I did not read the information in the envelope left for me by the travel agent, so got up thinking it was an 08:00 start. It was an hour later. Ah well.
If I had known it would just be me on the tour, alone with the guide, I would have asked to cancel it. In the scheme of things it wasn’t too bad, and the guide was knowledgeable, though a little down. It seems he has had a bad year workwise. Haven’t we all? And, to be perfectly honest, holidays shouldn’t be guilt-trips about the bad fortune of others. (Says she, having spent over £100 of my spending money on tips!)
It was my choice to take this tour but my overwhelming impression is of being taken to places I did not really want to go to. Istanbul is quite rightly highly significant in many ways, but I can’t in all honesty say I was very much moved by Hagia Sophia or the Topkapi palace or the Blue Mosque. I didn’t want to buy carpets or tiles. (Got the latter cancelled and we went round the Grand Bazaar, checking out jewellery – which I did buy.)
I feel sure that if I had been on my own, I would have been able to tune in to the energy of those places with more ease, but what’s done is done, and I treated any expense as my contribution to Istanbul’s economy, and that commission on sales boosts the guides’ income. But it is unsurprising I have so few holidays. I can’t cope with those less fortunate – especially when they ‘share’. I also don’t think it is right to pay for the complete tour and also tip the guide on top, but that’s how these things seem to be done.
Made the mistake of referring to Turkey as the Middle East – which of course it is not. Istanbul does span two continents and many of the Moslem men seem very Arabic. But that too would be the wrong thing to say. Despite lettering on many monuments and buildings, and the imam calls to prayer, no-one speaks Arabic.
The guide seemed inordinately preoccupied, ear pressed to mobile enough to feel like bad manners, so I was quite happy for the tour to end. I treated him to a Turkish ice cream, then we went our separate ways, with me trying to find my way back to the hotel on my own. After freshening up, I was ready for the evening visit to see the Whirling Dervishes.
I found the location through the good nature of an old guy who took me there. But I was way too early, the restaurants (all fast food) were all out touting for business, wanting to ask me my life story and tell me theirs, and I couldn’t face going past them again after the ‘show’ ended. So, I had a very nice meal at a hotel and headed back, ready for an even earlier start to catch the plane to Izmir in the morning.
Did I mention that the morning was utterly freezing? Ended up buying a beanie and gloves as the guide chatted OUTSIDE in the blasted cold. Decrepit ancient columns are not that exciting at the best of times, but freezing my butt off tends to lessen any historic pleasure.
btw, T told me about a speciality ice-cream (dondurma) which the guide said was Mado (the one I treated him to). It wasn’t salep nor did he know anything about its nickname (fox testicle), but did need to be eaten with a knife and fork. Odd to have been frozen in the morning and eat ice-cream, chewy or otherwise in the afternoon!
Christmas Eve/Thurs 24: A challenge when visiting Biblical lands is romantically expecting the landscape, if not the peoples, to be somewhat similar to Christ’s day. The reality was a horrendously early start to catch the plane to Izmir (Smyrna), delayed, a rat-a-tat questioning by way of introduction to the guide, who also told me I didn’t sound British. (It later transpired she thought I sounded American (ARGH!) and had never even been to the UK, so God alone knows how she could be so arrogantly confident.)
And yes, I was the only person again – a hazard of travelling at Christmas I suppose—followed by an hour of motorway and a bit of bad feeling en route (you know that feeling when you know someone is talking about you in a language you can’t understand).
Not a happy start, especially after a double frisk at Ataturk airport, plane packed to the rafters and a delayed flight. At least I had a charming companion on the flight. By coincidence, the same guy who had offered me his seat in the bus taking us to the plane.
When we reached Efes (Ephesus), everything changed. The guide became much more relaxed and pleasant, offering to take my photo and smiling at last. And things from then on got better.
There are some places where a soul has a sense of belonging and I felt that at Ephesus (Efes) – a remarkably well-preserved Roman site.
Confusingly, most of the place names bear little or no relation to their Biblical ones. Cappadocia, for example, is a region. So enthusiastic Biblical tourists would have to plan ahead or take a specific tour eg the Seven Churches. Sadly, I did not have enough time and did not plan as carefully as I thought I had.
As with the tour round Istanbul, there were many Oriental visitors, possibly Korean. It appears they prefer to travel in winter to avoid catching the sun. However, I only saw them for a fraction of time as, an unexpected benefit, being alone on the tour meant my schedule was more flexible.
From Ephesus, we went to visit the House of the Virgin Mary, and I was enormously surprised and pleased to have a mystical experience.
On the slight slope to the house, where she is believed to have lived in secret – cared for by St John – and then later died, there is a bronze statue of Our Lady with her arms, in tradition style, open in greeting.
If the guide had not been with me, and if the statue had not been relatively high up, I would have embarrassed myself by going in for a hug – because that is exactly the sensation I felt as I approached her. A hug that was tangible, loving and utterly non-judgmental.
The site was also important for the Mother Goddess in all her incarnations, from Cybele to Mary, and it was as if all those energies were wrapping themselves round me, in a sensation almost similar to those during the NDE many years ago.
I don’t really take photos as guide books tend to do them better, but absolutely had to capture the moment in some way. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes had filled with tears – a usual sign when picking up intense loving energies. Thankfully, the guide did not seem to notice. She then left me to pray alone in the tiny church, which I did, leaving only when one other person entered the same small space.
I then took the allowed two candles to light for all our departed loved ones, where there was another smaller statue flanked by troughs of sand for the burning candles – and, again, I felt an overwhelming sense that I was much loved. A kind of embracing, metaphysical gentle hug reaching out to me alone (again tears filling my eyes) – although I gather others too have experienced similar. Quite remarkable, and strong enough to last for the rest of the day, till I got back to the hotel.
In contrast, the Temple of Artemis was a total disappointment. There is not the slightest sign that it was once one of the Seven Wonders of the World. One measly column and strewn boulders, grass overgrown – and a snake to totally put me off having a wander round.
As we were ahead of schedule, the guide suggested I spent a couple of hours in Kusadasi, her home town.
Retrospectively, I discovered the guide books are quite scathing about Kusadasi. Fast food and low-level tourist attractions, it seems. Just as well I didn’t, because I really enjoyed it. The weather was pleasant, the Aegean glorious, and I found a tiny little jewellers, who were really trusting. Unlike in England, the door was left wide open, with rings and pendants loose on the glass table, even when I was alone in the room. (It was only in bed, as I was falling asleep that a touch of cynicism kicked in and I thought they might have had a camera watching my every move!)
I replaced two items sold in England, and the jeweller also widened an existing ring. As I was waiting, another man came in, tall, good looking, chatting away. Seems he was a friend who has another shop next door but helped out. An extravagant personality, he brought out items I wouldn’t wear in a month of Sundays, putting a massive tourmaline pendant round my neck.
Meanwhile three or four Germans wandered in. They obviously knew him, and chattered away – bar one who wanted to talk to me. Under some circumstances I don’t mind answering questions about my ethnicity or where I learned English, but programming jewels is a sacred exercise to me, and their noisy, track-suited presence was annoying.
The good-looking friend of the jeweller asked them to wait outside I think – not sure but they left for a few minutes and he then told me about his upbringing in Germany and that he hated Germans. Eventually the jeweller returned, as did the Germans, but my business was done and dusted, so I paid and left, not before being kissed on the cheeks by the good looking man, outside on the pavement.
I mention this because it seemed unusual behaviour for a Moslem. I did wonder if he was bent, although there was nothing mincing about him – unlike two of the guests staying at this hotel. Bless them, they were almost exaggeratedly homosexual – again, unusual in a Moslem country.
Stopped for a quick lunch at 4pm (the lunch included in the tour was awful) and then it was time to be met and driven back to Izmir airport. Met again at the other end, supper and bed.
Christmas Day/Fri 25: Am sitting in towelling robe, freshly washed but not that keen on getting dressed for dinner. The five mile aller-retour to the Pera Museum has made me fit only for sleep and the late lunch I had on my return seems sufficient.
Had a good lie-in and had a late breakfast around 10am. The map indicated a healthy walk to the Pera Museum, though one of the waiters thought it too far, and that I could always take a taxi back.
In fact it took about 45 minutes to walk there, across the top of Galata Bridge, past crowds of men with their fishing rods. About 15 of those minutes were spent climbing, very slowly, the steep steps to the approach of the Galata Tower. Make that vertical steps. Make that shiny, worn, slippery, steep steps, with several parts lacking any kind of support.
One kind man stayed beside me. Although he did not understand English, it was fairly obvious I was terrified of heights. And when I got to the top, he started clapping and said bravo!
The steep hills continued virtually all the way to the museum, so I arrived absolutely drained and needed a refreshing pot of apple and cinnamon tea prior to beginning the next bout of physicality – five floors of art. Actually, I think traipsing round art exhibitions is way more tiring. But the Marc Chagall exhibition, which I had gone to see, was definitely worth the effort. Couldn’t face buying the doorstep of a book though and dragging it all the way back home. That’s what Amazon is for.
The walk back was also less straight-forward, despite being all downhill. Part of the walk was in the road – a busy one at that. Then, at the bottom of Ataturk Bridge, (I had gone up one bridge and come back via another one) with six busy lanes of traffic, no crossings and no traffic lights, I had a horrible thought that I’d still be standing there as darkness fell.
After about ten minutes of waiting for the impossible, another man made a dash for the middle and I rushed along in his wake. Any speeding cars would hit him first, I thought rather ungenerously.
The area around the Pera Museum is chic and looks expensive. The Ataturk Bridge, top and bottom would definitely not merit another visit from me in a car, let alone on foot. Despite being ready for that late lunch, I waited till I was near my hotel first.
Although there was no real sign of Christmas anywhere, about ten minutes after I had started out for the Pera Museum, a tune kept playing in my head: ‘He come from de glory, He come from the glorious kingdom.’ That was about it for Christmas, as there was no contact from any relatives. I had Skyped and emailed the day before and I didn’t want it to just be me making the effort.
Boxing Day/Sat 26: Another long lie-in, with another planned long walk (to Bebek) till I realised the extreme distance involved. The customer relationship assistant at the hotel didn’t seem sure about the availability of boat trips, so I wandered down to Galata Bridge to check for myself.
Halleluia! A choice of a two hour or a six hour trip. Although the six hour trip involved a three hour walk around, and the sun was shining, the water was too choppy for me to want more than two hours afloat. As it was, the man to whom I paid the 10TL, had to help me on board, as I had visions of the gap widening and me falling through.
Sat getting calm in a virtually empty boat till five minutes PAST the time it was due to leave, and then hordes of people boarded.
Most of them stood in the aisle outside the downstairs seating area, effectively blocking my vision. Sigh. All bar a fat woman moved so I could take my photos. (I was a bit too wimpy to stand out there myself, and there was zippo chance of me climbing the unsupported steps to the upper seating area.) Despite the glass reflection, I did manage to get a couple of photos of the Fortress of Europe – good enough to try for a line drawing.
On the return journey, a blonde American woman came and sat beside me and said we had met in the Grand Bazaar in a minute jewellery booth where I had bought a black tourmaline bracelet. C, her daughter and friends appeared to know the young-ish owner, and I had asked them to check it was actually black tourmaline and not blue sapphire! C had also seen me at the airport going to Ephesus and, at the third sighting, very sweetly came to introduce herself. She also took a photo of us together on the boat. I just hope she never shows it to anyone I know as my hair was yanked flat and into a ponytail, to stop it flying in my face. Possibly an improvement on the first sighting when I had a beany pulled right over my eyebrows. Just as well all vanity disappears on solo holidays.
The boat returned to the crappier end near Ataturk Bridge, and I then got lost (three times!) walking back to the hotel via the Spice Bazaar, a local bazaar and the Grand Bazaar.
Health and Safety would have a field day with the pavements. There were unguarded openings (like those outside pubs where beer kegs are delivered) which the unwary could just step in. There were even different heights to the pavement which tripped me a couple of times. As I didn’t fancy breaking my neck, I ended up walking in the road.
Talking of solo, it still seemed odd to have no contact at all with family on Christmas Day, though I was not short of people wanting to talk to me, even if 90% of them wanted to sell me something.
Had dinner at the SK and chatted with the restaurant manager about religion. He’s a Moslem who doesn’t believe in religion. His main issue was a metaphysical one – ie why does God bother. He thought I was in my 30s. Nice man! Wondered why I wasn’t married and was captivated by my teeth. Actually I first thought he was telling me I had ‘spinach’ on them. Not sure why my marital status should still be of interest, given my increasing CF. A pleasant end to a pleasant trip but I am ready for home now.
Sun 27: Despite an afternoon flight I decided against more shopping or sightseeing, opting for a roundabout taxi ride to the airport. The nice man stopped to let me take photos of the Yedikule Castle, driving the length of the historic ramparts.
At the airport, unsurprisingly, I was early, even for the Fast Bag drop off. Pondered again how to turn this into a pitch, and which pieces to draw. Used up my remaining Euros. Pleasant young female science teacher helped to pass the time but I was still even more ready for home. That too had to wait as the flight was delayed; I then had to get my car from Purple Parking, and endured a very slow drive with the window down so I didn’t fall asleep. Wonder when or if I will ever be tempted to fly again?