Thursday, 25 October 2012

Crystal clear

I think you’d be hard pressed to find another country that has such genuine love and appreciation of another human than the Turks do for Mustafa Kemel, or Ataturk (meaning Father Turk) as he is more commonly known. Reading through the history of his life and role in shaping modern Turkey it’s easy to understand the source of this admiration. For the Turks there’s no question as to who is the Daddy and the only other country I can think that has a similar relationship is the Vietnamese reverence for Ho Chi Minh.

Today the physical actualization of this admiration is borne out through, at minimum; an Ataturk statue in every town, his name adorning every imaginable piece of infrastructure and his benevolent gaze staring down from behind the counter of any commercial enterprise you may come across.

While we were on the coast in Fethiye to commence our four day gulet cruise to Olympos we had enough time to visit the eerily deserted ghost town of Kayakoy, a consequence of an Ataturk policy in the 1920s to avoid future sectarian conflicts and ensure a Turkish republic solely for Turks through population exchanges.

It’s a short minibus ride from Fethiye to Kayakoy, but for the unsuspecting, such as us, the ride passes through the ultimate chav dream resort of Oludeniz, where a full English roast is available everyday of the year and neon lit establishments, such as the bemusingly named 'Grand Boozey', do a thriving trade.  Like most Turkish sites once you’ve paid a nominal entrance fee you’re free to climb on, over, up and down unhindered and so we spent an enjoyable afternoon clambering over the former Greek speaking town whose population was forced to depart for Greece under the population exchange program.

Scouring the list of available tourist activities in Turkey I’d quickly singled out the desire to spend several days puttering along the Turkish coast line in a hand made traditional wooden Turkish ‘gulet’ vessel.  It’s a popular activity with numerous operators and having singled it out I was also responsible for choosing one. Fortunately I was saved this task through the fruits of my side project of chatting with elderly American men in unusual locations around the globe. A conversation with a retired professor from the University of Nebraska following a swim in the hotel pool in Selcuk revealed he’d done his research and chosen V-Go. On this basis we found ourselves with thirteen others assembled outside the V-Go office in Fethiye ready to board our cruise one warm clear morning.

The mighty Mavi Boncuk
Any group activity with a bunch of strangers, and especially one in an effectively confined space for four days, there’s concern you’ll be stuck for days on end with a bunch of nuff nuffs.  As we motored out of Fethiye aboard the ‘Mavi Boncuk’, (replete with suitably benevolent Ataturk portrait) to our first stop, the stunning beach at Butterfly Valley wedged between two mountains, these fears were quickly allayed and over the course of the next four days I was constantly surprised how well our group, consisting of mainly Americans and Australians, gelled. 

Part of this could have also been down to the clear crystal waters, the feeling timeless sunny hot days brings and a sea so calm that most of the time it resembled a deep blue liquid chrome.  Combined with the realisation that there was nowt to do except swim, converse, laze on the deck, wonder if it was too early for a beer and enjoy the next sumptuous meal prepared by the crew, it’d take a miserable soul indeed not to gell with your fellow travellers. Even Tony managed a smile, well, more a grimace, but it's a start.

The following morning our gulet slowly made its way along the coast towards the Kekova region where we’d spend the next few days, overnighting initially at the beautiful secluded town of Kas, set in a bay at the base of a coastal mountain range, and the next at another still calm bay.  During the day we’d drop anchor and snorkel, or, as in case of the small community of Simena, part of a historical city sunken into the sea by an earthquake, be offered the chance to go ashore.

Butterfly Valley
The water clarity visibly highlighted however the extent of overfishing along the course of our voyage. While in 2006 WWF convinced the local authorities to declare most of our route a marine park, the sea felt largely bereft of marine life, with all but the tiddliest of tiddlers absent at depths up to 10m. It was startling and made me question a number of times the source of the fish in the numerous seafood restaurants dotted along the coast.

With my initial reservations completely unfounded it was in the end all too soon that we were saying goodbyes at the port of Demre and back into the swing of bus travel for our next destinations, and like most we were headed for the Olympos region. 

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Round Turkey with a market trolley

During our time in Kos it became apparent that since the start of my travels several months ago I’d had my backpack set up was all wrong. The length was way too short, so that instead of resting on my hips I had all the weight on the top of my back. A schoolboy error I know, and one that eventuated during our time in Greece to a constant pain in my back between my shoulder blades, making carrying any weight an uncomfortable experience.

Departing Kos for Bodrum in Turkey, a short hydrofoil across the deep blue seas, it was apparent that if we were to backpack around Turkey, with its extensive intercity bus network, and bus stations, I’d need to find a solution for hauling my luggage that didn’t involve my back.  After contemplating purchasing suitcase with wheels Susi came up with the idea of modifying an older ladies market day trolley.

Picturesque Bodrum fancies itself as the St Tropez of Turkey, with a host of high-end stores and flash restaurants, over looked by the imposing Castle of St Peter, the stronghold of the Knights of St John in the 1400s.  Perversely it also promotes itself as a Centre of Excellence in imitation clothing to the hoards of Kos daytrippers that peaks with the weekly Tuesday textile market. We headed in that direction in search of a suitable market trolley and quickly spied one outside a hardware store across from the market. After insulting the proprietor with my haphazard bartering I became the proud owner of a market day trolley and three occie straps for securing the backpack. 

While Greece and Turkey aren’t on the best of terms (although Turkey has a solid track record with this on a few fronts…Syria, Armenia, Iraq, Iran…), there are similarities, such as large groups of men sat around doing not very much. 

In Turkey these groups seem to be focused on perfecting their backgammon game and contemplating the strength of the latest round of tea, while presumably their female relations, wife, mother, daughters, are at home hard at work.  In such a culture the sight of a man pushing a market day trolley is a source of high merriment amongst the local male population as I found alighting from the plush bus from Bodrum to Selcuk.

Selcuk is the closest town to the ruins of Ephesus, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire after it split into west and east, and despite the masses of annual visitors retains its authentic Turkish flavour, in part due to a vast majority of Ephesus visitors bussing in on a day trip from the cruise town of Kusadasi.  Ephesus is one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities and while, like Tikal in Guatemala, only 20% of the site has been uncovered, is a fascinating site to visit.

After several days in Selcuk including a highly informative guided tour of Ephesus, punctuated with obligatory stops at a traditional pottery and carpet store to be charmed by smooth talking Turkish salesmen we were back on the bus to Pamukkale, who’s correct pronunciation is a constant mystery to me. 

Where Selcuk has retained its own sense of being outside of the tourist drawcard Pamukkale has rolled over, put its feet in the air and accepted its fate as service town to the Travertines (or Cotton Castle as the Turks refer to it), the amazing white calcified pools that have formed on the side of a mountain at the base of the ancient city of Hierapolis.

Waiting till later in the afternoon to visit I was pretty stunned by how much I enjoyed our time clambering over the calcified mountain and wading into the naturally warm turquoise pools. I think my enjoyment sprung from the uniqueness of the Travertines, never having experienced anything like it before we were both donning wide smiles as we slowly ventured up the mountain, stopping numerous times to wade into the warm water pools as they appeared on the side of the path. 

While visually you feel as if you’re in the midst of a snow field, you’re conflicted by other senses which feel the Turkish heat and glare and the ribbed white surface beneath your feet that is like you’re walking on the surface of giant cats tongue, albeit one that's been licking a bowl of bleach. Following a fleeting visit to Hierapolis we returned once again to the Travertine’s to enjoy the descent at dusk and early evening.
The Turkey Lonely Planet rates the Travertine’s as the 17th top experience in Turkey, with eating a kebab coming in at 5th…I think it would need to the crème del la crème of kebabs, maybe prepared by Ataturk himself to top this experience.

The next morning I prepared the market trolley once more and trundled to the bus station for our next destination and experience, Fethiye and a Gulet cruise.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Chasing the sun

As the nights close in on northern Europe and the weather turns so my chosen path is taking me increasingly south in search of warmer climes.

My plan was always to spend time in Spain and then several weeks in Turkey, how we moved between the two countries though was up in the air. After exploring the options of going overland, flying into via Macedonia or Bulgaria and entering Turkey from the north, we settled on the more relaxed approach of a boat across from the Greek Islands. 
Leaving Barcelona to unseasonal rain and flooding we arrived in Athens just as I remembered it from previous visits, brown, hot and without a cloud in the blue blue sky, reminiscent of landing into Perth for my annual Christmas sojourn.

We only stayed in Athens for two days, enough time to spend a pleasant day sight seeing at the Acropolis. Having been in Athens a few times before I was, in a way, more intrigued to see if I could perceive changes from my previous visits given the current economic situation that Greece has unfortunately of late become infamous for.

On the basis of a friends recommendation, which included the promise of a much vaunted 2 Euro gyros directly across from the hotel, we by chance found ourselves staying in the area of Exarchia, the bohemia centre of Athens and an area the US State Department has advised against visiting given its association with rioters and civic disturbance. Potentially an issue given the rioting that had occurred in central Athens the week prior.

Of course I had no idea about this at the time and was more focused on trying to locate the promised gyros land. Strolling around Exarchia it reminded me of many other inner city areas I’ve seen, with street art, bars and clubs and a whole range of eating options, from the aforementioned gyros to fine dining. 

Where Exarchia differed that first evening however were the riot policeman posted on each corner.  I assured Susi this was normal, although when we passed a van full of them I wasn’t so sure and then questioned why I thought it was normal in the first place.  Saying this we had no problems during our time in Exarchia, had some great meals (including the gyros) and evenings out, that were much more preferable to the tourist fare on offer in the vicinity of the Acropolis.
In terms of changes it was hard to gauge in such a short period, but the general mood of Athens feels somber to say the least and I’d say they’re grateful for steady stream of tourists the Acropolis and associated Parthenon provide.

Leaving Athens the hotelier enquired where we were going next, my response of the Greek Island of Kos elicited, ‘why do you go to Kos?’, to this I had no real response except it’s close to Turkey and the flights were cheap.  This reply, especially the mention of the Turks resulted in a stony silence and we shuffled out the door in search of our airport bus.

As I’ve travelled from place to place there’s usually a predominant type of tourist, from those doing a few weeks in the States, to those on longer timeframes in Central and South America, or in Iceland, the weekend break.  To date though I hadn’t really come across the package sun worshipping northern European tourist until Kos.

After a bit of research we’d chosen to stay in a small town called Tigaki on the basis that it had a very long stretch of sandy beach affronting the crystal clear waters of the Aegean and our accommodation, ‘Jonathans’ appeared pleasant enough when booking.  The accommodation turned out to be the finest and some of the cheapest to date and our initial booking of three nights quickly turned into five.

I’d read that Tigaki was famed for its windsurfing and I was keen to give learning another go. So late on the first afternoon, in fading sunlight, as I strode out along the shore searching for signs of windsurfers I was bewildered by the sparsely laid out pack of elephant seals basking in the sun, barely moving a muscle, that were my fellow beach goers.

It took until the next morning before we too succumbed to the pace of the Tigaki lifestyle of waking late, heading to the beach, lunch, swim in the pool, beer and then meal.  This we varied with the odd trip to a surrounding town, which confirmed how much we enjoyed Tigaki, and then we’d slowly make our way back. I’m not endorsing the package holiday, but for five days it felt very strangely like its own highly enjoyable separate vacation within my travels.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Unfinished business

My 30th Birthday occurred while I was living in London and for the occasion I arranged for eight of my nearest to travel to northern Spain for a surfing holiday, in the process checking out Bilbao and San Sebastian.

All was set, but unfortunately two days before we were due to fly I tore the ligaments in my ankle playing soccer.  Determined to go and with crutches in hand I spent the next week or so contributing to the global pool of black comedy gold as I attempted sand dunes, pension stairs and bridge crossings during a week of celebration.  The black comedy pinnacle being when my housemate at the time unbeknown to me removed the pins from my crutches while at the beach and in attempting to stand the crutches concertinaed on themselves and I fell face forward into the sand, hilarious.

Like most I’m a simple person and always felt a little cheated by my northern Spain experience and vowed one day to return sans crutches.  Flying into Bilbao we were primarily here, as are most, to check out the Guggenheim Musuem, a defining piece of architecture and the home to one of my favourite pieces of art, Puppy by Jeff Koons, that stands on permanent display at the entrance to the building.  I’m a big fan of Bilbao and its unpretentious nature that gives it the feeling of the real Spain, away from the tourist traps and hoards associated with other Spanish cities.
During my travels I’ve been asked a few times what was my favourite place, this is a tricky question as I often find myself subconsciously tailoring my response to my perception of what the asker would like if they were on holiday.  I can confidently say however that San Sebastian is and continues to be one of my favourite destinations and I could happily return again and again.

After staying in a pension in Bilbao, we had booked a hostel in San Sebastian. Sure, it’s less private, but within the first five minutes of arriving we’d already met a talkative New Yorker, Tom and agreed to catch up later for dinner and drinks. Tom had befriended the, ever present in any location in the world, group of Australians, and we all ended up doing a pintxos bar crawl through the old town of San Sebastian that evening.  Pintxos are inexpensive but delicious small servings that adorn bars throughout the Basque region, with the idea being that you roll from bar to bar, quaffing dirt cheap rioja or local cider while sampling the particular wares of each bar.  While it was our first, it was Tom’s last night and he took us on a crawl of his most delectable bars chosen through long nights of punishing research.  Each night after we thought about a standard sit down meal we’d end up lent against a pintxos bar, drinking and sampling the fine food on offer.

But it’s not just the food that makes San Sebastian such a winner, it’s a beautiful historic town with winding laneways and during the day there’s a choice within easy walking of a bay based beach and a surf beach where the number of learner surfers in the water at any one time is inversely proportional to the quality of the waves. Fortunately it required numerous hours sat on the beach studying and sampling the water to determine this relationship.

We also happened on San Sebastian during its 60th International Film Festival and were asked numerous times if we were in town for the Festival, something we were completely ignorant of prior to arrival. 

People have different versions of their own personal hell, but one of mine would be waiting with the hoards behind a temporary barrier for a celebrity to walk down a red carpet. Given the proximity however of our hostel to the Film Festival we would on many occasion come across such hoards lined up waiting for a celeb sighting.  

Strolling past the assembled throng one evening there was a palpable increase in the frothing frenzy amongst the gathered masses and so I found myself embracing my own personal hell and standing amongst them waiting for a car to arrive in the hope it was someone I vaguely knew. After the first car passed we were treated to John Travolta and Benicio del Toro striding from their limo to walk the carpet for the premier of Savages. Being disdainful about the red carpet experience, as a fan of Pulp Fiction, Traffic and of course Saturday Night Fever, I couldn’t help but be a wee bit excited by the experience, although having recently read a review entitled ‘it’s a toss up who gives the worst performance in this flatulent bore of a film’ of Savages I was wondering if John and Benicio were feeling a little bit chagrined about the adulation they were receiving.

From San Sebastian it’s a pleasant 30 minute scenic train ride to the chilled coastal town of Zarautz.  One of the main disappointments from my previous time on crutches had been the inability to surf on one leg.   To redress this I’d booked in time in Zarautz, with its 3km of sandy beach front and multiple breaks, for bobbing round the ocean.

While we were here to surf it was hard not to follow what was a turbulent week in Spain with riots in Madrid while we were in the country.  The Basque region has been pushing for autonomy for decades and with the current economic turmoil and austerity measures there seems to be an increased passion for breaking away from Spain.  As a means of protest the whole Basque region went on strike on the day we were due to leave Zarautz.  We’d seen the posters around and the square we over looked was set to be the scene of demonstrations and marching.  After the riots in Madrid we weren’t quite sure what to expect. We hadn’t counted on the nature of the locals however and the small gathering came and shuffled off and with everything shut and the sun shining they went back to their prime pastimes of the sitting on the beach and promenading along the foreshore. My type of revolution. 

Given the difficulty of travelling and obtaining any services we ended up staying for another two very relaxing days in Zarautz.  Our pension was almost full for these two days and we were moved to the Harry Potter room, though instead of being under the stairs it was under the roofline and consequently I was able to fully stand in about a third of the room to peer at the sky from skylight in the roof. 

From Zarautz we headed back to Bilbao and onto Barcelona. I’ve been to Barcelona a number of times before and thoroughly enjoyed it, but our accommodation was in the midst of tourist central, surrounded by Irish bars and weekender stag and hens dos. After the previous week or so it was all a bit much and highlighted how much I’d enjoyed the return to northern Spain.