Sunday, August 12, 2012

Istanbul or bust ...

Major train engineering works mean that our sleeper from Bucharest to Istanbul was cancelled, so we arrive by plane. It's only a one hour flight, but from leaving our hotel for the airport, to arriving at our hotel in Istanbul takes 7 hours - almost as long as the train. We eventually arrive in Gulhane (Sultanahmet area) about 8pm and book into the hotel restaurant for dinner. It's a lucky choice - a roof terrace with lovely food and service - chicken with pomegranate, lamb with chestnut and cranberry, and some amazing eggplant and goat cheese fritters.

We have 6 days here, maybe some time to relax?
First we walk to the waterfront at Eminonu - it's a bit of a shock: hot and chaotic with cars, buses and trams going everywhere. We also check out the nearby train station at Sirkeci - it's a lovely old station, but almost deserted with so many trains not running. Sultanahmet, the area where the main historical and cultural sites are located, is a five minute walk in the other direction from our hotel, and most of the places we'd like to go are close by, or a short tram ride away.

Unfortunately Chris's virus is still bugging him, so we will have to take it easy. First up - Ayasofya, where we learn of its fascinating history first as a Byzantine Christian basilica, then Roman Catholic cathedral, before conversion to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the 15th C, and finally to a museum. It is certainly an amazing and evocative building. Then a look around the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum - a rich repository of artifacts: manuscripts, ceramics, sculptures and particularly carpets. Too tired now for the Blue mosque, we seek out a local restaurant of good repute. Turns out it is right opposite the hotel we will be moving to on the following day, and is a sister restaurant to the one we ate at last night. The menu is similar, the wine list identical, and again we have a lovely meal, the highlight being a seafood stew.

No trip is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Bazaar, and the quirky local shopping alleys in between (shop mannequins, handguns, boys circumcision day outfits …). The Grand Bazaar is surprisingly spacious and cool, although busy. Of course I am not planning to buy anything, but of course I do. The rental at the Grand Bazaar is famously extortionate, and therefore it's not the best place for a bargain, but still I emerge with a shoulder bag, some soap, a scarf and a small rug. I would really like to buy some plates and tiles, but the sellers are so aggressive that it scares me off. Chris does somewhat better with some bargains outside the bazaar - nice leather sandals and a shirt. We decide to drop off our purchases and check into our new hotel before going on to Eminonu for one of the famous fish sandwiches, purchased freshly cooked from a moored boat, and consumed sitting on a small plastic stool - delicious!
For dinner, we walk to the waterfront at Eminonu again, seeking a cheapie with a view. Hamdi, apparently a waterfront institution, has its top floors booked out for Ramadan, but we can get a table on the first floor. The view is minimal from our table, the service perfunctory, and the kebab is dry.

Next adventure is to take the tram over the Bosphorus to the Istanbul Modern art gallery. It's in a beautifully converted warehouse and is an amazing gallery, with plenty to look at, including a potted history of Turkish art from 1900 to the present day, a collection of impressive international contemporary art, and a retrospective on the 'Urban Walls' of Burhan Doğançay. After a cup of tea in the gorgeous but pricy restaurant, we head for Taksim Square (a chaotic mess of traffic and buses), and walk down Istiklal Caddesi (a historic boulevard) to Galata Tower. Stop on the way for a beer and snack, and to check out Salt, a classy gallery with international conceptual art. Don't have luck finding a restaurant around Galata Tower, which is crowded with tourists, so we keep walking and pick up a pide (Turkish pizza). Walking back over the Galata Bridge to Eminonu we stop for a beer at one of the fish restaurants lining the bridge  - we will eat here another day.  And we do, on our final night, eat mezze and sardines with a view of the full moon rising over the Bosphorus.

Can you spot Chris at Ayasofya?
A Spice Bazaar shop
Istabul from the ferry
We also fit in -
  • Ferry ride up the Bosphorus to Anadolu Hisarı, almost at the Black Sea.
  • The serene Blue Mosque.
  • Topkapi Palace and the amazing Harem.
  • Performance of whirling dervishes at Sirkeci Station - this is the real deal, in an informal but beautiful space, with incredible acoustics. We are so close we can see their sweat and feel the wind from their whirling robes.
  • Istanbul Archaeological Museum(s) - vast and interesting, with substantial historical context and explanation given of objects on display. We learn much about the history of the places we have already seen. There is thunder just before we leave, and sure enough, we are caught in an incredible downpour and get soaked to the skin as we make our way back to the hotel for the car to the airport. 
It's been a rich and interesting visit, but we look forward to leaving the city and having one last stop - in a small town this time.

Blue Mosque domes
Beautiful corner of Topkapi Palace
Whirling dervishes at Sirkeci Station
Full moon over the Bosphorus
To arrive at Goreme we fly to Nevsehir Airport, then drive through Gulsehir and Nevsehir - the outskirts of Nevsehir are frightening - there are dozens of huge developments in the process of being built. Hotels? Tourist apartments? Finally we arrive at dusk at the fairytale chimneys of Goreme, which seems still small and charming. Our accommodation is in a small hotel/pension that is family operated. It's built around a 9th century Byzantine cave church, and the remains of arches and wall paintings can be seen. Our room is in the old kitchen, carved out from the rock, with many hollows and a large basin carved into it, which was originally for winemaking. It has just two tiny windows high in one wall for light and air, but the door opens onto a terrace with a view to the whole of Goreme. It's a lovely change from the comfortable but mostly quite bland hotels we have been staying in.

Flying in to Cappadocia
Breakfast on the terrace
Hotel entrance showing Byzantine church remnants
Our cave room
Moonrise over Goreme
The best way to see this area is to walk the valleys, but Chris is still recuperating and not able to do long walks. We walk around the 'open-air museum', a collection of frescoed cave churches and monastic dwellings that were Byzantine Christian sanctuaries until the Ottoman invasion. It's fascinating, but is enough walking for the day. We hoped to sample the home-cooked dinner that is offered by the hotel, but it is Ramadan and the ladies of the family are busy with cooking for the nightly feast at the Mosque. Oh well - we find some pide and kofte stew at the nearby takeaway and eat by moonlight on the terrace at home.

We have booked for a balloon flight so have to get up at 4.45 - ouch! But it is worth it as we float above the landscape, the rushing gas sounds like surf and the sun is rising over the horizon along with dozens of other balloons - stunning! We spend an hour skimming the tops of rocks and trees, then rising to 1500 metres, above the clouds. We see not only the amazing catacombs and valleys, but the neighbouring villages, workers in the apricot orchards, and the distant volcano, Mt Erciye, responsible so long ago for creating this surreal landscape. It is striking how every corner of the landscape is cultivated with vines and orchards between the rock formations.

There is a music festival on, and Seten, a nearby restaurant is hosting a concert. We manage to wrangle a table on the terrace with a good view of the stage and we listen to the Anatolia Ensemble playing traditional and contemporary Turkish classical music on Turkish kemençe and cello - it's captivating. And the food is pretty good too - we have the mezze platter which is lovely, and a beef kebab with garlic yoghurt and potatoes, which turns out to be slabs of steak sitting on chips bathed in yoghurt, a bit strange … but it's good enough for us to book again for the following night - when we eat dolmas (stuffed vegetables) with a smoky lamb and eggplant kebab. Seriously yummy!

Balloon over Cappadocia
Yikes! how high are we?
The ugliest souvenirs
Zelve landscape
Sunset over Goreme
Finally - we hire a scooter to explore the nearby villages. We check out Uchisar (pretty with lovely views, the ugliest souvenir stand ever), Ibrahimpasa (not sure they've ever seen a tourist. We try to get coffee or juice but no-one speaks English and everything is closed for Ramadan), Ortahisar (we meet Crazy Ali, who sells fresh orange juice from his souvenir/'antique' shop, and gives me autographed postcards and a small ceramic bowl after I agree to read some of his poetry), Urgup (large town with large hotels and busy roads - we get out asap), Zelve (amazing landscape but crawling with tour groups), Avanos (I finally get to buy some ceramics after avoiding the Istanbul sellers - not sure it's cheaper, but it's a nicer experience), and home via Cavusin.

A last drink of raki watching the sunset, then 6am wake-up, and at long last we are on the long flight home - Nevsehir - Istanbul - Singapore - Sydney. Back to work and winter, but looking forward to seeing our friends :)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Grand and grotty in the cities of Europe

It's another long day of travelling from Strasbourg to Vienna, via Stuttgart, Munich and Salzburg. The French and German trains are very good - when we board for the final leg from Munich to Vienna I think we've accidentally boarded first class. There is free (if intermittent) wireless internet, power points, comfortable seats and large, clean windows. The weather is supposed to be clearing after heavy rain as we arrive in Vienna

I go for an evening walk but am turned back by the rain. The next day Chris is unwell with a cold so I leave him in bed and go sightseeing on my own; it's still raining - a good day for museums. The Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is incredible - whole rooms of significant Gothic and Renaissance masters such as Cranach, Holbein, Breugel, Rubens and Van Dyke, but also Titian, Velasquez … it's mind boggling, and I didn't even go near the antiquities collection. Then the Albertina for modern and contemporary art - particularly post-impressionism and expressionism, and a very strong contemporary collection with Richter, Keifer, Kentridge, Dumas … There is also a wing of rooms made up in the style of the Hapsburgs to whom the palace once belonged. Depressingly, the rich have always ruled the world. 

I get back to the hotel weary and footsore, these European museums are HUGE. Chris is feeling a little better so we go to the hotel restaurant to eat, and I get to have my schnitzel and eat it too.

Grand and elegant Vienna
Hapsburg ballroom at the Albertina
 It's finally summer as we're on the train from Vienna to Budapest. Chris is still suffering but it doesn't prevent him from getting excited about the landscape strewn with windmills and pylons. As we cross the border into Hungary it feels distinctly that we are travelling into different territory - the land seems dryer, the buildings more severe, and the churches, so prevalent in the French and German landscape, less evident. Blocks of flats look brutally functional - a relic of communist times?

Arriving in Budapest we grab a cab to the hotel - our first rip-off, and we remember why we try to avoid cabs. But the hotel seems very nice, it's on the Danube on the Buda side, and our room has beautiful views over the river to the amazing parliament building. Budapest is a revelation - an elegant city with a charming shabby and retro edge. The metro is straight out of the 50s, but operates with ruthless efficiency. The sights are picturesque and accessible - we visit Castle Hill, just behind our hotel where the National Gallery full of Hungarian art is situated, and City Park for Heroes Square and the Museum of Fine Arts with an impressive international classical collection. There is public sculpture everywhere - mostly of a classical ilk but also some contemporary. The first night we picnic by the river, but on the 2nd night we try the excellent restaurant next door to the hotel: a delicious meal of goose leg with mash and cabbage (more elegant than it sounds!), and duck breast with polenta. The weather is pure Sydney summer - warm muggy days with a thunderstorm in the evening.
Night view from our hotel room
View from Castle Hill
Gypsy Band on Castle Hill
We have loved Budapest, and are a bit sad to leave for Bucharest, by sleeper train. We have our own modest compartment, which is clean and comfortable, with toiletries, water and breakfast provided. Train food is usually unappetising, so we bring on board some kebab rolls, poppyseed cake and red wine.

It's become really hot by midday when we walk out into the blazing sun, refusing to be tempted by the multitude of touting taxi drivers. There is no tourism office, and by luck we find a travel agent who has good English and prints out a map showing which metro stop we need, and in the end we get to our hotel in 15 minutes for $1 each - victory!

Bucharest is rather shocking - from the initial unhelpfulness for tourists to the dirty clogged and noisy roads, derelict buildings and crumbling footpaths, it seems a city that is struggling to maintain its amenity, in spite of its classic bones. Many of the grand and elegant buildings seem to be owned by banks, or else quietly decomposing and gathering graffiti. The city is generally ruled by cars and is not pedestrian friendly, unlike other cities where footpaths and bike-paths abound. We brave the footpaths and end up chilling in the local park, which is pleasant, if a little unkempt, and crowded with locals. We see very few tourists, and it seems that our hotel is mainly populated by business visitors, but a stroll through the 'old town' later removes any impression of being the only tourists in town. Here the tourist restaurants and cafes are buzzing - it's one of the most remarkable tourist 'ghettoes' that we have seen.
Romanian Village
Bucharest park 
Grand Bucharest
Grotty Bucharest
A memorable (and eloquent) experience: We walk along the Boulevard Unirii (created by Ceaucescu to outdo the Champs Elysees), to the People's Palace (built by Ceaucescu to outdo every other civic building on the planet). As we walk across a vast car park to approach the vast building on its vast estate, we realise that access from the Boulevard has been bricked up, and we must walk around the perimeter to find an entry point. Of course it is 35 degrees and there is no shade. At the first entry (which is for Parliament access only) we are directed to the next entrance. This is where visitors can do guided tours of the building, but we are looking for the Museum of Contemporary Art, also housed here. We arrive, sweating prodigiously, to find that access to the museum is diametrically opposite - that is we must return to the perimeter road, retrace our steps, and then proceed along two more of the boundary walls. Again, there is no shade. After what must be a 3 km walk we arrive. Fortunately it is worth the effort! But we wonder how many others brave the trek. We have never visited a more inaccessible and poorly signposted venue. Ceaucescu's legacy - a people's palace that is not accessible to the people.
Ceaucescu's Palace from the Boulevard Unirii 
The endless perimeter walk
Travelling the cities of Europe gives the curious impression of visiting parallel universes - how different historical, social and political circumstances affect the development of cities that in many ways must have been very similar a century or so ago. Bucharest has been interesting, but challenging- admittedly, it is a relief to move on to Istanbul.