Monday, 18 June 2012

Turkey & Anzac Day 2012

Finally, after 2 whole months, i've managed to set out this massively long blog post on our trip to Turkey.  I've put a lot of detail in here, mostly for Ben and I to look back upon in years to come...

We flew out early Saturday morning to begin a 9-day tour, primarily for the occasion of attending the 97th dawn service at Gallipoli for ANZAC day, but also  to explore a country that seemed so exotic and different to anywhere else we had been in Europe.

We arrived in Istanbul to be met by our airport transfer and had short wait while fellow tour-ers came off other arriving flights.  We were then to be taken to our hotel in the old town/city where we spend our first 2 nights - however, as we were on the bus, Ben had been tracking our route on his iPhone map and we seemed to be driving away from the middle of Istanbul and were currently about 25kms away from the centre.  We thought they must have been making a stop to drop "other" people off as our hotel was booked for the Old Town, 400m from the Blue Mosque.  However, once we pulled up at the hotel and they called out our name, my heart immediately sank, and then my blood began to boil, this was NOT what we were sold, and one of the reasons for choosing this particular tour was that we were staying in the middle of Istanbul so we could easily explore on our own time.  I enquired with the "man with the clipboard" who made a call to the office, who was all to happy to inform us that we had been "upgraded"...  Devastated, we watched the tour bus drive away, leaving us in what looked like a wasteland in the middle of nowhere.  (Granted the hotel looked brand spanking new and was 5 star - but, it was a 25 minute drive from anywhere AND it was called the Titanic!!)

It seems we weren't the only ones perplexed by this development, it soon became apparent there were a lot of people in the same situation - and whilst fuming in the foyer we met Josh and Carlie who were just as upset as we were about this.  After making a few phone calls to the travel company, it became apparent that there was absolutely nothing we could do.  So we decided not to waste anymore time, and shared a taxi into the centre to make the most the rest of the day.

We explored the Grand Bazaar, discovered the Spice Bazaar (fresh Turkish Delight galore!!), walked by the Bosphorus and discovered fishing boats selling fresh grilled fish sandwiches, crossed over the Galata Bridge watching the locals fishing over the side, walked up to Galata Tower (but couldn't climb to the top as it was just closing), walked up the incredibly busy Siraselviler Street toward Taksim and ended the night with a couple of Efes on a lovely roof terrace overlooking the city.  So regardless of the disappointment of the hotel drama, we had had a great first evening in Istanbul and made some lovely new friends!

Blue Mosque

Dried Aubergine (apparently)

We visited this shop 3 times - mostly because the guy was lovely and didn't harass us - the Turkish Delight was also to die for!

Some kind of stringy cheese (not sure for what though?)

Looking over the Bosphorus to Galata Tower

Fishermen on the Galata Bridge - and lots of fish restaurants!

The next morning was the official start of the tour, where we came together as a group for the first time and met our tour guide, Ayse (Ay-sha), and spent the day visiting the Hippdrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. We ended the day back in Taksim and sampled our first Kebab, which was very disappointing compared to what we're used to in Australia (we really do do it better)!  It was then back to the hotel for a good night's sleep before our first day on the road.

The back of the Blue Mosque

Obelisk in the Hippodrome 

Entrance to the Blue Mosque

Learning the washing ritual

Aya Sofia/Hagia Sophia

Inside Aya Sofia

Mosaic inside Aya Sofia

Blue Mosque looking out from inside Aya Sofia
The view from Topkapi Palace
Cruising the Bosphorus

About to go under the Bosphorus Bridge - 17th longest suspension bridge in the world

After another mind-blowing breakfast buffet (Titanic really did do a good breakfast!), we put our bags on the bus, settled into our seats (which we would become very attached to for the next week) and headed off for Gallipoli.  We would spend the day exploring the significant ANZAC sites without the crowds and also learn a little more about that fateful battle 97 years ago, including visiting Beach Cemetery, Shrapnel Valley, Lone Pine, Chunuk Bair and the Turkish Memorial.  It was quite mind-blowing to see with our own eyes the cliffs and terrain that the troops encountered and got a much better feel for just how tough it really was.

Ataturk's famous ANZAC speech

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace, there is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…  you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well

Looking toward Anzac Cove with the Sphinx on the cliff top
(the red is the memorial site where the ceremony took place)

The view looking out from Lone Pine

The view from Lone Pine - the flat terrain where our troops were "supposed" to land

Setting up Lone Pine for Anzac Day

The Turkish Memorial

The horse used in the Brad Pitt Troy movie

After quite an exhausting day it was on to our next hotel, across the Dardenelles Straight on the ferry to Canakkale (chan-a-ka-lay).  We had a brief stop-off at the seaside promenade to see the horse used in the movie "Troy" (yes, the one with Brad Pitt) and were then whisked off to our hotel which was 20 minutes out of the town (there was a theme beginning to become apparent here).  So, stuck at the hotel, we had no choice but to dine on the hotel buffet (one of the worst of the trip), have a couple more Efes and retire to our rooms to try to get some sleep on the surfboard-like beds.

The next day was THE day when we would begin queueing to get into the site to spend the night camping out ready for the Dawn Service on the 25th.  We had decided as a group that we would forego the other plans for the day, and get to the site super early to make sure we would be first in line to ensure a good spot to be comfortable for our night camping.

As luck would have it, we managed to be the first group to arrive at the security checkpoint (even though we had been warned we may have to move further back later in the day for security to do a bomb-sweep).  So we made ourselves comfortable and started thinking about how we would spend the next 7 hours - some of us managed to make it into the ceremony site for a look around before they closed it off for security, so were able to scope out the best position on the grassed area (as opposed to in the granstand where you would have to sit upright all night), some went on walks up to memorial sites, some stayed back to watch all the gear, and some clever cookie had bought a ball so we had some interesting mixed-netball/soccer-ish entertainment.  We had woken up to grey skies and for most of the morning the weather was positively on the chilly side with rain showers coming and going. We were all getting a bit worried that our night camping out was about to turn messy - but we needn't have worried, early in the afternoon, the skies cleared and it wasn't long until we were all removing the layers and slapping on the suncreen.  In between all of this, another tour group (our arch rivals The Fanatics) had arrived and with double our numbers and started to invade our sacred queueing space.  Thanks to a few of our group, we held our frontline position and at 5.00pm on the dot, the security point opened and we raced our way in to grab our prime position at the top of the slope on the front-right grassed section.  And so the long night began...

I wasn't really sure what to expect for the night so it was welcome to find out that there was a program of events for the whole night, from live music from Army bands, documentaries on the big screens and the most beautiful light show over the cliffs and sphinx set to eery classical music.  The atmosphere was so electric with the thousands of people surrounding us, for the most part we were taking it all in and really only managed a hour or so of sleep.  We were also a little worried that we might be really cold as temps can drop to below zero in that part of the world overnight.  However, we got super lucky with the temperature hovering around 10 degrees most of the night, although we still certainly needed our sleeping bags, winter coats and beanies.

As dawn approached, we started to pack up our camp and prepared to stand for the service.  The actual service lasted about an hour and included speeches from dignitaries, prayers, national athems, laying of wreaths etc.  It was all very emotional and I doubt there was a member of the audience who didn't have goosebumps or even shed a tear or two.

Anzac Cove

The Aussie contingent of our tour

Our spot on the green grass looking up to the Sphinx

The memorial site the morning before "officially" opening

Looking down at the security checkpoint - the venue of the infamous netball/soccerish entertainment

Up at Plugges Plateau, with the memorial site in the background

Holding our position at the front of the line

Finally made it in

Carlie & Josh, our camping buddies

Enjoying the glorious sunset

Dawn Service
After the Dawn Service it was time for the Aussies & Kiwi's to go their separate ways for the respective country's national services, the Australian being a little way up the hill at Lone Pine - the Kiwi's had a lot further to trek right up to the top at Chunuk Bair.  Once we'd made the hike we took our seats and while waiting for the service to start, we watched as Ben Roberts-Smith, the recent receiver of the Victoria's Cross in Australia, receive a celebrity welcome with most of the crowd wanting autographs and photos.  He was closely followed by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, who strangely didn't seem to pull the same number of crowds.  After another moving service, we had quite a few  hours to kill before we had to meet our bus, so Ben and I set off to explore a few of the other cemeteries and battle sites.  By this time the sun was beating down and the temperature was heating up rapidly - not to mention we were super tired after only having an hour or so sleep.  But we trooped on along the trail and i'm so glad we did - we really got a feel for the terrain our soldiers were exposed to and just how difficult it was for them.  Once up high in the cliffs we also discovered the most amazing views over the Peninsula which quite simply took our breath away - for having such an ugly history, Gallipoli has so much natural beauty.

After waiting a few more hours for our bus to make it up the 200+ bus queue to our pickup point, we were finally on our way back to our hotel, and even though we were all super tired, we didn't really want to go to bed at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so instead we soaked up the sun around the pool until dinner time, then ate a very welcome hot meal and crashed out not too much later.

Beginning the pilgrimage up to Lone Pine

"The Track" up to Lone Pine

The crowd at Lone Pine

Julia at Lone Pine

Us behind the Sphinx - the red of the memorial site in the background

The next day it was back on the road, first stop Ancient Troy.  I had heard varying feedback on Troy with the majority of people thinking it not really worth the trip so I was a tad sceptical.  However, I have to say that I really enjoyed walking around the ruins and learning about and seeing the different "levels" of the old cities as they were built on top of one another over the generations - and of course no trip to Troy would be complete with the obligatory "photo with the horse".

The layers of Ancient Troija

The markers indicate the different layers of ancient cities

Yet again it was back on the trusty bus, next stop the ancient city of Pergamon(/Pergamum), set high on a hill which we had to catch a cable car up to the top.  It is quite difficult to believe just how old these ruins are and trying to imagine what it would have been like all those years ago is very difficult.  

The cable car up to Ephesus

The vertiginous amphitheatre at Pergamum

THAT's the amphitheatre

On our way to our final stop, Kusadasi, we were offered to be dropped off at a Hammam outside of town for a traditional Turkish Bath - thinking we might not get the opportunity again, we decided to go for it - what a mistake that was - obviously a tour bus tourist trap, we arrived to have another bus load of tourists ahead of us.  After sitting and waiting for close to 3 hours for our 3 minutes of half-arsed pampering, we were all pretty pissed off and just wanted to get out of there. We didn't end up getting back to the hotel until nearly 10pm, which meant we had missed dinner and were also late for our "night out on the town" - aka being dragged to tourist trap clubs and being sold ridiculously overpriced beer.  But hey, we danced and little (maybe Ben danced a little too much - on top of the Bar!!) and we nabbed free t-shirts as souvenirs.  So after a bit of a mixed day, it was a relief for it to be over!

View over Kusadasi from our hotel

We awoke to a new day, and a big day was planned.  First stop, a traditional rug factory (where we may or may not have bought, not 1, but 2 rugs...), a rather random stop at a "Leather Factory" where we were treated to a corny 90's-ish fashion show and then promptly led into a showroom where leather coats were practically forced upon our backs (hmmm, another tourist trap)!

Our purchases

And finally, after all the spending we made it to another ancient city, Ephesus...

We didn't have a huge amount of time to explore, but I was surprised just how big it was and also how well preserved, and I now wish we had had more time there as I definitely didn't get enough of an understanding or appreciation for this amazing place.

Cats, cats, everwhere!!!!

Ephesus - main street

Mosaic street

The Library

Each city had an amphitheatre

After what was probably one of our nicest meals of the whole trip (at the dodgy looking tourist restaurants after exiting Ephesus - who would have thought!!), it was back on the bus and on to Pamukkale (pa-moo-ka-lay) to see the beautiful white calcium terraces.  They were absolutely breathtaking and definitely worthy of seeing if you are ever in Turkey.  We were also there at sunset, which made the light on the terraces even more beautiful.  The natural spring water was also lovely and warm and if we had more time we would have also loved to have spent time bathing in the pools here.

Major hotel fail on this night - we were all excited because it was the only 5-star hotel on our trip, so expectations were high - we weren't expecting a cross between and hospital and a college campus with ridiculously rude staff to boot!  We had yet another "buffet" for dinner which was more than average and got ripped off on crazy expensive drinks.  After dinner we had just enough time to take a quick dip in the hotel's "indoor thermal spa", which was open until 10pm.  So we paid our 4 lira for compulsory swimming caps (yep, everything was extra at this 5-star hotel!), and much to our disgust after a short time of getting in, the staff were trying to kick everyone out a whole 15 minutes before the spa was due to close. The next 15 minutes were quite hilarious with no-one getting out and a rather foul mouthed French lady sticking up for us all hurling abuse at the staff (who at this stage were getting pretty annoyed at us and i'm surprised they didn't get in themselves and drag us out!).  Then, at 10pm on the dot, we all quietly and politely got out and left them to their duties (but not before the male staff member opened the door on a woman showering!!)  Note to all - NEVER stay at the Colossae Thermal Spa Hotel in Pamukkale.

The following morning it was an early start for our long drive back to Turkey and the last day of our tour.  Not too much exciting to report on this day - apart from a short detour to look at the "real" poppy fields regulated by the government (the poppy's used for opium have purple flowers, not like the red ones you commonly see).  We also made another quite touristy stop in Bursa to visit the Silk Bazaar (ok, I fell for this one a little).  

Purple and Red Poppies

Green Mosque Bursa

Colourful Bursa street

Then it was the final push back to the hotel, where we all went out for one last night together at a cool restaurant terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. Cheers Turkey!

A few points about Turkey:

1.  Go.  You won't regret it!
2.  All Australian's/Kiwi's should attend Dawn Service at Gallipoli at least once in their life.
3.  Try not to go in the midst of summer, we were there in April and some days were already quite hot.
4.  Be prepared for squat toilets (although there will almost always be a western alternative), and don't be shocked that you don't flush your toilet paper - there are bins beside the toilet for this (i'm quite sure I got a bit sick from this though).
5.  When in Istanbul, search out a foodie tour similar to this one, we came across a LOT of disappointing food, but i'm sure there must be some delish food somewhere!
6.  The tour was good as we covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time AND we had a fantastic group of people who all got along and made the trip memorable in so many ways - I think if you did it independently it would take a LOT of planning and require a very good map. The biggest cons of the tour - limited time at sites, bad hotels, bad food etc etc...  Weigh up your priorities!