Saturday, June 30, 2012

Gallipoli (in Photos)

Even just the word ‘Gallipoli’ is loaded for antipodeans. We all learned about it in history class, but few have been fortunate enough to visit the site where so many Kiwis and Australians lost their lives in the first world war. Gallipoli is around a 5 hour drive from Istanbul, so it’s ambitious to do it in a day, but eight of the Ottoman Trekkers were up for the challenge the day after our Trek ended.

I was floored to discover that Gallipoli was beautiful. I’d never paused to consider that the site of such violent injustice could be naturally so striking. But it really was.

The whole area feels dedicated to the ANZAC troops who lost their lives there. Below is a bit of a photo journey, because words could never do it justice.

Old photographs help us to wrap our heads around the reality of what we’re looking at.

ANZAC Cove. Far more exquisite than I had imagined.

The allied troops trained in Egypt, so it’s not surprising that this rock formation above ANZAC Cove was nicknamed “the sphinx”.
There are so many tourists on ANZAC day that the service has now been moved to the larger grassy area above the next bay. We felt slightly uncomfortable posing for a photo of such a sombre moment, but wanted to remember it.

One of many graveyards filled with both named and unknown soldiers. Most were inscribed with messages from their grieving parents. A few were just 18 years old, which brought tears to my eyes.

A statue immortalising the moment a Turkish soldier carried a wounded Australian to safety
so he wouldn’t be left to die in No Man’s Land.

The Australian memorial at Lone Pine.

The trenches have trees growing in them now.

Nek Ridge. The location of the last scene in the movie ‘Gallipoli’.

Our last stop, at the highest point: the New Zealand Memorial.
It's here because only the kiwi soldiers ever made it this far.

Afterwards, Ally and I dip our toes in the Dardanelles. 

A blood red sun feels almost poetic as we begin the long drive back to Istanbul.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Istanbul

Where East meets West. That's what I'd heard about Istanbul. Knowing it was a heavily Muslim city, I pictured it exactly like Marrakesh, with snake charmers in the public square, Eastern architecture, and calls to prayer over loudspeaker a few times a day.

When we first arrived, part of me was a little disappointed: what I saw was more West than East. Most of the architecture was clearly European, and there were no snake charmers - not where I was, anyway! But I soon discovered that Istanbul has a fascinating layer under the surface, and if you are prepared to look a little deeper, it does live up to its reputation.

To state the obvious: you need more than a day in Istanbul. I was lucky enough, arriving here as the last stop of Busabout's incredible Ottoman Trek, to already know that I'll be back for another single day in September. So I made a slightly unusual choice, and decided to divide the city into two manageable chunks - seeking only to complete one of them this time around.

This is The Antipodean's guide for half of Istanbul in a day; I'll publish a follow-up post in September offering the other half in a second day.

1.  The Grand Bazaar
Renowned the world over as a visual feast of colour, the Grand Bazaar does not disappoint. It feels more ordered than the markets in Morocco, and it's easier to stay oriented. Gift idea: the metal-shops all sell little spice grinders. They're beautiful, inexpensive, very Turkish, and will even fit in your already overstuffed suitcase. Take your time finding the best one - there are subtle variations - then pretend not to like it and test your talent for haggling!

2.  Watermelon in the main square
Afternoon temperatures can be sweltering, so take refuge in the main square near the Blue Mosque with a large slice of fresh watermelon from one of the many carts.

3.  Hagia Sophia Mosque
This mosque is 1,000 years older than the Vatican. Let me say that again. This mosque is a thousand years older than the Vatican! And it actually spent its first thousand years as a church, before being converted into a mosque in 1453 (when it was still the largest cathedral in the world). The €12 entry fee seems steep after a week of Eastern-European prices, but don't let it scare you off. This is considered the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture for a reason!

4.  Turkish tea and snacks
I won't go as far as recommending a place, because finding your own is half the fun! But find out whether they use fresh or powdered apple in their apple tea - and keep looking if it's not fresh. Save room for at least two types of baklava and turkish delight - and may I suggest that one of those is pomegranate turkish delight wrapped in pistachios. (I finally understood why Edmund is so won over by the stuff in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe!)

5.  Turkish Baths
Defying the usual tourist-trap laws, the main Turkish baths by the Grand Bazaar are meant to be wonderful. However, in line with expectations, they're also very expensive! So we chose Gedikpaşa Hamamı, built in 1475. I entered the baths with an acute sense of culture shock, and left feeling fantastic. Keep an eye out on Flight Centre UK's blog for the full hilarious account of my Turkish Bath experience (I'll link to it here once it's been published).

The surprise towel-turban ending was my favourite part!

6.  Dinner at Palatium
"Do you serve falafel kebabs?" Ally has a craving. "Yes", replies the restaurateur. "Also, we have an underground Roman palace" he adds nonchalantly. Sold! And thus began my love affair with Palatium (just one street over from Busabout's base at the Sultan Hostel). Arriving early, we quickly nabbed the beanbags on the outdoor balcony area, because they're on glass and you can glance down at the palace while nibbling your mains! This is not the cheapest restaurant in Istanbul, but it's still very reasonable by Western standards, and they served the best food I've tasted in months. I really can't rave enough: Palatium was my unexpectedly wonderful discovery in Istanbul.

After our meal at Palatium, we ventured down to see the palace. It was far bigger than anticipated, and really something! We decided, for some unknown reason, to practice the Bulgarian dancing we'd learned a few days earlier at the gypsy dinner in Sofia.

The security guard who snapped us mid-dance thought we were deranged.

Getting caught Bulgarian dancing at midnight in an underground Roman palace beneath a wonderful restaurant in Turkey... I can't think of a better ending for the Ottoman Trek!

The Antipodean travelled on the Ottoman Trek thanks to Flight Centre UK and Busabout. You can find out more about the Ottoman Trek here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Plovdiv

Plovdiv. Where on earth is Plovdiv? I certainly couldn’t have told you before booking the Busabout Ottoman Trek.

And yet, somehow, here I am! It’s actually quite pretty.

The old Roman amphitheatre

A Bulgarian man on a hill who randomly caught my eye

Sunset by the mosque

Although I’m a little bemused by their attempt to squeeze “love” into their tourism slogan. 

In the afternoon, we hear some sort of performance going on in the old Roman amphitheatre. We wander over and discover about six clusters of children singing traditional Bulgarian songs. Oddly, they all look miserable. One, in particular, reminds us of Little Miss Sunshine. We spend about half an hour entranced, coming up with cheeky translations for the lyrics.

We meet the rest of the group back at our hotel in the evening, to head off to a brewery. But two of our members aren’t there. Ally and Stacey have somehow disappeared.

When we reencounter them in the morning on the bus, they look like death warmed up. They’ve had one of the most hilarious nights I’ve ever heard of: following a stray kitten and getting lost, asking a tattooed biker (who smelled like roses) for directions, walking beside his bike as he led them back, heading out again to make the most of the night, buying fluoro hats and wigs from an adult store, finding a dodgy Bulgarian bar off an alleyway and being bought drinks all night by Greek med-students who flunked their exams but are still eligible to study in Bulgaria, then sneaking out and back to the hotel just before dawn.

You'll never guess which one hasn't showered.

A stellar effort, methinks.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Sofia

When I was about six years old, I wrote a poem about an “army of ballerinas”.

The metaphor may be a little impenetrable, but I was attempting to wax lyrical about a field of sunflowers.

The last place I ever expected to encounter this army in the flesh is Bulgaria. But, within 15 minutes of crossing the border I’m reminded of my childish metaphor as I stare out across thousands of the saffron plants, stretching as far as I can see on both sides of the bus.

Our hotel in Sofia looks like the tallest building in the city. It has a casino and a spectacular view from my window on level 18:

As usual, shortly after arriving we head out on a walking tour of the main sights:

The lion is the symbol of Bulgaria. They even named their currency after it

The feet, left hand, and head of this statue is solid gold

Russian Orthodox church St. Nikolai Choudotvorets

Spectacular Alexander Nevsky cathedral

But the main thing I’ve been looking forward to in Sofia is dinner. Because tonight, we’re being treated to a gypsy feast! And a feast it truly is. Upon arrival, we gorge ourselves on flatbreads and delicious dips, in the centre of every table. My favourite tasted like ratatouille.

Then, a celebratory shot of traditional Bulgarian rakia:

Dinner is soon delivered – large trays of bread, meats, grilled vegetables and large fresh peppers for every table.

When the dancing begins, it’s not quite what I expected. More Michael Jackson than traditional gypsy. But as the night goes on, the performers get into the groove and ditch the sequins and trilbies in favour of more traditional dress.

Before long, we’ve all left our inhibitions behind and are being taught a simple dance that involves all of us holding hands and skipping around the entire restaurant in a loop. It’s hilarious, and a lot of fun.

This pic comes thanks to Dave Levit

Now that the seal has been broken, we dance the rest of the night away.

Good thing the bus doesn’t depart until 11:30 tomorrow!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Serbia

For some reason I expected Belgrade to be monolithic and cold. But our local guide is quick to point out that it's a city of music and culture, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that my preconceptions were miles off.

Our walking tour takes in some of the key sights:

The old palace
One of many beautiful Orthodox churches
Belgrade loves its water features, as does my beautiful assistant Ally

The tour is timed perfectly to reach the fortress for sunset.

Adam and Lizzie at the fortress

Our guide explained to us that Belgrade has been razed to the ground on no less than forty occasions. On an unrelated note, it's also the place where Amy Winehouse performed her last concert.

Dinner is in the outdoor area of a cute little Serbian restaurant. Being Day 3 of the Ottoman Trek, we're starting to form friendships. I'm at a table of four people whose names all begin with 'A', and we decide to celebrate with a round of cosmopolitans. It made sense at the time.

I've been a little sick for the last few days, so my voice is hoarse. I gesture to the waiter, and when he comes over I point to the word 'cosmopolitan' in the menu and croak barely audibly "four cosmopolitans please". He looks at me, looks at the menu, looks at the group, laughs himself silly, and walks away.

I love Serbia.

Later, Stacey receives some exuberant attention from a pair of traditional Serbian musicians.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ottoman Trek: Bosnia

When I was ten years old, a new girl joined my class. Her name was Amra. I remember thinking that her big brown eyes were beautiful. She was Bosnian, and her family had fled the country.

I haven't given Amra much thought over the years. But today I started to understand what this young girl was going through in her home country while I was climbing trees and complaining about having to eat tomato.

Split, as the bus started to climb the hills towards Bosnia

Our first stop in Bosnia is Mostar. The old town is stunning, though it's hard not to notice the ruins left behind from the war for independence 20 years ago.

Busabout has arranged a local tour guide to show us around Mostar and explain some of its fascinating history. The highlight is at the end, when a local boy jumps off the famous Mostar bridge for us.

It's 43° in Mostar today, and we're roasting. I spend my free time buying many gelatos and cold drinks in quick succession. For lunch a small group of us find a small Bosnian restaurant in the old town that makes us delicious pastry tubes filled with meat, cheese or potato. Each one is roughly the size of a large pizza slice, and costs just €1.

A few hours later, we arrive in Sarajevo. Our hostel is well located and a patio area on the roof offers a great view towards the houses on the surrounding hills. It's easy to understand how the Serbs were able to bring Sarajevo to its knees for three years by controlling the hills.

Dinner tonight is traditional Bosnian. It's a delicious spread of meatballs, pork skewers, and stuffed onions which tastes as though it has been slow cooked in meat stock. I could easily have eaten another plateful, but am glad to still have space when I see the dessert plates! Everyone at my table of six has something different,  mainly apple-based. We pass them around and try a bit of everything.

It rains overnight, so the next morning the hot sun is back out.

This morning starts with a walking tour of Sarajevo. Our guide is a girl about my age, who looks a little bit like Amra.

She shows us the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the first world war.

She takes us to see the main religious buildings of Sarajevo, pointing out how close they are. The Bosnian War is sometimes blamed on religion, but she rebukes this idea and tells us the story of the most valuable Jewish book in Sarajevo, an 800 year old sacred text which was in the Sarajevo Museum when the raids started. The Museum director was Catholic, but he cared enough to risk his life to get the book to safety. He knew where it would be safest; in the vaults beneath the mosque. So he gave the book to his best friend, a Muslim, who safely hid it. The book survived the war and can still be seen in the Museum today.

The Orthodox church in Sarajevo, rebuilt after the war
Then, we're whisked half an hour away on the bus, to the site of the tiny tunnel that secretly shipped goods into Sarajevo during the siege. We watch a short video. I find it strange seeing war footage in colour.

Our guide tells us some of her own story, about developing osteoporosis from lack of sunlight because she wasn't allowed to go outside and had to stay in the basement all the time.

Walking along the short stretch of the tunnel that's still open to preserve the memory
When we leave the tunnel, we're shown a plaque with the names of every person who died in Sarajevo during the war and siege. I find Amra's surname and see it has the longest list of people who passed away. I have no idea whether her family were even based in this part of Bosnia, but it still sends shivers down my spine.

After the walking tour has ended, we relax with a traditional Bosnian coffee and lunch in a tree-covered courtyard where the city stables used to be.

That night we're delighted to discover Zlatna Ribica, a vintage steampunk bar with eclectic photoframes, books and furniture all over the walls.

It's one of the best bars I've ever been to, and I find myself wishing it was in London so I could be a regular.

The people of Bosnia are firmly focused on moving forward now, and it's comforting to see the little steps they're taking to rebuild and recover.