We meet east meets west

182 nights : 6,965 miles travelled : Countries visited: 14

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul”   Alphonse de Lamartine

It is not a good idea to drive a motorhome into Istanbul with a hangover, even a mild one. The night before, we had celebrated getting across the Turkish border with Kipper after a few anxious days worrying about entry requirements. Matt from Sakar Hills, our last Bulgarian campsite, gently pointed out that we were  being too British. He reassured us that rules may be there but are not necessarily designed to be followed. He was right; we were not asked about the dog or the absent paperwork!

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A sesame roll seller takes advantage of a captive audience

Taking Brian into any city centre is a challenge but surviving two hours of writhing queues, with lane hopping drivers squeezing in all around us was a feat of concentration and nerve. On the upside, we had time to note how Istanbul is mushrooming and to spot some of the key sites as we finally reached the centre. The relief of arriving was mixed with euphoria….we had driven all the way to Istanbul!

We parked on a fisherman’s wharf, next to the Sea of Marmara and behind the Blue Mosque, at the hub of endless activity. By day, sightseers watched ships leave and approach the Golden Horn or the Bosphorus. Fishermen prepared their boats.  Tourist bus drivers chatted and waited. Vendors brought glasses of tea or sold sesame rolls to anyone wanting refreshment. The piercing call to prayer floated over the top of it all. Dogs played or slept. By night, lovers watched the lights on the water. Ships sounded their horns as they waited. Vendors sold seafood and party goers extended the fun by dancing on the tarmac with their car stereos pumping out the beats. The faithful were called to prayer an hour before sunrise. Dogs barked or slept.

SAM_8544We did not sleep, much. But that was part of the magic of our stay. The cloud barely lifted and it rained often. But Istanbul is always sparkling in our memories. New friends David and Carol took turns with us to visit the old city or to keep an eye on our vans. But very soon this strange place felt safe and familiar.

Our walk into the city took us past some of the 19th century wooden houses which are now protected. Some have been restored and converted into boutique hotels while the Tourism Police occupy a lovely yellow example, although a suicide bomber caused damage earlier in the year. SAM_8282SAM_8138

Ancient and beautiful crowd in together around the site of the Hippodrome making our work as tourists both easy and supremely satisfying. Only the central line of the Roman chariot racetrack remains, marked by monuments from across the ages.

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The Egyptian Obelisk and Column of Constantine Porphyrogenitus
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The Serpentine Column from Delphi, Greece is nearly 2,500 years old
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The domed fountain commemorates Kaiser Wilhelm II visit and looks very out of place

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque is on the former site of the Hippodrome’s royal lodge, a grandstand for the emperor and family to watch the chariot racing. The Sultan Ahmet Mosque, or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known was completed in 1616. It is simply beautiful and the space seems designed to draw your gaze upwards.

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We returned later in the week

A short walk away is the most incredible indoor space we’ve seen. The Aghia Sophia was originally a church, then a mosque and now a museum to an amazing 1,400 years of inspiring people to consider a world beyond ours.

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The ‘church of holy wisdom’,  Aghia Sophia
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The scale of everything is awe inspiring
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The Imam stands only part way up the minber or pulpit leaving the highest point for God
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Scaffolding for restoration masks much of the space
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The sultan’s lodge
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Byzantine mosaics have been uncovered

A much more earthly need for water led to the creation of the cavernous Basilica Cistern in 532. More than 300 columns hold up the ceiling and the low lighting and sound of drips on water as you stroll around inspire many whispers of wow. We had never seen anything like it.

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The Medusa heads at the base of two columns suggest other monuments were plundered
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Their positioning upside down and on a side are a mystery

We tried to see Topkapi Palace on a wet Saturday so the queues to see it’s many treasures were discouragingly long. The only room we got a good peek at was the Circumcision Pavilion (no queues there!) which was both peaceful and beautiful. Like all areas of royal life even this procedure was associated with sumptuous ceremony!

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A series of gates and courtyards leads to the centre of the palace
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The Iftariye Pavilion is a canopied balcony giving views down to the Golden Horn
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The Circumcision Pavilion is decorated with Iznik tiles
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The Iznik tiles from Turkey are found throughout the Palace as well as in the Blue Mosque
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Never too wet to spot a ship!

David negotiated a bargain price and unusually, a ride for Kipper , on a boat trip around the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. We could see how Istanbul is a meeting point in many ways; water meets land, old meets new and of course Europe meets Asia.

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The Galata Tower dates from the 6th century when it was used to monitor shipping
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Old and new
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At last a bit of sun!
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The Dolmabahce Palace
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Fried fish to finish

These meeting points mean that trade has always been at the heart of the city.  The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar were buzzing….albeit with tourists as well as locals. A treat for us was being able to visit many sites together while Kipper snuggled up with Carol and we both tried our first Turkish coffee and the first of a lot of baklava on our outings!

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The Grand Bazaar was established in the 15th century and is still thriving
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A unique shopping experience
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Great prices for the spices
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Teas and sweets are also popular
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The Turkish Delight was eaten before it could be photographed!

The sun finally appeared on our last full day and we took Kipper to Gullame Park which was once the rose garden of Topkapi Palace. We sat and had lunch in the park cafe and looked down at the activity on the water from a different angle.

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The skies are clearing
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The view from Brian’s kitchen improved
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We saw a traditional method of delivering traditional rugs as we walked to the park

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Looking across the city walls towards the Bosphorus

The full moon that night set the seal on a magical week.

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M & G xx

Treat of the week: I couldn’t leave Istanbul without a visit to a haman. I picked the closest one to us and it turned out to be one of the most historic and opulent Turkish baths in the city. Indeed it was magical sitting under the 18th century dome pierced with star shaped windows as I sweated and waited to be scrubbed. The Cagaloglu Baths can boast of previous visitors including Kate Moss and Michelle Pfiefer and I imagined the attendant thinking this was just another body to deal with. Stripped down we are all alike on that marble slab….yeah right…. alike as a tapered candle is to a lava lamp! But I did glow afterwards!

MeSAM_8545anwhile the boys enjoyed some quiet time watching the ships go by.

 

About time

162 nights : 6,238 miles travelled : Countries visited: 13

“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”  Cormac McCarthy

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We realised we should put the skates on our snail when we looked at options for winter sites. Whilst there are many possibilities for stopping overnight, every couple of weeks it is necessary (and nice) to pitch up for a few days, do the laundry and give Brian a really good airing. We were surprised at how many sites close before the end of October, even as far south as Greece and Turkey, so we planned for a couple of days of serious driving.

We left Hungary and clipped the corner of Croatia before crossing into Serbia. Croatia instantly felt different as we drove through a series of small rural villages and hamlets. Many were only one street wide and we saw the most number of national flags on civil and private buildings; maybe a public holiday? As we passed through Vukovar, the first major town, we noticed that many buildings were pock marked and some completely crumpled. We then saw signs for a memorial centre and later read that the town was the scene of an 87 day siege in 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence. This was followed by a horrific war crime when the victorious Serb paramilitaries and the Yugoslav Peoples Army massacred civilians and prisoners of war. Damage to buildings continues to be evident in the villages all the way to the border with Serbia. We were shocked that people are living with the scars of the past so long after the war has ended.

I mentioned this to Alexandr at Camp Dunav in Serbia that evening. The bright and welcoming site manager suddenly looked incredibly sad and told how he had initially been able to resist the military call up, but that as the Yugoslav wars had escalated he was forced to join. He reflected how the ambitions of a few can destroy so much and damage so many lives. It was obvious that he still felt real pain when talking about that era and we realised that the deepest scars are not always visible.

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We crossed Serbia diagonally from north east to south west in two days. We had camped just outside Belgrade, once again next to the Danube. The capital marked a divide in the landscape. The north was gritty, not pretty. We then drove south on an empty motorway through a rich tapestry of colours and textures stitched by vineyards, dried maize, ploughed fields and yellowing trees. Industrial scale food production had given way to human scale farming.

Before the bikers arrived!
Before the bikers arrived for a Saturday night meet!

Our first night in Bulgaria was near Sofia behind a motel frequented by bikers. On the plus side, there was a tattooist and salon and we both got a short back and sides from an extremely nervous hairdresser. Her favourite English word was “super” which she repeated frequently but without conviction!  Our second night in Bulgaria was near Plovdiv behind a motel frequented by prostitutes…and their customers! Our initial intrigue at the comings and goings around us quickly subsided and we watched a James Bond movie which felt slightly less surreal than our surroundings!

Roman ruins lie exposed in the streets of Plovdiv like bones breaking through skin. The forum is currently being excavated in the main square. Further up, the curved end of the stadium is clearly seen whilst it’s length still lies beneath the modern high street. Next to it, the 14th century mosque bears witness to the time when the city was conquered by the Ottomans. However the most impressive sight is that of the Theatre of Ancient Phillippopolis (as Plovdiv was in the Roman period) The theatre was only discovered in the 1970s and is used for events and performances today.

The ancient forum of Phillippopolis
The ancient forum of Phillippopolis
The stadium would have continued for more than 240 metres, seating 30,000
The stadium would have continued for more than 240 metres, seating 30,000
The Dzhumaya Mosque dates back to 1368 and still functions today
The Dzhumaya Mosque dates back to 1368 and is still functioning
The partially restored theatre is at the heart of the city
The partially restored theatre is at the heart of the city

Plovdiv was originally built on seven hills; only six remain after one was dismantled to provide stone to pave the streets! Many of these volcanic plugs are visible from the 5,000 year old ruins on Nebet Tepe hilltop, which also gives excellent views of the city both old and new.

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Paved streets in the Old Town
Paved streets in the Old Town
Gossips window and bell tower
Gossips window and bell tower
Buildings were tiered to reduce land tax
Buildings were tiered to reduce land tax

We joined a free walking tour and our excellent guide Boris talked about the legacy of communist rule. Buildings which for nearly 50 years had been owned by the state were returned to the original owners or their descendants, who often did not have the money or knowledge for their maintenance, so the buildings fell into disrepair. This was the case for much of the area known as ‘The Trap’, a historic network of small narrow streets of artisans and commercial properties. In recent years this area was very run down but is currently seeing a revival with galleries and cafes moving in. Plovdiv will be European Capital of Culture in 2019 and investment is being used to develop new growth as well as preserving the past.

The Trap, so called because it was easy to get lost in it's original form
The Trap, so called because it was easy to get lost
Paintings of notable Bulgarians appeared mysteriously but the city decided to keep them.
Paintings of notable Bulgarians appeared mysteriously but the city decided to keep them.
Street art is now officially encouraged
Street art is now officially encouraged

The past and the present sit slightly uneasily beside each other in Bulgaria. Horses and carts run alongside modern highways. Small huddles of goats and sheep are tended by a solitary herdsman with a stick, a stool and a mobile phone. Functional communist architecture is tacked onto a beautiful mountain. Twenty-first century refuse is ploughed into ancient soil. But many British people settle here and we can see why. Despite being swallowed up by numerous empires throughout time, Bulgaria has a proud national identity and a warm welcome.

Brian gets to know Felix
Brian gets to know Felix

We met fellow motor home travellers David and Carol in Budapest and decided to travel into Istanbul together so that we could keep an eye on each other’s vans. We arranged to meet up near Veliko Tarnavo on a campsite run by British expats. It was fantastic to spend a few days on the wonderful site run by Nick and Nikki  enjoying hot showers and peaceful nights.

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We were sold on the free walking tour principle of giving a donation to a volunteer and once again, the history and sights of the town were brought to life by a well educated, humorous young person. Plami made our three hour walk so interesting that I felt ready to sit an exam on Bulgarian culture and history. She also cleared up the mystery of the obituary posters that we had seen plastered everywhere. We had speculated that they were marking the upcoming All Souls Day but Plami explained that there was a tradition of publicly displaying obituaries at frequent intervals all year round. Many young people are baffled by this tradition but posters still coat doors, lamp posts, bus shelters, fences and trees.

A tradition as strong as ever
A tradition as strong as ever

We learned that the red and white braids hanging from trees around the town are called martenitsas. Wool is woven into a bracelet or made into a pair of little dolls and worn from March 1st until the wearer sees the first stork, swallow or budding tree. They are then left on a tree to herald the spring.

Veliko Tarnavo's main shopping street
Veliko Tarnavo’s main shopping street
Artisans and souvenir shops now line the old streets
Artisans and souvenir shops now line the old streets
The river snakes through the gorge in the centre
The river snakes through the gorge in the centre
The sky walk
The sky walk offers spectacular views

We returned to the town the next day to visit the fortress and the enormous monument in the centre of the city.

The best fortress ruin so far!
Distant view of the best fortress ruin so far!
David, Carol, Graham and Kips at the fortress
David, Carol, Graham and Kips at the fortress
Enjoying the views
Looking out for the enemy
The bells are a 20th century addition
The bells are a 20th century addition
The former church at the top was decorated in the communist era
The former church at the top was decorated in the communist era
Commanding views
Commanding views of the town below
The impressive monument commemorates four leaders from a time when Tarnavo was capital of Bulgaria
The monument of the Assens commemorates four leaders from a time when Tarnavo was capital of Bulgaria

The Shipka Pass was the scene of a Russian Turkish Battle in 1877 which is marked by the Freedom Monument. We bumped into David and Carol there who had walked up a long way to see it. We hadn’t hidden Brian well enough to pretend we had too.

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Monday today
It is Monday today

Bulgaria is responsible for creating the Cyrillic alphabet which we have been struggling with since Serbia. Our middle aged brains just can’t cope with so many new challenges. To compound the problem, technology is letting us down. We had been relying on the Sat Nav for clues on pronunciation of place names but even she has given up. Recently we get just the first syllable “turn left for Duh….” or sometimes there is just a complete blank !!!! This week we have had serious issues with time. Our German made cuckoo clock has lost synchronicity; there are four less cuckoos than hours….so now we have to do subtraction to hear the time. To finish us off, the Turkish government (we are currently in Asia!) decided to postpone putting the clocks back last weekend for two weeks. But we didn’t know and were baffled as phones, clocks and computers all disagreed with each other and we missed a guided museum tour. What does it matter? Initially we were happy to forget about months and dates but lately we’ve lost our clue to the day of the week, as I keep forgetting to take the tablets! Now the hours have gone, disorientation is complete.

M & G xx

Treat of the week: No, he wouldn’t let me keep it. Perfect for hiding my Bulgarian hair cut and the mosquito bite on my cheek. Still, had fun trying it on!

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Scaring evil spirits is my speciality!