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Selçuk: aqueduct, storks, basilica and fortress

Izmir and Selçuk


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On Friday morning in Izmir we had time for breakfast before we walked to Basmane Station for our train to Selçuk. The walk was very hot - Izmir was the hottest place yet, even hotter than the interior, something I was surprised about. We passed through a beautiful large park, though, which was nice and shady on places.

The train was very shiny and modern, with more legroom than on British trains. There were TV screens showing some brilliant silent, funny, animated clips of animals saving themselves from predators by grouping together, with a caption afterwards (in English) saying 'better to travel in groups' and then 'go by bus'. When the screens weren't showing those, they were showing clips of whales, dolphins and deep sea creatures swimming underwater - not animated, they looked like they had been shot for a nature documentary.

Our journey was only an hour, but these clips made it seem even quicker. The scenery helped, too; we passed loads of orchards and fields of lush-looking crops with mountains in the background. I couldn't quite work out what some of these crops were, though I think some of the orchards were of fig trees, and some of the fields were of vines.

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I was completely charmed when we arrived in Selçuk and we walked out of the station to be greeted by the sight of what I assumed were aqueduct remains.... and topped with stork nests with storks perched in them! I'd seen storks before in Bulgaria, of course, but the only times I'd seen them in their nests I was in a car and therefore unable to take any photos.

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Artemis Hotel, our destination, was only round the corner. It was very good, and the first place we'd stayed at that had air conditioning in our bedroom rather than a fan. We had showers and rested for a bit before heading out again.

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We walked for about ten minutes to St John's Basilica, stopping for ice creams and cold drinks on the way. Constructed in the 6th century AD by the Emperor Justinian I, it covers the believed burial site of John the Apostle.

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The ruins are quite extensive and lie on a hill with some fantastic views of the valley stretching all the way to the sea less than 10 km away. The scenery looked quite Biblical to me, or at least how I imagine the more fruitful parts of the Middle East might look today. We could see in a field a long upright pillar; all that remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven Ancient Wonders of the World.

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From the basilica we could go further up Ayasuluk Hill to the fortress, so we did. Partially reconstructed, it dates from Byzantine, Seljuk and Ottoman times; before then there were other fortresses on this site, going back to the Neolithic Age. We saw remains of water cisterns, a small mosque, dwellings and some other things.

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Part of the walls were roped off, but we got even better views from what we could access than from the basilica.

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After another short rest to recover from the heat at our hotel, we had a lovely dinner at a small restaurant round the corner. We shared some stuffed vine leaves, yoghurt with herbs and olive oil and a bowl of 'sea beans' (samphire- not something I expected to find here, but I suppose we are near the coast!) and some complementary bread. To add to that, I had a vegetarian Pide (Turkish pizza) and Dave had a mixed kebab.

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We shared the only dessert on the menu, a gorgeous concoction of coconut, ground semolina and milk squished together into flattened balls, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.

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Posted by 3Traveller 03:22 Archived in Turkey Tagged birds trains mosque hotel basilica turkey izmir dave storks selcuk fortifications roman_remains turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

The Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern & more

Istanbul


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After breakfast we set off to another must-visit destination, a famous site I was really keen to visit; the Blue Mosque.

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There are two entrances to the main building; one for Muslims who come to pray (it's a working mosque) and one for tourists. It's free entry to all. Our queue was quite long, but moved at quite a decent pace, so we didn't have to wait for that long. Our wait was enlivened by a tour group behind us being given a talk in Spanish by their leader - he spoke very quickly and his Spanish sounded quite different to Ecuadorian Spanish, but I made out something about Ramadan, no drinking and no smoking.

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All women who didn't have something to use as a headscarf were given one to put on; men wearing shorts were also given one, to wrap around themselves like skirts. Dave didn't have to because he was wearing trousers. Before we stepped over the main threshold everybody had to take off their shoes and put them in a clear plastic bag.

The interior was just as large, airy, beautiful and elegant as I'd always imagined. It was full of blue-patterned Iznik tiles which gives the mosque its name to Westerners (out of interest, to locals it's known only as Sultanahmet Mosque). We admired the place for ages before eventually leaving.

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I gave back my headscarf, we put our shoes back on and we went into the courtyard adjoining the main building. This was also beautiful and we took a few more photos.

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From the Blue Mosque we headed over to the Basilica Cistern nearby. We were extremely hot by now, but the Basilica Cistern cooled us down. This huge column-supported underground cistern, used to hold 80,000 cubic metres of water for the imperial palace and other local residents, was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565). It has been renovated on more than one occasion since then, and is no longer used as a cistern, but still holds a foot or two of water, enough to support lots of fish.

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The only light in there came from lights shining onto the bases and tops of the columns, so the atmosphere was ever so slightly eerie, even with the high volume of visitors walking around on the wooden pathways raised above the water. I enjoyed watching the fish. In some parts of the water, people had thrown coins. Right at the back of the cistern there were two sculpted heads of Medusa; each one was at the base of a column. One was set sideways, the other upside down! Apparently nobody is entirely sure why they were placed there.

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After we left the cistern we went into a shop where we bought postcards, a book about Istanbul and a fridge magnet, and Dave picked up a free book of cartoons by a Turkish cartoonist.

After this we went back to our hostel to shower, have cold drinks and rest for a while. We went via Sultanahmet Park.

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When we stirred again, it was to the Great Palace Mosaic Museum down the road. This was relatively small, but excellent, with a great long floor mosaic taking the centre stage. The palace has now gone apart from this mosaic and several smaller ones arranged on the walls around it. The mosaics were magnificent, with pictures of animals, trees and human figure.

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When we left the museum we came out into the Arasta Bazaar. This bazaar is different to others in that it's hassle-free and lots of the goods have fixed prices. I saw some very intricately painted beautiful unframed pictures on special paper, including one of two world maps, but it was extremely expensive so I didn't get it. We wandered up and down the rest of the bazaar, which was small, but didn't buy anything.

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After another short rest at the hostel we went out for dinner at one of the two cafe-restaurants attached to the Arasta Bazaar. We shared bread and hummous and each had a different type of kebab; to go with them I had a lemonade with honey and Dave had some mint tea and a glass of lemonade & banana juice. For dessert I tried Turkish rice pudding, which was cold and had been made with ground rice instead of grains - it was delicious! Dave had baklava, which he also found delicious. We each had a Turkish coffee afterwards; it came with two mini chunks of Turkish Delight.

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As dinner drew on, we noticed the waiters setting out cling filmed plates of food on the other tables. These tables started filling up with locals; we asked our waiter what the event was and he said that it was for the breaking of the day's fast for Ramadan. The food I saw on their tables was flatbreads and bowls of salad.

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Posted by 3Traveller 06:56 Archived in Turkey Tagged art mosque market turkey museum istanbul spanish bazaar dave roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Arrival in Istanbul; the fulfilment of a dream...

Veliko Tarnovo and Istanbul


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The bus was only 5 minutes late from Veliko Tarnovo's Yug station.

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The driver didn't check our passports and tickets (so there was no need for us to have arrived half an hour early) but the 'road hostess' did, after walking up and down the aisle offering people splashes of lemon water. We just held out our hands and she poured it on.

The bus only had three or four people on it apart from us. Just before we started moving the old man in the seat behind us leaned over and started talking to us in Bulgarian. He asked where we were from, so I told him (also in Bulgarian). At that, he said something else but I simply couldn't understand what he said. Dave broke in at this point and said that the man had said 'Margaret Thatcher'!

The journey to the border took almost exactly four hours. We went by a highly scenic route with forested mountains on every side; the beauty was heightened even further by the sunset, which created silhouettes of the mountains and turned part of the sky pink. Although there were almost no clouds in the sky, for a while only two stars were visible; one of them was so incredibly bright we thought that it might actually be a planet. When the moon appeared, it seemed particularly large and yellow.

The border crossing took an hour and a half, much longer than it took between Bulgaria and Macedonia. It was physically much larger, with some duty-free shops in between the two countries' passport control that we stopped at for ten minutes, and there was much more traffic. There was also a baggage x-ray room to go through. This time I did get a passport stamp, although the writing and dates on it aren't clear!

On the resumption of our journey the road hostess made another round with the lemon water and then the TV, which had been showing a foreign talent show ever since Veliko Tarnovo, was turned off. It was now past 2 am and we could finally get some sleep.

I woke up to a very pink sky, pale and delicate very early morning light and... the city of Istanbul spread before me, with minarets silhouetted against the sky! I was bleary with fatigue, but still a great thrill of excitement ran through me. We were clearly on a hill, for I got a real sense of how large the city is.

It was 05.40 when I woke up. About twenty minutes later we got to the big otogar (bus station). This is about ten km from our hostel, so we had to get on the metro for a bit and then a tram for five stops. We passed mosque after mosque. On our walk from the Sultanahmet tram stop to our hostel we went through some gardens with the Hagia Sophia on our left and the Blue Mosque on our right. I almost couldn't believe we were there! The sun shone and although it was so early, it was already quite warm.

Although it was only about 07.30 when we got to the hostel and check-in wasn't until 12, they very kindly said that if we waited for half an hour, they could get our room ready for us by then.

We set the alarm for 12, but when it woke us up we fell back asleep as soon as I'd turned it off. Then I woke up again later due to the calls to prayer wailing from the mosques, but fell asleep as soon as they finished. We finally woke up for good at 15.20 - we clearly needed the sleep!

When we stepped outside, two women were sitting on a doorstep nearby, shelling peas. Someone was playing a flute inside. We passed them on our way back to the gardens we'd gone through earlier.

Our destination was the Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art, close to the Blue Mosque. We took some pictures of the mosque and of Hagia Sophia, the gardens and of the Hippodrome (where the Romans used to race horses, but is only really a long public square now, with one or two archaeological sections left) on the way.

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The museum was excellent - really well presented, and with exquisite examples of calligraphy, Medieval Turkish carpets, carvings, colourful glazed pottery and suchlike. It also gave a lot of information about and had artifacts from the Ottomans, Seljuks, Timiruds and other ruling dynasties of Turkey and Asia Minor. I remembered studying some of these in one of my first year History modules at Swansea.

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We stopped at the hostel for a short while to rest our feet and have a refreshing cold drink; then we headed round the corner to the seafront. Finally I was standing on the European side of Istanbul, gazing out at the Asian side across the Strait of Bosphorus! This was something I'd wanted to do for many years...

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We walked around for a while before going back to the hostel and then out for dinner. We shared bread and hummous; then Dave had a salad and the soup of the day, while I had sautéed chicken which turned out to come in chunks with a tasty tomato and onion sauce.

Posted by 3Traveller 09:32 Archived in Turkey Tagged mountains mosque turkey museum istanbul buses bosphorus dave bulgarian bulgaria hagia_sophia veliko_tarnovo roman_remains unesco_world_heritage_site turkish_cuisine Comments (0)

Highlights of Skopje

Skopje


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The maze-like big bazaar

Stall after stall of fruit, vegetables, other foods, clothes, household goods and electronics... I passed stalls piled high with hen and duck eggs, cabinets filled with loose frozen chicken legs and fish, stalls with huge mounds of loose rice and beans; the scent of spices filled my nose. I kept walking and walking and at every turn there was something interesting to see! No tourist trinket type stalls at all - it was clearly a place for locals rather than tourists. I would have loved to have taken loads of photos, but although not unfriendly, the stallholders looked at me quite strangely whenever I stopped walking for more than a second or two, so I only took one or two and didn't have time to stop and see if they came out OK. I didn't buy anything as I will be in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul with Dave soon, where I'm sure I'll be able to get anything I could have got here.

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Wandering the old town

The streets were filled with goldsmiths, silversmiths and wedding dress shops, with the occasional kebab counter, antiques shop or other shop thrown in.

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For example, there was one shop that only sold honey, and a tiny one which only sold syrupy batter sweets made in-store by the owner. I bought myself something a lot like the Bulgarian tolumbi, but longer and in a different shape.

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At one point I was just passing a mosque when the muezzins' calls started booming out over loudspeaker from mosques all over the city. One or two minutes after it began, men started streaming past me from all directions. None of them were in traditional Islamic dress, but they all took their shoes off and gathered to one side. I sat down in the shade on a handily placed bench at a discreet distance and watched as the calls continued and the men knelt down and prayed.

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The church of Sveti Spas was in the old town, too. It has the most magnificent iconostasis; the sheer amount of detail the carvings had was simply spectacular, with each section carved from a single piece of wood. I was given a free tour of it; I was shown the figures from the Bible who the artist carved in 19th century Macedonian traditional wedding outfits, and the executioner of St John the Baptist who was portrayed as an Ottoman Turk.

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The shiny new Archaeology Museum of Macedonia, which contains exhibits which were formerly held within the Museum of Macedonia. World class!

Macedonian denari

Banknotes come in 1000, 500, 100, 50 and 10 denari denominations and coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10 and 50. The MKD has become among my favourite currencies to date, because the banknotes are very colourful and instead of having portraits of famous people, they have pictures of icons and artifacts, birds and flowers. The coins also have pictures of native animals, plus a stylised sun (like on the Macedonian flag).

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Kale Fortress

This provided some panoramic views over Skopje and was nice to walk around, though part of it was fenced off.

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I also visited Macedonia Square, which was very impressive...

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...plus the Museum of Macedonia, which was less so. For a national museum the lighting wasn't very good, plus the exhibition of 20th century history wasn't very imaginatively displayed and the signage was poor. In the ethnographical section the lighting was also very poor in places, but had some interesting traditional musical instruments, painted Easter eggs, facsimiles of old photos of traditional buildings (my favourite was the one that looked like it was all made of wicker) and traditional fishing equipment.

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I also had time to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was small but held a lot of sobering information about the fate of the Balkan Jews in WWII, plus more general information about their history until then and their traditional lifstyles. I was particularly interested to read about Ladino, or Judean-Spanish, a language which developed from the Sephardic origins in Spain and has not completely died out yet.

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Something I think Skopje could improve on is the state of their river - the water itself looks OK enough, cleaner than the Thames at any rate, but they haven't really done anything to the banks. The concrete is filled with weeds growing through the cracks. It looks quite incongruous actually, because there are so many obviously shiny new statues and monuments everywhere, plus new walkways further back from the banks.

Pictures from my walk back to the hostel at dusk;

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Miscellaneous pictures of Skopje;

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Posted by 3Traveller 08:19 Archived in Macedonia Tagged bridges mosque market museum skopje macedonia fortifications orthodox_church traditional_customs Comments (0)

The Turkish Quarter, Veliko Tarnovo

Veliko Tarnovo


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The Turkish Quarter in Veliko Tarnovo lies at the foot of Sveta Gora Hill, next to the River Yantra. Cross the bridge and Tsarevets Fortress looms up in front and to the right of you. I had passed through the Turkish Quarter by car before, but never looked round it on foot, so I took advantage of no Saturday class this morning to do so.

My walk went in a big circle. Sveta Gora Hill is behind the Assen Monument (the sword monument), so in order to get there I walked along Gurko Street, up Hadji Dimitar Street and round the corner to the bridge to the monument. I wonder how many times now I've walked along Gurko Street since September? Hundreds, I reckon, bearing in mind it's on my way to and from work. I feel so lucky to have been able to do so - it is so picturesque and interesting; even during rain, when I have to dash from overhanging building to overhanging building, avoiding streams of water pouring from eaves and pipes above! All so different to the UK.

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The sun was shining and I was surrounded by beautiful flowers and green leaves. Once I reached the Assen Monument I walked behind it until I got to Sveta Gora Hill - to get to the Turkish Quarter I could just follow the road around the base of the hill, but I wanted to go right up and over the hill instead. Lots of steps up, and then one or two terraces. On one of the steps I nearly stepped on a slow worm by mistake (not a worm, or a snake, but actually just a lizard without legs). The first I've ever seen in the wild.

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More than one tarmac path led off from the terraces down to the right, but I continued upwards until I reached a small and very steep path down through some woods and shrubbery. I had clearly reached the top of the hill and started downwards, but I couldn't actually see where the path was going - I wasn't sure whether if I kept going I would hit the Turkish Quarter or would go past it without realising it.

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I decided to keep going anyway, just to see where I'd end up. It was a pleasant scramble downhill and I managed to keep my footing; the earth was very dry. Maybe if it had rained recently, the resulting mud would have made me slip! I came out onto a road which I soon worked out to be in the Turkish Quarter. At nearly every turn there was a fantastic view of Tsarevets Fortress on the other side of the river.

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I wandered around side streets of old stone houses, cobbled streets and flowers, before turning onto the main street and walking past the blue and white mosque. I had never got a proper look at it until now. The writing on the gate was in Bulgarian and Turkish. Carpets had been flung over stone walls round the back of people's houses nearby - to dry, I assumed.

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Eventually I crossed the river, still in blazing sunshine, and walked back up to my flat to complete the circle.

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A nice cold Diet Coke and a shower were definitely in order when I got in!

Posted by 3Traveller 08:40 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged lizards mosque bulgaria veliko_tarnovo fortifications tsarevets_fortress river_yantra assen_monument sveta_gora_park Comments (0)

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