Posts Tagged ‘Bodrum

31
May
10

“So you went to Turkey?”

Ferry crossing of the Bosphorous

(Whoever’s reading this, don’t kill me :P)

After a few trips in the deep end of winter and inches of snow, here comes one where short sleeves are the norm and sandals are more common than shoes. The weather in Turkey in May is pleasant with an overabundance of sunshine and not over-the-top temperature all of which lure people to the seaside and the beach.

Hagia Sophia in all its glory from the front

But before I succumbed to that temptation, I spent two and a half days in Istanbul, for a proper admiration of the Mosques and old town. My guidebook opens its chapter on Turkey saying that it’s no longer the one thousand and one night fantasy, and it’s hard to agree more when the bus journey from the airport passed through some built-up areas which looked like exact copies of the New Territories of Hong Kong, where high-rises dominate with the odd parks and shopping malls.

Entering European Istanbul by ferry across the Bosphorous at least have a tinge of dreamfulness. On the ferry, locals sit side-by-side along the bench outside the cabin, enjoying the sea breeze and the hazy view of Sultanahmet, where the minarets of grandest mosques of all puncture the skyline.  These are the dreaming spires of Turkey, and their history is just as long and rich.

My first stop off the ferry is the Hagia Sophia, a mosque which is instantly recognizable by fans of “Civilization”, and in fact that has been where I first learnt of this wonder of the world. From the outside it appears to be in a state of disrepair but given that it has been standing on the site for 1500 years, it’s only fair to give it some slack. The volume of space inside under its multiple huge domes is awe-inspiring, and with the lack of any pillars obstructing the space, it almost felt as if one was standing in an open public square on a shady day.

Blue Mosque at night before prayer time

The consensus is that the Blue Mosque physically opposite to Hagia Sophia is visually more pleasing on the outside. This is easily confirmed by just looking at the number of people taking photos in front of each mosque. But the inside of the Blue Mosque is nothing compared to Hagia Sofia. This is confirmed by the difference in entrance fee charged, TL50 against no charge at all.

In fact, after being to a few other mosques (Ottoman ones), I come to the conclusion that, as a casual visitor, most of the mosques are just a shell. Interior decorations are minimal and are generally no more than tiles and low-hanging lights, which are in stark contrast to some of the exuberant Catholic churches and cathedrals in Europe. That being said, as I wandered across Turkey, I noticed the existence of several museums dedicated solely to tiles, which, if nothing else, highlights the significance of tiles in Turkey’s history, and put my earlier conclusion on slightly shaky grounds. Still, I generally find no love with these ceramics little things, no matter how sophisticated their colours and patterns.

So my suggestion regarding mosques is that if they don’t charge an entrance fee but requires visitors to take their shoes off, then there is not much to be gained from entering more than one such mosque. Just save the trouble of taking your shoes off, and leave the worshipers in peace.

Tourists filled the Grand Bazaar

Another famous tourist spots in Istanbul is the grand bazaars. Coach-full of tourists get offloaded nearby and feeds the thousands of small shops in the bazaar, many of which seem to live off the pockets of tourists alone. Although I have been too lazy/shy to take part, haggling is the name of the game here, and shoppers are seen to be sitting over cups of çay (Turkish tea) while bargaining with the shopkeepers. But the sad truth is that modernization has taken a big toll on the atmosphere of the bazaar. The architecture still remains unchanged, but the glass shopfront windows and halogen spotlights do kill one’s imagination of the past.

Probably due to the way the bazaar was built and then expanded over the centuries, unlike the modern purpose-built shopping malls where all signs point to the entrance, it took me an hour just to find a way into the bazaar, and in the end I only did it by chance. The area around the bazaar are occupied by shops/markets selling all sorts of daily stuff and they hide the bazaar amazingly well despite its size. All the entrances to the bazaar seemed to lead off from unnoticeable side roads and are nothing but small inconspicuous archways.  If I had to spend any longer looking I probably will have started doubting myself and then become convinced that the surrounding markets are already the bazaar.

The next item on the tourist list is the Hamams, and for that I went to the Çemberlitaş Hamamı. As my guidebook puts it, it’s one of the “big two” hamams in Istanbul for its history and decoration as it was built in Ottoman times by a famous Architect called Sinan. Even the self-service option is rather pricey, and since I was throwing myself into the deep end without any idea of what Turkish baths involve, I wouldn’t say I have taken full advantage of what’s on offer.

The underground reservior with a mysterious yet relaxing ambiance (Bascilica Cistern)

The correct procedure is to leave one’s clothes in the lockable room, then head to the steam room for washing and sauna-ing, and then finally going back to the cooling room for relaxation and chill out. Being as ignorant as I was, realization of the necessity of soaps did not come until other people around me started rubbing themselves with bars of soaps and a Chinese tourist caught my attention by putting large bottles of shampoo and shower gel right next to me. The bottles did look out of place in the steam room, with its elegant hot marble slab encircled by finely carved washing basins under the starry dome, all in a misty and dreamy ambiance.

Just for the record, there are quite a few other places which I have visited as well while I was in Istanbul, but I won’t clutter the post with these less exciting ventures, a trap which I have fallen into too many times with my previous posts. (Just to list out these places: Chora Church, Topkepı Palace, Basilica Cistern, Spice Bazaar and Taksim Square) One thing which I would mention is the Bosphorous Cruise, which is basically a touristy ferry ride along the strip of sea which divides Europe and Asia. I didn’t expect to see huge differences on the 2 sides of the sea, as both are Istanbul after all, but the view from hill-top castle ruin at the end of the cruise near the mouth of Bosphorous was gorgeous.

Mouth of Bosphorous looking back towards Istanbul

Everywhere that the trains of Turkey are mentioned, there is the connotation of it being inefficient and downright useless (of course with the exception of Seat61). But with it being cheaper and more comfortable than buses and I, as a tourist, not really looking for time-efficiency, it appears to be as a perfect way to travel. So when I heard that there is a ferry and train combination that will take me from Istanbul down to Selçuk, nothing could stop me from allocating a day just to enjoy the ride. Unfortunately for me the naysayers prevailed and the train I needed was canceled the day before leaving me with no option but the unexciting and uninteresting long bus ride.

The next two stops I made are Selçuk and Pamukkale, both of which are very touristy destinations due to a major nearby sight. Marginally within walking distance from Selçuk is the Ephesus, a comparatively well-preserved remains of a once glorious Roman city. There was the great theatre  which apparently holds 25,000 people, and also the Library of Celsus that, like the St Paul’s facade of Macau, has an impressive front yet nothing behind stood the test of time. But besides these, the highlight of the sight is the hordes of tourists walking down the ancient city’s main street. The best observation point is in the shades of the library although be prepared to be overrun by people at all times especially if going counter-flow from the north entrance to the south.

Library of Celsus at Ephesus, with the proud tourists posing for their photos

As a town, Selçuk doesn’t have much else to offer so I moved on quickly to the next long bus journey to Pamukkale. Again there used to be trains running from Selçuk to Denizli, the city right next to Pamukkale, but because of engineering work, the line is temporarily closed. That explains the eerie feeling of the Train station by the town center which are recently renovated but very much deserted.

Pamukkale is a village and it sounded wrong to me that 1 million tourists visit the travertine and Hierapolis on the hillside by the village every year. But then I understood as I saw coach-full of tourists came and went through the side entrances of the Hierapolis, avoiding entering the village altogether. That made it possible for the front entrance of the Hierapolis to be one of the most fascinating way of entering an ancient ruin. After paying for the ticket, I had to take off my shoes, walk up a hill completely covered with white calcium deposits, through ponds and streams of water running down the hill. The walk can be sometimes painful to delicate feets, but throughout the short walk the beautiful view of the shiny white hillside reflecting the sunlight like snow and green transparent pools is more than sufficient to distract from any pain.

That otherworldly feeling is hampered towards the top of the hill where more tourists filter down from the Hierapolis above  and some of them digustingly treat the travertine as if it is their playing pools in a leisure centre. Some of the calcium deposits are gone due to the daily wear from human traffic over the years. But by turning a blind eye to the deficiencies, I got to the top where the ancient city of Hierapolis begins. The ancient city runs along the same line as the Ephesus but on a less grand scale and is less well preserved. The authorities appears not to have made up its mind as to how to take care of this place as its stance seems to wobble between a summer playground and a serious preservation site. Did I mention that there is a man-made swimming pool and restaurant bang in the middle of the site?

Shining white travertines with tourists cooling their feet in the streams

After Pamukkale, I travelled down south to the Mediterranean coast, whose clear blue water has left its impression on me when I visited Malta. Bodrum was my destination and being a seaside resort town through and through, it was a huge change from Selçuk and Pamukkale, in terms of both scenery and people. Bodrum has a Greece air to it with its white-washed houses, traditional and modern yachts parking by its bays, and a sunny hot climate. The Castle of St Peter occupies the most strategically advantageous location on a headland and offered some brilliant all round views of the 2 bays of Bodrum. Even though it doubles up as an underwater archeological museum, that is not its strongest point.

At night Bodrum turns into a clubbers’ paradise with streets lit up with bars and 2 particularly spectacular clubs. The first one, Halikarnas, named after the one “7 wonders of the world” that was in Bodrum, is an eye-catching Roman-themed club. The second one is a 1000+ capacity catamaran which sails out at mid-night and comes back at dawn. But for me, the disco beat echoing throughout the night along the seaside is nothing more than noise so I retired early to my backstreet hotel.

Eastern bay of Bodrum and white washed houses

On my second to last day, I took a ferry to the Greek Island of Kos for a day trip, which was, as an afterthought, a bit of a mistake. Due to the inefficiency of the border control at Turkey’s port, the ferry was one hour late, and then with the four and a half hours that I had on the Island, it is impossible to do it full justice. Kos Town itself appears as a second class twin of Bodrum, with the full package of castle, bays and yachts all scaled down, and the price of everything scaled up. The buses to the west side of the Island was less than frequent meaning that I had to abandon my initial plan to head to the 14 imaginatively named beaches in the south-west (Banana Beach, Magic Beach, etc).

Giving up lunch completely, I bought myself some time to visit the pebbly beach of Therma Loutra. The beach is backed by a cliff and secluded from the outside world, so there is some peace and quiet especially when compared to the beach nearer to Kos Town. The name of the beach stems from the fact that there is a hot spring right on the beach, whose water cumulates in a pond before overflowing into the sea. It’s a curious sensation alternating between the sea and the spring due to the temperature difference, and some people just spend their afternoon floating in the bubbling spring water.

Therma Loutra on Island of Kos

That evening back in Bodrum, only when the sun was setting did I realise that the skin colour of my arm has darkened by a few times over, and that there were sunburns on my arm and neck. The cool sea breeze can be very deceiving when combined with the hot sunshine, as the hot feeling is literally blown away yet the UV light which causes skin darkening and sunburn remains. However, I was not going to be deterred by all this and headed out to the beaches in the Bodrum Peninsula the next day.

While I was still in Istanbul I have been warned by the other travelers that this is the English corner of Turkey, but nothing can prepare me for the cultural shock in Gümbet, a long stretch of coarse-sanded beach a few short kilometers from Bodrum. The restaurants and bars that line the beach all advertise their live FA cup on TV and that they will be showing Britain’s Got Talent in the evening. Cheers and shouts are easily heard from the beach from herds of football supporters who are clearly British from their look and accents. To put it simply, the place is overtaken by the British. Lying on one of the free sunbeds under the shade of the umbrellas, I started wondering if this was a modern way of colonization.

With the heavy devaluation of the pound in the last two years, Turkey is not as cheap a place as it used to be. To save money for other things, the staple of my diet was kebabs, and chicken kebabs in particular, since they are cheapest of all. Ayran was a good companion as it is often sold with kebabs as a kind of package meal at a cheerful price. Chargrilled corn hobs was also a frequent stomach filler as it was sold everywhere in Istanbul and marginally redeemed an unhealthy kebab diet. Still, with the amount of exercise that is done, I found it hard to go below 10 lira a day for the food and drink just to refill the emptiness in the stomach and the dehydration of the body. To maker matter worse, the Turkish Tourism Authority also has a habit of setting sky-high prices for state-run attractions and gives no breathing space for students either.

Turkey’s rapid economic development in recent years has definitely left its mark. From the tourist’s perspective, the positive effects are that communication is easier with more Turkish people speaking some English, and tourism is more organized making the whole experience of traveling within Turkey less stressful and much more tourist-friendly. The downside that comes with all development is that for a country like Turkey which steeps in centuries of history, no matter how good the preservation effort is, there are things which development will eventually take away: The pace of life will quicken, the tourism orientation will be further signified and the unstoppable harmonisation with the rest of the world will carry on.

Istanbul was named as the European City of Culture for 2010 and I think it’s more worthy of the honour than most of its predecessors. However, probably coinciding with Turkey’s push to join the Eurozone, western Turkey is no longer the place to go to if what one is looking for is Escapism. The exotic atmosphere is mostly gone, but I suppose what is remaining will continue to draw in millions of tourists in the future. For one, the climate is undeniably lovely.

Turkey's flag

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