Wednesday, 20 May 2009
The first weekend of May in 2009 we went to Istanbul with some of our London mates. Lucky for us we had Turkish guides (our mate Efe & his friends/family in Istanbul). We arrived in the dead of the night at our hotel. I wasn't too impressed with the facilities for the price we paid, but the location was very central in Sultanahment the historic part of Istanbul.
Next day we woke up to rain but as determined tourist Pramo, Fede, Cheech, Jase and I headed out to see some of the sights near by. First we arrived at the Blue Mosque the national mosque of Turkey built in the early 1600s and still in use. The interior was covered with patterned blue tiles rising to an impressive height. The Blue Mosque was built with six minarets equaling that of the mosque in Mecca deemed a bit presumptuous at the time. Thus the Sultan paid for an additional minaret to be built in Mecca to restore the correct order of things.
The Blue Mosque is directly across from Hagia Sophia, one of the oldest and most venerated mosques in Turkey. Hagia Sophia was built originally as a church, then converted to a mosque and now a museum. Its a world heritage site but had fallen into disrepair prior to that so there was on-going restoration work when we visited. It consisted of two levels and some of the Christian murals that were painted over when Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque were now on display. When we stepped out of Hagia Sophia the rain has stopped and the sun was out, which cheered up all of us.
Across the road and around the corner was another historic site - the Basilica Cistern. This is a huge underground chamber built in the 6th century to store fresh water for Istanbul. The cistern consists of 336 columns lit beautifully for the benefit of its visitors. Soon it was time for lunch.
We had a relaxing lunch at one of the many outdoor cafes in Sultanahment, with fresh pita bread, dips, grilled meats and soothing apple tea to finish. Only a short walk from the cafes was the Grand Bazaar the oldest and largest in Istanbul. The main concourse was packed with people and every 20-30 meters there were paths adjacent to the main concourse leading to more stalls and shops getting ever smaller. The stalls were full of everything from colourful ceramics, clothes, jewellery, antiques, souvenirs, leather wear so on and so forth. The sellers were very pushy and annoyingly over familiar. Over and over again we were asked where we were from and many were perplexed when we told them we were from Australia; unable to imagine Australia as a multi racial country. Soon we learned to ignore them. After trying in vain to meet some of the London crew that we got separated from earlier we took a break to sip apple tea at a cafe inside the Grand Bazaar. Then we headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner.
Dinner was in Eminonu, on the Istanbul harbour which we got to via the Metro (tram). The sun was setting on the busy skyline dotted with mosques. The Galata bridge on the harbour was lined with fisherman on the top level fishing day and night. The second level was full of seafood restaurants displaying an impressive array of seafood to entice customers. As you walked by each restaurant the maitre d' tried to coax you to come in for dinner. We met our friends at one of the restaurants and feasted on some great seafood accompanied by Raki - anise flavoured alcoholic drink taken with water in a shot glass.
Next day we headed out to the Topkapi palace the Sultan's residence. The gardens were overflowing with tulips in bloom and the palace was situated atop a hill overlooking the harbour - with fantastic views of the golden horn. There were many rooms and exhibits to see inside the palace including Prophet Mohammed's walking stick - in surprisingly good condition ;) .
For lunch we headed into the heart of Istanbul away from the tourist and had an amazing lunch - course after course of beautifully rustic Turkish food full of flavour accompanied by a frothy sheep's milk drink. Dessert which we now knew to be always way over the top in Turkey was surprisingly simple in the form of a semolina pancake with the creamiest home made ice cream.
At the end of lunch we were so full we could hardly move so we decided to walk back to town and head to the Galata tower. On the way we stopped to have some fabulous profiteroles from a cafe which seem to only serve that. The second dessert finished we headed up to the Galata tower - a striking cone capped cylindrical tower overlooking the Istanbul skyline. The sun was about to set and the view was fantastic. Istanbul looked like a vast and crowded city from above. We enjoyed picking out some of the famous sights which we had visited so far along with the Golden Horn and the Istanbul Harbour.
By this stage we were all feeling quite tired so we chillaxed with apple tea and Turkish coffee. Arriving back at the hotel via the tram we showered and headed out for a light dinner. Our hotel in Sultanahment was near a small bazaar that had an open air area with restaurants. We settled outside and had a small dinner enjoying the live music and a whirling dervish performance. We then met up with some more Londoners for dessert of baklava and apple tea before calling it a night.
The next day Pramo and I headed back to Eminonu to the Spice bazaar, while the other guys went to a harem - a Turkish bath. The Spice bazaar was full of colourful sights, sounds and smells. It was smaller than the Grand Bazaar and seemed to be where the locals shopped unlike the Grand Bazaar. We stocked up on Turkish delights and apple tea while admiring the weird and wonderful things on display. After a quick lunch soon it was time to head back to the hotel for a ride to the airport.
Istanbul was an exciting city and a great place to visit over a long weekend. We were lucky to have some locals to show us around and take us on a historical and gastronomical journey we both wont forget soon. I would like to go back to Turkey to see more of the places outside of Istanbul including Gallipoli. Maybe someday I will...
Friday, 1 May 2009
Its been ages since Easter and I just realised I hadn't written about our trip to Cornwall and the south-west of England. It started with a train trip to Bristol where we went to pick up a hire car for our four days in Cornwall. We took the new packs we bought for our backpacking trip in June to test them out.
Friday began grey and with the threat of rain. For the first few hours of our drive it rained quite hard as we made our way to Barnstaple via some obscure B roads courtesy of the GPS lady. We giggled at her instructions but soon realised she was leading us a bit astray when we configured the GPS to avoid the motorways. We decide to switch to the motorway to get there quicker. The rain stopped along the way and the sun started to shine much to our joy.
Barnstaple is the oldest borough in England with the oldest high street in England. It was quite a small town close to the sea and bustling with people. We stayed at the hotel attached to the biggest pub in town. After some burgers at the pub we checked in and decided to head out to check out some of coast line. The drive lead us through some narrow roads lined with hedges and speckled with spring flowers such as daffodils, dandelions, magnolias and tulips. This was to be a common sight throughout the weekend much to my delight. The gorgeous flowers growing wild and free really took my breath away. I never got any good pictures of them as Pramo was driving quite fast past them (to avoid getting stuck in places we couldn't pass oncoming traffic). After a while I gave up trying to capture them on camera and just enjoyed the view with the sun in my face.
We drove along beautiful cliffs with heart stopping drops to white sandy beaches below. The beaches were full of people swimming, surfing and enjoying the sun although the temperature was about 11 degrees ..brrrrr! We went to cute little seaside villages so different to the seaside towns in Australia. I could understand why these places got so busy in summer, the beaches were nice and the towns themselves were small, old and full of character.
We returned to Barnstaple and relaxed in the hotel room till dinner time. As the sun was going down the high street was getting quite empty as people gathered in pubs and restaurants. We went to get some pizza and while waiting realised that the 'pizza express' was in the oldest building in the town. It had a very low ceiling and a little inner enclosure where in the olden days people put shoes for good luck.
The next day we checked out from the hotel and headed directly south to Plymouth via the Dartmoor national park. Lunch was at Princetown in the heart of Dartmoor after which we set about on a hike along a disused railway line. Dartmoor national park is full on flat wide planes.. 'deep wooded gorges, beautiful lake-like reservoirs and tumbling rocky rivers.'. .. We went up a steep hill to the BBC radio tower for long reaching views across the valley all the way to beach. On the way down to join the walking track we met some friendly Dartmoor ponies looking for food from us. The walk was relaxing but tiring and we were happy to get back to the car to resume our drive to Plymouth.
Plymouth was a big city but only 6 miles from the centre we were in beautiful farm country. After the GPS lady led us astray(again!) we finally found the farm house/B&B we were staying at. The farm was set in large grounds, beautifully kept with a large pond as its centre piece. The house was cute & cosy. The couple who owned it were lovely. We were led upstairs to our room with great views of the garden which we enjoyed with a relaxing cup of tea.
After a hot shower we drove back into Plymouth for dinner at the Barbican waterfront. Barbican is the old harbour area which managed to escape destruction during the Blitz in WWII that flattened most of Plymouth. The area was bustling with people & full of seafood restaurants along the water. We ended up having a relaxing 3 hour long dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant.
That night we got a good nights sleep and woke up to a hot breakfast with the owners and another couple who were also staying there. Over breakfast we found out that the other couple had been coming to this farmhouse for about 10-15 years and were now great friends with the owners. They were all such lovely people and it was so nice to talk to them.. our day was off to a great start.
We decided to drive down to Penzance and the west most tip of England. The drive was relaxing and we enjoyed the spring flowers, green fields and the long windy road there. Penzance is a big harbour town on the water which provided a nice backdrop for lunch in the sun. Then we headed to Land's end the west most point in England and to the beautiful cliff side Minack theatre over looking turquoise waters and sandy beaches glistening in the sun full of people enjoying the clear bright day. Minack theatre carved on the side of a cliff was an amazing sight, I would recommend going here if you are ever in this part of England.
Next we headed to St Michael's Mount , a tidal island in Penzance, the Cornish counterpart to Mount Saint Michael in Normandy, France. The path to St Michael's is walkable in low tide but gets completely covered in high tide and you have to resort to taking a boat over. We got there in low tide but as it was coming in quite quickly. All the sightseeing was quite tiring and so we decided to take a break with some Cornish cream tea - scones, clotted cream & jam with a pot of tea. Cream tea is something that the English do really well and I have to say I'm a complete convert although its not great for the waistline to say the least. The drive back to Plymouth was pleasant in the afternoon sunshine and we explored the Plymouth citadel and maritime war memorial as the sun was setting. For dinner we ended up at a great Thai place with a great array of local seafood on the menu. We asked for a spicy red fish curry and was given the hottest thing we had eaten in about 2 years.. it was unbelievably so over the top hot by UK standards but made beautifully. My stomach burns just thinking about it!...
Next day we drove back to Bristol at a leisurely pace and arrived back in London via the train. Cornwall won me over completely and it was one of the most relaxing and pleasant holidays I'd had in a while. That part of England is so beautiful and serene.. I'm so glad we got to see it before leaving the UK.
See photos here.