Monday, 25 May 2009

A Walk from Ulubatlı to the Golden Horn taking in the Church of St. Saviour in Chora, Istanbul

One of the most impressive sites in Istanbul is, for me, not the better-known Aya Sofia or Blue Mosque, but, rather, the Church of St. Saviour in Chora (Kariye Müzesi in Turkish), home to some of the very best Byzantine mosaics and frescoes anywhere. It is not the easiest place to get to, so tends to be missed by tourists other than those on organised tours, whose coaches drop them off a couple of streets away and picks them up again an hour later. Of course, you could just hail a cab and get taken to the door, but a much more interesting thing to do is to walk there, taking in some of the surrounding area and local colour.

Take the Aksaray – Havaaları (Atatürk Airport) tram line and alight at Topkapı-Ulubatlı. You will emerge from the tram station next to a section of the city’s ancient walls, which you should follow northwards. These walls were built by Theodosius II in 413AD. The choice is yours – you can either walk inside the walls, in which case you will be walking through a less than salubrious area of Istanbul which has been earmarked for redevelopment, but, which, at the time of writing is something of a half-demolished shanty town with grubby children and scrawny dogs running around, or you can walk outside the walls on the grass. Either way, you should walk uphill for about 15 minutes until you reach Edirnekapı, one of the gates in the Theodosian walls. You will know you’ve arrived by the number of minibuses congregated there.

To your right, you will see the Mihrimmah Sultan Mosque, commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent’s favourite daughter, Mihrimah and built in the 1560s. At the time of writing, the mosque was closed for major restoration work, so I am unable to verify what I am about to say, but a student told me that the mosque is noted for its many stained glass windows and for the fact that it occupies the highest point in Istanbul.

From here, continue along the inside of the walls towards the Golden Horn. You will cross a busy road, Fevzi Paşa Caddesi, after which you should take the second road on the right, Kariye Bostanı Sokak, following signs pointing the way to the Kariye Müzesi (Chora Church). At the bottom of the hill, turn left and you will see the church, fronted by an attractive square filled with cafes and souvenir stands.

The entrance fee is 15TL, but is well worth paying, especially if you manage to time your visit so that it doesn’t coincide with one by several coach-loads of tourists from one of the cruise ships which will invariably be moored on the Bosphorus. The museum is open from 9am to 4.30pm every day except Wednesday.

There has been a church on this site since before the city walls were built, but the building you see now mainly dates from the 11th century and is not particularly remarkable, but, once you pass through the door and catch your first glimpse of the interior, you will be blown away by the beauty both of the famous mosaics and the lesser-known, but equally striking, frescoes. Virtually all of the interior decoration dates from 1312. The mosaics depict the lives of Jesus and his mother, Mary, and are absolutely stunning. The frescoes are thought to have been painted by the same masters who created the mosaics, although no-one knows for sure. Whoever was responsible, the paintings are indeed remarkable, with a sophisticated use of perspective and exquisitely drawn facial expressions to rival those painted by the Italian master, Giotto. For several hundred years, whilst the building was being used as a mosque, the mosaics and frescoes were covered with layers of plaster and whitewash. When these layers were carefully removed between 1948 and 1959, the paintings and mosaics underneath were surprisingly intact, giving us the spectacle which we can all enjoy today. Make sure you take the time to savour this amazing collection of art.

On leaving the Chora Church, it may be time to stop for a bite to eat. Choose between a snack at the Kariye Pembe Köşk, or splash out on a full-blown (but expensive) lunch at the Asitane restaurant next door. I haven’t sampled the food there, but my students tell me that it is amongst the best in Istanbul.

To continue your walk to the Golden Horn, take the first street on the left past the Kariye Oteli. This is Neşler Sokak. Turn left at the bottom of the hill and then continue along Fethiye Caddesi for around 30 minutes. This walk is largely uphill through an interesting shopping district with plenty of local character to keep your interest. At the top of the hill, the road bends around to the right and becomes Marıyasizade Caddesi. Follow this, past more unusual little shops, for about 10 minutes until you come to a police station where you should turn left on to Sultan Selim Caddesi.

You will pass the huge, open Roman Cistern of Aspar on your left, built in about 420AD and now used as a sports ground. Just beyond this, is the Sultan Selim Mosque, well-used as a place of worship by locals, but with little of interest to tourists. Its best feature is the fantastic view down to the Golden Horn which you get from the lawn in front of the mosque. You do, however, get an equally good view from the road which skirts the outer perimeter of the mosque’s grounds.

From here, having taken in the panorama, giving precise instructions as to which road to take becomes a little difficult as there are many narrow, cobbled streets with closely built houses on either side. What you need to do is keep going in roughly a straight line downwards! You are aiming to reach the water of the Golden Horn. The streets are very steep in parts, so make sure that you’re wearing sensible footwear!

If all goes according to plan, you should reach level ground and be in sight of the water to your left. At this point, it is up to you, but I suggest a short walk further up the Golden Horn to the Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars. This is well worth a visit, and is described in a separate posting. Alternatively, if you time it correctly (5 minutes past the hour), you could get on the ferry at Fener (very close to where you are), cross to Hasköy on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn, and visit the superb Rahmi M Koç Museum, which is also described in a separate posting -

Whichever you choose, I hope you enjoy your day in this less famous district of Istanbul. Please feel free to add your comments!

Bodrum, Turkey

We never intended to include Bodrum in the itinerary for our round-Turkey trip last summer. As I have said in an earlier posting (http://, I associate the place with young British holidaymakers looking for sun, sea, and sex, washed down with plenty of alcohol; as such, it is a place we would normally avoid like the plague. However, when planning our tour, we really liked the idea of leaving Istanbul by train and returning by sea, a wish that could only be realised by taking he twice-weekly service from Bodrum. With this in mind, we made our travel arrangements, including a one-day, two-night stay in the town as our ferry from Rhodes did not match up with the boat to Istanbul on the same day. In the event, the service to Istanbul was cancelled, so we were unable to return home by sea, but, by the time that happened, all of our other arrangements were in place, so we were stuck with our time in Bodrum.

We hoped that the resort would exceed our expectations (remember Hisarönü?), but, on this occasion, we were to be disappointed! The whole place had a scruffy, untidy air with litter everywhere. The beaches, such as there were, were man-made and not at all attractive, and, yet, they were, like every other part of the town, extremely crowded, largely with lobster-red, beer-swilling, British and German tourists. Eating out on the two evenings that we were there, was, we found, an expensive business compared with elsewhere in Turkey, and the food was, at best, mediocre.

Bodrum’s only saving grace, well worth its 10TL entrance fee, was the castle perched above the town and affording spectacular views of it and the surrounding area. It was built by the Knights of St. John from 1406 to 1522 on top of the remains of Turkish and Byzantine fortresses. It is billed as the largest monument constructed by the English outside of England, and is certainly an impressive structure. It was relinquished to the Turks on January 5th, 1523 after the conquest of Rhodes. The castle is well-preserved. Parts of it house interesting collections including an underwater museum. The gardens within the castle walls are also well-maintained, and offer a pleasant, shady place to rest a while away from the searing heat.

So, to sum up, if you are in Bodrum, don’t miss the castle, but, if you weren’t planning to be there, then don’t make a special journey!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Jeep Safari, Hisarönü

I have already posted about our stay in Hisarönü, and have reluctantly admitted that we enjoyed it far more than we thought we would, given first impressions. However, there was one day during our two-week stay in the resort which lived up to our worst expectations – that was the day we joined a jeep safari!

Whenever we stay anywhere, we like to get out and about and see the local area, whether by hiring a car, or by booking ourselves on to one or two organised tours. Hisarönü was no exception, so, on our second day in town, before really talking to any of our fellow guests about available trips, we went around most of the numerous agents and chose some tours to go on. Many of the agents (in fact, probably all of them) were offering a jeep safari, promising a ‘wet ‘n’ wild’ day of water fights and other pre-arranged soakings at intervals whilst being driven around the countryside and taken to one or two places of interest. These agents promoted the ‘fun’ aspect of these trips, and advised guests to arm themselves with plenty of water, and something to deliver it with, before departure. Absolutely not our thing at all!! Nevertheless, we really wanted to see some of the local history and culture, so we were really pleased when we found the one agent in town who was offering ‘a different jeep safari’ – no loud music, no water, no organised jollity – just a pleasant drive through stunning scenery, with visits to the ancient site of Tlos, the natural wonder which is Saklikent Gorge, and a lunch on a platform over the river included. It sounded perfect, so, having obtained assurances from the agent that the blurb on his boards was indeed true, we booked it.

Later that night at the hotel, we mentioned the tours that we had booked to a regular visitor to Hisarönü, who told us that there was no such thing as a jeep safari without water and that we would, after all, spend the day soaking wet and loving every minute of it!! We were slightly unsettled by this news, but put it to the back of our minds. After all, the agent had promised us, hadn’t he?

Well, it turned out that our fellow hotel guest was right, and our agent was guilty of the most blatant case of misrepresentation ever! On the morning of the safari, we were collected from our hotel early in an open Landrover which already had six passengers occupying most of the available space. We were then driven the short distance into town, where we parked up at the roadside and waited for the rest of our ‘convoy’ to arrive. Despite the early hour, the sun was already hot, and we applied more sunscreen while we waited. When our convoy numbered approximately 20 vehicles, we left town, passing several other equally large convoys which were still parked up and waiting, filled with mainly sunburned British holidaymakers grinning inanely or being raucous with no regard for still-sleeping residents.

Once out of town, we whizzed through the Fethiye area, with no time or opportunity to photograph the rock tombs which we glimpsed as we sped past them at breakneck speed. About 15km on the other side of Fethiye, we turned off the main road and our speed slowed somewhat as we began to climb into the hills. We barely had time to register the beauty of the surrounding countryside, however, before we were surprised (understatement of the year!) by our first drenching of the day. A teenager with a large and powerful hosepipe was standing in the entrance to a garden and caught us full force in the back as we passed (we were side on to the road). We weren’t just a little damp – we were absolutely soaked and not best pleased! We were both holding cameras at the time which we quickly put away, but then the question was what to do with our bag as the floor of the Landrover was awash. And so the pattern was set for a horrible day where we were incessantly bombarded from the verges, driven under strategically placed, purpose-built dowsing devices, or attacked by fellow holiday-makers with water pistols, pump-action water machine guns, or improvised water bombs. It was a truly grim experience! We were barely allowed to dry off all day, and spent the entire time squelching around in wet clothes feeling miserable and uncomfortable.

We did pass Tlos, but didn’t stop, and could hardly enjoy the view as we were being sprayed with water at the time. Subsequent stops at a trout farm and at Saklikent Gorge were equally unsatisfactory, as was lunch which, rather than being a pleasant relaxed affair by the river, was actually taken army-catering style at long tables under a makeshift canvas awning. The absolute low-light of the day was a visit to ‘therapeutic mud baths’ – in reality, a shallow stretch of river where most of our convoy were persuaded to strip off and cover themselves from head to foot in foul smelling mud from the river bank. They were then encouraged to let the mud dry on their bodies so that it could be washed away by yet more high pressure hoses conveniently supplied by locals as we drove through rural villages!

As daylight faded and the temperature dropped, we pulled in to a service station where the jeeps were washed, and where we were forced to wait around for over an hour fending off offers to buy photographs taken during the day as a memento of our trip.

The entire tour was aimed at the lowest common denominator of Brits abroad – lots of swearing, water fights, and throwing mud around. I’m well aware that many people would find the whole experience a great deal of fun, and would probably consider us to be a pair of old misery guts, but it is just not our idea of a good day out! What’s more, I hate the idea that this is the only impression that many Turks have of British holidaymakers, and so assume that we all behave in the same way!

Rhodes Town

We took a couple of days out of our tour around Turkey last summer in order to visit Rhodes. Mark’s tourist visa for Turkey was due to expire, a fact which meant that he had to leave the country, even if only briefly. The obvious choice was to nip over to a Greek island, many of which are closer to the coast of mainland Turkey than they are to Greece. Mark had visited Rhodes before, but only once, and it had been many years previously. I had never been there. The ferry services to Rhodes tied in with our planned tour, so we took the decision to go there. We crossed from Fethiye and returned to Bodrum, having spent a very enjoyable two nights and three days on the island.

We confined our visit to Rhodes Town itself, an old walled city with UNESCO World Heritage status. Our hotel was within the walls, what turned out to be an easy walk from the ferry terminal, once we’d navigated our way through a warren of narrow cobbled streets. We spent the majority of our time in Rhodes Town walking – exploring every corner of this amazing, historic city. When we had walked for hours and needed a sit down, we stopped for a drink in a pavement café or, on one occasion, hopped on the dotto train, which took us out of town to the top of the hill behind it, affording us stunning views of the city, the sea, and glimpses of distant land masses.

The Palace of the Grand Masters was a highlight of our trip with its stunning mosaics and grand rooms. We were grateful to spend time in its cool interior as respite from the searing heat of the day. Another place worth a visit was Our Lady of the Castle Church – be careful not to miss the doorway leading outside to a courtyard where there are remains of intricately designed pavements.

The recently restored Hospice of St. Catherine should also be on you ‘to-do’ list. At the time we visited, it was not well advertised, and we happened on it by chance. There was no entrance fee, and we were free to wander the rooms and marvel at the cobbled (outside) and mosaic (inside) floors, supervised by just one elderly, very sleepy security guard.

Rhodes Town is a super place just to roam around – there are photo opportunities around every corner. When we had explored almost every inch of the interior of the city, we went through a gateway in the inner wall, and walked inside the moat around the entire circumference of the walls. It was a very pleasant walk with far fewer people than we had seen inside the walls, and plenty of chances to sit on a grassy bank to enjoy the sunshine.

The harbour area of Rhodes Town was also very picturesque. A good way to explore it is to take a boat trip.

Having explored all day, and become extremely footsore, it was fantastic to be able to eat wonderful food (pork was a particular treat after a year of a pork-free diet in Turkey!), drink sublime wine, and listen to charming Greek music in the fabulous garden setting of a restaurant we came upon close to our hotel.

All in all, a superb destination, which I would definitely recommend.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Tulips from Istanbul

When it’s spring again
We’ll bring again
Tulips from Istanbul ….

Doesn’t sound quite right? Well, perhaps it should. Maybe dear old Max Bygraves misled us for all those years by suggesting that these beautiful spring flowers originated in Amsterdam.

The truth is that tulips originally grew wild on the Asian steppes in modern-day Mongolia, and were brought to Europe courtesy of the Ottoman Empire. They were given the name tulabend ehich means ‘turban’. Our name for the flower is a corruption of this word.

Tulips were first propagated in large quantities in Holland, but were later reintroduced to Turkey by Mehmet IV (1648 – 1687). The reign of his son, Ahmet III, is known as the Tulip Period because of his fascination with the flowers. He used to hold tulip festivals in Topkapı Palace on moonlit nights, among a profusion of tulip-filled vases and caged canaries. Tulip designs can be seen on Iznik tiles dating from this period, and the flower is still an important national symbol today.

One of the most colourful events of the Istanbul year is the Tulip Festival, which takes place annually from late April until early May. Tulips in myriad colours and varieties can be seen throughout the city – on traffic islands, along the verges, in the parks, and by the sea. There is usually a spectacular display in Sultanahmet, especially in the garden which lies between Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Gülhane Park, next to Topkapı Palace, is another place where you can see these beautiful bulbs. However, if you are in Istanbul at the right time of year, then the very best place to see tulips is Emirgan Park, which sits on the western shore of the Bosphorus. It is not the easiest place to get to, but it is well worth the effort. Take the 25E bus from Kabataş, and get off just outside the gates to the park. Walk up the hill and spend a pleasant few hours enjoying the vibrant colours and floral perfume of the park.

TOP TIP – go to Emirgan early in the day. It is a very popular picnicking place for Turks, who have a nasty habit of leaving all of the debris of their lunch on the ground for somebody else to clear up (this is despite numerous waste bins situated throughout the park!). The overall effect is to turn a pristine area into an eyesore resembling a landfill site

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Hisarönü – Guilty Pleasure

An English resort in the hills behind Fethiye in southern Turkey. A two-mile long ‘strip’ of English pubs offering a nightly diet of karaoke and Elvis impersonators; ‘greasy spoon’ cafés serving full English breakfast; wall-to-wall premiership football on big screen TVs; Chinese, Indian, Mexican, Italian, fish ‘n’ chip, ‘everything-but-Turkish’, restaurants; English newspapers on every corner; ‘Azda’ and ‘Morison’ supermarkets to stock up on those holiday essentials like baked beans, large bags of crisps, and cans of lager! This is what awaited us when we booked a very cheap two-week hotel stay in Hisarönü in August 2008.

Not being people who have ever been big on cheap package holidays to the sun, we had never heard of Hisarönü. I realise now that it is a well-known destination for those looking for a Blackpool or a Brighton, but with guaranteed hot weather. It’s the sort of place that we have studiously avoided in the past, just because it is not what we are looking for in a holiday. We tend to choose holiday destinations which are ‘off the beaten track’ – places where we are unlikely to hear cries of, “Be quiet, Kylie”, and, “Harrison, leave your brother alone”, or, “Go get your Dad another beer, Sylvana!” Does this make us snobs? Some would think so. Do we look down on those who enjoy this sort of holiday? Not at all, but we have never thought it ‘our cup of tea’. I guess that we have always been grateful that places like Benidorm (showing my age now!), Aya Napa, and Bodrum existed, if only so that we knew where not to go on holiday! You see, I mentioned Bodrum there. In my mind, I associated Bodrum with the Brits in Turkey – planeloads of loutish youngsters descending on the resort daily in the summer months and wreaking havoc. Bodrum was in my radar – on my list of places to avoid – at least one of our nephews has been there, for goodness sake (not that any of our nephews are louts, I hasten to add!)!

Hisarönü, however, was not on my list – I’d never heard of it. I booked our Turkish-owned hotel (one of the few in town, it transpired) on-line, months in advance of our trip. I suppose that the price should have alerted me, but I was just surprised and grateful that we were able to afford to put two weeks ‘r and r’ in the middle of our month-long cultural tour around Turkey. Some comments I read on holiday forums after I had booked (‘lively pubs offering happy hours every night, for example), made me realise that perhaps this wasn’t the sort of place we would usually go to, but, by then, it was booked, so we decided that we would make the best of it, and that I would not research further.

In the end, Hisarönü provided us with a great holiday! After recovering from the initial culture shock of being bombarded with all things English during our taxi ride from the bus station along the entire length of the ‘strip’, we embraced the place and all it had to offer. Perhaps it was because we had been living in Istanbul for so long, and had been deprived of all those familiar pleasures, that we were able to enjoy it. I’m not sure why, but I know that we had a good time!

Our hotel was clean and comfortable with a lovely pool. We met some interesting people with whom we were able to converse properly in our common language. We ate in all of those traditional ‘British’ restaurants – we had Indian one night, Italian another, and Chinese twice. It was a joy after being limited to Turkish cuisine for so long. We even had fish ‘n’ chips – a real guilty pleasure! Once, we had a ‘bacon butty’, the bacon having been supplied by a thriving local butcher’s shop – there is a corner of non-pork-eating Turkey that is forever ‘Porkland’! We also enjoyed evenings in pubs, and my husband watched his first live Spurs game in well over a year. We did what many Brits do on holiday year-in, year-out, and we really enjoyed it, even if part of us felt that we shouldn’t! For us, it was the right holiday at the right time.

Would we go again?
Probably not!!

The Rahmi M. Koç Museum, Istanbul

One of the less well-known attractions of Istanbul, the Koç Museum is definitely worth a visit. If you are only in the city for a short time, then there will obviously be more important sites to see, but, if you are there for a longer period, if you have children with you, or if this is a return visit to Istanbul, then you should add the Koç Museum to your ‘to do’ list.

Located on the shores of the Golden Horn, the best way to get to the museum is to take the ferry from Eminönü, and get off at Hasköy. The ferry leaves from the north side of the Galata Bridge (just beyond the bus station) every hour (50 minutes past the hour at the time of writing).

The museum is open every day except Mondays from 10am to 5pm (7pm on Saturdays and Sundays), and costs just 9TL to get in (4.5TL for children). There is plenty to see, and you should allow at least 4 hours for your visit (longer if you choose to have lunch in one of the fabulous restaurants on site).

The museum was founded by the head of the Koç industrial group, one of Turkey’s most prominent conglomerates, in 1994, and is an eclectic collection of industrial artefacts from all over the world, as well as from Turkey. Rahmi Koç himself lived and studied in both England and America, and you get a real sense of this not being your typical Turkish museum. The Koç family have bought many items at auction in Western Europe and America, and had them restored to their former glory in their own workshops. They have also had a myriad of other items donated by individuals or companies. The result is a massive collection of stuff which is displayed in an interesting and informative way, with explanations in both Turkish and English.

The museum is housed in two separate buildings – a new one on the water side of the road, and a superbly restored and converted Byzantine forge on the opposite side. The entrance is in the new building, but your ticket gives you access to both. Unusually for Istanbul, the museum is fully accessible to disabled people, with ramps and lifts to all floors.

Many of the exhibits are to do with transport. There is a wonderful collection of cars, including everything from ugly Turkish Anadol models to a glorious pink Cadillac and a majestic 1965 silver Rolls Royce. There are trams and railway locomotives and carriages, including Sultan Abdül Aziz’s ornate railway coach, which was fitted out in England using duck-egg blue silk. Outside of the building, there are aircraft, such as a DC3, which you can climb on board, tractors, machinery, a ferry, a U.S. tugboat, and, even, a London Routemaster bus. There is also a submarine moored in the Golden Horn, for which there is an extra, small, entrance fee. Back inside, there are large collections of boats, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, motorbikes, and steam powered vehicles, many of which originated in the UK. There is also a series of old-fashioned shops, fully fitted-out, including a toy shop, a cobbler, a ship’s chandler, a chemist, and an optical instrument maker.

Other attractions include a Microsoft-sponsored display of computers (you will be shocked to be reminded of how far we have moved on in such a short time!) and a really interesting, interactive display called ‘How Things Work’. There are dozens of buttons to push which children of all ages will love.

In the old building, there are huge collections of model trains, cars, ships, and steam engines, as well as exhibits about astronomy, photography, and navigation.

Currently, there is also a fabulous exhibition of miniature rooms created by Henry Kupjack. This temporary display will continue until 15th September, 2009.

With or without children in tow, this is a great day out!

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