Tuesday, 26 April 2016


30th - 31st Mar 2016

Hamam entrance. 

After showing much lack of enthusiasm I was persuaded to visit a Hamam (Turkish Bath). The origin of the Turkish Bath was as a communal wash-house in the days when people didn't have suitable 'facilities' at home. Similar to most countries in the olden days I suppose, except that the Turkish Bath has gained a reputation and has plenty of imitations world-wide. I was told that the standard of these institutions varies from the very seedy to quite luxurious. I was taking as little risk as possible and went to one near the affluent Istiklal Cad (the Oxford Street of Istanbul).

It was not cheap at 180 Lira (about £45) a go for a hour's session, and there was a more expensive and longer 'de-luxe' service. I stuck with the one hour job. Quite a smart marble entrance foyer with armchairs and exotic decoration, and a desk with a charming smiling moustachioed attendant plus credit card machine. I was handed a sarong sort of thing and taken upstairs to a private changing room where I changed into my sarong. Back downstairs I was told to put on some wooden clogs and then escorted into a spacious domed marble (everything is marble here unless otherwise specified) chamber with a large central raised platform. It was hot, very hot, in there. At first sight it reminded me of a (hot) morgue with supine figures covered in their sarongs, both male and female, around the outside and a few more draped on the central platform. I was told to lie down on the (marble) floor which I did, and waited, sweating. After 15 mins I was approached by a large hairy pot-bellied gentleman who might have been a retired Turkish wrestler and taken to lie on the central platform. It was like being put on a griddle. Yes, painful. Just as I was beginning to go from 'rare' to 'medium' the Turkish wrestler came up with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. He proceeded to baste me, soapily, all over which at least slowed the cooking process. I was then, accompanied by much soaping, given a massage. Well, when I say massage it was more like a serious kneading and pummelling and my neck, arm and leg muscles were quite painfully tenderised. I remembered, having seen it on telly many years ago, what you do in a wrestling match when you submit; you bang your hand down three times on the canvas and the ref stops the fight. I tried. It didn't work. There was no ref. I can't recall how long this torture lasted, but I was then led, hobbling, to a (marble) bench where said ex-wrestler poured buckets of warm water over me before donning what looked like an oven glove. The palm of this had a kind of sand-paper covering. With more soap he proceeded to scrub me all over. I believe the human body has three layers of skin. After this I only had two left. More slooshes of warm water over my now well scoured and very tender body and I was led out to another room with showers. It was a freezing cold shower and by God Almighty it came as a shock to the system. I was then wrapped up in a thick towel and taken back out, somewhat dazed, to the reception room and given a glass of hot sweet tea to recover along with other survivors. Well, that was about it and I suspect that whatever was left of me had never ever been cleaner. I'm only glad I didn't go for the 'de-luxe' treatment.

After this I decided to take a recuperatory walk on up Istiklal Cad to Taksim Square (left) at the northern end. I'm told that there are occasional demos here which quickly turn into riots involving well practiced and none too gentle police who cause stampeding rioters to swarm into the side-streets and it can all become rather alarming for any passing tourist. It didn't happen while I was there and so I don't have anything very exciting to write about.

Right: A statue of some military significance in Taksim Square.

There is a marvellous old tram system which chugs, slowly, up and down Istiklal Cad. It is a 'hop-on hop-off' and free service. It doesn't even have to stop for people to hop; no elf 'n safety nonsense here. I hopped a couple of times.

Right: Inside the old tram.

I was well entertained in Istanbul and visited several excellent and amusing restaurants. One especially notable one is a Georgian restaurant near the Galata Tower run by a charming Turk who, I think, had spent much time in UK. His wife is a Georgian who played old Russian/Georgian music on her piano and to which we were all encouraged to dance. The food was good also. It is that sort of place.

Having bought a few souvenirs including several boxes of Turkish Delight, that about concluded my short visit. I must say, I rather recommend Istanbul (and going there by train). It is a fun place for a city break.

The next day it was a fast journey by taxi to Ataturk airport, and I mean fast. My driver obviously fancied himself as a F1 pilot. I flew home, a 4 hour flight. Incidentally, having arrived at the airport with time to kill, I pulled off another coup by (again) inveigling my way into the VIP lounge. I'm getting quite practiced at this having worked on my 'technique' on many occasions, with several failures it must be admitted. It's always worth trying because once you're 'in' they are not going to chuck you out, and the freebie wine and food on offer is well worth the effort. 

Much of this journey was arranged for me by an excellent travel company based in London called 'Railbookers' and in particular a very helpful employee there, Gareth Jones, who had done this rail journey himself so knew the ropes. In hindsight it would have been relatively simple for me to have just bought the tickets as I went, point to point, but not being familiar with the eastern European rail system (thinking, mistakenly, that it would be as crowded, chaotic and unreliable as the British one), using Railbookers made it less of a hassle. I strongly recommend them.

Monday, 18 April 2016


29th -30th Mar 2016

Ferries on the Bosphorus

A morning spent on the Bosphorus involved, unsurprisingly, a couple of ferry trips. There is a myriad of different sorts of ferries and cruise boats which ply the Strait and Golden Horn.
First a short trip over to the eastern (Asian) part of the city known collectively as Üsküdar. The main port area is called Kadiköy and nearby is the now defunct, but very grand, Haydarpasa railway station (left). 

This station was designed by Turkey's great ally, Germany, and built in 1909. It was Turkey's largest and busiest railway hub with much traffic out to Asia but was closed down 'indefinitely' in 2012. It is now a vast parking lot for unused rolling-stock. The building and platforms are 'out of bounds' but there is a little cafe open on the riverfront terrace.

Up the road from this is a large army headquarters (photography not permitted and knowing the reputation of the Turkish armed forces I wasn't going to risk it). In fact I only saw one uniformed soldier inside, who was sweeping the road. He must have been on 'jankers' while his comrades were out fighting Kurds or some such entertainment. Further on is the Marmara University university building and then the huge barrack like building in which Florence Nightingale and her staff attended up to 10,000 casualties at a time during the Crimean War. There is a small room in some far off part of this building (the size of at least 4 football pitches) which houses a little museum dedicated to Ms Nightingale but, as I discovered, it is indeed a military barracks and you need authorisation in advance to enter. Bollocks to that! Coincidently I had an old matron at school called Miss Nightingale, but I never asked if she was any relation. She might have been; she was very keen on disinfecting things which was one of Florence's strong points.

Anyway, onto another 'cruise' type boat for a short trip up the Bosphorus. It only went as far as the second, Fatih, bridge. I could have gone all the way up to the Black Sea but it would have taken most of the day and, on balance, there is not that much of interest that you can see from a boat and I had other things to do.
We passed several palaces such as this, the Dolmabahçe Palace on the western bank (left), which is famous for it's opulent interior, I'm told.

...and a few forts such as Rumali Hisari (right), built in a mere four months on the orders of  Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 in preparation for his seige of Byzantine Constantinople. Apparently he appointed his three Grand Viziers to do this, each taking reponsibility for the construction of a tower area. If any of it wasn't completed in said four months the Vizier responsible would have his head cut off.  An effective incentive and one sadly under-used in UK nowadays. Needless to say it was completed on time (and within budget).

The afternoon was spent on a walk through the 'bazaar' area of the city (south bank). I decided to start off in the spice market and meander up to the Grand Bazaar which, according to my map, should have been quite straightforward. Needless to say, the place is a maze of small and badly marked streets and I got completely lost.

Left: Colourful spices on display, and there were many of these stalls. They must get through a lot of spices.

....some displaying mountains of Turkish Delight (right). Shops in all parts of the town displayed mountains of Turkish Delight, which may not come as a complete surprise I suppose.

 I eventually found my way to the Grand Bazaar. I had imagined it would be similar to the Medina Souk in Fez; you know, an inescapable maze of lots of little dusty alleyways with primitive canvas covered stalls flogging everything from carpets to camel dung manned by dodgy looking hook-nosed bandits and smelling faintly, and sometimes strongly, of often unpleasant substances. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Grand Bazaar is a series of flash and shiny clean arcades more reminiscent of Harrods than the Medina.

There were maps to guide you around, well signed arcades, a few smart cafés (thankfully I saw no MacDonalds) and even immaculately clean loos.

Some of the shops (and they are shops really, not stalls) sold very elaborate and expensive jewellery, gold and silver pieces, some smart clothes, carpets, handicrafts, anything you could think of and, of course, some cheaper tat. Sure, you haggled, but it often only brought a sky-high price down to just a very expensive price. I took a particular interest in a shop selling belly-dancer outfits complete with bells and tassels. I might have bought one as a Christmas present for someone if I could have afforded it, although I'm not sure there are too many opportunities to wear such garments on the British social scene nowadays. I ended up buying a Galataserai football scarf instead.
On my way out of the main archway exit/entrance two large black 4X4s with tinted windows and motorbike escorts pulled up. A fat moustachioed man and his fat wife got out of one, surrounded by burly bodyguards. Either this was 'Mr Big' come to collect his debts, or some Oligarch type come to do some shopping. The place obviously caters for the very wealthy.

The main post office (left) is an impressive building as are so many main post offices in far flung parts of the world. They are important places and they choose to look important. I remember admiring superb examples in Mexico City and Saigon. Other than the imposing architecture, this place has many well designated desk areas with, and this is seldom the case in Britain, plenty of staff to man them. No crowds and interminable queues. I had a few post-cards to buy stamps for and post. I was dealt with courteously and efficiently. On the down side, two weeks later, the cards have not arrived. Well, you can't expect everything.

Back over the other side of the Golden Horn on the hill in the Galata district is this imposing tower, the Galata Tower. Built in 1348 it has served a variety of purposes during the course of it's history and been damaged and repaired several times. Originally an observation post guarding the approaches to Constantinople, then in Ottoman days a fire station from which (when much of the city was built of wood) fires could be spotted and the fire engine accurately dispatched. It has also housed prisoners. It is now a tourist venue with a restaurant affording spectacular 360˚ views over the city (but no alcohol licence which rules it out of my list of eateries) plus an open air observation deck around the top. They charge 25 Lira (£7 equivalent) for entry which is a bit steep if you ask me.

Left: An example of a cat-loving local. So many damned cats! I've yet to discover why.

One thing I have yet to do is visit a Turkish Bath. Somewhat dubious about the prospect I was encouraged by my host to try it. I did, and will report the gory details in the next issue.

Monday, 11 April 2016


27th - 28th Mar 2016

The Blue Mosque (not my photo)
Having semi-sussed out the transport system and got my bearings I managed, by tram, to get across the Golden Horn inlet over the Galata bridge and then took the funicular railway ('tunel' it is called because it's built inside a tunnel) up the steep hill to Sishane. I was met at Sishane by the 'tunel' funicular station entrance and guided to the apartment at which I was to stay. I would never have found it otherwise. It's like a rabbit warren up there, and the smaller street markings are not always clear, if there at all.
After my much needed kip I went out to investigate the Ferikoy 'flea market' which had been recommended, north up the city. I got lost getting there and arrived just as it was closing. I had supper in a local restaurant then set off back to the apartment. I got seriously lost again and, as the owner was away, I had visions of hopelessly roaming the streets all night. Nobody had even heard of the little street I was trying to find. Found it eventually, more by luck than judgement. Navigation was not proving easy.

Left: This little map shows a simple layout of the city. The western, European, side is divided north/south (N & S) by the Golden Horn inlet, and across the Bosphorous Strait is the eastern, Asian, part (E). North up the Bosphorous is the Black Sea and to the south the Sea of Marmara. So that's clear then? Most of the 'touristy' bits are in 'S' and most of the shopping areas and consulates are in 'N'. 'E' holds the enormous and defunct German built Haydarpasa railway station, a big army barracks, and is the place where the hospital was where Florence Nightingale worked during the Crimea War. There is a museum there now. Plus lots more mosques, of course. Shoals of ferries and cruise boats criss-cross the Bosphorous to many staging posts; a bit like the Vaporettos in Venice, sort of.

The place I was staying in had a roof terrace from which this view was taken (right) looking south over the Golden Horn to the Topkapi Palace on the hill opposite.
The maze of little streets in this area contain many tiny but really quite smart shops selling handicrafts, clothes, furniture, arty things etc, plus lots of cafés and restaurants. Good for browsing, and getting lost.

One of the the first places I called in at was the Pera Palace hotel which is at the bottom of the hill in the pic above. This hotel, the oldest in Turkey, was opened in 1895 primarily as a place for passengers on the Orient Express to stay. Agatha Christie apparently stayed there which inspired her to write 'Murder on the Orient Express'. It is an old-fashioned and luxurious place and undoubtedly very expensive. It houses the first electrically powered lift in Turkey (left). Very ornate.

.......and the grand drawing room in which I just managed to afford a cup of coffee.

To the Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman rulers of old. It covers a large area with many buildings including the Harem annex. Left: The main entrance.

Right: A model of the Palace grounds is on display to give you an idea of the layout. I only saw parts of it as there were too many rooms and pavilions which, to the untrained eye, looked remarkably alike. Once you've seen one you've seen them all, I began to think.

Lots of eleborated tiling and plasterwork.......

...with pavilions and water features

...and one room which took my interest, the Circumcision Room.......

....which contained, other than elaborate ancient tiling, stained glass windows and a security guard, not much else.

Left: Another elaborately tiled room (blue iznik tiles, I was informed)  with, I presume, a nice fireplace; either that or the storage space for an ancient Ottoman ICBM.

You have to pay another entrance fee to tour the Harem complex. This is a large annex of the Palace and contained, again,  many sumptuosly decorated rooms. The chief wife of the Sultan/ Emperor/Sheik/Grand Vizier/Emir/Caliph/
Taoseach or whatever the head-honcho was titled, ran this establishment with  a proverbial rod of iron and she was a very powerful lady in her own right.

Left: This is the central salon where His Nibs entertained, or was entertained by, the ladies of the harem. I expect they played a lot of Scrabble, or strip poker.

At the exit to the Harem was a room where this Mullah chappie was 'tunefully' warbling passages of the Koran into a microphone and blasting it out to departing visitors. Well I suppose it was that or, for all I know, it could have been the local football results.

Left: Then on to the Aya Sophia mosque nearby. This is renowned for it's architecture. Originally a Christian church in Byzantium times (from 573 AD), it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans who arrived uninvited in 1453. 

Right: It had the builders and decorators in. I believe they have had the scaffolding up for the past 20 years. Sounds like they employed some cowboy builders (Mustafa Phag & Co 'Mosques our Speciality') to do the job who are being paid by the hour.

Underneath the Ottoman Muslim plasterwork designs some of the original Christian paintings of Jesus Chist etc. have been revealed in very good nick and are on view during the renovations. If you click to enlarge you can see them on the wall in the distance.

Next on the agenda, and again nearby, are the Basilica Cisterns (right); a popular tourist site. This expansive underground vault contained the Palace water supply from the early Byzantine days. It is dank and dripping down there and atmospherically lit by lots of little lights. The reservoir is crossed by very wet and slippery wooden walkways. The water was teeming with carp and I jolly nearly joined them on several occasions.

At the far end are two pillars, on the bases of which are carvings of the head of Medusa (she with snakes for hair and if you looked at her you were turned to stone). One was upside down (left) and the other on it's side. There is some mystery about the significance of these carvings. I suspect it was the ancestors of that well established firm of dodgy builders, Mustafa Phag & Co, who did the work and got the specifications wrong.

For some reason, near the entrance, there is a 'facility' where you can dress up in ancient traditional costume and have your photo taken, as per these people (right). Some punters obviously like to pay good money to look like prats.

After that I was feeling a bit peckish. There are hundreds of little stalls and carts, all over the city in fact, from which are sold chestnuts and corn-on-the -cob. I decided to try a tasty looking corn cob. It was like eating rubber and tasted similar. On the other hand, the chestnuts were delicious. Useful info if you are visiting.

Next up, and again nearby, is the famed Blue Mosque (left). It has six minarets which, I think, is the most around any mosque. Actually I only saw five. I then noticed that one of them had been semi-demolished and the stub remaining had scaffolding around it. Presumably being rebuilt.....and hopefully not by our old friends Messrs Mustafa Phag & Co.

Inside was as per most mosques, I presume, but maybe a bit larger. Plenty of carpet space for the Faithful to kneel down to pray. To one side was a small office which advertised itself as an 'Islamic Information Centre - Come In', it read. I might have done but it was closed.

I must admit, the architecture was impressive and imposing............ 

....however I didn't notice anything particularly 'blue' about it. Except for the tiled edging around the inside of the central dome.

After this I went for a light snack in a nearby café, selected on the basis that it served beer which many around here do not. While there one of the frequent wailing 'calls to prayer' rang out. These calls, from banks of mega-watt loudspeakers on the minarets, are deafeningly loud if you are close to them, ie within half a mile.  When one mosque stops another replies. It rattled the glasses. I couldn't help think what fun you could have if you managed to get control of the microphone. The mind boggles, but I suspect a few good jokes followed by a rendition of 'Four and Twenty Virgins Went to Inverness' would not go down terribly well amongst the locals.

All these minarets brought to mind a good name for a local pop group, 'Micky Mehmet and the Minarettes' perhaps. As it happened I passed a group of chaps singing in the street (left). As you can see, they are attired in the quaint traditional Turkish costume; black leather jackets, and unshaven.

I was also told that, originally, most of the houses in Istanbul were built of wood. This was as a precaution against earthquakes. I expect they provided little protection against fire however. Quite a few still remain (right).

Another interesting feature of the city is the preponderance of cats. They are everywhere. People seem to treat them with the same reverence as they do with cows in India. Mostly they are mollycoddled pets, but even the feral ones are sympathetically tolerated. Not sure of the reason for this.........

......and gun shops are quite popular. Possibly patronised by a minority group of violent activists who don't like cats.

So much to see in this city, and what little I have seen so far is hardly scratching the surface. Publication of these blogs has been somewhat delayed due to the fact that, other than touristing, I have been generously entertained during the evenings and not much time for fiddling about on computers.

Plenty more to follow, have no fear!

Sunday, 10 April 2016


26th - 27th Mar 2016

Istanbul looking south over the Golden Horn. Blue Mosque centre far distance.

Having bought (I hoped, after a few language difficulties) a ticket at Budapest North station for the journey to Istanbul, I boarded the small three carriage train bound for Sofia at 1.50pm. This train did not have the luxury of any catering facilities but, fortunately, I had raided the breakfast table and made a substantial picnic plus obtaining plenty of liquid refreshment. This part of the journey was to involve a couple of changes of train and a bus.

The carriages had old fashioned and comfortable 'compartments' of the type that have long since disappeared from UK trains, and which I rather like. So much more peaceful and civilised than sitting scunched up amongst the masses in open-plan airline type seating. I was fortunate to have two pleasant and interesting fellow occupants in the compartment. A Chinese grandmother from Shanghai, called Ling Ling (well that was her 'nom de voyage' anyway) and a young lady from Swansea, Wales who might have been called Bronwyn, but probably wasn't. 
Ling Ling had been travelling the world, solo, since her husband died 10 years ago. She had an impressively large passport showing where she had been, which was just about everywhere except South America and UK. These were on her agenda, she told me. The Welsh girl, who was in the hotel business, had also been travelling solo through Europe and was on her way via Italy and Spain to meet her boyfriend in Paris. She was going the long way round from Swansea. I thought they were most enterprising, and were amusing company, which was just as well because this was a very slow train. The scenery through Romania was rather dull and we crossed the border into Bulgaria at Ruse where customs got on and although doing a very rudimentary passport check the train remained stationary for an interminable period. Onwards we chugged to Gorna Oryakhovitsa (I would never remember these names if I didn't write them down) through much more well-ordered and pleasant countryside to change trains. Another longish wait. Then onwards south. The ladies got off shortly afterwards at a place called Velico Tarnovo, a popular touristy medieval town with fortress. I had the compartment to myself down to Dimitrovgrad where we arrived at 2330. Phew! There were only six of us who got off here for another change of train; an elderly blind Turk and (presumably) his wife/guide,  a young Brazilian couple who were studying engineering in Dublin, and a Belgian archaeologist. Things were a little more complicated down here as no locals or railway staff spoke any English and all the writing in Bulgaria is in cyrillic script. An old lady manning the ticket office (yes, it was open at 11.30pm) gave us lots of information...of which we understood not a single word. The only thing that became apparent was that there would be an indeterminate wait for the train to take us on. Fortunately I had some wine left to share with my fellow passengers and there was a little coffee shop open across the street which sold small cups of cheap and revolting coffee. We lingered. The next train pulled in, much to everyone's surprise, including the sole platform attendant, at 1.45am. Onwards again to the border town of Kapikule. Most irritatingly the railway line from here into Istanbul has been undergoing 'modifications' for the past two years or so and, as I discovered later, not due to be reopened for at least another couple of years. Makes our Railtrack engineering look almost efficient.  On arrival here at 6.30am, and after another longish wait, we were given a thorough and rather unwelcoming going over, airport style security, by Turkish officials before boarding a comfortable bus for the 2½ hour final leg to the metropolis of Istanbul.

The first things that I couldn't help but notice amongst the industrial parks, housing estates and shopping centres on the approach through the extensive western Istanbul outskirts were mosques and minarets. There were hundreds of them. There must be some Islamic rule that requires a mosque to be no further than 500yds  from another mosque, as some form of 'mutual support' perhaps, or within loudspeaker calling-to-prayer distance. I suppose noone can then offer the excuse that they 'hadn't heard the call'.

We arrived outside the iconic Sirkeci railway station (right) in the city centre at 10.30am. This was the terminus which once greeted all rail traffic from Europe, and was the destination of the long since defunct Orient Express. I was told that it had been closed down, but no; it still operates trains into Asia through a tunnel under the Bosphorous. The main building looks a bit of a wreck from the outside (perhaps undergoing restoration), but it must have looked grand in it's pomp.

It's pleasant enough inside (left), although it seemed remarkably bereft of travellers. 

There is a small dusty and rather uninspiring railway museum here and a very impressive looking restaurant called, unsurprisingly, 'The Orient Express' (right). This was lunchtime and there were lots of waiters on duty smartly dressed in 'black tie', but no diners as far as I could see. Perhaps they get busy in the evenings. Or when the railway line to Europe is reopened.

I sat down to a late breakfast in a nearby café and pored over my map of Istanbul to work out how to get around the place. There is a modern tram service, a new flashy above ground Metro system, an old tram service, a funicular railway and lots of ferries up, down and across across the Golden Horn and Bosphorous. It was not easy to make sense of initially. There are buses and taxis of course, but I am always very wary of taxis if I don't know where I am going, and of taxi drivers who also know that I don't know where I am going. Fortunately there is a very helpful Information Centre next to Sirkeci station.

During my stay here I have been generously offered accommodation by a friend in the Sishane district which is on the northern side of the Golden Horn inlet. I think I will need a good kip and then  be off to do some serious touristing. Stand-by for further, and probably rather inaccurate, insights into the delights of Istanbul.

Right: The Blue Mosque, more about which  later.