Week 31 – Roaming Asia Minor

24th – 30th March 2014

Our week began in the flat of Kutay and his girlfriend, who had generously put us up on their couch after their friend and our intended couch host Aytac was delayed returning from his playing commitments to the Canakkale Patriots American football team.

The boys did some homework and made friends with Tequila the cat, who reluctantly allowed us into her territory. Eventually Aytac arrived and, with his usual grin, showed us to his flat in the centre of town.  We chatted and made friends, and, over breakfast, Prunella accepted an invitation to Aytac’s class for the day.

In the afternoon Aytac’s girlfriend Ozlem and some of her housemates came over and we all shared a late lunch of pasta and fumbled through a conversation, the young Turkish students doing more than their fair share of the heavy lifting due to our limited language skills.  A pleasant afternoon with some interesting young people.

A Gallipoli Expedition

On Tuesday, despite some gloomy weather, Graham set out to discover for himself the battlefields of the Gallipoli Campaign, a ferry and taxi trip away across the Çanakkale Boğazı or Dardanelles, the narrow strait which joins the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara.  The cold, blustery wind that blows along the mountain-bordered strait blew away the clouds, and as the ferry pulled up in the small port of Eceabat, on the northern shore, the sun was bathing the pine-clad hills.

At Eceabat, he had planned to wait for a dolmus, one of the local minibuses that ply the route from here across the 8km peninsula, but the only bus was locked up and empty.  Reluctantly parting with 25 lira, he took a taxi for the short trip, and was dropped off at the newly renovated museum and memorial.  Eschewing the computer-generated maps and documentary, he set off on foot, along the sweeping road that leads along the northern shore.  If doing this yourself, prepare for a fair hike – public transport is lacking in the national park, and the options are a somewhat pricey tour (from the agencies in Eceabat, or Canakkale or even Istanbul), a private taxi, or “shanks’ pony”: Graham opted for the latter.

Soon he was alone on a well made but empty road – one that attracted some consternation when it was first built along the shore.  Under a flat sky, with the island of Gökçeada on the hazy blue horizon to the left, and the softly sloping Mediterreanean slopes on the right, it is hard to imagine the horrors that occurred here.  The place was silent save for bird calls, and the breeze in the green coastal after two kilometres the battlefield area starts – here a sign board, there the entrance to a cemetery around the curve of the road.

The utter error of the landing place – by accident or design – is made clear: the actual landing beaches face steep limestone cliffs rather than the gentle hills less than half a mile away.  In reality prepared and determined defenders could probably have resisted stoutly at either point, but the folly of the entire operation is signed off on the rows of white headstones in the lovely, lonely cemeteries with names like Beach Cemetery or Ari Burnu.

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The place names roll out of a high school text book:  Anzac Cove, Shrapnel Valley, Lone Pine.  To experience them here, quiet, alone, far from the annual Anzac Day crowds of Aussie-flag wavers (or wearers) was, for me, a real experience.  The rows of graves bear the names of Australians, New Zealanders, British, Indians, Nepalese, young men in their teens, twenties, thirties and forties who would have relished the chance to follow in our footsteps – they probably set out as much for a chance at adventure as any patriotic urging.

The reconciling words attributed to Kemal Ataturk, himself a veteran of the campaign and later the founder of the Turkish Republic, are inscribed on a huge stone tablet overlooking the lapping beach.  It is a pretty moving place – not one to celebrate the failed and misguided campaign, but to cherish one’s freedom to mingle among the proud and optimistic people of this country.

Getting back on the ferry, exhilarated but weary from the 15km walk, he chatted with his fellow passengers (on the return trip he gratefully flagged down a bus as it chugged from the small ferry port of Kabatepe to Eceabat) .  Later, sitting with Aytac and his friends munching on a late lunch prepared by Prunella, we reflected there was a reason to celebrate – in spite of the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, there are much better ways for Turks and Australians to get together.

Heading South

Despite the protests of our Canakkale friends, we had been invited to Selcuk by another couch surfing host, Mehmet, and on a cool but clear Wednesday morning we set off for the bus offices near the bustling ferry terminal.  Soon we were aboard another of the immaculately well prepared Turskish coaches, zooming south along the Aegean coast.  The boys were engaged in the numerous video games in the seat back consoles, and we sipped on the personally served tea and munched on the free snacks on offer.  Take note: this is the way coach travel can work!

After a few stops, and some spectacular coastal landscape, we finally pulled into the vast Izmir Otogar (Bus Terminal), and soon found the Dolmus that connects with Selcuk.  Not long after that our journey ended in the small tree-line square that forms Selcuk’s Otogar – a long but none-too-tiring day of coach travel behind us.

A local pointed us to the Kebab shop which is the heart of friendly Mehmet’s empire, and as always we welcomed the cheery face of a ‘friend we hadn’t met yet’ – Mehmet was expecting our little caravan to arrive and so set us down at a shady table with the obligatory and most welcome belly-glass of cay.  The news got better:  Mehmet had already generously offered his ‘couch’ to another pair of travellers, but he was willing to let us have the keys to his end of lease house only a short stroll away.  We gladly settled into these digs, on a quiet street in Selcuk’s old quarter – next to a thirteenth century mosque and across a cobbled road adjacent to the field in which stands a single column assembled from what remains of the Temple of Artmeis: one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World!

The Temple of Artemis

The Temple of Artemis

The house was clean and blessed with warm beds and a hot shower.  It seemed the Gods were still smiling.

Lucas turns IX

The next day was Lucas’ ninth birthday.  We can’t believe that the little easter bun who joined our family what seems like yesterday has clocked up nine years.  What a long way he’s come!  Now an integral part of the Sabretoothed Chickens Tour Crew,  this young man helps us shepherd his brothers along the long and winding road, taking charge of proceedings after ‘lights out’ time, and pitches in keeping us all amused, informed and entertained on long and tiring journeys.   We’re privileged to have him on the team.

The celebrations on the day itself were somewhat mute – we simply enjoyed time together, shared a sunny breakfast of tost (toasted cheese sandwiches) in a cafe by the arches of the Selcuk, picked up a few treats in a small toy/stationery shop and lounged at home.  Far from the usual party affairs he’s become accustomed to at home, this birthday was quite mellow – just enjoying our great couch surf, some good food and chilling out.  We did have a cake and some balloons back in Luleburgaz, and some more events are planned as time and availability permit.

But this day was just a good time spent together in a nice place – which is what it really is all about isn’t it?

Ephesus

The next morning we were picked up by Mehmet’s brother and business partner Alibaba for the short run to Selcuk’s highlight: the spectacular Roman ruins of Ephesus.  This place, reportedly the best preserved ruins in the eastern Mediterrenean, is at or near top of everyone’s list in this part of the world, so it’s worth getting the most out of a day there, and getting in early to avoid the tour-coach crowds.

We followed the smart advice and were dropped off at the upper gate, meaning our perambulations would gradually lead us downhill to the lower exit.  In our bags are a big bag of home made sandwiches, and some water.  We skipped the audio guide and decided to rely on the helpful information signs which are clear and helpful.  After a morning shower, the clouds had lifted and the weather was fining up to a great spring day.

The exploration starts near a colossal set of baths, the agora (a Roman era government building), and moves on to the odeon, a small theatre nestled into the scrub-covered hillside.  It doesn’t take long before the inevitable sets in:  the boys are clambering up the rows of seats and scampering around the weathered marble.  It’s relatively quiet and pleasantly cool, and I try to engage their interest by sitting on the seats and together we imagine the thoughts going through the minds of the Roman audience as they sat in these same seats two thousand years ago.  We surmised they mused, among other things, on the comfort of the chairs, the enjoyment or otherwise of a recent meal, and the price of fish at a nearby shop.

Wandering down the hill and deviating off the regular trail, we turn left at the Temple of Domitian and sit among Greek and Latin inscribe tablets, munching on our lunch.  Even here, among the marvels of the ancient world, a constant supply of food and snacks is just as important as ever to keep our group moving slowly forwards.

As the faster moving tour groups log jam at the magnificently reconstructed Celsus Library facade, we veered off and  handed over a few more lira at the very worthwhile terraced houses – an area of impressively detailed houses and palaces, under a roof and many still under excavation.  They feature original paintings, marble wall cladding, and exquisite mosaics which genuinely breathe life into the experience.

We wound lazily towards the Great Theatre, the spectacularly large finale of this virtuoso Roman statement of a city.  The path takes us back through a stand of pine trees, forward through time from the marble streets to the tacky souvenir stands and coach park of the northern gate.  There, having sipped a refreshing cay or two, and pushed past the taxi drivers wanting twenty lira for the two-kilometre trip back to Selcuk, we encountered a man wanting only a couple of lira for a dolmus trip, and sat waiting under a tree, chatting to some Iranian travellers.

Ephesus: the major centre of the Roman province of Asia Minor – a place which cannot be missed, must not be rushed – and can be enjoyed with youngsters.

A Purple Haze

The rest of the week was spent in a pleasant haze of history, family and warm spring sunshine, in the warm cobbled streets of Selcuk’s tiny old quarter, the purple slopes of the hills in all directions.  We took in the ruins of the Basilica of St John, the nearby fourteenth century İsabey Mosque  The travelling reverie was broken only the occasional raucous passage of processions of electioneering vehicles, pressing their cases for one party or another in the imminent municipal elections with the aid of flags, speeches, clapping crowds and seemingly unrelated pop music.

Sunday – the day of the vote – was also the day we packed our bags and bade farewell to Selcuk.  We strolled through the waking town to the tiny railway station, with one platform, well tended flower pots and a guard with a red flag.  A station attendant hurried to open the ticket office, perhaps confused by a one day election-related delay in the transition to the daylight saving time.

We boarded a immaculately clean railcar and zoomed east toward Denizli, the coastal hills giving way to green farms and the distant snow-capped peaks of western Anatolia.

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