Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Delightfully Turkish

Finally, we have some more adventures to share with you! Last week we visited Turkey in order to attend the ANZAC services on the Gallipoli Peninsula. We knew little about Turkey before we went, though I did learn some Turkish phrases - and both of us were chuffed when one B&B host thought Adam was a Turk because of his well-accented 'merhaba' ('hello')!

The only thing I really knew about Turkey (other than relating to the Dardanelles/Gallipoli Campaign) was that the country is 99% Muslim, and I had been a little nervous about how this would impact on my enjoyment as a Christian and female. However, while locals did look at my western clothing and lack of head covering, I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. 

I think Turkey surprised us both - particularly the lovely Gallipoli peninsula. What we saw of the country was very green and lush, there were flowers and trees everywhere, and the white sands and clear blue waters of the Peninsula were just lovely. The people were very hospitable, and many spoke more English than we expected. We liked Istanbul and the historic sites there; we really enjoyed a visit to Troy; and it was a strange mix of sadness and peace to explore the numerous cemeteries on the Peninsula. 

We both agree we'd go back in a heartbeat. 

Let me share some more about our impressions of Turkey:


We arrived just weeks after 18 March - Martyr's Day and Canakkale Naval Victory Day (which celebrate the Allied naval withdrawal from their campaign to force the Dardanelles and take Constantinople (Istanbul). As we know, the Allies then went on to launch the ground-based campaign that began on 25 April 1915) - and right in time for the April 23 National Sovereignty and Children's Day. I'm not sure if it was in honour of these special days, or if Turks are just especially patriotic, but we saw flags, images of Ataturk and the president flying everywhere.

After discovering on our final day just how much the Turks see the Gallipoli Campaign as a victory, seeing all the souvenirs of bullets on key-rings or t-shirts showing Turkish soldiers with guns,and translating the text written on the hillside of the Dardanelles which tells foreigners to keep out; I found it a bit hard to see the flag flying proudly everywhere. It does hurt a bit when you're visiting somewhere to commemorate a military defeat and the victors sit proudly around you!


After we arrived in Istanbul, we embarked on our ritual hair-raising holiday drive – everyone does these, right? You get in your rental car at the airport and head for the nearby highway. Traffic is always thick, angry, and nowhere near as lost as you are. Within seconds you’re flustered, and probably having a heated argument with your spouse.

Brisbane has the telephone-book sized map book, where you have your fingers in about six places at once. “Hey! Where did Mount Coot-tha go?!” you cry in a panic as you try to find page 165, and all you can hear is Dan Bakker’s voice whirling through your head, saying, “Just get to Moggill Road. Trust me. Moggill Road leads everywhere.” (It doesn't.)

England has crazy roundabout trails that lead to major highways. Your TomTom robotically instructs, “Roundabout in 50 metres. Take first exit. Drive 150 metres to next roundabout. Take third exit. Drive 20 metres to roundabout. Take second exit. Drive 30 metres to roundabout.” And doesn’t warn you that the British don’t use lanes or indicate at roundabouts. It’s a free-for-all. Middle lane, schmiddle lane. Whoever gets there first gets to choose which lane is for which exit. If you’re in the centre lane, be prepared to be cut-off by someone swerving across from the outside lane.

Spain. You get the first clue when you pull open the driver’s door and find that there’s no steering wheel. Still in a state of confusion, you settle yourself into the opposite side of the car and reach for the gear stick. Your hand hits the door. “This could be a long drive,” your husband mutters. Finally you get out onto the highway and it is three lanes. Finding the correct position in your lane for your car seems impossible. Your husband screams as you nearly hit the side of a bridge. Oncoming traffic screams as you swerve close to the centre line. Somehow you end up in the centre lane and fellow drivers scream as you wobble your way along the road.

In France it’s the rule about giving way to cars turning onto your road from your right. Even when you’re driving straight and they’re on a side road. It’s not until you nearly get T-boned by some old Frog that you realise YOU have to give way to HIM. Lucky you couldn’t find the horn.

Turkey. Upon exiting Istanbul airport the first highway you encounter has no white lines painted on it. It’s a free for all and there are uneven rows of yellow taxis barrelling towards you. Suddenly you know what it sounds like to hear 50 taxi horns all honking in unison. And they’re all honking at you. You miss the turn-off and you’re stuck in the back streets of Istanbul. Every car that appears behind you toots at you and swerves past at the first opportunity. Some drivers lean on the horn for 5 minute stretches at a time. Pedestrians play chicken with the car. Chickens play chicken with the car.

Driving in foreign countries is tough! Some people go sky-diving overseas; we just hire a rental car. It can be exhausting and frightening, but it’s exhilarating.

In general, Turkish roads were good. This was particularly so from Cape Helles through Kaba Tepe to ANZAC Cove. However on the way down the Peninsula we took the coastal route and the ground was pretty bumpy and had lots of potholes covered with un-levelled heaps of asphalt. Also, there was lots of parking and it was free everywhere we went. That makes a great change from in England where there is hardly any ever parking and it's always exorbitantly priced.

Turkish drivers like speed. It took us a while to work out what the speed limit was – turned out it was 90km/h, not the 130 that most drivers favoured – but even when we were driving at the correct speed, most Turks motored past us. If you’re passing a car, other drivers like to roar up behind you, tooting their horn and furiously flashing their lights to indicate that you should get out of their way. People also did that around the streets of Istanbul, no matter what the situation was, someone somewhere behind you was leaning on their horn.

Rogue animals

These ones were lucky enough to have a house!
One really random thing in Turkey was all the dogs and cats lying about the place. The dogs were mongrels generally of a greyish sandy colour and of no discernible breed. They lay about on the waterfront park area, and were in every village in the countryside. The grossest part was watching the nursing bitches waddling around, their teats so swollen they dragged on the ground.  It was a bit funny at Troy to see groups of Aussie girls from the tour buses rush up to the mongrel pups and coo “oh they’re so sweet” and picking up and cuddling the dirty creatures. They were probably covered with fleas or stricken with rabies, but that didn’t seem to occur to these dog-loving Australians!


Mmm... sis kebab
Turkish food is quite different from traditional western food, and it actually was a bit of a struggle to find suitable food while travelling. The B&Bs we stayed in served traditional Turkish breakfasts, which consist of some combination of the following: olives, cheeses such as feta, kidney beans, boiled eggs, tomato, capsicum and mushrooms. One of our hotels also had fresh fruit and cold crepes, and another had yummy bits of fried potato and some traditional rolled pastry with cheese inside. Our two favourite Turkish snacks! We also found a good restaurant in Eceabat, and I had sis (shish) kebab both nights while Adam tried traditional meatballs. The meals were served with Turkish pilav rice, which was the best rice I’ve tasted. I looked up some recipes once we got home and we’ve already had it for tea one night! (For those who are interested, it’s a mix of long grain rice and orzo pasta, simmered in chicken stock and then left to the absorption method. Yum!)

Surprisingly, there were quite a few small cafes alongside the country roads. We didn’t stop at these establishments, but they mainly seemed to serve traditional Turkish cay (tea) or icecreams. Other than that, it was really difficult to find places that sold more Michelle-friendly lunches such as sandwiches, and we often ended up just snacking rather than having a proper lunch. I didn’t get as hungry in Turkey as I do elsewhere, so that was probably a good thing as the food choices were a bit limited. 


Technically, Turkey is a secular country and has had no official religion since 1924. Despite this, 99% of Turks are Muslim, and schools hold compulsory classes in Sunni Islam. The Constitution recognizes freedom of religion, but religious minorities, such as Christianity, have historically been discriminated against. Istanbul is an interesting city, as it was established by the Christian Roman Empire (Byzantine) then it was conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1453. One of the first acts of conquest was to seize the Hagia Sophia basilica, which was the world's largest cathedral for a time, and rush an imam (priest) there to proclaim the Islamic creed. All those sheltering inside were either killed or taken as slaves. Then the conquerors ordered the construction of minarets, and the church was turned into a mosque for the next 500 years. It is now a museum. (We didn't get any pictures of it, sorry)

As a result of the dominance of Islam in Turkey, in every town and on almost every street in Istanbul there is a mosque. Five times a day, these mosques broadcast a 'call to prayer' where someone called a muezzin tells Muslims to prepare themselves for prayer, and reminds non-believers of the central tenets of Islam - there is no god but Allah and Muhammed is his messenger. Historically, the muezzin would climb the minaret to recite the message, so that believers could hear. Now, the minarets are rigged with multiple loudspeakers and you can hear the calls to prayer from any part of the city, in any part of a house, and in densely mosqued areas the calls often overlap. They go five times a day, starting at around 4am. I must admit I found it very difficult to lie awake at 4 in the morning, hearing the wailing chant of the muezzin, announcing to me that Allah is the only god and Muhammed is his messenger. In a country that is officially secular and is run by an Islamic political party. 

Well I hope you've enjoyed learning about (our experiences of) Turkey. The next blog post will be about our time in the historic city of Istanbul, and the interesting things we saw there. It also features friends (friends!) which is exciting!