24 August 2012

Events & Entertainments in England

England is having an event-led recovery this year: first the Queen's Jubilee, now the Olympics. I have never seen so many Union Jacks or so much bunting. Our aim was to enjoy England without bothering with either of the above, in particular to stay as far away as possible from the Olympic frenzy. We planned to hug the south coast en route to Devon, then travel to Yorkshire keeping well clear of London. But we forget to take the torch relay into account and when we arrive in Dover it is heading towards us. We manage to pass it in Hastings as we and the torch stay there on the same night, but we avoid getting caught up in any of the waving and cheering.
Nevertheless our time in England is full of events and entertainment. It begins with a trip to Glyndebourne to see La Boheme. I joined the Glyndebourne Returns Club in Australia in the hope of nabbing some returns for the performance on the Thursday after we arrive, and achieve this by phone from the ferry terminal in Calais. As we haven't packed Peter's dinner suit or my tiara, we then have the challenge of equipping ourselves with the appropriate apparel and accoutrements to attend a performance and have the traditional picnic in the gardens. A day in Lewes is spent going to all the op shops, or charity shops as they call them here, and we acquire, for a modest outlay, a dress shirt and bow tie for Peter to wear with his reefer jacket and grey pants, a velvet jacket for me to put on over my black and gold top and black pants, a picnic rug, real glass champagne flutes, smoked salmon, chicken, salad, cheese, strawberries and a bottle of bubbly. Amazingly, it is the first day that it hasn't rained for months, and although it isn't warm, I don't actually need the black throw I've bought for extra coverage. It serves to hide our French supermarket bag into which we've packed the picnic goodies. The uncertainty in the weather means that most of the audience that night choose to eat indoors, so we have our choice of prime picnic spots. And not only is the performance wonderful, but we have three empty seats in front of our seats in the fifth row of the stalls. It was Peter's first experience of Glyndebourne, so I am delighted that everything goes so well, especially the weather.
During our stay in Devon we manage a series of events, first of which is an art show and reading of poetry, all inspired by the local scenery. We later visit some of the beaches and walk on Dartmoor to see the places captured in words and paint. We have an amazing eight days of unbroken fine weather at this stage of our trip and it is so warm I even brave the sea for a swim. A "Round Robin" trip from Dartmouth to Totnes and back by ferry, steam train, bus and ferry is a highlight, as is watching our host perform as one of a bell-ringing team in the local parish church. But the best day for me is my birthday, when my step-daughter takes me sailing on her yacht in Salcombe, with our respective husbands, and we finish the day with a splendid dinner in an excellent local restaurant.
In our travels to Devon and from there to Yorkshire, we visit five of England's wonderful cathedrals: Salisbury on the way there, and Glastonbury (ruined), Tewkesbury, Ely and Lincoln on our way north. In Salisbury our visit coincides with a special evensong and we stay to enjoy that, but as a result we miss the opportunity to see the copy of Magna Carta held there, which particularly disappoints Peter. However we discover that there is an even older one at Lincoln so are able to go and gaze reverently at that one instead. Lincoln also holds an equally ancient and significant document called the Charter of the Forest, so we get two for the price of one. We also manage to tick off another one of the things I've always wanted to do by stopping in Stratford to see a Shakespeare performance there. It is a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, set in India and with an all-Indian cast (English Indians). The transposition works beautifully, even with Bollywood-style dancing. We love it, and the walk along the Avon to and from our B&B, rain-free despite heavy showers during the afternoon.
Our stay in Goldsborough in Yorkshire is planned to be a quiet wind-down to ready us for the transition home, with a bit of pottering around nearby North Yorkshire areas, and so it is. But we do have one event when our hostess throws a "Welcome the Aussies" party in the middle of our stay. Her lovely garden is decorated with Aussie flags and bunting, and an assortment of small stuffed marsupials. The guests have been asked to dress up and there are a plethora of hats with corks, one with stelvin seals instead, the odd boomerang, a whingeing pom hat, a Ned Kelly outfit with "Winner of the Gold Medal for Shooting, 1880" stuck on the back of his "helmet", an inverted gold paper shopping bag with appropriately placed slits. They are a great crowd and have put much effort into the outfits. Much wine is drunk and a good time had by all. And so we finish a wonderful three month trip with a host of memories.

La Baule

La Baule is what Surfers Paradise might look like if it had been developed 50 years earlier by people with taste and discernment. A very wide, very long, south-facing beach curves between two headlands. Two hundred years ago, there was just a line of sand dunes separating the Atlantic and a salt swamp, just like Queensland, except that the swampy bit, the Marais Salant, has been turned into salt pans and farmed for salt for centuries. Early in the nineteenth century, the unstable dunes finally buried most of the tiny fishing village of Escoublac, and a forest of pines was then planted to stabilise the dunes. In 1879 a train line was built. The journey from Paris took just 7 hours - enterprising developers decided this was the place for a resort. The first built dozens of villas with their own particular style, part traditional Breton, part mock medieval, with an overlay of Art Deco. As with much French architecture, the consistency of style makes the whole development singularly attractive. The second developer added grand hotels and a Casino in the 1920s and had the railway moved from the beach to the back of the town. Some time in the 1940s or 1950s La Baule became so popular that a string of apartment buildings was built all along the beach front. It sounds appalling, but because there is a height limit of about 5 stories and the architecture is again consistent, it is actually OK, although I bet the owners of the villas who lost their view of the beach were upset at the time.
The quality of the cars driving around in La Baule indicates that this is still predominantly a playground for the wealthy, but most people living there don't drive at all. Streets were laid out before the advent of the automobile, so they are narrow and now part of a complex one-way system. As it is fairly flat, everyone walks or rides bikes. Our host, whom I met a year ago in Melbourne, inherited an old villa from his parents, but his normal residence is an apartment in the heart of Paris. He doesn't own a car, comes to La Baule by train (now a three hour journey), and then uses the bikes he keeps in his garage, and which we now use to go places that are too far to walk. His villa Colibri is near the Avenue President Charles de Gaulle, the main shopping and restaurant strip set at right angles to the road that runs along the beachfront, and is also within easy walking distance of the market, so most of our exploring is done on foot. The market is wonderful, and open every day, so we alternate between eating out and eating at the villa. Our host comes for the weekend to get us set up and show us the way to the market and favourite shops, then returns to Paris, leaving us to the care of his friends who live in one of the beachfront apartment buildings. They provide advice on where to go, so we bicycle to the Breton fishing villages of Le Pouliguen and Batz-sur-Mer, looking at the Marais Salant en route, drive to more villages: Le Croisic and La Turballe, and to the mediaeval walled town of Guerande. We also pursue our canal exploration and research, driving to Redon where a canal intersects a river via a couple of locks, then to Messac to look at second-hand boats.
For the first time on our holiday, the weather is less than perfect. After looking as though it was improving for the first two days, it deteriorates into cool and showery, with one day of non-stop rain. With no beach weather, even I am not tempted to swim, and nor are the rest of the La Baule inhabitants, although there are plenty of people sailing and windsurfing on the bay. We are very pleased that our new found friends invite us to their apartment on the night of Bastille Day, as we can watch the absolutely splendid display of fireworks, let off from barges moored off-shore, without having to freeze sitting on the beach. At least it doesn't rain during the evening, and there is a big crowd on the beach despite the weather.
On the less clement days, we do a bit of gardening and maintenance on the house (which is a bit neglected as our host has a very demanding job and can only rarely find time to visit). After a week we feel quite part of the community of La Baule, especially as we have been so well looked after and made so welcome by his friends. It is high on the list of places to come back to next time, maybe when we have fulfilled our canal barge dream and are travelling the rivers and canals of Brittany.

14 July 2012

Little England

We are warned by an English journalist propping up the bar of our hotel in Castres that Eymet in the Dordogne is full of expats, but we don't imagine that they will be quite so thick on the ground as they are. My friends from England have bought a house in Queyssel about 15 minutes drive from Eymet, and turned half of it into a gite which they let in the season, and in which we stay for a few days. Eymet has a night market on Tuesdays and a morning market on Thursdays. We go to both and as we walk around there are people speaking English on all sides. For some reason this part of France is in area much favoured by Poms escaping from the weather or the general malaise of the English middle classes, and it is also a favourite holiday destination for those who haven't yet made a permanent move. The presence of the English hasn't yet totally corrupted the local eating habits, but I am amused by a young English girl going into raptures over takeaway moules marinieres and frites: they were good but not that good, unless you've been eating hamburgers and fish and chips all your life. We find all this a bit disappointing - not much point in going to France to be surrounded by Brits. One compensation is that the market bookstalls are run by Poms selling English books, so we can restock our light reading for less than the purchase price of new books for our Kindle.
The gite itself is in a minuscule village, very quiet and with all mod cons, allowing us to catch up with our laundry, laze in the pool, watch some television. We spend our days visiting the local bastide towns, very attractive and generally with at least as many French as English people in the streets. We drive to Castelmoron on the (lower) Lot one day to look at the harbour there and the canal boats therein, gathering more useful information for our current dream of buying one in a year or two. In the evenings we generally eat with our host to keep him company as his wife is in hospital in Bordeaux, having exploratory surgery which results in her being operated on for a tumour, so he is understandably anxious and in some need of company. It is also disappointing for me as I was looking forward to seeing her again. We hope that early detection will enable her to make a complete recovery.
From Queyssel we drive north east, back roads the first day to see a bit more of the Dordogne, stay overnight in Saintes, then take autoroutes and routes nationales to La Baule. As we go north the towns are more industrial, less picturesque and charming, and we do see some very mundane suburban architecture, although it is just boring, rather than seriously ugly. As usual, it rains as we make our transit from the warmth of southern France to La Baule on the Atlantic coast. La Baule is quite different from any of the other parts of France visited so far - more in the next post.

13 July 2012

Afloat in France

We spend two of our five weeks in France afloat, in a hired canal barge on the river Lot. Babou Marine is in Cahors, which is about one third of the way along the navigable part of the haut Lot. We begin by going downstream to Luzech, then return to Cahors, continue upstream to Cenevierves, then back to Cahors. All but one of the twenty odd locks on this stretch of the Lot are manual, so we get plenty of exercise, going through each twice, once in each direction. Occasionally we are helped by young boys in their teens, very happy to work the lock for us, and we are sufficiently glad of the assistance to give them a few Euros for their trouble. An advantage of the manual locks is that that you can go through them at any time during daylight. On our last canal trip we had enforced breaks in the middle of the day because the locks shut then so that the eclusier/eclusieuse could go to lunch, and you had to be through your last lock by 8pm. On this trip we enjoy being able to move in our own time.

The little 8m Renaud barge is old, tiny, but perfectly adequate. The bunk is a bit short, but there are two small single bunks which are convenient spots for backpacks, clothes etc, a head, a shower, a hanging cupboard, then a long galley beside a table with banquettes on 3 sides. Has the advantage that you can put dishes in the sink without getting up from the table. The driving position backs on to the forward banquette with no seat so we steer standing. Small area in the bow with just enough room for a couple of chairs and a table, although the latter lives on the roof with the hired bicycles and we never bother to get it down. After a couple of days aboard we buy two mugs to add to the kitchen equipment as its crockery includes vast cups that are really large bowls or demitasses, nothing in between. Morning tea in a demitasse doesn't really work, nor does a huge bowl with a teacup full of liquid in the bottom.

As seems to be the pattern for our trip, we have rain the first day, then the weather becomes steadily hotter. I swim in the river almost every day, sometimes late in the evening when it is still warm. The Lot is a lovely river to cruise. Over the millenia it has cut its way through a limestone plateau. Its twisting course now has river flats on one side, limestone cliffs on the other, with the two features alternating as the river bends, cliffs on the outside of the bends, flats on the inside. Some of the villages are on the flats, some are on top of the cliffs or built into them. Many of the villages and towns date back to the medieval age, some like Cahors go back to Roman times. Chateaux appear here and there, usually high on a cliff.

Another feature of this river we particularly like is "nature" stops. Most villages have a small jetty or pontoon, marked with a picture of a blue bollard, which is where you can tie up. Although there aren't that many other boats travelling on the Lot, there are sufficiently few villages with mooring points that one is generally sharing the mooring. The nature stops are marked with a green version of the bollard sign attached to a tree, and you simply pull in alongside the bank and tie off to said tree. And there is only room for one boat, so you have a lovely quiet spot all to yourself (and the mosquitoes). We anchor at nature moorings for eight out of fourteen nights, spend four on town jetties and two at the marina in Cahors. As the weather gets hotter, we also use nature moorings as a cool place to eat lunch and have a rest and a swim in the middle of the day.

There are some extra challenges in travelling on a river, rather than a canal. One is the current, the other snags. Locks allow you to bypass weirs, and as you exit or enter the lock on the downstream side you are steering through the eddies created by the water pouring over the weir, making it difficult to keep the boat on course, especially as you try to enter the lock. You have to watch for bits of wood floating in the river, some of which are quite large, whole trees, and these tend to get into the locks and congregate there, sometimes jamming behind the lock gates as you open them. We became expert in moving the gates back and forth to swish them out. With some skilful rope work and the assistance of other boaters we moved one large tree ashore from the entrance outside one lock, and on another occasion were grateful for the extra long boat hook of one of the commercial party boats to assist in major log removal.

Highlights of our trip on the Lot are some interesting engineering: a train track on a long arched platform on the side of the deep gorge before it goes into a tunnel, riverside roads cut out of the cliff and diving through tunnels, small hydro power stations beside several of the weirs; medieval towns and villages like Luzech, Cahors, and St Cirq Lapopie, recently voted prettiest village in France; the prehistoric cave paintings and 25,000 year old footprints in the grotte at Pech Merle; a tour of the Chateau of Cenevierves given by its sprightly octagenarian owner; watching p├ętanque games in Luzech; buying provisions at the huge market in Cahors, where you can buy everything from earrings to pigs trotters, and which even had a very French accordion player and a jazz trio; several outstanding meals at restaurants; cycling to villages away from the river and up one of the tributaries; seeing the houses built into the cliffs at Toulzanie, and the towpath cut into the cliff at Ganil; seeing the amazing horloge by Zachariou in Cahors, the ultimate Heath Robinson clock which we watch mesmerised as the ball bearings roll back and forth.

Peter is now completely bitten by the canal boat bug, and we have started doing research in earnest with the idea of buying one in a year or two.

01 July 2012

Why we like France: part 1

Civilised. Everyone greets everyone as you pass. Bon jour as you go into a shop/cafe, Au 'voir as you leave. People are generally gracious about giving way, both in cars and on foot, in narrow streets and lanes. They listen patiently to bad ungrammatical French, and most have better English than our French. Waiters, waitresses, even the check out operators in supermarkets are friendly and helpful.

Architecture. At least in the areas where we have been there is no ugly suburban architecture, or urban sprawl. New French houses look just like their older counterparts, which can be as old as thirteenth century. Old houses are either stone or render, new ones rendered (probably brick underneath). Roofs are red tile or grey slate. It makes the towns and villages a bit monochrome, but at least your sensibilities aren't jarred by stores painted bright purple, pink or aqua, or by modern buildings with no symmetry and hitler-salute excrescences. The larger towns do have industrial areas, ZI Zone Industrielle or ZAC, Zone Activities Commerciales. The former contain factories making stuff, the latter large retailers selling stuff, the equivalent of Bunnings, or Harvey Norman, etc. But they are discreetly placed on the outskirts of the cities and towns, and usually in bland inoffensive buildings,

Absence of unnecessary competition. There is never more than one of anything, not like Australia where there are rival petrol stations or supermarkets on opposite corners. If it has anything at all, a village has one epicerie, one boulangerie-patisserie, one bar-tabac.

Minimal signage of all kinds. Locks have deep drops on either side of the lock walls and machinery you can trip over. But there are no railings, no protective covers, no warning signs (except on one very deep lock, a small picture of a falling cat). Tie up points for the boat are marked with a P or with a small picture of a bollard with rope attached. Villages may have a small sign for the bakery or grocery, but that's it. No neon, no Coca Cola ads. There are name signs at either end of every village which are slow down signs by default. When you are on an open road, you are supposed to know what the speed limit is, there aren't constant signs. It's simple: ordinary roads 90 kph, divided roads 110 kph, motorways 130kph in fine weather, 110kph in the wet. In any town or village, 50kph, occasionally there are 30kph signs if the streets are narrow. Parking signs are also minimal, usually just indicating that you can or you can't park, with small additional signs when you need to take a ticket. Most intersection control is via roundabout, again with minimal signage. Traffic lights are so discreet compared with Australia that you have to watch carefully to make sure you don't miss them (no overhead gantries). But it all just works, to the extent that we rarely had problems knowing what we could and coudn't do in the car, or in finding things we were looking for. Our only gripe is that there are no distances on signposts to villages or places of interest. Doesn't matter so much when you are driving but when walking or biking it would be nice to know if a restaurant is 0.2km down the road or 2.0km.

Cycling is a national sport. At first we were nervous cycling on busy roads with no verges, but rapidly realised that the French motorist accepts cyclists as normal, and simply waits behind you at cyclist speed (in our case, pretty slow), until there is room to pull out and overtake. Would that Australian drivers were that considerate.

France is beautiful. They don't call it La Belle France for nothing. (Thinks: does anyone talk about Die Schone Deutschland? Or even La Bella Italia). France finds it easy being green. Particularly if you are looking at it from the middle of a river, France is just so green, and so many shades of green. The scenery here is quite grand with cliffs cut out by the river, but also has typical rural views of wheat fields, orchards, vineyards. All the villages are picturesque to some degree, some stunningly so. There are summer flowers everywhere, roses, begonias, petunias, geraniums, breaking up the greys and fawns of the stone and render on the houses. Taking photos almost seems a waste of time: if it's rural fields and villages Cezanne did it better, and if it's any scene with water in it, then you're competing with Monet and Manet.

The bells, the bells. Every village has a mairie, with a clock tower, and at least one church. Church bells ring every now and then, just a single bell note repeated, not changes as in England, and the town clocks strike the hour and half hour. When they strike the hour, they do it twice, with a short pause between. We have yet to find out why. My theory is that it is just one more example of French practicality, they strike twice in case you lost count the first time round and are now unsure whether it is (say) nine or ten.

Food & wine. Requires a post all of its own. Coming soon.

21 June 2012

La Maison en face du Canal, Millepetit, Languedoc

When the Canal du Midi was built in the seventeenth century, its path lay through the estate of one Lord de Mille. There were two chateaux on the estate, one the main residence and centre for all of the farming (viticulture), and one further up the valley which was used as a summer residence for entertaining. The latter lay right across the line of the canal, so Lord De Mille was paid a handsome compensation, and he rebuilt the summer chateaux as a somewhat smaller edifice facing the new canal. The winemaking was so lucrative that he extended the farming activities and added a huge barn a farmhouse, stables and cottages for workers around the rebuilt chateaux. The property remained in the family for another three centuries, apart from a a short period during WW2, when it was commandeered by the German army. About 25 years ago, the youngest son of the family took charge of the estate and gambled most of it away. Napoleonic law stopped the banks from taking it all, so the family retained the original chateau (Millegrand, still a serious winery), but the rest of the property was broken up and sold, including the second chateaux and accompanying buildings, known as Millepetit. Over time the various parcels changed hands again, and now most of the land is owned by a farmer who has replaced the vines with other horticulture, grain crops, fruit and vegetables. The chateaux is the property of an elderly lady and family, the farmhouse recently bought by a couple: Andrew, from Yorkshire, and Cleide from Brazil. They have split it into a house and two studio apartments. Because they are minding someone else's house for several months, they are letting the house as well as the apartments, and that is where we stay. We enjoy having all mod cons for a week, particularly washing machine and dishwasher. We have wifi, and even watch some television (British).

Our week at the house at Millepetit follows a familiar pattern for vacances en France. We generally eat out at lunchtime, eat at the house in the evening. Each day we drive around, visiting the towns and villages in the area. We travel west to Trebes, where we watch canal boats passing through a three part lock and visit the very old and attractive church, further west to Carcassonne where we spend four hours exploring La Cite. The most memorable moment is hearing the Russian choir Doros singing in the church (4 voices only, amazing sound).
We go east along the canal to the Port of Homps, where we meet an Aussie from Hamiltaon Island living aboard a barge who gives us useful information about moving barges from place to place, then northeast to Minerve, a little medieval village in an amazing setting on a promontory encircled by a deep and wide gorge. It was besieged in the Cathar era bynSimon de Montfort senior, who broke the siege by a direct hit on the only well from a catapult erected on the other side of the gorge.
We travel south via some challenging twisty mountain roads to Lagrasse one day, and to Rennes-le-Chateau and Rennes-les-Bains another. The former is the site of the church where the young priest became mysteriously suddenly wealthy, did up the church in extravagant style and built himself a grand house. The source of his wealth remains a mystery, giving rise to all kinds of legends and books including the Holy Blood, Holy Grail story and the Da Vinci Code. After reading all the information in the museum my theory is that he was a grave robber who fenced whatever treasure he found via his brother (also a priest), and that was why he wouldn't reveal the source. We think the church is vastly overdecorated, but the house the priest built later and especially the library tower, conservatory and walk in between are lovely, and the views are spectacular, as they are during much of our driving.
Our last drive is east to Beziers where we meet up with another Aussie couple living aboard a canal barge. They have moved out of a smaller boat which is now for sale and we will go and look at it when we are in Bergerac. We walk along the Canal du Midi to the famous seven lock staircase, arriving just in time to miss the last boat of the day going through, but it is still worth seeing, even if not actually operating.

We seem to have a wet day at the start of each new phase of our trip, then it gets progressively warmer. We end our stay in Millepetit with a lovely meal sitting outside on the edge of the canal, on a glorious calm, warm evening, finishing with a walk along the towpath and across the little bridge to look back on our temporary home.

14 June 2012

In transit: Greece to France via Turkey

Our plan is to spend our last morning in Kos sightseeing at the Asklepieion (ancient hospital), then meet our friend Dionissis who is coming in on the ferry from Rhodos that morning. But by the time we've checked out of the boat, parked our bags, had a reviving OJ, walked into the main harbour looking for the terminus for the tourist train to the Asklepieion, only to find it half way back to the marina, Dionissis has arrived, so we meet up with him and go to have lunch together. Dionissis gives us both a lift to his favourite restaurant on the back of his motorbike (serially rather than together), so we both have the fun of speeding through the streets of Kos on a bike with Tassie plates.
Spend some time with Dionissis after lunch, having a look at his boat Hector, then it is time to retrieve our luggage and start our transit to France.
The transit involves multiple steps, taxi from the marina to the ferry terminal, ferry from Kos to Bodrum, taxi to the hotel, night in hotel, taxi to airport, 6am flight to Istanbul, pause in Istanbul, flight to Toulouse, where we will pick up our Eurolease car and commence the French leg of our holidays. We are dreading it somewhat, as complex trips can be traumatic, especially if something doesn't go to plan. But it is in fact pretty smooth, with a number of highlights and only a few lowlights. Getting out of Greece is harder than it needs to be, waiting for ages for the attention of the Kos Marina staff to get a taxi ordered, and ridiculous bureaucratic processes to catch the ferry (see last blog). In Turkey our taxi gets caught in a major traffic snarl, but the driver manages to edge through to our turn off and find the hotel we booked for our overnight stay.
We selected the hotel from a website which, we thought, had told us that the hotel was close to the airport. Discover when we get there that we are only on the outskirts of Bodrum and still 40km from the airport. But the very helpful staff offer to drive us to the airport so we don't have to worry about whether a taxi will arrive on time (or at all), and also provide a meal at the hotel so we are able to get to bed early and diminish the pain of having to get up at 4am.
The long drive to the airport goes without a hitch and we enjoy two more very pleasant flights with Turkish Airlines, with a pleasant interlude in their Business Class lounge in Istanbul, one of the best lounges we've ever experienced. Excellent food and time to doze on both flights, so we arrive quite fresh and ready to tackle France.
Phone up the Eurolease depot who pick us up, drive us the short trip to their depot, ask us to sign a couple of pieces of paper, then hand over the keys to our brand new chocolate coloured Renault Modus. As usual I do the driving when we first start, and after a couple of circuits of the car park, we are off. We follow the Eurolease directions to the nearest fuel station, fill up the car, then are guided by the trusty satnav systems on our phones around the ring road that skirts Toulouse, down the motorway to Carcassonne where we exit and drive through Trebes, then on to Millepetit, which isn't on the GPS, but which we locate by trial and error on the side lanes near the Canal du Midi. We meet the owners of the house we're staying in, get settled in, drive back to Trebes for a meal and then it's time to collapse into bed, knowing that we will wake to the sight out our bedroom window of boats going past on the canal.

13 June 2012

Greece versus Turkey and some green stuff

After about two weeks in each country we found it interesting to contrast the two. Comparisons maybe somewhat skewed by the fact that we spent our time in Turkey in its largest city, but our time Greece in its most far flung islands, and generally in the less-visited harbours on those islands.

Turkey seems full of energy, a country on its way up, determined to prove itself. The population seems much younger and full of vigour, the Greeks are older and more laid back. Young Turkish men all have their hair neatly cut, perhaps because they've been in the army. In Greece we saw pony tails on men. In Turkey, no tattoos, some in Greece although not as prevalent as they seem to be becoming back home. Ancient ruins in Turkey seem to be better cared for and have more explanatory material. There was generally an entry fee, whereas there were sites in Greece you could wander for free, but we always felt we were getting our money's worth in Turkey. Food and diet are closely related, although we found rather more variety in Greek food.

A very noticeable difference is in the amount of bureaucracy. In Turkey this seems to be minimal and efficient. Provided you have your €15 in cash handy, it takes about 30 seconds to get your entry visa. Queues were long for some of the popular sights but were handled efficiently. In Greece we were given a thick folder of ship's papers for the yacht, full of official forms of all sorts. The day we left we wanted to leave our bags at the Marina Office after checking off the boat. It required the entry of a transaction into a computer system and the printing of an A4 sheet so that they could charge us €3.85 for the use of the left luggage room.

The biggest contrast was the ferry crossing between Kos and Bodrum, which is also a border crossing. Processing of our booking voucher on the Turkish side was quick and efficient, and they had a pleasant lounge area and duty free shop once you'd gone through passport control and security. In contrast on the Greek side, there were six ticket offices outside the terminal. Security guard sent me out to exchange my ticket voucher for boarding passes. Which one? Any one. Headed for the first, but was beckoned over by the second (first was already serving someone). She looked at voucher, sent me to first office. Looked at voucher, sent me to fourth office. Voucher finally accepted, passports checked, but then I was asked for €6 port tax, €3 each. Offered €20. Did I have change? No I didn't (Peter did, but he was back in the terminal, minding the bags and wondering what on earth I was doing). Bloke takes the €20 note, strolls slowly over to the snack bar in the terminal, strolls slowly back with change and I finally complete the transaction. Once through security and passport control we sit on one of the few seats on the quayside, engulfed in diesel fumes from another ferry taking about 10 minutes to depart. If the Greek economy is going to recover they need to revolutionise their systems.

Our tour guide gave us some interesting information about the Turkish economy. Wages are low, so most Turks share a cheap apartment. But the Turkish government provides cheap credit to help people buy apartments, and other things from cars and cows to solar hot water systems. As a result there is solar hot water and sometimes solar power everywhere in Turkey, despite the fact that they can only use it for 9 months of the year (they have to drain the hot water systems in winter as it can freeze overnight). We also saw a number of wind farms as we travelled. Greece also has wind farms, but less than half the houses have solar hot water, nothing like as common as in Turkey. All light globes in Turkey seem to be low energy, and we think it is the same in Greece, but we spent less time inside buildings.

On the subject of being green, both countries have some degree of rubbish separation and recycling, but the green bag has not yet arrived. You get a plastic bag with every purchase, however small. I have done my best to recycle them myself as rubbish bags. Another interesting feature of the coastal towns in both countries are signs in all the loos requesting that you don't put used loo paper into the bowl, but instead into a bin. Hard to change lifetime habits (found myself fishing soggy paper out a few times), but a good idea as I think the sewage treatment may be fairly minimal.

Would I want to live in either country? If I wanted a quiet place to write a novel, I'd stay in a studio apartment in a small village on a Greek island, Maltezana on Astypalaia, say. But if I was going to live and work in a real job, I'd choose Turkey, more energy, less bureaucracy.

09 June 2012

Sailing in Greece Part 2

Our first stop in week two of our sailing holiday in Greece is Livadhia on Tilos, reached after a long motor trip from Syrna (very little wind). It is different again from the islands we have already visited, more of a resort town. There are groups of umbrellas all along the beach in front of the various hotels, studio apartments and tavernas. There are signs of sophistication like an ATM, the first we've seen since we left Kos, and a postbox. There are a number of mini markets, and little boutiques selling items for the tourists to buy, like jewellery, beach wear, hand made soaps, etc in interesting back streets up behind the harbour. We ate a wonderful meal for €35, two vege starters which we shared then roast goat with chick peas. And as usual there was complimentary cake, which you feel you should eat and it's delicious anyway. So once more we stagger back to the dinghy, return to the boat and fall down exhausted by a surfeit of sun, wind, food and drink.
Finally the supposedly prevailing NW wind does actually prevail, and we have a good sail to Khalkhi, slightly marred by jamming the main in the in-mast furler, but there is enough wind to make good speed under headsail alone. Khalki augments its limited mooring space with a pontoon jetty in summer and we are whistled in by the harbour master, instructed to moor stern-to on the outside. After three attempts at getting holding, he gives up on us and we moor alongside. Next boat in, properly moored at right angles, contains a bunch of young public school Poms, friendly and interesting. One is sluicing down the deck of their boat with a bucket that has too short a line, so he loses hold of it on one dip into the water. He goes over the side hanging on to the gunwales, catches the bucket with his foot, heaves it back on deck, then pulls himself back on board over the scuppers, no mean feat. Watching amazed, we were joined by an older, moustachioed, very proper English chap who'd walked the length of the jetty to say to them, "Jolly good to see the flag flying chaps, but you're flying it upside down - would you mind reversing it, please!" whereupon they took down their very large Union Jack courtesy flag and put it back right way up. Unlike all the other harbourside towns, Khalkhi has stone houses with terracotta tiled roofs, and plastered houses painted all colours, yellow, pink, blue, lavender, olive, giving it a quite different character. It also has two tall towers, one a church, very different from the standard blue dome. The area along the harbour in front of the tavernas is also wide, rather than being just a narrow road, but seems to be pedestrian only, giving the place the feeling of an elongated plaza. About half way along there are primary school kids practising their Greek dancing, with tourists enjoying the music, taking pictures, and some of the locals (and tourists?) joining in towards the end. When they finish we eat at a restaurant specialising in Cretan dishes. We chat to the Cretan proprietor and learn enough Greek so that at least we can give and return greetings. The moon is full and the sight of it rising is stunningly beautiful. As we return to the boat a brass band (live? recorded?) strikes up with, of all things, "That's amore", followed by a couple more Italian numbers and finishing with the Mexican Hat Dance. Very strange choice. Khalkhi is a pedestrian town whose narrow passages don't permit even a motorbike, so it has a medieval feel.
Next morning we enjoy exploring the town and patronise the cafes again before heading off on a beam reach to Palon on Nisiros. We stop at Tilos again on the way, but only to break up the journey and don't go ashore. We need to get to Palon early in the day as there is nowhere to anchor, you have to do a Mediterranean stern-to moor in the harbour. But the wind is kind and there is plenty of room, and this time we berth without difficulty, with a bit of help from the guy on the next boat who takes our lines. In contrast to Khalkhi, Palon is full of vehicles, with four car/motorbike hire places in between the tavern on the harbour front, and tourists on rented motorscooters everywhere. We opt for the safer option of a very small car, and drive around the island, visiting the other harbour town Mandraki, then driving inland to the crater of a dormant volcano, then up to Nisia, a town perched high on a ridge with the sea on one side, the crater on the other. There is a parking area just outside the town, then you walk through passageways designed for people and goats. We eat in the village square, or more properly circle, a tiny space with a church, two tavernas and not much else clustered around a stone mosaic circle.
We explore Palon itself next morning, before heading out on our last leg from Nisiros to Kos and the marina. It is blowing hard for the first time, and once we get the sail set right we fly along at 6-7kt, reefing progressively as the wind rises to over 35kt. Inevitably once we round the end of Kos and head toward the marina we have the best part of an hour of motoring into a headwind, but there are windsurfers and kite surfers moving at amazing speeds to watch as we slog through the chop to the fuel jetty, where we come alongside easily with an on shore wind. Getting into the marina berth in the wind is trickier, but the pilot boat is there to assist with advice and a push at the critical moments, and we are finally safely berthed. We are here a day early so that we can see something of Kos before we leave Greece, and because we hope to catch up with a Greek friend from Tasmania, Dionissis. We've found his boat Hector on the hard stand here, but no sign of him yet.
We unwisely leave starting our exploration of Kos until about 11am next morning so much of it is done in the heat. Kos was razed by an earthquake in 1933 which gave archeologists the opportunity to start digging in the ruins. As a result Kos is a town of consistent modern and rather boring architecture wrapped around about seven archeological sites, one or two quite large. The only ancient monument that appears to have survived the earthquake is the castle built on the point by the knights of St John which is large and impressive, but is more ruined and less well cared for than Bodrum Castle. In the evening we drink our last gin and tonics aboard Astraea, go ashore for our last dinner in Greece. Tomorrow at 5pm we catch the ferry back to Bodrum, the start of our 24 hour transit to Millepetit in France.

04 June 2012

Sailing in Greece Part 1

We are half way through our two weeks sailing in Greece on our chartered Bavaria 39 yacht Astraea. We are enjoying the luxury of having two people on a six berth boat, we are using the spare cabins as a dressing room each and we each have our own head (bathroom). In-mast furling and roller reefing make her easy to sail, and we are gradually learning how to get a nice sail set with the unbattened main sail. As is the norm for cruising, the winds haven't always come from the right direction, or at sufficient strength to get us where we want to go in a day, so we have done more motor sailing than anything else, with one unpleasant afternoon of slogging into a chop under motor alone, and a couple of good 5-6kt sailing spells. The motor is low revving and quiet, so motor sailing is not tiring, and has the advantage that it keeps the batteries charged and the fridge cold. What it doesn't do is heat the hot water, and as we haven't yet stopped at a jetty with power, cold showers have been the order of the day, not really an issue in this climate. I have swum most days, and the water on board is as warm as the sea anyway.

Since leaving the busy Kos Marina, we have stayed at six islands, in harbours of varying character, but we've enjoyed them all.
Xerokambos on Leros was typical of a harbour depending on the passing cruise boats. There were two sets of free moorings set up by the two main tavernas ashore. We'd anchored before we worked this out, but that gave us freedom of choice of taverna. We made a good choice because not only did we have a large and excellent meal, but the taverna owner towed us back to the boat when we couldn't get the outboard to start (our problem, Peter had misfitted the safety switch in the dark.)
Grikou on Patmos had a sleepy holiday feel, a very pretty harbour with a bit of a beach and people sun baking, tavernas here and there. We dined on delicious fish at one, had coffee and cake next morning at another before moving on. The Dodecanese islands are very rugged and barren - it's like sailing round the Maatsuyker group in Tas but without the ocean swell, much warmer, and with not much chance of 70kt winds.
Our next stop was at Levitha small island with no houses, a single taverna. To our horror the narrow cove was already packed with charter yachts when we arrived, all moorings taken and a couple of boats at the end of the row anchored with lines ashore. It was so narrow that after going down the line of moorings we had to back out again. But there was another smaller inlet at the other end of the harbour, out of sight of the main part, which we anchored in and had all to ourselves. We had to eat aboard, but in the morning I was able to fulfill a long-held fantasy and skinny dip before breakfast.
After the solitude of Levitha, Katapola on Amorgos was all hustle and bustle. It has a quay with a ferry terminal and lots of charter yachts moored stern-to. We were too tired to try a Mediterranean moor, and after a few failed efforts found holding in a bay just along from the main port, where we were helped to put a line ashore by a Belgian live-aboard couple on a Beneteau. We spent two nights there, enjoying the day in between walking right round the harbour, stopping here and there for meals, drinks and to re-stock provisions at the various shops and supermarkets. Peter spent some time watching the day's new arrivals attempting their stern-to mooring: after watching them we are somewhat less nervous about it as we couldn't do a worse job. Amorgos was picture postcard Greece, full of typical architecture of whitewashed square houses, little steps winding up the hills, blue doors, window frames, shutters and domes of the churches, the blue and white punctuated by the vivid reds, pinks and yellows of geraniums, bouganvillea, hibiscus. The sweet resiny small of some unidentified plant, and peppermint gums here and there to make us feel at home. And of course, cats everywhere. One calico cat constantly importuned us over dinner, digging its claws into my leg to make sure I understood that it would like a share of my food, particularly when I was eating rabbit stifado.
Maltezana on Astapalaia was a mixture of fishing village, subsistence farming (goats and hens), and holiday venues ranging from large hotels to studio apartments, all of which appeared entirely unoccupied. We saw goats being brought ashore from a small fishing boat, probably being brought back from one of the more barren islands like Levitha or Syrna where they are left to graze. Everyone was very friendly, although their English was often limited, and we haven't even mastered good morning in Greek so just have to do our greetings in English and hope they understand. We were offered a share of a plate of fruit by some workmen, and one of the three cafes happily agreed to plug in my charger for my camera battery while we went off to see the ruin of a 5th century basilica, with mosaics, returning it to us when we stopped for coffee on the way back.
Ay Ioannis on Syrna was our Saturday night stop, and it must be one of the quietest Saturday nights ever spent. We knew it was going to be barren like Levitha, but feared the might be many other boats there ahead of us again. Instead we had the whole harbour (and presumably the whole island) to ourselves. We picked up the solitary mooring (used by fishermen sheltering from a blow), cooked aboard and watched the sun set and an almost full moon rising. Once again I was able to have my morning swim without bothering with bathers. Clear blue water, blue sky, what more could you want?

On tour in Turkey

We allowed about four days to go from Istanbul to Kos, where we were picking up our charter yacht. Plan A was to take a ferry across the Sea of Marmara, take a train to Izmir, bus to Selcuk, visit Ephesus, then bus to Bodrum and a ferry to Kos. Normally we plan and book all our own travel via the web, rarely resorting to travel agencies. But the information about trains in Turkey was somewhat confusing and the blog comments from other travellers contradictory, so we sought advice from local agents in Istanbul. The first seemed quite bemused that we should even be considering a train trip, and recommended against. When we got a similar reaction from the second agency, we abandoned Plan A and since the bloke was particularly helpful, agreed to let him plan and book our complete itinerary from Istanbul to Kos. The pluses were that we didn't have to make any further effort or worry about missing connections, or trail about in the heat with luggage trying to find the right bus stop or whatever. Instead we would be picked up from the hotel and one end and dropped at the ferry at the other, everything in between organised for us. And because we were to fly to Izmir we would have more time on the way and would be able to visit Pamukkale as well as Ephesus. The downside was that our visits to Ephesus and Pamukkale would be as part of a bus tour, working to a schedule.
The Grand Wonders agency who organised our activities around Selcuk were not quite as efficient as the agency in Istanbul. The days for the tours were swapped without telling us, so we weren't ready for the first day. Hotel pickups to take us to the bus and ferry station were late, causing minor panic as we were afraid of missing our connections. But the Nazar hotel we stayed in Selcuk was lovely, with excellent home cooked meals each night, and the tour guide, a retired English teacher, was most informative not only about the historic sites, but also about Turkish life in general.
We had enough free time in Selcuk to visit the Ephesus Museum (interesting) annd the ruin of the vast Byzantine church where St John is supposedly buried (impressive). From the rooftop dining area of our little hotel on our first night we saw and heard a noisy procession, which we were informed happens when young men are called up for national service - it is a send off from the town or village. At the meal we found ourselves in company with other Aussies. Interesting contrast: an American group and a Chinese couple picked at the Turkish food, but the Aussies, both we and the other group of six, ate everything with great enjoyment. Most noticeable was the beetroot salad, left by the others, eaten with enthusiasm by us. The other Australians came from Bairnsdale, so there was a bit of conversation about sailing on the Lakes.
Pamukkale is amazing, both to see the natural wonder of the of the limestone cascade down the valley that has been created over a period of thousands of years, but also to see the ruins of Heiropolis. It has a beautiful theatre in the process of a major restoration - currently you can only go into the upper half of the seating area, but the view from the back stalls was well worth the climb to get there. There are other ruins that we walked through but with only about 3.5 hours there we didn't have the time and/or energy to walk all the way to the north gate or visit the museum. A less attractive sight was masses of bare tourist flesh: because you can swim at Pamukkale many people were walking around in shorts or bathers, often not a pretty sight. One found oneself thinking that the Muslim customs of covering up have a lot going for them.
Our second day's tour was to Ephesus in the morning, then "Mary's House", the house where (supposedly) the Virgin Mary lived in her old age and died. Interesting coincidence (?) that Ephesus was formerly the centre of worship for important pagan goddesses, first Kybele, then Artemis. Finally we were to go to what's left of the Temple of Artemis, the Artemision, once one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I visited Ephesus in 1978, so was interested to see how much more had been excavated or restored. We found it still wonderful and even more impressive, but absolutely teeming with tourists. We had to keep watching for our guide and waiting while she gave us very interesting information, and were typically only given a short time to wander off on our own to look at things. If we ever come again we wouldn't take a tour, but would bring some lunch so that you could stay for a whole day and look at more things more slowly. I could have given Mary's House a miss altogether, ditto the leather factory that we visited between that and the Artemision, although the jackets were beautiful and the reversible ones that could be folded into a small bag quite astonishing. And the Artemision is also a bit disappointing because there is nothing left after the Brits who excavated it took all the good bits back to the British Museum. Our guide tells us that the locals call it the British ditch, now containing a couple of small ponds and families of geese. The solitary restored column has a storks' nest on the top, as do the bits of ancient aqueduct in various spots in Selcuk.When the tour ended we strolled around town and were introduced to the game of okey, played at every table in every cafe, a sort of number version of bananagrams, with a bit of rummy or poker thrown in. Would be very good for your mental arithmetic.
Selcuk has a country town feel, Bodrum is a resort with hundreds of hotels, and something that passes for a beach, strewn with pale poms sun baking. Other poms are walking the arcades of tourist shops in their socks and sandals. Our hotel was typical, with two pools and a poolside bar where they played head-banging music. We spent minimum time there, eating lunch and dinner out and exploring Bodrum. Main attraction for us was Bodrum Castle, which, as well as being an interesting medieval pile, also houses a wonderful underwater archeology museum, with collections of astonishing artefacts fished up from three shipwrecks, including one bronze age ship which contained objects which were already some 300 years old in 1300BC. Not only was all this fascinating, but one also got to see a rather splendid rooster and several peacocks, one of which obligingly did the whole tail raising bit. Although we were exhausted from climbing all over the castle we had trouble sleeping when we returned to the hotel as the bar stays open till midnight. At about 10:20 we called to complain about the volume of the music and they reluctantly turned it down. Not a hotel experience to remember. But that was the only sour note as we reflected on eleven great days in Turkey as we crossed to Greece on the Bodrum-Kos ferry.

31 May 2012

Impressions of Istanbul 3: from shopping to sights

On our first day we lunched at one of the many restaurants on the lower level of the Galata bridge, then crossed over to the other side where we found a street full of shops selling boat stuff. Here we made our first observation of two features peculiar to shops in Istanbul: extreme specialisation and clustering. Shops here sold just rope, or just paint, or just nuts and bolts. No equivalent of a chandlery selling everything, yet every shop in the street sold something related to boats. Later we found ourselves in other equally specialised areas: a street in which all the shops sold some kind of fasteners: several shops selling nothing but buttons, several more selling eyelets, one selling zips. A jewellery street with more than one shop selling nothing but gold bangles, not a ring, not a necklace. As our hotel room contained the world's smallest cupboard with but a single wire coathanger, we were on the hunt for some plastic hangers. We enquired in a couple of shops that sold plastic items, but without success. I told Peter that sooner or later we would find the shop that just sold coathangers, and we did, although it was a street stall rather than a shop. The ultimate in specialisation and clustering is the Spice Bazaar, which contains hundreds of shops that sell one of three things: spices, tea, or Turkish sweets and dried fruits. The smell is just wonderful. The other major shopping experience in Istanbul is the Grand Bazaar, with about 4000 shops selling Turkish ceramics, pashminas and scarves, leather goods, jewellery, and the ubiquitous Turkish carpets. Stunning to walk through and look at, but nothing we wanted to burden ourselves with for the remaining eleven weeks of our holiday. Our big purchase that day, apart from the coathangers, was a Turkish made cotton nightie for about $9. Last of the big spenders, me.

We may not have done the tourist thing by buying something at the Grand Bazaar, but we did go there and to pretty much all the Sights with a capital S: Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, etc. Most memorable and favourites include:
"Little Haghia Sophia", aka the church of SS Sergius and Bacchus. This little gem is contemporary with its big sister, but in better condition. Its beautiful proportions are slightly marred by the off-centre mihrab and correspondingly slanted prayer lines put in when it was converted into a mosque, which give it a slightly cockeyed look.
The library at Topkapi Palace, a small stand alone building with comfortable couch-lined recesses on three sides, entrance on the fourth side, with cupboards to hold the books in between. Like everything else from the Ottoman period the interior is clad in beautiful blue tiles. Despite the absence of books, it had that lovely restful feeling that good libraries have.
The Blue Mosque which wins the prize for biggest and best blue tile display. After it and the Harem at Topkapi even Peter who really likes blue as a colour for interior decoration felt that he had had enough, was perhaps "beyond blue".
Roman civil engineering of waterworks, notably the aqueduct of Valens, quite a bit of which still stands, including a section spanning the multi-lane Ataturk Boulevard, and the aqueduct's destination, the Basilica Cistern, a vast underwater cavern with supporting columns throughout, one of many city reservoirs. Down there it is cool, slightly drippy, with floodlights at the foot of each column bathing the whole place in an eerie glow. The water is quite shallow, but there are fish swimming about in it. We also saw men in waders wielding huge brooms to move the fine silt collecting on the floor of the basin.
The city walls, built by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius. These stretch from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn. Big chunks have been reconstructed, but quite a bit is still original. We found a place where you could climb up on to the wall, and from thence to one of the watchtowers via three flights of stairs. All three flights were scary, but the middle flight was straight up, about as steep as Nahani's companionway, but with no rail of any kind and with some of the stone steps broken away. But we made it with due care, and the view from the top of the tower was spectacular. Coming down the middle flight of steps was even hairier than going up, definitely requiring one to go down backwards, clinging to the steps with your hands, feeling for the broken steps with your feet before transferring weight, rather like rock climbing. We were very relieved when we were both safely down.
We spent a whole day at the Archeological Museum, which has an enormous and fascinating collection of antiquities from various archeological excavations in Turkey. In addition to the amazing content, it also has the attraction of not being on the standard tourist bus and cruise liner itinerary, so no queuing to get in and it was comparatively empty. It was also cheap, a mere 10TL compared to 25TL for the palace and Haghia Sophia. We didn't even mind having to pay the entrance fee twice as there is no functioning museum cafe so we had to go out for lunch and come in again. The story of the key player in the establishment of the collection is as interesting as the heritage he has left. He was a pub serv who found himself in charge of the old museum when it was a "messy pile". He seems to have then single-handedly organised the existing collection properly, got new buildings built, organised excavations to add to the collection, and had a law passed forbidding the removal of historic items found in Turkey, stopping the wholesale pillaging of historic sites that had preceded this.
Our last treat was a visit to the Pera Palace Hotel. Built especially for the travellers on the Orient Express, it still contains the sedan chair used to carry passengers from the station, and one of the first lifts installed in a hotel. After enjoying tea, coffee and a delicious muffin served in fine bone china with real silver in the patisserie, we used a trip to the loos to look into the lounge, dining room, bar and the appropriately named Agatha's restaurant, and soak up more of the 1920s atmosphere.
All in all we loved Istanbul, even if our feet and knees suffered from all the walking and stair climbing (four flights every day in our hotel).

27 May 2012

Impressions of Istanbul 2: from cars to carpets and cats

We think locals must be discouraged from bringing vehicles into the old part of the city, as most of those we saw were minibuses or delivery vans. There are some "otoparks" with private cars in them, but you could walk in the side streets for much of the time without danger of being run down. Locals tell you the traffic is mad, but we thought that it was less stressful than (say) Rome or Paris. And they seem to have banned motorbikes and scooters from the city, removing another major hazard for the unwary pedestrian crossing the road looking the wrong way. The only difficulty is getting across major roads, especially if they are multilane. Traffic lights are few and far between, and pedestrian crossings seem to serve no purpose, except perhaps to give your grieving relatives the right to sue after you've been run down on one. Drivers certainly don't stop, even if you are half way across. A driver who did stop for us was honked at by the cars behind. They haven't banned horns here yet so everyone toots every other vehicle that might possibly obstruct them, and they honk continuously in traffic jams to give themselves something to do.
The natives are very friendly and helpful, sometimes almost too much so. You get into a conversation with someone who asks where you are from and then tells you he has a cousin/brother/uncle in Australia, but then you discover that he wants to sell you something, usually a Turkish carpet. There are carpet shops everywhere, and many of the carpets are so beautiful you want to stop and look, especially at the silk ones. But if you do, you then have to deal with very persistent salesmen who want you to come in to the shop and look at more. We found a defence against their persistence - we tell them we live on a boat. Even then they are likely to tell us that they have some very small rugs, but by then it is a bit of a game and we can usually get away without having to be rude. We did get taken in by a very friendly and helpful shoeshine man when we were just off the plane, lugging our bags from the tram stop in search of our hotel, a bit jetlgged and not yet really across the value of the Turkish lira relative to our dollar. We realised later we had the world's most expensively cleaned shoes, having paid about $50. No wonder he insisted on kissing our hands as we went on our way, we probably kept his entire Kurdish village for a month.
As tourists we always walk much more than we would at home, but in Istanbul you are just doing as the Istanbullus do. Not only do they obviously walk a lot (tram, bus and metro stops are a long way apart), but they carry heavy loads, usually in plastic garbage bags, or they push them on handcarts. Streets are very clean: cleaners pull trolleys with huge rubbish bags into which they put the litter they collect. Perhaps as a result of all this walking we've seen very few overweight locals: men in particular are largely slim and good-looking. Having watched a whole service in a mosque, it is not surprising that the men are fit-looking: I couldn't possibly get down on my knees and up again without putting a hand to the ground as they do, and they do it a couple of dozen times each time they go to pray. Another aid to keeping fit is the presence of sets of ruggedised, non-electronic exercise machines in public parks, alongside the kids play area with the usual swings and slides. One image that I wasn't quick enough to capture on camera, but which stays in the mind nevertheless, is of a Muslim woman in headscarf and overcoat working away on the walking machine.
The other natives you see in the streets everywhere are cats. Cats prowl around the outdoor restaurants, sleep on ancient monuments, in pot plants, on carpets outside the carpet shops. Our Ephesus guide told us that the Turks rarely own cats, but like them. So the cats live on the streets, but are fed and and to some extent looked after by people in the area. It seems neither sex is neutered, so mother cats and kittens were a common sight. As we were heading out to look for places to eat on our second evening, we saw a dog being chased by a very aggressive cat, a mother protecting her five kittens, for whom home was a rug in the window of a carpet shop. We immediately decided to eat at the Aloran restaurant next door where we could watch the kittens feed and play and mother make the occasional foray back into the street to see off another dog or cat. She was unusual in that she was owned by the carpet shop man, who told us he had brought her with him from his home town in Van, in the Kurdish far west of Turkey.
Aloran proved to be a good restaurant and very reasonably priced, so we ate there each evening. Menus don't vary much from restaurant to restaurant, but we really enjoyed all the dishes we tried. Turkey would be a vegetarian's paradise because so many of the tastiest dishes are an interesting presentation of vegetables: spinach, peppers, potatoes, seaweed, eggplant, tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, and salads. The last are especially delicious because they put liberal amounts of fresh herbs in, parsley, dill and lots of mint. At the end of our week we were best friends with all the waiters and they gave me a Turkish "eye" charm as a thankyou because I put a favourable report up on TripAdvisor.

Impressions of Istanbul 1: from boats to burkas and buses

For us, the first and lasting impression of Istanbul is of a city on the water, a busy port with hundreds of ships lying at anchor in the Sea of Marmara on the south side an dozens of ferries flying back and forth across the Golden Horn on the north side. There are lots of small and large fishing boats in the surrounding waters but no yachts - unsurprising when you learn that the Bosphorus has a constant 6kt current running out of the Black Sea. There are also people fishing everywhere, off the Galata bridge, off the rocks around Seraglio Point and any other accessible piece of shore line.
Non-boaties would be more likely to think of the skyline of mosque domes and minarets as the most characteristic image of the city. Our hotel was perfectly positioned between the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. From our room and balcony we looked out on the latter, from the breakfast room and roof garden we had a wonderful view of both, especially at night with all the lights of Istanbul behind.
Istanbul is definitely an Islamic city - our sleep was disturbed at about 4:30 each morning by the competing calls of the muezzin from the three mosques within earshot. More than half the women you see are wearing modest Muslim dress. Many of those wearing western dress are obvious tourists, so it is difficult to judge how many Turkish women are wearing western dress. Women wearing Muslim dress vary from a very few fully covered in black enveloping garment and long black headscarf. Even fewer wear a veil so that only their eyes show - more of those in black just have their headscarf pinned together to cover their mouths. The most common dress by far is a head scarf and overcoat, even on a warm day. Coats vary from shapeless and drab to smart and belted, in black or navy. Young women's coats often have some individuality, interesting fastenings, or some muted decoration on cuff or collar, or some other colour rather than black or blue, deep indigo seems to be popular. They are always at least knee length, usually calf or ankle, worn over pants or a long skirt, so no flesh shows anywhere. If the 1960s maxi comes back in, the coats will be high fashion. Headscarves are carefully worn so that no hair shows, but are pretty, patterned and coloured, even on the older women. I have some trouble reconciling these modest outfits with bridal outfitter shops full of "meringue" dresses, not just in white but every colour from pink to purple. There seem to be far too many of them just to be catering for the non-Muslim female population of marriageable age. Then I saw a young girl waiting on a tram stop wearing a kind of hybrid outfit: a long white overcoat that had about 10 layers of frills from the waist down - a Muslim meringue?
Speaking of tramstops, the public transport system in Istanbul is excellent. There is a metro and light rail using a common ticketing system of plastic tokens that allow you through a turnstile onto the station or tram stop. A token costs about a dollar, and pays for one trip. Other passengers offer assistance if you look as though you are lost or confused. There are also public ferries going back and forth across the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. They travel very fast and there are so many of them buzzing back and forth that you expect to see a collision at any moment. We went on the tourist ferry that goes all the way up the Bosphorus almost to the Black Sea, drops you off on the Asian side for lunch, then you reboard for the return trip. It was a nice break on our second day after we'd walked for hours on the first day. We used the light rail all the time, the metro on our first day to come in from the airport, and made two bus trips on our last day. Bus and ferry tickets are bought before boarding. Bus tickets are proximity cards which are charged up with whatever you request, and are probably rechargeable, but we didn't make enough trips to find out. It's all very simple and makes you wonder why we needed our myki mess.