Holiday 2012: Bozcaada

Well, after interesting and enjoyable experiences in Troy and Çanakkale, it was time for the pièce de résistance, the destination around which we planned the rest of the holiday: Bozcaada!

This lovely island is the third largest of Turkey’s islands and is located in the Aegean Sea not far from Çanakkale. As with ever place in Turkey, it has a long and diverse past. The island is mentioned in the Iliad by its Greek name Tenedos, and it is mentioned in the Aeneid as well, in the famous episode with the Trojan horse. The Greeks all left Troy in their ships and hid on the far side of Bozcaada so that the Trojans would think they’d left for good and sailed home. The wooden horse was left behind by the Greeks under the guise of being an offering to Poseidon, god of the sea, in order to gain safe passage home. Then, as just about everyone knows, the Trojans took the horse into their city and when everyone fell asleep, out popped the Greeks and that was the end for the Trojans!

The island came under the control of many different powers, including the Persian Empire, the Delian League, Alexander the Great, the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the Republic of Venice, and then eventually, the Ottoman Empire. Now of course, it is part of Turkey, although the island traditionally had a large Greek population which has dwindled over the years.

Nowadays, Bozcaada is a popular holiday getaway for people escaping from Istanbul for some sun and sea. Unlike other sun holiday locations we’ve visited in Turkey, the vast majority of visitors were Turks, and their weren’t many foreigners at all. We stayed in the main village in a lovely hotel just about 10 minutes walk from the ferry port.

Our hotel room was wonderful, with dark hardwood floors, simple decor and an amazing view of the village and the sea. We could see the island’s castle, and view of the whitewash of the houses, the red-tiled roofs and the sparkling blue sea was truly picturesque. Our hotel had a nice garden/courtyard area where we had our breakfast each morning with lovely fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, pastries, olives, about ten kinds of fruit jam, and a selection of the absolutely delicious Turkish cheeses! We enjoyed strolling around the cobbled streets of the village, ate some delicious seafood in a couple of the local restaurants and had tea under a giant leafy tree in the middle of the village. Bozcaada is famous for its wines, so we had a few glasses throughout our stay, although with Liam we didn’t sample quite as many as we might have otherwise!

One night we shared a wild sea bream in a restaurant right on the marina. When you arrive at the restaurant you can pick out the fish you want from a refrigerated display case. A student of Richie’s had recommended having sea bream on Bozcaada, but I wanted to try something new. However, when we asked about the prices, the fish I wanted to try was nearly 100TL, but the wild sea bream was ‘only’ 50TL. I had a change of heart and decided to trust the recommendation Richie had got! The fish was gorgeous, and I always love the simplicity of the way it’s prepared and served in Turkey; grilled whole, served just as it is with a bit of fresh rocket, rings of red onion and a slice of lemon. Nothing to distract from the delicious taste of the fish. It was great and worth the somewhat extravagant price!

Another night we had dinner at a meyhane in the village. We had a very light dinner of fried calamari and a dish with aubergine (eggplant) and garlic. Liam, as he so often does, attracted lots of attention from the staff. In particular, a girl working there, who I guess was probably college-age, had a great time holding and playing with Liam. She then called over one of her workmates, a guy maybe in his mid-twenties. Liam practically dove right at him and for whatever reason, took a real liking to him. The girl was a bit jealous! The guy did have a beard and curly hair, so maybe Liam liked him because of the similar features to Richie. Who knows!? The whims of babies are very mysterious indeed! On a side note, I have to say one thing I love about Turkish people is how much they love children. When we have Liam out and about EVERYONE talks to him and people in general are so kind and playful with babies and children. In shops and restaurants the staff will hold him and take him around the place to show everyone. People you pass on the street always smile and say maşallah to him. And everyone is also so accommodating, even when he makes a mess or cries, or whatever, you never feel unwelcome or like you’re annoying people. It’s such a nice place to be with a small child! But I digress…

So apart from eating and drinking good wine, trips to the beach were the other main events. From the village we took a dolmuş (a minibus) to the nearest beach, maybe a 15 minute drive away. On the way, the dolmuş would pick up people flagging it down from the side of the road, some locals going about their business and some holiday-goers staying in more out-of-the-way places. The roads on the island were pretty quiet, and we enjoyed zipping along past vineyards and fields of sunflowers. The beach itself was lovely as well, the sandy shore covered with beach chairs and sun umbrellas. The water was such a lovely blue, it was just gorgeous.

Now, I had been warned by many Turkish people that the waters of Bozcaada are very cold, but having swum in the Atlantic and Irish Sea, I wasn’t too concerned. It certainly was noticeably colder than the water nearby at Eceabat and other places I’ve swum in the Aegean Sea, but not too shocking for all that! What was remarkable was how still the water was. Hardly a ripple in the sea; you could just swim peacefully and watch the small fish swimming around your feet in the crystal clear water. Richie and I took turns swimming and playing with Liam. The sun was so bright and scorching we took extra care to make sure Liam was protected as much as possible and we didn’t stay at the beach too long just to be on the safe side. He had a great time playing in the sand though!

Finally, on our last evening on the island, we took a stroll around the quiet cobbled streets and enjoyed hearing the chatter of old ladies conversing with neighbours from their doorsteps, kids playing football or riding bikes in the narrow streets, the sounds of birds and general feeling of calm and warmth. The houses here are so lovely, just what you’d picture on a Greek island, white with blue shutters and red-tiled roofs, and a Greek church too, with its bell tower and cross in contrast to the now-normal sight of mosques and minarets.

So, to sum it all up, the place was gorgeous and I wish we could have stayed longer! And once again, Sea, thank you for the lovely time and the great memories. We shall meet again!

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Better late than never: Holiday 2012 visit to Troy…

Well, it’s been months since our holiday and I will finally make an attempt at writing about our visit to Troy. I have so much I want to say about Troy, and it’s a bit overwhelming, which is why I haven’t written anything for ages! I just don’t know where to begin.

We’d wanted to visit Troy for quite some time since it’s relatively close to Istanbul and also because Richie and I both really love the Iliad which is set in Troy. In fact, we named Liam after one of the heroes of the Iliad– Odysseus (the Latin version is Ulysses, which is Liam’s middle name)- so we thought that bringing Liam to Troy would be a ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts, so he can one day say he had actually been to Troy, even though he obviously won’t remember much from our journey there. Actually, just as we arrived at the site, Liam got very cranky, so I was walking around with him in his carrier to get him to sleep for a bit. He ended up sleeping through everything and, as it was extremely hot and sunny, my mission was basically to shelter him from the sun as much as possible and keep moving so he’d stay asleep rather than waking up and screaming his head off through the entire tour. Not the most relaxing experience for me, but I’m still glad I got to see Troy!

Anyway, I digress. So, rather than getting into all my deep thoughts on the Iliad, I’ll just give a bit of information about the historical city of Troy for  now, otherwise at the rate I’m going, it’ll be years before I get any more blog posts published!

The ancient city of Troy (also known as Ilios, which is where the title of the Iliad comes from) was located in north-eastern Anatolia in what is now Turkey, on the shore of the Dardanelles/Hellespont, a strait that connects the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to the Marmara Sea and ultimately to the Black Sea. This was an extremely important shipping route in ancient times, as it still is today. Troy was in a perfect position to control shipping through the strait which made it a strategically important and extremely wealthy city.

The city was built and rebuilt many times over centuries and suffered through earthquakes, wars, fires and the mass slaughter of its people at different points in time. The original city may have been founded around 3,000 BC, during the Bronze Age, and was inhabited by different peoples at different times, then eventually declined and disappeared during the Byzantine Era.

The area around Troy is a huge archaeological site, only a fraction of which has actually been excavated at this point. While the epic events of Homer’s Iliad may be entirely fiction, it was still interesting to see some of the ancient features of the site and imagine what it would have been like in its prime. The city was obviously inhabited for thousands of years, and layers of construction were built on top of each other over time, so what we saw were bits from many different eras of the city. Among the sights were the walls and an entrance to the city, beautiful ornate sections of what was a temple to Athena, numerous altars in a sacrificial area, a ramp leading to another entrance to the city, the foundations of a house, and a small amphitheatre. Perhaps just as impressive as the ruins we saw was the view from the hill where Troy once stood. Lovely fields of sunflowers, olive trees and corn stretch for miles around and you can also see the waters of the Dardanelles strait sparkling in the sun. The guide pointed out some large earth mounds which were burial mounds, perhaps just like the final resting places of some of the Iliad’s great heroes, Achilles, Patroklos and Hector.

While standing on the hill, gazing out over the patchwork greens and browns of the plain and the blue waters of the Dardanelles, one can imagine what it must have been like for the inhabitants of the city looking out from the walls as enemy ships from distant lands arrived on the shores. From that spot they would have watched day after day as their loved ones fought on the field to defend them from the invaders, seen the chariots, weapons and armour glinting in the sun, wondering if those brought back dead or wounded were their own husbands, fathers, brothers. Each day they would have watched and wondered what their fate would be; would their heroes be able to repel the invaders or would those enemy warriors one day arrive victorious at the gates. The stakes were impossibly high; defeat would mean the men slaughtered and women and children killed or taken to distant countries as slaves. So whether or not it was the mythical Helen, Priam or Andromache, we know for certain that someone watched the encroaching doom from those walls, though their names are now lost to history.

Well, eventually I’ll write more about the actual Iliad, which I absolutely think is one of the best pieces of literature ever written. It is beautiful and amazing and there’s just so much one could say about it. But for now, here are the photos from our trip to the city that inspired that most epic of stories!

Exploring Çanakkale…

The next stop on our expedition was Çanakkale, a seaport town just a short ferry ride across the Dardanelles from where we had spent our first night near Eceabat. The population of the town is a bit over 100,000 and it was a nice place to spend a couple of days.

Çanakkale is an important tourist destination for Australians and New Zealanders coming to commemorate their countrymen who fought and died in the Gallipoli campaign during World War I. In 1915 the British and French were trying to take over Constantinople/Istanbul and secure passage to the Black Sea. Turkish forces defeated the invaders, and many on both sides died during the fighting. Apparently this campaign is especially important in both Australia and New Zealand, as it is considered to be the beginning of both countries’ sense of national distinctiveness and identity. Anzac Day, which commemorates the soldiers who died at Gallipoli, is one of the most important holidays in both countries. The Gallipoli campaign was also extremely important for Turkey, and sort of defines the time when the old Ottoman Empire was coming to an end and set the stage for the Turkish War of Independence a few years later.

However, we mainly stopped in Çanakkale to break up all of our travels, and because it would be a handy place from which to take a day trip to Troy, one of the main objects of our wanderings. We were pleasantly surprised by the town and enjoyed our stay there. There were a number of nice pedestrian streets to stroll along, some tasty and cheap food to enjoy, and the place had a generally good vibe. The highlights were a lovely little café where we stopped every day for Turkish coffee and a new Turkish food experience- peynir helva.

The café was run by a friendly German woman who we chatted with a bit. We learned that she’s married to a Turkish man (there are quite a few Turks living in Germany), and a couple of years ago the two of them along with their two children moved to her husband’s home town, Çanakkale. So, she’d been completely immersed in Turkish, which meant that she was having trouble recalling the English she knew (she still did better than I could do in either Turkish or German, so I’m certainly not criticising!). Anyway, her café was gorgeous, on a lovely pedestrian street with flowering trees growing nearby, just across from a mosque. We enjoyed the cosy inside a couple times, and others we sat out at tables on the street enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful surroundings. And the coffee was delicious!

In terms of food, we’d read that peynir helva was a speciality in the region, so we ate it every chance we got! We’d had ordinary helva before, which is a sweet thing made from seasame paste. It’s kind of hard to describe, but maybe it’s like a dry, slightly crumbly nougat. Whatever it’s like, it’s good, particularly with some strong coffee! Yum. Anyway, this Çanakkale variation seems like something else altogether and involves cheese, which sounds rather strange, but it is now definitely one of my favourite desserts here (especially when served with a dollop of ice cream on top), and that’s saying something!

Our first evening in the town, we went into this dull and rather bare looking helva shop, with a sort of nerdy looking man in glasses being basically the only person working there. The place had the look of the 1970s; the colours, old tables and chairs, minimal decoration. On the walls there were a few black-and-white photos, one of a man with a very strong family resemblance to the chap currently working there, probably his father or grandfather. Apparently the shop was founded in the 1920s, and the only thing on the menu is peynir helva. That’s it. No fancy décor,  no gimmicks, no witty chitchat with the proprietor to bring folks into the shop. Just a really freakin’ amazing recipe for peynir helva perfected over the last 90 years. And the place certainly seemed to have a reputation; one of the evenings we were there, there was a queue of people ordering boxes and boxes of the stuff! Oh, my mouth waters just thinking about it!

Well, there’s more to tell, but it’s late and my pillow is beckoning….

Holiday 2012: delightful beginnings…

It all began on Saturday last week, bright and early. We had intended to head off on Sunday originally, because it would be the second day of the big end-of-Ramazan holiday, and we’d hoped that travelling would be easier that day with less traffic and fewer people trying to take ferries, etc. However, a friend of mine and her husband, Katherine and Alper, were leaving Istanbul early on Saturday morning by car and heading to Alper’s family’s summer home near Eceabat, a small town of about 5,000 people on the eastern shore of the Gelibolu Peninsula, which was close to where Richie and I were planning to go ourselves. They invited us to come along for the ride and to stay the night in the house with them, which is what we did.

The traffic was heavy enough, and I guess the trip to Eceabat took about twice as long as it does on a quieter day. There were so many people trying to get to wherever they were going, and especially near the end of our trip, there was a huge amount of congestion around the various ferry points with people trying to get over to the Anatolian side of the Dardenelles. Cars were lined up for kilometre after kilometre, and we were really lucky we weren’t trying to cross over that day.

Instead, we stayed in a little ‘holiday neighbourhood’ just about 5 minutes walk from the Aegean Sea. The house was pretty basic in it’s amenities, but it was a fun and comfortable place to stay, with beds and couches for Liam to jump around on, a lovely garden with a canopy of grapes growing as well as plum and fig trees. We sat in the garden in the evening, enjoying the cooler air outside, and most importantly, we got to go swimming!!! It was Liam’s first time playing in the sand too, and we gave his toes a little dip in the water lapping up on the sandy shore. He wasn’t too sure about it, but he didn’t cry or fuss either. It was just gorgeous.

After our evening swim, we all headed by car to a local restaurant by the docks. We had a seafood feast while the sun went down over the sea and we could see the cars loading up on one of the ferryboats nearby. We had squid and seabass dolma, fresh salad, roasted aubergine/eggplant meze, fresh melon with beyaz peynir (feta-like white cheese), and skewers of swordfish and something which translates as ‘tongue fish’ for the main course, all washed down with some rakı, the signature Turkish anise-flavoured spirit. It was delicious. Liam entertained himself by chewing on bread, and acting a little like a wild animal, which was pretty funny.

The next morning we had a lovely Turkish breakfast prepared by Katherine and Alper, with all the usual yummy stuff, like fresh juicy tomatoes and cucumbers, cheese, olives, spicy sausages, honey and kaymak, and thick slices of village bread. Then it was time for another swim in the sea and playtime in the sand. I just find the sea so invigorating and amazing. I’ve been craving a swim in the sea for the last two years, and I still feel like I haven’t had enough of it. I love the salty taste of it, the lapping of the waves, the sound of the wind blowing over the water and rattling away in your ears, that fresh coolness that washes away all the worries and cares of everyday life. When I’m in the sea, it’s almost like there’s nothing else in the world except that deliciously cold refreshing water, and it makes me feel alive and awake all the way down to my bones. Ah, sea, how I love you…

Holiday 2012…

Well, it’s been nearly two years since our last Turkish holiday, and, at long last, we’ve finally managed to see some new places in this country! We arrived back in Istanbul yesterday evening after a week away from home. On our travels we explored Eceabat, Çanakkale, Truva (Troy) and Bozcaada (Bozca Island)- you can see the region we visited on the map below, with three of the locations labelled.

Travelling with an almost-one-year-old baby was certainly an interesting adventure in itself, but I think as the days went on, we got the hang of it, and things got more relaxing and easier throughout the trip. Liam proved once again to be a laid-back little boy, and without him being so easy-going, this whole trip could have been quite a fiasco! But he was great the entire time and was such a fantastic traveller- what a cool kid.

I have lots of photos and experiences to share, which I’ll slowly be doing as I mull over the whole trip. I feel so happy to have had the chance to see a bit more of this fascinating country and to have escaped from the hustle and bustle of big city life for a bit. Now I feel happy to be home and refreshed by the beautiful places, the peace and quiet, the slower pace of life, a few dips in the sea, delicious food and wine, and a new perspective on things. I’m looking forward to getting it all out in writing! More to come soon…