At this point I think most people have heard individual stories about my trip to Turkey and Greece, or at least are aware that I went. From August 8 to August 22 I was on the road, rail or in the air on my own. I worked a short shift on the 8th and then got a ride to the airport from a friend. From St. Louis I flew to Atlanta, then to Amsterdam where I had a lengthy layover and then a flight to Istanbul that touched down around midnight local time.
My trip actually got off to an interesting start in Atlanta where, on the way to the gate, I walked past Tony Dungy. The trip settled down noticeably thereafter, and since the flight departed from Atlanta at midnight I slept most of the way across.
Landing in Amsterdam, I wandered the airport, saw the tulip bulbs for sale, noted with dismay the small museum collection of Dutch masters (mostly paintings of Cows, but also a picture of William of orange in a dress as a small child), and ate some delicious food at a place called the Dutch Kitchen. They had both mini-savory pancakes and an open faced sandwich with two dutch cheeses, greens and a delicious honey mustard on a soft whole wheat bread. It was by far the best airport I have ever been to, and included a meditation room with religious texts from Christianity, Islam and Judaism and prayer mats, as well as a large number of couches and reclined chairs. After eating I wandered in the airport (I had five hours), finally sitting down not too far from the gate.
Sitting there was first a young woman, and then she was rejoined by the rest of her family. Her name was Lucy, while her mother was Christine and her brother Edward. They were from Leeds and waiting for their flight to Istanbul. Happenstance took this all a bit further, to the point that we were on the same flight, in the same row to Istanbul and were staying in the same hostel, so I hitched a ride in Istanbul to the hostel. They were a lovely family, Lucy starting college in the fall for English Literature, though as with some British accents, when they talked quickly I could not understand what they were saying. Nonetheless, we chatted and generally shared what information we knew about Istanbul, and our guidebooks. I spent a little bit of time with them in the city, mostly at night, but our schedules were different enough that I did not actually spend that much time exploring the city with them.
So we flew to Istanbul and I hitched a taxi ride to the hostel. When I planned (such as I did) this trip, I had planned to spend that first night in the airport and get an early start the next morning with the ride into the city. Since I hitched a ride in, I did not actually have hostel reservations and we got in after midnight. As such, I took off to explore the old city. The hostel was around the corner from the Aya Sofia, so I didn’t have far to look. My first thought was to locate a place to sleep for a bit as I was rather tired, but adrenaline kicked in, so I wound up wandering up to the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, the spine of the Hippodrome and up a few streets, though none of these are far apart. After I time I wore down and chose to actually sleep, so I found a spot on a ledge and against the hedge that surrounds part of the Blue Mosque, which, at the time, was beyond the sprinklers, and so, resting on my bag, I slept.
I awoke before 5, in part intending to find breakfast before dawn as it was the first day of Ramadan (I failed in that), and had just finished writing in my journal when I had front row seats for the first call to prayer for the morning. For the rest of the morning I explored the city, including having a man offer me Turkish Delight while running past me at 5:30 (and thanking me when I refused) being in the Blue Mosque courtyard by 6, being among the first inside the Aya Sofia when it opened at 9, and having been adopted by a dog along the spine of the Hippodrome (it followed me down to the park on Topkapi Palace grounds and was with me for around two hours). Around noon I went to check in at the hostel.
I didn’t eat that day until after noon, and likewise did not eat much on the trip–often two meals a day or less, including one day where I had a cinnamon roll and three slices of bread. Early in the trip this was okay, but towards the middle it became problematic, and my worst day was one of dehydration, malnourishment and extreme heat. After that I made sure to eat more.
My remaining time in Istanbul I mostly explored. Turks as a people were very friendly, almost the point of rudeness, however if you tried to escape their conversation, you were the one being rude. Time passed differently in Turkey, in part due to culture, in part due to Ramadan. One of the most interesting customs was the encouragement of a slower lifestyle, one in which there is value to sit and observe what is going on around, rather than being plugged in, whether to a cell phone, computer, ipod, or all of the above. There is problably more that I could say about Turkey and Istanbul, but ultimately I think that the pictures I took speak more. I loved Istanbul, even with the center being excessively touristy. People were friendly, and even in neighborhoods off the beaten path I never felt any ill will of any sort. This included an afternoon spent lost and looking for the sea, where I met a young French couple, also lost. On the last night before leaving for Greece, the young night person at the hostel, who spoke only a little English also taught me Backgammon–I won both games. Now I have half a mind to invest in a board.
The next day I left for Greece, but not before heading out to the Theodosian Walls. The walls were quite impressive, and I even managed to find a way on top of one section.
I took an overnight bus to Thessaloniki, the greatest problem of which was waiting until it left. I detested the Otagar in Istanbul as it seemed to combine the extreme consumerism of the Bazaar district with half-decrepit Eastern European architecture. After a long wait there, we left, and other than being roused in the middle of the night (twice) to pass through the borders, the bus trip was uneventful. I did meet two Irish school teachers, and one American from California who was an English teacher in Istanbul.
Once in Thessaloniki, I got lost. This was a recurring theme of Thessaloniki, as I would be lost at least once every single day I was there, usually for an extended period of time. This was one of the reasons I didn’t do everything I wanted to in Thessaloniki. I liked the town itself, and the hostel there was quite nice. The owner, Dora, was both beloved and terrified of by all, but there was a variety of people staying there and she treated every as though they were her sons and daughters–up to and including feeding us and persuading us to cut up pineapple for a meal. In this hostel I even got mistaken for being Danish due to another Danish man being there and the two of us being engrossed in conversation when other people came back. All in all, I only brushed the surface of Thessaloniki and need to go back. preferably when it is cooler.
Part of my problem was the bus system. The in-city buses did not actually go where they said, which was part of the reason I got horribly lost, but the KTEL station was even worse, being 3 km outside of the city, and not actually being on a road I could locate. This was the cause of my worst day, when I went to Pella. The museum there was fantastic and the sight was pretty special, but it is a podunk town outside of Edessa. I was lost for an hour walking to the bus station initially, and then being low on water, I was unceremoniously dropped off at a four way intersection. The bus driver didn’t speak English, so shouted the stop and gestured frantically off of the bus. I got off and promptly got lost there. After seeing a few sights and wandering around, I then waited at the same intersection for the next bus. Getting back to Thessaloniki, I promptly got lost again, this time for well over an hour. At this point I was dehydrated, hadn’t really eaten anything to speak of and exhausted, so I was glad to grab some food when I got back. None of this was aided by it being a public holiday.
The next day I left by train for Meteora, changing at Palai Pharsalus, now mostly just a train station, but once the site of a famous battle between Pompey and Caesar. There I was briefly introduced to yet another French couple. The train pulled into Meteora a short time later in the town of Kalambaka, which sits under the rock forest. I got in in the late afternoon and wanted to spend one night before moving on, so I promptly set off to visit the other village. In that next village, I randomly ran into the same French couple from the train, who were hiking up to one of the monasteries. Up for the challenge, I hiked up with them, though we arrived shortly after it closed. Nonetheless, we hiked up and down, and then I meandered back to Kalambaka and was just there. The town was lively and energetic, and the atmosphere was perhaps my favorite in Greece.
The next day I set off for Delphi, taking a bus to Lamia (a site that a war was named after), and I was a little disappointed that I could not stay there for a time. I just had a layover there, so I could not actually get into town. I got to a small town on the Corinthian Gulf just in time for the last bus up to Delphi. As at Istanbul, I arrived too late to get a room for the night. Instead I found a quiet spot along the road just outside of town. The next day I discovered that I was sleeping maybe 30 meters from the entrance to the ancient Sanctuary of Apollo. Before morning came, though, I did learn that it gets chilly in the mountains, and a towel works rather well for an impromptu blanket. For future trips I intend to bring a larger towel with that in mind.
Delphi, with the views down the mountain, was incredible, and while I could have spent much more time at the ancient sites, I jumped on it early and was finished before mid-afternoon. Basically I wanted to finish before there were too many tourists. The rest of the day I spent taking in the views and just being in Delphi. It is a fantastic place to spend money, with a large number of craftsfolk and jewelers who use traditional methods for their work. That night I stayed in a hotel and the next morning I took a bus back to Thessaloniki and then an overnight train back to Istanbul. The train was quite an experience, and I spent a large amount of time just watching the landscape and then the stars. Unlike most of the people I overheard that night, this was my return visit. I had already seen a lot of what I wanted to see, so instead of needing to fill every moment, I got to take a more relaxed route. I checked back into the hostel for one more night, and then got to go inside of the Blue Mosque before walking up the heard of the new city, finding a beautiful bookstore, eating dinner, and then returning across the Golden Horn, walking around the peninsula along the water and then back up to the hostel.
It was also this second trip where I discovered Turkish Delight, which was amazingly delicious. The next morning I headed to the airport, then back to Amsterdam.
My second layover in Amsterdam was twelve hours, so I went into the city for dinner. As with the airport, I loved the city. The temperature was great, there were thousands of bikes, people were nice, the food was good, and while I am not a huge Amstel fan, I can learn. I watched a football game there, and almost as soon as I got out of the station, I saw a man walking down the street in bright lederhosen. It was some experience. After the game I wandered for a bit before returning to the airport. I discovered that security was closed (it was after midnight), so I found a quiet hallway to sleep–an example which several other backpackers took up. Before long the quiet hallway was not so quiet, but fortunately security had reopened and I made it through to the areas that there were couches. I didn’t sleep, but at least I was comfortable. The remainder of the trip was largely uneventful, and clearly I made it back.
It was a learning experience for me about myself, and I notably resolved to be less plugged in to the technological matrix we live in. I am glad I went, but wish that I could have spent longer and next time will pack a set of plastic silverware.
I am sure there is more that I could relate, but it is not coming to me right now. Now that I am back in an area where people nominally speak English, it is nice being able to conduct complete conversations, but being overseas it was not too frustrating. Having one person would be nice, and I think two is a good number to go with, but being on your own is an adventure unto itself.