Friday, 23 November 2012

Before we go to Istanbul

We're going to Istanbul tomorrow, and I'm as excited as a kid the night before Christmas.  I love meeting new cities, but especially the big ones, the ones to which all roads lead - and in Turkey, all roads lead to Istanbul.

I'm glad we're going to Istanbul when the days are short and cold. Over the past two or three months, my mind has been thoroughly stained by Orhan Pamuk's trance-like fiction and I'm now reading his memoir Istanbul. I refer to the map I have in my head of Pamuk's melancholy city when I flick through the Lonely Planet. "(Melancholy) does not just paralsye the inhabitants of Istanbul: it also gives them poetic license to be paralysed" he writes. Going in summer just wouldn't feel right, not just because of the crowds and the heat, but because summer is colourful, and the Istanbul I'm expecting is black and white.
I've read every book in English about Turkey that's come my way from Irfan Orga's classic memoir of an Ottoman childhood to Elif Shafak's chick lit, and of course the travel writers - Eric Newby, Jeremy Seal, Philip Glazebrook.  But I keep coming back to Pamuk.

This is my first ever visit to Istanbul, but not Alex's. He was there in the late 1970s. He hasn't been reading as I have, but he has his own memories to refer back to. Between us, in the seven days we've allowed ourselves to wander the town, we'll create new ones.

Before we leave for the Big Smoke, I want to slip in a few "real life" pictures from our provincial life. We wake to cooler temperatures now - Alex turns on the diesel-fired heater when he gets up. He feels the cold. Our Australian friend Kevin however is made of sturdier stuff. I spotted him shirtless this morning while we eating breakfast  - next time, I tell him, I'll be shooting with the telephoto lens.

Breakfast is distinctly autumnal. The superb stone fruit of summer is long gone, and I'm buying quinces, persimmon, oranges, pomegranate, grapefruit, bananas (from Ecuador).

Alex is out and about on his bike now. He's just called me from Anfora, one of his favourite chandleries. The solar panels he ordered through Anfora have arrived from Istanbul, and Omer, who owns the shop, has offered to deliver them to Ergun, the stainless steel fabricator, out in Saniye, the industrial area of Marmaris. Men like Omer and Ergun, Ramazan the electrician and Rashit the canvas-maker are Alex's new "friends". Omer, like quite a few Turks we meet here, is originally from Istanbul. He is impeccably polite and helpful, speaks manageable English and, it seems to me, enjoys Alex's regular company, albeit on a strictly commercial basis. They all do, I think.

From Anfora, he's going on to North Sails (the Marmaris branch). I'm not quite sure what he's up to there - they have a half-price offer on all new sails, valid until December 31. That'll be difficult for him to pass up.

We were going to wait until next season to replace our sails, which are the original ones from 2005 i.e. they've been around the world already, but perhaps he'll weaken. He's got a quote for a new genoa...
Our sails are in their sail loft already, awaiting washing, repair and storage for the winter. You can see that Alex is in his element here in Marmaris which, though it's a small town, is Turkey's yachting capital.

Rashit, who came to fit our new winter "tent" yesterday, told us that there were 100 yacht upholstery businesses in town, with ten in the immediate vicinity of the shop he runs with his wife and son. We were recommended to use Rasit by Ramazan, who also recommended Ergun. All these men speak good English which makes dealing with them so much more straightforward - though as we discovered in Sicily, you can get by with Google translate if you have to. But more importantly, we think they're intelligent, and so far, they have all done what they've promised to do. They keep in touch with us, and they come to the boat when they say they're going to. They could teach the tradies at Port Napoleon (with the exception of Markus, of course) a thing or five. The traumas of that yard still rankle.

Here are Alex and Rashit working out how to install the winter tent, made by Hallberg Rassy.

At 4 pm, when the job was finished to their satisfaction and the sun was sinking quickly, Rashit accepted our offer of an Efes (the local beer). "What a good idea," he said. We weren't sure if he drank, although when Alex had indicated to him that he could use our aft cabin to pray (it has a perfect prayer-sized rug), he declined. Ramazan the electrician, on the other hand, had accepted gratefully, and ducked away for a few minutes at noon and at 3 pm. There's no knowing what the muzzein's call to prayer means to individuals here. You can make assumptions.

Marmaris, on the surface, is a thoroughly Westernised town and even more so within the marina where last night Pineapple restaurant put on a special Thanksgiving menu last night - we'll be having Christmas dinner there, I'm sure. But this is an Islamic country, and even the most cursory reading of the on-line English version of the daily paper Hurriyet reveals huge anxiety and tension about Islamisation (ugly word, ugly prospect). How far will Erodogan, the PM, go in pushing the constitution away from Ataturk's vision of Turkey as a secular state? Everyone's talking about it. In coastal towns like Marmaris and Bodrum, Turks like those we are getting to know have a lot to lose if Turkey goes the way of Iran.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Consider the pomegranate...

"We're NOT going to fall in love with Turkey," I remind Alex as we drop down from the highway into the dazzling resort town of  Bodrum.  It's me who needs reminding. Getting "stuck" in the Med has never been part of The Plan but there's a stealth attack underway, seduction by ruinous means, and I sense my defences crumbling.

That evening, as we race to meet a sunset-in-Bodrum deadline laid down by Jane (a family friend from New Zealand), we are yet again high on the delights of this vast open-air museum. We've made a small detour on the way, at Jane's suggestion. For several hours we've wandered all but alone along the cobbled highways and byways of the largely derelict village of Eskihisar. This heavenly place reveals itself a bit like ripe autumn pomegranates broken into by birds - the outer skin of the fruit represented by rustic stone and wooden buildings of the Ottoman period, its dried flesh by the remnants of Roman and Byzantine periods and its brilliant red seeds by the city at the heart of the matter, ancient Stratonikeia. In Eskihisar, these superimposed civilisations are visibly layered in a way we have rarely encountered before, and they enchant us.

Jane and her Scottish husband Dave, as it turns out, are in this Turkey relationship business much deeper than us. They've committed not only to a yacht but also to home ownership. Plus they have a sturdy Turkish car in the garage.

"Sounds a bit mad," Jane had emailed me, "but it's worth seeing the sunset from our balcony..." We were there, by the skin of our teeth, having loitered in Stratonikeia to stroke the stones....on an empty stomach, no less. The Stratonikeia teahouse (above) was keeping winter hours and we'd forgotten the picnic. Dave barbecued a shoulder of New Zealand lamb bought in Kos (you can see Greece from their balcony). Jane cooked mashed potato and broccoli, then followed up with apple crumble - the quickest back home imaginable. We ate outdoors, in mid-November.  If this is madness, bring it on.

View from their balcony
View from the hotel

Anchor stones
Our life now divides into two streams, it seems. You could describe them as work and play - obviously I use the term "work" loosely! At the marina, we're up to our necks in decision-making. This is the season to equip the boat for future ocean-crossings. Her previous owner, Christoph, managed to sail around the Horn with far less gear than we deem necessary but we all find our niche in the boat equipment world. We're adding a wind-generator and solar panels, to supplement the generator, and we're also having made (yes, the passive voice is the appropriate one - no sewing machine on this boat) a new bimini to give us more and better shade on the aft deck. The anchor chain has been sent off to Istanbul to be re-galvanised, and the sails have been removed to be washed, repaired and stored for the winter. This, as I say, counts as work - Alex's department.

My department is play by which I mean the short land trips which have muscled in on the sailing blog of late. Somewhere far past the lighthouse, right? We get a huge amount of pleasure out of these trips but I must admit, they're tricky to translate.

The tingle of excitement which we feel as we stand in an exquisitely proportioned Greek theatre tucked among pines at the foot of a soaring cliff or  gaze into a cabinet of glassware salvaged from a ship which foundered in 1400 BC at the entrance of an anchorage which we ourselves have poked our nose into - these experiences are intensely enjoyable for us, but unless I can throw a line out to you from these distant times and places, unless I can hook you into their significance and their wonder (as I understand it), I'll be talking to myself. Here goes...

Morning in Bodrum, off season

Bodrum is one of those "quiet" little Mediterranean fishing villages (like St Tropez) which somewhere along the line became summer playgrounds for the rich and famous. We couldn't get near the place in August, so we put it on the "to do" list for autumn because way before Beyonce, Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks et al dropped by, Bodrum was definitely on the map. Herodotus (the Greek "travel" writer/historian) was born there. King Mausolus who gave our language the word mausoleum was buried magnificently in Bodrum. And then there were the Knights of St John (again). I'm quite new to castles, but I doubt if there are many better than Bodrum's. In the photo above, taken from the ramparts facing west, you can just make out the Greek island of Kos on the horizon  - I still feel a bit fluttery looking in that direction. Those weren't happy times.

We meandered through Bodrum castle for the best part of a day. It isn't just that the castle itself is in such good nick (despite the best efforts of the French navy who bombed it in 1915 - they succeeded only in knocking off the minaret which the Ottomans added to the Crusaders' chapel when they stormed the castle in the 16th century - what you see here is a new minaret); in each of the towers and halls, there is a spellbinding exhibit, some martial but many watery because the castle hugs within its walls a superb Museum of Underwater Archeology.

Look at this piece of glass, raised from the seabed after lying undisturbed for 2100 years.

The gold and pottery in the other cases were salvaged from an even older shipwreck a little way east of Kas. We wandered about in a trance, peering at perfectly preserved hippopotamus horns, scissors, ornate gold pendants, necklaces strung with whirly glass beads, whetstones, wax writing tablets, fishing nets, and of course the stock in trade of ancient shipwrecks, amphoras - the beautifully shaped pottery vessels used to transport oil and wine, for the most part. This was a busy part of the world with ships coming and going from the countries now known as Syria and Lebanon as far as north as the Black Sea.

Nearly 3000 years later, you have the Knights of St John turning up on the south Aegean shores and they build their castle - so you could say it's relatively modern, in the scheme of things.

I slide into a window seat in the English tower, which Henry IV started building in 1399, and trace with my finger "graffiti" etched into the stones by bored knights who would have warmed themselves in this spot, in the same filtered afternoon light, 600 years ago. What do the years of a human life count for? We leave behind us matter both exquisite and mundane, but our ability to love and be loved - which I consider to be the pinnacle of human achievement - has to be remade each time a human being is born and dies with them.

Moving we do. Here's Alex (above) at Priene, about two hours north of Bodrum. Again, we had the place almost to ourselves. We intruded on a couple of French girls in the gorgeous little amphitheatre  - I thought they were sketching the best seats in the house, magnificent stone armchairs in the front row.

But no - they were writing a message to a friend who had just given birth to a daughter. Their banner reads "bienvenue Marion" - a message of love from Priene, sent by iPhone.

I'll leave you at Priene. Where better?  It sits beneath yet another massive tower of rock and overlooks the fertile plains of the Meander river (from which comes the English word to meander) and out to the coast. Not a bad spot. The massive columns are what's left of a temple to Athena but there's detritus from this city tumbling all down the slope to the cotton fields below. Architecture in this neck of the woods took a wrong turn around the time Atuturk founded the modern republic, but out of town at least there's more than enough classic stuff to see them through the construction drought even if it lasts a millenium.