Thursday, 22 January 2009

A City with Two Tales...

Another week, another country... Last week was Istanbul, which was a LOT different to anywhere we've been previously, and, thankfully, a bit warmer than we expected, yay! It seems we've come away with slightly different impressions of the place, so:

Kent wasn't impressed with Istanbul mostly... things didn't really start well on our first day, when we went to the tourist information centre and asked for some, well, information. The man there was less than impressed that we had walked into his domain, expecting to be helped and decided the best way to deal with us was to be bloody rude. Nice.
Things got even better when we walked into the Grand Bazaar that afternoon... he hadn't really anticipated just how forward and pushy the merchants would be... as it's winter, there are very few people around, so they were keen to make a sale out of those who were there... us! Virtually every single shop we walked past had someone in front of it who asked where we were from ("New Zealand." " Aah, key-vee, key-vee!") and didn't really want to let us get away without buying something... Kent was NOT into this approach at all. We did get better at this though, and our visit to the Spice Bazaar a few days later was less painful for him... plus he bought a massive bag of proper chewy dried apricots for 3YTL (about 50p). To slightly compound the problem, our hotel was in the middle of the Bazaar district, so there wasn't really any escape from the relentless "Hello nice couple, you like something to eat/tea set/new jeans/turkish delight?"
We did however discover that real Turkish Delight is actually really, really, yummy, and not at all like that rubbish they put in the Roses chocolates! Also, their fondness for Apple Tea and how frequently people offer it to you when they are attempting to make a sale is brilliant - we brought some back and are making our way through it rather nicely.
We trekked up to one of the universities to see a Salvador Dali exhibition in its museum, it was interesting, and the paintings themselves were colourful, but mostly it was an eye-opener... I know this just demonstrates my lack of artistic understanding, but it seems the guy was a bit of a nutter (sorry if he's your inspiration) who was rather self obsessed. I'm probably going to be lynched by crazed art students now.
His biggest highlight was going to see Galatasaray play football. I have to confess that even I enjoyed it, in spite of the cold, the crowd, though small was very loud and it was quite a festive atmosphere. Galatasaray won 4-2 over Mulatyaspor, although we accidentally supported the wrong side for the first 18 mins of the game - in our defence, we were supposed to be supporting the home side, who play in dark red and yellow vertical stripes... one team was wearing said dark red and yellow stripes, and the other was playing in white, so we assumed the former was 'our' team... thank goodness Galatasaray scored first, and we figured it out, although it was somewhat bewildering when the crowd (wearing home colours) erupted in cheers when what we thought was the opposition (in white) scored!
Kent was disappointed with most of the touristy things, as there doesn't seem to be the organised preservation that there is in the UK and other parts of Europe. They were pretty expensive and there isn't a lot of information for the fee you pay. He did really like the Yedikule Hisar (Fortress of the Seven Towers) though, and the adjacent city walls... although the homeless shanties "built" in the terraces beside the wall weren't really to his taste! It was a bit of a shame that we only made it there on the day before we left, or he might have had a better time...

I LOVED it! The noise, the hustle and bustle, the riot of colour in the Bazaars, it was fantastic. Although the rude man in the tourist information office did throw things into a bit of a spin to start with, once we had our bearings and worked out the public transport system though, it was pretty good. I loved the Bazaar - most of the men are pretty good if you just say 'no, thanks' and smile at them, and they seemed to know when they were flogging a dead horse... apart from the guy who managed to blindside Kent and talk him into buying a backgammon set unexpectedly, we managed to escape fairly unscathed. We also watched a couple of the merchants playing a couple of rounds of Backgammon while we were there; they made our games look positively snail-like! We made the mistake of giving in to one of the restaurant chaps near our hotel, thinking that if we dined there once he would be satisfied... oops! He was a bit persistant after that, but seemed to realise it was all just a bit of a laugh and didn't make a nuisance of himself.
The Muslim aspect of life there was really interesting - there are mosques everywhere you look (not surprising, as there are 15 million people in the city) and the call to prayer plays five times a day from the speakers on the minarets... the first time we wondered what on earth was going on (as the prayer wasn't what we consider 'tuneful'), but it's actually quite eerily cool.
We visited the Blue Mosque (alright, but not as pretty inside as Aya Sofya), Aya Sofya (a former church, turned mosque, turned museum), Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Istiklal Caddesi (the modern shopping street) and all the usual tourist spots, which were quite pretty.
We took a ferry trip over to the Asian side (Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia) for a day, and had a wander about there, and took in a belly dancing show (Kent ended up strutting his stuff on stage with a couple of the dancers! Photo below) in an underground establishment that we think might also have been a brothel... classy.
The fish market was also a bit of an experience, am not particularly good with fish in the first place, but it was mostly the cooked whole sheep heads on display that caused a bit of squeamishness with me - but travel is all about getting into a different culture, so it was ok.
Plus, we ended up buying a carpet from a less pushy man outside the Grand Bazaar, on our last day. We negotiated with three different shops and finally found one willing to come down a bit further on one we both love, so it was a happy (and slightly heavier luggage) note to leave on.
As usual, click on the photo below and it will take you to the album...

More when we're back from Wales.
K & E x

Monday, 12 January 2009

Scotland Part 3 of 3

Finally, we'd made it to the part of our Scotland trip that we had been most looking forward to - a couple of days on the Isle of Tiree, the outermost of the Inner Hebrides. A nice change, as the island is in the Gulfstream, so it's very windy, but quite a bit (4-5 deg) warmer than most of the mainland, so it was a welcome break from freezing conditions to just standard cold.
We arrived after a 4hr ferry crossing, and were immediately a bit stuck... there was NO mobile phone coverage, and we were on foot, 7.5 miles away from our cottage...eeek! Not to worry though, a lovely couple of locals drove past us as we were walking from the ferry terminal and asked where we were headed and did we need a ride? They even stopped off at the shop and waited for us so we could pick up some groceries! This is probably due to it being quite a small community, so the people are very friendly... which showed again when we arrived at our cottage (which was cute-as-a-button, see pics) and there wasn't any coal for the fire, and I had to walk a mile or two to find a house with someone home to use the phone to order some... luckily, that lady was also very obliging. And again in the afternoon when we were walking the 3.5 miles back from the shop with a couple of things we'd forgotten, a woman stopped off and gave us a ride... so refreshing, and exactly what either of us would do in the circumstances if the tables were turned.
After a warm toasty night in front of the coal fire, watching a DVD we had a lazy morning, before heading off for a walk around the coast and up one of Tiree's two hills. The island itself is quite windswept and interesting - it's so windy that there aren't really trees, or proper gardens, which is quite different, and it really feels quite serene and sort of deserted, but in a good way. We walked along a beautiful white sand beach, up some massively steep cliffs and over the top of one of the peninsulas before tackling the hill - which was only 146 metres high, so not especially tough. Topped that off with a walk down it, through really marshy scrub getting completely sodden feet on the way, to Hynish to see the old pier and some older buildings from the construction of a lighthouse which is 12m offshore. We managed to spot a seal swimming in to shore here, but the little bugger wouldn't come onto land while we were there, so we began our walk home, rapidly losing light, with 4 or 5 miles ahead of us... unfortunately the Tiree-an desire to give us a ride back didn't rear it's head this time round.
We left the island the next morning determined to go back there for longer sometime... we definitely recommend it.
Our ferry the next day was a little later and we arrived in Oban mid afternoon for a jaunt around the town to see some of the sights, including McCaig's Tower, which was inspired by the Colusseum, and sounds as though it might be out of place perched atop a hill in a port town, but actually looks like it has always been there, even though its only just over 100 years old.
We popped into the Falkirk Wheel on the way across country; it's a massive structure that lifts boats between 115ft between two canals - quite cool looking.
Then we headed for a place that I've wanted to visit since I was little - Guthrie Castle. My family (on Mum's side) are Guthries, and it was only sold by some (I suspect very distant-) relatives 28 years ago. It's now privately owned, and a couple of cousins have tried to visit in past years with no luck. Fortunately I happened to see online that it does weddings, and seeing as we're having one of those soon, I called and asked if we could have a look through it as a potential venue. This was both great, as it was beautiful - the castle itself is very grand and the grounds are amazing - and depressing - as I now really want to get married there, but the logistics of tying the knot on this side of the world probably won't work. Never mind though, we can still say we've been there and seen it... including the Trophy Room, which features a full-size real stuffed bear, amongst other exotic (stuffed) creatures. Click on the photo below for the full experience!

We drove back to Stirling that night to stay in a hostel, where I watched Braveheart for the first time... which was quite timely and I did enjoy it, although it was pretty easy to pick out the bits they used a bit of artistic license and Hollywood-ised.
There was a farmers' market on the next morning, so we went to that, bought far more bacon, venison and Highland beef than was really necessary,and then walked up the hill from the backpackers' to Stirling Castle. The howling wind and pouring rain really wasn't helpful for walking between the buildings, but we did stumble across the Tapestry Studio, where weavers are recreating a series of seven large tapestries. Each one takes about two to three years to complete, with three or four weavers working on it full time! There was one weaver in the studio while we where there, and it was fascinating to watch her working, it's such painstaking work and not hard to see how it takes so long to finish.
It was hard to believe that we only had one day of our Scotland adventure left, and we still hadn't been to Edinburgh, so we left bright and early on Sunday morning, and called past the beautiful Tantallon Castle, which is further east along the coast from the city. It's one of those castles you see on postcards - perched on a clifftops jutting out into the Firth of Forth - lovely, and still in fairly good nick. We had to tear ourselves away from this to head into Edinburgh, where we made it to the National Museum of Scotland at about lunchtime and managed to see the bottom floor (out of seven!!) in the almost three hours we were there - not the best time management, so we will have to go back and see more of both the museum and the sights - before we had to start the trek back to Sheffield to hurriedly do some washing before our flight to Istanbul. It's quite tiring, all this holidaying!
Take care,
K & E x

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Scotland Part 2 of 3

Another early start on the 2nd of Jan, back to the mainland, via Kylerhea, which has been used onscreen in a few movies/tv shows, including 'Made of Honour' from last year. Yet again it was mighty cold, and Kent still made me take my top two layers off... but he forgot about my earwarmers, so I look a bit of a duffer in the photo.
We passed by Eilean Donan Castle again, and then drove towards Inverness, along the shores of quite a few different lochs, including Loch Ness, where, despite us both being smart enough to know better, we looked a few times to try and spot Nessie... ridiculous! We visited Urquhart Castle, which sadly was blown up by soldiers leaving it in 1692 - so the Scots couldn't use it - but is on a site where there has been people living since before 580AD, and the current castle, or parts of it, have been around since the 12oos. It's quite beautiful, and in such a great location right beside Loch Ness.
We drove pretty quickly through Inverness - it seemed fairly dreary, with not a heck of a lot to do at this time of year, so we headed straight on to our accomodation, in another wigwam. The frost that night was bloody hard again, so much so that we had to hang on to each other when walking to the showers as even the dirt path was slippery. The next day was windy -the kind of wind that will slice you into a thousand pieces given the chance, so it was a bit like being back in Invercargill!
We went to the Culloden battle site - which sounds like it's just a field, but this is probably one of the highlights of the whole trip... it's the site of the last ever battle on British soil, and marked the end of Bonnie Prince Charlie's Jacobite rebellion. It was after this that the English banned Clan colours, kilts, bagpipes etc. The visitor centre is amazing, definitely the best we've seen and was packed with information, and the battle field itself seems very well perserved, with markers of where each site was and headstones for the individual clans (about 1,500 highlanders and only 300 english were killed). From there we drove around the corner to the Clava Cairns, ancient burial mounds, which were quite eerie. There are a few of varying types and ages, but the oldest is from about 2000BC - just incredible to be on the ground that has been walked for so long. They're very cleverly designed too, with quartz on the opposite wall of the boulder mound doorway, angled to shine in the sun on the shortest day... and we think we're clever!
After marvelling over this and getting progressively colder, we got back in the car and drove to Fort George, which was pretty big and cool, for a bit of a look at some military history.
The next day dawned a bit bleak, and we hadn't seen any snow as yet, so we thought a drive up a mountain was in order to put an end to that. We headed to Aviemore, in the Cairngorm National Park, and then drove up Cairngorm Mountain while it was snowing quite heavily, to ride up the funicular railway to almost the top of the mountain. Visibility was shot, so I was slightly concerned that we wouldn't a) be able to see anything and b) be able to get back down... I was bang on with the former, but thankfully not with the latter. To be honest, I wouldn't really recommend this as there is very little up the top and the visitor centre is very preachy and not especially informative. To make up for it, we did a drive-by of another stone circle in Aviemore on the way back, but stayed in the car as it was less impressive than the ones we've seen previously (that's us, stone cirlce snobs!), but did drive through the pretty village of Carrbridge, to see the spindly old stone bridge - very nice, over a small river with heaps of snow and ice in it.
After a what felt like a cross country wild goose chase, we took in an ancient Pictish Fort site at Burghead (the Picts were the early people in Scotland, after Neolithic people, but before the Scots), which was little more than some earthworks, but Kent did unearth what we think might be an old iron key, which may or may not be proper old... I've decided it is, as it's cooler in a history-geek way.
We left Invernessshire the next day, and headed for the one bit of the trip that I had requested ages ago - a trip on the train over the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which is used in the first Harry Potter movie as part of the route on the Hogwarts Express. It is breathtaking in the movie, but in reality it's just soooooooo much better, I don't think words will really do it justice. Whilst I took in the sights on the train, Kent drove along and then climbed halfway up a mountain to take a photo of the train as it crossed the viaduct... such dedication! We met up in Arisaig, a sleepy little fishing village around the corner from Mallaig, and made our way to Oban, stopping off at a couple of monuments - the Prince's Cairn, where Bonnie Prince Charlie often sailed to Europe from, and the Prince Charles Edward Stuart Tower, both of which were set in some of the most stunning scenery. We stayed in a backpackers in Oban that night, ready for our 6am ferry crossing to the Isle of Tiree the next day...

Last installment on the way.
K & E x

Friday, 2 January 2009

Scotland Part 1 of 3

We left Sheffield for Dumfries and Galloway on the 27th of December, just in time for the milder weather to stop and turn a bit nasty... this was fine though, as I managed to talk Kent out of camping and into wigwams (which are sort of like wooden tents, fully insulated, with heating and electric)... thank goodness too, as you might have heard that there's been a 'big freeze' on here over the last week or two - brrr.
Warmth sorted out, we called past various spots along Hadrian's Wall on our way up. It was built by the Romans in 122-123AD to mark the northernmost border of their empire (and perhaps to keep the Scots out?!) and used to run the entire width of the country. It was originally over 12ft high, and some parts of it are still very impressive. That took up our first couple of days, as we drove to quite a few sites along the Wall, including a wander up to the highest point, which we reached just at sunset.
We then spent a couple of days seeing the local sites before a bit of a drive to Crainlarich, on the way calling past Doune Castle, which, amongst other things, featured in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' (it's the castle they pushed the Trojan Rabbit up to), and the William Wallace National Monument near Stirling... surprisingly, he didn't look much like Mel Gibson, although I overheard someone saying that they re-made one of the statues at the memorial to resemble Mel's version of Wallace when the movie came out.
Our accomodation that night wasn't especially great, so we took off pretty early the next morning for the Isle of Skye - it was another fairly big drive, but broken up with visits to Glencoe, Fort William, Inverlochy Castle, Neptune's Staircase (a long series of canal locks) and Eilean Donan Castle. We had a good start when we drove past a massive stag just a few metres from the side of the road, with no fence to keep us out or him in. Kent even managed to get quite close to him to take photos and he hardly even moved - clearly not concerned in the least with becoming venison! The rest of the drive was even better, breathtaking, even - the frosts the preceding few days were SO cold that everything was white - it looked more like something from Narnia! We also stopped at one of the many lochs - as it had frozen over completely, and was solid enough for me to walk on (not bad considering how soon after Christmas this was!!), although Kent faced a few scary moments with a crack or two. I wisely stayed the hell away from him.
We arrived on the Isle of Skye well after dark and celebrated New Year's eve by going to sleep about 9pm... it's all rock'n'roll for us, I tell you. We started 2009 with a beautiful sunrise (the benefit of such long nights being that you don't have to get up early to see the most gorgeous part of the day) and realised there was quite a bit to see, so we had a wander to Neist Pt lighthouse, which we broke into for a better look. We did notice the 'towns' on the island are sort of unusual, the houses are very spread out and there's not a feeling of order or connection to them, which was a nice departure from the mainland. It wouldn't have been Scotland if there hadn't been a castle, so we headed back to Dunvegan Castle for a quick look - it's privately owned, so the admission charges where absurd, meaning we had to sneak in... rules? Schmules.
Right, now for the photos:

More to follow shortly...
K & E x