We finally managed an incredible sleep. At breakfast, we met and joined the group of four Kiwis, three Aussies and Barish our Turkish guide. The first stop was the Hippodrome, something we had read about but did not yet know where it was. Turns out, we’d been walking through it for days. Though it was good to finally have an explanation of the various monuments around the square. Right next door to the area is the Blue Mosque, where Barish talked us in without waiting in line. It’s not the biggest in the world but is famous for its expensive and expansive blue tiling decorating the ceiling inside. Moving quickly, the group continued on to Hagia Sopia, the museum that we had seen out our hostel window. First it was a Christian church but it had been converted into a mosque, one of the coolest parts being that the Turks had been respectful enough to leave some of the Christian mosaics, which are now some of its biggest attractions. We were given a break for lunch, where Hayley and Ella made the mistake of throwing one cat a bite of souvlaki and were quickly surrounded by them. In the afternoon we had the option to go to the Topkapi Palace, which again is really a museum. Instead Hayley and Ella decided to check out the underground Cistern, an incredibly stunning area with pillars and lights and gentle music playing as you wander around the raised walkways. With the rest of our free time we had a quick wander, a quick nap, and at night we all went out to dinner as a group nearby then to the busy Taksim Square for drinks to get better well acquainted.
The next day we were up early to be on the bus at 7.30am. It was a long day of driving punctuated by quick stops and a lunchbreak at a place that had a small zoo attached, including camels. In the afternoon, we made it to our destination. Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, Chunuk Bair and Lone Pine – some of the most memorable names for Australians and New Zealanders from the Great War. Each spot was very peaceful and incredibly well cared for. Barish told us all the story of the Turkish ranger who was assigned to care for the area, and was killed in a scrub fire in 1994 saving the monuments and graves of the invaders. The saddest part on the headstones were not often the ages (the youngest recorded at sixteen), but the inscriptions from the families like; ‘too far away to see but never too far to think of thee’, ‘I loved him, I still do’ and, ‘a mothers thoughts often wander here to this sad and lonely grave’. The Turkish, Australian and New Zealand governments are getting ready for the 100 year memorial in 2015, resulting in the surrounding area having some of the best roads we drove on. Afterwards we took a ten minute ferry from Europe to Asia, still in Turkey, and found our unbelievable five star hotel that Prince Charles had once stayed in. Our room was huge, we tried the pool but it was too cold so we dressed up and headed into the dining area for a massive buffet feast.
Another early start and we were off to Troy. We had been told the city was incredibly disappointing so expected nothing, and were consequently pleasantly surprised with the small pile of ruins. We got to climb in a horse and wander around various relics touching stone walls that were 4,000 years old. We could easily see the layers of the city built on top of one another and all seven of us twenty-two to thirty year olds got excited about the red squirrels chasing each other on a fallen down tower. Soon after, we were back on the minibus for a five hour drive. Our driver was pretty good, in comparison to his Turkish counterparts. He possibly wouldn’t pass a test in New Zealand on account of overtaking on corners but we were doing OK. The roads in Turkey aren’t the smoothest, maybe far from the worst but not good for a car anywhere. While most of the van thought we had hit a patch of gravel, Hayley had the particular joy of sitting over the left rear wheel where there is no mistaking the sound of a tyre popping and shredding underneath you. Somehow the driver managed a controlled stop on the side of a road far from anywhere. When we got out there were bits of tyre adorning the roadside, and not all of them were ours. Barish called some mates who brought tools to access the spare tyre, and he took us in two dinky old cars to a restaurant for lunch and to wait for our van. That afternoon we made it to Asklepion, another archaeological site, unscathed. It was essentially a hospital, and also the birthplace of psychotherapy and herbal medicine. Patients here received water from a special fountain and music concerts as part of their treatment. It was a step up from Troy as major parts were still standing and we didn’t have to use our imaginations as much. We continued on to Selcuk where we would be spending the night in our waterfront hotel. Looking the other way from the water, it was a bit like looking at a field of sunflowers, with every single hotel and house facing the sunshine. Fair enough too with a view like that.
Another day came around and we headed to another ancient site. This one was special as it is classified as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world because of the Temple of Artemis in the old city. There once was a population of 250,000 people there, making it one of the biggest in the world at the time, and it is even rumoured that Virgin Mary spent her last years in the city. Yet still, we ended up spending some of our time watching the stray cats. Our tour guide Barish pointed out the interesting bits like the old brothel that had a secret tunnel to the library so the women didn’t suspect anything when their husbands disappeared. That afternoon we drove into Bodrum, our last stop on land where we had to say goodbye to Barish but met two new couples (more Kiwis and Aussies) who were joining the tour. For the rest of the trip, we would be sailing the Greek Islands on a boat, something we had both been looking forward to since day one of planning our travels. We got our own tiny cabin each, and went our to dinner with the group before some cheap cocktails at a local bar.
Our first day on board was very slow and quiet. We had to get passport checks as we left Turkey and entered Greece, and we sailed to Kos. We had to stay on board as they checked our passports, and so received updates about the New Zealand vs Australia game through one of the group who was getting texts from a friend back home. We had a guided walk around town, most of the group spent the afternoon napping after a late night out, and everyone went out to dinner together at one of the local restaurants.
While a tour of the Greek Islands may sound fantastic and tropical, we were quickly proven wrong. At least for a cruise in mid-October. We were stuck on Kos cause of the weather. While some of the group hired a minivan for a drive around the island, Hayley and Ella had a lazy day perusing souvenir stalls and stopping for fresh orange juices. A boat load of people went to bed that night with their fingers crossed, as a week stuck on Kos in the rain doesn’t sound nearly as appealing as the week of sunshine and blue seas we had imagined.
Finally, our captain (known only to us as Captain) decided the weather was right and we began our sail to Armagos. Everyone on board was sick. Most spent the day huddled, frozen, on deck where at least the air was fresh. Some attempted lunch, but noone really ate very much, and only partly due to the food sliding off the table. Our little boat was tossed around hour after hour and we didn’t reach our destination till early evening. We hired a minivan and toured the island, adding insult to injury with a touch of carsickness for some on the windy roads. The sunset however, was stunning. Our guide told us that only a thousand people live on the island, and we got to see a lot of their pretty white houses with blue shutters as we walked to a café for a drink before heading back to the boat for a meal and an early night.
In the morning we got up and had breakfast on deck as we sailed into Santorini. What the travel brochures don’t tell you about the place is the 360 two-metre deep steps up to the city. There are just three ways to get to the top. You can walk, for free. You can take the cable car, for a few euro. Or you can take a donkey. Of course, we voted unanimously for the donkeys. What we hadn’t anticipated was sitting on a donkey with no guide or specified path. We were sharing these hundreds of steps with hundreds of walkers and other donkeys. And as it turns out, they are not the tamest creatures. They sprint at a moments notice, run into people and push them aside, stop suddenly, walk hard against the walls so you have to get your legs out of the way, or hard against the barrier so you get a nice view straight down the cliff face. Twenty minutes and a lot of shouted apologies to pedestrians later, we were at the top with sore bums and in need of a break. We sat down for coffees on a rooftop café and finally got the chance to look at our surroundings. With clear blue skies and pure white houses we were really sitting in a postcard. The plan for the day was to hire quad bikes and have a quick tour of a beach or two and then head out the Ia, the most famous spot in the world to see one of the best sunsets in the world. What Hayley and Ella did was flag the quads and tour the main city instead, having a long rooftop lunch of tzatziki and santorinian salad. We spent some time perusing the souvenir stalls and took a bus out to Ia with the rest of the group for the sunset. We all took a ridiculous amount of photos – as anyone would – and felt very lucky to be in one of the most stunning places in the world. Afterwards, our tour guide Kiriyaki (like teriyaki but with a K) took us to a local festival celebrating a saint. There was a free meal and as much wine and ouzo as we could handle in a tiny village full of white houses with blue shutters and doors, with Greek people dancing traditional dances to live music all night. At midnight we took a minivan back to the main town Fira and had the option of heading to a night club. One of our fellow travellers, a 77 year old Turkish man known only as Mr. Duvan took up the option and spent the night dancing on the bar, before walking down the 360 stairs with his cane, climbing in the tiny dingy we took to our boat. He outdid us all by at least 40 years and still managed to outdo us all then too.
The next morning our boat started rumbling a bit after 6am and the seas once again got very choppy. Fortunately it quietened down enough for our first swimming stop at about 2pm in a bay near Paros. The wind was chilly but the water was warm and almost everyone got in and floated around for a bit. We kept going and arrived in Naxos in the early afternoon. Lunch on board the boat was followed by free time, which this wandering pair spent at a nearby beach (lying on the sand reading, far too cold for a swim). Our guide took us on a walking tour to visit an old Zeus temple, and told us that Naxos is actually the biggest island in Cyclades and was originally named Zeus. En route we stopped for photos of another pretty sunset and had a quick visit the castle where the rich used to live. The streets there are tiny and seem to be inspired by a labyrinth, and while our guide told us it was built so the locals could outsmart invading pirates, she also told us about a little old lady who once told her that the walls were so close together so as to keep you from falling down after a big night out on the ouzo.
When we woke up the boat was already on its way to Mykonos, our final stop. It was a sunny day but with a chill wind so we battled it out on deck in the sunshine, determined to make the most of it even though it required several layers of clothing. We stopped for a swimming break by some anonymous island but only a couple of people were brave enough to dive in, and were just as quick getting out again. We carried on and made it to Mykonos in the afternoon for an afternoon spent lying on deck in the sun reading, before our final dinner and drinks at a local bar, where we carried on the party long after the last of the bars on the island had closed. We were sad to say goodbye to the people we had met but not to our smelly little rocking boat and questionable showers in luke warm water. It was great to step back on solid land again, even if we weren’t sure how long it would take for the feeling of swaying to fade away.