You might ask…..what brings a cyclist and a non-cyclist together……and for them eventually to get married? Well, it’s obvious that other points of attraction expanded the equation and, anyway, I had decided that I was going to teach my new wife the ‘simple art’ of balancing on two wheels…….or so I thought. Thirty seven years later, well……… she still can’t balance on two wheels…..so where did I go wrong?
Ah yes…..I nearly forgot…….we found alternative forms of bicycling transport……..you know, tandems and adult trikes. Doing this, perhaps, let her off the hook, even made her a little blasé about the importance of learning the skill. But once you introduce the idea of “Well it doesn’t really matter…..after all, we can look for an adult trike……or even check out the market for a tandem”, then there is no way of backtracking and renewing the resolve.
When we bought our current house, 34 years ago, there was an American adult trike in the garage going with the house. I like to joke that we took out a mortgage on the first trike, and added the house to it……. But now, in 2014, and two further trikes later, Jenny’s thoughts are turning towards something with a bit more comfort and efficiency. Her current trike started its life as a bicycle, and was converted into a trike using a conversion kit. Very clever and very serviceable, but it makes for a heavy, cumbersome machine.
So………we went a-hunting one day recently, and ended up at D-Tek in Little Thetford, a one-man business that eschews the internet, and which deals only in alternative bicycles……. mainly recumbents (more succinctly known as “bents” amongst enthusiasts). And here she is trying out the first of two machines, and the second even more laid back than the first.
During the test ride of the latter, I jumped into (onto?) the former, and off we went together cruising the local estates, riding beneath radar detection. A very cool experience.
The decision to buy one will, undoubtedly, be a lengthy one. You’d be surprised at how many different makes and styles are on offer from across the world. And I’m sure that all, or nearly all, will have to be checked out.
Several years ago, I came across Jason Webster when I stumbled across his Spanish Civil War tome entitled Guerra! A writer and journalist who had been living in Spain for several years, he was making a name for himself as the expat who made genuine discoveries about the Spanish past, and did so with a style of presentation that made his musings attractive to the lay reader.
I was loaned a copy of his later work Sacred Sierra: A year on a Spanish Mountain. My immediate reaction was to suspect this had a whiff of that rapidly-growing-stale genre of writing by expats abroad…..sometimes referred to as ‘hybrid literature’. The greatest exponent of this genre, and usually head and shoulders above his contemporaries, is Bill Bryson…..some would say he is the ‘gold standard’. Within the context of Spain, I imagine Chris Stewart is probably the best known and most read, with his Driving over lemons and Parrot in a pepper tree.
Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a rush by expats to publish their memoirs, usually recounting a ‘year in the life of’, thus providing rich fodder for future sequels, in the hope that a growing faithful fan-base will provide a continuing readership…..and a continuing income. I know I’m being a bit cynical here……but not all of it is good. Some of it is rendered in a copied, formulaic style and, chapter by chapter, you can nearly predict the ingredients that will be dished up by the author……….problems with the local language, challenges connecting with neighbours, taming a few acres to produce some home-grown food, negotiating with builders and planning authorities and raging about the amount of red-tape deliberately put there to thwart foreigners from achieving their goals. And much more……
Sacred Sierra, however, gains my respect. Nevertheless, after the first few chapters, I was ready to throw in the towel. Then I flicked to the back, before definitively deciding to shelve it, and found an appendix explaining the history and significance of all the trees he had planted on his mountainside farm. For some reason, it harnessed my attention……enough to prompt me to go back and resume my reading. And I was not to be disappointed.
You see, Webster has lived in Spain for more than 20 years. He is married to a Valencian actress and flamenco dancer. He is well nigh a native (in linguistic and cultural terms), but moving to an isolated farm house on the side of a mountain in the Maestrazgo (a remote area of eastern Spain that I happen to know myself), he rapidly found he was little more than a ‘novillero’ (a bullfighting term meaning ‘novice’), and had to rely on locals who embodied generations of wisdom and folklore, to help him through his first shaky year.
If you like the expat genre of writing, you will find this one of the better volumes on offer.
It’s a hot Tuesday. A bunch of cyclists, from a wide radius of the East Midlands, wend their way to the tiny village of Naseby, made famous by the Civil War battle of 1645, when King Charles I was captured by the Parliamentarians.
To avoid busy, nasty roads, I choose an alternative route going through Grafton Underwood, Geddington (of the famous Eleanor Cross), Desborough and Kelmarsh………
adding about 5 miles to my journey to have tea and cake with this crowd…..If you look carefully, you will see that just about everyone can boast several decades of experience turning those pedals. Many were riding their bikes ‘in anger’ back in the 1940s and 1950s, competing in, and winning, races and time trials. Some have cycled the world, camping in remote spots and climbing some of the world’s highest mountains.
Some will look on me as a mere ‘youth’, a young whipper-snapper barely out of nappies, and regale me with stories of past cycling adventures and dare-devilry that sometimes defy belief. Stories of 12 and 24 hour non-stop races; of ultra Audax events stretching out to 1200 kms of continuous riding; of normal training schedules doing 500 miles per week (and that’s while holding down a 9-5 job).
A 70 mile round trip, to have a cup of tea with these characters, is time and energy well spent. Especially when the tea party is in the garden of the Old Vicarage and, for £3.50, you can eat and drink as much as you like.
After reading John Cornwell’s The Dark Box, in which he trawled through the history of the use, and abuse, of the confessional box in the Catholic church, I was prompted to dip into his memoirs as a junior seminarian, in his book Seminary Boy.
Cornwell’s teenage life had so many parallels with my own that, a couple of chapters into his memoir, there were times when I felt I was reading about my own life during my teenage years. The differences being that Cornwell is nearly a decade older than me, and he attended a different school………..but those things apart, I recognised and understood much of what he described.
Brought up in a working class family amongst the ghetto Catholics of the East End of London, his early years were blighted by his tough, violent background, his mentally ill father, grinding poverty and a sexual assault by a man in a public toilet. By the age of 13, he somehow emerged from all of this with an invitation by his bishop to go to a junior seminary, whose style of education was deeply rooted in old public school curricula, but with a decidedly classical orientation, the purpose of which was to steer candidates towards the priesthood. In my own case, I started this phase of my life at the age of 11, and four of my eight O levels were classical: Latin, Ancient Greek, Greek history and Roman history.
I fully expected this to be yet another ‘misery memoir’, or a ‘how I made good from an appallingly enclosed background’ autobiography. Cornwell obviously went through the pains of losing his faith and his respect for what happened to him in Cotton College, but in later life he was able to reflect on his experiences more objectively, and see them in the context of the world at the time…..especially the Catholic world.
He successfully portrays all the trials and tribulations of living as a teenager in a quasi-monastic environment, where contact with the outside world only came with brief holidays at home during vacations. It is unnerving to see how young boys could be so easily swayed to adopt a lifestyle so alien to the ‘normal’ sentient human being…….yet they were. Some survived, even escaped, and went on to fulfilling lives in other spheres. Others, however, carried the scars of their experiences to their lifelong detriment. In my own case, several of my class mates were so hurt by the experience of their seminary days, that they refused ever to allow their shadows to darken the threshold of the college in later life.
When I was a post-graduate student at Lancaster University, I was heavily into racket sports, especially squash. I would fling myself around the court, always intent on retrieving everything and always going for the winner. Inexperience and unsubtle play frequently led to pulled muscles in my back, so I sought advice from a doctor.
When I was advised to give up racket sports, I asked the doctor what a hyperactive guy in his mid-20s should do to ‘calm the nerves’. The direct answer was: “Either swimming or cycling. They will be the kindest to your back”. Well, that remark sowed a seed in my brain and, one day, I jumped on my £10 commuter, geared only by a 3 speed Sturmey Archer, and headed up towards Bowland Forest. Of course, the hills around the Trough of Bowland are murderous, even on a wide-geared bike, but through a combination of riding and walking, I managed to do a circuit and get back to the university campus. To put it mildly…..I was completely knackered.
But……..there was something about the whole experience that caught my attention……which eventually led to me buying a more suitable bike and, ultimately, joining a local club. And the rest? Well, of course, it’s history…… That was 37 years ago, and now my life-time mileage is approaching 200,000 miles.
So, when up in Lancashire last week, I simply had to re-visit this life-changing haunt…..do the full circuit of Bowland Forest, including the mighty Trough of Bowland.
Could I do it….albeit on a modern bike with a wider range of gears…..and now 37 years older? There was a lot of personal pride at stake…..none of us likes to admit that age might be robbing us of the wherewithal to do the things we used to do when younger.
Well, I won’t beat about the bush on this……..I did have to walk the last 100 metres of the climb, which should have made me feel gutted (because on my last attempt at Winnats Pass in Derbyshire, a steeper climb than this, I got to the top)….. but then on this attempt I did have a head-on 20mph wind….could I use that as a reasonable excuse?
Well, in the cold light of day, I thought about this carefully. There was no reason for not being able to climb it, other than the head wind and trying to do it on a double (front changer). One day, when I replace my current road bike, I will eat a bit of humble pie and have a triple put on the next one……then I can act my age and use the ‘granny ring’!
Sometimes a friendship on the blogosphere can materialise into a real-life encounter, and if you met on the net as a result of a common interest, then why not meet face-to-face and share that interest in real time?
On a recent trip to the North West, we had the good fortune to meet up with Will and his family, share a delicious meal at their table, and then go for a ride together. Now Will is no ordinary cyclist. He is one of that rare breed of cyclists who rides machines that will turn heads, and will engage him in endless conversations about the whys and wherefores of riding the recumbent bicycle.
On his own admission, it took him several weeks to become comfortable with the intricacies of riding one of these machines on the road. But as we headed up the road to take in some 28 miles of local hills and dales, climbing to nearly 900 feet…….
we came to appreciate that, what might seem to be an ungainly machine, with the rider in a semi-prone position, in reality it turned out to be very efficient and, of course, more comfortable than being perched on a saddle.
There are all kinds of arguments for and against riding recumbents, and I won’t rehearse them here. But if it’s comfort that you value most in your riding experience, then the recumbent is an obvious choice. I have played with the idea, on and off, for several years. Jenny and I have even test ridden one of the ‘Rolls Royces’ of the recumbent world
……so comfortable that when you take time out for a rest, you can actually have a snooze sitting back in the seat. We loved the machine….but it came at a heart-stopping price, and there were so many practicalities about owning one that we decided to step back from the brink.
But, without a doubt, a whole new cycling experience, and one that should have its own chapter in the history of cycling.
Cycling back from a Local History Society gathering this evening, I approached my home village of Kimbolton from the east, some 30 minutes before the setting of the sun. As I passed the east wing of Kimbolton Castle, my brakes applied automatically………
……and as I swung around to the west side, I peered through the Gatehouse, and the western frontage was bathed in that warm sunlight that only comes with the ending of the day.
If we open our eyes and look carefully at our familiar surroundings, searching for the extraordinary in the unremarkable, we will sometimes find those coveted diamonds in our own backyard. As T S Eliot once said “you will get to know the place for the first time”.
If you want to really know why Mark Cavendish crashed out of the Tour de France recently……..well, it was my fault, I guess. That very day, I began reading the second instalment of his memoirs entitled At Speed. It’s a bit like those time-honoured superstitions we have of the connectedness of the universe…..you do one thing, and something else automatically happens. Like washing your car or your house windows………it’s a sure-fire way of bringing on the rain.
I had planned the reading of this book to coincide with the ‘surety’ of Cav winning the first and third stages of the Tour here in the UK, both ideal stages for the sprinters and their teams. The only obstacle to that happening was going to be Marcel Kittel, who had stamped his authority on the Tour last year, in 2013 when, amongst other stages, he beat Cav on the iconic last stage on the Champs Elysée. No one had beaten Cav on this last stage in 4 years. How history was changed 12 months ago…….
This book was kindly loaned to me by a cycling friend. I had read the first instalment of his memoirs, Boy Racer, a few years ago, and now (as then) I had some reservations about dedicating valuable reading time to the memoirs of someone who (in autobiographical terms) is only recently ‘out of nappies’. Celebrity memoirs always appear to be just another attempt to create a further source of income for people who are already richly rewarded for their talents. They know that, at the height of their success and fame, there is a ready market out there that will rush to buy the latest volume of their musings.
My other great reservation hinges on the authorship of these volumes. They are invariably written by ghost writers (who don’t always receive the acknowledgement they deserve), using a register of language that is alien to the likes of Mark Cavendish. As Cav himself admits, his most frequently used adjective, both on and off the bike, is the f-word. So, how does he come up with expressions like ‘my raison d’étre as a cyclist’ and ‘doping was de rigeur‘……the language doesn’t seem to match the man.
Despite all this, the book is actually very well written and engaging, thanks to the talents of Daniel Friebe. It may not capture Cavendish’s voice exactly, but we do see the transition of the ‘boy racer’ into the ‘man racer’, someone who self-deprecatingly is coming to recognize his own weaknesses, and beginning to genuinely admire the strengths of his opponents, both on and off the bike. He is learning to bite his tongue, apologise when appropriate and, in general, pour oil on troubled waters as the need arises.
You might have been surprised, as I was, at the speed with which Cavendish admitted liability for the crash at the end of the first stage of the current Tour. That apology would never have come from the ‘boy racer’ just a few years earlier.
So, in three or four years from now, I am sure there will be another instalment, where we might see something of the ‘veteran Cav’ demonstrating to the world that he can become an ambassador for the sport, honing his talents as a pundit and, possibly, as a future team manager or coach.
No, this will not be a standard catalogue of reflections from someone who was roadside at the Tour de France coming out of Cambridge.
But it has to be said, in no other sport (I think….) will spectators stand for several hours (even camp out for several days) to catch so little live action. I was there 3 hours before the peloton arrived, and got to enjoy………wait for it…….believe me this is worth waiting for………. I got to enjoy all of 30 seconds of live action.
The peloton had left the neutralized zone just 500 metres up the road and they were winding up to racing speed as they left the city. Perhaps the most exciting bit was seeing two riders begin a very early break…….but that was it. 200 riders can easily pass you in 30 seconds…..and you don’t even get to pinpoint who is who in the bunch….it is just a wave of brightly coloured lycra topped by sleek aerodynamic helmets and shades.
But it’s amazing how roadies wearing their trademarked club kit find each other at these eventsand then after all the excitement (all 30 seconds of it…….), the numbers swell to five as they seek refreshment at the famous Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden, sitting in the shade of the very same apple trees (I guess) as did the First World War poet Rupert Brooke, who lived in the Old Vicarage next door (now Jeffrey & Mary Archer’s house).It’s a hard life!
Sometimes a book comes your way and, within a few pages, you realise it will have a special significance for you personally……in fact, it may disturbingly touch on subject matter that you yourself know intimately because you have lived through it.
I was loaned this book by a friend who knew a little of my childhood background. The author, John Cornwell, is some 9 years older than me, but we shared an identical experience in our teenage years…….namely, we had both been persuaded by a zealous parish priest that we might have a vocation to the Catholic priesthood…..and with the encouragement of family and friends, we had both abandoned the familiar environment of our homes at the age of 11 and enrolled to be educated in the quasi-monastic atmosphere of a boarding junior seminary. In the 1950s and 1960s, these colleges were bursting at the seams with pretenders to the priesthood. Both John and I were caught up in that huge wave of ‘thought-control’ and ‘religious hysteria’ that culminated, in a few short years, to an almighty crash. The Second Vatican Council of 1962, coupled with the worldwide earthquake in social mores and sexual freedom, led to the complete collapse of these institutions by the beginning of the 1970s, and a mass exodus of priests who gave up on their calling. It is estimated that some 100,000 priests worldwide asked to be laicised.
Any Catholic over the age of 50 will identify immediately with the subject matter of The Dark Box (Cornwell’s euphemism for the confessional, or labelled by someone else as the ‘vertical coffin’). He treats the ancient history of the practice, its use as a tool in the exercise of both spiritual and temporal power, leading up to the present day and its role in the escalation of sexual abuse amongst Catholic clergy. Ironically, the ‘dark box’ had been introduced into the practice of one-to-one confession during the 16th century, precisely to protect people (especially women) from the sexual advances of deviant clergy. But in the 20th century, with the age of starting confession being reduced to 7 years, the ‘dark box’ became a breeding ground for the grooming of small children by priests….which inevitably led to more serious crimes.
Worldwide, tens of thousands of priests have been held to account for their crimes (sadly many died before this could happen), but only after surmounting the decades of secrecy practised by the Catholic hierarchy. Many of these criminals were simply re-located, often to continue committing their crimes elsewhere, and their victims were sworn to secrecy under the threat of excommunication.
Having spent nearly 9 years in a seminary, I realise that I have been very fortunate not to have been the victim of any such encounter, but I was aware that some of my classmates mysteriously disappeared from the college without any explanation being given. John Cornwell himself was not so lucky. He had enough maturity to realise that he was being groomed by his confessor, and he simply walked away from it.
If you want to understand something of the background to the scandal that has rocked the Catholic church in recent years, this should be on your reading list.
Scarcely 20 years old, I found myself playing the role of best man at my brother’s wedding. After my excessively sheltered teenage years (spent in the ascetic confines of a boarding seminary) I knew nothing about drinking, night clubs and stag parties, but I was ‘reliably informed’ that a hangover the following morning was quickly remedied by a bit more of the same………meaning, of course, a couple of pints before the wedding ceremony.
I can’t comment on the truth of this piece of popular wisdom, but when people ask me “Have you recovered from the stresses and strains of your trek to Istanbul?”, I simply tell them that, no sooner home, I was back on the bike within 36 hours….this time with my wife on the back of the tandem. In other words, a bit more of the same…….well, not quite the same, because the refreshment stops came a little sooner, and lasted a little longer……;0)
Refreshing too is the release from the strictures that a tightly scheduled long-distance trek imposes on you. The following circular rides were done at a brisk, but relaxed, pace, and both were peppered with stops at tearooms and lunch venues to ‘chew the fat’ with old cycling friends, many of whom have personal cycling histories that put my own ventures into the shade. But more of that another time…….
The following was my out-and-back ride to meet up with the group to do another 25 miles together. These rides were the first accompanied rides I’d enjoyed in over 3000 miles……quite an adjustment, I can tell you.
My encounter with Burhan Sonmez in Istanbul put me in touch with the radical underbelly of politics in Turkey. A former pupil of mine from the 1980s kindly furnished me with his name and contact details, but that was all the information I had when I arranged to meet Burhan outside a school on Siraselviler Street.
He quickly identified this man in cycling lycra, and he took me for a walk along the 3 km pedestrianised street that led up to Taksim Square. As we surveyed the skyline of the square, he told me of the regime’s attempts in 2013 to remove trees and demolish buildings, to be replaced by a huge mosque and shopping mall. The young people of Istanbul showed their displeasure by congregating on the square to prevent the bulldozers from removing the trees. The trees became hugely symbolic of the widespread opposition to the regime, and within a few days the numbers of demonstrators had risen to over 1 million. Among them was Burhan Sonmez.
Later, as we sat in a restaurant frequented by academics, dissidents and Burhan’s friends in the legal profession, I not only learned how to sip raki with my meze, but the story of Burhan’s past began to unfold. A former human rights lawyer, 18 years ago he was beaten up by the police and left for dead. He managed to get out of Turkey, and came to England for medical treatment and therapy, ending up in Cambridge for a period of 10 years.
When he returned to Turkey, he devoted his attention to full-time writing and, with his second novel Sins and Innocents, he won the Sedat Simavi Literature Award, Turkey’s most prestigious literary award (on the level of our Man Booker prize in the UK).
A thinly veiled auto-biographical novel, the story is made up of a series of short vignettes, alternating their location between Brani Tawo’s past in Turkey, and the present in Cambridge, and his relationship with an Iranian exile called Feruzeh. Both characters from distant, but neighbouring countries, and both living as political exiles in a foreign country. Midst their shared trauma and deep nostalgia, their love grows against the background of Brani’s childhood memories, stories and songs.
When I discovered Burhan was to pay a visit to Cambridge in August, I jumped at the opportunity to invite him to Kimbolton, to spend an evening sharing his story and his writings with an audience of sympathetic listeners. Now that his writings are being translated into English, we are going to see much more from his pen filtering through to the English speaking world.
No matter where in the world I cycle, there is nothing quite like meandering the country lanes of home. This field of flowering borage re-connected me with the route I have just completed to Istanbul: the route of the First Crusade of 1096.
I wonder if their stirrup cups were filled with borage?
Amongst the myriad trivia that filter into a long-distance cyclist’s empty brain are comparisons. They range from: comparing the steepness and elevation of a climb to already familiar climbs at home or in other parts of the world; the distance to the next way-point compared to a similar route at home…….and many more.
As I day-dreamed on the plane back from Istanbul, my mind played on some very interesting speed comparisons between different modes of transport. These have been so consistently correct, that they have become almost infallible guides to my potential progress when I am planning a new venture.
When I cycled from my home to Santiago de Compostela, in NW Spain, I met hundreds of walkers going in the same direction. Compared to an averagely fit walker, I would easily cover in 1 day what he/she covered in 4/5 days. So when I said goodbye to a walker, I was confident I wouldn’t meet him/her again……unless they cheated and used public transport (and that did happen!).
When I compare my speed with that of a car, barring the 80 mph done by many along motorways, what a car generally covers in 2 hours, would take me a whole day in the saddle. So the differential is much the same as between a cyclist and walker.
However, when I compare my meagre progress on the bike with that of a passenger jet, the differential takes on a different complexion. Had I gone directly to Istanbul, without any city stops, the journey would have been a comfortable 4 weeks. My flight back to London was 4 hours…….ergo……? Yes, you’ve got it. In the time it takes you to have an aperitif and eat your airline meal, I will take a full week to cover that same distance.
So, the next time you are flying to a holiday destination, staring aimlessly out of the cabin window, look beneath you to the land below (difficult, of course, if you are flying over water!) and try to imagine yourself on a bicycle 10,000 feet below, spinning away trying to keep pace with that jet airline above you.
However, there was one motorised form of transport I could outpace. The days I spent riding along the banks of the Danube, I encountered dozens of river cruisers and cargo boats plying their routes up and down the river. If I edged my speed up above 25 kms per hour, I found myself gradually overtaking these enormously long vessels……..nothing better for lending further power to those pedals!
When a traveller goes back home after his adventure, what must he do………? Of course, he must go out and find a few tokens of love for his dear long suffering wife, and his cheerleader daughter. But for this traveller it means engaging in an activity as foreign to him as football: shopping. Both sports seem to entail a lot of pointless running around, and frequently to no effect.
When I eventually found one of the 25 entrances to the biggest Bazaar in Turkey, the Grand Bazaar,
and walked into a vast indoor network of ‘snickets’ and ‘ginnels’ of nearly 5000 touting stallholders, I knew I would rapidly sink into a state of complete paralysis. I mean, I have a problem deciding what to buy when the choice is any one of two, so when that field of choice expanded to several thousand, and every stallholder was giving me a “Hello, how are you?” as their prologue in the battle to be the first to get my money, I knew I was in trouble.
Solution? Go and have a bite of lunch to think about it.
Result? Well that would be telling, wouldn’t it? But it did clear the mind, and this intrepid shopper marched straight back into the warren, did his business, and then, of course, couldn’t find his way out.
Once you are in the thick of a huge bazaar like this, there is no way of following a breadcrumb trail to get back out. Like being in a thick forest with no compass, you simply keep on walking until you spy daylight.
Once out into the open, I had no idea where I was, and the city map was of no use. Solution? I switched on the GPS on my phone and followed navigational instructions, which got me out of the warren of streets and back to the hostel.
And no, I didn’t buy this “tayt pantalon”……much too like the tight drainpipes of the 1960s.
If you have followed some, or all, of this journey to Istanbul, thank you for your company. Apart from those who click ‘like’ or leave a comment, I don’t know who you are, but I really do appreciate your interest. Having readers inspires the writing and sharing, and that is what non-commercial blogging is all about.
When people tell me they have been to England, then qualify it by saying they only went to London, I sometimes gently point out they haven’t really been to England. The same goes for any ‘honeypot’ tourist destination, and it certainly goes for Istanbul. My arrival in Istanbul was preceded by nearly ten days of cycling through some of the remoter regions of west Turkey, where tourists are rarely seen, and a living is still laboriously squeezed out of small plots of land or meagre herds of goats.
The humble people in the countryside welcomed me warmly as a fellow human being, gave me glasses of tea and waved goodbye as I headed off. In Istanbul, however, I am simply an economic unit on legs. Traders and touters steadfastly ignore fellow Turks in favour of the ‘bags o’ money’ foreign visitor, and they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. For instance, no sooner had I stepped out of a restaurant having eaten, a waiter from the restaurant next door tried to persuade me to step over his threshold. Even when I told him I had already eaten, he insisted. “maybe you wanna dessert…or a nice Turkish coffee?”. Please go away and leave me alone…..! We Brits don’t like having our personal space invaded.
As a city, Istanbul is very much ‘in your face’, but it is also a captivating place. My visit to the Topkapi Royal Palace provided a stunning panorama of the Bosphorus
as well as an insight into the gloriously self-indulgent lives of the Ottoman sultans, who not only had several wives, but also a harem of concubines to keep them busy. One sultan officially had 15 sons and 18 daughters….and I’m told he died a happy man…..
The backpacker’s hostel I’m staying in has a lot of fascinating people arriving and leaving in a constant flow, and some even of my own generation. Like Roger
a UK born Australian living in Melbourne….he’s here pursuing his amateur passion for photography and shipping, so is spending hours every day monitoring traffic flow through the Bosphorus. Then there’s Alexander
from Russia in the same dorm as me. We had no language in common until I discovered he had been in Cuba long enough to pick up some basic Spanish. So an Englishman communicated with a Russian via Spanish….how rare must that be.
Then when I met Agacir from Brazil (middle)
we chatted at length over a range of topics, somehow taking advantage of the Latin-based connectedness between Spanish and Portuguese. And no, he wasn’t in Europe just to escape the world cup, but had come to visit his son Alex
who is doing a study placement at Budapest University in Hungary. And they weren’t the only parent and child partnership I’ve met these last few days.
And in case your wondering how you might deal with a bad day at work, take note of this
It may not be a cure for the bad day, but…….
I stand corrected….having suggested in previous posts that Turkey is an Islamic state, Yunus (the Turkish Kurd I met in Bursa) put me right: Turkey is a secular state, and has been such for nearly 100 years, ever since Ataturk swept out the Ottoman dynasties, and ushered in a new period of Turkish history. This included separating church and state, adopting the Latin alphabet and converting to the Gregorian calendar. These changes were radical, almost seismic, but the country weathered the storm.
Symbolic of this radical shift is the once religious temple (but now museum) Hagia Sophia.
Founded under Constantine the Great, for a thousand years it was the seat of eastern Christendom, but was converted into a mosque with the advent of the Ottomans in the 15th century. In recognition of its mixed history and dual ownership, Ataturk ordered it to be decommissioned as a religious building, and had it converted into a museum, thus restoring some of the ancient mosaics destroyed by the Ottomans.
That restoration process will be ongoing for several more years, so the interior scaffolding looks set to stay for a while.
If you look at a plan of Istanbul, you will see there is a mosque on almost every street corner. They form part of the fabric of life in Turkey, and not just religious life. They are social meeting points and resting places
and children play while their parents are attending to their prayer rituals. Today I sat on the comfortably carpeted floor of a mosque just to observe, and what I saw was a constant stream of men
coming in to perform their own private prayer ritual, or joining up with others in a straight line to pray in unison, or sit quietly in a wing to read and study the Koran
In other words, the serious business of prayer and study was woven into the very fabric of day to day living.
Although getting to Istanbul meant cycling across an entire continent and two time zones, today I simply hopped on a regular ferry, paid just over £1, and went to Asia…..and it only took 15 minutes!
Of course, the Bosphorus is the dividing line between Europe and Asia, so not only is Turkey a country of two continents, so is Istanbul itself.
Does that happen with any other city/country in the world?
Jumped on the bike this morning, saddle sores now a distant memory, to do the 25kms to the ferry port in Mudanya….but hadn’t bargained on this ‘lumpy bit’ on the way
…so glad I had a fresher pair of legs to tackle it. When I got to the port, I asked directions to the ticket office from someone who spoke very good English, and it turned out he worked as a chef (in an Italian restaurant, of all things!) in Camden Town. One of his family party had dropped out from their trip, so he sold me his spare ticket. Otherwise I wouldn’t have got on board…..this high speed catamaran was completely sold out, everyone carrying suitcases on this passenger-only ferry, so I was surprised when they let me on with the bicycle. And the 2 hour trip across the Marmara Sea cost the princely sum of £4 (5 euros). You can’t get much cheaper than that.
And disembarkation was perfectly situated for the historic centre of Istanbul. Within 20 minutes I was checking into a Lonely Planet recommended backpackers hostel, which promised an open rooftop terrace for sleeping.
I have very pleasant memories of visiting Athens when I was a student, and sleeping on an open rooftop overlooking the illuminated Acropolis. It was magic.
Well, the 22 bed dorm where I will lay my head tonight is not on the roof, but on the floor beneath , but still with a completely open aspect, and this stunning view of the magnificent Hagia Sophia
…I will see it from my bed, illuminated, at wakeful moments during the night.
Now let me ask you a question: is it better to pay £7 (8 euros) per night B&B for this, or pay ten times the amount to be cocooned in an air conditioned hotel? And to boot, backpackers make great company. They are invariably young adventurous people, who come from around the globe, and have interesting stories to tell.
Of course, I don’t yet know if I’ll have the company of a snorer tonight…..but it’s a gamble worth taking.
When I asked the young lad on reception about where to store the bike, he said “no, problem, I’ll help you carry it up to the balcony in your dorm”…..that’s up three flights of a spiral staircase!
Nothing was too much trouble.
(As I pen this post at 17.10, a few dozen mosques in the vicinity have just started their call to prayer, and the combined wailing is reverberating around the city).
So, another end to yet another journey.I exceeded my calculated estimate by over 1000kms….but I’m not complaining. I got to see a few places that weren’t on my original itinerary, and I wasn’t disappointed with any of them. I also now have three full days in Istanbul, a prospect that gave a degree of urgency to the daily mileages. And I know I will not be disappointed. This is a city I’ve been longing to visit for a long time.
If you want my fleeting impressions of Istanbul, stay with me.
The first day in over 5 weeks that I did not climb on the bike…..how strange…. In fact, I climbed on a bus to go the very hilly 5kms into town….again, very strange.
Everywhere I go, I feel people watching me. They obviously think I’m a foreigner….I’ve no idea why…the way I dress perhaps? People simply come up to me to try out their bit of English….and it’s usually the same 4 or 5 questions….you know, the ones they always test in an oral exam (I’m an ex-language teacher, so I know all about these things).
In my first few days in Turkey, I got the impression everybody had a fixation about age. Everybody was asking “How old you are?”. Then would come “Where you from?” and “What your name?”. And that’s when most of them are done….there’s nothing more to explore. One guy, who spoke a little more English, told me that Turkish men of my age just sit down and drink tea all day….and sometimes they play backgammon (or what I call sitting in the waiting room for the hearse to arrive).
Turkish people simply do not ride bikes….for any reason. Until yesterday, I don’t recall seeing a single Turkish person on a bike….but then I met this young man, who had dropped by the service station to fill his water bottles
…on his very first cycle tour, but sadly going in the opposite direction, with his two mates across the road
…and he was excited about it. It was great to see. But where did he and his mates get the idea from? For sure, there are no role models in Turkey.
My first visit today in Bursa was to the Yesil (Green) Mosque and tomb
…and my self-absorption was interrupted by a Turkish Kurd called Yunus
…no ordinary chap this….he is an expert tile restorer, and had been commissioned to repair the damage of centuries of wear and tear to the mosque interior. For half an hour, I had my own personal guide, rounded off with a glass of tea in his studio.
Later in the day, when I eventually found Ataturk’s residence in Bursa, the warden gave me a tour of the house, showed me old photos of the great man
…then took me out to the garden for ……yep, you’ve guessed…..another glass of tea
…his name was Cetin, another Turkish Kurd, and I noticed he had a little leather-bound volume in his hand. I asked him if it was a copy of the Koran, he said yes and opened it to show me. Of course, I expected it to be written in Turkish….but no, it was in Arabic, and he proceeded to chant a whole page for me
following the script, from right to left, with his finger. I was quite moved by his spontaneous sincerity….and afterwards, he told me the Koran was like a brother to him.
When I entered the Grand Mosque, I found this little boy pure entertainment.
First he played the muezzin, standing in the mirhab, chanting the prayers…until security chased him. A while later, he joined the men doing their ritual ablutions
…and again, security chased him away until his mother caught up with him. I loved it.
But outside, I discovered a number of children engaged in a novel way of begging (and they weren’t really poor…they just wanted money for sweets)
….they tied string across the walkway, like a trip wire, in the hope you would give them a few coins so as not to trip you up.
And amazingly, I saw people giving them money.
On the way back to my hotel, I looked in on a Turkish Bath, looked down on the swimming pool and spied a young mother in full burka,
only her eyes visible, watching her children playing in the pool. As a non-Muslim, and a foreigner, I failed to understand that situation.
But then there is much about the Turkish way of life that I have yet to understand.