Though the political border between Greece and Turkey lay a few hundred miles and several days’ ride to the west, Istanbul itself offered us an elegant illustration not only the geographical but the volatile and complex cultural boundary between Europe and Asia. As dramatically as the Bosphorous slices the city and the two continents in half, a sense of the schizophrenic nature of the region’s history and present seemed very much in the air. Of course, there’s the whole Constantinople/Istanbul thing, from being the capital of the Roman/ Byzantine Empire to that of the Ottoman. But travelling from the border to Istanbul, we were frequently reminded of the turbulence of Turkey’s more recent relationship with Europe. As the nationalist narratives of the twentieth century played themselves out, perhaps nowhere overhauled its cultural identity as dramatically as Turkey, under the influence of Mustafa Kemal Attatürk, whose drive to modernise the country included adopting the Roman alphabet, banning the fez, overhauling the education system and establishing an officially secular democratic state. Although this did not occur in a vacuum – the late Ottoman Empire had been gradually shifting its perspective westwards – the impacts such a sudden, top-down attempt to realign the national psyche are still playing themselves out today. Many people we’ve spoken to since crossing into Turkey (of course, self-selecting as well-educated English speakers interested in chatting to Europeans) described their perceptions of a country slipping back towards a more and more religious orientation, suggesting that the Kemalist reforms had failed to substantially alter a basically religious national psyche to any great extent, especially as you move east from Istanbul. We met an English teacher who railed against increasing Islamic extremism in his country (and ours for that matter); the director of a children’s arts centre who explained the local gallery had its funding pulled by the town’s mayor who disapproved of art for religious reasons; a biology teacher whose house had been pelted by stones after she taught her students evolution. We even heard tell of a man who had been stoned to death by a mob for drinking beer in the street. And while the government has become more tolerant towards public expressions of religion – lifting the ban on headscarves at universities, for example – its increasingly autocratic and repressive approach to civil rights under Erdogan is also a source of concern to the more liberal-minded. Our stay in Istanbul coincided with May Day, and we were strongly advised by, well, everyone, including strangers on the street, to stay well away from Taksim Square, where police opened fire on peaceful protesters last year. Indeed, everyone seemed to be staying indoors on May Day: even in the usually-bustling backstreets of bohemian Kadiköy on the other (Asian) side of Istanbul where we were staying with our wonderful hostess Şebnem, almost the entire local population seemed to have decided to spend the national holiday locked up safely at home.
And so, among the European-oriented post-Kemalist generation, there seemed to be a sense of an era drawing to a close and an uncertain future based on ideals they did not share ahead, as we discussed at length with Şebnem and her brother Erdem (thanks again to both for their great hospitality, and to Ben for the contacts!). While Istanbul was a fantastic city to visit, the fear and violence lurking under the surface on May Day was a poignant reminder of the fragility of freedom, and how swiftly it can be taken away. With our usual apathy towards being tourists, we covered only a few of the city’s sights. Particularly enjoyable for me was a mission to seek out 8-9th century Viking graffiti in the Hagia Sofia, having edited a couple of fascinating articles on the topic over winter. It turns out that when not conducting annual raids on the outer reaches of Byzantine Empire (a kind of medieval equivalent of a trip to Ikea, but with axes instead of credit cards) the Vikings would roll up in Constantinople to fight as mercenaries in its army instead. Christianity not having really penetrated Scandinavia at that point, a visit to the Hagia Sofia must have been a pretty exotic and impressive experience at first, but, as the priests droned on in an incomprehensible language, ultimately rather boring, judging by the profusion of carefully-carved dogs, double-headed axes, dragon-headed longships and runic inscriptions (spelling out masterpieces along the lines of “Hagar woz ere”).
Another highlight was the “Little Hagia Sofia”, a delightful 6th century Byzantine church which currently serves as a mosque; a haven of peace and tranquillity after the endless barrage of tourists surging through the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
On Erdem’s advice, we skipped the traffic and left Istanbul by ferry up the Bosphorous to the Black Sea coast. The remaining afternoon brought fantastic scenery, but some very tough riding on steep unmetalled roads – lots of pushing the bike for me, though John as always, managed to stay on the saddle, or at least the pedals. On first night on the road we discovered our petrol stove wasn’t working – particularly embarrassing since I’d insisted (against John’s preference) on posting the alcohol-burning Trangia back from Crete because we hadn’t really used it on the road thus far and I was getting sick of lugging it around. However, our determination to enjoy a tasty hot dinner was not to be undermined. We dug a fire pit and built a good pile of embers up. With the frying pan resting on Beau and Izzy’s grill (thanks yet again guys!) a tasty chicken and pepper sauce was soon knocked up, mopped up and gulped down with bread – our first meal cooked entirely without the aid of a stove. The stove, however, was the first of a series of time-consuming problems that have harried us since Istanbul. The next day, a bolt fell out of my SPD cleat (the clip that locks shoe to pedal), resulting in an afternoon spent faffing around trying to find a bike shop. In the end we were directed to a motorbike and cycle workshop in Şile (which we’d stupidly passed earlier and not stopped at). The friendly mechanic found a bolt that more-or-less fitted and, rather alarmingly, held it in his fingers while cutting it to length with an angle grinder and filing it down with an electric file. As the sparks flew around us, I couldn’t help noticing he was already missing a couple of digits, and hoped he didn’t sever any more while fixing my shoe. Embarrassingly, he wouldn’t accept payment, which was surely due for the risk, if not the actual cost of the bolt. I offered him dried figs – all I had to hand; he took one and insisted on giving me 2 cucumbers! Even more embarrassed now, I decided it was best not to offer him anything else lest the situation escalate and I walk away with a new bike or something. That evening John dismantled and cleaned the stove as well as was possible while working on a plastic sheet on the forest floor with the evening drawing in. Miraculously, he finished just before the light failed and a big wind swept in from the sea, carrying storms and torrential rain in its wake. The next day was spent sheltering in the tent, ensuring our progress along the Black Sea coast remained glacial. Though our wooded nook of a campsite was delightful, the wet conditions meant that by the time we escaped the woods onto the road, the bikes were so caked in mud it took an hour to clean them, poking sticks under the mudguards. To compound the increasing sense of mechanical oppression, a fluffed gear change as I rode into a village being chased by aggressive dogs while dodging amused but unhelpful locals led to my chain getting caught in the front deraileur, wrenching the latter out of position. Having fixed that, we hauled ourselves up to the top of the next hill and camped in some jolly woods, where we were greatly entertained by the local dogs (quite possibly the same ones who chased us through the village) who liked to howl along to the calls to prayer from the various mosques in the area. However, the following morning we realised that the wallet was missing from my handlebar bag. The next day was spent talking to police, retracing our steps back to yesterday’s lunch spot where we last remembered having it, and calling various banks to cancel cards. Throughout the whole run of bad luck, we remained constantly buoyed by the beauty of the area – some positively bucolic mountain villages and spectacular coastline – and the friendliness and generosity of the people we met. Everywhere we’ve been, we’ve been called over to drink tea, plied with food, and generally been treated with great hospitality. I can muster enough Turkish now to ask permission to camp, which means we don’t always have to hide in the woods away from civilization. A lazy golden evening camping on the village common, two local girls muster up the courage to approach and empty their pockets of a gift of little green fruits they’ve been gathering for us in the woods. The end of a hard day’s ride and an invitation to stay in a hilltop village picnic site; a group of two guys and two girls barely give make eye contact as we set up camp, but before they pack up and go they bring us cups of tea, as does a neighbour the next morning. And some good advice from a customer at a butcher’s shop during a midday shopping expedition results in us stopping on the beach in Filyos, a surprisingly unknown/ undeveloped beach town with an amazing history, having been inhabited by the Persians (who were driven out by Alexander), the Romans, the Genoese and the Ottomans. It boasts a Roman amphitheatre, an aqueduct (also Roman?), a Genoan (14-15th century) fort, a ruined Byzantine church, and a huge sandy beach, unfortunately marred by a massive brick factory right next to it that makes a right racket all through the night, as we discovered when we camped in an adjoining picnic site.
It was also home to the cultural centre mentioned above, run by Hurriyet Yıldız, a musician and former English teacher, who invited us over for a very enjoyable jam session.
Our last few days have been spent in the picturesque town of Amasra, an Unesco world heritage site, which we reckoned (correctly) would be a pleasant place to stop while we wait for a replacement credit card to arrive. With a dramatic setting surrounded a ring of steep hills, it is reached by hauling up a long pass, zooming through a long straight tunnel descent and swooping triumphally along a sweeping curve down into town.
The ancient port town is a kind of figure-of-eight shape, formed of a spit of land and an island connected by a bridge, with sweeping harbours on either side. Rambling fort walls, Ottoman period stone-and-wood houses, and its pleasant (if slightly litter-strewn) beaches make it a popular draw for tourists. We were, however, profoundly shocked as we took an evening stroll along the shore to discover the enormous rubbish dump between the cliffs and the sea, marking the western edge of the town. Not really what you expect of a World Heritage site. On the other hand, they do make giant spiral-shaped crisps on a stick here, which is bloody great.
We’ve got a cosy room in a pension with a friendly family, and the Ada Café, up on the Byzantine fort walls, has proven an inspiring spot for blog-writing. Despite a few difficulties over the last couple of weeks, it’s hard to feel too unlucky.