Friday, October 23, 2009

Whiskey, beer and Eilan donnan

Headed out early and stopped near our hostel at Taliskers Distillery. Had to wait a little while for it to open but when they did we signed up for a tour and enjoyed our free dram of 10 year old single malt whiskey (much nicer than the stuff back in Ullapool). The tour was great except for the American guy who just had to ask a question at every stage, and usually something that the guide had just got done explaining anyway. Still very interesting stuff.

Made our way off the Island and soon found Eilan Donnan castle, a fully restored castle on the water with a piper busking in the car park to add a touch of atmosphere. Got the full history of the castle as we explored it including the recreated kitchens which were full of plastic food, plastic kitchen staff and ‘realistic’ kitchen sound effects lol.It was a little weird though as the castle is still in use as a holiday home for members of the clan so it felt a little bit like walking through someone’s bedroom with lots of family photos everywhere. Enjoyed a cup of tea and scones with clotted cream before embarking on the long drive past Ben Nevis (which was hidden by drizzle) to Fort William.

Squeezed in a little shopping and drove in circles a lot cos the directions we got for our hostel were so confusing (lucky there are so many roundabouts) but eventually found the Cullanan bunkhouse where we were staying. Cooked ourselves another delicious dinner and headed out on the town which was very quiet. Wound up in a pub called the Grog and Gruel sampling some of the local beers. The Young Pretender from the Isle of Skye was particularly tasty if anyone’s ever in the area.

there is another...Skyewalker

Headed out of Ullapool very early and stopped for breakfast in the Plate Café (because the walls were covered in commemorative plates including several Star Trek ones) at a hotel outside of town. Took a small detour along the way to see the ruins of Stroan castle and then continued on til we eventually crossed Skye bridge and arrived on the Isle of Skye. After a few u-turns and we finally found Skyewalker hostel and which has a lifesize cutout of Luke Skywalker draped in tartan to greet you in reception – love it!!

We were too early to check in but the very friendly owner, Lisa gave us a few tips and we were soon on our way. Found a supermarket and stuffed ourselves on lunch in the car and then set out to explore the top part of the island. First we wanted to find a set of standing stones, which we did. They were 3 small rocks on the side of the road which were distinctly underwhelming. Then there was meant to be the ruins of another broch which we never managed to find. Ewan’s Castle also proved elusive but we did eventually find ourselves overlooking the stunning rock formations of Cuith-Raing.

Got in a bit of hiking along the base of the stunning crags which warmed us a bit, but not for long as our next stop at the ruins of Dunstal castle was so chilly we had to jog out to the castle on a cliff, take a few pics and jog back to the car, brrr! Missed the Flora MacDonald memorial (Skye is beautiful but distinctly lacking in signposts sadly) and headed back towards the hostel with a stopover for a tasty dinner (but no Haggis for Sarah to try sadly) by the fire at the Old Inn.

Isle of Lewis

Following a tip from the Ullapool hostel owners, we set out after a slightly frantic start to the say, for the Isle of Lewis. This meant a 3 hour ferry ride from Ullapool so we decided to give Fabio a couple days off and left him outside the hostel while stocked up on snacks at the supermarket and jumped on the ferry. Tried to sit outside and enjoy the view but it was freezing so we were soon lured inside by the comfy couches and hot tea in the lounge. Got a bit of drama on the trip when a drunk woman was thought to have fallen overboard but turns out she was passed out near us so all okay.

Arrived on the Isle of Lewis in the small port town of Stornoway where we checked into the excellent Heb Hostel. We had been told in Ullpool that we could hire bikes to see the sites around the island but when we asked our new hotel owner, we learnt that the main thing we wanted to see was 18 miles away over a bunch of hills, no thankyou. Instead scarfed down a quick lunch and jumped on a bus to Callendish stones.

Out in the middle of a bunch of lakes and sheep farms is a small hill, atop which are the Callendish Standing stones, a cross shaped formation of 20 or so stones with a central circle of stones. You could walk amongst and touch the stones which was very cool and there were very few people around (other than a group of 3 who were very into the druid thing) so it was a very cool place to see. Spent a long time there as the views of the surrounding areas were pretty good as well, then jumped back on the bus which took us on the scenic route around the island and eventually back into Stornoway.

Decided to eat in for a change and headed to Tesco where we stocked up on supplies for a feast. May have gone a little crazy as we ended up with lots of food but it was lots of fun cooking (and by cooking I mean my job was microwaving the ready meals while the others made an awesome salad and rosemary bread) and sharing a bottle of wine in the nice warm kitchen. After dinner we hung out with some of the other guests in the common room where I got some info on Provost Skene’s house in Aberdeen from a professional story teller. Rounded out the evening with cheese cake, hot chocolate and marshmallows before heading to bed.

Had a nice sociable breakfast in the morning and had fun window shopping around town on our way to Lew’s Castle just on the edge of Stornoway. The castle itself is closed up (though they are in the process of fixing it up so it can be returned to public use) but the grounds are stunning so we went for a nice long walk through them, eventually ending up on a headland overlooking the town. Just had time for lunch and a little more shopping before jumping on the ferry back to Ullapool. Checked back into the hostel and prepared another delicious feast for ourselves before accidentally crashing the end of someone’s 80th birthday when we went back to the bar with the free wi-fi. That was probably the highest concentration of kilt wearers we saw all trip :P

On to Ullapool

As I was the only one who managed to get any sleep courtesy of a verrrrry loud snorer in the dorm (I’ll sleep through anything except being stared at apparently) it was my turn to drive. After a nice healthy breakfast and having stocked up on food for the day we started by exploring Smoo cave, an enormous cave with a waterfall inside it cut into the cliffs on the coast. I only wish the tours of the cave interior were still running but they are seasonal and had stopped a few weeks earlier. Still, we managed a pretty good exploration of what we could get to and had fun climbing up and down the cliffs to reach the cave so that was our exercise before another long day of driving.

Just outside of town came across a whole flock of adorable sheep (I swear Scottish sheep look like overgrown bunnies!) being herded across the road so had to slow to a crawl for 10 minutes to avoid squishing any of them…and because everyone was taking photos from their cars, but after that it was smooth driving through increasingly stunning scenery all day. Stopped in a parking area (of which the Scottish government has thoughtfully provided many cos you just want to stop and take photos every few minutes) for a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking one of the most tranquil and beautiful bits of scenery you’re ever likely to find. A little further on we stopped again in the tiny town of Kylesku for a few cups of tea and a short walk through the rain on the waterfront.

More driving and we found the ruins of Ardvek castle. All that remains, other than the walls of a supposedly haunted country house nearby, is a tall ruined tower sitting on a small jut of land which becomes an island when the tide is in, which sadly it was when we visited but still very picturesque and we had plenty of fun squelching over the boggy ground in the rain trying to get as close as possible to it.

Driving, driving, driving and we arrived in Ullapool, a lovely little town on the coast that was just full of cafes and gift shops. Did a little window shopping and stopped for another cup of tea and scones until it was time to check into the Ullapool Youth Hostel, right on the waterfront so we had stunning views of the harbour from our room. Did some much needed laundry and headed out to an award winning pub for dinner, and then relocated to another pub (free wifi :P) for a few glasses of wine. Maggie and Sarah tried the single malt whiskey that had been recommended…it was not a huge hit.

Into the higlands

After a tasty free breakfast in the dining hall we spent a little while exploring the castle before checking out and driving along more of those twisty roads (not any less nerve racking during the daylight) to Shin falls. Fought our way through a bus load of tourists (well there were about 10 of them at the falls, I’m not sure the others got any further than the gift shop to be honest) to the small but lovely falls where you could see the salmon jumping as they tried to swim upstream. Went for a nice stroll through the surrounding woodlands and headed a little further along to Ferrycroft for more walking.

First we hiked up the bare Ord hill, past the remains of a few ancient circular houses (I guess you have to use your imagination cos all we could see was piles of dirt) to a huge cairn and small collection of standing stones and a spectacular view from the top. From the base of the hill we then walked through Ferrywood which was full of lush pine trees, lakes and moss with the remains of a wall and broch (tower) at the end.

It was a good thing we did a bit of walking too as after that it was a long day of driving through beautiful, and very empty countryside up into the hills and towards the coast. Eventually found a pub in the tiny cliff top town of Melness for a very delicious late lunch (though we were so hungry by then anything would have tasted good). A few more hours of driving brought us to the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse above the ocean at Durness. Relaxed around the bunkhouse a little too long so when we set out to find dinner, everything was closed (and by everything I mean the supermarket and the small store that claimed it stayed open until 10pm – liar!). We were 20 minutes too late for food to still be served at the pub but I think they saw the desperation in our eyes and very kindly let us order what was left from the nights menu, which meant an enormous serving of tasty fish and chips each, yummy. Stuck around for a couple beers afterwards and even scored a free round from one of the army guys that had filled the bar at some point before racing back to the bunkhouse cos it was bloody cold outside!


Headed out early the next morning and met the others to pick up our hire a car, a nice little Skoda Fabia (that we soon nicknamed Fabio) with, thankfully, lots of space in the boot. Did a couple loops around town trying to pick up my luggage from the hostel and working the confusing Scottish road system (apparently it all hinges on roundabouts) and we soon found ourselves a park so Sarah went to get pampered while Maggie and I had a look at the castle with its monument to Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald and the pretty churches around town, though sadly we couldn’t get inside any of them.

After another tasty lunch on the riverbank we drove a little way out of town to the Culloden battlefield where the Jacobite rising under Bonnie Prince Charlie came to a pretty decisive end with most of the Jacobite army being killed by English troops in the first hour of the battle. There was a really interesting museum explaining the rising and the lead up to the battle from both sides and a 360 degree video of the fighting before you headed out onto the battlefield itself. The moor is big, flat and quite tranquil with only one small cottage, red and blue flags marking the front lines of the two armies and the small clan stones marking the mass graves of the Jacobite troops. Pretty chilling though very interesting. A little further out of town we found the Calva Cairns, a set of 3 ancient stone burial mounds, each surrounded by a ring of standing stones.

Had better luck with our evening plans this time around and after dinner we met a very tall and eccentric kilted Scotsman called Cameron for the Crime and Punishment tour around Inverness. We were the only ones so we got a private tour which was nice. Heard all about the various gruesome deaths and strange things about town…iin between rants about Scottish independence and warnings that if we didn’t laugh at his jokes he’d throw us into the River Ness (I assume he was kidding but we kept laughing just in case:P). So we learned about the last man to be hanged in Inverness who was buried under the front door of the police station and has ever since been dug up and reburied under the front door whenever the police station moved, the gruesome 3 day long execution of one man by the English widow of an early Scottish King in retaliation for his role in her husband’s murder and saw the old graveyard where many of the surviving Jacobite prisoners were executed after Culloden.

Sarah then bravely drove us in the dark along a series of winding single track roads way out into the middle of the countryside where we eventually found Carbisdale Castle, our hostel for the night. The inside was all antique furnishings (except the bedrooms which were your standard dorm bunkbeds), statues, paintings, stained glass windows and even a few resident ghosts which we learned about because there were a few girls in our dorm who were staking out the ‘spook room’ for the night. Not sure how much success they had but I personally didn’t spot anything too spooky sadly.

The search for Nessie

After a fun filled 14 hour bus ride from London to Inverness, I met Maggie and Sarah (they flew up in 1/14 of the time it took me to get there :P) bright and early and we set out to explore Inverness which is a very nice little town. Ate lunch on the banks of the Ness River and then joined a Jacobite Sensation tour group led by our guide George, an elderly and very funny Scot with the best voice for reading children’s books I’ve ever heard. He drove us out to Clansman port where we jumped on a small boat for a half hour cruise on Loch Ness (no sign of the monster sadly but it is very beautiful out there).

Armed with hot chocolate we arrived at the shores of the Loch and were left to explore the ruins of Urquat castle which were very picturesque and had some sections still climbable so that was a lot of fun. Back onto the bus and we drove to Drumnadrochit to visit the Loch Ness visitor centre, a 6 room audio visual journey through the history of the Loch from the ice age to the present and mostly exploring the history and legen of the mysterious Nessie...I don’t even want to think about how much money it must have cost for the fleet of sonar boats and other technology that’s been used over the years trying to find the poor creature!

Back in town we separated for dinner and then reunited later hoping to do ghost tour of the town but apparently it wasn’t on that night since we were the only ones at the meeting place so instead we went on our own evening tour of the town which was lovely with all the churches and the castle all lit up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Phantom and the Ripper

Finally found a day for all three of us to spend together in London. Set out early for Camden Town to enjoy the sprawling markets in the area which have some seriously funky stuff. Enjoyed a tasty lunch on the banks of Camden Lock and headed to the West End to see Phantom of the Opera. It was an excellent production and the scenery changes where as brilliant as I rembered. The cast was really good, the highlight being the 2 owners who were very funny. Did a little shopping after the show and then raced back to the hostel for a quick luggage repacking.

Walked back over to Tower Hill where we met a huge group and the 2 Steves from London Walks for the Jack the Ripper Tour. We followed our Steve around the East End where he showed us many of the locations of the murders and gave us all the gory details along the way. Finished near the Ten Bells pub which was around during the Ripper’s spree and we had a delicious meal, nice bottle of wine and a few free shots of Limoncello to finish of the London leg of the trip.

A Right Royal Outing

With my London Pass now Expired I was faced with the dire prospect of having to pay for admission to things again! Luckily I was able to find a few cheaper attractions to keep myself entertained for the day.

Started at the Clink Prison Museum, an underground museum built near the site of the original Clink prisons, the last of which burnt down during the Gordon Riots. Its another fabulous museum filled with cheesy recreations of scenes and sounds of life in London’s most notorious prison, with a few instruments of torture thrown in to liven things up.

From there, walked across the Millennium bridge and was waiting to cross a street when a bunch of police bikes raced past escorting Prince Charles and Camilla on an outing. Couldn’t get to my camera in time but got a wave from Charles which was pretty exciting. A little further on I found the Charles Dickens museum in the house where he lived for a period. A few of the rooms (including the wine cellar) have been restored to how they would have been while Dickens lived there, while a few others have been filled with collections of his belongings, memorabilia and a display on the French Revolution and the women in Dickens’ life. There was also a library filled with hundreds of books by or about him and an interesting exhibition on private schools of the time and how they inspired aspects of ‘Nicholas Nickelby’.

Next I walked over to Buckingham Palace and just as I approached another police escort went flying by, closely followed by the Queen and Prince Phillip, cool! Had a look at the palace and the Victoria memorial out front before continuing on to Hyde Parg to visit the Victoria nad Albert museum which houses an enormous collection of art from medieval times to the present. I didn’t have time to see half of what was in there but my main interest in going was the theatre section as I was hoping to dind a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan stuff. Jackpot! On the wall was a huge poster advertising a triple bill from the D’oyle theatre company, including my personal favourite the Mikado, a costume for Koko (lord high executioner from the Mikado), a small souvenir jug in the shape of Pooh Bah (lord high everything else) and another costume for the fairy Queen in Iolanthe. Plus there were plenty of other costumes, headdresses and playbills to keep me amused for quite a while. The museum also had an exhibition of furniture inspired by fairytales, some very sweet and a few quite gruesome, and a great collection of designer clothing through the ages. Walked back to the hostel which was fun as it started raining just as I left the museum and stopped right when I turned onto my street, yay.

Blitz and Gore

Last day on the London Pass so had lots to cram in. Headed out from the hostel and started the day at the nearby Southwark Cathedral, one of the oldest churches in the city, containing a memorial to Shakespeare who used to live in the area as the Globe theatre was just around the corner. Headed past the replica of the Golden Hind and found the Britain at War experience, which starts in an underground recreation of a tube station bomb shelter with a bunch of mannequins ‘sleeping’ in makeshift bunks. After a short video you continue on to the museum with lots more mannequins including children being evacuated to the countryside, women in factories and even Churchill sitting surrounded by fascinating wartime memorabilia. To exit the museum you first have to walk through a bar full of American soldiers and into the ruins of a recently bombed department store…and then into the gift shop.

A few streets further on I found the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret Museum which is located at the top of another flight of narrow spiral stairs in what was once the attic of St Thomas’ church. The herb garret is a huge open space filled with dried herbs, early surgeons tools, organs preserved in specimen jars etc. I arrived just as a German school group was been shown around the place which worked out really well as I managed to tag along into the operating theatre and so got to watch the presentation in there. The operating theatre is the oldest in Europe, dating back to the 18th century and is one of those ones with the observation areas around the sides for students and other spectators. One poor student got volunteered to have his leg amputated for our amusement and had to lie on the tiny wooden operating table while the guide pulled all sorts of menacing looking knives out of the old surgeon’s kit.

Grabbed a tasty Cornish pasty and walked back to Tower Bridge to board a boat for a ride up the Thames to Westminster where I planned to see the Florence Nightingale museum and the Banqueting house but both were closed so instead took a quick look at the Household Cavalry museum before finding the house where Benjamin Franklin lived while in London. Here they used a mix of videos and one actress as the landlord’s daughter doing some fabulous miming in various rooms of the house to present Franklin’s life and work in London in a delightfully cheesy manner.

From there took a boat back up the Thames to visit another of the older churches in the city, Old Hallows by the Tower with its fascinating crypt and underground museum and then back to the hostel.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Stairs, stairs and more stairs

Another day of exploring the sights on my London pass while the others were off touring Pairs. Started this time at St Paul’s cathedral which is even more impressive on the inside. Firstly, its huge. The dome in the centre is about 60/70m high and painted with scenes from the life of St Paul on the inside. Its then covered by an even larger dome that is 111m high so as to be more imposing when viewed from outside. The smaller domes and walls above the quire and high alter have every available space covered in glistening glass mosaics and the nave is full of monuments including a huge memorial to the duke of Wellington.

The dome houses 3 galleries. The Whispering gallery (anyone familiar with the Whispering Wall can probably work out how they came up with that name) allows you to walk around the base of the dome and get a closer look at the murals on the interior. The Stone and Golden galleries above are both on the outside of the dome and offer spectacular (if chilly) views of the city. The Golden gallery is the higest point you can climb to at 85m and the view is definitely worth the 528 steps up from the cathedral floor.

Under the church is the Crypt where many notable Britons are buried including Wellington, Florence Nightingale, Alexander Flemming, Henry Moor, William Blake and the architect of the cathedral and many other buildings after the Great Fire wiped out most of the city, Sir Christopher Wren. Also buried there, and I was so busy looking around at all the other beautiful memorials that I nearly walked straight over him without noticing, is Sir Arthur Sullivan, the musical half of Gilbert and Sullivan so it was really special for me to pause there for a moment.

Next, headed up to the Tower of London which was very cool. Picked up yet another audio guide (I think I’m starting to go a little loopy from constantly having very well spoken people chattering away in my ear) to learn more about its history and that of the people who lived there, either by choice or as prisoners. Saw the Bloody Tower where Sir Walter Raleigh lived during his various incacerations and where the 2 little princes where allegedly murdered, an interesting exhibition on various methods of torture, a display of Henry VIII’s military and sporting attire and the Beauchamp Tower where many, including Lady Jane Grey waited to be executed. Just outside is Tower Green with a small glass pillow which is a memorial to those privileged few like Lady Jane, Catherine Howard and of course,, Anne Boleyn who were lucky enough to be executed in the Tower and they were buried in the small chapel nearby. The highlight of course was the Crown Jewels (the actual jewels too if the super thick vault doors are anything to go by) displayed in all their sparkly glory.

Spanning the Thames outside the Tower is, naturally, Tower Bridge so I braved the increasing rain and headed over there. Climbed more steps to the level of the upper walkways where there were films and displays on the history of the bridge, as well as what has got to be the oldest tour guide in London (but who clearly loves his job) pointing out the models of workmen high up in the girders in the few seconds he has free between video loops. Under one end of the bridge are the engine rooms where you can see the enormous steam powered pulleys that originally raised the bridge for ships to pass.

Quite sick of climbing stairs by this point I next headed to Wellington Arch on Hyde Park Corner where you can take a lift up to the observation deck just below the huge sculpture of a 4 horse drawn chariot, to enjoy a view of the surrounding park lands, including in one corner the lovely Australian memorial.

One last flight of stairs to finish off the day. The Monument is a 61m high pillar standing 61m away from Pudding Lane where in 1666 the Great Fire which destroyed much of London started. 311 spiral stairs up to a viewing platform at the top. I’m sure if it ever stops raining the view would be even more spectacular but hey, at least I got a certificate for my efforts.

Henry, Victoria, Diana and Winston

With Maggie and Sarah off exploring Stonehenge etc, I set out early armed with my London Pass and soon arrived at Hampton Court, favourite home of Henry VIII and his various wives and children. It is still a pretty impressive place, a d with the 500th anniversary of Henry’s reign this year, its been specially decked out for daily re-enactments of his last wedding to Katherine Parr (but right at the end of the day so I didn’t stick around for that).

Toured Henry’s apartments including the great hall and beautiful royal chapel, the extensive royal kitchens and an exhibition on the young Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, as well as the more recent parts of the palace from the reign of William III and Mary II. The gardens, which are huge and perfectly manicured feature the world’s oldest and longest grape vine which was pretty cool to see.

Back into the city to another royal home, Kensington Palace on the edge of Hyde Park. As well as a display of some of Princess Diana’s dresses (she used to live in the palace but her apartments aren’t open to the public) and an interesting exhibition on debutants, I saw the room where Queen Victoria lived until she ascended the throne and many of the elaborately decorated rooms used by previous royals who lived here.

Headed out to explore Hyde Park ust as it really started to rain but still managed to find the Princess Diana memorial fountain, a simple stone cirle of running water, and the considerably more elaborate Albert memorial (opposite the Royal Albert Hall) before wandering past Harrods and onto the tube.

With th weather still not improving I figured I may as well head underground, so went to the War Cabinet Rooms, the underground bunker from which Churchill and his staff worked during WWII. Many of the rooms, including the cabinet room and the map room were left just as they were when abandoned at the end of the war (with the addition of a few mannequins to add a touch of reality of course), while others which had been used as storage in the interim have been meticulously restored from old photos. Accompanied by the excellent audio guide, it made for a fascinating look at the workings of the government during the Blitz.

In the middle of the war rooms is the modern and interactive Churchill museum, full of belongings, quotes, movies, sound bytes and photos depicting the complete life and work of Winston Churchill which made for a nice bit of modern history to round out the day before reuniting with Sarah and Maggie for a huge pub meal.

London Nerd Quest

After a final night at Babi Ali with the Istanbul expats, on Sunday I flew to London (food on British Airways is excellent by the way though take off and landing were pretty wobbly), breezed through passport control and customs and made my way to the hostel which is just down the road from London Bridge. Checked my email and discovered that Sarah had arrived at the hostel a night early and while I was consulting with the staff about how best to find her, she strolled into the lobby, yay

We headed out in search of food, little realizing that, being a Sunday, everything was already closed so after a lot of walking we ended up at a McDonalds, 2 tables away from a woman in a wedding dress, odd. Walked around a bit longer to enjoy London by night (and expecting marauding zombies to appear at any time as the streets were completely deserted) and found St Paul’s Cathedral which is very and beautiful from the outside at least. Returned to a hostel where I, being in a 20 bed dorm filled mostly with boys, got roughly 10 minutes sleep between the door slamming all night and at least one person throwing up in their bunk, which was thankfully far away from my bunk. Ah, dorms.

Next morning after enjoying the free hostel breakfast we braved the rain and walked to Piccadilly Circus where Sarah jumped on a sightseeing bus and I picked up my London Pass and travel card plus a few handy maps and plotted my course to my first nerd target; the Spaced house.

Having found the address on the internet and armed with a Tube guide and street map for cyclists I headed to Tuffnell Park where, just a few minutes walk from the tube station, I located my quarry, the oddly shaped house used as an exterior location for one of my favourite Britcoms, Space. Total nerdgasm! Took a few snaps and returned to the hostel for dry socks before heading out for target 2; Black Books.

This proved a tad more elusive as I had a street address but no idea what part of town it was in, but with the help of the hostel staff and ye olde internet, I was soon on a train to Kings Cross St Pancrass (and starting to feel like I was walking around a giant monopoly board). Down a backstreet I found it, the small bookshop used as the exterior for Black Books. Had to explain to a puzzled local exactly why I was taking photos of some random shop in the middle of the city but he very kindly took a photo of me out the front (before backing away slowly and not making eye contact). Nerd mission accomplished. From this point on, everything else is a bonus.
The rest of the afternoon I spent getting my bearings around the city and spotting a few of the major landmarks. Started out at Trafalgur Square to see Nelson’s Column, then strolled to Westminster to see the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, took a look at the outside of Westminster Abbey and took a break from the constant drizzle in St Margaret’s Church before returning to the hostel to meet Sarah and, eventually Maggie.

The three of us returned to Piccadilly Circus for an evening stroll, which consisted mostly of staring longingly at the theatres and wishing we could see all the musicals currently playing before heading back to bed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cappadocia, the happiest place on Earth

Arrived in Goreme nice and early after being dropped ın Nevşihir and scrambling to find the right connecting bus down to town. Found the guy I was staying with who lives above his antiqe rug store and after a quick nap and tasty breakfast headed out to explore. The whole place ıs completely amazing wıth rock houses and cone shaped 'fairy chimneys' everywhere you look.

My first afternoon I vısıted El Nazar church which is inside one of the cones and is beautıfully decorated inside with scenes from the Bible. Then spent the rest of the afternnoon hiking through Zemi Valley and exploring a few of the abandoned cave houses ın the cliffs.

The next day set out early and took a bus to Uçhisar to the castle whıch ıs a huge rock formatıon overlooking the whole area so the views were pretty spectacular when you climbed to the top. Walked back to Goreme through Pigeon Valley, so called because they used to keep pigeons in the caves here for fertiliser production, though since the practice was stopped when the area became a UNESCO heritage site they have all left. The walk back was great, mostly cos there are no signposts anywhere so you can get good and lost tryıng to fınd the start of the trail as I did when I unexpectedly found myself on the top of a ravine lookıng down at the path. Took a bit of backtracking and a bit of creative scrambling but got there eventually.
After stopping ın Goreme for gozleme I spent the afternoon exploring the area on the other side of town starting with the open air museum which is mostly a collection of cave churches, and hiked around Rose Valley for a few hours where I could quite happily spend several days exploring.

Signed up for the green tour with Neşe Tur the next morning to see a few of the more far flung attractions. First stop was Uçhisar again to enjoy the view of the valley then onto Derinkuyu and the amazing underground city there. It goes about 60 metres deep and was used mainly for food storage but also for hiding or escaping from invadıng armies and the people could live there safely for several months at a time or escape to neigbouring villages if need be as there are tunnel systems and similar underground cities throughout the region. At the deepest point was a monastary where several generations of monks lived for 500 years and continued to dig tunnels as a form of prayer. Really fascinating place. After that we drove to the beautiful Ilhara valley in the shadow of a volcano where there are hundreds of churches carved in the clıffs above the river. Walked to the village ın the middle of the valley where we enjoyed a delicşous lunch on the river and then back on the bus for the drive to the northern end of the valley where there are a collection of cones that were allegedly used as a model for some of the Star Wars scenery. The main reason for the stop however was the amazing Selime monastary which was in the middle of one of the largest rock formations in the area and was alot of fun to climb around on as there were many tunnels and rooms that ussed to be connected but are now seperate and exposed as the rock erodes away. Sadly most of the frescoes ınside the church were damaged when the caves were used for Raki productıon but the rooms themselves were very ımpressive and you could see a few ımages which gave an idea of how impressive it must have been originally. Back on the bus to head back to town after a quıck stop for ice cream and the obligatory stop at an Onyx workshop.

My last day headed back towards Rose Valley, then turned left and walked to Çavuşır whıch had another huge cave house complex to explore and a beautiful church. Found a valley full of fairy chimneys past the church and walked through there before stumbıng upon another cluster of them at Paşa Baği so explored there for a while and then returned to town through a different section of Rose Valley. Before sunset I set off to fınd the path to the top of the hill on the edge of town where people had gathered to watch the sun go down. After alot of wandering and a little scrambling I eventually found my way to the top wıth a few minutes to spare to stake out a good spot to watch Rose Valley change colours with the sunset which was spectacular. Found the much easier, but less fun, road back to town wıth just enough tıme for one last gozleme before grabbıng my bag, saying goodbye to my host and running for the night bus back to Istanbul.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Efes, more than beer

Arrived in Selcuk bright and early and had to sit around in the park for an hour waiting for my hostel to open so I could take a nap before setting off to explore the area.

Got a ride out to Ephesus with the guy who owned the carpet store next to the hostel. The ruins of Ephesus are huge and have some really beautiful sections. It was a Greek, then Roman, then Byzantine city dating back to the dark ages and was once the site of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world (but there is nothing left of that now). The higlights of the site are the intricate carvings on the Temple of Hadrian, Library of Celsus and the enormous theatre.

Left Ephesus and walked to the nearby Cave of the Seven Sleepers which was the ruins of a church over the site of where, according to legend, 7 men around 750AD were entombed in a cave where they had gone to escape persecution as Christians by the emperor Decius and fell asleep until the cave was reopened by a farmer 200 years later at which time they awoke, thinking they had only slept for one day.

Got a ride back to Selcuk and visited the museum which houses many of the artifacts found at Ephesus including sculptures from the Fountain of Pollio, statues of Artemis from the Temple and a tiny, though well endowed statue of the fertility god Priamos who has to be kept in a dark cabinet incase he offends anyone's delicate sensibilities.

Had a huge turkish breakfast courtesy of the hostel the next day and visited the ruins of St John's Bascilica above the town which was once a huge church (the 7th largest cathedral in the world if it was rebuilt today) built on the spot where the Apostle John wrote his gospel and is buried. St John apparently came to Selcuk to escape persecution, bringing with him the Virgin Mary so after lunch I made my way (after a minor argument with the taxi driver over whether we had agreed on a price in Lira or Euros) to the house (now shrine) where she lived the rest of her life. Walked back to town to avoid another round of arguing over taxi fare and it was actually a quite nice walk down hill, other than the crazy tour buses speeding past on the winding roads, eek. Back to town for another entertaining evening of waiting for the bus, woohoo!

Lest we forgot

Got off to an early start on my second day in Canakkale and strolled along the waterfront to the town's second Trojan horse, this one being a prop from the 2004 movie 'Troy" and it did look alot more convincing than the one at the ruins at least.

From there went to the naval museum and started out with a look at the Nusret mine layer which houses an interesting exhibition on the history of the ship and the role that sea mines played in the 18th March 1915 naval victory, which is the only part of the Gallipoli campaign that is celebrated as a vistory by Turkey. Strolled through the garden of cannons to Kale-i Sultaniye fort which was constructed by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461 and still has an unexploded shell lodged in a wall, fired from the Queen Elizabeth battleship during the 18th march battle. Inside was a great display on the role of the navy during the Gallipoli campaign and on the second floor there is meant to be an animated manequin display showing different aspects of war but since the presentation is only in Turkish, I got my own personal guided tour from the only person on staff who spoke English. He actually did a great job, though he was constantly apologising that his English was "so fucking terrible". The top floor has a collection of really impressive oil paintings and there was also a photo gallery in one of the other buildings.

After a quick look through the bazaar which was full of souvenier Trojan horses, I met Jeff and Kip, another Australian Kay and another couple and took the ferry over to Eceabat to meet the rest of our group and our excellent guide for the Gallipoli tour. Started at the small museum which has an interesting collection of things including last letters home, uniforms and other remnants of life that were left behind and had to wait for the world's most talkative tour guide to finally give up his spot at the map so our guide could have a turn. Then drove past Brighton Beach to Beach cemetary where John Simpson is buried. Walked from there to ANZAC cove which is a beautiful and really tiny beach and saw the cemetary next to that where the dawn services used to be held before moving to the new commemorative site which was our next stop. From there we drove up to Lone Pine cemetery and signed the visitors book inside the memorial and stopped in Johnston's Jolly to explore some of the remaining Allied trenches. We then stopped at the Turkish cemetary dedicated to the 57th regiment who were all killed defending their post and waiting for reinforcements. Visited the Nek where only 10 graves of all the soldiers killed could be identified, and which is really small too, only maybe 10 metres between the trenches. Walked from there to Walker's Ridge which overlooks the commemorative site and Ariburnu cliffs and then finished the tour at the NZ memorial and cemetery at Chunuk Bair. There is also a statue of Ataturk here as its the spot where he was struck in the chest by shrapnel but survived without harm when it broke his pocket watch instead.

Returned to Canakkale where I introduced Jeff, Kip and Kay to gozleme (yummy turkish pancake-ish) and we strolled around on the waterfront for a while before I left to catch my bus to Selcuk.