On Sunday 28 June we farewelled our fledgling visit to Turkey and flew Aegean Airlines to Athens, the ancient heartland of Greece, city of 4 million (one third of Greece’s population..a population made up of 97% of Greek Orthodox) as Turkey is almost totally Islamic following the tragic follow up to WW2 (Read Bernieres: Birds Without Wings). Amazingly (thank you Hello World’s Moranda!) our Plaka Hotel is situated in the lee of the Acropolis and from our bedroom window we were humbled to be staring straight at the Parthenon perched on its still mighty hill and looking out over all 4 million of its Athens’ inhabitants. The site is lit up all night and is a majestic presentation.
We spent the afternoon wandering in the Plaka flea markets this time with no haggling ( a relief) but having to negotiate with evermore creative refugee African salesmen of selfie sticks (unhelpful)/umbrellas (helpful in the unseasonably showery weather)/handbags (uncertain origin)/whistling toys ( a la Bernieres again)/wierd balloons and silk scarves. It was wonderful to have a chill out day and our hotel also boasted a rooftop evening bar with even better views of the acropolis. All through the day we were serenaded with bells on the hour/half hour and some angelus bells from the Greek Orthodox Cathedral a block away. The building was unfortunately totally wrapped in foil and scaffolding inside and out so it was hard to get a feel for it.
Of course everyone in business was preoccupied with the uncertainty of the upcoming referendum regarding the European Union bail out debt and opinions were predictably divided with those that were coping much more positive than the graffiti artists and students at the Technical University. Police were vigilant outside the Prime Minister’s House, the Parliament and on the street. Demonstrations built towards each evening but the issues are very unclear. We were interviewed by Athens radio today (29 june) by journalists wanting to know whether our tourism decisions had been negatively affected which (so far) they haven’t. It was very sad to see so many closed shops in the suburbs on the way to Athens from the airport and today (29 June) all banks were closed and there were long ATM queues frequently with limited or no withdrawals permitted. On the street there was little impact and if anything the tragedy in Tunisia overshadowed everyone’s sense of what really matters.
Monday 29 June: Today we ventured on to the on/of double decker sight seeing bus for a 60 minute tour of the whole city and it is certainly a mixture. Many C19th neo-classical buildings of beautiful style including the university, library, government offices and embassy houses; many fine boulevards and normal chic shops; a small number of ancient ruins/Hadrian’s Arch/Temple of Zeus columns etc; a massive amount of graffiti especially in the student and arty areas. Civilised driving and little tension. We spent most of the day at the amazing new Acropolis Museum …a C21st presentation of the highest order delved deeply into Pericles’ dream of democracy which flourished and then struggled under Alexander and was finally destroyed by the Romans (bless their souls!)
From their we climbed the Acropolis hill under thankfully dark and occasionally wet skies and were awed by the sheer size and wonder of this area not far from the agora where Paul argued with the Athenians about the possiblility of the resurrection. It was curious to think through these things whilst the nation itself was again in danger of internal collapse from new superpowers.
On Friday 26th we arrived at 8.00am and had immediate access to our hotel (The Olympiat ) having paid for the extra night before; It was located in the tourist area very close to the Topkapi Palace/Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque). We slept till early afternoon then ventured out to wander the very narrow and busy streets around the Topkapi Palace. The shops here are largely tourist traps with jewellery, turkish delight, porcelain and restaurants predominant. The weather was pleasant..about 21 degrees and the vendors friendly if a little insistent! Our feeble attempts at haggling resulted in a draw (no sale/no buy!)
We found a “regular” pad near our hotel to eat (The Adorna Restaurant Winehouse) run with enthusiastic precision by maitre de Cem who provided before and afters on the house even when not asked for. We loved the fresh fruit, simple salads and sensational fish and meat dishes. The coffee…latte mainly milk; Turkish coffee mainly grounds in the bottom of the cup somewhat bitter but an acquired taste. I missed it when we left.
The overpowering microphone magnified muezzin calling us to prayer five times a day was a sound I will never forget…drowning out the trams and urban buzz. We were there in Ramadan and at 3.30am in the morning being close to the Blue Mosque and the city still it was an eerie and spiritually powerful sound which could not be slept through.
Saturday 27th June was a day I have anticipated for many years. The fifth century Hagia Sophia, 800 years a cathedral (the fourth largest dome after St Peter’s in Rome, St Paul’s in London and the Florence Duomo), 500 years a mosque and for the last 80 years after the secularisation of Turkey by Ataturk a Museum. We had a tour for the day so avoided the queues and it was an emotional experience to walk through the vast doors and be immediately imposed upon by the vast breadth and height magnified by very low (now electric) chandeliers. It was emotional for both of us..I think Ann was fully aware how much this particular visit meant to me. For Christians the eye is immediately drawn to a now uncovered fresco of the Virgin Mary and child high up on one of the smaller dome ceilings …beautiful colours still, a quiet and reflective and very peaceful work.
Thoughts tumble …the clash of cultures..six massive Islamic circular plates attached awkwardly high on protruding columns all around the Basilica proclaim different names of Allah in massive letters; everywhere there are crowds with their inevitable chatter/photos/laughing/excitement but also much genuine interest and cameras at six paces; also everywhere scaffolding …high, ugly and intruding but reminding us that each generation must work to keep these ancient and epic monuments alive and in good order.
There is a mid-range gallery around the whole interior easily accessible by a mysterious graded passageway with burial sites in the walls and providing an excellent overview and a close up view of the now exposed Christian frescoes. Less than 20% have been exposed..the rest will gradually be done…perhaps! I confess to significant historical anger that it was Crusader knights on the way to the Holy Land who were the first to sack Constantinople and who weakened the city and effectively laid it open to attack from successive Islamic military assaults. Perhaps its fall to Islam was inevitable but the jealousy and massive division between the Greek and Roman churches and the eventual split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism has weakened and diluted Christian theology and life. We have lost too much of the mystery, the simple sense of awe and closeness to God and the emotional power of deep unity and there is danger in our hair splitting overly propositional letter based Western theology. I will never forget these moments and for me the Hagia Sophia ranks with Gothic Chartres, Cologne, Durham, St Patricks in New York and Baroque St Paul’s in London, Orthodox St Isaac’s in St Petersburg and the Sagrada in Barcelona as the iconic structures of Christian worship.
The rest of our Saturday was taken up with the Blue Mosque, still very much a functioning worshipping mosque, the underground water cistern with its vast collection of Corinthinan, Ionic and Doric columns which formerly watered the city, an informative if high pressure presentation of Turkish rug making and jewellery, the Hippodrome with its amazing collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman obelisks and columns and of course the famous Souk, the Grand Bazaar with its ultimate high pressure sales pitch where leather jackets were reduced from 4200 Euro to 1000 Euro. (Still no sale/no buy!); The Topkapi Museum was a vast collection of palaces and courtyards with beautiful gardens, amazing heavily guarded jewellery including arguably the world’s largest cut diamond and sensational fews over the city and the Sea of Marmara. We flew out on Sunday morning rather sad to say goodbye to Turkey’s friendly, busy, happy people.
Thursday 25th June 2015
After much sorting of dog minders and interminable packing we left 20 Avebury Drive in the hands of Southern Cross limos who helpfully provided a Turkish driver. He was able to prepare us very effectively for the Turkish national activity of haggling over everything and how to negotiate coffee selection (and did a great job avoiding a major accident hold up on the Tullamarine Freeway. Singapore Airlines provided a fantastic flight with only a 90 minute stopover in Singapore to change planes.
This trip has been five years in the saving and planning with many books read and much consultation of trip advisor. Initially I read hugely on the history of Sicily espccially the Normans in Sicily by John Julius Norwich but when the time came to get serious Sicily had to go and so did Krakow and Vienna. I read Burckhardt on the Renaissance twice; Cellini and Vasari on the painters; The huge illustrated Ars Sacra, The Rolf Tollman books on Rome, The Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque; The Art Treasures of Italy; The Folio Best 100 paintings; The Louvre..All the Paintings; The Vatican..All the Paintings; Pevsner: The Architecture of Europe; and quite a few other reference works too many to mention.