Grand Tour '19 - Where East meets West
Updated: Aug 26
In 2015, I undertook my first big solo ‘journey’, crossing the Mediterranean from Spain, across Corsica, Italy, Sicily and Albania to Greece, ending in Crete as my most easterly point. The Mediterranean is fascinatingly diverse and this year I wanted to pick up where I left off, starting in Turkey and then moving south east to experience some of the less known areas as the west bridges into the east.
Day One A strangely deserted Stansted Airport for a midnight flight to Istanbul. Limited sleep obviously and a rather damp and dull environment on arrival didn’t help to wake us up particularly. A few strong coffees later (including a Turkish one - rather too strong for me!) and as we were waking up, the weather gradually improved to reveal the Istanbul I was expecting. I can’t belief how many stray cats are on the street - surprisingly not in a depressing way, but they are tolerated and loved and fed by the locals. They are confident with people and parade around like they own the streets! A sketch of the historic Galata Tower that dominates the north european side of the city over the Turkish coffee (and actually using it to colour in the tower) started my sketchbook for this new journey.
Lunch in a small cafe in a backstreet gave me the opportunity to do a quick sketch of a display of shisha bottles.
Still lacking sleep, we took a siesta and when I awoke, I sketched the panorama of the city from our ninth floor room at the Barcelo Istanbul near Taksim Square - the square itself being somewhat disappointing as arguably the the most famous public space in Turkey - now being dominated by a new mosque under construction that from an architectural perspective is disappointed retro - perhaps there was a real opportunity to do something contemporary that would have reinforced the country’s reputation as a growing powerhouse in the region.
Then more awake we ventured out into the city and discovered some very cool places to eat and drink - so many people out and about even by Mediterranean standards. Istanbul, you’ve won me over in just over 12 hours!
Day Two Waking up more refreshed after a good night sleep, we started with a Turkish breakfast and crossed over to the historic quarter of the city to the south, firstly visiting the Suleymaniye Mosque. Amazing atmospheric yet calm, prayers started as I sketched in the courtyard providing a fascinating backdrop. Afterwards we visited the inside of the mosque - an unexpected insight into to other beliefs. Then after realising the Grand Bazaar was shut on a Sunday, following lunch we moved on to what will surely be one of my highlights of this trip, Hagia Sophia - I was fascinated in my architectural history lessons by this building's history and changes of use over the years. A great moment for me - we never know how many of those special places that we always intend to visit, are places that we will ever experience - YOLO! Then a sketch of the now museum from the pleasant Sultan Ahmet Square that visually connects Hagia Sophia with the Blue Mosque, where I was joined by a very friendly cat who adopted me for the duration of the sketch, lying by my side as I scribbled. Finally we just had time to visit the atmospheric and spooky underground Basilica Cistern featured in a recent Dan Brown novel. We then walked across the Galata Bridge for drinks and dinner in our favourite area around Pera.
Day Three Our final full day in Istanbul and determined to see Grand and Spice Bazaars. It’s such a bustling and vibrant city with hundreds of people selling thousands and thousands of fake trainers as well as other goods. We didn’t succumb however, despite some items being pretty convincing and desirable!
After trying out a Turkish barber for a 'cut-throat' shave, we also had a genuine Turkish Bath in one of the older baths. Both great experiences leaving us feeling refreshed and relaxed. To supplement an earlier sketch over breakfast, I tried to get a city-scape together in 30 minutes before we left on a Bosphorus cruise along the coast. I got 2/3 of the way through, so therefore after a fascinating couple of hours exploring the coastline along the waterway (the surrounds to the city are so green!), I returned to the harbour area to complete the drawing before a final dinner in this intoxicating city.
Day Four An early start with the 5.30 bus to Istanbul’s southern airport where César returns to the Uk and I continue to Cappadocia in central Turkey. After an hours flight, the A320 touches down at Kayseri airport and I wait for a minibus trip to Göreme in the centre of Cappadocia. The landscape changes considerably as one approaches the Göreme National Park - the rock structures are absolutely surreal and look like nothing I have ever seen before. I checked into the lovely Mosaic Cave Hotel run by a delightfully friendly couple who obviously love the area dearly. Then out to look around the cute centre (sketching a row of carpet shops) and I then walked around to the Göreme Open Air Museum which includes incredible ancient chapels carved into the amazing rock structures. Then a fabulous (and so cheap) meal at one of the many delightful restaurants in the village centre.
After a pleasant breakfast and sketch in the village centre, this is the day for some hiking around some of the many routes within Cappadocia.
First a walk through the ‘Love Valley’ - so called due to the phallic nature of the rock structures! The scenery is so dramatic and over the whole day, I only past 2 other hikers - although there are occasional rustic cafes to provide breaks en-route.
I sat in the heat to sketch some of the rock formations before continuing to the picturesque town of Uçhisar set high up in the landscape and topped by a historic castle set into the rock itself.
Then after a delightful lunch, I continued the ‘Pigeon Valley’ route back to Göreme. The scenery is so dramatically breathtaking and a perfect contrast to the vitality of Istanbul.
Day Six Various tours are available in Cappadocia and I decided to take the Green route today. Starting at Kaymakiı, an ancient underground town, the tour of around 10 people from all around the world explored the 4 levels of this former home to what is thought to be 1000 people. After a brief stop at the sulphurous lake of Nav, we continued on to the Seline Monastery. I had 20 minutes free to sketch the cave structures before we left for a pleasant lunch at Ihlara. In the afternoon we hiked along the beautiful Ihlara Vadisi valley stopping for a break at a delightful riverside cafe. Then our minibus picked us up to take us on one last stop to Pigeon Valley. On return from the tour, a couple of us went for a drink back at one of the bars in town. A great way to end the day...
Day Seven The last day in wonderful Cappadocia and indeed Turkey. The people have been extremely friendly and I’ve really enjoyed my week here. The day started with a 4.30am alarm to get up to see the famous balloons flying. As soon as I left my room I saw the sky filled with balloons of different colours. I walked to Sunset Point where hundreds of people had also got up early to witness the surreal sight. It was a real spectacle - made me think that the 200 euro might have been worth it to experience the flight but the view from the point was pretty cool in itself! Then I went for breakfast and completed a couple of sketches in the town and from the delightful Mosaic Cave Hotel that had been my home for the passed few days. Mustafa and his wife who own the hotel had been extremely helpful and friendly throughout my stay. I finally caught the minibus to Kayseri Airport mid afternoon for a flight to Istanbul to transfer for a flight to my next destination, Beirut in Lebanon. Everything went well apart from getting to Beirut late due to a delay on the connecting flight - fortunately the driver I had arranged to take me to the hotel was still at the airport, and my first sight of Beirut was being driven through the city at 1am in the morning, passing the impressive new buildings in Downtown.
Day Eight A new day in a new city - when I mentioned that I was visiting Beirut, I had more reaction than probably any other destination. Half said that I should take care, the other half said that it sounds really cool! I started by looking around the Downtown area around Nejmeh Square. Beautiful rich earthy colour stone buildings define the square and radiant streets. I decided to sit and sketch but felt somewhat under surveillance by the armed guards (that are everywhere within the city centre). After lunch (Beirut is not cheap btw) I followed a recommended itinerary that I had cobbled together from a series of online blogs and articles. The amount of new construction around the city is amazing and pretty successfully in design terms. The heart of the city feels a bit sterile and quiet (Ramadan effect maybe?). The core of the city has been rebuilt in an attempt to attract the rich to the city - the number of high end designer shops and prestige car showrooms is incredible, but at the same time the atmosphere is a bit dead. I walked further into El Gemmayze - a more authentic part of the city and stopped at the Sursock Museum for a coffee and sketch before looking around the interesting exhibits of local artist's work. Then out for dinner and into the Mar Mkhayel district where I found bustling bars and restaurants - I had been beginning to wonder if there was life in Beirut but you just have to know where to go!
Day Nine Waking up to another 30 degree plus day, I decided to visit one of Beirut’s ‘Kodak’ spots - Pigeon Rock at Raouche to the west. I walked through the lively suburb of Hamra (more authentic than the somewhat sterile Downtown area). I have to say that I have felt pretty safe here - I’ve been more intimidated by the amount of army and police than the general population! I eventually reached the coast and headed to the distinctive rock formation and decided to base myself in a sunny location with my cold coffee drink to sketch the view. After lunch overlooking the dramatic coastline, I walked south east to the National Museum and then up to another museum I had recently seen on a BBC documentary - the Beit House. Built in 1924 for the Barakat family and designed by Youssef Aftimus, the building found itself on the front line during the civil war. There are terrible stories of what happened there that demonstrate the craziness and waste of war. The house was facing demolition at the turn of the century but was saved as a museum and memorial of the war. The architect kept the authentic decayed facade ravaged by war and used a neutral contemporary grey steel infill to clearly demonstrate the contrast between the old and new. Unfortunately the museum was closed when I visited, but I was still moved by walking around the outside and contemplating how this country has transformed itself in such a relatively short period of time.
Day Ten My final morning in Beirut and a leisure few hours before a taxi took me to Beirut Airport for the Middle Eastern Airlines flight to Amman - a really short 40 minute flight that left the city and banked over the Mediterranean towards Syria and then down to Jordan. The landscape changes considerably to more flat arid scenery. Then out at the airport after paying the 40 Jordanian Dinar for my visa, trying to ignore the taxi drivers to instead catch a local bus - obviously not really a tourist bus as everything is written in Arabic, but I managed to get myself understood. I got dropped off still with a 3 mile walk through the outskirts to the centre - I love walking through cities to experience areas that you wouldn’t normally see as a tourist. After checking in at the hotel, I ventured out to buy my bus tickets for later in the week (more on that later) and walked further to find a nice characterful terrace to draw near the bus station.
Day Eleven A day to see Amman and an hours walk down to the real city centre - and I did feel like I’d really arrived in the Middle East! Despite being Ramadan (and many places being quiet) the centre was alive and chaotic. I first visited the Roman Theatre which is spectacular and decided to sketch in the shade - I’m normally pretty good in warm climates but the heat here is fierce! The main theatre is so step testing my not great attitude to heights. How so many people managed to exit the theatre at once in Roman times is mind boggling! Then I continued walking through city and walked up towards Rainbow Street - the trendy ‘hipster’ area of Amman. Despite Ramadan, I managed to get a coffee and milkshake although few places were open - I knew I should have had breakfast at the hotel earlier! Then I found a fantastic location for a skyline sketch - one that to me sums up my impression of Amman. Fortunately I managed to find some shade. Then a walk through a new quarter of the city that is partially built - such a contrast to the authentic historic city centre. I do feel very safe here and it nice not to see so many army guys as in Beirut. Jordan feels quite a relaxed friendly country on first impressions. Finally a few hours round the pool in the hotel - chilling and updating the blog!
Day Twelve One of the highlights starts today - an overnight stay in Petra! I was at the bus station waiting for the 6.30am JET bus which then headed 180km south to Wadi Musa, the small town that sits next to Petra. I opted for a two day ticket with night show - 72 JD as this is probably a once in a lifetime visit. Visiting Petra involves a long hike to see anything (unless you get persuaded by the Bedouins to use horses, donkeys and camels) The approach to the famous Treasury Building (as in Indiana Jones) through a narrow gorge is amazing and theatrical. Despite being busy, the experience is magical and fools you into thinking you might be the first person to discover the place. If only we could get a minute piece of theatre into the arrival of one of our modern cities. To be fare,I do recall that arriving in Manhattan from one of the subways is a pretty striking arrival. After a sketch that was unfortunately one of the most uncomfortable I ever experienced due to the number of flies and tourists, I continued on to the end of the main trail and continuing on to the more difficult and steep Al-Deir trail up to the monastery - a tough climb in the heat but well worth it at the top - the facade of the monastery is huge, at first it doesn’t appear so until you see the scale of people next to it! Throughout the hike, there are numerous cafe tents - liquid refreshment is much needed - I love the Lemon and Mint juice over here - so refreshing. After a quick sketch at the top, as much for a break as anything, I walked back along the majestic main route. Calmer in the evening, the colours of the rock become even richer. Stunning place. Then quickly to check in to the hotel, get some dinner and ready for ‘Petra At Night’ - a slightly underwhelming experience unless you’re particularly into Bedouin flute music. The lighting up of the Treasury facade at the end of the show was stunning though and kind of made it worthwhile.
Day Thirteen I had realised yesterday evening while checking-in how great was the Old Village Resort Hotel that I'd booked into for the night. A bit of a waste in fact for such a short stay but I was determined to enjoy a breakfast and an hours relaxation around the pool. The service was amazing and the guy on reception arranged for a complimentary minibus to take me back down to the visitor centre for one last look around and a bit of sketching. Petra is amazing - I would just recommend when it’s slightly cooler and with hopefully less flies! I walked away from the Treasury building, watching the vista along the gorge eventually disappear for me probably forever. I feel privileged to have experienced it. Then back on the bus for one last night in Amman if all goes to plan.
Day Fourteen Today was in some ways the day I had been dreading - had I potentially ruined my chances of getting in Israel because I had chosen to spend a few days in Beirut and now had a Lebanese stamp in my passport? - I had asked both the Israel tourist board and the London embassy beforehand and they both said I would get asked questions but it should be ok. Today I would know for sure. The day started with another 6.30am bus ride - this time to Allenby Bridge, north of the Dead Sea. The bus stopped after half an hours drive and we were given tasty local seasoned bread and water for breakfast before speeding on to the border. The bus stopped at the Jordanian side and we all had to disembark, pay our 10JD exit tax and hand over our passports. After a long wait and quite a bit of confusion, we boarded another bus, our passports were thankfully handed back and we were bused across the border and bridge. We after 10 minutes or so arrived at the Israel border. If the Jordanian exit was this bad, then what was the Israel side going to be like?!?! Actually, whilst it took a little time, it was actually one of the better border experiences I have encountered - I seem to remember rum punches being handed out at Grenada Airport years ago - that was probably the best! The young lady on passport control did ask questions but she was very charming and it proved a very nice first impression of the country. Then I joined some Koreans who had been traveling on our bus for a minibus ride to Jerusalem around thirty minutes away. I walked the remaining distance to the hotel and was amazed by the charming old buildings around the centre - so different again to Amman only 100 or so miles to the east. While waiting to check-in, I found a picturesque street scene nearby to sketch and soak in the atmosphere of the city centre. Later I ventured out again and by chance came across a charming restaurant where I had a local Shepherds Pie - probably one of the best meals I have had on this journey so far. I sketched the little courtyard as I enjoyed an evening drink.
Day Fifteen Now relaxed after settling into Jerusalem, I started the day by walking down to the old city close-by. Sandemans give a free 2 hour tour of the old city and I booked the 11am slot - just time then to do a sketch close to the start point of the tour near Jaffa Gate. I met a lovely girl who was interested in my sketches and we both took a few photos. One of the things I love about sketching is meeting so many nice people who are interested in what I’m drawing. Then the tour began - a perfect introduction to this complex city in a really complex region. I’ve been listening to Levison Wood’s Arabia book over the past view days - his journey makes mine look like a TUI ‘all inclusive’ in Benidorm by comparison, but it gave me a amazing insight into the Middle East and its problems. Jerusalem is one of those melting pots - the old city includes Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Armenian quarters. After the tour finished I took the route up to The Mount of Olives passing the Garden of Gethsemane. The view over the city is stunning with the iconic golden Dome of the Rock mosque standing out in the foreground. Then back to sketch a view of the Mosque and skyline that we had seen earlier on the tour. Even with a phone for navigation, finding a spot within the labyrinth of the old city is challenging! Then out for dinner to experience Saturday night Jerusalem nightlife.
Day Sixteen A day to finally see the famous Western Wall (Wailing Wall). Beforehand over breakfast, I quickly researched other places to see and found out that there is a an interesting retail street that has been created alongside the old city - Mamilla Avenue. Straight down there then to investigate - a clever use of old and new buildings with open cafes / restaurants in side courtyards and at upper levels looking down on the street. Unfortunately all the shops were closed over the weekend (I still haven’t worked out exactly when things open in this part of the world!) but I still wanted to sketch a central section. Then off to the old city to finally find the Western Wall. Free access and obviously x-ray security, down a flight of stairs and the wall opens up in front of us. As it was a holy day, visitors were not allowed to take photos or write / sketch. After asking however, I was allowed to sketch at the top of the stairs - until that is, there was some sort of security alert that closed the staircase. Just another day in the Middle East! I managed to complete the sketch standing at the lower level and nobody seemed to mind thankfully. The wall itself was quite moving actually and well worth visiting - the only ‘wailing’ that was going on today was inside an alcove to one side. The wall is now a sacred place as the present mosque on the rock replaced an early synagogue, and the wall became the next closest place for the Jewish community to pray. A young guy took a phot of me sketching and very kindly asked me if I would like a copy. Later after lunch, I moved to the Jewish Quarter to sketch from the old Roaman road set several metres below the adjacent Ha-Khulna Square. As I was sketching, a Palestinian photographer Yousef, who lives in the US, came down to look at what I was drawing. We had an wonderful 20 minutes or so talking about his thoughts and hopes for the region. It was a wonderful conversation and was so great to hear his views. One of the lovely random experiences sketching occasionally opens up.
Jerusalem in the evening has woken up again after the weekend and feels once again energised. It is a fascinating city - looking optimistically, hopefully it is a city that could lead the way to a more peaceful future that truly integrates all communities.
My last day in Jerusalem - I’ve grown to be enchanted by this city. I not sure if I had an opinion about it before coming but it seemed a logical place to visit whilst in the region. There are things that make me uncomfortable for sure, but it’s such a complex layered place...and beautiful. The religious part doesn’t move me particularly but no one can deny the history or importance to so many people. I hope that the guardians of the city realise the importance of the city’s future on not only the region but maybe to all our lives and security - this little city has potentially a continued big impact on humanity. I love it, try to visit it once in your life. Anyway, there was still the Temple of the Mount and Dome of the Rock to see and I managed to get there in the allowed morning ‘slot’. I’m so glad I made the effort as it was an amazing experience - very beautiful. Then I went to sketch a little street in the Muslim Quarter that I had noticed earlier and a final sketch of David’s Tower near Jaffa Gate. Then my final departure from the old city - I felt emotional. But moving on to the final base of my trip and moving west to the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv was beckoning less than an hours bus ride away. Whilst it might be only 70km away, it feels a million miles away from anything I’ve experienced so far. Hedonistic, cool - a perfect relaxing end to the trip? Those rainbow flags everywhere are potentially a sign of what’s in store later in the week!
The free Sandeman tour of Jerusalem had been a really great introduction to the city and fortunately there was an equivalent tour for Tel Aviv or more accurately Jaffa to the south - the original port that pre-dates even Jerusalem. I walked along the fabulous beach and coastline to the meeting point - everyone wizzing passed on electric scooters (I really want one).The tour took as through the centre of the fascinating old town (rejuvenated by allowing working artists to inhabit the ground floor areas for studios, workshops and small shops).We ended the tour by the waterside - a great spot as it allowed me to sketch the panorama of the old town with modern Tel Aviv in the background.Then determined to get some beach relaxation for the first time, I walked up to Hilton Beach to the north enjoying a few beers for the final few hours sun of the day in this chilled hedonistic city.
Day Nineteen An early start as I’d booked a tour to Masada and the Dead Sea meeting at a cafe half an hours walk north of the city. We arrived at the ancient fortress of Masada in the Judaean Desert late morning. Set on a massive plateau overlooking the Dead Sea, we reached the top of the rock by cable car. Built around 30 B.C. the ruins include King Herod's Palace, which sprawls over 3 rock terraces. I had around 30 mins to do a quick sketch of the area - the views from the top over looking the Dead Sea are breathtaking. We then continued on to a spa hotel for lunch and finally a bathe in the Dead Sea itself. The water temperature is so warm (like a bath) and you literally just float like an inflated lilo! I kept managing to splash myself however - salt in the eyes was so painful! Fortunately showers on hand helped. We were also given a mud pack to try with rejuvenating Dead Sea minerals. You can all judge whether any of this has worked next time you see me! Then a 15 minutes watercolour sketch before a final dip in the sea once again. The Pride Tour was great fun and all the guys from all around the world were really friendly. On return to Tel Aviv, a few of us went for a few beers to end another fabulous day.
Day Twenty This is my relaxation day at last! After a leisurely breakfast, I walked up to Hilton Beach (thoughts of should I go to the Aqua Park party still making me think?!?) The beach was quiet and I quickly sketched the scene so I could still potentially go partying. Instead I met up with some of the guys that I met on the Dead Sea trip and we enjoyed a few beers in the sun. The beaches here in Tel Aviv are great! In the evening I met up with friends at the Deco style Poli House Hotel roof-top pool bar for more beers - a lot of beers today! Then bed and ready for Pride on my final full day.
Day Twenty One My final full day, but with Pride today, it’s a great way to celebrate the end of an amazing journey with a bit of a party! Tel Aviv is famous for it’s annual Pride event - the biggest in Asia and going was a chance not to be missed! In the morning I walked up to the pre party area in Ben Zion Avenue ready for the start of th parade. Already people were out in the streets and on balconies overlooking the street - music was pumping out, flags being waved and the start of water pistols being used - in this heat, that’s a great thing! I thought I’d give myself half an hour to put something on paper and went straight into a watercolour sketch to give a representation of the life, colour and activity - it’s kind of abstract but I like it and it reminds me of the vibrancy of the day. The parade eventually started and moved towards the waterfront - the whole city seemed to be here - it was a special place to be amongst the beautiful people of Tel Aviv. The parade meandered it’s way, ending up at Charles Clore Park until sunset for music, dancing and celebrations - even Eurovision winner Netta was there, singing her new song Banana (maybe quite fitting for a gay event!). Then dinner and some final drinks in a cute residential area in the south. I wasn’t necessarily expecting much from Tel Avi, but I like the atmosphere here - calm, vibrant, young and optimistic. It’s been a great place to end my awesome journey.