Grand Tour '19 - Where East meets West
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
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!