top of page
  • Writer's picturesi newell

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.

Day Five

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.