A Travellerspoint blog

At the foot of Mount Olympus

The Ottomans in Bursa

The trip from Marmaris to Konya had been long, but the journey from Konya to Bursa wasn't any shorter. We opted for a morning bus, departing at 6.30am and arriving about 3pm. It meant losing a day on the road but it was better than arriving in the middle of the night, exhausted and uncomfortable. The trip would take us right across the Turkish heartland of the Anatolian plateau before descending to the green and fertile coastal plain. The Turks first burst into Anatolia from Central Asia in the late 11th century. In 1071AD, they defeated the army of the Byzantine (East Roman) Emperor, Romanus III at a town called Manzikert, near Turkey's eastern border with Armenia. The shock of that defeat set off a chain reaction in Byzantium as the various contenders for the throne set about attacking each other in a vicious civil war. While the Byzantines were otherwise engaged, the Turks splintered into a myriad of tribes and set off across Anatolia, raiding and pillaging. All sides in the Byzantine civil war employed the Turks indiscriminately as mercenaries, rewarding them handsomely with money and lands. When the civil wars ended a decade later and the dust finally settled, Anatolia had been firmly and irretrievably transformed from a Greek Christian to a Turkish Muslim civilisation. The Seljuk Rum (Romans), with their capital at Konya held the high plateau, while the Byzantines held the coast.
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This state of affairs lasted about 150 years until in 1243AD the Mongols swept across the Middle East and destroyed the Seljuk empire. The collapse of Seljuk power meant that marginal players within the Turkish world were free to act without restraint. On the far western edge of the Turkish world, a petty chieftan called Osman ruled over a couple villages and pastureland. From such humble beginnings no one would have guessed that Osman's descendents would later rule one of the worlds great empires. What differentiated Osman from his neighbours was that his valley bordered Byzantine territory, and with no Seljuk governor to remind him of the treaties between the Turks and the Byzantines, he was free to conduct raids at will. Each successful raid attracted new adventurers to his tribe and soon he had built up a substantial army and was pretty much able to conduct a continuous warfare against his larger Christian neighbour. He was also a pragmatist, offering Byzantine towns, villages and cities attactive terms to surrender, including significantly reduced tax rates. Against this mix of military violence, persuasive self interest and egalitarian charm the Byzantines had no response and within 50 years the Ottoman Turks had pushed the Byzantines out of Asia Minor.
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Bursa nestles on the eastern flanks of Ulu Dag, the Greek Mount Olympus, one time home of the Gods. The Ottomans captured the city from the Byzantines after a 34 year siege! Osman himself died before the city was taken. It fell to his son, Orhan and became the first capital city of the Ottoman empire. Both Osman and Orhan lie buried in two tiny Byzantine chapels just inside the walls of the old city. Its only when you see the position of the old city, high up on the side of a cliff overlooking modern Bursa that you realise why it took 34 years to capture the place.
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Oddly enough, the ghost of Byzantine Prousa still lingers on. Although the city's name is clearly written as BURSA, when I bought the bus ticket in Konya the travel agent looked at me dumbfounded. "Bursa.... Bursa.", I repeated, wondering how I could have pronounced such a simple word so wrong. I pointed to it on the big map on the wall and repeated "Bursa." "Ahhh,", he said, "Brusa!" with a clearly prounced BRR. It reminded me when we were in Wroclaw in Poland; many older people still called the city by its German name, Breslau. Some names persist, regardless of changing politics.
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Modern Bursa is a huge city of some 3 million people and the central bus station is hardly very central. We packed onto a local bus for the 50 minute ride through the commercial, business and retail districts on the outskirts of the city. Although scarcely scenic, Bursa is clearly a commerical powerhouse. We jumped off the bus directly across from the Grand Mosque, built by Bayezit "The Lightning Bolt." His nickname was well deserved. In a reign of 20 odd years he conquered a swathe of Turkish emirates across Anatolia and Christian kingdoms of the Balkans. His rivals were astonished by the speed with which he moved his armies back and forth from Europe to Asia. He won victory after victory and was responsible for transforming the emirate into an empire. Before he came to the throne he made a pledge that if he became the Sultan he would build 12 mosques and, like all politicians caught on the spot by a rash promise he tried to weasel out of the deal on a technicality. He built this one mosque but gave it 12 domes. From the outside the mosque is square and featureless, totally unlike the elegant Ottoman mosques of Istanbul. That style hadn't been invented yet. A central fountain dominates the interior of the mosque.
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In 1402AD he met his match against the Mongol/Turkish warlord, Tamerlane in the Battle of Ankara.
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As usual we had not booked ahead but had decided to try a quaint little Turkish guesthouse described in the Lonely Planet. It was just up the street from the Grand Mosque. As we navigated through the busy afternoon crowds a middle aged man up ahead of us stopped, turned and asked us where we were going. "I know a very good place.", he said. "Come, come!" Shelly and I didn't want to get led up the garden path but we were all walking in the same direction so we couldn't get away. As we walked he told us he was a school teacher and he was heading home. He asked us about our travels. We tried to be as polite but non-committal as possible. Then he announced "this is the place" and pointed to an old fashioned Turkish house on a steep and winding street. I laughed out load - it was the same place we were looking for. "I know these people,", Ahmet said and introduced us to the lady of the house. She was an old lady, traditionally dressed in brightly coloured pantaloons and spoke no English. Ahmet explained in detail who we were and where we were from. The room was small and spartan, with a frosted glass panel in the door that offered no privacy. The bathroom was very very basic. But we took it anyway.
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We quickly changed and headed out, but Ahmet wanted to talk and we couldn't escape his overwhelming hospitality. He taught history and he liked his subject (as of course I did too), but we did have limited time. Ahmet invited us to a cafe where traditional Turkish music was played "not by professional musicians. No, these are just normal people who come after work to play. You will appreciate it." He was most insistent we come to see the Sema, even though we told him we'd seen it at Konya. "Yes, but there it is in a big stadium. You should see it in a traditional tekke (monastery)." A Canadian student then arrived and we were all introduced and the conversation started over again. "You must tell them they must come to the Sema.", he implored her. He then provided a run down of all the important tourist sights in Bursa. "You cannot leave without visiting the Green mosque,", he said. That was high on my list of must sees, but then he added, "But I'm not sure if it might be closed?" Sadly, the astonishly beautifully decorated tomb of Sulieman II was closed for restoration.
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After a long time we managed to extricate ourselves and head out into the streets. The landlady offered many profuse thank you's and god bless you's as we left that I thought I might have been one of her long lost sons.
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One of the first things the Ottomans built in Bursa (apart from mosques), were hans - covered markets that doubled as inns for merchants and travellers. East - west trade resumed and soon Bursa was a booming city once again. Many of Bursas old hans have been restored and are still bustling centres of trade and community.
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Bursa's claim to culinary fame is the Iskender kebad, a dish of roasted slices of meat served on a bed of fluffy turkish bread soaked in a rich buttery sauce. It was a delicious heart attack inducing feast. Two restaurants in the old town claim to serve the original receipe - they are both are run by rival descendents of Iskender (Alexander) Bey.
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After dinner we wandered up towards tomb of Suleman II, known as the Green Mosque because of its brilliant turquoise tiles. It was shut for restoration as I mentioned already, so we headed back to the hostel for an early night.
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The next day we headed up to the citadel for a view over the city. Unfortunately smog obscured much of the view. In the valley to the west is the Muradiye complex. Murad II, the 5th Ottoman sultan built a mosque here as a mausoleum for himself and his family. His son Mehmet II however went on to conquer Constantinople and moved the capital there and Bursa slowly became a backwater. The Muradiye complex went on to become a mausoleum for many of the sultans' wives and concubines. There are few members of the Ottoman family actually buried there, for reasons I'll explain in the section on Istanbul.
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Murad's tomb, like the man himself, is plain and unpretentious. The most impressive tomb belongs to Jem, the youngest son of Mehmet II. On Mehmet's death, his oldest son Beyazit claimed the throne. Jem raised an army against him but was defeated and fled, first to Egypt, then to the Island of Rhodes where he was give asylum by the Knights of St John. From Rhodes he was sent to France, then to Italy. He quickly became a pawn of international politics and was held as a virtual prisoner, used to extort money and favours from the nervous Beyazit. He was eventually poisoned on the orders of the Borgia Pope Alexander III. Jem became the subject of many romantic tales both in the east and west. He was young, handsome and exotic and he had many affairs and illegitimate children to the daughters of the many nobles charged with his care. In Turkey, he was regarded as a great 'might have been'; so much more charming than his grim and dour brother. After his death his body was shipped back to Turkey and buried in a beautifully decorated tomb in old Bursa, far from the new capital, where he could be safely forgotten.
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Posted by paulymx 07:19 Archived in Turkey Tagged bursa Comments (0)

"Konya? Why would you go to Konya?"

In search of the Seljuks

I have to thank Shelly for allowing me to indulge my often obscure interests. Visiting Konya is probably right up there in obscure travel destinations, but I did want to go there for a reason. In the 12th century Konya was the capital of the Seljuk Empire, the most important of the Turkish emirates to founded on the remains of the dying Byzantine empire. The expansion of the Turkish empire had been the subject of my thesis at university and I've remained passionately interested in this period ever since., for although rivals and often at war with one another, the Byzantine Christian and Seljuk Muslim empires enjoyed unusually close and sometimes even warm relations. For me, this was almost a pilgrimage.
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Still, everyone we met said the same thing, even the travel agent, "Why go to Konya?" It was a bit of trek. Konya is situated on the Anatolian plateau in central Turkey, a little south of Cappadocia, the land of the fairy castles. It is bleak and cold in winter and not really very scenic at other times of the year. It would take almost 12 hours to get there.
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We left Marmaris about 11am. As we wound our way up through the mountains that run right down to the sea, it made me think how isolated the cities of Turkey's southern coast are. The highways linking them to the interior are new, some only built in the 1960s. Before that some cities could only be reached by boat. It makes you think, what sort of authority could the Ottomans, the Byzantines, and the Romans before them have ever really exercised over these places. Sure, these cities paid a bit of tribute here and there but would have been pretty much free to do whatever they liked, while someone back in Constantinople ticked a box to say 'we own this.'
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It was a long bus ride but Turkish buses are comfortable and provide a drink and food service. We managed to sleep a bit and had some interesting discussions with a couple of passengers, who again always asked, "why Konya?" I think Shelly was getting nervous. Konya has a reputation for being the most religiously conservative city in Turkey; a little Iran. It didn't sound so appealing.
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I was getting nervous too actually but for different reasons. The bus was running late and we'd only managed to book a hotel online about 15 minutes before we left Marmaris and we'd not received confirmation of the booking. Of course, once on the bus we were uncontactable so we were travelling blind. It was now looking like we'd arrive around midnight, so if the booking failed, we were in trouble. As the bus went along it picked up and dropped off people along the side of the road. Everyone on the bus knew we were going to Konya so there was little chance we'd be forgotten, but we had no idea where we would be dropped off. The driver wanted to drop us on the highway exit so he could continue straight through, but I asked him to drop us at the bus station. We ended up compromising at the round about near the bus station. Fortunately a taxi driver was cruising past when we got off and we hailed him down. We gave him the hotel name and he immediately offered us a cigarette, despite the "No Smoking" sign. I think he was hoping we'd accept so he could have one. Finally, a little after midnight we arrived at the hotel. The night manager was waiting and he had our booking. He ushered us straight up to the room; we'd sort out the paperwork tomorrow, and then we crashed.
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The next day we headed into the city for sightseeing. Our first stop was the Mevlana shrine, dedicated to the sufi mystic and founder of the Whirling Dervishes, Celeladdin Rumi. Rumi was born in Afganistan in 1207 and became a religious teacher and poet. He was driven west by a Mongol invasion and travelled all across central asia and the middle east before settling in Turkey. His experiences in exile led to promote a particularly inclusive and tolerant mystic theology, which was particularly appealing to the the Seljuks, who governed a mixed Christian and Muslim population. The sufi order he founded used music and whirling as a form of meditation and spiritual enlightenment. After he died in 1273 his tomb became a shrine. Entry is free and it was packed with visitors, particularly women. Unfortunately you were not allowed to take photos inside the beautifully decorated shrine.
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At the opposite end of the old town is Aladdin Hill, an artificial hill on which once stood the sultans' palace complex. Sadly it's almost all gone now. What wasn't burnt to the ground when the Mongols came through in 1273 was toppled by earthquakes, but the Aladdin Mosque and two tombs are still standing. From the outside, Aladdin Mosque is very plain. Inside it isn't much better. The columns in the hall,some of which are Roman and Byzantine in origin, all lean markedly - the mosque is slowly sliding down the hill. At the far end of the hall however is a magnificent, brightly decorated 13th century mirhab (altar).
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Inside one of the Seljuk tombs are the gravestones of a dozen Seljuk sultans, beautifully decorated in blue tile and Islamic caligraphy. The other tomb is empty. Both tombs have been harshly restored. Just down the hill is the Tile Museum, housed within a neatly restored Seljuk seminary and tomb. The blue tiled dome is impressive. All of the tiny Seljuk era mosques have been converted into little museums.
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Having done the rounds of museums and mosques we stopped at a popular local restaurant for a kebab. The specialty in Konya is firin kebab, slow baked lamb on a bed of soft bread. It was delicious. We also tried the national drink - aryan - a salty yogurt drink. It's an acquired taste obviously, but some people were drinking it by the pint. The restaurant manager came over for a chat and asked us why we'd come to Konya. He was pleased to find that we knew something of the city's Seljuk past and recommended we visit a couple of mosques and museums. When we we'd finished he had one of the staff take us over to a 'friend' who could provide us more information about Konya. Shelly was worried that it was a scam and we'd end up sitting in a carpet shop, but I didn't want to offend Turkish hospitality and so we went along. We did find ourselves in a carpet shop but the guy there only gave us a tourist map and some pointers before bidding us adieu.
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That night we went along to the nightly Sema - the Whirling Dervish ceremony. The Sema had once been performed in a hall at the back of the Mevlana shrine, but Konya now has a purpose built stadium. It's gigantic and could probably seat 20,000 people. It might seem that such an investment can only be driven by tourism, but the Sema was free and looking around at the crowd we found that there were probably only 50 non-Turkish people in the audience. The majority of the audience were women, mostly young and wearing brightly coloured scarves. Perhaps the spectacle of the Sema allowed them to get out of the house unsupevised. There was lots of discrete texting going on.
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The Sema was an interesting spectacle. It started with series of speeches from certain dignitories, then the band began to play. The music was hypnotic and I must admit I almost fell asleep under its spell. The dervishes progressed out slowly and formed up in a circle. After some prayers and rituals they began to whirl, slowly at first and then getting faster and faster. It was quite a spectacle. Amazingly, after whirling around for 15 or so minutes they were able to stop on a pin and showed no sign of dizziness. It was interesting to watch but it did go on and on and on... a bit. The whole thing probably lasted two hours. Even a large portion of the Turkish audience had slipped away during the performance.
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We wandered home late that night through Konyas dark and yet safe streets back to our hotel. We set the alarm for 5am. We had a long bus ride the next morning to Bursa.

Posted by paulymx 07:07 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Rhodes

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The Lonely Planet observed that despite Rhodes' proximity to Turkey it seemed almost untouched by any influence from its larger neighbour but was totally Greek in its character. And yet, one glance up the main street of the old town, with its impressive Crusader architecture and its Ottoman mosques would suggest something otherwise. It was yet another of the Lonely Planet's obscure and perplexing observations that make you wonder, "did the writer actually come here, or were they reading from some brochure?"
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The Island of Rhodes is shaped like a spear pointed at the belly of Turkey. It was a view of Rhodes shared by both the Crusaders and the Ottomans, both for different reasons of course. In 1309 the Knights of St John, recently driven out of Palestine, arrived in Rhodes and set about turning it into a fortress from where they plotted their reconquest of the Holy Land. Rhodes Town is still dominated by the massive double city walls the Knights' built. A pleasant walk around the walls offers great views of the harbour, the old city, and its mosques and churches.
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Walking north along the Avenue of the Knights you arrive at the massive Palace of the Grand Masters, almost a fortress within a fortress. The current Palace is a 19th centurt reconstruction - the original had been accidentally blown up. It now houses a small but impressive museum. The upper floors feature reconstructed Roman mosaics from a range of archaeological sites across Rhodes and Ios.
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The Ottomans sent several armies against the Knights, but the fortifications proved too strong in 1455 and 1480. They were back again in 1522 and after several months of seige both sides were totally exhausted by the effort, neither realising how desperate things were for the other side - the Knights were down to a few hundred defenders and the Ottomans had almost exhausted their supplies and needed to extricate their army before the sailing season ended. Both sides agreed to a negotiated surrender and the Knights were allowed to evacuate the remains of their army. Despite the viciousness of the seige, Sultan Sulieman observed with regret that it was a terrible thing to force such brave men to leave their home. He would later regret his clemency. The Knights relocated to Malta, fortifying the island and continuing their endless war against the infidel.
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Away from the Knighs Quarter, the old town takes on a completely different aspect. Ottoman mosques, complete with minarets, dominate the skyline of the old market district. It gives the town an exotic feel unlike other places in Greece.
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They owe their survival to Italy's frustrated colonial ambitions at the turn of the 20th century. In 1911 Italian troops invaded the Ottoman province of Libya. They quickly defeating the Ottoman garrison and demanded the Ottomans officially cede Libya to them, but the Ottomans simply refused to negotiate. Frustrated by their failure, the Italians upped the ante by seizing Rhodes and Ios. It didn't really achieve anything though. Italy got to keep it's ill-gotten gains after the First World War. Unlike the Greeks, they made no attempt to ethnically cleanse the islands, allowing them to keep their distinctively mixed culture. Greece recieved the islands as compensation from Italy after the Second World War, but the time was no longer ripe for wholesale cultural destruction and ethnic cleansing. The mosques were of course all closed and allowed to fall into ruin. They have now been restored by UNESCO funding but most remain closed.
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Crusader, Byzantine and Ottoman architecture are the most visible relics of Rhodes' past, but sadly there is no trace of Rhodes' most famous monument - the Colossus of Rhodes. It's always shown as a huge statue straddling Rhodes harbour, but that was just artistic fantasy. It was probably a standing figure like the Statue of Liberty. It was built around 300BC to commemorate the defeat of an invading army, but it only stood for 65 years before it was toppled in an earthquake. Apparently it was just as impressive as a ruin, lying beside the harbour until it was finally sold for scrap in the 7th century AD. There isn't really anything much to see in the harbour these days, oddly there is a bronze statue of a stag on one of the harbour piers and a couple of derelict windmills (which look like they're being restored like on Mykonos. When we were there there were three huge cruise liners in port, towering over the medieval port.
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As Rhodes is a regular stop for Mediterranean cruises there are always plenty of day trippers in town. Nevertheless, Rhodes is has a very pleasant and laid back ambiance. We enjoyed walking around the markets, eating out and generally chilling. But after two days it was time to move on. Although it was the end of the season daily ferrys to Turkey were still running. We took the high speed ferry to Marmaris.
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In Mingaland
Marmaris is a popular seaside resort city and is totally unlike Turkey so we weren't staying long. The city is somewhat non-descript wit lots of hotels, bars, and shopping malls. It was the end of the season so things were pretty quiet, but we did get an excellent deal on accommodation. Our hotel room was large enough to play a game of cricket in and the television had some 3000 channels, and no, I'm not joking! There honestly were some 3000 channels covering just about every single country in the world.
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With nothing much to see in the way of sights we hit the streets looking for something to eat and to arrange transport for tomorrow. We hadn't quite planned our trip through Turkey. The first thing that struck us was the number of English pubs - all showing football, and prices in pounds. And the prices were steep! A spruker at a restaurant tried to convince us that 8 pounds for a kebab was a good deal. We'd certainly eaten enough kebabs in Germany to know that was expensive, and for Turkey, it was positively extraordinary! The other thing that struck us was mingas, everywhere - men and women. You don't expect much cultural sensitivity in a seaside resort, but really should be some limits. Say, if you are 55 years old and immensely fat, you should NOT walk around the streets in a bikini or budgie smugglers. Please, we beg of you!! Keep that for the beach if you must. If you wouldn't walk around like that at home, why would you think you should do it elsewhere? And no, that new tattoo does not make you look young and hip. There was also a fair share of aggressive young men (English and Russians mainly) wandering drunk around the beachfront which gave it a threatening aire.

So we did not stay. Turkey has a well serviced bus network and at the first tourist office we asked for directions to the bus station. The guy behind the desk, who really wanted to sell us tickets to a booze cruise, asked us where we wanted to go. "Maybe Konya, or Trabzon.", I said. He looked a little dumbfounded. "Konya? Why would you go to Konya?" "It's a famous city, the old Seljuk capital,", I replied. "It is not like here,", he said. "I don't think many tourists go from here to Konya." As we thanked him and headed towards the bus station he called out, "Maybe you're wanting to see the Mevlana?" At the bus station later our decision was made for us - the bus to Trabzon was 20 hours. Konya was 12 hours.

Posted by paulymx 07:33 Archived in Greece Comments (0)

The Greek Islands

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The ferry to Mykonos was leaving from Piraeus port at 6am so we needed to be up early to catch the train to Piraeus. As we were just a block from Ominiou train station this did not seem a problem. The hotel staff warned us that the train wouldn't be running due to track maintenance and instead we'd need to take the bus. and kindly sketched out the way to the bus stop on our map. At 5am however the temporary bus stop was a little harder to find and we spent an anxious 15 minutes searching for the stop and asking perplexed passersby for directions. In the end we joined a queue of similarly anxious tourists, which fortunately turned out to be the right stop. The bus drove us through Athens' empty streets before dropping us at a train station to continue the rest our journey.

We reached the docks with minutes to spare and walked briskly to the boat. A Greek man accosted us just as we caught sight of our ferry and insistently tried to point us to another dock. He kept demanding to see our tickets even though he clearly wasn't an official. I was certain it was some sort of scam but in the end it was the only way we could shake him. He glanced at the ticket, realised his mistake and then urged us to hurry on to ferry.

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The ferry was half empty and trip to Mykonos was uneventful, except for two ladies sitting in front us who were playing some Greek music on their mobile phone and singing along, loudly, for a long time....a long time....
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On arrival we were taken to the hotel and settled in. It was a really nice hotel situated up on the hillside overlooking Mykonos town. We chilled at the hotel a while then headed down the long winding track to the town. Mykonos town is a dazzling white maze of whitewashed walls brightened here and there will radiant plumes of bouganvilia. It's said that the maze like design of the town was part of a defensive strategy to confuse and ambush raiding pirates. It sounds plausible but medieval towns always tended to grow in a chaotic, organic way.
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We wandered down by the harbour to look at the windmills which are the symbol of the island, then ate at cafe down by Little Venice, the scenic waterfront of Ottoman era houses.
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Back within the maze like town we couldn't help but notice the number of chapels and little churches. There were dozens and dozens of them. Even in a devount country like Greece this seemed a little like overkill. It is worth noting that in the middle ages your family could avoid death duties and taxes if you left your estate in the care of the church. This led many families to establish their own private chapels, leaving the administration of the estate in the hands of family priests or monks. It became so commonplace that in the 11th century the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus imposed a ban on the establishment of private chapels and monasteries as it was seriously undermining tax revenues. The official churches all flew the yellow double headed eagle flag of the Palaeologians, the last imperial dynasty of Byzantium.
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On our second day we hired an ATV and drove around the island.
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We stopped for a while at the famous Paradise Beach and had a swim. During summer Paradise Beach goes off and is a non-stop 24 hour party of throbbing suntanned flesh. How exciting! But we'd arrived at the end of the season and the beach was almost empty. At least we didn't have to fight to get a spot! So we bought ourselves a couple of beers, laid back and chilled.
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A little way up the beach there was a totally fit, tanned and gorgeous Brazillian couple. It was hard not to notice them, especially as they decided to strutt along the beach and stop directly in front of us, where they proceeded to pose and take photos of each other, then they walked all the way back down the beach to where they came from, picked up their stuff and left. Well, they do say Greece has some magnificent sights.
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We enjoyed another nice meal that night before kicking on to the only open nightclub in town - not the Ram Rod gay bar! Shelly generously saved a couple of young lasses from the attentions of a lecherous old Greek man, but it was otherwise fairly quiet.
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We had debated heading next to Ios, the party island, but we'd already met some people who'd come from there and the island was shutting down for the season as almost deserted, so we took the ferry to Santorini. Santorini is certainly the most spectacular and beautiful of the Greek Islands. Some people have postulated that Santorini may be have been the origin of the Atlantis story. Three thousand years ago the island was shattered by an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed the civilisation on Santorini and sent a tsunami around the Mediterranean coast. As a result of the explosion, today's Santorini is shaped like a C. The major town of the island, Fira, tumbles along the rim of the dramatic cliffs overlooking the caldera. There are few places in the world quite so stunning. Watching the sunset from the cliffside bars over the caldera is pretty special.
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We spent two days taking it easy in Santorini. Unfortunately a storm whipped up on the second day, shrouding Fira in a violent dust storm that forced us to spend most of our time indoors. The storm also disrupted the ferry services. We were booked on a midnight ferry to Rhodes but we were warned that the ship might be cancelled due to the weather.
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The storm eased late in the evening and at 11.15pm we picked up our bags and wandered down to the bus station, which was really little more than an empty carpark in the centre of town. 11.30 came and went and the bus hadn't arrived. Some twenty minutes later the bus driver appeared, started the engine and we climbed aboard. The drive along the unlit switchback road down the cliffside to the port was very tense, but we made it down safely. The sea was rough with waves crashing over the dockside. There was no sign of the ferry. We settled into the cafe, ordered a coffee and waited.
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Just after 1am a light appeared on the horizon and slowly approached the port. The weather was really throwing the ferry around but the crew still managed to swing the ship around and back up against the wharf. No sooner had the hawsers secured the stern than the trucks lined up on the dockside drove aboard, loaded up, and drove out. It was like a military operation. Then we boarded and checked into our berth. It was a really nice room and we settled in for the night.
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Posted by paulymx 06:46 Comments (2)

Athenas!

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Athens had long been on the list of cities we wanted to revisit but despite three subsequent trips to Europe we never made it back. We arrived late at night in time to take the last bus to Syntagma Square in central Athens. Our hotel was in Omonia, near the fruit and vegetable market. It was quite a way from Syntagma so we were debating taking a taxi but the drivers who pounced on us the second we stepped from the bus were very aggressive so we decided to walk. Fortunately we were walking down Athen's main shopping mall, Ermou, so it was well lit. At the end of the street is the tiny 10th century Byzantine church of Kapnikarea, now sunk almost a metre below ground level. The size of the church is indicative of the size of Athens in the middle ages. In fact, by that stage Athens had shrunk to no more than a scattering of tiny villages amongst the ruins.
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We turned right onto Athinas boulevard, which was not quite so well lit. When we reached the fruit and vegetable market I turned us up the wrong street - one street too early in the dark. It wasn't a good choice. Up ahead there were hotel signs but the streets were filled with African prostitutes in the midst of a furious turf war, shrieking at each other and hurling abuse. Things got very heated and the police arrived so we walked hurriedly passed cursing ourselves for once again choosing a cheap, sh*t hotel. Fortunately when we reached the corner we realised we were on the wrong street. Phew! Our hotel, one block over, was quite delightful and the staff were extremely helpful. Welcome back to Athens!
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The next day we walked down Athinas boulevard to Monastraki. This area was once the heart of Ottoman Athens and is now filled with markets, restaurants and shops. In the centre of Monastraki square is another tiny Byzantine church, after which the district is named (the monastery). Standing across the way is the Tsisaraki mosque, bereft of its minaret. For many decades this beautiful building was derelict, but it is now a folk museum. Like the other Balkan countries, Greece has energetically attempted to erase all trace of its Ottoman past, tearing down almost every mosque, bath-house and Turkish public building, not to mention actual ethnic cleansing. But occasional Turkish influences have survived - most notably in Greek cuisine - the kebab for instance, which originated in Lebanon and spread right across the Ottoman Empire.
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Athens is one of the oldest continuously occupied city in Europe and beneath every inch of its soil lie the impressive relics of past. In the 1930's the authorities cleared away the ramshackle village between the Plaka and the Acropolis in order to sink a trainline. They immediately encountered the extensive ruins of the ancient Greek agora. The site was evenually cleared of houses and the ruins properly excavated, including the beautiful Hephaisteian temple at the top of the Agora.
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Following the path through the Agora leads you around Areopagios Hill to the base of Acropolis. The Acropolis has always been the centre of Athens. It's famous today for the Parthenon temple, but has variously been used as a fortress and palace. The famous Athenian general and politican Pericles erected the magnificent Parthenon at the height of Athens' power in the 5th century. Ironically, he also led Athens into the 30 year Peloponnesian War that ultimately destroyed Athens as a power. I must admit, although the Parthenon is an amazing building, it is hard to appreciate. As a ruin it has been sorely mistreated. Despite 2000 years and three changes of faith, the Parthenon had survived largely intact, but in 1687 a Venetian army besieged Athens. The Ottoman garrison fled to the safety of the Acropolis, moving their women, children and supplies inside the protective walls of the Parthenon. Amongst those supplies was a stock of gunpowder. The Venetians knew this and deliberately targeted the Parthenon so it was only a matter of time before a shell crashed through the tiled roof of the temple and blew the building to pieces. What time could not erase, man destroyed.
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Later, the Ottomans built a tiny mosque in the centre of the ruin to serve the squalid little township that had grown up on the Acropolis. In the 18th century an English diplomat, Lord Elgin, arrived in Athens to undertake an 'archaeological survey,' but he was no archaeologist. He was determine to seize as much Greek artwork as he could for his own profit. The Turkish governor of Athens initially allowed him to conduct a survey of the Acropolis but threw him out of the city when he realised Elgin was pillaging Athens' ruins. But Elgin outmanouvered him by bribing the officials in Constantinople, then set about tearing down all the remaining statuary from the Parthenon and other buildings. English 'Grand Tourists' of the time were horrified by his careless vandalism and the letters they wrote home condemning him led to his being shunned when he finally returned to England. He was eventually forced to sell the Elgin Marbles, as they were known, to the British Museum at a loss. To this date the British Museum has shown little inclination to even discuss the return of their ill gotten booty with the Greeks, who are now pursuing the matter through the International Court. Given recent precedent, the Museum is bound to lose in the long run. In preparation for that day, Greece has built an magnificent museum at the foot of the Acropolis to house the sculptures.
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When Athens became the capital of Greece in 1834, the 'real' archaeologists arrived and proceeded to tear the Acropolis apart. Everything that wasn't 'classical' was deemed worthless and destroyed - the Ottoman mosque, houses, fortifications, Byzantine buildings, the remains of the Christian basilica, Roman temples and shrines, even Hellenistic Greek era buildings were torn down. In their madness they stripped all the topsoil from the Acropolis, exposing the bare bedrock which makes walking around the site, especially in the wet, so slippery and dangerous. It was crazy, unscientific and unnatural. The Acropolis would never have looked like that. I guess we can count our blessings that their early plans to clear the Acropolis in order to build a gigantic neo-classical palace complex for King Otto never came to fruition.
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Back at ground level, continuing along the south side of the Acropolis you eventually reach Hadrians Gate and the remains of the enormous Temple of Zeus. Construction of the Temple began in the 6th century BC but was never completed. The Roman emperor Hadrian finished the building in the 2nd century AD and threw a new city wall around it. Now only the gateway and a few columns remain standing but even in their dilapidated state they look impressive due to their size. Just to the north are the remains of Roman Athens, centred around the Roman Agora, Hadrian's Library and the Tower of the Winds.
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This ingenious sundial and calendar was built by a Syrian mathematician in the 2nd century BC and was set in the centre of the marketplace. When Athens sunk into obscurity in the dark ages this area was abandoned outside of the city walls, its utility meant that it survived. Later, when the Ottomans conquered Athens they settled in the old Roman quarter, leaving the Greeks to their own districts. Today there are only a few fragments of the Ottomans scattered through the ruins.
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Almost as absent from Athens as the Ottomans are the Byzantines. In Byzantine times Athens had shrunk to the point where it was little more than Arcopolis town and three tiny villages amongst the ruins. The tiny Byzantine churches scattered around the city speak volumes about Athens' decline. All have been restored but most were closed. The Church of the Holy Apostles in the Ancient Agora was open. It's largely a 19th century reconstruction on a 10th century foundation and includes frescoes salvaged from other churches that have been demolished.
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The next day we visited the National Archaeological Museum. Athens has many fabulous museums but the Archaological museum is truly amazing. We spent several hours admiring Greece's rich archaeological treasures before heading back to the Plaka to enjoy the restaurants and nightlife.
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After three days in Athens it was time to push on. We had thought about hiring a car and driving around Greece but opted in the end to go to the islands. It was time to relax.
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