Troy and Gallipoli

There’s a bit of a running joke in my family that I seem to have a penchant for visiting sites of former death and destruction.  I blame my parents and all those childhood holidays to Normandy.  But I couldn’t come to Turkey and not visit Gallipoli.

For those of you who may not know, the Gallipoli peninsula was the site of a First World War campaign, particularly remembered in Australia and New Zealand as a large proportion of Anzac soldiers took part.  Without going into too much detail of the history (this BBC site gives an excellent overview if you’re interested), the general historical consensus is that it was a terrible, poorly planned campaign, epitomising the futility of war, conjuring images of men struggling to climb impossibly steep cliffs to the high ground; battling it out in awful trench conditions; and ultimately tens of thousands meeting their end under machine gun fire.  It was a hugely important event in the modern history of both Australia and New Zealand, just as the First World War was across the British Empire, with vast numbers of mothers and fathers sending their sons off to die on the other side of the world in the name of the British crown.

I really wanted to visit Gallipoli so that I could visualise a place that always seemed so foreign and remote to me.  Now, it is possible to visit on a day trip from Istanbul, but that would be a very long day.  As it was I chose a 2 day option which included a visit to nearby Troy.  There are public buses making the route, but I wasn’t sure they would get us there in time for the afternoon tours.  A few different tour agencies operate in the area, and all seem to offer the same tours for very similar prices.  We went with Crowded House and our 135 euro each included:

  • 6.30am pick up from hotel in Istanbul
  • Minibus to Eceabat
  • Lunch in Eceabat
  • Afternoon tour to Troy
  • Overnight accommodation in twin room in hotel in Cannakale
  • Buffet breakfast the next day
  • Morning tour of Helles sector – it was very interesting to see this less visited part, and we effectively had a private tour
  • Lunch in Eceabat again
  • Afternoon tour of Anzac sector (couple more people joined us)
  • Minibus back to Istanbul, where we stopped for a quick dinner break (not included) then they dropped me directly at the airport as I had a late flight

We’d been warned by friends beforehand that Troy was fairly underwhelming, but I think it depends on your expectations.  There is not a huge amount to see, but with a tour guide explaining the different archaeological layers, and a good visual imagination, it was pretty interesting.  Admittedly I knew very little about the legends before I got there, so it was all fairly new and interesting for me.  I did however remember watching the Brad Pitt movie “Troy” at the cinema as a teenager, and the wooden horse used in the filming was on display in Eceabat which was quite cool.  There was also a more basic, but climbable, replica in Troy itself.

As for the battlefield tours, doing the whole day gave us a great overview of how events unfolded a century ago.  The Anzac sector was only part of the story, so seeing the Helles side too was a good balance.  I also hadn’t realised that so many British and French troops participated in the campaign: the number of names on the Helles memorial from the Worcestershire Regiment alone (where I’m from originally) was shocking.  In total, 35 countries were represented when you count them separately rather than as part of one empire or another.  Our tour guide Bülent spoke English with a charming Antipodean lilt, littered with slightly displaced fillers and idioms such as “actually” and “I was gonna say…”, borne out of 20 years of guiding Anzac descendants and tourists.  He told us he regularly guides Peter Jackson, the movie director, who has visited multiple times and seems to have a keen interest in the history.  A future film in the pipeline perhaps?

There were numerous battlefields across the peninsula, some with many named graves, and others with only a handful.  Names of unidentified Allied soldiers were listed on the Helles memorial.  I’ve been to a fair few Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites in my time, and I am always taken aback by how immaculately kept they are, no matter where in the world.  They do a really great job.  The Turkish memorial was staggering in size: a huge four pillared structure, next to a 70m flagpole.  It was designed in the 1940s, but when the project ran into financial difficulties it became an early example of crowdfunding as a nationwide newspaper-led campaign helped it to its eventual completion in 1960.  I was surprised to see as many Turkish tourists as I did, coachloads of them, but our guide assured us that had we come at the weekend the crowds would have been much worse.  Apparently 3 million Turks visited in 2015, and the government provides free school trips there as part of what seems to be a rather worrying piece of political (and even more worryingly, religious) propaganda.

War grave tourism isn’t for everyone, but I find it strangely calming, even inspirational.  Philip Johnstone’s poem “High Wood”, written in Feb 1918 before the end of the war, imagines a future tour guide leading a group through the battlefields, an image I like to think soldiers of the time would have found comforting and hopeful rather than in any way disrespectful, although most criticism of this poem interprets it in the opposite way.  I know there is always war and suffering going on in different corners of the world at any one time: you could argue that it’s just one continually shifting battlefield.  Yet still I like to visit these places, their supreme serenity belying their troubled history, and contemplate how the most beautiful locations can so easily become the scenes of such infernal cruelty, and how amazing it is to see the sun shine again on even the darkest hells.

High Wood

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

Philip Johnstone, 1918


Istanbul Hamam

I chose to avoid the more “touristy” hamams in favour of something more local and authentic.  I think it was Google reviews, or perhaps Tripadvisor, which pointed me in the direction of Kadirga Hamam, an unassuming little place in Sultanahmet.  It does actually have a website but felt like the sort of place that wouldn’t, if you know what I mean.  When I opened the door, a reclining woman got up and ushered me in.  She ruffled around and found a laminated sheet of A4 with the prices in English.  I paid upfront for the full treatment: wash, scrub and foamy massage for 50 lira (about £12.50).  The lady spoke no English, but ushered me into a room and gestured to me to totally undress.  She gave me a thin sheet to wrap myself in.

Feeling pretty self conscious at this point, I followed her into the baths.  It was a medium sized white marble room, with a beautiful domed ceiling dotted with multicoloured glass.  There were two women and a young boy in there, all naked, and I removed my sheet.  Another large motherly figure, wearing nothing but a nude bra and pants, appeared and sat me down on a step next to a basin (all marble), and spent some time running the water to an ideal temperature.  She showed me how to pour water over myself using a small round pink plastic tray, and left me to it for about 10 minutes.  I soon relaxed.  There was something quite surreal about the experience, but in a good way.  The other bathers left after a while, and I had the place to myself.  The woman came back, this time with scrubbing mitts on her hands.  She took me to a large marble slab in the middle of the room, and I lay down as she scrubbed me down.  I’d heard stories of rather vigorous scrubbing techniques, but she was very gentle.  It kind of felt like I was having a normal shower with a body puff thing, but someone else was washing me.

After this I had some more time to rinse myself down before round 2: the foamy massage.  The lady wore similar mitts to before, but without the exfoliation.  Inside the mitts were bars of soap, resulting in an extravagant production of bubbles.  Again I lay on the marble slab, but this time I was sliding around all over the place in a rather comical fashion.  The merest touch sent me flying across the slippery surface and I spent the whole time in fear of gliding off the slab!  To my relief, I didn’t, and for the latter half of the experience I was settled in a slightly more stable position.  As I sat there, naked, covered in soapy foam, my head buried in the bosom of a woman I didn’t know while she massaged my back, I realised that I had achieved the ultimate peak of vulnerability, and it was strangely liberating. Afterwards, she washed my hair back over by the basin, throwing water over me with the little plastic tray, and I felt like I was 6 years old again.

I left the Hamam feeling very clean, and supremely relaxed.  I didn’t feel like she’d removed a layer of skin in a literal sense, but I did feel that something had been stripped back and exposed.  As if as adults we progressively gather hard layers around us: layers of experience, of regret, of mistakes half-concealed and almost forgotten; protective layers, in a vain attempt to defend from future hurt or failure; and layers of disguise, of masquerade, of camouflage.  But when you scrub it all away, there’s the six year old: unguarded, wholly trusting and at peace.




Impressions of Istanbul

My general impression of the city was that it wasn’t quite as bustling as I’d expected.  Since I found the same in China, I wonder if it’s just because I live and work in central London so am used to it.  But still, Istanbul had a calm, peaceful quiet about it that I had not anticipated at all.

On my first day exploring by myself, I took the metro to a stop on a bridge, and wandered down from there to Sultanahmet.  Was I imagining it or did I smell the spices before I even got to the Spice Bazaar?  I passed the port area, full of street vendors selling simit, chestnuts and sweetcorn.  I particularly liked the chestnut vendors and their careful arrangement of each one just so, to achieve the most appealing presentation.  Beyond the bazaar, I lost myself in back streets of material shops.  It was endless – I’ve never seen so many scarves in my life!  I walked through steep and winding streets filled with men carrying huge loads on little sack trucks, weaving expertly between motorbikes, pedestrians, and people carrying trays of Turkish tea, high above their heads, to weary looking men sitting on kerbs outside their shops.

The call to prayer is really quite beautiful, the equivalent of church bells at home.  Once it started when I was in a park: the mosques were all hidden by trees, and the sensation was quite awe-inspiring as hundreds of calls from all round the city blended together in earnest cacophony.  Another time I was in the midst of the city, enjoying pide and copious amounts of free tea at a streetside bistro.  In fact there were too many times to count: the call to prayer is five times a day.  It’s something that feels very foreign and exotic to a visitor, and I imagine something you would miss terribly, even subconsciously, if you grew up with it then moved elsewhere.

I did all the typical sights of course – here are my impressions:

  • Grand Bazaar
    • Nowhere near as hasslesome as the souks of Marrakech,resulting in a rather nice experience.  I stopped in a cafe for a Turkish coffee, an obscene portion of gluey, syrupy, super sweet baklava, and some great people watching.  The lethal cocktail of sugar and caffeine certainly re-energised me!
  • Topkapi Palace
    • I sat for a long time in a lovely spot, cargo ships sailing past and a low wall in front of me at which different groups would stop for photos.  A German man determined to get the perfect shot; an Indian-US family trying to deal with spoilt children; a couple of French women startled by a cat shading nearby; a Turkish girl of about 5 in eccentric clothing posing for a photo, her face covered in stickers.  I felt like the whole world was there, enjoying this beautiful day, and I belonged.
  • Hagia Sofia
    • Half covered in scaffolding which was a shame, but nevertheless a grand space with so much history, including being a mosque and a cathedral.  Frescos of saints alongside Arabic script: certainly unusual.  It had an air of Rome’s Pantheon about it.
  • Blue Mosque
    • The Blue Mosque was quite breathtakingly beautiful: much more so than Hagia Sofia in fact. The decoration was somehow opulent and delicate at the same time: simply exquisite.
  • Tulip Festival
    • I hadn’t exactly planned it but my trip coincided with a tulip festival in Istanbul.  In fact did you know that tulips originate from Turkey, and were taken from here to the Netherlands during the Ottoman Empire?  The main attraction was in Emirgan Park, which was very crowded on the Sunday afternoon I visited: selfie stick central!  The arrangements of tulips and grape hyacinths were quite stunning, and not restricted to this park alone.  In Sultanahmet Square they even had people dressed up as the flowers, dancing to traditional music and posing for photos.
  • Galata Tower
    • The area surrounding the tower was full of cool little boutique shops selling souvenirs and quirky clothes by local designers, and American style cafes serving all sorts of coffee and offering free wifi.  The tower itself was well worth the modest entrance fee on such a clear afternoon as we had.  The views in every direction were just beautiful, especially towards the Turkish straits, carrying vessels of all shapes, sizes and purposes.


I also visited a Hamam but I think it deserves a full account so will post about that separately.

Approaching Istanbul

We approached Istanbul in a strange, bright haze.  It’s always interesting to spot a city’s distinctive features as you approach the airport, and for Istanbul it was of course the mosques.  I had a window seat on the left side of the plane, and spookily they were all facing me directly: minarets like arms outstretched in welcome.  I enjoyed the quirky angles at which they sat, at odds with the residential blocks around them.

Having been defeated by the metro machines, I was left with no option but to take a taxi across town.  My unsurprised concern at the lack of seatbelts was mitigated by the presence of a meter, so I happily settled into the journey. As we approached the banks of the Bosphorus, a particular smell wafted through my open window.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until we reached its source: hundreds of small barbecue picnics in the park along the waterfront.  There was so much smoke it actually looked like the park was on fire – except for the joyfully unconcerned children running around.  As we continued through the city, every single available patch of green, however littered or covered in weeds, was occupied by barbecue-enjoying families.  I wondered if that’s what was causing the haze.

The London Project #4 – Giant Hindu Temple

Transport yourself to southeast Asia with a visit to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, north west London.  This incredibly beautiful Hindu temple is open free of charge to all members of the public, regardless of faith, and there is a shop, cafe and restaurant nearby so you can make a nice half day outing of it. I can recommend the “spicy cake” for something unusual! (Heads up: we’re not just talking cinnamon here…)

Neasden Temple

At the time of its completion in 1995, Neasden temple was the largest Hindu temple outside of India. The £12m project was funded entirely by the local community of worshippers, who raised money through initiatives such as aluminium can recycling (before it became the norm); sponsored walks, and cultural shows. It was the first temple in the UK to be built from scratch, rather than a conversion of an existing building, and it conforms to India’s ancient architectural texts, the Vastu Shastras. The temple is entirely made of stone, with no iron or steel used in its construction. While trying to follow these ancient guidelines the project team also of course had to meet the requirements of the UK’s stringent building code, as well as take into account the British climate. Not an easy task! After rigorous testing of a variety of types of stone, eventually a combination was chosen of Bulgarian limestone on the exterior, and Indian and Italian marble on the interior.

Since the most skilled and experienced craftsmen of Hindu architecture are naturally found in India, the stone was shipped from Europe to a port in Gujarat. Over two years, thousands of tonnes of stone were transported between the continents. Workshops were set up near the port, and a mini-township developed to cater for the 650 artisans who crafted the stones. Yet more workshops were set up in other locations around India: at its peak, 1,526 stone carvers were working on the project at 14 sites across the country. This was intricate work. A deep-carved column would take four full-time craftsmen each working on one side of the column about 60 days to complete. Once carving and quality control was complete, a total of 26,300 pieces of sculpture was shipped to Britain without a single breakage.  80 stonemasons and an army of volunteers assembled the pieces in London, and the temple was finally inaugurated in August 1995.

Visiting the temple, the first thing to remember is as it is of course a place of worship you must dress appropriately. Unless it’s a heatwave this is probably more relevant for girls, but merely a case of making sure you’re not wearing a miniskirt really. On arrival you have to put your cameras and handbags in a manned cloakroom before entering the first part of the complex: the Haveli.  This is a cultural centre attached to the temple, striking for its intricate oak and teak wooden carvings that give the place a homely feel. The Haveli follows traditional design, but in fact never in the previous 100 years had such a haveli been constructed in India let alone elsewhere in the world. Happily the Neasden example seems to have led to a revival of this architectural style, with similar buildings now in Nairobi, Chicago, Toronto and India.

Visitors leave their shoes in the Haveli before wandering through to the mandir (stone temple). There is an exhibition about the history of Hinduism you can pay a small fee to enter, or just follow through to the main attraction. All I will say is that is really is quite beautiful, and I found the symmetry of the ceiling carvings particularly captivating. The postcards available at the shop afterwards just don’t capture the magical calming sense of the place: you really should take a look for yourself 🙂

This post is part of The London Project series, discovering hidden stories in London based on a Word Map of the city by Angus McArthur and Alison Hardcastle.

The London Project #3 – Trellick Tower

Like many icons of Brutalist architecture, Trellick Tower has fallen in and out of fashion over the decades, but few people are indifferent to its looming presence over West London.  

Trellick clouds

Ernö Goldfinger’s design was already slightly passé by the time the tower was completed in 1972. Post-war Britain’s preference for economy and function over embellishment and extravagance had led to a proliferation of concrete blocks filling various bomb-gaps throughout the land. High rise housing, at first seen as a fantastic win-win solution being at once cheap to build and desirable to live in, proved to be not quite the idyll anticipated by councils and residents. Crime, squalor and vandalism thrived in the shadows of stairwells and corridors, and the poor design and construction typical of these tower blocks was dreadfully exposed in the explosion and partial collapse of Ronan Point in 1968.  

Trellick side view

Goldfinger, a leading contemporary architect, had designed Trellick Tower with residents in mind. Its distinctive service tower was attached to the main block by dramatic bridge walkways at every third level, keeping the noisy lifts and refuse collection away from the 217 flats. The site also included a doctor’s surgery, nursery school and three launderettes (the latter to discourage residents from hanging washing from their balconies as much as to provide opportunities for social cohesion). However, Trellick was still a tower block, and soon succumbed to the same problems as its brethren. During their very first Christmas in the tower, residents found themselves without heat, water or electricity when a fire hydrant was smashed by vandals, flooding the lifts and blowing fuses. Before the decade was out, Trellick Tower had gained a terrible reputation with widespread reports of rape, muggings and suicide.

Trellick at night

The renaissance of the Trellick Tower can be traced to the formation of a new residents’ association in 1984. Gradually, through petitions, local press articles and lobbying councillors, it secured new lifts; a new hot water system; a new playground; and increased security including CCTV cameras and a keyfob entry system. People began to envy the sweeping views of London, and Goldfinger’s elegant design features such as space-saving sliding doors. These days it’s a very fashionable address and I’d love to live there if I could afford it!

Trellick rainbow 

This post is part of The London Project series, discovering hidden stories in London based on a Word Map of the city by Angus McArthur and Alison Hardcastle.

Swimming in the Rain

They say life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass: it’s about learning to dance in the rain…  Well I don’t know about that but I do know where I head when the dark clouds gather.  Oasis Sports Centre in Holborn houses an awesome swimming pool which is not only an outdoor pool right in the centre of the city – novelty enough – but it’s also heated!   Swimming in the middle of a thunderstorm in the UK while not freezing to death is totally surreal and definitely worth trying to get a dose of that holiday feeling even on the gloomiest day 🙂

Oasis Swimming Pool

Wanderings in London and beyond