Istanbul, Street Dancing and Otoparking

We drove from the Turkish border to Tekirdag, a slightly grisly port town on the south coast. We arrived late and went in search of food. In a café at one o’clock in the morning we met Tayfur. Tayfur is a French language student studying in Tekirdag who very kindly offered to accommodate all six of us on the floor of his shared flat for the night. His housemates were a little surprised when he brought six bedraggled foreigners back having only gone out for soup.  In the morning washed and fed we embarked on the two-hour hop to Istanbul. We arrived six hours later and collapsed into a small hotel in the Old Town after a smog-choked traffic marathon through Istanbul’s outer sprawl.

The following day we walked the streets and lunched on Kokorec, a delicious spit-roasted kebab of sheep intestine seasoned with chili and oregano. We enjoyed aromatic Turkish coffee and munched endlessly on Turkish delight. As we gawped at our surroundings through dust-speckled sunshine, I was struck by a palpable appreciation of the fantastic age of the city. 2,600 years ago the Romans called it Byzantium and made it the capital of an Empire that spanned most of the known world. It has been a bustling, important metropolis for as long as such things have existed.

I will try to draw an analogy between Istanbul and a lovely, moulding onion. Bear with me! As one explores, one finds hundreds of years of history layered on top of one another. Everywhere Byzantine arches can be seen holding strong under the weight of neon emblazoned phone shops, Baroque facades flaking away to reveal older stone beneath. As the city grows, the older layers of the onion decay leaving their remnants amongst the new and shiny features of a modern city. This protracted decomposition colours the otherwise energetic and youthful city with an air of melancholy.

Aya Sofya is a perfect example of this. It was built in AD 537 as an eastern orthodox Christian church; it was subsequently converted to a Catholic church, back to eastern orthodox, a Muslim mosque and latterly a museum. For over a millennium it was the largest building in the known world. If one walks around under the cavernous dome one can see great circular placards painted in Arabic symbols, beneath them peeling paint reveals intricate gilded murals of Christian themes. If you look closer you will see graffiti scored into the marble walls by conquering Vikings. The ancient history that we learned in school and perhaps remember as being slightly mythical is represented in Istanbul as concrete and real. I think it is this direct linkage that makes the city so magnetic.

Sunset in Istanbul (Photo SW)

The following evening we walked through the streets of Taksim to gauge what the kind of nightlife Istanbul had to offer. What we found was that the Turks have taken something people enjoy as part of a good nightlife and applied the rule that more equals better. This is a rule that seems to be implemented more frequently and to a greater degree the further you get from home. On this occasion the subject to which this rule has been applied is live music.

As we wandered the side streets of Taksim we found a zoo of tiny little bars, each with a captive musician. Every bar pumped out a fusion of Turkish music and western covers through super-amplified PA systems, each of which seemed louder and more distorted than the last. Furthermore the volume at which these poor caged musicians were forced to play their cataclysmic turkopop was exaggerated by the total lack of audiences. Perhaps it was the time of year but there appeared to be far more bars than punters. We chose one at random and sat down for a beer. The music was fun and lively, a word of warning though for anyone drinking in Istanbul. The bars have a tendency to include pistachios in their mixed nuts. In the dark of the bar I found myself on more than one occasion fishing shards of broken pistachio shell from the recesses of my mouth. You may well argue that after the first time it happened I should have learned, but, I mean really!  pistachios in the mixed nuts… what are they thinking, it is health and safety nightmare.

We left the bar a little excitable and strolled down onto the busy Taksim high street to see what mischief we could find. While passing a shop pumping out trademark loud Turkopop Alki and Bas began a bit of an impromptu body-popping street dance. Then something quite surreal developed. I am not sure if it is something to do with the percentage concentration of dance enthusiasts in a given crowd but this crowd had certainly reached action potential. Rich and I started clapping along to Bas and Alki’s dancing, a handful of passers by joked with us and clapped along. Next, a few people started watching and then a few more. Within 2 minutes a crowd of about two hundred people had formed a circle around Bas and Alki. The surface tension of this bubble was eventually unable to hold against the weight of the crowd and the whole scene burst into a street dancing free for all. It was amazing; everyone was bouncing around to Eastern house music, us with more enthusiasm than anyone, buoyed by our 30 seconds of fame. When it comes to nightlife in Istanbul more apparently is better.

The next day fond farewells were said to Alki, Kali and the Boy. It was a real shock to the three that remained to be finally alone. We were now fending for ourselves and about to embark on the tough bit. The romp that Europe had been was over and we were staring down the barrel of Africa. We anticipated some difficulties and we knew that the fun would be much more spread out. I think we were all a little apprehensive but a few of days spent organizing, planning and buying supplies for Africa gave us confidence and a little wanderlust for the challenge of the Dark Continent.

On our last day we went to collect our car from the Otopark in which we had left it for the previous few days. We found, on arrival, that our Landie was tucked in the back of a tiny car park behind about 30 cars bumper to bumper with only a narrow one-way street as access. We would have been a little downhearted had we not previously born witness to the sorcery of the “Otopark Boys”. The two lads that managed the otopark had skill in parking and moving cars that verged on the telekinetic. Only 20 minutes and hundreds of Rubik’s cube-like manoeuverings later our car was freed and we set off for the Turkish interior with a wave and an awestruck doff of the cap for Osman and Imman.

The Otopark boys after extracting the Landy. (Photo: RWH)

The Otopark boys after extracting the Landy. (Photo: RWH)

Disorders on Borders Part 2

Two things stood out from our brief visit to Albania, the cars on the road and their drivers. I read somewhere that in Albania 80% of cars are Mercedes. Although this seems ridiculous, our experience told us it couldn’t be far from the truth. This is apparently due to a large scale smuggling operation after the government collapsed in the 90s. Thousands of Albanian economic refugees were given asylum in Western Europe. Once they were there they stole lots of Mercedes and drove them back home to Albania to sell them. We saw evidence of this practice when we investigated a scrap yard for Land Rover parts. All we found there was an elephant graveyard of Mercedes Benz carcasses with Italian and German number plates.

The roads in Albania are not too bad but broadly single carriageway, they are full of freight and as a result the Albanians have become, shall we say, very confident bordering on psychotic when overtaking. The sheer consistency of this behavior was impressive. Throughout our drive through Albania we were being overtaken more than we weren’t, when we came round a corner or over a hill it was unusual not find two sets of headlights coming towards us at frightening speeds. The Albanians overtake with blind faith in the compliance of the person being overtaken. The whole system would become a 20 car fireball if ever just one person failed to obey this rule. The ominous bouquets that lined the road implied this was not necessarily an exceptional event.

Next we crossed Albania to Kosovo, another less than textbook border. Rich was driving when we pulled up to a crush of burning brake lights and jarring horns. The other drivers informed us that the road into Kosovo had been barricaded by anti-government protests. This was a serious blow to morale, we were all tired, hungry and still a long way from our destination in Macedonia. We sat while many Albanians turned and sped off the wrong way up the motorway. We were contemplating this as our only remaining option when a helpful man with a thuggish air approached our car from the shadows of the central reservation and tapped on the window. He was also heading into Kosovo and willing to show us a route around the barricaded tunnel. Our team was divided, half wanted to take the man at his word and follow, the rest were convinced that this was a Kosovan rebel and we were imminently going to find ourselves reading a poorly translated script into a camera-phone with four armed men looming behind us. In our sleep starved state we were all a bit edgy.

As a result of the “we are about to be kidnapped!” party not being able to come up with an alternate plan we followed our furtive guide. He climbed into his 90s Italian Mercedes and set off on a mud track down the side of the motorway embankment. We followed as he deftly negotiated an abandoned building site and continued through infinite murky backwaters. As we distanced ourselves from the lights of the motorway the “we are about to be kidnapped” party was garnering support. In our caffeine addled state we watched the Merc scramble up an impossible trail of soil and loose rocks. We followed. Just as we were all mentally selecting the photo our parents would give to the BBC to accompany the headlines we reached the apex and emerged on an expanse of deserted motorway. Our guide strolled over to us from his car and explained in broken English that his Samaritan favour would cost us 50 euros. The relief in the car was palpable, this man was merely a crook not a saber rattling revolutionary. I have never been so pleased by an attempted fleecing. We gave him 10 euros and sent him on his way disgruntled but thankfully not militant.

We arrived in Skopje, Macedonia in the small hours, located a hostel and slept. The next day was uneventful except for a brief comic interlude for everyone but me. I was interrupted from the call of nature and chased scurrying back to the Landie by an enormous stray dog with the build and attitude of a Millwall fan.

We crossed into Greece and drove along the Aegean coast to Athens where we would pick up two more temporary teammates bringing our number to a magnificent seven in the Landie. Ambitious?

At the height of our power we were many.

At the height of our power we were many.

Disorders at Borders Part A

I will have to continue this post as our only remaining Wallace has gone missing. He was last seen bartering with a wizened old man over the purchase of some antiquated padlocks. The price was settled at a bag of gold coin and Bas’ immortal soul. Bas certainly has an eye for a bargain. So with Bas otherwise engaged in an eternity of toil and servitude I will pick up where he left off.

We spent a night in Split mixing with the local salt-of-the-earth types and soaking up the sea air. Next morning the time came to pick up Kali, our first temporary team mate, Split to Istanbul. Kali is a good friend and keen singer of shanties in Cornwall. We pulled into Split Airport distinctly late. The huge tarmac rectangle was bare but for a lonely, laden figure. We promptly whisked her a few hours down the coast from Split to find a secluded camp in the mountains.

This, it transpired, was no mean feat as the Croatian mountains are not wooded, nor grassy but exposed and bristling with razor sharp shards of rock, not ideal for inconspicuous or indeed comfortable camping. We eventually found a spot in a small valley hidden from view where we prepared supper and settled for the night. In the still air we were able to perceive rumblings of distant thunder and glimpse faint flashes of lightning. Bas and Kali evaluated the location and movements of the storm using the technique of counting elephants between flash and boom. From this information we were reassured that the storm was far away and moving further still… within one hour we were wilting beneath the worst storm since Katrina. Guy and I peered out from the back of the Land Rover as the wind howled and rain beat against the rusted steel panels. I was overcome with a warm sense of “rather him than me” as I watched Rich dart around, all dripping limbs in sopping thermals, re-pegging the tent to stem the torrents. Rich, Bas and Kali definitely got the short straw in the tent that night.

The sun rose the following morning clear and bright, the tempest had passed. After breakfast and gathering up the crockery that had been chucked to the four winds we wandered up to the ridge beneath which we had camped. We were greeted by a handsome view of the coastal heights lying in cobalt rows before the sea. Rugged and almost bare of vegetation the mountainside was bleak and beautiful.

The Adriatic at Sunrise

After a few moments for photos and posing in this spectacular mountain scene we jumped in the car towards Dubrovnik for lunch. Winding along the Croatian coast we were making excellent time until we arrived at the first of three border crossings that day, Croatia to Bosnia. Now I am not sure why the border police took a dislike to us but they decided to search us, I would hate to think it had anything to do with our appearance. “not a problem” we thought, “everything is legit” we said, “we shall be straight through”. Two hours later the entire car was unpacked and every single bag excavated down to the tiniest inner pocket. With faces sore from hours of “I have nothing to hide” smiling we set off again. We were not making nearly such good time anymore. If there is one thing that can be said for the Bosnian border control it’s that they are thorough. They are meticulously, ruthlessly and pitilessly thorough.

One more, less eventful, border crossing under our belt and we were in the ancient city of Dubrovnik. Too late to walk the ancient city walls our cursing of the Bosnian border control recommenced with new vigour. After a little scouting we found a hand painted sign “ViEw and Drinks” marking a tiny tunnel through the city walls to a bar on a narrow shelf projecting out over the sea.

ViEw and Drinks

We rested there and enjoyed fantastically overpriced beers as the sun dipped lazily into the sea casting orange rays all over us and the sandy-coloured walls of Dubrovnik. I suppose our delay was not so bad after all.

In the twilight we negotiated our final border crossing of the day into Montenegro and set off for Budva to find a bed for the night. Montenegro is an interesting place. This tiny former Yugoslav state has managed to maintain a decent economic position despite the global downturn and the failure to do so of its neighbours.

This may have something to do with the fact that the Montenegrin mafia apparently runs their government and the organized crime for most of the Balkan region stretching into Italy. This tiny unassuming coastal country has an exciting seedy underbelly of international crime syndicates and smuggling. No wonder a Bond film was set there.

Their ex-President sets a good example. A couple of years ago he privatised the Montenegrin national bank and then sold it to himself. He used it to provide loans for his family and business cronies. That’s the kind of business savvy the Rothschilds would be proud of.

Anyway we arrived in Budva late at night with no guidebook and stopped in a bar to ask for advice. The man we asked gave us his card, he just happened to own a bed and breakfast, what a stroke of luck. This hotelier was truly, as his business card proclaimed, “Always ready for action!” We parked up outside and were informed that we need not to worry about the car in Montenegro as they only had big crimes there. Apparently their mafia government has a tight control on petty crooks.

After being plied with tea and roasted chestnuts by our host’s elderly mother we ambled out into Budva for a beer. We were accompanied to a local bar and back home again by a pack of stray dogs. Clearly the canines in Montenegro have learned something from the humans and were running some sort of protection racket.