Friday, 30 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 9 - Belgrade


Belgrade, 30th November 2012.

Riot police flow between the Old Palace and the Serbian Presidential building, heading in the same direction I am. Yesterday was the date of the national day of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and I'd been warned at the hostel that there may be some people out marching "because of nostalgia". What kind of nostalgia requires riot police?

I continue down the busy main road of Kralja Milana, trying not to let the increasing numbers of riot police worry me; no one else seems to be paying them any attention. Ahead the police have closed off the road and a procession is marching towards the town centre and the bored looking, shield carrying officers. It's a only a small march, perhaps two hundred people waving the plain blue, white and red striped flag of the FRY. In the middle of the column is a flat-bed lorry with a sound system playing a slow heavy marching song, the brass instruments sound harsh through speakers designed for bass heavy beats. With the march in the road, flanked by police, the pavement becomes very crowded, but shoppers carrying on as usual, pushing past each other with bags of food and new clothes. Few seem to be paying attention, only one or two stop and watch the march.

Just as I make it past the procession the marching music ebbs and a thumping beat bursts into the air. For ten seconds dance music roars from the speakers on the flat-bed, a folk melody starts to soar over the techno drums, then it all stops. An awkward twenty seconds of silence follows, in which you can imagine a red-faced DJ disabling shuffle on his iPod, before a slow march, overflowing with horns and drums, starts to play and returns the procession to its more serious tone.

The large roundabout of Slavija at the southern end of Kralja Milana is packed with stationary traffic, trapped by the police who have closed their escape route because of the march. Every car, bus and motorcycle is honking and beeping at the same time. A cacophony of angry traffic, penned in and champing at their accelerators.

I carry on past and towards the massive dome of the Cathedral of St Sava; reaching seventy meters high and standing clear above the surrounding apartment buildings, its crowning golden cross gleaming.

The central space of the cathedral is closed off with Heras fencing; forklifts and cherry-pickers stand between plastic covered piles of building materials. At first I think the cathedral must be in the middle of a huge restoration project, having taken the fabric back to the bare poured concrete. Hang on, poured concrete? Then it dawns on me that the cathedral is, to my amazement, still being built for the first time. I always associate large scale religious building projects has historical events, something that has fallen out of fashion, but the four thousand tonne concrete dome sitting above me is strong evidence that I'm wrong.
(Picture from Wikipedia)

Given the size and scale of the building I'm filled with a huge sense of ignorance that such a colossal monument is under construction. Looking at the Serbian information signs I manage to decipher that the building works started in 1985. I wander through the small areas that are open, looking at the bare concrete, still shocked by the seemingly anachronistic combination of a timeless building style being assembled using modern technology. In the UK I get the impression that Christianity is very much on the wane, but perhaps the Orthodox church is in a much healthier state, or is this construction a giant swan song?

(I have since discovered that plans to build the cathedral have been underway since 1895. After interruption by two Balkan wars and two world wars, permission to continue building was finally approved in 1984.)

Returning to the Slavija roundabout I see that the traffic has slowly begun to move again. Every small gap that appears is instantly fought over by three different vehicles all eager to throw themselves into the scrum. After a short wait the airport shuttle bus appears and drops off my friend Ste, who's flown out to join me for this section of my trip through Belgrade and Budapest.

After an afternoon snack in a smokey cafe Ste and I head through the Kalemegden park in the light rain and dimming light. We wander through the darkening walls of Belgrade Fortress and follow a long row of silent field artillery to the Belgrade Weapons museum. We only have an hour before closing time, but unfazed we start to wander through the exhibitions.

Most of the explanatory notes are written in Serbian, but we guide ourselves through the bloody history of the Balkans by the many maps that outline war after war, from the dawn of time until very recently. Each era is accompanied by glass cases of weapons, starting with rusting swords and shields and ending in fragments of an F117 stealth fighter that was shot down over Serbia in 1999. While I had some idea of how complex relations in the Balkans had been, after walking through the museum I've estimated that up by at least a factor of a hundred.

In the last room we visit, before we are chased out at closing time by a security guard, has its walls covered in brass plates, inscribed with thousands of names. In the middle of a red carpet stands a statue of Marshall Tito, head tilted down as if in though, his bronze overcoat billowing behind in the instant of his frozen stride. Tito managed to do what no-one before him or after him has been able to do; create a unified southern Slavic state, not always peacefully, and die of natural causes without being overthrown. Given the blood stained clothes of Alexander I of Yugoslavia that he wore on the day of his assassination which are on display two rooms earlier, some might argue that in Balkan politics assassination is considered a natural cause.

For dinner Ste and I choose a Lebanese restaurant, where once seated and enjoying our food in the busy atmosphere, a belly dancer starts to pirouette and sashay between the tables. Our British politeness fails us as we are torn between watching her and appreciating the dancing, as she gyrates elegantly up and down the restaurant or deciding it's rude to stare at a scantily clad woman shaking her hips suggestively near your lamb kofta. In the end we take the middle route, as others in the restaurant are doing, and watch her only when she's further away and there's little chance of making eye contact, then to steadfastly ignore her when she's close.

Our best find of the evening is a taverna opposite Studenski Trg that is packed with drinkers enjoying an '80s and '90s cover band, to which most people are singing. I'm unused to the cigarette smoke which fills the bar, leaving a dry, bitter taste in my mouth; but my dry tongue is relieved with a sip of one of the relatively sweet local largers served in Belgrade. Ste believes that there's something about the cigarette smoke that adds atmosphere to a night, but I'm not convinced and make a mental note to be thankful for the smoke free atmosphere of a pub when I'm back home.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 8 - Belgrade


Belgrade, 29th November 2012

"Budapest? Quick I'll take you to the other station, otherwise you'll miss the train!"

Herman hoists his big rucksack on his thin frame, wobbles for second, steadies, then follows the taxi driver at a jog and vanishes past the end of the train.

"Good luck" I call after him.

Wait, there isn't another long distance railway station in Belgrade…is there?

My mind is only half awake as I'm tired from a poor night's sleep in a hot and dry sleeper compartment and I struggle to remember anything about Serbian trains. I look at the quiet of Belgrade station's eight tracks at six thirty in the morning. Perhaps the taxi driver is right, but I don't remember any mention of another station. All other international trains depart from this station, why wouldn't the Budapest trains?

I put on my rucksack and walk towards the yellow and grandly appointed station building. Inside the main entrance arch I go to the window of the Wasteels travel agency and ask about trains to Budapest. The gentleman behind the counter tells me that there are three trains to Budapest everyday, all leaving from this station; and the next one leaves in ten minutes.

I'm staying in Budapest for a few nights, but I'm worried that Herman has just been tricked into a taxi he didn't need. Just as I step back onto the platform area I see Herman walking towards me, rucksack over one shoulder and shaking his head and looking sour.

"Bullshit, that taxi driver was bull man" Herman says, "He just wanted to drive me in circles".
"You OK?" I ask.
"Yeah, just pissed off."

I tell him that the next Budapest train will leave shortly, he says goodbye and then walks down the platform and climbs into the train.

Happy that Herman was not ripped off by the touting taxi driver I pull out a map printout and start looking for my hostel. I walk between sad looking apartment blocks as I make my way uphill from the station near the shores of the Sava River to the height of the city centre. It's a little after seven in the morning and Belgrade is still quiet. The occasional bus comes roaring past as the pavements start to fill with commuters walking purposefully, but in many cases reluctantly, to the start of their working day.

After some searching and stopping to ask a passing commuter for directions I find the buzzer for the Mon Martre hostel, located nowhere near where my Google map printout placed it. My satisfactory response to a muffled speaker lets me in and I go through a dark corridor to a small courtyard inside an old block of apartments, then make my way up a grand but unloved staircase. Inside the hostel is happy and lively, the walls are painted red and hung with pictures by famous French artists and photos of Paris.

I'm warmly welcomed by the receptionist and allowed to check in, even though it's barely eight in the morning. As I put the sheets on my bunk to have a short nap I chat with a lean man wearing round glasses who is packing up. He's visiting from Herzegovina and loves travelling through the southern slavic countries, so much so that it turns out he's never left them. "With so many friendly people and places to see here, why do I need to go anywhere else?".

Lying still on the bed and trying to sleep I can still feel the motion of the train going back and forward, I have to open my eyes to convince myself that the bed hasn't started to move. Every time I close my eyes the phantom starting and stoping continues. Eventually I'm lulled to sleep by the ghostly rocking of the train in a way that the real train never managed to do as sweetly.

After my nap I chat to the receptionist, who is reading from a massive chemistry textbook while sat behind his desk. As I start to ask him about Belgrade he springs to life to tell me about the city with an energy that only someone avoiding doing their coursework can muster. He gives me a map of Belgrade and circles so many different places to see that he might as well have circled the whole city.

I start exploring the city in Repbulik Square where the parts of German Christmas Market huts lie in pieces waiting to be assembled, a festive flat-pack instant Christmas set. Along the main pedestrianised shopping street of Knez Mihailova many of the shops are familiar big brands. From poster after poster the same H&M lingerie model as in Sofia stares at me, seemingly ahead of me every step I go. Perhaps she's also travelling through Europe, but she looks distinctly underdressed for the journey.



I wander through the Kalemegdan park towards Belgrade castle, stopping to look over into the moat which has cunningly been converted into tennis courts. At the ramparts I look out across the wooded Great War Island sitting in the middle of the Sava and Danube confluences. Beyond the island on an outcrop sits Zemun, another older settlement. In between are the grey square tower blocks of New Belgrade, Yugoslavia's answer to Blade Runner's Los Angeles.

While no flames rise in to a dark orange sky as they do in Ridley Scott's 2017 horizon I have seen this skyline before with flames all too real; in the shaky fuzzy image of a news broadcast. In 1999 for three and a half months Belgrade was a regular fixture in news footage while it was being bombed by NATO aircraft. Blurry shots of the Ušće Tower with its top floors bleeding flames into the night come to mind and I realise this is the first country I've visited which has been in armed conflict with my own during my lifetime.

I was very young at the time and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990's were complex, dividing actions into right or wrong is nearly impossible. Was the bombing campaign essential in weakening the Milosevic government's hold on power and bringing an early end to the massacre of Kosovo Albanians? Or was that already inevitable because of internal and external political pressure, in which case did the bombing just cause needless civilian deaths? The truth lies tangled somewhere between those absolutes; as my feelings lie somewhere between pride and shame, resulting in a general feeling of sadness that we don't seem to have yet outgrown armed conflict.

Looking up and seeing the restored Ušće Tower rising above the backdrop of New Belgrade with its new clean flat glass facade covering the old wounds reminds me that life can move on without having to have make a judgement on all past events. Mixed feelings express something of their own and don't always have to be resolved. History can teach us about the now and maybe even the future, but they should never let you prejudice the next person you meet. The differences between individuals are greater than an individual's conformity to a people, time or place. You don't have see an opportunist try to rip off a young man travelling far from home in the same day as receiving an incredibly warm welcome to remember that.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 7 - Sofia


Sofia, 28th November 2012.

After a long sleep I head out and start exploring Sofia. I don't have very long in Sofia as tonight I'm taking the night train on to Belgrade.

I start the day by wandering south to the National Palace of Culture and then head north and east to the park surrounding the Monument to the Soviet Army, one of a number of monuments built under soviet rule to express Bulgaria's gratitude for their liberation. The park is filled with many little childish statues which have been sprayed in bright and slightly creepy colours. The monument itself is a large column on a raised square, atop stands a copper Russian soldier, flanked by a Bulgarian family, proudly waving his gun in the air and staring to the North.

At the base of the monument are further copper reliefs of people in dynamic positions rushing to the front or frantically assembling machines. Many figures have their faces sprayed red or green like tribal warpaint, emphasising that while we might dress wars and ensuing memorials in terms of national pride and the fight for freedom, they are often nothing more than industrialised tribal warfare in which the only thing more sophisticated than the weaponry is the rhetoric.

I walk on to the famous Alexander Nevsky cathedral, its many layered domes bubble out of each other, the highest two flashing brightly in gold. The cathedral was also built in thanks to russian liberation, but this time from Ottoman rule in 1878, it is another reminder of how the balkans have been a battle ground for thousands of years; sandwiched between, at different times, the competing empires of Greece, Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Imperial Russia, Austria-Hungary and most recently Soviet Russia; with various other great powers occasionally sticking their nose in.

The inside of the cathedral is dark, the ceiling quickly vanishes into a gloom that hangs just above your head. Ornate pictures of saints are illuminated by candles and spotlights, gold twinkles back from the dim marbled spaces between pillars. The stone floor echos with the steps of tourists and the click of their cameras. I find it a strange counterpoint to the light and airy mosques of Istanbul; the buildings have a similar domed Byzantine architectural style, but here the cathedral feels dark and closed in comparison.

I eat lunch at a pizza restaurant, which to my disappointment and relief provides a menu in English. Again I feel pathetic for not being able to fend for myself in the local language, my 'thanks' and 'please' stumbling from a phrase book. I'm probably being hard on myself. I'm in Bulgaria for only two days and it's not realistic to learn much of any of the languages I'll be passing through on this trip. It also feels stupid to be worrying about my Bulgarian in an Italian restaurant, to be authentic surely I should be attempting to speak Italian?

After lunch I walk to the mineral baths, the long front of the careworn building stands facing a small park. As I  approach the front door I see a small paper note stuck behind the glass that reads "Closed". I start to walk away when from behind me someone says in broken english: "Closed!".

I turn to see a security guard with a rumpled face and a soft flattened nose walking over to me with a slight limp. He's wearing a blue bomber jacket and, inexplicably, holding a ribbon in his right hand to which are attached some red and white balloons that bob happily next to him.
"It is closed." he repeats.
"Yes, the sign said."
"Where you from?"
"I'm from England" I reply, to a slightly confused face, "The UK, Great Britain?" I add hopefully.
The guard looks up for a moment thinking, then asks "London?".
"No, Bristol, in the west".
"Bris-tol", he moves the word around his mouth a few times, as if trying to remember a taste, then continues "I know Bristol, by the water."
"Yes, there's a harbour."
Suddenly invigorated he stands up straighter, the balloons drift away slightly with the motion, and says: "The water, is mineral and good", he points with his left hand at one of the small fountains outside the baths, "Better than Evian. Drink!".
He then nods emphatically, repeats "Drink!" and points again. With this he feels his work done and walks away, the jolly collection of balloons trailing a little behind him as he goes.

I follow his advice and before walking on try a little of the warm water that flows out of the drinking fountains next to the baths. The water is warm but sadly my sense of taste isn't good enough to decide if it tastes better than Evian, or even Bristol Water's finest spring.

My next stop is the Sveta Nedelya church which looks slightly more humble with its brickwork and single dome than the Alexander Nevsky cathedral. The current building was finished in 1933 after the previous one was destroyed by a 1925 Bulgarian communist party attack that killed a hundred and fifty people attending a funeral. The inside of the church, much like the cathedral, is gloomy, gold and ornate with a darkness hanging in the roof.

After seeing two major Orthodox Christian buildings I wonder if this style is unique to Orthodox Churches or something particular about Bulgaria. Inspecting my guidebook I find that I'm not very far from Sofia's Synagogue, which is just west of the indoor market. The gate to the synagogue is locked, but from behind I hear noises and upon pressing the buzzer I'm let in to find a few people working on part of the outer courtyard floor immediately behind the gate.

The synagogue is built in a Moorish Revival style with a black onion dome sitting upon a red and white striped brick facade. I'm lucky to be the only visitor and as I walk into the synagogue it is still, no click of cameras or chatter of crowds, just the quiet echo of my footsteps and the distant sound of the city. I'm relieved to find the inside open and airy with pews neatly arranged in the centre and no sense of the darkness that seems to occupy the Orthodox Churches. Under the high dome hangs a huge ornate gold chandelier, which is apparently the heaviest in Bulgaria.

I return to my hostel to collect my rucksack. While sitting in the kitchen checking my e-mails and itinerary I start talking to another guest, Jack, who is travelling through Europe from New Zealand. As I sit down he opens a coke and pours it into a glass containing a good measure of whisky. He's just arrived in Bulgaria and is planning to spend the winter as a ski instructor, taking a break from the Schengen area where he only has thirty days remaining on his visa. He pours himself another drink while complaining about the strictness of the Schengen visas and the high price of drink in western Europe. After another ten minutes, and two drinks for Jack, I take my leave, say goodbye to Aleksander and then taking the very new looking underground metro to the railway station.

After initially confusing the track labeled '5' with the platform labeled 'V' I find the Belgrade train; three Serbian sleeper carriages sitting behind a diesel engine. Again the train is relatively quiet so everyone in my carriage gets their own two-bunk compartment, this time each contains a sink (but no running water). I leave the door open to the corridor as I try to let the hot and stuffy compartment cool down; the radiator is on full and the window doesn't open. Other passengers obviously feel the same and shortly after we pull out of the station we're all standing outside of our compartments next to the open corridor windows.

From the stack of tickets the conductor is holding I can see that my first neighbour is also using an InterRail ticket, but he remains anonymous hiding in his compartment and I assume treating it as a sauna. Most passengers are more social; my other neighbour is a small old Bulgarian lady who is smoking a new cigarette every time I see her. Also in the carriage is a young looking Mexican called Herman who is hitchhiking through Europe, but now that the colder weather has started he has decided that he doesn't want to risk the uncertainty of hitching and is travelling to Budapest by train. The last person in our carriage is a tall angular man with a goatee and long slick black hair, which he regularly sweeps back behind his ears. He leans against the window opposite his compartment smoking and returns a nod of greeting.

After an hour we stop at the border checkpoint in Bulgaria and two customs agents and a border guard come through the train. As the guard checks our passports the agents look through our cabins; they lift the mattress off my bed, look under the sink and glance into my bags.

A long goods trains rumbles by on a parallel track as we sit and wait, all the passengers watch it enviously as it rolls on into Serbia. Herman describes some of the places he's been; his favourite place is Dublin because of the friendliness of the people and the nightlife, France also rates highly because of the food. He leans and smokes out of the window, making slightly nervous hand gestures when he talks. He doesn't like the cold weather that's now approaching and looks thin and cold just talking about it. His least favourite spot in Europe is a service station toilet in Croatia where he had to spend a night after failing to find a ride or accommodation. I ask about Mexico and say that Cancun, his hometown, must be nice. "It's ok, I suppose" he replies with a big smile which vanishes into a shrug of the shoulders which seems to say: "It's basically paradise on Earth, but you know, it gets a bit boring after a while".

We turn to look on as another customs agent joins his colleagues in the carriage, they all walk to the goatee man's compartment and start chatting, the new agent takes some photos of the compartment and then leaves. The agents and the goatee man, all smoking out of the window, talk in Bulgarian, the conversation running back forth. Herman and I can't understand what they're saying, the old lady probably does, but she just watches out of the corner of her eye and lights another cigarette. The agents seem to have found something they don't agree with and the goatee man protests in an annoyed voice, an agent makes calming motions and patiently explains something in return.

After another hour the new agent returns and following further discussion, which is never loud or aggressive sounding, the goatee man picks up his coat and small rucksack, then leaves the train with the customs agents. Ten minutes later our train starts to move again.

Soon we stop again, this time at a long low platform next to a station and some small official buildings flying Serbian flags. Our passports are checked and stamped by Serbian boarder guards. A few Serbian police officers then enter our carriage and start passing yellow ice-cream tub like containers from goatee man's compartment out of the window to colleagues who stack them on the platform. Herman and I share a raised eyebrow, from his face I can tell, like me, he's trying to guess what's in all the containers. After about twenty such containers have been removed we take on a few more passengers and the train starts to roll onwards to Belgrade.

I eat a few more lumps of what has become one giant all-in-oneTurkish sweet, crispy bits of pastry and nuts studding a soft core of turkish delight, before settling down in my warm cabin and trying to sleep.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 6 - Into Bulgaria


Bulgaria, 27th November 2012.

"Passport!"

I'm woken with a start by the shout and the knocking on my compartment door. In the dark I fumble for the light switch, my glasses and then my passport. I slide open the door to see a heavy set border guard wearing a green bomber jacket and holding a stamp. He looks briefly at the passport, stamps it, passes it back and moves on. I check the time, four o'clock in the morning, then turn off the light and fall into a half sleep.

"Ticket!"

I wake again, fumble for my things, open the door and sleepily hand the conductor my ticket. He looks briefly at the ticket, scribbles on it, passes it back and moves down the corridor. Five o'clock.

When I wake next it's no longer dark, the train isn't moving and I can't hear any human movement. I lie still and try to work out what's happening. I'm somewhere in Bulgaria, hopefully on my way to Sofia, assuming we've not already arrived. The train is meant to arrive around ten in the morning, but the trains are reliably a few hours late. I check my watch, it's about eight in the morning.

I pull aside the curtain and look out of the window. There are a few parallel lines of track, a few platforms and one stationary goods train; beyond that some bigger warehouses and dilapidated factories with lines of rust dribbling down their sides of bent and missing corrugated iron. It looks like the industrial outskirts of a city. I know Sofia is not a big city, but could this be it?

Still only half awake I'm suddenly gripped by the thought; perhaps we've already arrived, early! That's why the train isn't moving and that's why I can't hear any people; they've all left.

I bolt upright, put on my shoes, manage to get my glasses to stay on after the second attempt and pull open the compartment door then stop and listen. I hear no movement in the carriage, the distant rumble of traffic in the distance and closer by the tinny sound of dance music playing from a small speaker.

Leaning out of the carriage window I see the station sign which says Стара Загора. I'd forgotten that Bulgarian is written in Cyrillic, looking again at the sign I have no idea what it means. Стара Загора, could that be Sofia Station? The platform next to us is quiet, I lean further out and see that the train is now only made up of two carriages and without an engine attached. I walk up and down the carriage corridor. In other compartments I can see people sleeping, as I move towards the toilet end I find the source of the dance music. One of the Turkish train conductors is lying asleep on the his back on a sleeper compartment's bench, breathing quietly with his jacket draped over himself. Opposite him sits his laptop, happily playing folk infused dance music to itself. I'm pretty sure if we were in Sofia that the train staff and other passengers would not still be on the train peacefully asleep.

Feeling less panicked and a little stupid I return to my compartment and open the guide book at the bulgarian section. Looking at the map all the place names are written in Latin script, not Cyrillic. I flick through the different cities listed and notice happily that below each the name is repeated in Cyrillic. I go back to the corridor, look at the station sign, then start going through the pages of the guide, trying to see if I can match up the names. Eventually I match Стара Загора with Stara Zagora. Good, but where is Stara Zagora? I flick back to the map page; there, almost in the middle of Bulgaria. Now I know where I am I feel a lot more relaxed, but realise that it's still a long way to Sofia, especially at our current speed of zero kilometres an hour. Seeing there's no rush I go back to my compartment and go to sleep again.

The next time I wake up we're moving, trundling through the flat yellow countryside. The carriage rocks gently and clatters with the knock of each rail joint. The occasional small village rolls by or a town where we stop at the single platform, always with a red hatted station manager there to meet us and then wave us off again. We continue like this for a few hours. I eat some baklava from the plastic bag of sweets I bought in Istanbul. The journey has not been kind to them; most have large bits missing, now floating somewhere in the bag, others are completely crushed. The only one unscathed is the large red lump of turkish delight. I pull off and eat a few remains of the weaker sweets from the sticky surface of the turkish delight, then seal the bag up again and return it to my rucksack.

The weather is still foggy, not as thick as at the border, but thick enough that I can't see more than a kilometre or two from the tracks across the empty fields. The fog begins to lighten as the train starts to climb gently. Eventually the tracks curve more and more as we start to climb through rocky valleys with bare bushes and trees growing out of the stoney ground. The hazy sunlight washes everything in a slightly yellow glow, most of the trees which still have leaves are brown and orange. Opening the window the air is fresh and cold. The train rattles on, winding and climbing through the small valleys. A little after midday we stop climbing and then start to drop, on one curve I think I can see the large grey sprawl of a city on the plain below us which I assume is Sofia.

After a few more stops at tiny one-platform stations, each complete with a guard wearing a red hat, we arrive at our destination. I step off the train and into the crumbling concrete monster that is Sofia station. The underpass connecting the platforms is dark, most of the escalators are broken and some wall panels have fallen off, revealing sad concrete underneath and bits of wiring. The main concourse hall is a gloomy rectangular space, filled with a dusty light coming through dirty windows. On the wall above the underpass sits an ugly soviet mural made of long strips of steel that does nothing to cheer the station up. I dodge the touting taxi drivers at the exits and follow the tram lines into the city centre.

I make my way towards the main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard, hoping to find one of the hostels I'd marked on my map before leaving home. On the way I pass the brick Eastern Orthodox Sveta Nedelya Cathedral and the imposing Palace of Justice. As I wander down Vitosha Boulevard I'm struck by the many, many lingerie adverts which outnumber even the omnipresent adverts for MacDonalds.

I find the hostel hidden up two flights of stairs behind a coffee shop. Aleksander, the owner, is very helpful and finds me a bed in his brightly painted hostel in a room with a small balcony overlooking the boulevard. From this lookout I can see down through the trees and jumble of tram cables onto shops and passers-by walking briskly through the cold air.

South of Vitosha Boulevard sits the Park of the National Palace of Culture; the Palace itself rests heavily at the far end of some landscaped square fountains and terraces. Immediately in front of me is a decaying communist monument, bare skeletal metal sticking out above the remaining stone panels. As I get closer to The Palace of Culture its brutal octagonal form fronted with a giant bronze star looks more and more like a bad science fiction film's set for an intergalactic parliament. Behind the Palace rises the massive Mount Vitosha, its blue outline hazy in the autumn air, standing guard over the city.

The tiredness from a lack of sleep on the night train starts to kick in as I wander around the many small streets east of Vitosha Boulevard while I try to decide where I should eat. The many little restaurants and cafes all look inviting, nestled in the bottom of apartment blocks, light and warmth drifting out into the pavements as the shadows lengthen and the city drops into night. I decide upon a rustic looking place with a large mural on the wall called Made in Home which turns out to serve uncomplicated fresh food excellently prepared.

After dinner I'm too tired to look any further and head back to the hostel. As I get into my room I see blue flashing lights outside and hear chanting. Standing on the balcony I watch as a small march of protestors walks down the main street, chanting a message I can't understand. They wave bulgarian flags and hold banners of black and white portrait photos from the early twentieth century. After they pass by I get into bed and instantly fall asleep.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 5 - Starting West

Istanbul, 26th November 2012.

After stopping at the glorious Blue Mosque I go nearby to the Basilica Cistern, a large underground chamber constructed in the 6th century. Inside a walkway takes you on a gentle lap through the ordered forest of stone columns, below me in the clear water a few fish glide past. The chamber echoes with the splashes and drips of water, orange lights illuminate each pillar gently, reflecting sharply in the shallow and gently rippling water. The atmosphere is pleasantly quiet and humid, the steady repeating pattern of columns offers a simple beauty. What I like most about the cistern is that unlike the other sites in Istanbul this wasn't intended to impress people or deities, it was designed purely to be functional, but it has still become a beautiful space.
I eat lunch at a cafe behind the New Mosque, ordering a filled pita and a glass of sweet tea. My order is repeatedly relayed between all six waiters before one of them actually pours my tea. All the patrons are sat on small chairs around wooden tables with the occasional stray cat wandering between their legs and meowing hopefully. People come and go from the Spice Bazaar; other tourists wander by, some self assuredly toting cameras with huge lenses, others gathered around a map, turning it this way and that, pointing at different buildings and then back to the map. Sitting on one of tables is a middle aged turkish man who has a thick black moustache and his two friends. He's gesticulating wildly and talking with passion about something that's clearly annoying him. His friends chuckle in response and wave their hands at him soothingly.

After lunch I meet Norman again and we take a ferry the short distance across the Bosphorus to Üsküdar on the Asian side. We're looking for the Florence Nightingale museum, which is apparently near the large Selimiye Barracks. We cross the street leading from the ferry pier and wander through a small, but lively market, then on through some quieter housing areas before appearing at a large road junction. The roads are all running through a graveyard which is broken into little islands of graves, each island protected by a low white stone wall, separating the roads as they split, join and cross each other. Norman spots a small brown sign pointing out the Nightingale museum, so we follow that towards the barracks.

As we approach the barracks military policemen are keeping the main road clear by stopping cars on the side roads. Ahead of us, waiting in the middle of the closed street, are two unimogs. On either side stand people watching the vehicles, some holding large old black and white portrait photos. We wander a short way behind the crowd and see a small band followed by a unit of conscripts in parade uniform holding rifles. The conscripts are all very young and thin, with slightly oversized plastic helmets, holding their rifles at rest, but glancing very self-consciously at the people watching from the pavement.

A sudden shout brings the band to life and they start playing a very slow dirge, the conscripts snap to attention. The procession then marches slowly to the parked unimogs; behind them another off-road vehicle appears, pulling a gun carriage on which two Turkish flag covered coffins lie. After a short distance the combined procession stops, the band disperses and then re-assembles on the side of the road facing the unimogs. Two guards of honour appear, take the coffins from the gun carriage and place each in the back of a unimog, which then drive off as the band strikes up a slow march. After the march is finished the units break up and wander casually back past the guard posts into the barracks.

Walking up to the barracks there is no sign of the Nightingale museum. At the entrance we get nothing but stern looks from the guards and assuming the entrance is somewhere else we wander around the edge of the large compound, but see nothing other than a well built fence1. By now it's late afternoon, so Norman and I walk the short distance to the Harem ferry pier. The pier is behind a huge open bus interchange where overland services to the rest of Eastern Turkey start and stop. The ferry takes us back to the old city, playing a giant game of Frogger with the larger merchant ships that cruise up and down.

On my way back to the hostel I visit one of the many shops in the Spice Bazaar and buy a collection of sweets for my coming journey, including a large chunk of bright red pistachio studded turkish delight so tough that even the sweet seller struggles to cut through it.

After collecting my luggage I eat dinner in a restaurant sympathetic to someone carrying a sixty litre rucksack and then make my way to Sirkeci station, the starting point of my journey west. Currently, due to long term railway works, the usual night train to Sofia is being replaced by a bus as far as the boarder town of Kapikule. I find the bus waiting outside, a thin moustached man, who I assume is the driver, is standing next to the open baggage compartment of the coach smoking. I ask him 'Sofia?' and he nods and points from my rucksack to the baggage space.

I get on the bus, find a seat and wait. A few friends and colleagues of the smoking driver arrive; two in turkish train uniforms and a huge broad shouldered man who looks like a weight lifter, wearing a leather jack that is barely able to stretch over his biceps.

After I've been waiting five minutes the driver comes into the bus, sorts out a few things by the coffee urn in the middle, then still holding what looks like a small soap bottle asks "Toi-wait?".
"Toilet?" I respond, "I'm ok, I don't need the toilet".
He tries again smiling, "Toi-wait" and waves towards the station building behind me.
"To wait?" I try, "Should I wait in the station?".
He continues to smile, nods his head and waves again with his open palm at the building, "Toi-wait".
"Ok, I'll wait in the station" I say and wave at the station with my left hand. As soon as I bring my open palm back to towards me, he lifts the plastic bottle and squirts into my palm a splash of liquid that smells strongly of slightly putrid lavender, he smiles at me, turns, and walks away. I look at my left hand in confusion as the lavender liquid starts to evaporate, then I rub my hands together and on the headrest in front of me in a vain effort to get rid of it.

With both my hands stinking of lavender I go to the station and pay one lira to use the bathroom I didn't need in an effort to wash the perfume off. After five minutes I've managed to remove the immediate shock smell, but for the next three days every time I raise a drink to my mouth I can smell lavender.

In the waiting room, huddled around the radiator are four well built bulgarian ladies chatting and joking with each other. One of the train guards comes in saying the bus is leaving, so we get on, followed by the guards, an older bald gentleman with glasses, the moustached perfume dispenser and to, my surprise the weight lifter, who turns out to be our driver and just manages to squeeze himself behind the bus' steering wheel.

The bus door closes with a hiss and then, without any ceremony, the weight lifter guides the bus confidently into the late night traffic.

After a few hours of driving on a motorway we stop at a service station, remarkable only for its similarity to every other service station I have ever been in. After we return to the bus to continue our journey the perfume dispenser walks up and down, offering passengers a splash of perfume; I politely decline with a shake of my head and a look, which hopefully gives the impression that I'm ok, and don't need anymore today, or for the next month, but thank you anyway. To my shock the bespectacled man accepts the offer, receives some perfume gratefully into his outstretched palms, then wipes it across his hands and his face.

Another couple of hours later and we're driving through a dense fog, the lamppost lights appearing only as regular orange glowing patches. Slowly I notice that the right-hand lane is full of parked lorries. Our speed drops a little as we move along the only open lane on the motorway, stuck behind a slower lorry with its warning lights flashing. I wonder what problem is causing the queue. We continue like this for half an hour, then our driver slows and unexpectedly turns right between two parked lorries into what looks like an unlit building site. The weight lifter doesn't appear worried and steadily drives us over rough gravel tracks parallel to the motorway. Over the wall separating us from the road I see a large roof which I assume is a border customs building. Our driver appears to be trying to sneak us into Bulgaria under the cover of the fog, taking a secret off-road back route, as we pass between some sleeping apartment blocks. Then, suddenly, we emerge in the car park of Kapikul Station.

The station building is a solid concrete box with a platform behind it, anything beyond that is hidden in the fog. Our luggage is x-rayed in a separate small building standing next to the platform, then all six of us have our passports stamped. The bulgarian ladies place their luggage, large plastic bags, near the edge of the platform and wander over to a small window in an adjacent building that says Duty Free. It's currently one in the morning and I sit with my rucksack in the chill waiting room eating some of the sweets I bought earlier.

Eventually the train appears out of the fog and into the fuzzy orange glow of the station's lights. As the trains stops, at two o'clock in the morning on the Turkish/Bulgarian boarder, out pours a large troupe of Japanese people, mostly teenagers; some of them carry guitars and some carry small amplifiers. The lone lady on the x-ray machine suddenly looks very unimpressed. I suspect groups of Japanese tourists are a constant of travelling; like the presence of single middle-class backpackers with Lonely Planet guidebooks worrying if they are cool enough, even though there's no-one watching them to judge.

The bulgarian ladies get on the train, look through all the sleeper compartments and then choose their preferred seats. I get on and pick an empty compartment, double checking first that my carriage says Sofia. One of the Turkish guards from the bus comes past and sells me the upgrade to the sleeper and hands me some bedding. At three o'clock the train starts to move slowly and we trundle out of the lights of the station and into the dark fog. I lie down and go to sleep in the gently rocking compartment which is mysteriously starting to smell of lavender.

1 - I have since learnt that apparently the museum can only be visited by faxing your details and preferred appointment time 48 hours in advance.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 4 - Bosphorus

Istanbul, 25 November 2012.

Today I've decided to take a cruise up the Bosphorus to the edge of the black sea, hopefully giving my legs a chance to rest while the ship does the hard work of sailing us up and down the narrow straits that separate Europe from Asia.

I take the tram down to the waterfront at Eminönü, the closest pier to the Galata Bridge on the south side of the Golden Horn. All along the waterfront are touts shouting "Bosphorus, Bosphorus, Bosphortour…", each wearing a cheap fancy dress captain's hat and holding a laminated card with a picture of a ferry and various sights along the Istanbul Strait. Ferries depart from here to many parts of Istanbul and in the morning rush hour thousands of people flock to and from the piers. The only ones who seem unhurried are the many anglers lining the Galata Bridge, chain smoking while leaning wearily against the railings next to their rods, watching of the web of lines that hang across the restaurant terraces below the bridge and into the green waters.

Settling myself next to a window looking at the European shore I watch as we pull away from the minaret studded old city. Rounding the corner of the Golden Horn and entering the Bosphorus proper, the older, smaller buildings begin to disappear. Apart from the occasional old waterfront palace or luxury hotel, the buildings become much more modern and further inland I see high-rise buildings appearing, some still under construction. Istanbul is an expanding city of almost thirteen million people, with much of the new construction appearing to happen to the north of the old centre and on the western side of the Bosphorus.

I try to match the occasional palace or notable building with the descriptions given in my guidebook, but quickly give up. The man sitting behind me has hired an english speaking personal guide who is happily talking through the history of Istanbul and explaining any significant buildings on the route, so I sit back and give up trying to block out his voice while I read and let him talk me along the strait.

After we stop at Kanlica the onboard refreshment seller switches from selling tea to yogurt. Previously he sauntered around with trays of small glass cups of clear sweet turkish tea. Now he strides proudly around the deck calling "Fresh yogurt!" and demonstrating its quality by peeling the foil lid from one pot and then walking around holding it upside down, showing that it doesn't fall out. I'm too confused by this demonstration of yogurt quality to decide if I want one. By the time I've decided that, yes, I want a gravity defying yogurt, he's back to selling tea.

At the confluence of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, atop a hill on the Asian side, sits Yoros Castle. Below it nestles the small town of Anadolu Kavagi. Here almost all the ferry passengers get out and stream into the town, the centre of which is exclusively restaurants for tourists on day trips. As we crowd on the ferry's stairs waiting for the gangplank to be wheeled into place I strike up a conversation with another solo traveller. We both wander up to the castle and I ask my new companion, Norman, to recommend the best thing he's seen so far, which results in the Basilica Cistern being added to the top of my sight seeing list for tomorrow.

We follow the signs to Yoros Castle and foolishly take the well signed 'short cut', which does appear to be shorter, but mysteriously takes you right through many restaurant terraces on the climb up to the castle. From the striped red brick and grey stone ruins we can see the Black Sea almost merge with the blue grey sky, pinched and held into place just below the horizon by the two headlands. As we stand and watch a regular stream of container and tanker ships sail by, rocking the occasional smaller fishing boat as they cruise towards the open water and the far away ports of Russia, Romania, Georgia and The Ukraine.

We wander back down through the terraces and seat ourselves at one of the many restaurants that make up most of the town. Norman and I discuss our mutual unease about 'touristy' destinations. For reasons we can't explain we feel snobbish about places that rely on tourism; that somehow it's not a real industry or that it is demeaning, even though we are perfectly happy to travel to such destinations. Clearly allowing people to come and experience different cultures or locations, and making that easier and more pleasurable, is of great benefit to everyone. It is also a good way of redistributing wealth from richer nations to poorer nations as their relative inexpensiveness makes them more appealing1. Why does that make us uneasy? And what would a more 'authentic' destination be like, one with a neglected and under appreciated wonder attraction or somewhere completely mundane?

A ferry arrives mid afternoon and we sail back towards Istanbul. We approach the city as the sun is setting, beautifully illuminating the old city, outlining the many domes and minarets, not just of the bigger mosques, but of the many smaller neighbourhood mosques throughout the city. As we get closer more and more small boats and ferries hurry through the water, dodging the steady march of larger merchant ships in the central channel, determined to finish their errands before night falls.


Before dinner I go to a turkish bathhouse near my hostel, picking the simplest self service option from the long list of scrubbing and massaging combinations listed in the fragrant, humid lobby. After changing in a private lockable room upstairs I wander into the baths proper via two massive wooden doors. The inner room is, as expected, sweltering, the steamy air almost seems to choke at first, thick and hot in your mouth and throat. I find a space on the hot round stone table that takes up most of the circular room and lie down. Above, through the steam, I can just make out the many small circular windows that sit recessed in the thick domed roof, as if we're looking out of some insect's nest. The pink painted dome is patchy in places and looks like it's sweating almost as much as I am. Around me other patrons are lying down, either sweating out or being scrubbed vigorously by strong armed attendants under an enveloping cloud of soap bubbles with only their heads and feet visible at either end.

I relax on the scolding table and concentrate on breathing the hot cloying air comfortably, reassuring myself that if there is enough oxygen for the masseurs to tenderise their customers, there must be enough for me to just lie here. My skin starts to tickle with the drops of sweat that a form and run off, occasionally a slosh of hot water runs against me as soap bubbles are rinsed off someone lying nearby. I lie like this for a timeless age, the clang of pots, the splash of water and the murmur of people becoming more distant. The scolding table now feels comfortable and all I can feel is the sweat sliding out of my pores and brushing past the occasional arm or leg hair. Outside a thousands years or five minutes could have elapsed, the people coming and going could be romans, ottomans, tourists or web designers. Baths like these have served them all for thousands of years, the ageless steam cleaning them all alike.

Later as I wander out of the baths and into the cooler night air my mediative daze slowly recedes. I walk past the 3rd century BC Column of Constantine and the 15th century AD Atik Ali Pasa Mosque as a modern tram trundles by. In Istanbul it can be any century you want it to be.

1 - I'm not counting Turkey as a poorer nation. When ranked on per capita income or a pure GDP basis it is the 16th largest economy in the World.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 3 - Orientation


Istanbul, November 24th 2012.

I start the first day of my holiday with the inclusive hostel breakfast of olives, cheese, bread and cucumbers in the colourful downstairs canteen. I eat these clumsily with a fork in one hand while I try to flip between the pages of my guidebook with the other. I've already decided that ebook readers are the future purely on the ability to read from them over breakfast without these one handed contortions or having to use stray heavy objects to hold the pages open.

On this first day I decide to go straight for some of the main attractions in Istanbul. My first stop is the huge 6th century Hagia Sophia, built originally as a church before being converted into a mosque by the conquering Sultan Mehmed in 1453. Since 1935 it has been a museum and under restoration, removing much of the plaster to reveal some of the original Christian mosaics underneath.



The internal space under the dome is impressive, one giant volume of air held still above you. Chandeliers hang a little above your head, suspended from long wires that vanish upward into the ceiling. Around me fellow tourists slowly drift around, pointing and taking pictures, some with cameras on auto-fire, snapping pictures almost continuously.

I take a few pictures, but try mostly to absorb the feeling of the building, the patchy and cracked plasterwork, the old mosaics and re-create in my head what it must have felt like for ordinary people of the 6th century to enter such an extraordinary building, people who didn't regularly experience mile long suspension bridges or skyscrapers as we can today.

I'm slowly learning that most pictures of famous sites turn out to be poor, uninteresting pictures to look at afterwards. I still feel obliged to take a few, to prove to myself and others that I was really here, but knowing that the photos won't really draw the viewer in.

Next I head to Topkapi Palace, former home of the Ottoman sultans and from which the Ottoman empire was run. The palace is made up of a series of courtyard gardens surrounded by parts of the palace, with various additional freestanding buildings. I wander through the old harem, home of the sultan's concubines and family. The small narrow courtyards in the shadow of the surrounding rooms and roofs hint at the hushed bustle of the eunuchs who used to work there. Around me I notice more and more tourists using iPads instead of cameras; holding them in front of themselves to take pictures and video. Some never seem to put their tablets down, experiencing the palace for the first time as it will be replayed; through a shiny glass screen.



My favourite stop of the day is the New Mosque, opposite the Galata Bridge on the edge of the Golden Horn. Surrounded on three sides by wide paved areas which bustle with small time traders selling their wares from plastic sheets as people wander to and from the nearby winding streets of the shopping district. As an active mosque it feels more alive and sacred than the Hagia Sophia. Inside I sit with other tourists behind a low wooden railing, holding, like everyone else, my shoes in a standard issue white plastic carrier bag.

The interior is light and airy, beautiful pastel patterns and tiles blending together and pulling the eye over peaked arches and smoothly across the walls. The carpet adds a warm hush, making the quiet feel comforting, less fragile and strict than in a stone floored church. I sit peacefully for a twenty minutes before the muezzin starts to call the adhan, quickly echoed by the calls of other nearby mosques. As worshippers start to make their way in, the small gathering of tourists make their way out, feeling that prayer shouldn't be a spectator sport.

I walk away from the New Mosque, against an inflow of the faithful, towards the bustling lights of the Spice Bazaar and the main shopping district. The Spice Bazaar is an L-shaped building with a passage down the centre, each side packed with shops, no square centimetre bare of goods. Piles of spices and sweets sit heavily on stalls as traders call at passers by and the thick smell of honey hangs in the air. Uphill, between the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar, are many small winding streets of shops, each with their own specialty. There are clusters of denim, leather, silk and footwear; then watches and jewellery; next tools and household goods; followed by fruit and vegetables. The strangest is a shop selling baby clothing, which has two decapitated rows of baby doll heads on display, each sporting a different tiny hat on its plastic crown, forty pairs of glass eyes eerily watching the crowds passing by.

I find a small side entrance to the Grand Bazaar and wander round, attempting to keep in mind where I am, trying to make it back to the tram line and my hostel. I think I'm doing well until I walk out of the Grand Bazaar next to Istanbul University, on the exact opposite side of the Bazaar to that which I'd expected to appear. I attempt two more times to dive back into the Bazaar and not to be disorientated by the millions of items on display, jackets, carpets, gold and silver, but always get distracted by something new; then before I know it I'm lost again. After three failed attempts I leave the Bazaar and walk the long way around the edge and eventually make it back to the tram line.

That evening when I return to the hostel I sit in the lounge to check e-mails via the wifi. On the other side I can see my Palestinian roommate waving at his laptop screen and talking in baby toned arabic to someone on the other end of a video call. That feels like the best use of technology to me, not to put a glossy screen between yourself and reality, but to use the screen as a window to the people and places you can't be.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 2 - Departure

Bristol, November 23rd 2012.

You have to start somewhere and for me it is Bristol Temple Meads Station and the eleven o'clock to London Paddington.

A clear November sky lets a low and yellow sun give the countryside a slumbering fuzzy glow, inviting the start of hibernation. The recent heavy rain has resulted in flooding, causing the Avon to be lost in wide, smooth brown lakes that run under hedgerows and across fields; in Bath the river is almost touching the undersides of the bridges.



On the train I triple check the blue plastic wallet that is my solution to a ticketless world; not wanting to rely solely on my phone I've gathered printouts of ticket collection numbers, reservation references, maps to hostels and other assorted useful printouts. Perhaps just having the tickets would be easier.

After changing onto the Heathrow Express under the vaulted victorian roof of Paddington station I arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5. Unlike the curves of Paddington's roof the square sections of T5's facade make you feel as if you are inside a huge cage or tank. The scaled-up support pillars, large glass panes and oversized bolts let you believe that outside somewhere is a giant, with an airport shaped vivarium of people scurrying around on different levels like an ant's nest. Not carrying leaves or sugar to each other but bags of clothes and duty free in one side and out the other, following the yellow signs and in the footsteps of those queuing before them.

Through the grid of the facade I watch the short day end, the long shadows cast by aircraft, boarding ramps and scurrying ground handling vehicles cutting across each other. By the time we line up on the runway only a low glow is left in the western sky. After take off we circle left and head east into the comfort of the oncoming night. To my left, hanging in a line, seemingly stationary above the glowing weave of London, are the bright white landing lights of incoming aircraft.

The flight covers the three thousand plus kilometres of my route in under four hours, something I will spend fourteen days doing on the return journey. While the flight is fast, it reveals nothing of the countries below but an occasional neon web, which is why I have chosen to do the return journey at ground level. We continue to speed east and I eat the surprisingly passable inflight curry in a praying mantis position, elbows in and cutlery pointing sharply down, to prevent injuring my neighbour.

Landing and arrival in Ataturk airport are reassuringly mundane and interchangeable with any other airport in the world. Before immigration signs list the countries which need visas. Some countries have been crossed out over time, covered with masking tape or bits of paper. I assume as their relationships with Turkey have improved they are removed from the 'naughty list' and their citizens are granted visa free entry.

Baggage collection happily goes without a problem, always a mercy worth remembering, and as I head for the exit into the arrivals hall a queue begins to form. Ahead of me waiting family members are squeezing through the doors and past the arriving passengers to find and help relatives with their bags. Once I'm through the doors the arrival hall is packed with families and groups waiting; a loud roar of happy and expectant chatter filling the air. Getting through the crowd is difficult, with groups of security guards struggling to hold open a few thin channels between excited families to let passengers out.

Past the crowd I take the metro and then the tram to the old Sultanahmet district. Near the airport, while self consciously balancing my giant rucksack on the floor in front of me, I see the large shadows and bright signs of out-of-town shopping centres and megastores drift by in the night. As we get closer to the old city, the streets begin to shrink and the buildings become lower. The tram passes through an archway in the ancient defensive walls that mark the boundary of old Constantinople, with its orange under-lighting and massive scale the wall retains an imposing presence. Once inside the walls buildings are much more tightly packed, the shops and storefronts smaller but still open late at night.

After a short walk from the tram stop I find my hostel and check in. The third floor bunk room is simple; four sets of bunk beds and a small table in the middle. One bunk is already occupied by a neat broad shouldered Palestinian doctor. As I unpack we chat and he explains that he's in Istanbul to learn German so he can get a visa and move to Germany with his family. While looking for longer term accommodation he's staying in the youth hostel; he studied medicine in Turkey and so can work here while studying.

He has only just arrived from Palestine, leaving his wife and three young children behind while he studies. He speaks with a friendly seriousness and is inquisitive about my life and plans. I casually comment that he seems to have put up with a lot in his life, difficulties which I am lucky to have avoided. He shrugs and asks if I believe in God. I give an answer as wooly and confused as my conclusions on the subject.

He smiles sympathetically and says God is the reason to be optimistic about the future and that it is worth working for. If you believe in a positive future you have to believe in God. The Arabic expression "Insha'Allah" means 'God Willing' and is said when talking about any future plans, to remind you that nothing can happen without God's consent. The doctor smiles again with a look of quiet resolve underscoring that he's working hard on a better future for his family and then lies down to sleep.

A four hour plane journey can take you a long way. For me Istanbul is the furthest extent of my journey, the end of the west and the start of the east; for others it is the start of the west.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Istanbul to Bristol 1 - Planning


The idea is simple; fly to Istanbul and then travel back to Bristol by train. My 3700 kilometre route should take me through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, France and finally back to Britain.


I love travelling, seeing the world roll by, the kilometres counting out the changes in peoples, beliefs, countries and cultures. In two weeks there is no chance of grasping anything but a small fraction of the history and people covered by my route, but even that small fraction will be fascinating.

On this holiday I hope to see the transition from eastern to western influence. Starting in the former Ottoman capital of Istanbul (then Constantinople) on the very edge of Asia, travelling through the evolving Balkans and into Western Europe via the remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Vienna acting as the westward limit of former Ottoman control.

I'm writing these posts after my return but will be post-dating them to match the dates when I was underway to create a more logical order. While on holiday I wanted to focus on enjoying my time travelling, so I stuck to making simple notes with old fashioned pen and paper, and saved the write up for later when I can enjoy reliving what I saw.

Monday, 5 November 2012

De Havilland Aircraft Museum

Hidden down a single track lane and announced only by a softly spoken brown sign in the shadow of the M25 it is a treasure of aircraft design evolution. The de Havilland Heritage Centre is a fantastic collection of aircraft from a fast evolving period of aviation history. Having most of the collection come from the same company provides a consistency of approach that makes changes easier to identify between aircraft. It high-lights what drove design decisions, from payload capacity to engine integration.

The pride of the collection is a restored Mosquito Bomber, which sits in the main hanger along with a sibling under repair and collected parts of the original prototype. The Mosquito's success was its speed and simplicity of build. Seeing one up close, tapping the wooden hull and comparing it to the size of the two huge Merlin engines gives a small sense of how fast it was in flight.



Displayed around the hanger are detailed examples of its construction; cross sections of wing spars showing the build up of plywood and how clever use of the different directional properties of the wood were used for maximum strength. The similarity to carbon fibre design are compelling and obvious if you compare the wooden grain to the shimmering weave of composite.

The 1943 designed Vampire also contains many interesting design choices which can be seen up close. Its short fat shape is a result of the wide radial compressor found on early jet engines, unlike the more modern long and slender axial compressors. The body contains little more than the engine, a pilot and a pair of machine guns. The distinctive twin boom design was a result of the need to prevent power loss from the engine through long ducts; so the engine was allowed to exhaust directly into the air with no interference from an empennage structure.



This twin boom heritage lived on in the larger Venom and the twin engine Sea Vixen. This configuration was probably not necessary anymore, the original reason no longer being relevant, but all of de Havilland's existing design experience led to this configuration. 

The Heritage Centre has a very good collection which anyone with an interest in design can spend hours wandering through, seeing which ideas shaped the metal and wood in front of you. I suppose that is the most remarkable thing about humans: that we can create out of the world around us new shapes and designs to achieve something new. If often takes iteration, evolution and inspiration to do it, but that's what a collection of aircraft like this beautifully shows.