Down to the Dardanelles

Note: The associated Photo Gallery for this Blog is at Edirne and the Dardanelles

The border crossing into Turkey was our first ‘major’ border of the trip. We had to stop and flash passports & vehicle logbooks to get into both Romania and Bulgaria (both are currently outside the Shengen agreement so retain border controls) but here at Turkey there was a major frontier to cross and we did this at Edirne. The border facilities are enormous on both sides with a gigantic duty-free complex in the middle. We queued up to exit Bulgaria (cursory glance at the passports) and then Turkey loomed.

At Motocamp we’d organized our Turkish e-Visas online ($25 US Dollars each) that would be good for 90-days. Now we had to go to building D3 to purchase 90-days of bike insurance, which cost €18 per bike. Next, another counter to present everything for recording on a computer system by a team of very friendly and helpful customs staff and we were good to go. Except we weren’t… we were turned back at the final control by the grumpy sentinel there; there was something wrong with the paperwork.

We struggled in the boiling sun to back the loaded bikes out of the queue at the frontier and head back to control 97; something about baggage control. They knew nothing about it and sent us to D3 for insurance. We explained we already had this. “Go back to D3” we were told. There was an X-Ray check there; did they want to examine our baggage? We liked D3; lovely people. A friendly lass at the X-Ray shed looked at the chit of paper we’d been handed and explained there was something wrong with my bikes paperwork… She took everything away then returned, telling me to go back into D3 and it would all be sorted.

Previously we’d passed through D3 at lunchtime and there were a few people around. Now it was a morass of sweaty bodies, clutching pieces of paper all pressed up against the service desk. I threw my own malodorous sticky form into the press all the time wondering where the hell my papers were. After a few minutes one of the young customs lasses shouted out something about a ‘Motosiklista’; that must be me… Pushing forward, I learned that everything was now sorted and I was good to go. “What was the problem?” I asked… “ ‘Plaka’ she uttered, “number plate is ‘KP 52 VTO’. We made mistake and recorded this as VT-Oh. Should be VT-zero. No problem – all is fix now…” My heart sank… “But VT-Oh is correct – it is not zero…” She laughed at this, took the paperwork away and re-corrected the error. We were good to go. This all cost us nearly three long, sweaty hours at the border, when we could probably have passed through in about 45-minutes…

A few miles from the frontier we pulled into Edirne, our first stop in Turkey. A winding road took us through some rolling countryside, which suddenly dropped away to reveal this stunning little Thracian city choked with grand Ottoman mosques.  We parked the bikes in the courtyard of our central hotel, the owner helping us up two flights of stairs with all our baggage and then set out to explore this magical place. The city was originally known as Hadrianopolis, after the Roman emperor who founded it and this was later corrupted into Adrianopolis. It became ‘Edirne’ in the late 1300’s when the Ottomans captured it and made it the capital of their empire for the next 90-years when they then took Constantinople and the hoi-poloi all moved there. We spent a day plodding the stone streets and visiting the main mosques and enjoying the sudden contrasts that told us we had left ‘Christian’ Europe.

The Selimiye Mosque, c.1575, has the highest minarets in Turkey and although impressive we found both the Eski Cami (Old Mosque) and Üç Şerefeli (Serpent) Mosques more endearing. If you’ve never visited one of these grand old mosques I would recommend putting this high on any travel ‘to-do’ list. They are immensely impressive structures, awesome places of worship, effused with such a feeling of peace and tranquility that is so at odds with the images of Islam we see on the Western news. We left a mainly Protestant homeland, travelled through Catholic and then Orthodox Eastern Europe and visited a number of notable churches and cathedrals, which seem to be so filled with idolatry and icons as to appear dark, dreary and depressing. In contrast the mosques are all air and light. Shoes are removed at the door simply because inside is carpeted. There are no seats clogging the space and, standing in the centre, there seems to be an acoustic sweet spot where every whisper and sound is carried straight to the ear.

In the Eski Cami we sat on the floor a while, listening to an old man singing prayers to a small audience of women. We had no idea what the message or the context was but the sound was heavenly and we both left the building feeling totally relaxed and chilled. If you’ve read my books you’ll know I have little time for religion. Having survived a near fatal bike accident in my twenties, my credo is simply ‘we’re here because we’re here, so get on with it and enjoy life.’ Yet part of travel is to appreciate how other people live and today was heart-warming experience as we watched simple people connecting with their god in a most beautiful way.

Wandering the streets of Edirne on our first evening, we sought dinner. There were numerous fast food outlets along the main drag and around the mosques offering various combinations of delicious looking doner or shish kebab. We stumbled up a little back street and were enticed into a simple little eatery that offered only one dish; Şiş köfte – succulent fried meatballs (köfte is an old Persian word meaning mashed) served with a platter of fresh tomato, onion and cucumber and fresh-baked bread. However before the main event we were treated to a complimentary, kick-ass starter of deep-fried, finger-sized chili peppers with (as if this wasn’t hot enough) a red-hot chili dipping sauce. When we said this was our first night in Turkey, the all-male staff were very attentive and keen that we enjoyed their every offering, explaining the ingredients and making recommendations on how the meal was prepared and how best to eat it. One of the recommendations was Ayran a delicious cold milky drink made from yoghurt, salt and water that has now become a staple with every Turkish meal.

Leaving Edirne we rode down to the Dardanelles to visit the Gallipoli battlefields. We have previously visited most of the northwest Europe sites from both world wars, places like the Somme, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, the Ardennes and Normandy. They are humbling places yet somehow their existence makes some sort of sense. Here are places where two mighty armies clashed toe to toe and fought it out leaving these places of remembrance that hopefully will keep us from repeating anything like it in the future. Gallipoli was something else; a totally pointless operation that suffered from the outset from bad planning and preparation breaking so many military taboos before the invasion had even landed. To kick it all off a fleet of battleships was sent up the Dardanelles Straights to take out the shore fortifications only to lose three major warships to mines. This was followed two-months later by an invasion that scattered the landing troops around six different beaches all remotely disconnected (with an additional three diversionary landings), success based on the naïve assumption that the Turkish defenders would bolt all the way to Istanbul at the sight of the invasion force. The notion that the defenders, already warned that something was up by the presence of all the battleships, might be seasoned troops with recent battle experience from a Balkan War and armed with Herr Krupp’s finest seems to have been totally overlooked.

The narrowness of the Dardanelles Straits impressed at first sight. We watched various commercial and cruise ships sail by and realized how easy it would be to hit them with shore based pop-guns had we the mind to do so. We wandered round the Naval museum at Çanakkale and visited the fortress there where a 15” shell from HMS Queen Elizabeth still lay buried deep in the walls. The museum is also home of the minelayer ‘Nusrat’, a replica of the little ship that caused so much havoc to the allied fleet. She simply noted where the battleships mostly sailed, then nipped out at night to lay a string of mines along that route, causing the loss of HMS Ocean, HMS Irresistible and the French battleship Bouvet and a heavy loss of life.

The landing sites themselves are incredibly moving. The peninsular itself isn’t that big; up on the central ridge you can clearly see both coastlines and anything moving up and down them. We stopped at Lone Pine, one of the high points at Anzac Cove, where a recent centenary memorial had just been held and the graves were freshly adorned with poppies. We took a walk along the battlefield road up to Quinn’s Post, where we learned that the road actually marked the frontline; both sides would have been dug in either side of it, slugging it out or agreeing to mutual co-existence as occasion demanded. The Anzac lines were totally overlooked by the Turkish defenders so all they could really do was dig in (it was here that Aussies earned the appellation ‘digger’) and hope for the best. Equally for the Turks a number of attempts to breach the Anzac lines had proved very costly in the face of a determined defender. Ultimately the futility of it all was realised and nine-months later the allies withdrew under the cover of darkness…

On the 7th August 2015, walking respectfully amongst the graves at Quinn’s Post Cemetery, we stopped by one of the headstones. It said “Believed to be buried in this cemetery, Lieutenant J.Burge, 2nd Aust. Light Horse, 7th August 1915. Their glory shall not be blotted out.” We were travelling peacefully and unhindered through Turkey on our motorcycles enjoying the land and it’s people. One hundred years ago this young man had come here, essentially as an invader and on this very same day had perished in what would be the final Australian attempt to breach the stalemate at Anzac Cove. The contrast hit us like a sledgehammer. If you ever want encounter the sheer, utter senselessness of war then come to Gallipoli. Visiting Gallipoli and places like it should be mandatory for young folk all over the world.

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3 thoughts on “Down to the Dardanelles

  1. Wow…so much to absorb..I will be reading and ‘re reading …
    Loved your feelings on the Mosque visit…
    Very moving words about the battlefields….
    Reading on my phone I plan to enjoy this blog again later on my laptop with larger print !
    Love how you kept your cool at the border 😆
    Lots of love to you both and safe travelling x x x

    Liked by 1 person

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