The Dedegol Mountains, Isparta, Turkey. This year’s challenge?

6th to 13th January 2008
5th Cycling Week Piraeus, Greece to Selçuk, Turkey

The earthquake was 6.5 on the Richter Scale

Days 39 and 40 Sunday and Monday 6th and 7th January Piraeus (Athens) to Chios

We had a very frightening start to week 5. The management was already awake at 7.14am when we were hit by an earthquake which shook the stoker from her sleep. Reports say that it lasted 20 seconds. It seemed longer and the feelings of fear and helplessness are difficult to describe.

We were on the second floor of the hotel and still in bed. The whole building shook. We don’t just mean that the light bulbs rattled but the bed, floor and walls moved. It was the same motion as a cake walk at the steam fair. When it stopped we expected panic but nothing - just silence. We suppose that the locals are used to it so we followed their example and carried on as normal.

According to news reports a powerful earthquake had hit Greece. Geologists say the quake - measuring 6.5 - was centred 120km south-west of Athens in the southern Peloponnese region. It was very deep, 51km underground, and there were no reports of casualties or damage. The BBC Athens correspondent said the quake shook his house vigorously for 20 seconds and sent him sprinting for the front door. We think he was lucky to have a front door to run to.

We went down to the Port of Piraeus for breakfast and came across lots of activity. Roads were roped off and there were police equipped with riot shields and gun carrying troops from the army and navy. There was also a small but noisy demonstration by what appeared to be the Communist Party. Our first reaction was to walk the other way but curiosity got the better of us.

The centre of activity appeared to be the very large nearby church where continuous chanting was coming from loudspeakers. Every now and again there were deafening peals of bells which set off the pigeons.

The stoker approached a uniformed young woman and was told that this was a traditional religious ceremony for 6th January, relating to the sea. We didn’t get to the bottom of the whys and wherefores, but nothing is new when it comes to religion. It was complicated by the attendance in a few minutes by the Greek president.

With a final peal of bells the still chanting priests emerged. They were not in normal black crow costume but looked more like peacocks. Their robes were in geometric patterns not unlike those of freemasons but much more colourful.

The priests were led by a brass band and followed by the congregation. We hitched on behind and paraded down the roped off roads between the two lines of armed troops. When we reached the port gate there were too many to go in and we milled about outside.

Soon the president’s cavalcade of black cars and security guards turned up. A pathway was made through the crowd and into the port he walked surrounded by big men in black coats.

We still have no idea what went on in the port. The Greek navy had parked two ancient minesweepers stern on at 45 degrees to the dock with their bows tied together. It provided security but made it impossible to see. We left soon after, relieved to be away from the chanting black crows. Let us hope they were blessing all those who go to sea and make long journeys.

We spent the rest of the day doing chores including emails and internet. For the first time we successfully used wifi. We have previously visited Athen’s famous attractions and this time, put off by the congestion and pollution, we gave them a miss.

Neither of us slept well on Sunday night. We knew that another earthquake was exceptionally unlikely but the thought does not make for easy sleeping. We boarded the ferry for Chios late morning in the warmest sunshine of the trip so far. It really felt like Greece for the first time.

Leaving Piraeus Port even in winter is quite an experience. The port is full of car ferries. With so many large mainly white passenger ships it looks a bit like an out of scale yacht marina. We realised how much the Greeks depend on shipping for transport and what an impressive seafaring nation they are.

We arrived at Chios six hours later in the dark. We found the Chios Rooms, booked in and went to eat.

 The 25,000 seat ampitheatre at Ephesus

Day 41 Tuesday 8th January Chios, Greece to Çesme, Turkey

We made the assumption, hopefully incorrectly, that in view of O2 charges our communications would be very limited from now on. We therefore sent lots of emails, paid bills and tidied accounts before boarding the ferry to Çesme.

As with the previous time we came to Greece we have really enjoyed being here. It is much nicer than Italy even though we also enjoyed our time there. The people we met here are noticeably wealthier than seven years ago but still pleasant and helpful to travellers. We were in more remote areas last time. The cycling has been very good and the route is recommended. The only difficult sections were the short distance out of Patra and the last 10km into Piraeus.

The “car ferry” to Çesme is small, i.e. it will take two cars and a tandem at a squeeze. There were four passengers and three crew for the 40 minute crossing. Before leaving Greece and being allowed into Turkey we had to go through passport control and customs. By leaving the EC we are actually going abroad for the first time. The stoker also had to pay €30 for 3 month visas.

After leaving the hustle and bustle of downtown Chios it was very quiet in Çesme in the afternoon sun. We checked into a very smart hotel. The stoker was delighted that we have a proper sit down flush toilet, a facility which may not be available in more remote areas. Not only that but it has a thin pipe coming out from under the seat for either feet or bottom washing.

Day 42 Wednesday 9th January at Çesme, Turkey

We thought rather than just go on we would spend a day acclimatising ourselves to Turkish ways. It is our first new country since Canada in 2004, apart from a day trip to Morocco, and we are excited but apprehensive.

The first sounds of Turkey were heard by a rather cold management at 6.25am. It was the faithful being called to prayer. Not many go apparently in the west of Turkey. On paper the Turks apparently are 98% Muslim, just as the British are mainly Christian, and both behave much the same way when it comes to religion.

Our first job was to call at the tourist office. We were given what we think was wildly optimistic information about accommodation. Leastways when we asked questions to which we already knew the answers, the answers given were wrong in almost every significant way. The management thought it was a pretty clever approach. He never trusts tourist offices and sending people away happy when they will never return saves a lot of aggravation. He warmed immediately to the man and his organisation.

Having done some research on the web we bought a Turkish sim card for the phone. It was a bit of a chance because our systems are complex. We were delighted that it worked and should give us communications at a reasonable cost. It is also one in the eye for money grabbing O2.

In the afternoon we visited the castle which dominates the waterfront area of the town. It was fun to walk around the walls and the views were magnificent. It was strange however not to be aware of most of the significant events relating to it. Our history lessons had not extended to the Ottoman Empire nor Catherine the Great of Russia, although the stoker had picked up some of the latter on a recent visit to Russia.

Walking back the management plucked up the courage to have a much needed haircut and beard trim. This took a long time and involved us both being served with Turkish tea, which is rather nice. The final polishing of the management involved singeing off the hairs on his ears with a gas lighter. He was finally sent on his way with a spray of scent. It was not cheap, although the scent probably was, but another unforgettable experience.

It just remained to get dinner. Eating out in Çesme has been easy. We choose from the dishes available on the way in and it comes. Alcohol has not been offered though it is available. We have been quite happy with water and tea.

A Roman loo

Day 43 Thursday 10th January Çesme to Urla

Today is the start of our adventure in Turkey with proper moving on. It was a bright sunny morning, 16 degrees in the sun, but with a bitter north east headwind. We left town on the main road which is mainly dual carriageway. There was so little traffic that there was no need to take the management’s side roads route.

At the edge of the habitation is a major interchange looking like a shamrock on Google Earth. On the ground the spread of tarmac was amazing with not a vehicle in sight. It felt like riding on a motorway which has not been opened. No doubt Dorset County Council road engineers anticipate that the relief road will look like this if it is ever built.

Once out of town we had a hard ride in barren and deserted countryside, mainly climbing. We have had similar rides in the peat bogs of Ireland though the vegetation is different here.

Around lunch time the scenery looked up and we came across a “boutique” restaurant where as “gourmets” we could “surf” the menu. We think the word “boutique” means very expensive in Esperanto. It was however in a sun trap with lovely views and made for a pleasant and much needed stop.

Rolling into Urla we caused something of a stir. This is a working class non touristy town and we came in through the scruffy industrial area. Working people whistled and waved as we passed by and we began to worry about finding a hotel in such a place.

We made for the pointed tower of the mosque with its horseshoe on top. This brought us to the town centre with no sign of anywhere to stay. The stoker asked one of our watchers and we were given good directions.

Stopping outside the hotel caused the proprietors to come and welcome us in. Tea was taken and a room found. The hotel reminds us of those excellent little places that once could be found in every town and most villages in France. But it has modern facilities.

After dinner, which this time was an almost western meal to balance the superb Turkish food, we socialised in the hotel. The other guests were men and very jolly considering the only drink was chi. Our trip was discussed in great detail and we were reassured that accommodation would be found. The management let himself down by mentioning Constantinople but was forgiven.

Day 44 Friday 11th January Urla to Doganbey

By the time we came down for our full Turkish breakfast the working classes had left. We did not envy them, there was frost on the clay tiled roofs before the sun came up.

The management’s planned route was abandoned following advice given by one of last night’s men who teaches bus driving. The consequences were that we went 16km in the wrong direction along the busy coast road. We then travelled along a quiet but boring dual carriageway.

We were lucky that the traffic police diverted us off onto a pleasant road through the hills. Our Turkish phrase book was not up to finding out why but he made it clear that we had no alternative. It made our day.

Not yet sure of availability of accommodation we booked into the first hotel we saw. It looked a bit down but turned out OK. The locals came in to eat and our special vegetable meal was very good. Later the family of the hotel manager turned up from Izmir. We had a lively and, almost more importantly, warm and friendly evening. Although we had eaten we were offered roast chestnuts and slices of celebration cake. We were also cajoled into dancing with them after their meal. The family behaved just as they would have in Europe except that perhaps they were more friendly than most Europeans would have been to strangers. The women seemed the same as western women. We understand there is a stark contrast between the way people behave in the large towns and in the remote country areas. It was demonstrated very clearly here.

Day 45 Saturday 12th January Doganbey to Selçuk

As on each of the last three cycling days we have put off leaving until 10ish. By that time the sun is up and it feels comfortably warm.

We followed the coast all day though villages a couple of hundred metres from the sea. The people we passed were very friendly. Many called encouragement and almost everybody gave us a nod or wave. Children often ran after us and practised the English learned at school.

Though many people wear western dress a good half of those in the villages still wear some traditional clothing. Many of the men wear a colourful head covering like a small turban. Both men and women wear very baggy patterned trousers tight at the ankles. Lots of the women wear scarves and most are brightly coloured, looking very attractive. We are more likely to see what we understand to be a hajab in Weymouth than in this part of Turkey.

Here there are few promenades to cycle along. To go to the beach you turn off the road. Today’s route started fairly undulating and with the bright blue sea and little wind it was very pleasant. It gradually became much more hilly as we negotiated a series of bays and inlets. It was all very beautiful but we were pleased to enter the flat lands as we approached Selçuk.

Accommodation is no problem in this tourist centre where people come to visit Ephesus. We chose the one we liked best from The Lonely Planet, the Kiwi Pension. We were not disappointed.

Day 46 Sunday 13th January at Selçuk for Ephesus

Off to Ephesus in the sunshine. It is a couple of km out of Selçuk so we took the tandem. The standard way is to go in at the top gate and out at the bottom of the hill. That required an extra 5km of walking which is not what some cyclists do.

As we entered we were impressed with the peace and quiet but little else. Then we turned a corner and there was the 25,000 seat Roman amphitheatre, magnificent. About this time we met the tour groups, mainly Japanese, coming down the hill. The silence was spoiled but it was hardly crowded. It must however be unbearable in the summer time.

We spent several hours exploring. Perhaps the most impressive area is the terraced houses. It costs a lot extra to go in but was well worth it. Apart from a group of Germans who were rushed through by their tour guide we had the area to ourselves. The houses are not back to backs but huge residences for the wealthy on three levels. They are covered for protection and impressive glass walkways have been constructed, some at roof height. It is not for those who suffer from vertigo.

There were superb mosaics and wall paintings. We also did silly things like have our photo taken sitting on the communal Roman men’s toilet. There is an obvious comparison with Pompeii. We felt they were different from each other, equally interesting and enjoyable. In Pompeii there was a feeling that the population had just left and could easily return. Ephesus is much more grand and more like a museum.

By mid afternoon we had had enough of archaeology and returned to Selçuk. The museum there is supposed to be very good but we preferred to explore the town in the last of the sun.

We came across the railtracks and followed the example of the locals and crossed them. We were immediately in the real Turkey of tiny shops, children playing and people going about their everyday lives. The management took three kids for a ride on the tandem and we saw the ruined Byzantine aqueduct on the way. It was more fun and more interesting than the museum as the wrong side of the tracks often are.

Our pension has that rare thing, a kitchen which can be used by guests. We took the opportunity to buy some excellent fresh local vegetables and have dinner in.

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