On the road

On Saturday I decided to finally load my bike on a train and go have a little ride in the countryside-as I need to escape London every 15 days or so to prevent myself from going insane.

The whole ride was a roundtrip: I took the train from King’s Cross to Ashford and then cycled to Dungeness, Camber Sands, Rye and back to Ashford.

Naturally I packed all the wrong things. The weather forecast warned of rainy spells and clouded skies so I packed my waterproof gear. The temperature was also meant to be quite high so I packed my swimming suit and my short wetsuit. I also packed both my locks because London has a way of making a cyclist paranoid.

The result of this preparation is I got back with a sunburn and my shoulders aching from the weight of my backpack. Bear in mind that I am not a serious cyclist and this has been my longest ride so far. After getting lost for more than half an hour trying to find the correct way out of Ashford (surely there must be a way to avoid the A2042 without having to initially go over fences and across train tracks), I was eventually on the right path to Dungeness- and relying solely on my phone for navigation (Note to self: buy that power bank).

When you get to the cycling path, the way to Dungeness is actually pretty straightforward, mostly following National Cycling route 2. I cycled through Newchurch to Lydd and then followed the aptly named Dungeness Road to Dungeness.

It soon became apparent that I had no idea what to expect when I arrived there. I cycled through what I now understand was the natural reserve bit, an expanse with lakes and water patches all around; I spotted birds, hikers and kite surfers in the distance as I was passing through.  Then I got to a fork on the road, one side leading to the EDF nuclear power station (which up to that point I thought was non-operational) and the other leading to what is referred to as the ‘Estate’. I cycled towards the nuclear station with the intention of passing through it. Judging from the signs pointing to the ‘visitor’s center’ it is actually possible to visit-if that’s your kind of thing. Being conscious of the fact that I was on a tight schedule in order to catch the train back at 7pm I decided to skip the visit.

I then stopped a couple of helpful police officers on patrol to ask which bit is the reserve. They told me what I was looking for was the Estate and let me through a gate to that area. The Estate bit is the part you will see in photographs when you look for ‘Dungeness’. You have a long shingle beach (apparently Dungeness is one of the largest shingle expanses in Europe), a few dark-coloured cottages by the seaside or scattered around inland, lighthouses and an old train station, which belongs to the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. I am guessing it is served by a rather old train, judging from the sound it was making in the distance.

There were two lighthouses in between the railway station and the sea, where cowboy anglers fish for nuclear fish. The one closer to the water was operational and beeping loudly at regular intervals. The nuclear power station looms over this desert landscape and the white beach, making for a dreamlike sight.

There is one pub in Dungeness, advertising the fact in the sign. I really wish I could have stopped for a beer but unfortunately I couldn’t spare much time in the area and began heading back for Lydd. On the way back out of the reserve I cycled by Prospect Cottage-except not to my knowledge at the time. This little black cottage belonged to film director Derek Jarman.

After reaching Lydd once more I headed for Camber Sands, a popular beach in the area, famous for its sand dunes. The tide was low when I arrived and the sea didn’t look particularly good so I decided to skip the swim after all and just walk around the beach for a bit.

After Camber I headed to Rye, as one of my colleagues had suggested. The road from Camber to Rye is a scenic one, passing by little ponds and fields of flowers in bloom. I always find it amusing how the cattle and sheep turn around and stare whenever I cycle by, although it is a bit rude.

Rye is a small medieval town by the sea, once an important port. It is very picturesque and made for an ideal stop for an iced coffee.

The ride back to Ashford was a bit of a struggle, as the road was slightly inclined for most of the way. My backpack was slowly cutting off the circulation to my arms and my legs were getting heavier by the minute. I did plan to get to Ashford an hour before my train journey though, just to be certain I would make it in spite of any likely complications. As I reached Ashford my phone battery died, leaving me without a map. Fortunately the locals knew where the train station was and I finally reached my destination.

Despite the sunburn and the exhaustion it was a great day out and Dungeness is definitely worth a visit. The return ticket to Ashford is a little more than 20 pounds, so it’s definitely an affordable daytrip to the wild west of England.

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Old Tales from Istanbul

I had a look at my old photographs from Turkey today and I realised I never wrote anything about that trip. This is unacceptable for two reasons: one, it’s been ages since it happened and I remember only a fraction of it and two, I don’t remember it precisely because I didn’t write about it.

Since my blog is basically my diary at this point, I feel compelled to put this story in writing so that I can refresh my memory and so whoever stumbles upon it can learn from our mistakes and triumphs. Hopefully it will be of some use to future travellers in Turkey with a tight schedule and a tight budget.

Memory is a very unreliable source of information so make sure to take the finer details of this story with a pinch of salt-or rather a tablespoon, to be safe.

Looking through my archives, there are several e-mail exchanges between my friend, Giulia,  and myself on the subject of Turkey. This piece of dialogue is a short example of our communication:

Screenshot_10

 

There is a ton of other useless information shared, such as updates on the latest episodes of Vikings, our opinions on which topics should be avoided in the Southern United States, a mining accident and a picture of Giulia’s broken watch.

However, within that pile of nonsense, like an archaeologist who has just wiped the dirt off the first few tiles of a majestic mosaic, I uncovered the holy scriptures- the prototype itineraries of the trip.

I had expected them to be in our shared Google drive folder and was surprised not to find them when I looked in there. I checked with Giulia who insisted there was no itinerary and we basically winged it for the entire trip. The funny thing is-according to the e-mails- she was one who put the first draft down on digital paper and sent it to me. This is what the proto-itinerary looks like when deciphered from Engtalian:

18/04 : Arriving in Istanbul

19 /04: Istanbul

20/ 04:Bursa/Eskisehir

21/04:Eskisehir/Ankara

22/04:Ankara /Kayseri

23/04: Goreme

24/04: Goreme/Konya/Izmir

25/04: Izmir/ Ephes/Pamukkale

26/04: Izmir

27/04:Izmir/London

Istanbul

  • Eskisehir
  • Ankara
  • Goreme
  • Konya
  • Pamukkale
  • Ephesus

I can already reveal -spoilers!- that we didn’t make it to Pamukkale. I am still a bit sore about it but looking at the time frame it would have been too tight. I am positive there was a companion document to this schedule that summarised all the touristic highlights and places of interest in each area but it is impossible to find and Giulia denies its existence. I will have to rely on my memory from now on.


Istanbul

Giulia was flying to Istanbul from London whereas I was flying from Athens. Somehow we either just assumed that the (massive) city only had one airport or we just didn’t bother checking which airport each of us was flying to. Not the same one, as it turned out. With my phone’s battery running out I fortunately managed to find Giulia somewhere near Taksim. I remember she was sitting on a cafe waiting for me, probably for ages. It was a happy reunion, since it had been a year since we had last seen each other. We headed to the hostel, which was called Green House Hostel and was located not far from Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi. I found it quite cosy and welcoming and don’t recall having any complaints.

Now, let’s examine exhibit B- the photos I have taken in Istanbul. The first thing that becomes apparent is that they were taken with a compact Canon which comes from a previous century. They are in their majority blurry and awful. However, upon inspection they offer valuable information. It seems we were in Istanbul for two days, the 18th and the 19th, which means we decided to change our schedule as soon as we touched ground. The locations I have photos of are:

  • The Grand Bazaar
  • Hagia Sofia
  • The Blue Mosque
  • The Basilica cistern
  • Topkapi palace
  • A park near Topkapi, which I assume was Gülhane Park

I remember walking down Istiklal from Taksim as well and coming across an old tram wagon. I have no memory of taking a taxi, a bus or any other means of transportation while in Istanbul, which means the distances between the sights mentioned above are all manageable. Here is what I remember of each location:

  • The Grand Bazaar

I am not a Bazaar kind of person, which is to say I have no tips on bargain items or haggling techniques. You will love the bazaar if you like crowded enclosed spaces with shops. I remember feeling very lost and having trouble admiring the architecture with a sea of people in motion all around me. Nevertheless, the sheer size of it is to be admired and it is an interesting experience, especially if you haven’t been in any similar type of market anywhere else.

  • Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is a building with a long history; It was originally constructed as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and served as the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople for centuries before the Ottoman Turks conquered the city. The church was converted into a mosque after the city changed hands so it is a cultural hybrid, a unique blend of christian and islamic architecture. This place is definitely worth a visit, mostly because so much history has been imprinted on it. I remember we didn’t have much time in Hagia Sophia but it’s safe to assume that every mosaic, every pillar, every carving on stone has a different story behind it and there is much to discover.

  • The Blue Mosque

Ah, the Blue mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque)-  my second favourite thing in Istanbul. In my mind it is associated with light, openness and serenity. I remember we visited the Blue mosque straight after Hagia Sophia and it struck me immediately how different the atmosphere was; while Hagia Sophia was imposing, solid and somber, the Blue Mosque was airy and open, allowing the sunlight in at every chance. Having to take my shoes off at the entrance contributed to a warm feeling of ease that was entirely unexpected. The mosque is built to impress and it doesn’t fail to; The interior is beautifully decorated and complimented by the metallic light fixtures, suspended not too high over ground. Its name comes from the hand-painted blue ceramic tiles that cover the walls. It is a masterpiece of islamic architecture and to this day the most impressive mosque I have seen.

  • The Basilica cistern

This is the only place that beats the Blue Mosque for me. A cistern is basically a waterproof  water reservoir. In this case it is a massive ancient underground water reservoir, supported by rows of pillars disappearing into the darkness. It also has fish. It looks as amazing as you can imagine. Sadly, my photos don’t do it justice in the least (you are going to need a better camera than a compact from the early 2000s and a tripod). I would suggest googling it instead.

  • Topkapi palace

Topkapi was built during the reign of sultan Mehmet II and served as the administrative center and residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately four centuries. It is a large complex, consisting of four courtyards, containing pavilions and tulip-filled gardens.  It’s a  place that offers a plethora of historical information and a lovely afternoon walk all at once. The park near the palace is an unexpected jewel, full of little surprises such as  water ponds, sculptures and imaginative floral arrangements at every step.

At night time I remember going out around the Taksim end of Istiklal and sitting down on a bar with outdoor seating and a very familiar feel to it-it was almost like being back in Athens.The atmosphere was relaxed and the place seemed to be popular with the locals.There was a network of smaller streets that would come alive at night, brimming with bars, cafes and restaurants.

I have to note that we were advised by the receptionist in the hostel not to go out after 10. She insisted it was dangerous, especially for two girls on their own. She went on to talk about her own experiences living in Istanbul and cases where she had encountered men whose behaviour was rude at best and predatory at worst. She was a foreign exchange student but I can’t recall which country she was from. In the end we had no issues walking around at night but we did notice the groups of friends walking down Istiklal consisted either solely of men or of both genders-there were no girly groups walking about. It might have been a complete coincidence but, with that girl’s warning still ringing in our heads, we both immediately took notice.

When we left Istanbul we took the morning ferry to Bursa, and then from there, following a short wait, we took a coach to Eskisehir. What happened next is a bit unclear- the next photographs I have are from Goreme, but I distinctly remember spending one night in Ankara and looking for a meat market in Eskisehir-or was that Konya? The plot thickens. I will carry on my investigation on another post. For now, feast your eyes on the godawful pictures that have been haunting my hard drive for years now:

 

 

 

Weekend trip to Lincoln-Pt.1

I have resolved to try and visit at least some of the UK before leaving it (for the second time). When a promotional e-mail on train ticket sales landed on my inbox I could therefore only assume it was fate, guiding me to the cheapest available destination .

I picked Lincoln without giving it much thought, as it has both a cathedral and a castle (what more do you need?) and it is less than two hours away from London. I was also travelling first class on the way back, so I was looking forward to pretending I actually have money.

It turns out that one of my colleagues used to be a tutor in Lincoln university and he reminded me that another colleague actually lived in Lincoln so I arranged to meet her.

The day before I passed by King’s Cross and asked to reserve a place for my bike. Then I realised the bike tickets would only get me so far and I spent the night stressing out trying to decide if I was taking my bike or not. I still don’t really understand what the deal with the bike tickets was, the final station on my ticket was Lincoln but the final station on the bike reservation ticket was a place an hour away.

By the morning I had decided to just a rent a bike there if possible- two days were not enough to cater for transportation mishaps. As soon as I got out of the house I realised the weather was not going to do me any favours. As soon as the train started moving the first snowflakes started to fall.

By the time I was in Lincoln it was snowing heavily, to the point where it was getting hard to see ahead -not because the visibility was reduced but because the snow was getting into my eyes. It is pretty easy to find your way to the historical center from the train station, provided you can actually see. There are street signs (recently raised, I was told) pointing to any places of cultural interest.

My plan was to visit as much as I could on the first day so on the second one I could mostly just relax before the journey home. I headed up to the cathedral from the main commercial street which is called High Street. High Street leads up to the aptly called Steep Hill, a picturesque cobbled road lined with tea rooms and sweet shops. The path leads to a square where a small market of local products stood on the day despite the snow fall.

The Cathedral

I headed to the cathedral first, which is undoubtedly the most imposing building around, towering above the entire city.  It was visible as I was walking up the hill but I didn’t fully grasp the scale of it until I was standing right before it. When it was built it was in fact  the tallest building in the world. As I walked under it, looking up to the rows of sculpted heads by the front door I had the feeling I was entering some Egyptian tomb, rather than an English cathedral.

To visit the cathedral you need to buy a ticket, which is valid for 6 months. There is a joint ticket on offer which grants access to the cathedral and the castle. It’s around 17 quid and can be used twice within a certain time period. The interior of the cathedral is equally impressive: the  ceiling is supported by imposing pillars some of which are darker in colour. Decorating the outer walls are enormous stained-glass windows, filtering the daylight from outside; Their vibrant colours are in stark contrast to the rest of the cathedral, which is built primarily out of limestone.

St.Hugh’s choir is a separate area located after the nave towards the back of the cathedral. From the stalls to the organ fittings, it is carved in its entirety out of dark wood. Before entering the corridors leading to the choir one has the chance to admire the intricately decorated choir screen, an impressive work of medieval masonry.

Unfortunately the library was closed when I visited but I had a quick look at the cloisters and almost missed the Chapter house until I heard music coming from behind a heavy wooden door. The Chapter house is a circular building with one big pillar in the middle, that looks as if it spouted from the ground and then grew to reach the vaulted ceiling. There was a piano behind the pillar and a few seats facing the piano. A man was playing a soft melody on the piano but he had no audience save for a couple of tourists that were having a look around the building.

On the walls around me I noticed paintings were mounted and as I inspected them I found out it was an exhibition by Stephen G. Bird; Each painting was a visual narration of Biblical stories in a modern setting. I found the concept and the style of the paintings very engaging and spent quite some time walking around the Chapter house admiring them and reading about the stories that inspired them.

While I was walking around the cathedral my colleague texted me to keep an eye out for the Lincoln imp, a sculpted figure on one of the columns where the Angel Choir is. Being not-so-eagle-eyed, I had to enquire at the information office and the lady there pointed me to the exact location. The imp is the symbol of the city of Lincoln; According to a local legend it was a mischievous demon who was turned into stone by an angel after wreaking havoc around the Cathedral.

The Castle 

Next up was Lincoln castle, which I expected to be the usual sturdy but plain medieval castle commonly found in the UK. I had no idea it had been used as a prison during the Victorian era or that it housed a copy of the Magna Carta.

As I got my ticket I was informed a tour was starting shortly and I decided to join. I didn’t realise the entirety of tour was taking place outside ( in the blizzard) even though the tour guide actually warned us. We walked around the bailey and the tour guide talked about the history of the fortifications, the castle’s particular architectural elements and the Victorian prison system. We took cover whenever we could and even slipped inside one of the offices and stayed there for a few minutes to warm up.

I wish I remembered our guide’s name because he is an actual hero, soldiering on despite the awful weather and maintaining his energy and good humour all the way through. When we started the tour we were about 15 people but by the end of it we had lost more than half.

Here are some interesting facts (that I can still remember) about Lincoln Castle:

The Separate system

The newer part of the prison was designed according to the separate system, which is something straight out of Gothic Victorian tales-except real. The separate system was a concept of prison discipline that emerged on the 18th century as a byproduct of an effort to reform the prison system. The main idea behind it was that interaction between inmates encouraged bad behaviour and was counter-productive to their reformation. Instead prisoners were encouraged to focus their efforts on spiritual development through prayer and penance.

The prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for months. They were fitted with leather masks whenever they were taken out of their cells and even worse padded shoes so that their footsteps wouldn’t be heard. The prison Chapel in Lincoln is a very clear expression of this concept: the stalls are fitted with separations which ensure the absence of communication between inmates during worship.

Of course, as our tour guide pointed out, the separate system was promptly abandoned  simply because people inevitably went bonkers after a while. The guards weren’t too fond of it either.

The Long drop

This one is for all the execution enthusiasts out there (go see a therapist). Back in the day when murder was a valid punishment, the whole execution thing was a very messy business apparently. Hanging caused death by strangulation and it would take more than a few minutes before the victim was finally dead. It caused a painful death and made for a distressing display to the crowds. William Marwood, a man from Lincoln was the first person to introduce the Long Drop. Even though he was not in the murdering-people business he developed and demonstrated a more humane way of conducting executions; the Long Drop method suggested that the height of the drop was tailored to the height and weight of each prisoner. The extended fall would result in the fracture of the spinal column at the neck, killing the victim in seconds (and even decapitating them in some cases).

The Mottes and Bailey 

The Motte and Bailey castle is a widely adopted design in the UK, first introduced by the Normans. The motte is a natural or artificial mound, and the bailey is an enclosed courtyard. On top of the motte a wooden or stone structure is built, the keep. Lincoln castle is unusual in that it has two mottes instead of one. That’s right, I can now tell my future children that I have visited a two-motte castle.

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta, ‘the Great Charter’ needs no introduction. It is one of the most famous documents in the world; signed during a period of political turmoil, it was essentially a peace treaty between the king and the barons who had rebelled against him. The document ensures that the king is subject to the law along with all his subjects and secures the right to a fair trial for the people. It is a highly influential document and three of the clauses in the Magna Carta are still part of the English law.

The Forest Charter was a supplementary document to the Magna Carta which dealt with the regulation of penalties imposed by the king on offences within the territories that were considered part of the Royal Forest. If any of this sounds familiar it’s probably because king John, who signed the Magna Carta, is the baddie from Robin Hood. Lincoln Castle is the only place where you can see an original Magna Carta alongside a version of the Forest Charter. The documents are kept in the vault where a film relating the history of the documents is projected. The film wasn’t available while I was there. You can also see a chain mail shirt down in the vault, but I honestly can’t remember its relevance.

There is one thing I didn’t visit in Lincoln Castle: the fortifications. It just didn’t seem appealing to climb somewhere up high and walk around in that weather. Instead I headed off to the square and bought some fudge from the first shop I found- which I highly recommend. I met my colleague for coffee and cake in a vegan tea room which is quite high up on steep hill. It was very cosy inside and they had different varieties of coffee in the menu, which made me very happy. After the coffee I headed off to find my accommodation for the night, which I really need to describe in detail on another post.

 

Inctober 6

Last week the Greek government managed to pass a law officially validating gender change, surgery not being a prerequisite. The church somehow still had a say in all this and the opposition debated on the highest level, with people making statements such as ‘it is Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’- which doubles as a fine example of the sense of humour you can expect from the center-right all around the world.

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