AWOL In Turkey- Europe ‘09
To live, to err, to fall, to triumph,
To recreate life out of life…- James Joyce
Why, after fifty-one years on this planet, do I find myself still making a young man’s mistakes?
That’s what I kept asking myself as I gazed out the window of the bus, carrying me to Kusadasi, Turkey.
I had to catch up with my cruise ship- the one I had barely missed at the dock in Istanbul and would now have to catch before it left the country.
The ship’s agent in Istanbul had been clear, standing with me, watching the ship steam away before handing me my passport; missing the boat in Istanbul was a minor mishap; missing it again in Kusadasi when it sailed out of the country would mean serious trouble for the ship, Captain Kafetzis, and myself. My last question to him had been simple; “How many times does this happen?”
“Once every ten cruises” was the reply. I did some quick math in my head and it worked out to one in every 30,000 people miss the boat. I was really quite special!
My motives had been innocent, honorable enough; I had wanted to step foot in Asia before departing this glorious port of call.
Cindy and I had spent two weeks before our eleven day Mediterranean cruise exploring Austria, Bavaria and Italy. The ship’s itinerary would take us to Greece, Turkey, and return us to Naples, Italy for a last couple of days exploring Pompeii and the Amalfi coast before flying out of Rome, through Madrid and back to the States. It had been a whirlwind.
Austria was incredibly beautiful. We flew in to Vienna via London Heathrow. A wise first destination, because Vienna has a relatively small airport. Quick and no Customs hassles.
Vienna; noble, robust and bursting with energy. We saw the Lipizzaners exercise at the grand Hofburg Palace, snuck in to the Opera, savored Sachertortes on crystal desert dishes and drank new wine in the Vienna Woods’ Heuriges. We ate real Vienna sausages on street corners, washing them down with dark Bier. We visited what to me was the prettiest church interior I had yet seen in Europe, St. Peters, and the grandest, St. Stephan’s Cathedral.
I thought St. Peters even more beautiful than Sainte Chapelle in Paris, although a more accurate comparison would in fact be Sainte Chapelle and St. Stephan’s, since they are both Gothic and St Peter’s is baroque. At any rate, these grand old churches are like wine or fine music; you can not rank the esthetics. You can only celebrate the differences.
Our last night in Vienna we ate at an historic vaulted cellar restaurant called Zwolf Apoftelkeller. Great setting, but the service was spotty at best and the Schnitzel not even close to what I remembered getting at Michael’s Place in Baden-Baden two years before. However, Cindy and I finally got to “waltz” in Vienna when the strolling musicians arrived, and I got to sing with Franz and Klaus, guitar and accordion.
As soon as they heard we were Americans, out came the Sinatra tunes ( I would have preferred more of the Austrian folk music we had been hearing ) and I ended up singing New York New York and My Way to great applause in a town where the big acts are Strauss and Mozart.
Our next stop, Salzburg, was laid back, the friendly locals justly proud of their back yard; bold rocky peaks, swift flowing rivers and flowering mountain meadows. Cindy and I had the best room value in town; a hostel bunk bed sitting atop the Monchsberg cliffs.
Costing just thirty euros a night, yet with French windows looking out over the Hohensalzburg Fortress, the Salzach River, and Salzburg Abby.We would open those windows in the morning and be greeted by church bells and live chamber music from the town below. Julie Andrews and the Von Trapps didn’t see it any better than we did.
A definate highlight was the Augustiner Beergarten with their own frothy beer in big clay steins and a plate full of Sweinhocken. Oh man, roll me home.
There was indeed music in Salzburg.
Mittenwald Bavaria, just over the Austrian boarder, was like stepping into the fairytale pages of the Brothers Grimm. Half-timbered inns and cobblestone streets. We arrived in a cold drizzle which never lifted, obscuring the Alps’ Karwendelspitze peak high above our balcony, but we were warmed daily by the Apfel Himbeer cider, hot German mustard over freshly baked pretzels, and Karl the Zither player in the Hotel’s restaurant.
My only regret in Bavaria was not having the time to climb above the tree line in search of edelweiss.
Morning coffee with Cindy and an Alp.
While in Bavaria, we traveled to Fussen to see Neuschanstein, Crazy King Ludwig’s fantasy castle. It had supplied the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disney World, and I felt like the same kind of tourist standing in line to see it. However, stepping out on Mary’s Bridge and seeing the castle and the river gorge below for the first time was well worth the wait. Jaw dropping.
Cindy and I knew the castle was only built in the nineteenth century, and we had seen (indeed, slept in) far older and more significant castles in our travels, but this was a sight to behold, a fairytale castle in a fairytale’s enchanted forest. Cindy commented that she expected to see a Troll jump out at us at any moment. We held hands as we descended this hillside of childhood dreams.
Don’t wake me up!
Venice was- well, Venice. No postcard, no photograph, no painting can convey the magnificent decaying jewel that is Venice up close. Streets barely broader than your shoulders. Countless canals snaking through ageless buildings, joining them together where masonry crumbles and wood rots and gray water stains ancient stone steps leading into the deep. In the morning, men go to work in small boats and the Gondoliers push their way past your balcony without looking at you.
The locals never seemed to look up and make eye contact but were very friendly. It took me three days to realize that in this town, where the streets and canals are narrow and your neighbor’s bedroom window may be eight feet across the canal from yours, personal space and privacy becomes a very important thing.
One last thing about Venice, although I could write chapters. It is the only city in which I have been good and truly lost. I mean look at the map, look at your compass, look at the sun, ask the locals, retrace your steps three times and still not know where in the hell you are. Glorious. Aggravating, but glorious.
Our hotel balcony in Venice
( yeah, I shot this one myself)
And then- we got to Rome.
Closer to the point, it seemed to me beguiling.
Hurried, selfish people in a hurried, selfish city. Eat or get eaten. Blow your horn, screech your tires, overcharge your fare, over-rev your big fast motorcycle, see if you can scare the poor bastard walking in the road. I like spending time in big cities but, for me, Rome fell short.
Of course, the Coliseum and the Vatican were breathtaking, but I found the locals rude, rushed, and intimidating. Very sad.
Really, I think the whole town just needed to get laid.
We got in late and had to lunk our heavy bags (we were going on a cruise, remember- Formal Nights, Captain’s Dinner, dancing etc). By then Cindy’s knees were about shot, and though she remained a trooper, I was towing everything. The taxis were quoting us 60 euros (about 75 dollars U.S.) to drive us six blocks, so we said no grazie and schlepped. Welcome to Rome.
When we got to our hostel, we were greeted by the maid and climbed the three stories to the “office.”
The night attendant, who was actually the porter, (why had the maid helped drag our bags up three flights of steps?!) told us they had no room for us. When I produced the four page email chain confirming our reservation, the 200 pound gentleman with the shaved head said simply “Noa Contracta! Noastaya!”
After twenty minutes of this, Cindy and I asked to speak to a manager and were told in Italian there was none available. I attempted to enter the inner office to confirm this and was pushed back by our friend. I replied in kind, attempting to push the gentleman through the opposite wall. Offers and counter offers were presented. Loudly. As usual, while the boys were playing the girls were solving problems.
Finally a manager showed up and she, after realizing the guest house had screwed up, found us a place to stay outside of town. She even drove us there, careening past, across, and thru angry Roman traffic in her little Fiat. She turned out to be Rumanian, so I can’t even say we were rescued by a nice Italian girl. Anyway, to make a long story even longer, Mirela, our wonderful Rumanian savior, parked across the narrow street from our Bed and Breakfast, actually a charming little villa with guest quarters, and we checked in.
Afterwards, we told Mirela that we would appreciate a ride back downtown, as we wanted to see the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain at night. Upon returning to the car, we found ourselves being cursed by a young man and his lady friend.
Spitting Italian epithets at me and curling his fists, he approached. My first reaction was Great- Guido back at the hostel had called his cousin Vincenso, who was now going to teach me a lesson...
Meanwhile the girls are imploring me to “…just get in the car, David, please!”
After doing so, I learned that Mirela had actually parked in front of Vincenso’s garage and had blocked his exit during our check-in at the B&B, making him angry. We zoomed away to new adventures.
Rome’s historic district was awesome. The Coliseum, the Forum, the Aqueduct, Vatican City. And in a city that seems to be in such a rush- a Gelato (ice cream) shop on every corner! Italians love their ice cream. There was one last redeeming feature of Rome: The Fiddler’s Elbow. Every town has one truly great bar. In Paris, we had found the Guillotine Pub. In Key West, The Schooner Wharf Bar. In Rome, The Fiddler’s Elbow, run by British ex-pat Eric was our favorite watering hole. But the rest of the town you can keep. My notebook, which looked like a large wallet, and contained my notes and journals for the past three years was lifted while on a city bus by a pickpocket, so most of this is being rewritten from memory.
Above- The single most beautiful thing I have ever seen made by a man:
Michelangelo's Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Back to Earth: The Fiddler's Elbow
I snapped my last photo of Rome at the train station before leaving for the Port of Civitavecchia to begin our cruise. It was of a billboard poster of a new slasher flick just hitting the local theaters. As if the poster wasn’t gory enough, vandals had poured red paint down it to simulate blood. It oozed crimson down the building’s façade to the street gutter below.
The first stop on our cruise, Greece, was- excuse me- captivating. Special for me was tiny Mykonos with its clear water, whitewashed buildings, Greek fishing boats lining the harbor and traditional straw windmills guarding its approaches. I bought a silver medallion called a Meander, a universal symbol of good karma from Spiro at Nikolopoulos’ Handmade Jewelry. I admit to being somewhat uncomfortable in my role as ‘cruise ship invader,” and I solicited from Spiro what islands the locals chose to visit. I thought about getting back someday as Cindy and I kicked back with an Ouzo and a glass of Raki at Babulas. Turkey would be next.
Hanging at Babula’s.
Solstice in Santorini, Greece.
What a magnificent city Istanbul was. 15 million people in the world’s oldest metropolis, touching both Europe and Asia.
We had cruised into the harbor around 4PM on a Friday, the Muslim holy day, and were greeted by the traditional call to prayer being broadcast throughout the city.
Before us stood the Seven Hills, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Hagia Sophia. The red Colors of Turkey flew everywhere. Local children helped their parents in the shops and cafes. Everywhere there were smiles.
Beautiful kids- They're the same everywhere.
Headscarves at Topkapi Palace
The morning we were to sail out, I decided to take a short walk. Cindy was basically lame by this point of the trip, her lower back and knees catching up to her, and I needed to walk off some state-room fever. So I took my ship’s pass card, a visa-like questionnaire required to be kept on your person while in Turkey, a twenty Euro note, and my camera.
The weather was perfect as I walked off the ship, Celebrity Cruise Lines’ incredible new flagship Solstice, and turned right, towards a city park and the Bosporus Bridge, linking the working side of Istanbul to the residential side. Linking West to East; Europe to Asia.
I didn’t feel I had the time to take the bridge across and back, what the stop-and-crawl city traffic, and the crowded, haphazard urban sprawl the Turkish people call “gecekondus,” but then I saw a ferry. I hopped aboard after being assured (in Turkish) that I had the time to visit Asia and be back to the ship by 2:00 PM- 1400 hours.
At this point a short travel tip might be in order for the uninitiated; when attempting to elicit information from someone who speaks a limited amount of your language, and you speak none of theirs, always, always, always ask open ended questions. Otherwise you get a smile and a nod and you’ve probably affirmed incorrect information. To make another long story even longer, making the ship did not happen (although I did touch Asia).
I’ll save the details for camp fires and a tumbler of scotch, but now I found myself on a bus in the middle of Turkey, unsure of my bearings, alone with my language, trying to find the Port of Kusadasi so I could rejoin Cindy and our ship.
At one point during the eleven hour overnight bus trip, I awoke to find a lifeboat hanging outside of my window. Sweet Jesus, I thought. We are on a ferry in the middle of the Black Sea heading for Russia. I had always wanted to see St Petersburg, but not like this.
Actually, we were on a ferry, but we were crossing the East Marmara Sea, near the Dardeneles Straights. Once I saw the moon rising to my left I knew I was headed south and was OK. By seven thirty the next morning I was walking the two kilometers into the port town of Kasadasi, gateway to the historic Ephesus ruins. At least I hoped that’s where I was. Nord, Soud- who knows?
I couldn’t see anything from the low streets of the harbor town so I climbed the steps of a small café. When I turned to enter, There was Solstice, slipping into her berth right in front of me. I sighed a half dozen times, mumbled some thanks to Allah, and ordered a Turkish apple tea while watching my ship tie up to the dock. I love boats, but never was I happier to see a boat in all my life.
John Updike called it his “need to explore the next meadow.” Whatever it is, that nagging voice inside telling me to explore “just one more ridge-one more hill” got me into trouble once again but also earned me lifelong memories.
And as usual, it was the people that made the journey memorable. Like Mirela, who I hope to someday visit in her hometown of Transylvania.
Or the Turkish gentleman in Asia who came over to me as I flagellated with my watch and cruise ship photo and who understood well enough to call the harbor and a water taxi so I could try and make Solstices’ departure on time.
I’ll certainly remember the stunning dark haired lady at the pungent lemon orchard in Sorrento, Italy who sampled and sold us the potent Limoncello.
How about the woman- I forget her name- I had written it in my journal before it was stolen- in the Mittenwald Depot who stayed with Cindy and me and helped us find the correct train for Venice and then cried for her recently departed husband who would not be joining her on her vacation.
Or the taxi driver in Athens, who, after seeing Cindy couldn’t walk, drove us up the steep pedestrian walkway of the Acropolis.
The Parthenon. Now we walk? Ohi!
Finally, I will remember the children of Istanbul; The giggling kids on a field trip fawning for me at Topkapi palace. And the siblings who smiled at me while climbing their apartment window’s security bars, their mother allowing me a photograph in the middle of the city’s mean streets. That alone made my extra day in Istanbul worth while.
A young man’s mistakes? I’ll still make ‘em.
But I wouldn’t trade these fifty-year old’s memories with anybody.
Back on board.
Note: In my travels to Europe, I rely heavily on Rick Steves. His travelogues, maps, guide books and website have proven invaluable. In addition, his "Back Door" approach to travel as well as his book Travel as a Political Act seem spot-on in my opinion. I do not know the man, but he strikes me as one very cool guy.
Access his site at www.ricksteves.com