Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Turkish Aegean Coast by Saigon Charlie

May 2002 by Saigon Charlie

As I set here at the Bodrum airport ready to depart back to Germany, I have time to reflect on the incredible experience that Turkey and Greece has afforded me.

To say the least, the people are what make places like Bodrum and Marmaris Turkey warm and friendly. The azure sea, the warm breezes, the clear blue skies and the cosmopolitan atmosphere all blend together to make this one of the more magical journeys of my life. Where do I begin?

It seems I arrived from Germany a bit ahead of the normal tourist season, which appears to start on June 1. Before that date, things such as ferry schedules and who is going where or when seems to be a major issue and that did lead to some confusion and frustration. Maybe it was more my fault as I wanted to go to Greece, specifically to Rhodes, which was before the ferries were actually available to go. That took me on a bit of an odyssey across southwest Turkey and its ports to realize this goal.

The trip started out simple enough with a standard German tourist package from Nürnburg to Bodrum. Bodrum as a destination seems to be one of the more affordable destinations for Germans and many others from Europe and England. My roundtrip ticket including airport taxes and hotel accommodations with two meals a day was only 409 euros in May 2002. Pretty reasonable I thought for a quick escape to some sun and sea.

The trip out of Nuernburg was simple. Boarded the Boeing 737-800 at 18:45 and at 19:05 we were airborne. We climbed to 37,000 feet for the 2 hour 35 minute flight to Bodrum, Turkey. As day turned to night, I stared out the window wondering what experiences awaited me. As it turned out, Turkey and the Aegean far exceeded my greatest expectations.

Bodrum is a modern Turkish yacht port, which was once known as the ancient city of Halicarnassus. (Today, this same name is used more to describe the world famous disco that blasts music into the wee hours of the morning at the far end of its beach.)

Bodrum is a picturesque port on a peninsula in the Aegean Sea. Bodrum was Halicarnassus in antiquity, a major seaport and the site of the Mausoleum of King Mausolous, considered one of the Seven Man Made Wonders of the Ancient World.

As this is the first package tour I have ever taken (I insist on staying independent), I went with the flow on arrival, clearing immigration around 11 PM. My latest adventure however started with a rude awakening that as an American I needed an entry visa but at 45 Euro, I was visibly shaken. No one had prepared me for this and this far exceeded the cost of any visa I had ever purchased before anywhere in the world and I was the only individual on the plane that had to obtain a visa. Apparently, most Europeans and Germans don’t require one.

After this initial shock, I did manage to easily find the bus I was to board for my 30 minute trip to a hotel which turned out to be very centrally located and only a few minutes walk from the castle and main streets and port.

The Atrium Hotel is listed as a three start hotel which is appropriate but it was nice to find a comfortable pool, clean and roomy accommodations and a meal waiting for me in the restaurant by the pool when I arrived. The staff from the beginning to end was friendly and I sensed a real sincerity to be of help and do their best.

There were certain issues with the hotel over the next week that got under my skin a bit; such as the frig in the room lost power (and of course everything melted or got warm) when you left the room as the key was used to control the power to the entire room. The stool that was under the table collapsed as I sat down on it to use the computer on the desk in the room. From the looks of it, seems it had been repaired more than once. The desk was not attached to the frame under it either and with the windows open (I hate air conditioning), there was always quite a bit of noise coming from the street paralleling that side of the building. Oh well.

The meals were acceptable although breakfast was marginal even by European standards. There were hard boiled eggs, bread with butter, jam or cheese, olives of course and a pot of tea or coffee. The coffee was always the best part of this meal and it was enough to get the day going. If you were an early riser like me however, waiting to 8AM for this seemed a bit annoying but it is a tourist place with late night people and bars.

Since I was on the road and traveling, I only ate dinner at the hotel provided buffet 3 times. Once again, acceptable. One night consisting of pizza, another of chicken and another some form of stew on rice. Rice seemed to be a major component of just about everything the chef prepared, whether it was the main course, the soup, the peppers, etc.

Drinks, both at the Atrium Hotel bar and the mini-bar in the non-working frig were expensive. Water in the room was 2 million lira (500,000 in the stores on the street) and beer at the bar was 4 million compared to 1.5 to 3.0 million at the bars and discos in Bodrum. There were signs stating it was not allowed to bring food or drink back to the hotel but I brought my own anyway.

Bodrum itself is famous for many things and for me one of the most enjoyable was touring the castle and the world famous Underwater Archaeology Museum collocated in the castle. As fascinating as the replication of the actual ship and wreck exhibit was, what really made me feel special was the English Tower and its long table, flags, ancient weapons and small wine bar. For a few moments, I felt I had been whisked back to the 15th century and was a knight returning from some Middle East crusade. You can even set in one of the two large chairs at the end of the hall and put on a cloak with a Maltese Cross on it. The castle stays open during the midday break but the exhibit areas close between noon and one. If you leave the castle during this period, you can re-enter on the same ticket (10 million lira) on that day.

A good link in both German and English for things and events in Bodrum:
http://www.bodrum-info.org/

The crusader order of Knights of St. John captured Bodrum in 1522 and discovered the Mausoleum. The Knights of St. John were originally called the Knights Hospitaller, later acquiring the names Knights of Rhodes and than finally, the Knights of Malta. The order still exists today as the Knights of Malta.

A the foot of the castle in Bodrum looking out into the Aegean Sea.

The castle is very interesting, built by the Knights' of St. John in 1402. When the heretical Christina King Tamerland invaded Anatolia in that year, throwing the Ottoman empire off balance for a time, the Knights captured Bodrum. They built the Castle of St. Peter and it defended Bodrum until the end of World War I.

As I was on a mission of sorts with this trip, I avoided the normal tourist things to do (like taking a day boat trip to one of the many coves and islands in the area). That seems to be the main event while visiting Bodrum and with dozens of boats to choose from, prices seems fair, crews friendly and boats well maintained.

As I was trying to get directly from Bodrum to Rhodes (Rhodos), I started to inquire at various places what was the easiest/most direct way with the best price to do this. The more I asked, the more I got confused. Even though there were many signs out stating you could take a boat to Bodrum (with some even willing to sell me a ticket), I discovered there was in fact no service (not yet at least).

What was funny was days later I discovered that even one of the main companies that told me they would have a hydrofoil run on Thursday the 30th in fact didn’t even run on that day. It was interesting to note that a nice British lady who was hustling tours on the street from her booth, took me quietly aside and told me that these people would sell you their mother if they thought they could make money from it. Enough said I thought, tour operators are the same all over the world.

I eventually ended up taking a hydrofoil to Kos at 8AM the next morning. This happened after being issued a free ticket from the Bodrum Express Lines. This came to me as a shock and a surprise and happened after I explained the mass confusion between the street “agents”, travel agents and other ferry companies. The manager, in an effort to put his company’s best foot forward gave me a ticket for the next day to Kos, Greece where he assured me I could than take a ferry onward to Rhodes.

Rhodes, Greece (Rhodos)

Rhodes to me is one of the most magical places there is on earth. The city fortress is the largest occupied city in Europe with an amazing history. It also happens to be a very cosmopolitan city where so many from so many cultures come together.

It is a tourist destination but it is also a cross road for cruising sailors, global navies, merchants and traders with very reasonable prices and friendly people.

For me, I always head for the Mango Bar in Dorieos Square in the old city. It is owned and run by a man named Dimitrios Karelas and his family who has turned it into a meeting place of sorts for travelers and adventurers from around the world. They have also started a yacht charter business which seems to be doing quite well and combined with his wife and him expecting their fifth child in 5 years, he is one very busy man!

Around 1997, Dimitri saw the advantages of the Internet for his cafe and started providing people PCs and net access. Today (2002) he has 5 computers that are often full in the evening hours. He also offers 6 very affordable, clean rooms at the café as well. Drinks are reasonable and he offers a wide selection. Martin, who also assists him and his family, is a world traveler himself having spent many years in the Far East. A likeable sort of guy. I highly recommend the Mango Bar as a stopover if for no other reason than the people you will meet!

Rhodes is a city that would take many pages to describe and as many have passed before me doing just that and here are some interesting links providing great detail and commentary about this wonderful city and island: insert links

After Rhodes, I headed back to Turkey catching a hydrofoil ferry from the main cruise ship docks. Since I had purchased a ticket the day before (23 euro), all I needed to do now was pay the port tax (another 23 euro) and clear immigration. The only thing that seemed out of order in this whole process was the arrival of the ferry at 8AM which was also at the same time as several other larger cruise ships which led to obvious confusion as to where the hydrofoil was to dock and pick up its full load of ferry passengers.

We ended up loading on the most remote part of the docks, and as we were finishing the loading another large ferry made an effort to come alongside the wharf, finally berthing only a couple of feet from our stern. It was an amazing ballet of people and machines; an exciting “dance” to watch.

The 50 minute hydrofoil ride back to Turkey and Marmaris was beautiful although on this trip we were not allowed to ride on the small open area at the stern of the boat. I was therefore forced to view the scenery from the center of the boat where there was an area partially covered with canvas in which I was able to take many photos of the Turkish coast, and at times I felt I could almost reach out and touch it.

The Turkish coast on the way to Marmaris from Rhodes (Rhodos), Greece

I was still worried about the “single entry” visa in my passport although I had been assured by some that it actually meant “multiple-entry”. Being use to these types of visas in Asia, single-entry meant one time, not more (...and in Cambodia if acquired in-country meant "single exit" as you can leave but not reenter). As it turned out, upon my return to Turkey from Rhodes, Greece into Marmaris, Turkey, I was asked at the port if I had a visa and when I said yes, they smiled and let me enter. Simple enough.

There was a bus available for the ferry passengers (for free) to take them downtown. I opted to walk along the water front and the cut through the marina. As it turned out, I found out this port and marina is the largest in the eastern Med with over 700 berths, most of them full. I was very impressed to say the least.

Marmaris seems to have it all, both for the tourist and the yacht and crew. There were the necessary lifts, chandleries, maintenance shops, etc. for the cruising yacht as well as the necessary bars, restaurants, cafes and shops for the accompanying passengers. I priced a navigation chart thinking I would like to have one to take home but at 30 million lira ($22USD), it was a bit too steep for my taste. All in all, walking along the port and through the winding streets was a very pleasant experience.

Coming up the coast from Bodrum to Marmaris on the Aegean Sea.

Behind me were the mountains of Anatolia and the remains of the megalithic Hittite cities. In front of me was a bustling port town and the rolling waves of the Mediterranean. Does it get any better than this?

After a bit, I decided to set down and have some breakfast and decided on my first “English Breakfast” on this trip. It was 4 million lira and consisted of 2 eggs on toast, some baked beans, half a hot dog, a tomato and two strips of bacon; it was filling and good but I thought it was Americans who always did it bigger?

Everyone seemed to understand my English and made efforts at communicating in English with me. Even the breakfast café was playing an English language station (99.5-Capitol Radio) while I was there. One person even apologized for his poor English and I even felt his comment to be genuine. Everywhere I went through Turkey, there was great effort at communications in English even when not necessary. (Two examples of that were when I was in a park early in the morning and saw a father with his son who was reading a sign to him in English and some schoolboys at the castle in Bodrum who when they heard me speaking English, tried to speak English as well.)

I eventually found the bus station at the edge of town that lies at the foot of a hill past a military housing area. It was about a 20 minute walk from the waterfront and was clean and simple.

Marmaris Turkey

I found the company who could take me back to Bodrum but their next bus wasn’t until 14:30, so I bought a ticket for 7 million lira and headed back into town and the waterfront. More to explore.

As I walked around the waterfront, I spied some back streets that looked interesting which eventually wound me up some narrow steps climbing up higher and higher. I soon saw signs pointing me to a placed called “Panorama” which I thought should be a place where I could see something and take more photos.

The view of Marmaris harbor from the Panorama Cafe in Marmaris, Turkey

It was a bit of a hike but it was worth it as the "Panorama" turned out to be a very small café on the rooftop of a house that overlooked not only the town and sea, but was even higher than the towers of the castle. There were only eight tables but in the hour or so I was there sipping a couple of beers and enjoying the flavor of the place, I enjoyed it immensely.

The man who was waiting the tables was someone who was both living and working in Turkey and Australia, spending the summer in each. He was Turkish but multi-lingual in many languages. He was both entertaining and informative. I felt a real warmth from both him and his mother who was in charge of the cash box. When I return to Marmaris, this will definitely be the first place I go for a beer and a burger! (There was also a sign saying that it was “Lonely Planet” recommended.)

I got to the bus station and got on a mini-bus that was nearly full but I managed to have two seats to myself. There were about 20 men and women on board, including one single traveling blond woman.

I mention this as many women I have spoke to have problems traveling in places such as Italy, Greece, Egypt, etc. but it seems to be easier for the woman traveler in Turkey than many other places through the Arab and Muslim world. I was surprised to see that no one before, during or after the three hour trip even noticed or hassled her although she was attractive and obviously single and well dressed.

The bus trip was quiet and serene. Reminded me of winding my way through parts of the Colorado Rockies at times. It seemed we were either climbing or descending most of the trip which lasted a little under 3 hours.

When we left the bus station in Marmaris, the only sign that I noticed that gave distance to anywhere was one that indicated it was 284 kilometers to Izmir, the largest city on the west coast of Turkey with 4.5 million people.

I also noticed several billboards along the way, one with www.turkeyguide.com on it. I also noticed a huge power plant about 1 ½ hours into the trip with very unusual and interesting surrounding facilities.

It appeared that the plant was being fueled by local strip mining of coal which was being fed directly to the plant by a long series of conveyor belts scattered across the landscape. The strip mining area was massive, stretching for many kilometers but efforts had been made to block the visible area by planting trees along the highway. Bodrum was 85 kilometers away according to a sign from this area.

We eventually returned to the coast dropping down from the upper valley and hills at the seaside village of Guvercinlik. From that point on, until we reached Bodrum, we wound our way around some incredibly beautiful coves, islands and villages.

After reaching Bodrum again, I headed for my hotel where I had a hot shower, changed clothes and headed out again, exploring as usual. This time I was headed for the marina on the other end of town to investigate their facilities and maybe find that elusive navigation chart I wanted of the local waters (at a reasonable price).

The yacht facilities here in Bodrum, as in Marmaris, are impressive. Not as large as Marmaris but seemingly equal in quality. I also found a navigation chart of the sea, islands and coast which I purchased for 22 million lira. It now hangs on my office wall in Germany.

I headed back to my hotel for my 13:30 pickup returning me to the airport and my flight back to Germany. The bus arrived at 13:35 and I was the last pickup before reaching the airport about 30 minutes later. Once again the views were spectacular and the time flew by.

Reaching the airport, I was amazed at the throngs of people gathered to pass through the security checks. Seemed every person and plane which was leaving that day had all come together at the same time. As it turned out, this observation wasn’t too far from wrong as many departures were scheduled between 16:00 to 16:30. I tried some of the very expensive airport food and it was horrible beyond belief. My definition of a hamburger is not the same as these people who sold me one. I also failed to change the remaining Turkish Lira back into Euros before passing through passport control. This was a mistake as there were no facilities to do so in the departure area but there were many places to spend your remaining Lira. Funny how that works.

Back in Germany

The plane departed Bodrum on time, once again full. The nearly three hour flight back to Germany was uneventful. The meal uneatable even by my standard of “I will eat anything while traveling”. Still not sure what was in the warm dish. Maybe some form of potatoes, peas and carrots….I think. It was rather funny actually to watch those around me open and than promptly close their “meals”.

We arrived back in Nuernburg. After a bit of a walk and down a very long series of stairs, I cleared immigration. For me, as an American with an American passport, there was no check. He didn’t even open it, just handed it back to me. There seemed to be more checks on the Germans returning.

The U-bahn and than the return trip back by train to Erlangen was easy, cheap and swift. From the time we landed to arriving back at my office, took a little bit over an hour. It had been another wonderful adventure!

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