Wednesday 25 October 2017

A Daily Expedition to Eastern Thrace

Comes a need to travel; and in the last days of September 2017 my friend Arsen and I set out on an improvised road trip adventure from Istanbul, in the direction of Eastern Thrace. Both of us were desperate to get away from the city, even if only for a day.

Eastern Thrace was the last region of European territory still in Turkish possession. Despite our excited plans, we almost didn't set out on the arranged day due to a rainy forecast. But at the last moment we persevered, got in our car and started driving.

Before anything could begin, however, we had to exit Istanbul. We drove through an apocalyptic landscape of favelas and nightmarish new developments; shopping malls, soulless gated communities; mountains of concrete and glass; an agglomeration too boring to photograph even for its shock value.

We finally saw open horizons after more than an hour of driving.

Our first stop was the truckstop-cum-village of Ahmediye, near Lake Büyükçekmece. 

We stopped at Ahmediye because we'd left home without proper breakfasts. The town did have a sad sort of charm, however.

The few buildings that made up Ahmediye opened up to verdant streets that sloped gently down to Lake Büyükçekmece; a water reservoir for Istanbul's 15-odd-million thirsty mouths.

The landing strips of the Hezarfen Airfield were visible on the far shore. I had a lot of pleasant memories of the place, which was once the site of a vibrant international music festival. The festival was suspended since 2013, however, in concert with Turkey's decline into misrule and uncertainty. Back in the day one could sit on this very street and listen to bands like Limp Bizkit, Prodigy, The Cure and Pet Shop Boys live, their sounds echoing from over the water...

We took a brief walk around the town. This was Ahmediye's depressing-looking primary school building.

We finally sat down at a roadside coffeehouse. Breakfast was cheap sandwiches, tea, Nescafé and cigarettes...

The interior of the coffeehouse seemed to be frozen in the early 1990s; with its old-fashioned wood stove; brown stamped-iron-and-wooden chairs; a wistful-looking portrait of Atatürk; and gas lanterns still occasionally used for illumination.

The men frequenting it also seemed weary with time. Most of them were truckers who carried freight into, or out of Istanbul.

We left Ahmediye and drove towards Çatalca; across a road lined with teeth-like rows of mass-housing and watched over giant wind turbines.

Istanbul's impact on Thrace is difficult to overstate. Almost daily, construction projects were eating up land around the city and new buildings and infrastructure projects were going up. To top things up, Kanalistanbula gargantuan sea-to-sea channel was being planned for the region, cutting acros swathes of land and turning western Istanbul (or the easternmost tip of Eastern Thrace) into a man-made island.

Here is what Kanalistanbul will look like if it ever becomes reality. Actually there are two conflicting plans, one of which puts its course further east than portrayed here. Either way, the project will be a tar pit of money, and will have awful ecological consequences.

Many people forget that Istanbul is a province that extends way beyond the city. Its contains lakes, small mountains, farmland, pastureland, towns, villages and more.

We finally reached the small but historically-important town of Çatalca, but technically speaking, we were still in Istanbul. Çatalca was refreshingly free of the despondent atmosphere hanging over Ahmediye.

Back in the First Balkan War more than a century ago, Bulgarian troops had advanced as far as the "Chataldja Line" before being defeated by Turkish forces. It was the Turkish Army's only big success in that great debacle; where the Ottoman Empire's Balkan heartland was irrevocably lost to an unstable alliance between Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Montenegro. The tiny part of Thrace that we were exploring that day was the only European territory left to Turkey after the war.

Due to its historic importance, Çatalca's citizens were proud nationalists and embraced the heritage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk - modern Turkey's secular "founding father" - even if he wasn't directly involved in the Balkan campaign. We passed by a fountain with a strange, old bronze relief, dedicated to Atatürk.

I assumed the fountain was a relic from the nation-building years of the 1930s, but a sign announced that it was made in 1999. Atatürk's representation on the bronze relief-plaque seemed to be inspired by William Blake, depicting a contorted, troubled thinker. The six arrows of Kemalist thought radiated outwards from his strangely-sculpted brow, and the date 1938 was stamped on the stone he was resting on.

1938? That was the strangest detail about this relief, because that was the year that Atatürk died. One would expect the monumental date to be the foundation year of the Republic, the date of Turkish victory in the preceding Greco-Turkish War, or a similar grand accomplishment. Seeing Ataturk portrayed - in eerily stylised fashion to boot - rearing above a stone bearing the date of his own death turned the frieze into a bizarre, nationalist take on Lazarus, rising up from death.

But perhaps this was exactly the aim of this unknown sculptor - to exclaim that no matter how many years passed, Atatürk (and his ideas) would keep rising from the grave: He was now Atatürk Athanatos - the Leader Without Death.

We kept driving through Çatalca, taking pictures of interesting buildings as we went. In retrospect we could've spent more time in the town, but at that moment we were focusing on our destination - the Black Sea coastline. Arsen had read of an important, old Greek monastery at a place called Hagia Nicola, and we wanted to get there before sundown.

Çatalca was full of old stone buildings, some a century old, some a lot older. This one, perhaps belonging to one of the district's bygone Greeks (Remember; traces of departed Greeks, Armenians and others populate every Turkish city) was exploding with verdant Ailanthus trees; "ghetto palms"; extremely resilient invasive plants from China that spread to many places in Turkey (and America, Europe and Australia) since the late 1700s.

Today, they were universally common. Tough colonisers, Ailanthus plants also killed competing plants with chemical compounds in their leaves, resulting in a characteristic unpleasant odour and their common name in Turkish: the stink tree.

Also brimming with Ailanthus trees was this time-worn wall. We couldn't tell how old it was - something from the Ottoman years, or older? The large stones at the bottom part seemed to be re-purposed from even older structures. We also learnt that Çatalca was home to an impressive line of WW2-era bunkers, but we didn't have time to see them in this visit.

We left Çatalca behind and drove deeper into Thracian Istanbul. The land began to rise into forested hills, now dotted with futuristic windmills that supplied extra power to ravenous city... 

...we drove for a longish while; talking about life, families, women and what we'd do if we were given unlimited funds and power. We spoke about history and our favourite Roman Emperors; mine was Marcus Aurelius and Arsen's was Caligula. At one point we returned to the present and made a an unplanned stop at a small village named Gümüşpınar.

We stopped because I'd spied a small, old village cemetery on the roadside - and Turkish village cemeteries, especially old ones, were unspeakably poetic places to tour and photograph. They were also home to interesting varieties of snails, the collection of which was one of my "side quests" for today's adventure.

This cemetery did not disappoint us; neither in mystery nor in the snails department. Its older portion was home to a series of menhir-like tombstones, seemingly dating from the distant past but actually made as recently as the 1950s. Before universal literacy and the advent of modern amenities such as roads, electricity and power tools, a lot of rural communities in Turkey used these primal forms - throwbacks to the old Turkic tradition of balbals - as headstones.

The enchanting stone forms, as well as the sensible practice of letting time have its way with the graves (as opposed to the oxymoronic modern custom of "cemetery maintenance"), resulted in a truly magical atmosphere. The trees shut the outside world away, their sinuous forms bracketing reality like extended brushstrokes from an art-nouveau painter. 

Even more recent graves had a charming, folk-art quality about them. This gentleman had passed away in 1967 and two naive carvings of roses (or carnations) decorated his headstone.

A little distance away, I found these reddish-brown mushrooms. I am at a complete loss over their identity. The undergrowth and fallen leaves were rarely cleaned in such village cemeteries, making them safe havens for all sorts of fungi, plants and invertebrates.

The cemetery's invertebrate diversity included these adorable Pomatias elegans snails - "land winkles" as they are commonly known. They looked like tiny elephants up-close. I wanted to keep them as pets, and collected a few in a jar.

The biggest surprise in Gümüşpınar was this bizarre, Mad Max vehicle we saw parked outside the cemetery.

Seemingly cobbled together from old cars, bus seats, tractor and motorbike parts and powered by an agricultural pump engine, this was the easily the best vehicle we'd come across in our lifetimes. To make things even more interesting, it had a totally metal buzz-saw mounted on a platform behind the seats.

Another detail of Gümüşpınar's Mad Max vehicle: Note the pedals and the DIY electrical gear system.

The vehicle was clearly operational - its tyres were inflated and its engine was well-oiled. Arsen took my photographs on it as we waited for its owner to show up.

We met him soon enough, a certain Deniz Abi (Mr. Deniz) - who drove this infernal machine from village to village; using the buzz-saw to carry out on-the-spot woodwork repairs and other odd jobs. He was also a groundskeeper who occasionally visited the village cemetery and took care of the trees that grew in it. (Ok, so the cemetery wasn't completely unattended).

Deniz Abi was very friendly and told us that he hadn't built the vehicle himself. Instead, the Mad Max saw car was a "gift" from an "interesting friend" a few years ago. After chatting with us for a while and demonstrating the buzz-saw,  Deniz Abi hopped on his magnificent vehicle and drove away.

The crazy vehicle reminded us that the lax application of laws and codes in Turkey was a blessing in disguise. Anywhere in Europe, this vehicle would be impounded by local authorities for violating safety codes, tax and road laws, not having the proper little stickers and so on - making life a little more dull for everyone concerned. Here in the backwater villages of Thrace, at least for the moment, the buzz-saw car still ran wild and free.

Soon we took off too - and in a little while crossed the border between Istanbul and Tekirdağ provinces.

We drove for nearly an hour into Thrace proper. This time our conversations turned to the absurd and pervasive lore of "treasure hunters" in Turkey - people who thought every ancient ruin was the site of a magically-guarded hoard of gold and vandalised archaeological sites as a result.

Arsen had a wealth of stories - simultaneously ridiculous and tragic - about these types and their activities, and even the brief sampling he gave during this part of our trip could have formed the basis of a book. "Treasure Hunters and Treasure Lore in Turkey" - maybe Arsen will write it someday?

We got hungry after all the driving and talking, and stopped at the mid-sized town of Saray.

Like hundreds of other mid-sized Turkish towns; Saray was a series of salmon-coloured apartments clustered around a two-lane main street.

But it had one speciality - around the region Saray was well-known for its delicious meatballs. We sat down at the first restaurant we saw.

We really enjoyed the tender, flattened meatballs. An idiosyncratic eater, I also ordered a plate of olive oil and bathed the meat in it before wolfing down, slice-by-slice. We had a kings' feast for the price one bowl of overpriced, stale salad would have fetched in high-street Istanbul.

We moved out of Saray after lunch, driving through the usual landscape of strange public and municipal buildings. Having travelled extensively around rural Turkey, Arsen had had enough of such buildings; but I still found some of them interesting enough to photograph. This was Saray's gaudily-painted public school.

A little while later we passed by town's twin-minaret mosque, complete with the characteristic suite of adjacent shops and other commercial establishments. Souped-up TOFAŞ cars prowled the grounds like panthers. Quite uncharacteristically for a shop that formed part of a mosque's holdings, one of the stores (Elmas Gıda) sold alcohol. But this was Thrace, and people did things a little differently here. Although Moslem, people were more lenient in their attitudes concerning alcohol (and other things) in Turkey's western regions.

Satisfied with our meal and regional observations, we pressed on with the road that led to the sea, towards where we hoped to find the Hagia Nicola Monastery...

...but first things first! I simply had to stop when we saw this gaudy statue of an eagle (or a hawk?) on the roadside.

Turkish roadsides; like their counterparts in the US, Australia and elsewhere, are host to bizarre statues and tourist attractions, usually sculpted and coloured in the most garish fashions imaginable. Usually there was also a magic dimension to their banality.

This pigeon-faced concrete raptor was quite potent in the banal magic department.

The statue sat atop a fountain with the following inscriptions:

I used to flow on my own,
I strived for much,
For water to flow here.

May it do good,
Now, to each life that drinks it.

May this be a blessing,
Onto me in turn.

In the name of Hayrullah Ertekin,
of Güngörmez village.
Built by his family.

B. 11. 03. 1943 - D. 02. 08 2012

Not quite Ozymandias, but there it was. It was tacky and garish but, I still thought I could discern faint gleams of animism and Turkic nature-worship in the giant eagle-fountain-memorial.

Years ago I had a fantasy of touring Anatolia and making a picture-book of every weird Turkish roadside attraction in existence. I soon realised that this would quickly turn into a Sisyphean task - the book would be volumes long; and a hundred more bad statues of hawks, bread loaves, strangely misshapen fruit and local produces would've gone up by the time I reached the end of the country.

Leaving the malformed statue behind, we drove on to Bahçeköy, a small village among the isolated and well-wooded mountain forests that bordered the sea.

From here we could reach the Hagia Nicola Monastery and the nearby Kastro Beach.

We spent a few minutes in the town first. On first sight, Bahçeköy seemed to be another standard-issue, sleepy-looking Thracian village.

The exception was the local mosque, and two other structures which we didn't photograph, which were built in an inordinately elegant and stately fashion. A sign noted the Bahçeköy Mosque's construction date as 1905. We wondered if this mosque was built by a wealthy local, or by the Ottoman State to ascertain its presence in the region.

Right opposite the mosque we saw this recent statue of Atatürk, in an unfortunately less-than-elegant style and choice of materials.

Symbols and idols mattered in Turkey, perhaps more severely than the rest of the world was comfortable with. Bahçeköy, as well as most of Tekirdağ province, were holdouts of secular nationalists who opposed Turkey's current ruler and his religious politics. Small towns like Bahçeköy liked to exclaim their pro-secular (and anti-Erdoğan) allegiance with statues like this.

It was a pity there wasn't much room left these days in the Turkish public sphere for being secular and not an extreme nationalist, but hey, life was imperfect!

We left Bahçeköy and drove on, deciding to visit Kastro Beach before going to Hagia Nicola. This beach had somehow inherited Bahçeköy's older name; while the village had been renamed as Turkish refugees from the Balkan Wars and later on, the Greco-Turkish population exchange, replaced the town's Greek residents, and ultimately, its Greek name.

A cold-rainforest-type climate set in; beautiful tamarisks, lavender-like plants and ferns appeared on the roadsides as we travelled closer to the sea.

We soon reached Kastro Beach.

We were expecting a dank, cold stretch of dirty sand, but instead Kastro Beach turned out to be an extremely beautiful, solemn place. Arsen and I immediately regretted not coming here with our significant others.

Towards the northeast we could see jagged racks and strange natural arches sculpted by the waves as the furious Black Sea bit into the metamorphic rock shelf that formed Northwestern Istanbul.

The silent, expansive beach, the waves and the strange rocks in the distance formed a mystical and romantic atmosphere. At any moment, I expected Elihu Vedder's dark Serpent or his Saturnian Sphinx of the Seashore to come out creeping from among the dunes...

...instead, we got this Arabic Coke bottle. This was strange, because there are no Arabic countries bordering the Black Sea. It was likely chucked overboard from one of the thousands of commercial vessels that passed through the region every month.

We spent some time walking along the beach, enjoying the beautiful and utterly lonely view. The landscape inspired Arsen with fantasies of Byronesque descriptive essays, while my mind wandered off to more romantic speculations - how cool it would be if we encountered a couple of wandering, free-spirited hippie girls right then and there? Answer: Very, but we didn't meet any that day.

I compiled this high-resolution panorama from several distinct photographs, you can download the image for a larger view.

We saw these rows of tents, poignant memories of summer. I think some people were still staying in them.

A variety of exotic plants were growing on the sandbars behind the beach.

I quickly embarked on a mini-botanical expedition on the dunes.

Not being very botanically-competent, I could only identify a few of these beautiful plants. For most IDs, I'm indebted to the IFL Botany page on Facebook.

A red, orange and yellow fireworks display inside the spiky branches of Salsola sp.

Xanthium sp, a type of cocklebur.

Cakile flowers, family Brassicaseae.

No positive ID for this guy I'm afraid.

Salsola sp. again

These beautiful orchids, Pancratium maritimum, were the star attractions of the beach. This species occurred all around the Mediterranean basin, but was threatened in the Black Sea coast, its northernmost habitat. In Hebrew, this was one of the several plants called חבצלת החוףthe Rose of Sharon.

The flowers' bulbs, when broken open, scattered seeds in the loveliest shade of black.

Asteraceae sp. - not a very distinct ID, since this plant family has tens of thousands of species.

A spiny, dried seed from one of the Xanthium plants we'd seen earlier.

Some sort of pinkish, fleshy umbellifer, Apiaceae sp.

These beautiful, silver-electric plants also evaded identification.

A variety of spiky Eryngium.

The only animals I could find among this explosion of flowers were these shiny, smooth pitted beetles. Identifying most beetles down to species level is so frustratingly difficult that I just threw my hands in the air, called it Coleoptera sp. and moved on.

Looking at plants and insects, we walked along the beach towards some closed, restaurant-type establishments.

The authorities had woken up to the ecological significance of Kastro Beach and had declared it a nature reserve (after changing the name to Çamlıköy). We also saw a futile and supremely ugly booth, covered with tasteless stock images of flowers blocking its windows, and a sign: ID RETURN.

I guessed someone had come up with the brilliant plan to collect people's ID cards, charge them money for walking on the beach and then RETURN their IDs after they had come back. The extremely petty scheme likely hadn't worked, and the ID RETURN booth lay empty and rotting next to the nature reserve sign.

A short distance from this depressing folly we came across a river, with airy, 1970s-style concrete bungalows lining the opposite shore. The houses had a naive elegance about them, they looked like places you'd want to hole up for three months and write a book in.

On our side of the river we found a restaurant, currently closed and home to several shifty men drinking beer, listening to music on their smartphones and talking. I couldn't take their pictures, but they told us we could rent one of the several pedal boats and explore the river, if we liked.

The river went up from the beach for several kilometres, with a distinct, Lord of the Rings-type ambience. We were sorely tempted, but in the end we decided to call it a day for Kastro Beach.

Our main objective, the Hagia Nicola Monastery, lay a short drive away.

We passed a bridge over a pleasant riverside pasture on the way. We stopped the car - the only sounds were the cowbells of the herd below us, the gentle pattering of rain, and the distant roar of the sea.

We savoured the fresh pastoral scene for a few moments, and drove on to the Hagia Nicola Monastery.

En route we passed by this shepherd dude, chatting away on his iPhone.

We actually crossed another province border, this time from Tekirdağ to Kırklareli, while driving the short distance to Hagia Nicola. As the result of a cartographic quirk, the tiny strip of Kastro Beach was the only outlet Tekirdağ province had to the Black Sea. The shoreline belonged to Kırklareli Province immediately after Kastro Beach. This town, Kıyıköy, was our first impression of Kırklareli. It didn't look too different from some of the other places we'd passed through.

We finally arrived at the Hagia Nicola Monastery. We were expecting a mystical, half-ruined edifice deep inside a forest, or overlooking a craggy seaside cliff. Instead, we were greeted by an everyday scene of clucking tourists, stuffed tour buses...

...and pouting brides on conceited wedding photo-shoots. Real Life had met and embraced Hagia Nicola in all its banality, our expeditionary fantasies notwithstanding.

We also met this gentleman, Mr. Hamdi Kaya, a semi-homeless eccentric who lived here for the past 31 years, protecting the monastery from intruders. He supported himself by selling water and beverages, and playing his drum for visitors.

Mr. Hamdi had framed and hung the transcript of a news story about himself on the monastery entrance. In it, he described his watchful years maintaining and guarding the ancient site from treasure hunters and grave robbers of the sort we'd discussed with Arsen earlier on in our journey.

There was also an old photograph of the monastery, taken over a hundred years ago when Ottoman Greeks still lived around Hagia Nicola. Amazingly, the monastery was over 1400 years old - dating from the mid-6th century. Think about it - that's over a thousand years ago and nearly a century before the emergence of Islam. Hagia Nicola was one of the oldest surviving monasteries anywhere. In any other country it would've been a World Heritage site, a crown jewel of tourism and culture. Here, it was just another backwater attraction.

The facade and the little courtyard in front of the monastery were demolished in the past century. Now only the interior remained, hewn into the cliffside.

The interior was a completely different realm. Imagine how nice a tiny auditorium like this would be at a university in the present day! A cosy and unpretentious architectural style permeated the monastery. Its humanely-scaled, deliberately imperfect features stood in stark contrast to the soaring greatness and meticulously-planned, dazzling details we'd come to associate with places of worship in later centuries.

The sixth century was a period of great change that saw the final split of the Roman world; the shift from Late Antiquity to the Early Medieval period; plagues; religious schisms; ruthless, pragmatic tyrants and wars of succession. I got the feeling that Hagia Nicola was built by (and for) people who wanted to shelter their own sanity in an age of cataclysm and collapse - a last refuge of humanity in an inhuman age... But then again, perhaps I was only projecting.

You can see the photos we took of the monastery's architectural details below.

A lot of names and dates were carved onto the walls, some by Ottoman Greeks in the 19th century, others by Turks in more recent decades.

On the way out I noticed Hamdi Kaya's drum, decorated with strips of electrical tape to resemble some of the patterns on the monastery walls. I figured that the place must have imparted some of its spirit on him if Mr. Kaya lived here for more than thirty years.

We also saw Mr. Kaya's couch/bed tucked beneath a rocky overhang just outside the monastery.

Extremely impressed by this hidden gem of a place, we wandered out to the surrounding countryside to see if there were more ruins around.

We didn't see any ruins, but we ran into some very picturesque tree farms.

In the path back - literally in it - we saw a strange stone that may, just barely, have been part of an old statue. We tried to dig it out with sticks, bits of stone and pieces of metal from a nearby garbage bin - to no avail. The stone remains unextricated, waiting for our return. I'll try to bring a hand shovel on our next adventure.

Rain started falling a little while later. We trotted back to our car after taking one last look at the Hagia Nicola. This Renault Broadway car wasn't our ride, but I still took its picture - these vehicles as much a part of the Turkish landscape as the mountains and the trees. (Thanks to blogger desolarpeder for the correct vehicle ID)

We drove a short distance, back to Kıyıköy, for our well-earned dinner.

Meanwhile the rain intensified into a torrent, turning sloping roads into small rivers.

Thunder and lightning, as well as strong winds, increased the meteorological crescendo. The landscape morphed into a blurry, impressionist painting. We drove along the fishing village, looking for a place to eat.

We were close to giving up when we saw, murky in the falling sheets of rain, the surreal, LED-lit blue glow of the Kuzey (North) Fish Nestaurant; an unassuming establishment serving seafood straight from the fishing boats' nets.

It was garish, but warm and cozy inside. We knew we'd hit the jackpot. We sat down and ordered a delicious dinner.

The sun went down and the storm worsened outside, making for some truly epic vistas.

It was a really satisfying conclusion to a great adventure. In less than 12 hours, Arsen and I had seen strange cemeteries, bizarre vehicles, quaint facets of small-town life, outsider art, botanical profusion, epic vistas and an arcane monastery. I felt that I'd found a truly like-minded friend in travel and adventures. Arsen was going overseas to start his Masters' studies soon, but we agreed to embark on similar road trips whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Dinner was salad, calamari rings, fried mussels, french fries and fish. Remember the big slabs of oily meat I'd had for lunch. I'm not writing these to flaunt what I ate, read on and you will see the fateful consequence of binge-eating on a Turkish road trip.

We finished dinner and started our journey back to Istanbul. As we passed through Kıyıköy one last time, we noticed that the town had some remarkable old houses.

An epic lightning storm began to rage, thunder and lightning kept us company on our drive back to the city. We stopped occasionally to film and photograph the weather.

Freeze-frames from the videos I shot revealed Wagnerian vistas over the Black Sea, illuminated by serpentine bolts of lightning.

The drive back took us until 1:00 AM. At one point, overcome with fatigue, we rested in a roadside truck stop. There I made the mistake of ordering coffee with a moist, squishy dessert of questionable age and integrity.

That was the straw that broke the camel's back. All the mussels, meat, calamari and oil, mixed with the stale cake, erupted like a volcano. I couldn't sleep properly after coming home, and I retched convulsively for several hours until dawn.

Yet it was all worth it at the end. After all, what was adventure without a little discomfort?