Monthly Archives: October 2019

Istanbul 2

This is a truly beautiful city and very easy for tourists to travel around. I have been blessed with a bright, sunny day in the mid 20s and it is a delight to wander around. The morning starts with a cab ride to the 16th century Galata Tower built 400 years ago it has magnificent morning views across the Bosporus  to the heart of Istanbul.

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Mosques dominate the city skyline which stretches to the Mediterranean in the distance. Late morning I lose Anthony and James as they are flying home and suddenly I am solo again. Setting a cracking pace, I see pretty much all that Istanbul has to offer.

The Grand bazaar in the heart of Istanbul is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Completed in 1730 it is a shopper’s dream with goods for both local and tourist tastes.

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For me the spice market sends my senses reeling with intoxicating scents and a riot of colour.

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The iconic Blue Mosque sadly is marred by restoration work. One of its minarets is covered in scaffolding and the insides are half covered up with renos. Sadly for me this is an oft repeated phenomenon in Istanbul and makes for challenging photography.

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The Hagia Sofia was initially a Catholic Cathedral built by the Roman emperor Justinian for what was then Constantinople in 537 AD. It was famous for its massive dome, the largest of its time. Subsequently it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. Walking into this space, even with the renovations takes my breath away. This is a massive structure.

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In the large parkland space between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia there is the Egyptian Obelisk of Theodosius and the walled obelisk attributed to emperor Constantine V11 in the 10th century.

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The Topkapi Palace sits behind the Hagia Sofia and is the final masterpiece in this amazing area. It was completed in the 1500s and was the residence of all of the Ottoman Sultans.

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Below the Hagia Sofia is another tourist feature that delivers in spades and is also a popular setting for a variety of movies. The Basilica cistern  was built in the 5th century AD. Built by 7000 slaves this massive underground chamber is 9800 square metres in area and can hold 80000 cubic metres of water. It was built to provide water for the gardens above. It featured in a number of movies, most notably in James Bond’s “From Russia with Love” and Dan Brown’s Inferno where the medusa column bases formpart of the storyline.

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Fisherman line the Galata bridge daily to fish the Bosphorous. Having walked over the bridge a number of times there never seems to be anything of significance in those buckets.

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Views from the Galata Bridge

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Suleyman Mosque

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Finally, if there is a famous train involved I will invariably sniff it out. Of course the Orient express terminated in Istanbul and what is now Sirkeci station is where these 19th century adventurers “landed”.

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Istanbul

A full moon rises over Asia as the sun sets. I am watching from Europe in what is the most European of Arabic cities, Istanbul. I am having an overpriced, by Turkish standards, fish dinner in the Galata bridge straddling the Bosporus. This is the nominated border between Europe and Asia and while I don’t see much that is Asian around here as with most borders, they have to draw the line somewhere.

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Underground driving

During the Soviet times every second bottle of wine sold in the USSR came from Moldova. The resultant need for infrastructure saw an unusual development here. Storage of bottles was a huge issue and until the 1950s crates of wine were stored outdoors subject to the elements. This combined with a shortage of building materials resulted in large scale extraction of subterranean limestone creating a perfect environment for the storage of wine. Now at Cricova winery, north of Chisinau, there is over 100km of underground roads big enough for cars to drive down. These now house most of the winery’s winemaking and storage as well as storing for International clients such as Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, former German chancellor and former vice President , John Kerry. The wine tour lets you see a fraction of their holdings.

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The day ended with a drive up to Old Orhei, in the north of this tiny country. This is a monastic complex that is visible from kilometres away perched high upon a crescentic promontory of land high upon a hilltop. As anything here there are layers of history but what we see left is a 14th century orthodox monastery and caves which now function as chapels.

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Chisinau

The capitol of Moldova looks more like a regional city in this poor outpost of Eastern Europe. It has a population of just over 600,000 people and is relatively compact and easy to walk around. Old boxy style Soviet blocks dominate the outskirts of town. While our accommodation is quite central this airBnB is also an old Soviet era apartment which looks particularly run down from the outside but relatively modern and functional on the inside There are no major attractions nor monuments here but enough slightly quirky lesser monuments and building to allow for a pleasant 1-2 day stopover.

Streetscapes

Streetscapes

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Triumphal arch

Triumphal arch

Parliament

Parliament

Bell tower Nativity Cathedral

Bell tower Nativity Cathedral

Nativity Cathedral

Nativity Cathedral

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

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Ciuflea monastery

Ciuflea monastery

Pantaleon church

Pantaleon church

 

Outside the capitol the main attraction is wine. The countryside is flat and unexciting. Unlike other wine areas roadside vineyards are few and far between and autumn fields lie fallow with newly tilled dark soil. We visit a couple of wineries and stay the night at Etcetera winery where we enjoy some tasty traditional dishes and taste wines in the winery out of the barrel before blending and bottling.

Etcetera winery

Etcetera winery

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Transnistra???

If you have never heard of Moldova, which I am betting is the case then you will definitely have no idea of the existence of Transnistra. Transnistra is a thin sliver of land on the eastern border of Moldova sandwiched between the Dneister River and Ukraine. Ethnically these people are a 3 way mixture of Moldovans, Russians and Ukrainians. Right at the get go in 1991-92 they resisted attempts to integrate them in Moldova. In 1992 they went to war with Moldova. Three months later a cease fire was negotiated which continues to this day. Transnistra has applied to the UN for recognition as a sovereign nation but was rejected.

What makes this little territory really interesting is their anachronistic continued political and social adherence to the Soviet ideal. This little “would be” nation has its own military, border crossings, currency and legislature. They run 5 yearly elections in much the same style as Russia does. Emblematic of how free and fair the process is a government candidate in 2001 won his electorate with 103% of the vote!

It’s 90 minutes on the bus from Chisinau to the capitol of Transnistra, Tiraspol. The countryside is fairly flat and nondescript. At the border we are given a piece of paper which is a visa valid for 10 hours and fairly soon after cross the Dneister into Tiraspol. My expectations were that this would be a drab grey Soviet style city, a downmarket version of Pyongyang perhaps. My travelling companions Anthony and his good friend James were here 4 years ago and at that time the place looked as I expected. Today it looks like a quiet but pretty little city, much changed from that previous experience. The only nod to the Soviet past is the persistence of Lenin statues and a number of former Russian tanks that have been put on pedestals as monuments. In among this, though are pretty, colourful, Orthodox churches and shrines and pretty parklands running along the river. This place is an enjoyable aberration.

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Unable to secure an appointment at the Kvint winery for a tasting of their world famous cognacs, despite some elaborate attempts and ruses by my travelling companions (nice try boys)

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we spend the afternoon in the town of Bender touring through the immaculately restored 16th century Ottoman fortress. In between it all we stumble into a newly funky restaurant at Tiraspol called BBQ burger bar. The manager there tells us it is his second day being opened and records a testimonial from us to put on Instagram. Crazy place!

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Moldova?

Dusk approaches. There is a fine light misty sprinkling falling from grey skies. All around is light, sound and motion. The massive TV screen set up in the middle of the blocked road is belting out some sort of light pop music with a really Eastern Euro feel. A local guy comes over to us plonks three plastic wine glasses before us and pours red wine. We do not speak each other’s language but he smiles broadly brandishing the wine bottle and its label before us. The wine is a pleasant fruity quaffer and in the spirit of friendship we drink, compliment and thank him for it. He comes back with some white wine and the performance is repeated. People are crowding around the various booths and marquees to taste the major produce and source of what little export wealth there is for this small Easter European backwater that is Moldova, wine. Accidentally we have arrived bang in the middle of the annual 2 day festival and wine expo in the little backwater Moldovan capitol of Chisinau.

Chisinau streetscape

Chisinau streetscape

Moldova was a tiny piece that fell out of the jigsaw puzzle of nations that was the USSR. The fragmentation of the Soviet empire in 1992 left this poor little backwater sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Ethnically these people are Romanian, they speak the same language, and even persist with the Romanian currency. In Soviet times they were a supplier of cheap and nasty tasting wine to Russia. Since independence the little wine industry has struggled to attract the attention of the outside world. It has been a fast learning curve for the vignerons here but they have been hamstrung by their former market’s desire for classic European grapes such as Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The newer generation vignerons are increasing planting the original, indigenous grapes. The result is that the best wines here are those made with the grapes such as Feteasca Alba, Feteasca negra and Rara Negra. The very best of these are absolute knockout wines, different to anything I have ever tasted and the best of them go for the pittance price of $20 Australian. This is a wine lover’s nirvana!

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The three amigos

The three amigos

Starting a tour of the world’s hotspots

It is over a year ago that I paid a deposit for a trip to Iraq. Iraq is the centre piece of my forthcoming 3 week break. I have been asked often about my impending holiday destination.  When the answer was Iraq the responses varied from raised eyebrows to downright dismay. For all of the recent historical conflict in Iraq, not much of significance has actually happened in the southern section where I will be travelling. That is not, of course, until the last 4 days where violent anti government protest has resulted in 60 deaths and many more with serious injuries.

Back when I booked this trip a Hong Kong stopover would not have rated. Fast forward to late 2019 and how times have changed. Less than 18 hours before I arrive the news reporting on the 70th anniversary of the creation of the People Republic of China shows mass protest, tear gas and water cannons and the shooting of a protestor by police. It is at more of a flashpoint than Iraq has been.

On landing it is a rare sunny day in Honkers and, with a long stopover there, we take the opportunity to leave the airport and catch the train into town and up to Victoria Peak. It is a warm, steamy but amazingly well lit sunny morning. We have breakfast there and take our fill of photos looking down over Hong Kong before taking the tourist tram down the mountain and the train back to the airport. Less than 12 hours after we leave the protestors target the train network destroying ticket machines and occupying stations. The government responds by closing down the rail system. The only evidence of the demonstrations we see on our perfectly timed foray is random anti government graffiti.

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