A year on

It is now a full year since our caravan crossed Turkey, and yet another Anzac Day has passed us by. We return to our blog to fill an important gap; to complete the missing section on our visit to the battlefields of Gallipoli.

This delay is, in part at least, because of the complexity of our response to the experience.

When we first started thinking about the idea of travelling to Turkey and visting the places where our grandfathers had been during the first world war, we were keen not to buy into any crass nationalism. We thought that we needed to visit Gallipoli, but that we would not stay too long or expect too much. After all, we did not count ourselves amongst the Australians who are journeying there in ever increasing numbers, wrapping themselves in the flag and trying to tap into some vague myth of heroism and Australia’s blooding as a nation in a real war. We did want to visit, but we were wary of all the baggage.

For a good discussion on the way our nation has glorified this particular military disaster, have a read of former-officer James Brown’s recent book  Anzac’s Long Shadow.

Anzac Cove, 2013

Anzac Cove, 2013

Also, we had no idea of what Gallipoli would be like physically. We did not realize that the former battlefields are now a serene National Park; a beautiful yet rugged place, supporting modest sites of great significance, to both sides, from a now-distant conflict.

Then we reconnected with Bill Sellars, an Australian journalist and historian. Thirty years ago he had come across some letters in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra written by Australian prisoners of war who had been captured at Gallipoli. These included Helen’s grandfather, Maurice Delpratt. Bill looked up Delpratts in the phone book and wrote to Jan to seek permission to use her father’s letter in his work. Long story short, young Bill  headed off on his first trip overseas to Turkey to find out more about these men that he had never heard mentioned in the context of Gallipoi. He sent some photos back to Jan from that trip, which she still has.

Back to early 2013, and Helen found Bill again via the Great War Forum on the internet. He had made his home in Turkey. His response to our request for any advice for our trip was immediate and generous. While he would normally recommend his friends, the excellent Turkish guides from Crowded House hotel in Eçeabat, for a general tour of the battlefields, Bill offered to show us around the battlefields himself, and take us to the place where Maurice Delpratt had been captured.

This started to change our view of the trip to Gallipoli.

John also provided Bill with information about his grandfather, Ernest Strambini and Bill thought he would be able to find out where he had been stationed and fought.

IMG_1512It turned out to be an outstanding visit. Bill gave us an exceptional tour of the battlefields, well beyond anything we could have imagined. Most memorably, Bill took us to the specific locations where Ernest Strambini and Maurice Delpratt fought, which turned out to be close in both location and timing. We are in his debt.

And so to the visit itself ……

We were collected very early from our apartment in Istanbul by the Crowded House mini-bus for our trip to the Gellibolu (Gallipoli) Peninsula. This was a drive of almost five hours, through the sprawling outer-suburbs of Istanbul, along the edge of the Sea of Marmara, and along the modern version of the route that Maurice Delpratt and the other POWs would have travelled (though in the other direction).


Gallipoli Houses

Gallipoli Houses

Bill met us in Eçeabat, and took us for a great seafood lunch on the waterfront. We were dropped at Gallipoli Houses, a beautiful village-style hotel right in the Gallipoli National Park. The rooms were great, the meals (and the Suvla Syrah) very good, and the village atmosphere was charming and quiet (interrupted only by the regular call to prayer from the neighbouring mosque).

Bill collected us the next day with his friend Anil, who drove us around the peninsula for the day, and helped with the commentary. It was a very hot, fine day, though made bearable by the sea breeze.

Bill took us first to Anzac Cove where we walked south along the beach, from Ari Burnu to Hell Spit, and past the (very basic) remains of Watson’s Pier, where Bill was confident both Maurice and Ernest would have landed, just days apart from each other, in May 1915. It was at Ari Burnu that we also encountered our first cemetery, the first of many for the day.

Watson's Pier, Anzac Cove

Watson’s Pier, Anzac Cove


From the beach we saw the ugly intrusion caused by “Howard’s Way”, the new access road proposed by the Australian Government and built by Turkish authorities, but without a sound heritage assessment. While improved access was necessary, the method and the route chosen have imposed a modern stone wall along much of the beach at Anzac Cove, and apparently destroyed some historically significant sites as well.

We walked along the road above Anzac Cove, past the sign that reflects the generous decision by the Turks to rename the area as Anzak Koyu (Anzac Cove), to the plaque quoting Attatürk (Mustafa Kemal, a key commander at Gallipoli and later President of the new Turkish Republic), and on to Beach Cemetery. Then we headed inland.

"... they have become our sons as well".

“… they have become our sons as well”.

IMG_1503As we walked through Shrapnel Gully, the main supply route for men and equipment for the Anzacs, along an exposed gully dwarfed by soaring hills, and noting what they had called the place, it was staggering to realise what the men of both sides, including our grandfathers, had faced. Needless to say, there is a large cemetery at Shrapnel Gully.

IMG_1529Lunch was a welcome respite, from both the heat and the challenges of history. Gozleme, ayran and coffee for five, under the grapevines at a roadside café, was great value at TL90 (about $50).

We drove up Artillery Road to Lone Pine, site of one of the most intense battles of the campaign. The cemetery here is deceptive – most remains were never recovered, and so the majority of the dead are remembered by names on a large stone wall. Almost 2,500 Australians and around 6,000 Turks were killed or wounded in just a few days trying to take or hold Lone Pine, an area the size of a football field.

IMG_1513We set off on a long walk off the main path, down a firebreak that follows the ridge which had formed the southern boundary of the Australian line. In 1915, this was just scrub, with trenches only metres apart on either side. Remains of the trenches, and their alarming proximity to the enemy, are still clearly visible.

We came to Bolton’s Ridge, an area that would be indistinguishable from the locations on either side if we weren’t in Bill’s capable hands. Bolton’s Ridge was held by the 9th Battalion (from Queensland) which is where John’s grandfather Ernest Strambini would have been stationed.

A little further on, we came to Harris Ridge, which was more easily defined because this was the southern end of the Anzac line, and the ridge turned right and down, back towards Anzac Cove. Harris Ridge was held by the 5th Light Horse, also Queenslanders, and this is where Helen’s grandfather, Jan’s father, Maurice Delpratt would have been stationed.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 12.28.17 PMAfter consulting Charles Bean’s official history of the conflict to confirm the location, Bill pointed to the steep drop that went down behind the Turkish lines to the Balkan Gunpits (named from an earlier conflict involving the Ottoman Empire) where Maurice was captured. By coincidence, we were there almost to the day he was captured, 98 years earlier.

IMG_1553As we walked along the track between the lines, Bill’s expert eye had spotted small pieces of shrapnel and shell casings, shards of rum jars and medicine bottles, and even a small piece of bone. At Harris Ridge, as if to prove his point that this was the end of the line, he found a sizeable remnant of rusty (British) barbed-wire.

It was moving to be right at the places where our grandfathers had fought. It was chilling to appreciate the intensity of the conflict in these tiny spaces, spaces so dense with fighting that relics were still visible after a hundred years and hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Lone Pine

Lone Pine

Back at Lone Pine, the road now follows Second Ridge, and past the series of posts on the cliffs that marked the Australian line – Johnston’s Jolly, Courtney’s Post, Steel’s Post and Quinn’s Post. Each location was the site of both relentless conflict and specific battles; each is marked by a cemetery. And though we didn’t visit them, the signs pointing off the road in the opposite direction were to just as many Turkish cemeteries.

Between Quinn’s Post and The Nek, we come to the main Turkish Memorial. The whole area is packed with visitors, Turkish tour buses and souvenir stands.

In a parallel of what happened in Australia, the grandchildren of Turkish veterans lead a resurgence in pride and interest in the Gallipoli campaign (for them, the Çannakule campaign). In fact our hosts at Gallipoli Houses advised against our coming on the weekend because of the large number of Turkish tourists that come then.

The Nek is most famous for the futile series of charges by Light Horsemen, dramatised in Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli. Compared to many other battles, the 372 casualties was modest; what was shocking was the process. Four individual lines of men were ordered to charge, one after the other, across a tiny space about as big as a couple of tennis courts. The major assault on Chunuk Bair that this attack was supposed to provide a diversion for had stalled and, after the first wave, it was clear that the men were going to certain death, and to no avail. But still they went.

IMG_1577The view from The Nek, and even more so from Walker’s Ridge, the northern end of the Anzac line, was stunning – down the steep slopes past The Sphinx and Plugge’s Plateau to Anzac Cove, and from Walker’s north to Suvla Bay, the site of another shambles of the Gallipoli campaign.

We finished our tour at Chunuk Bair, the high-point of Gallipoli and hence the key military target, that was never attained by the Anzacs other than briefly by the New Zealanders. Both Attatürk and the Kiwis have monuments at the summit.

We returned home for a well-earned Efes beer, heart-felt thanks to Bill and Anil, and some serious contemplation.

With twelve months hindsight, not much has changed for us both.

This was a superb visit, made all the more special because of our personal connections and our personalized tour.

We must acknowledge the generosity and friendship of the Turkish people towards Australia and New Zealand. Despite the fact that soldiers from distant parts of the Commonwealth invaded their shores, today they share management of the battlefields with their former foes, and even recognize the names that the Anzacs gave to this small but significant part of their country.

If you are in Turkey, we definitely recommend a visit to the Gallipoli battlefields. Avoid weekends, Anzac Day, and probably all of 2015!IMG_1524




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Filed under Delpratt, Gallipoli, POW history, Strambini

A goat track to the Holy Grail…

Our journey to Belemedik and Hacikiri was the last frontier of our travels on the caravan road.  Tiny isolated villages that most Turks hadn’t even heard of, but for us our holy grail, our Tate Modern.  These little towns had been the sites of the camps where Sgt. Maurice Delpratt spent most of his time as a POW, working on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.

First we had to get from Afyon to Adana, nearly 600 kilometres away in central Turkey, and another city that tourists don’t frequent.

Screen Shot MAP2013-07-31 at 2.06.50 PM

Left to right – Afyon, Belemedik, Hacikiri, Adana.

We had originally planned to go by train, on the Toros Ekspresi, that would take us (slowly) across the Taurus Mountains, through the tunnels built by the POWs and across the stunning Varda Viaduct.

Regrettably our travel agent’s predictions of unreliable trains proved correct, and we had to make the journey with Rafet and our trusty Mercedes camel.  This made Rafet happy; allowed us to experience several more white-knuckle experiences of Turkey’s insane traffic; and allowed us to stop in Konya, one of the country’s most conservative and religious cities.

On the caravan road

On the caravan road

On balance, the road trip was probably more pleasant than the train, and certainly faster, though we can’t say that Rumi’s tomb and the Mevlana Museum really justifies a detour to Konya.  Many devout Turkish tourists clearly disagree.

Screen Shot 2013-07-31 at 2.28.32 PM

Turkish school gilrs visiting the Mevlana Müzesi

As we approached Adana, we discovered that the Merc didn’t have a highway toll-reader, so we had to use the back roads, and fully depend on Rafet’s “ask a passer-by” method of navigation.  This became even less amusing as he tried to find our hotel.  Like at Afyon, our overly-cautious travel agent had opted for a “tourist” hotel, and once again it was stuck in the middle of nowhere, and hard to find.

Next morning we were up early to catch the train back to Belemedik, since the local Ekspresi was running.  This took us over the Varda Viaduct, to the tiny Hacikiri station, and right through the series of tunnels built through to Belemedik by the POWs.


Jan aboard the Toros Ekspresi from Adana to Belemedik

This was very exciting, and we were truly awed by the enormity of the task facing the tunnellers.  There is nothing much between Hacikiri and Belemedik other than mountain, so the railway track between the two construction camps is virtually one huge tunnel, deep inside the rock.


We were met at Belemedik by Rafet, who had driven up from Adana.  Belemedik today comprises just the railway station and a few houses, and Rafet was clearly struggling to understand WTF was going on.  However we insisted on exploring every dirt track (you couldn’t call them roads), and were rewarded when we finally found the ruins of the old construction camp.


The Belemedik camp was the regional admin centre for the construction of the railway, and the German and Swiss engineers and managers lived there.  As well as barracks, offices and stores, the camp had major infrastructure like a hospital, church and mosque, and luxuries such as a cinema.  Some of the luckier POWs were held there, but most POWs were sent on to smaller and far more rudimentary work camps, like Hacikiri.

Maurice played a part-quartermaster role at Hacikiri, and often came up to Belemedik to collect mail, Red Cross parcels and probably the pay for the men.  The Turks decided (correctly) that the rugged and isolated location made escape all but impossible; the Germans decided to treat the POWs like employees – if they didn’t work they got no pay, which meant they couldn’t buy food to live.

While most are all but ruins, we found quite a few stone buildings that were part of the Belemedik camp, including what seemed to be the hospital, some barracks, some houses, the water-well and what was probably an explosives store.



With a bit of local help, we also found the memorials to both Turkish and German workers killed in the huge construction project.  The remains of Allied POWs were moved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the like.

We finished our visit with a picnic near the station, and then it was off to Pozanti, the only sizeable town nearby.


Picnic lunch at Belemedik with the station master’s wife

It was here that we discovered that Rafet thought we were driving on to Cappadocia that afternoon.  That was what his itinerary clearly showed, despite the fact that we had stressed repeatedly to our travel agent that we needed two nights in Pozanti to ensure we had plenty of time to explore Belemedik and Hacikiri.  Honestly, which bit of “these will be the most important two days for us, and the main purpose of our visit to Turkey” didn’t they get?

After some heated phone calls by the side of the road, and the third in a chain of agencies chastised by the other two for getting it wrong, we headed off to our hotel, fortunately booked by the first agency.

The hotel complex was the curiously named Pendosis Vacation Village – why anyone would want to “vacation” at Pozanti is a mystery to us.  But there was more – it soon became apparent that Pendosis was a contender for the “Fawlty Towers of Turkey” grand prize.

Pendosis was the original Roman name for this highway town, and the new namesake is a grandiose imitation of a Roman village – scattered villas, cobbled paths (some in need of repair), and lots of old-looking “artifacts” strewn about by an incompetent relative or a drunken landscape architect.  Even though the complex is only a few years old, many parts appear to have never been finished, and many things weren’t working properly.  The Spa & Wellness Centre now only comprises the signs directing hapless visitors to an empty building, the swimming pools were murky, and the grounds had hardly any working lights.


Fortunately, the rooms were actually comfortable, with commanding views of the Taurus Mountains, the staff were nice and the food was quite good.  The meals were served on a charming outdoor terrace on the edge of the hill, with similar views.


As the most remote place we planned to visit, the way to Hacikiri was always going to be a challenge.

Helen had a few screenshots of Google Maps, but Rafet was not a great believer in maps.  He had been questioning the locals about the road, resulting in conflicting (and hence worrying) directions.  Finally Rafet found a local who had actually been to Hacikiri recently, and soon we were off on the Google Road – the maps were right!

As we climbed up into the mountains, and the roads became dirt, and the dirt roads became goat tracks, and the signage disappeared, we realized that all past versions had but been pale imitations.  This definitely was the fabled Road to the Tate Modern.




Definitely on the road to the Tate Modern…

We saw goats; we saw peasants on donkeys; we wound round tortuous corners; we had to choose turnings (without signposts) by intuition; and then, suddenly, we were at the Varda Viaduct.


Even Rafet was impressed, and even more so when Helen assured him that the shack we could see on the other side of the ravine was in fact a teahouse.


There is no way to play down the impact of the bridge.  It is stunning – as an engineering marvel of one hundred years ago; as a still-in-use railway bridge that we had passed over in the train; and simply as an object of great beauty.

Bridging this deep ravine was the most challenging element of the rail project, and it alone took eleven years to complete.  Once the Varda bridge had been built, the twelve-kilometre tunnel from Hacikiri to Belemedik was then the last great challenge.

After suitable admiration of the bridge, we drove around to the enterprising teahouse, overlooking the bridge on the Hacikiri side.  Then it was time to go the last five hundred metres of our long journey from Australia, to the village of Hacikiri.


There is very little left at Hacikiri from 1915 and the POWs; just a few railway buildings, some stone ruins similar to those at Belemedik, and of course the major memento – the railway tunnels that the POWs built.


The mouth of the 12 km tunnel from Hacikiri to Belemedik

Unlike Belemedik, most traces of the camp at Hacikiri had disappeared.  As we pondered the men’s unwilling, dangerous and malaria-ridden lives there, we wondered if their circumstances ever allowed the prisoners to appreciate their stunning surroundings.


Interestingly, Hacikiri has a small mosque and a few other public buildings, and quite a few more houses than Belemedik.  Presumably this is to do with its proximity to good farmland, and to its much shorter (though rugged) road access to neighbouring towns and to Adana.


After nearly three years at Hacikiri, Helen’s grandfather made it back to Afyon in 1918 for the Armistice, and then Smyrna (now Izmir) to catch a ship back to London and then home.

The journey of John’s grandfather was less tortuous and much shorter, though his presence at Gallipoli did cost him an eye.

But we give thanks, to the prisoner and to the wounded man, for it is those circumstances, most unpleasant for them at the time, that brought both Maurice and Ernest home safely, and eventually brought us into this amazing world.

No more war !!

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Filed under Delpratt, POW history, Strambini, Travel

Afyonkarahisar… Curiously, it all turns out well in the end.

So how much preparation is enough for a quest into the unknown – for a search for the holy grail of crumbling POW sites from World War I, in a country we don’t know, in a language we don’t speak?

It was time for our first real foray off the beaten tourist track, off into central Turkey and the town of Afyonkarahisar.

Afyon muuseum city planMany searches on Google; some interaction with The Great War Forum; some small extracts and a few photos from books written by POWs; a little material from the Australian War Memorial and National Archives; an old map found on the internet; and some descriptions and dates from Helen’s grandfather’s letters – will that be enough?

Though important as a transport hub for western and central Turkey, and a key site for some of the country’s historical struggles, Afyonkarahisar is a city where few foreign tourists go.

The opium poppies (afyon) are strictly controlled these days, and while the fortress (hisar) on the big black (kara) rock is interesting, most would only pass through Afyon on their way to somewhere else.

Kara hisar c 1918We had a different agenda since Afyon’s location made it an important hub in World War I, including as one of the main centres for the holding and distribution of Allied prisoners.  In fact Helen’s grandfather, Sgt Maurice Delpratt was held twice in Afyon, first for two months in 1915 as the Turks decided what to do with the POWs, and then briefly on his way home as the Armistice approached.

By the time we got to Afyon, we were beginning to joke about our journey becoming more and more like the search for the Road to the Tate Modern [see earlier post].  Our driver Rafet’s principal navigational aid was hailing passersby and asking the way.  The next day we really did expect to be on our mythical Road, since we were planning to rely totally on our sketchy information as to where the POWs had been almost a hundred years earlier.

IMG_2591We had tried to assure Rafet that we could do this on our own, on foot, but this seemed too big a risk to him, and we soon found ourselves being guided  around Afyon by his local friend Zeki.  Zeki and Rafet had both lived in Germany, and our communication became a bastard mix of German, English and Turkish, assisted only by our  pocket phrase book.

A visit to the Archelogical Museum to talk to a possible contact proved fruitless, since Ahmet Bey was out on a dig.  However the Museum  did have an amazing array of Roman and Byzantine antiquitities found in the local area. Then followed visits to Ulu Camii, a stunning (and rare) timber-interior mosque complete with a gaggle of gorgeous school girls awaiting a lesson; an historic hamam (bath house); and finally a Mevlevi (Dervish) Museum.


All these places were really interesting, but as we were being ushered into an office at the Mevlevi Museum (complete with Ottoman divans), we began to worry about how long it would take us to get back to our POW quest.

We took tea, and then our host, Hasan Özpunar, went to his computer and began projecting historical images of Afyon onto the wall – fascinating, but we were still keen to return to our search.  Then we started seeing images of Afyon in World War I, moving soon to images of POWs.  Astoundingly, thanks to Zeki, we had stumbled across Afyon’s resident military historian, and Director of their local historical association and museum, Aytam.


Jan having a close look at the slides of POWs in old Afyon

Hasan Bey didn’t speak English either, but he had amassed an amazing collection of information from all over the world relating to Afon’s key role in WWI for both the Turkish military, and for Allied POWs.  We were able to show him our modest collection about Afyon on Helen’s iPad, and then struck gold when we found Helen’s grandfather’s name in one of Hasan’s publications about POWs (though he was listed as Maurice Delprott, not Delpratt).


 Hasan Bey then personally escorted us on a wonderful  tour around the Old Town.  We saw all the sites we had come to search for, and a few more we hadn’t known about.  We walked the dusty streets of the Old Armenian Quarter where the POWs were photographed.


Hasan Bey and Jan in the Old Armenian Quarter

We saw the large local houses, where the officers were held.  Apparently the houses had been occupied by Armenian families, but had been forcibly vacated as part of the Turkish-Armenian conflict.


House where POW officers were held

And finally we came to the ruins of the Old Armenian Church, mentioned specifically in Maurice’s letters and in most POW accounts as one of the two main prisons for enlisted men.

In front of the old Armenian  church

In front of the remains of the old Armenian church

It was very moving for us as we gazed down on the ruins of the church, and recalled Maurice’s description of the final day of his captivity:

“… one day the town-crier announced the signing of the armistice and we all went mad. Within 5 minutes some Scotsman of the Lowland Field Coy had a large Union Jack floating from the tower of the Armenian Church in which we were living, and the camp broke through the scared guards and marched into the bazaars…” (Port Said, 3-12-18)

Ruins of the old Armenian church from above

Ruins of the old Armenian church from above

We walked on to a charming tea house with a small museum above, reflecting Afyon life in the early 20th century.  To thank  our trio of guides, we then headed off to lunch at a restaurant they recommended, serving delicious regional dishes.  This included a serving of Afyon’s speciality kaymak (clotted cream), which we had first tried in Istanbul.  The cake and cream is called Kaymakli Ekmek Kadayif, and was our second of three serves of the delectable kaymak eaten that day.

Next stop was the former Medrese (seminary), currently under restoration.  This was the other main POW prison for enlisted men, and probably where Maurice was first held in Afyon and wrote his early letters home.

“Dear Family, I find it very hard to write a letter of four lines and have spent much time studying the mosque opposite and the recruits camped there…” (Afion-Hara-Kissaar, Turkey-in-Asia, 18-9-15)

Former Madrese where POWs were held

Former Madrese where POWs were held

Our guides were clearly keen for us to go to yet another place, but we couldn’t quite grasp what it was.  With the help of our barely adequate phrase book, it appeared that Hasan Bey was taking us to a “small conference” with “the President” at the “government centre”.  We presumed we were going to see something to do with POW records, but we were in fact going to meet Hasan’s big boss.

In one of the strangest of many strange moments during our travels in Turkey, we found ourselves sitting in the office of the Başkan (Mayor) of Afyon.  And as is often the case with politicians, we were waiting – and waiting for quite a long time.


Meeting with the Başkan

Once again with no English, and the interpreter (his brother) unavailable, the meeting with the Mayor was awkward and short, but he asked us to wait while he went off to kiss some babies or turn some sods.  Before too long, the interpreter’s colleague, a Professor in English, arrived to fill the void and get some proper understanding of our quest, but the waiting continued.


The Başkan finally returned, but now with the media in tow – three TV cameras and a photographer.  We didn’t think that the story of the visit of some descendants of a WWI POW warranted national and regional media, but the Mayor is from the AKP, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s party, and when they call, the media comes.


The interviews – Jan & Helen, then Hasan, and then the Mayor – were long and done in series, with lengthy translations for J & H.


According to our new friend (and Gallipoli guide) in Eceabt, Bill Sellars, the story made it to national TV.  It was of course a jumble of misspellings and poor translations and outright mistakes, but it was “news” nonetheless.

After our brush with fame, and the presentation of some traditional handicrafts from the Başkan, our last stop was the old Afyon train station where the POWs had arrived and departed several times.


When we arrived at the now-disused station, we found that we had still not escaped the surreal nature of our day.  Two of the TV cameras had followed us to get some location shots, and a bridal party was using the old building for their photo shot, but at least that was the end of the adventure.


The media, the wedding car and Hasan Bey

On reflection, we were astounded that we had achieved so much in one day, and with so little concrete information.  We also could not help but feel that the Old Armenian Quarter hadn’t changed that much since the prisoners from Gallipoli had passed through.

At the end of this exceptional day, we were certain of three things –

Lack of language or detailed research is no barrier to a righteous cause;

We were definitely on the Road to the Tate Modern;

And we really needed a drink!


Filed under Delpratt, POW history

Virtual reality

IMG_0980One of our “small ceremonies” while travelling is to seek out interesting fiction based in the cities we are visiting. This seems to be a lot easier now than it was in the past. We recall an English bookshop in Rome in the 1980s being rather bemused by our request for a recommendation for a novel with a Roman setting.
 Topical books like Anna Funder’s Stasiland (Berlin) are pretty essential and hard to miss, and expat books like Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (Paris) can be quite helpful in understanding the local psyche, but there are always plenty more if you dig a little.
 The Glass Room by Simon Mawer enlightened our visit to Prague. Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, particularly Field Gray, gave us a different perspective on wartime Berlin.
 For Istanbul, we got some great suggestions from Kathleen P and Katrina C. The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin took us back in history to the Ottoman’s Constantinople, but it was Joseph Kanon and Istanbul Passage that really entertained us this trip. It’s set in Istanbul just after World War Two.
Kanon has written some other great early-Cold War books like Los Alamos and The Good German.  Here he is on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul.
 It’s a great way to amplify your experience of a city and of course, to help to while away the long hours on the plane.

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Filed under Culture, Istanbul

John and Helen’s Istanbul Top Ten

After two wonderful weeks in Istanbul, we took the caravan road out of that remarkable city and into the wilds of Turkey Major.  Our camels were cleverly disguised as a comfy Mercedes Vito, and Istanbul was soon just a haze of shimmering minarets in the distance.  But even now, back at home in Melbourne, we have vivid memories of our time in the Ottoman capital.  So, before we get to the tales of our trip through southern and central Turkey, with the benefit of a little reflection and  in no particular order, here is our  Top Ten for Istanbul:

Phil & John crossing the Bosphorous

Phil & John crossing the Bosphorous

Crisscrossing the Bosphorus – Going from Europe to Asia and back, in an assortment of ferries, was an oft-repeated pleasure.  It was a ride long enough to feel purely vicarious, but short enough to not require much consideration of timetables; one accompanied by people going to work, to shop and to eat; and serviced by charming sellers of tea and large round cream wafers that, like so many small items, cost just 1 TL each.sunset pic

Pots and Pans – The subtle but powerful domestic protest that occurred each evening at 9.00pm impressed us greatly, and quickly drew us in as participants.  Many residents of inner city Istanbul chose this personal (but teargas-free) way to declare their support for the Taksim Square protestors, and their opposition to the moralistic and heavy-handed tactics of Prime Minister Tayip Erdoğan.

Jan on 9pm pots and pan duty

Jan on 9pm pots and pan duty

In a spectacular demonstration of their poor political judgement, and their inability to lead Turkey towards the future, the Turkish Government has just outlawed banging on pots and pans!!

The Market Streets of the Old Town – While the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market are fascinating and bustling, they have always been very popular with tourists, and hence bring relentless approaches by touts.  IMG_1407Much more interesting, and less confronting, are the maze of streets surrounding both bazaars, which offer a much wider range of goods, and a more colourful (and largely local) clientele.  Many hours can be wasted quite productively here.

Rüstem Paşa Camii – We thoroughly enjoyed visiting mosques (camii in Turkish, pronounced “djarmy”) all over Istanbul.  There’s the imposing Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque) with its blue and green Iznic tiles, but always full of tourists, and the calmer and more subtly designed Suylemaniye Camii, virtually without any tiles, near Istanbul University.  However it was the intimate scale, the hidden entrance, the welcoming loggia and the rare red-tinged Iznic tiles of the Rüstem Paşa mosque at Eminönü that we found truly impressive, and most serene.


Street Cafes – The most rewarding food experiences, and some of our most enjoyable meals, were to be found in the small family-run street cafes, where we got by with goodwill, some basic knowledge of Turkish food and very little English.  The Gözleme and fried Hamsi (sardines) near the hard-to-find entrance to Rüstem Paşa, and the Kaymak (clotted cream with honey) and Suckuk (Turkish salami) with Eggs at Pando Kaymakçi in Beşiktaş, run by 88-year-old Pando and his family, were absolute triumphs.zvGnXWGpZUAOak0Bt3mBLFbSuczDQgjIqZmP041p0Ik


Chora Mosaics and the City Wall – Reflecting the more conventional archaeological layers buried in the earth, Turkey displays a veritable smorgasbord of cultures and empires above ground as well.  In a large city like Istanbul, where only substantial ruins survive the demands of redevelopment, it is surprising to find so much of the old city wall (breached by IMG_1264Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453) still standing, albeit subsumed into private yards and public parks in many places.  A ferry ride up the Golden Horn and a fascinating walk alongside the wall brings you to the Chora Kariye (Church).  It was built by the Greeks in the early 12th century, and rebuilt a few times since.  It is always filled with tourists, but its walls are covered with the most astounding mosaics.  The mosaics largely survived the post-Mehmet conversion to a mosque, and depict, in fine and beautiful detail, the lives of Mary, JC and the Apostles.

Basilica Cistern – We are always impressed by good public architecture and innovative infrastructure, and that’s not just because we’ve both worked a lot in government.  The Yerebatan Sarniçi (Sunken Cistern) was built by Constantine and the Romans under what is now Sultanahmet in the 4th century, to provide water for the capital, and later the palaces, with the water being brought by viaduct all the way from the forests in neighbouring Bulgaria.  The engineering is impressive, and the structure was so well made that it still supports a number of city buildings at street level, even though it has long since ceased to have a functional role as a reservoir.  ISTANBUL-CISTERNA-DI-YEREBATAN-SARAYThe space is also extremely beautiful.  Despite being a totally utilitarian and underground facility, the Cistern boasts excellent design and even several decorative features.  The lines of the 336 columns with their solid bases and decorated tops, the brick domes that provide the strong roof structure, and the special features like the two stone carvings of Medusa, are all beautiful, even though they would have been underwater in their original incantation.  And as long as you go late in the day and avoid the crowds, the Cistern is also as serene as a large church or camii.

Topkapi Palace Library – There were many highlights at the huge complex that comprises the former home of the Sultans, including treats for we former bureaucrats like the Divan (pronounced “di-waan”) – the rooms where the governing and the judging was done by the Vizier and his factotums, under the watchful but mostly invisible eye of the Sultan.  Amusing also for us was the comparison with the inappropriately European style of the replacement Dolmabache Palace, built as the Ottoman Empire expanded and the Sultans sought to “modernise”, just north of our digs in Kabataş.  But it was the simplicity and design of the Topkapi Library, with its luxurious divans (yes, our word for couches is Turkish), the deep windows on all sides to catch the breezes, the elaborate ceiling and the ornate cupboards for the books, that most took our fancy.

Library, Topkapi Palace

Library, Topkapi Palace

Tea – Turkey runs on çay (pronounced “chai”).  It is drunk repeatedly, and always seems to be available.  Obviously it is served in homes and cafes, but it is part of the bargaining process in shops, is sold on ferries and in markets, and is constantly being carried to anywhere that groups congregate, IMG_1409on trays that employ a suspension handle that allows safe movement of a full tray of tea.  Every step or stool sports a tea drinking man, and a few women, and every corner holds empty cups awaiting collection.  This is the most public of tea ceremonies – anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Modern Istanbul – Despite its age and its many layers, Istanbul, well the inner-city at least, is a very modern city, and probably deserving of a Top Ten all of its own.  The terrace bar and the Mikla Restaurant at the Marmara Pera Hotel offer stunning views, great drinks and a top-notch degustation menu.

Helen outside the Museum of Innocence

Helen outside the Museum of Innocence

More affordable and in a less dramatic location, Lokanta Maya in Karaköy gave us the best meal of our month in Turkey. There were also a lot more locals amongst the patrons.  It was the same mix of visitors and locals for breakfast at The House Café, waterside in Ortaköy, though the affluent Istanbul-ites were less than subtle here about showing their wealth.  The Museum of Innocence, the eponymous creation that actually post-dates Nobel Prize-winning Orhan Pamuk’s novel, is of course an essential temple for Western visitors, particularly those in a book group back home.  And who could forget the Istanbul Modern – their surreal entrance, and their wonderful video piece Road to Tate Modern, which we did not realise at the time was to become the theme for the rest of our time in Turkey – on the caravan road.

Tate Modern


Filed under Culture, Food, Istanbul

In the Toros Mountains

Our little caravan has been wending its way across Turkey.

We’ve  made it up into the wilds of the Toros Mountains in Southern Anatolia and our ultimate goal, the tiny town of Hacikiri.

Station master, Jan & John at Hacikiri

Station master, Jan & John at Hacikiri

It is also the sight of the spectacular 100m Varda Bridge built by the Germans just before the war for the railway – and used in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall (and featured at the top of the page).

Helen takes tea near Varda Bridge

Helen takes tea near Varda Bridge

John and the Varda Bridge

John and the Varda Bridge

IMG_2302The trip has been outstanding, but exhausting. We fall into bed each night, ignoring our blog. However we have many tales to tell and many pics, so stay tuned.


Filed under Culture, Delpratt, POW history

Constantinople not Istanbul

With the arrival of Teyze Jan at the beginning of the week, we kicked off the family history part of our trip to Turkey. Helen’s grandfather (Jan’s father), Sergeant Maurice Delpratt was captured on the Gallipoli Peninsula and spent three and a half years as a prisoner of war working on the Berlin to Baghdad railway in the remote Taurus Mountains near the southern Syrian border.

We will be visiting many of the places where he was held – a journey of around 1,500 kms across Turkey.

University of Istanbul gates (formerly Ministry of War)

University of Istanbul gates (formerly Ministry of War)

But we start in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was in 1915. What is now the University of Istanbul was the Turkish Ministry of War; and it was here that prisoners were brought for processing. They came up from the battlefields probably in boats returning to Istanbul, and  were marched over the Galata Bridge and through the city streets, to the prison at the Ministry of War.

Teyze Jan had only two days in Istanbul, so on the first day we combined a visit to Sultanahmet (the justifiably famous blue mosque) with a stroll through the Grand Bazaar to the university campus. We passed through the same stately gates that the prisoners would have passed through in 1915. While we were sitting in the shade of the trees in the inner courtyard, the midday call to prayer began from the beautiful Suleymaniye mosque nearby.

Illustration from a German magazine of the Turkish Ministry of War dururing World war One

Illustration from a German magazine of the Turkish Ministry of War dururing World war One

We thought about those anxious men, feeling ashamed at their capture and apprehensive about what was about to happen, hearing such a foreign and spine-tingling sound from their cells.

The other place in Istanbul that is part of Maurice Delpratt’s war is Haydarpaşa Railway Station. Another graceful edifice, this building was a gift from the German Kaiser to the Sultan and was an important part of the Berlin to Baghdad Railway.

Haydarpaşa railway station, Istanbul

Haydarpaşa railway station, Istanbul

It was opened just before the war and sits on the Asian side of the Bosphorus with its own dinky ferry station. It was here that Maurice and the other prisoners were loaded onto the train in July 1915 to take them to prison camps in central Turkey for the remainder of the war.

Haydarpaşa ferry stop, Istanbul

Haydarpaşa ferry stop, Istanbul

The train was headed to Afyonkarahissar in central Turkey, which was a major distribution point for prisoners to other camps around Turkey. On the way, the train was shelled by a British submarine. Maurice later wrote in a letter home, “But quite the most fearsome moments of that eventful time, were some we spent in a stationery train, close to the Gulf of Isnet [now Iznik]. A submarine opened fire on the train and we spent an anxious half hour, trying to hide from one another, a very hearty desire to dive under the seats. At Angora [now Ankara] a few months afterwards I met the huge West countryman who served the gun. He was Hooper of E7 and now keeps a watch in the compressor room at Tasch Durmas [as a fellow prisoner in the Taurus Mountains].”

Our next stop is the Gallipoli Peninsula, where both Maurice Delpratt and John’s grandfather, Ernest Strambini served.


Filed under Delpratt, Istanbul, POW history

The Road to Istanbul Modern

As Charles Atlas would have it, Istanbul is a place of dynamic tensions.

On the Beyoğlu road

On the Beyoğlu road

For the visitor of course, these contrasts are both exciting and challenging.  We have been intrigued by traditional Istanbul, hugely impressed by ancient Istanbul, and quite confronted by religious and conservative Istanbul.  Not surprisingly, we are most comfortable with modern Istanbul, even though that’s not without its challenges.

After almost two weeks here, some recurring themes are appearing.  Eating and restaurants of course, and the Taksim protests, but an unexpected theme of considerable importance has turned out to be roads.

IMG_1243Before the Taksim protests showed just how differently the government and their supporters were thinking, most would have said that Turkey was roaring down the road to modern Turkey, European Turkey, and certainly modern Istanbul.

Just how on earth Erdogan thinks he can put that genie back in the bottle defies all logic.  While the crushing of the protests, which he has all but achieved, will slow things down a bit, nothing will stop the path that Istanbul is on.

One way - but which way?

One way – but which way?

There is of course a short-term cost, and the European media are suggesting that the violent and duplicitous way that the PM has reacted to the Taksim protests has finally killed off Turkey’s desire to join the European Union.  However, if they manage to get the Olympics in 2020, Istanbul will move even further away from Erdogan’s Turkey.

Our road to modern Istanbul has of course been a little more pedestrian (heh heh).

Being quite literal, the actual roads are crazy, like the small one-way street we are staying in, where cars just ignore the rules and drive straight at each other.  The really steep streets falling away from Beyoğlu and Istiklal Street are also a wonder to behold.

Back in the metaphorical, while we have loved the uber-cheap street cafes and old fashioned shops and markets, we have also really enjoyed the upmarket restaurants and fashionable neighbourhoods that are an equal to any modern city.

On the Bosphorus

On the Bosphorus

We had a superb meal at Lokanta Maya (Kemankeş Cd, Karaköy) run by New York trained Istanbul chef Didem Şenol (though she is off having a baby at the moment).  We breakfasted on the Bosphorus at The House Café at Ortaköy (Salhane Sk), surrounded by wealthy and very modern locals.

But we probably had the most modern fun on our visit to the Istanbul Modern, which turned out to be a very telling metaphor for modern Istanbul.

The road to the Istanbul Modern is in fact an ugly driveway into a carpark, with no dedicated space for pedestrians.  The entrance is at the end of said carpark, and looks like the sign-on shed for crew for the nearby docks.  The museum building itself fares no better, sandwhiched between a machinery storage yard and the docks.  On a good day, the docks provide a spectacular view of the Bosphorus and the Asian side from the museum café; problem is, on most days, there is a huge cruise ship docked there, totally blocking the view.

The view to nowhere

The view to nowhere

Once inside, the Istanbul Modern is the very model of a modern major art museum, and fortunately the current exhibitions included a major retrospective of their collection, Past and Future.  Populist at one level, but a great opportunity for the one-time visitor.

There was also a very strong retrospective of local artist Erol Akyavaş.

But to prove that Art Imitates Life just as often as the other way around, our favourite piece in the Istanbul Modern retrospective was a video piece by two Istanbul artists titled …….

Road to Tate Modern.

[It’s only 6:41 long but you can skip to 4:55 and get the gist]


Filed under Culture, Food, Istanbul, protests, Restaurants


20130624-215738.jpgAs those of you who’ve been to Istanbul know, the tour touts and souvenir sellers who hang round the big tourist sites in Sultanahmet play a game of guessing your nationality to engage you in conversation. It’s probably not a good thing to be assumed mostly to be German.

So it was a happy day today – “French..?”

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Filed under Istanbul, Travel

First fifty hours, Part 2

… in which we hear more of the adventures of Pasha Phil meeting up with effendi Helen and John in Istanbul.

Library at Topkapi Palace

Library at Topkapi Palace

There are a lot of must-see places in Istanbul, where notwithstanding the lines of buses that arrive from the cruise ships, you have to take your place in the queue or miss out on astonishingly beautiful sights.

So on the next day, we set off to Topkapi Palace, the former palace of the Sultans in Sultanahmet.  Not a European-style palace rather a beautiful garden complex filled with lavish pavilions. More stunning tiles and marble and opulent design. A library to die for, with thick walls against the heat, lounging couches and windows to pick up a breeze coming from any direction. A kitchen that accommodated 1,500 staff.

Divan at Topkapi Palace

Divan at Topkapi Palace

The Divan (yes named after the couches that lined the walls) is the Cabinet Room, where the Sultan could slip in unobserved and listen behind an ornate grill to his advisors arguing about policy and judging disputes. Clever way to keep the court on its toes.

After all that opulence, lunch was in a tiny family café down in the market streets near the Spice Bazaar (Uzunçarşi Cd). One each of a spinach, cheese and potato Gozleme, cooked by the mother, and two plates of deep-fried Hamsi (sardines) cooked by the father, with the son doing the serving.  All brilliant, and with three waters, it cost a whole 40 TL.



The Palace had taken longer than we expected, so our afternoon plan – to ferry up the Golden Horn and walk to the Chora Church Museum – no longer seemed viable.

Plan B, created on the spot, was to hit the water – it was a beautiful day, after all, and a ferry to Üsküdur (Asian side) was approaching.  After a Monty Pythonesque interlude, as the ticket seller dealt with a sudden power failure by scrambling to fire up a generator for the electronic reader of our Istanbulkarts, we were headed home, but via Asia.

John and the hamsi

John and the hamsi

Back at our Kabataş apartment, we shared a glass of one of Turkey’s better red wines, and planned some more adventures – a re-run of our Chora plan for the following day; a visit to the Istanbul Modern; a special breakfast in Besiktaş; an underground tour of the Basillica Cisterns; and making a booking for dinner for Phil’s last night at Lokanta Maya.

Then we headed out again to catch another ferry across the Bosphorus back to Kadiköy, to yet another great restaurant.  And impressively, to three more Standing Man silent protest groups in different locations in Kadiköy, plus at 9.00pm, the enduring pots and pans/knife and glass anti-Erdogan protest from the restaurant patrons.

50 great first hours for a fiftieth, and plenty more great Istanbul hours to go.


Filed under Food, Istanbul