I arrived in Turkey in the late evening, weary and hungry, but I was soon to be enchanted. Once off the main road a smell like minty Christmas trees filled the air. Things were less serene in Edirne, my penultimate city stop.
Inside the city and in the thick of it everything is noise. Scooters weave among pedestrians on the pavements, horns tooting, and reedy, middle-easten music blasts from car stereos. Hawkers shout from kebab stands. Everyone seemed to be shouting, in fact. Then the nasal drone of the call to prayer piped up and emanated down from tannoys on the tall minarets that dominate the skyline. I feels like I’m in Tehran, not 20 miles from the EU! I suddenly feel a very long way from home and nearly start crying. It’s not that I’m homesick or that I’m relieved to be so close to my final destination… I couldn’t explain the feeling that washed over me. I still don’t understand it.
I found a kofte sandwich from a street vendor with baclava to follow and it delicious, the best meal I’d had since Budapest. Balkan cuisine seemed almost entirely to involve plain, grilled meat and chips (though I did see a hollowed pinapple half filled with chicken liver and topped with melted cheese at one restaurant) and I was thoroughly tired of it. This meal was also mercifully cheap but the beer here is even more expensive than in the UK – the Islam – oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) have hiked tax on alcohol dramatically.
The mosques are beautiful – unlike anything I’ve seen before. Whereas churches are decorated with biblical depictions mosques are full of calligraphy, floral designs and geometric patterns. The largest in Edirne is the Selimiye Mosque designed by Sinan, top dog of Ottoman architects. Its vast central dome is supported by external buttresses so it is able to hold windows to light the cavernous space inside.
The city by day is just as bustling as it is in the evening. I would be woken each morning by some man walking the streets chanting something unknown in Turkish. Then comes the regular call to prayer, each mosque vying to be the loudest. In the streets was a procession of drummers and men on horseback kicking up a din of their own. The only people at peace seem to be the policemen, who are all sitting around on little stools at little tables drinking tea from little glasses like they are intruding on a little girl’s tea party. So I got some tea of my own in a leafy, shaded square. I don’t usually stray from my reliable cup of three-minute-brewed Yorkshire Gold with two sugars and lots of milk bu
t this was rather good. Someone dropped a laminated picture in front of me of a rotund fellow in some sort of idyllic pasture then came back five minutes later to wordlessly retrieve it. What mystery and excitement!
The secular republic that is modern Turkey was formed by Mustafa Kemal, ubiquitously known as Ataturk – ‘father of Turks’. After he lead the army that reclaimed the lands the country lost at the end of WW2 he became prime minister and was widely loved, not to say revered. Today his pictures and statues are still found all over the place. This seems funny to me because he worked hard to set the country on a western orientation but the AKP has pointed Turkey back towards Islam since 2002.
I have joined a group of three Londoners staying in the hostel. They have been cycling from Prague and Istsnbul is their final destination too so we will cycle the last leg together. I am grateful of the company and also the safety in numbers on what is by all accounts a hellish approach to Istanbul. So tomorrow we will face the bulk of two continents’ traffic squeezed onto three roads across of the bottleneck between the Black Sea and the Sea of Mamara. We rise at 3am.
Nearly there now… emotions are running high.