Istanbul – dancing to the magic

The view south from Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn
The view south from Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn

There are cities that engage the senses so deeply that the visitor doesn’t need to DO anything. You simply dance in your mind to their magic. Istanbul is one such city, though it faces some stern challenges.

If a visiting Martian said to me “Earthling, take me to your three finest cities”, I know where we would go.

To Venice, a sublime Old World city. To New York, with all the gutsy dynamism of the New. And to Istanbul, the supreme hybrid city, standing astride Europe and Asia like a Colossus. There is no other city on Earth that bridges two continents.

The great cities draw you back. In early May I make my fifth visit to Istanbul and since my last time here 40 years ago the place has grown immensely.

The experience of riding through the western suburbs on the night bus from Bucharest brings out the country boy in me. The vast urban landscape first dumbs my mind and then I want to scream “You’ve got too big!”

According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the population of Istanbul at the end of 2013 was 14,160,467 and it is projected to reach 16.6 million by 2023. About a third of the population lives on the Asian side, but this is still Europe’s largest urban agglomeration.

Later, seeing that the historic core of the city still weaves its charm, I regain some sense of calm.

In all three of my chosen cities, there is the powerful presence of water as a defining element in the landscape. A city needs that to achieve true greatness. None of them today is a national capital and perhaps that too is part of their secret. They don’t have to bother with all that national government business and can evolve and pour their energies with more freedom.

Didem, Istanbul's top belly dancer, steps out on stage
Didem, Istanbul’s top belly dancer, steps out on stage

All offer sensual experience in the fullest sense.

What visitors to Istanbul often remember years later is the mix of smells. The saffron in the spice market, the roast chestnuts or sweet corn on Istiklal Avenue, the city’s great pedestrian thoroughfare.

Some visitors, women as well as men, remember decades later watching the sinuous movements of an Istanbul belly dancer. At its best, and it is done well in Istanbul, this is classy entertainment.

The city is noisy, but its noises are varied and seldom grate, at least not on me. There is the mewing of the ubiquitous cats, the muezzin’s call to prayer, Turkish music on the radio, falling rain, hooting cars, chattering travellers. It can all be experienced as one mighty orchestra, with the different musicians playing their part.

This is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and even at midnight Istiklal Avenue can be bursting with humanity. As a money-making centre it is so important that it represents more than a quarter of Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product.

A cruise liner on the Bosphorus, seen through a window of Istanbul's Topkapi Palace
A cruise liner on the Bosphorus, seen through a window of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

There is a dark side, of course, as you would expect in a big complex city.

On my first evening, out strolling not far from the Bosphorus shore, I suddenly become aware of the clump of heavy boots behind me. I turn and see about 15 to 20 policemen, some with riot shields and truncheons at the ready, just metres from me and running in my general direction.

Within seconds they have passed me and gone into a nearby park.

There are other people in the street and I pick up that they are attentive but not frightened. I take my cue from them. Earlier I had seen a small left-wing demonstration near the city’s Taksim Square where riot police are present in their dozens. It is a day in the life of Istanbul.

There have been moments in Istanbul’s recent past when riot police were truly out in force. In 2013, for example, there were clashes sparked by plans to turn Gezi Park next to Taksim, the central square, into a shopping mall. Disturbances spread to a number of Turkish towns and cities and at least six protesters and one policeman died. Thousands were injured.

The government scrapped plans for the shopping mall after the protests, but the Istanbul residents I talk to are not complacent about the future quality of life in their city. A third international airport is under construction, as is the Third Bosphorus Bridge, now at an advanced stage. This project, at the northern end of the Bosphorus Strait, has entailed the felling of many trees. Some fear that these developments will put more strain on a metropolis already groaning with traffic.

My guess is that a long struggle lies ahead for those who want Istanbul to avoid being sacrificed on the altar of “progress”. It is easy to be pessimistic and I prefer a cautious optimism about the future of this great city.

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Crossing by footbridge to Transylvania

Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day
Young Romanian women in Cluj out and about on May Day

There are paradoxes about Romania and as a visitor who stayed just six nights, I cannot resolve them. Romania had the most bloody 20th century, yet the people are friendly, open and a joy to talk to.

I left feeling that the Romanians know a lot about the art of living and I made a promise to myself to return.

Let me get the history out of the way. Romania took part in the two world wars, suffering heavy loss of life both military and civilian. It entered the first because it wanted to wrest Transyslvania from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but the Central Powers fought it to a standstill and it sued for peace in 1917.

With the victory of the Allies the following year the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and Romania got Transylvania after all, in the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

In the Second World War, under the leadership of Ion Antonescu, Romania sided with Adolf Hitler. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the biggest invasion in history, on 22 June 1941, Romania was a key ally of Nazi Germany in its onslaught on the Soviet Union. By the summer of 1944 more than 1.2 million Romanians were under arms on the Axis side, second only to the number of Germans.

Romanian authorities took an active part in the Holocaust, murdering Jews and Roma people on Romanian-controlled territory.

Two national leaders were overthrown and shot. Antonescu was found guilty of war crimes and faced the firing squad in 1946. He dressed elegantly for the occasion in jacket and tie and with a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. On Christmas Day 1989 deposed Communist ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena also met their end by firing squad, after a one-hour court session.

The country also abolished its monarchy.

So, all in all quite a lot happened to Romania in the 20th century. Visit Romania today and you can discover a country which feels stable and self-confident.

I set off for Romania from Uzhhorod on April 29, on a wheezing, crowded Ukrainian country bus that will take me to a border town.

We pass a succession of Ukrainian villages set back from the road which somehow are neither picturesque nor ugly, all dominated by tall churches often painted a pale yellow. During a journey of 170 kilometres I observe a densely populated rural area, but its way of life is a closed book. The Carpathian Mountains form a backdrop to the villages.

I leave the bus at the border town of Solotvyno, or rather just after it because I had not realised where we were. Solotvyno has been known historically for its salt mines. It was also the birthplace of the late British press baron Robert Maxwell and at that time belonged to Czechoslovakia.

A walk of about 90 minutes takes me to the border post. Now border crossings can be a time-consuming bore, but this one is delightful.

The border is the Tisza river and after completing formalities on the Ukrainian side I simply walk over a short bridge to Romania, to its region of Transylvania. According to Hitchwiki, the hitchhiker’s guide to hitchhiking the world, this is the only border crossing between Ukraine and Romania where travellers are allowed to cross on foot.

After Ukraine I feel I am entering a land of milk and honey. I check into a rather grand-looking hotel, the first that comes into view, and find a comfortable bed.

I am in Sighetu Marmatiei and a bustling town it is too. Waiting at a bus stop the following day, I am reminded that for many Romanians this is not a land of milk and honey. Stickers on buses advertise rides to Belgium (80 euros) and England (£70). The listed destinations include the London suburbs of Wood Green, Neasden and Wembley. I had not expected in Transylvania to find ads enticing me to Neasden.

I ignore the ads and stick to my plan of travelling to Cluj-Napoca, unofficial capital of Transylvania and the second most populous city of Romania.

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This wooden gate is the entrance to a Cluj museum, but gate-making in Transylvania is still a living craft

The bus ride to Cluj is enchanting. Unlike the road in Ukraine, this one goes straight through villages. We travel through one settlement after another for hours on end and now I do get a sense of how local people live.

I am travelling, in 21st century Europe, through a region where traditional subsistence farming and local craft appear to be alive and well. We pass literally hundreds of houses with back yards full of hens. Often the houses have intricately carved high wooden gates at the front.

Now while I accept that one yard with hens looks much like another, the overall visual stimulus in a peasant society, if you are not from one yourself, is extraordinary. There is much to see – a woman washing laundry in a river, a man ploughing with a horse, a family filling a mixer with cement, shepherds minding their flocks.

The most memorable sight is of two women chatting and walking side by side in the early evening with hoes slung over their shoulders. For me, it is the visual equivalent of great poetry, something so simple in its essence that it touches the core of my being. It speaks to me of harmony, naturalness and timeless rhythms on the Earth. The strength of my emotions surprises me.

Of course, if the two women ever read this they will shake their heads in bewilderment or crack their sides with laughter. But I know that it is for experiences like this that the traveller leaves home in the first place.

At Cluj I stay three nights, to rest and to absorb Romania by osmosis. Cluj is a handsome city, full of life and character, with a history and architecture that are largely Hungarian.

For the 10-hour journey from Cluj to Bucharest I take the train, partly to follow the example of Prince Yakimov, the character in Olivia Manning’s “The Balkan Trilogy” who travels the self-same route. In his case, the fictional rail journey takes place in wartime and is shot through with menace.

In my case there is no sense of menace, though I do well to stock up with water and a sandwich since there is no buffet car. I also buy a copy of the Transilvania Reporter, a local weekly. I have no Romanian but I can’t resist the title.

At times during the journey, such as near the town of Sinaia, the Carpathians are quite magnificent, their peaks rising sharply and filling much of the view out of the train window.

Finally we draw into Bucharest. The city is clearly a whole world unto itself and I stay only two nights. But I am charmed to find that it has leafy cycle paths. Why am I so surprised by this? Sometimes travel says a lot about our own preconceptions.

Because I am travelling by train and staying in hostels, I meet a lot of young Romanians. One theme comes up again and again in conversation. Students and even youngsters who are now working tell me that their parents regularly send them food parcels.

In Bucharest, Paula Posea talks to me about this phenomenon. She did a food technology course in the capital and every term-time weekend for four years her parents sent her food. It came by bus from her parents’ home town nearly 200 kilometres away.

The food included milk from her own cow, which was still with her parents, eggs from their own hens, home-made fruit preserves, pork fat called slanina and a full soup known as ciorba.

“But the most important thing in every package,” says Paula, “is ‘zacusca’, made from aubergines and some other ingredients like red pepper.” Typically it is eaten spread over bread.

Several students say that without these food parcels it would be hard for them to make ends meet, but this living tradition also says a lot about the importance of both food and family in Romania.

When I ask Paula why the food parcels, she says: “Romanians like to eat, end of story. So the food you grow up with is very important. I can’t stay in Bucharest without ciorba. I am going to die.”

According to Paula, it is very rare that a student does not receive food from home.

In Cluj, I meet one young man who intends to study in the Netherlands. So what will he do about food? “I will ask my mother to put the food on a plane,” he says with a smile.

I am not at all sure that he is joking.

The road to Ukraine

Košice Cathedral in Slovakia, with a street statue in the foreground
Košice Cathedral in Slovakia, with a street statue in the foreground

I intend to go overland from Latvia to Georgia, to feel the vibes of the places in between and stretch my traveller muscles. The road to Ukraine will be roughly the first third of the journey.

I make a start with the night bus from Riga to Warsaw, which offers hot meals to passengers and is most comfortable. Just as well, since this is a 12-hour ride.

We roll into Warsaw shortly after 5 a.m. I have been to Warsaw before, but I marvel afresh at the hum and modernity of this thrusting city, at the monumental scale of reconstruction. In 1945 this was one of two national capitals destroyed by war, the other being Manila. What work the Poles have done.

Within minutes I am heading south on a train to Kraków, capital of Poland from 1038 to 1569 and by any measure one of Europe’s architectural jewels. I have been here too in the past and again I am struck on arrival by the sheer energy of the place.

I check into a hostel in the city’s former Jewish district Kazimierz, dotted with a multitude of bars, restaurants and clubs. Looking about me I decide that Kraków must be competing for the title of party capital of Europe.

South of Kraków lie the Tatra mountains and the trick is to choose a public transport option that gets me to Slovakia on the other side of the range. I start with bus to Katowice, where I spot a working coal mine, the first I have seen in years.

Then a train from Katowice to the Slovakian town of Žilina where I change trains for Košice.

From Žilina to Košice is a lovely ride, with the snow-capped Tatras now in sight to the north.

We pass a succession of picturesque towns and villages with many wooden houses. Slovakia looks very cosy.

I read a love story by Chekhov, “The Lady with a Dog”, and feel that this is the life.

I arrive in Košice, Slovakia’s second city, on a Monday evening and it is a shock after Kraków, Košice is deadly quiet. The only person out on the streets near the city’s 14th century Gothic cathedral turns out to be a statue.

Košice is a city of substance with a long history. The Bradt Travel Guide says it was the first in Europe to be awarded a municipal coat of arms, in 1369.

On arrival at a hostel the receptionist kindly offers me a free vegan dinner, as part of the deal for guests. Having just dined I demur and negotiate two free beers instead.

The imposing medieval castle at Uzhhorod in western Ukraine
The imposing medieval castle at Uzhhorod in western Ukraine

The next stage of the journey is to Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. I travel by bus with a midwife from Seattle of Welsh extraction, whom I met at the hostel. We are the only Western tourists heading into Ukraine on this particular vehicle.

The border formalities to leave Slovakia and enter Ukraine take an hour. The female Ukrainian border guard who comes onto the bus to collect our passports is dressed in military fatigues.

At Uzhhorod’s taxi rank we look for a cab to go to the hotel where my travelling companion, Lynn Hughes, has made a booking. We give the name and address of the hostelry to a driver who tells us in forthright terms that there is no such hotel. We approach a second driver who takes the same line with some vigour. Have you ever felt that you are being cast into the role of stupid foreigner?

Because Lynn has a booking with a reputable agency, we insist on going to the address. The second driver sullenly climbs into his jalopy, which in a gesture to humour he calls a Russian Mercedes, and we bump our way through the town. We reach the address, 22 Kapitulna Street, and there stands the boutique hotel Primavera, where Lynn has a booking.

Uzhhorod’s taxi drivers are not on the wavelength of tourism. Of course with fighting in eastern Ukraine making world headlines for the past year and claiming more than 6,000 lives, they can scarcely be blamed. The tourists are staying away.

Uzhhorod is not prospering. It feels as if time has stood still here for a generation. Some of the street signage, like an Intourist sign for a hotel, appears to go back to Soviet times. Walking down one central street I pass a woman with a beaten-up old pram scavenging in rubbish bins. A few metres further on, another woman is selling modest quantities of radishes, spring onions and other vegetables laid out on the pavement.

The town, once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, has its charms, in particular a magnificent medieval castle ruled for centuries by counts of Franco-Italian origin. In a happier land, the trippers would be checking it out.

In the evening, Lynn and I take a stroll and discover that the beating heart of Uzhhorod’s nightlife is by the Uzh River. At one of the cafes along the riverbank we have a dessert, coffee and a nightcap. The cafe offers blankets to customers feeling the chill of the night and the young waitress who serves us is the very soul of friendliness.

“Where are you from?” she asks, with genuine curiosity shining on her face. We talk a bit and she says that she is a student.

“What are you studying?” I ask.

“Tourism,” she says, giving us a smile to melt the heart.