Turkey, August - September 2002

Day 1 - Sunday - London to Istanbul

The average Turk is extremely patriotic, but accepting of the fact that the country is largely run by fools or the corrupt. While their savings are devalued and the country's rate of inflation soars, the average Turk hoists the red flag with the white crescent and star with pride. The average Turk is Westernised, wants the country to play a greater part in Europe, but also embraces its Islamic and Asian past and present. In short, Turkey is a place of contrasts. Straddling Europe in the west and Asia in the East, Istanbul was to be our entry point into this country that is bigger than France and Germany combined.

On the way to our hotel - the first of ten that we would be staying over a two week period - we saw children braving the traffic at crossroads and traffic lights, trying to sell roses to car drivers. It was gone midnight. The children can't have been more than 6 or 7 years old. There were no parents or other 'supervising' adults to be seen. I shuddered at this, watching these young girls fearlessly approaching cars, the thoughts of the two Soham girls who went missing (and subsequently found murdered) coming to mind.

Day 2 - Monday - Istanbul

The day began with a briefing on the terrace of the Ottoman Hotel (there are probably hundreds of hotels here with the same name!). Our Explore tour guide was called Neil, and he'd been doing the same tour for around three months.  With a bit of luck, he would have already acquired the essential local knowledge that we could tap him for, like where not to exchange cash, what scams to look out for and what local brew is recommended (OK, that last one was purely for me, and for the record, the local brew appeared to be ... Tubörg. The Danish lager. Brewed in Istanbul)

The view from the terrace was right out across the Marmaris, and over to the East I could clearly make out the outline of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). That was to be our first destination of the morning, with a walk through the not-quite-yet bustling streets of downtown Istanbul.

We were told at the briefing about the drivers in Turkey being, well, of the adventurous kind. While pavements are the realm of the pedestrian (except for where you have to negotiate around cardboard boxes, potholes or surprisingly situated stairwells to basement shops), the roads are for cars and cars alone. Forget about pedestrian crossings - the cars have right of way. Well, strictly speaking they don't, but trust me when I say that you are not in a position to argue on this one.

Neil told us they believe in 'Kismet and Kadur' - or Luck and fate. As he put it, "If a car just misses you, it's luck. If you are hit and injured (or worse), then it was fated." We bore these words in mind at every junction.

We had a walking tour of the old part of Istanbul (or ancient Constantinople). That's a damn lie, actually. There was no walking, it was all running! Beginning at Constantine's Tower, and passing an Egyptian obelisk taken from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, we hot-footed it to the Blue Mosque. Our guide, Sergun, left us with little time for taking photos.

The Blue Mosque, strangely enough, is grey. So, why the name, I wondered, and the answer lies on the inside. Having removed footwear and covered up any particularly showy areas of skin, our group went inside the mosque to discover the incredibly ornate Islamic Iznik tile work, which was predominantly shades of blue.

There is freedom of religion in the secular republic that is Turkey, but 98% are Muslim through choice. There is a minority that want to see a more strict Islamic state with the introduction of Sharia law - which was so popular back in good old Afghanistan, as you may recall - but they are very much the minority here. And even though there are calls to prayer five times a day, not once did I see anyone actually react to this by praying wherever they may be. Apparently, Fridays are the most important day to make your ablutions (again, we saw no evidence of this during the holiday). Anyway, back to the mosque ...

One reason why the decoration is so ornate, possibly, is because images and icons were not allowed - probably something to do with not worshipping false deities. The Arabic calligraphy is also incredibly artistic. I have no idea what it says, but I like it all the same.

Having taken the obligatory photos, we headed back out and took our shoes back out of the plastic bags provided. It was a little blowy outside, and I saw one bag catch a gust and blow back inside the mosque, tumbleweed-style, across the carpeted floor. I dove back in to try to catch it, doing my good deed for the day. However, I realised fairly quickly that I'd actually committed a faux pas, as I'd already put my shoes back on and was presently desecrating this place of worship. As I grabbed the bag, I could hear one of the mosque attendants flapping, shouting something in my general direction. Oops. Well, I was trying to do the right thing!

Directly facing the Blue Mosque is another of Istanbul's famous landmark, the Aya Sofia. Unlike other mosques in the city, this began life as a church but was converted. Inside the Christian decoration has been covered by huge medallions with Arabic calligraphy. We didn't get to see this first hand (on this occasion) as we went straight on past towards Topkapı Palace.

Topkapı includes a number of different types of buildings within its walls, and all of these were described in detail by our guide. The Kitchens were one of the early stops on route where, rather than feeding the five thousand, when these were working at full capacity during the Ramadan festival, they catered for 15,000 of the local poor and needy. Now, though, it was being used to show off a large collection of Chinese ceramics.

Passing through the Gate of Felicity, we saw some restoration work going on as primer was applied to some of the flourishes, just waiting for the gold leaf (or gold coloured paint, which is more likely given Turkey's soaring inflation rates).

Then on past the Sultan's receiving room, we continued to the Tulip Room (I believe it was called), or rather we stood outside it and looked over the Bosphorous Sea, taking in the numbers of tankers going about their business. It was a very hazy day, but our guide pointed out various landmarks in the distance to us, including the Maiden's Tower.

The Baghdad Pavilion came next - an extremely ornate and very small room (one might almost call it a folly). The Islamic tile work was beautiful, and there was a guide on standby to make sure that no-one decided to take away any souvenirs.

In the Privy Chamber of Holy Relics, we saw various swords belonging to the ancient Caliphs, treasured models of mosques such as that at Medina and a number of other valued relics that are significant to Muslims. In one room, which was crowded (with people, not relics), a man was sat in one corner in a booth reciting pages from the Koran over the loud speaker. It was all very melodious, if you like that kind of thing. I tried to film the scene with my camcorder, but was told off first by one woman who told me that I cannot film and that they would confiscate the film. Then I got clarification on this by the guard who began gesticulating wildly in the general direction of myself and another Muslim woman whose camera (and camera-work) was somewhat more discreet than mine. Thankfully, I didn't get the film confiscated. Perhaps the fact that a Muslim had also been caught went in my favour - they would have had to confiscate it from her too. She in all her fully robed black glory - perhaps they couldn't bring themselves to do it.

So, that was my second faux pas in one day. What could I do next to bring dishonour to the Islamic world? Well, they say these things come in threes, so maybe another one is around the corner, who knows?! In my defence, should I ever find myself in an Islamic court needing to defend myself, the signs did show a standard 35mm camera with a red slash through it that I took to mean 'No Flash Photography'. No symbol for 'No Camcorders'. Ah well, roll on number three ...

We had lunch at The Pudding Shop in the Sultanhamet district. The shop has been there for years and has a reputation as being one of the start points on the hippy trail through Asia - a good place to get a good feed before discovering the culinary delights that await in India and so on. Despite the title, it does actually sell meat products - it's not really a place to get stuffed on Angel Delight.

Afterwards, Manda, myself and Robert - one of the Aussies - took a walk back to Aya Sofia to get some more pictures (our last stop had been somewhat brief). Pictures over, we then headed back towards the Grand Bazaar with a brief detour at a bank to change money (where, incidentally, the teller completely failed to understand my pigeon Turkish and resorted to the little English that he knew).

The Grand Bazaar is not called that for nothing. It's huge. Every route you take there are side routes and off those are more side routes. It's quite a maze. There are streets/aisles/lanes (not sure how best to describe them) that have specialised areas, like leather lane or gold lane. Generally speaking, though, you can see the same things throughout. And outside every shop sits the owner trying to assess what country you are from and coming up with the best line to entice you in. The best one I heard was so simple: "You are looking for me - I need money. You can help me!" We didn't though. Instead, we continued on to a tea shop and helped ourselves to Turkish and apple teas. Point to remember - try the apple tea before putting sugar in. You may well not need that extra sugary sweetness!

We then tried to get our bearings in this maze to head out towards north in the direction of the Süleymaniye mosque. This is the largest of the mosques in Istanbul, but evidently not the easiest to find. Despite having huge minarets, it's very difficult to spot when you are at street level. It's obvious from a distance, but when you are right next to it, you could walk all the way around it and not know it's there. Believe me, this is eminently possible. We pretty much did just that! 1 hour or so after trying to find the mosque, and very exhausted thanks to the afternoon heat, we finally got there just in time for the 5pm call to prayer.

When the call the prayer happens, the whole city seems to buzz. From this location at the top of the hill overlooking the Golden Horn, we could hear this general din in the distance as all the other minarets throughout the city filled with the wailing renditions of the Koran. Some might compare it to the sound of a strangled cat, but if you take a break from Westernised preconceptions and just listen to the voice, you can hear that it is often pitch-perfect - it's just a musical scale that is different to what we are used to.

We then got a taxi - or taksi - back to the hotel. Luckily, we had a card from the hotel which showed the location. This made it easier for the driver, and just to be sure that he didn't attempt to take us on another trip around the city - heck, we'd almost done that ourselves on foot - I kept a map open make it appear as if I was checking his route with the desired route. Truth was I hadn't a clue. He didn't know that though! We got back without being ripped off. Result!

We finished off the day with a group meal at a place called The Olympiat. It's in the fish district of town known as Kumkapi, and our meals were largely based around this. I opted for a bluefish (lüfer), Manda had sea bass. I even braved the anchovies that were provided as starters ... And found them delicious, much to my surprise (I had always regarded them as 'those stinky things that ruin an otherwise perfectly good pizza').

We were also joined by a group of cats who also seemed to want a bit of fish and a group of musicians who played traditional Turkish songs (including the recent Turkish hit 'Kiss Kiss' which Holly Valance did a cover of. Yes, it was a Turkish song first, folks). The cats were dismissed with either a piece of fish (or a push/kick/whatever), the musicians with tips. They were good though.

Day 3 - Tuesday - Istanbul, Gallipoli, Çanakkale

Neil told us that on every tour he has a little treasure hunt. A list of ten things that we have to try to look out for, just for fun. For this tour, the challenges to keep our minds ticking over while we sat on the bus were:

Some of these were too easy, we thought, so we decided to contribute some ideas for the next tour which included a helicopter, a Turkish woman smoking or a Turkish woman drinking tea in a café.

Our first stop of the day was it Gallipoli Town for a spot of lunch before heading around various locations around the Gallipoli peninsular.

Without getting in to too much detail, Gallipoli has major historical significance - particularly to Australians and New Zealanders - as it was the location of a bloody battle in World War 1. Most of those commonwealth soldiers had volunteered and met their deaths on the inhospitable hills. The story goes that the landing location of Anzac Cove was never the intended landing spot - that the marker buoy was moved from the intended landing spot (a flat area, labeled 'Brighton Beach'), intentionally or otherwise, to Anzac causing the difficulties that the Commonwealth soldiers faced.

Everywhere around the peninsular are monuments to the dead - both on the Turkish and the Commonwealth sides - which are well maintained and continue to attract many visitors. This probably explained the large number of Aussie and Kiwi visitors in our group - 12 altogether out of 18.

Among the more memorable monuments were statues commemorating the Turkish solder who rescued a Commonwealth soldier and carried him across no-man's land to the enemy trenches and, for the Aussies, the Lone Pine cemetery where so many young Australians who died were buried overlooking the sea.

On a slightly more light-hearted note, at the Anzac landing spot I spotted another blue tractor. I had to get a picture of it, just for the record.

We also visited the small museum at the site that cost just 1,000,000 TL (or 40p). It featured a number of artifacts, uniforms, items of weaponry (including some amazing bullets that had collided with other bullets mid-air, showing holes through the side and so on) and historical documents. Some of the most interesting were the letters sent home by servicemen to their loved ones back home, describing the scenes of war.

We then took a ferry across to the southern part of the Dardanelles - the Asian part. It was easy to spot where we were going, given the sign 'Feribot'. Other easy-to-recognise forms of transport include the 'taksi', as already mentioned and the 'Koç'. If I tell you that the letter o is pronounced 'oh' and that the ç is pronounced as 'ch' you'll see that this was not too difficult to follow!

Our hotel - or 'otel' - for the evening was in Çanakkale. This was a very plush affair with a nice pool, great accommodation and a beautiful view over the sea, with the northern (European) section across the way. Unfortunately I missed the sunset which tour leader Neil said he'd arranged for us because I was too busy making the most of the pool. He obviously forgot to arrange for the haze to disappear for the night, so by the time that we got there, all there was to see was a faint pink glow behind the haze.

Another good Turkish meal tonight, and a reasonably early finish - 10:30pm. There's no lie-in tomorrow though - it's another 7:30 departure, meaning a 6:30 wake-up.

Day 4 - Wednesday - Troy, Pergamum, Selçuk

Our guide for our first stop in the morning at Troy was Mustafa who spoke excellent English, told some good jokes along the way, and was also very knowledgeable about the site, having written a book on the subject of Troy. He had also written a book on Gallipoli, which he was keen to point out to the Australian contingent.

Mustafa gave us an introduction to the history of Troy on the way to the site. Once there, he really brought things to life - explaining the importance of what otherwise might appear to the layman to be just another old brick wall.

Mustafa didn't have the monopoly on the jokes. He asked the men in the group whether they would fight for a beautiful woman for ten years, as Paris had for Helen. Mustafa commented that after ten years she would not be beautiful any more. Kiwi Brent then said - "Oh, you mean the same woman for ten years?"

We also had the company of some four-legged guides who would invariably run ahead of us, leading the way. Mustafa told us of a colleague who had been tasked with guiding a group around the site, but had not done so before. He was told that the best thing to do was simply to 'follow the dogs'.

We were first on the site - no other group was present, and only one other group turned up while we were there, meaning we had great opportunities for photos. Unadulterated views of the bricks!

By the way - the horse outside the ruins is not original, nor is it based on any known design of the Trojan Horse. In fact, there's little hard evidence itself that the horse even existed. But don't let that get in the way of any photo opportunities, eh?

We had our first Turkish lesson as we left Troy, which included counting from 1 to 10. I had also made a list of phrases which I thought would come in most useful through the trip, which I include on the dictionary page for your reading and learning pleasure.

Another refreshment stop, another chance to practise said Turkish. Just by saying "Two please, that's all" in Turkish rewarded me with a smile and a comment about me learning Turkish. Evidently people don't bother with it much, and for those who do it seems to go down well. For your information, the phrase was "Iki lütfen, tamam". Not exactly rocket science.

Throughout Turkey, there are unfinished buildings. There are apparently a number of reasons for this including Mafia involvement, simply running out of funds or tax reasons. Whatever the cause, on this stretch of the journey I seemed to notice loads of these buildings. Mostly they are unfinished shells of buildings. Sometimes they will have windows put in and rendering (and sometimes even paint) applied. But still they would be empty. Despite looking like they are under construction, rarely is there any evidence of construction work taking place - no cement mixers, no trucks, diggers and definitely no workers. It's astonishing to think that anyone would consider a new building venture when no-one seems to be able to finish on the job, and when so many buildings lay empty, some of them empty for many years by the looks of things. The strangest thing was that there did not appear to be any pattern in this - we would often see a completely finished building right next to an unfinished shell of another.

In the early afternoon we arrived at Pergamum. This was the location of an ancient Roman acropolis high above the town.  The site stands at something like 380 metres above sea level and includes some spectacular views, a great acropolis and the world's steepest ancient theatre. Much of the site has actually been spirited away to museums in Germany, and only one third of the site has actually been excavated to date; there are still large sections covered by recent settlements which, at some point, will need to be pulled down to make way for the archeologists.

We walked among the subterranean sections of the acropolis which showed off the load-bearing archways, and heard stories of lost treasures that may still be buried somewhere on site.

In the theatre, we got a brief run-down on the usage of the venue from our guide for the day, Hurçit (which was pronounced, to everyone's amusement, Her **it). There was no permanent stage at Pergamum, as the area taken for this also served as a ceremonial gangway for a temple which sat at the base and to one side of the theatre. We then walked off about 1/3rd down the theatre and took a left. Realising that Hurçit did not plan to take us all the way to the bottom of the theatre, I decided to run all the way down, grab a few photos, then run back up. The run back up slowed to a walk then almost a crawl as my thighs began to remind that “this is the world's steepest ancient theatre and, by the way, it is also about 35 degrees centigrade”. By the time I rejoined the group at the bus I was gasping for water and drank a litre almost without a pause. That was very thirsty work.

Then began the long and not entirely comfortable drive down to Selçuk. This would be the longest journey so far. After a drive of approximately 6 hours (including brief comfort stops along the way), we were more than ready to check in to the Kalehan Hotel just outside of the town centre.

The hotel had been described to us as 'interesting' and 'having character'. These are usually similes for 'ropey', 'ugly' or 'should be condemned'. Thankfully, this was not the case - Neil had also kept one ace up his sleeve as the hotel had a pool. On top of all this, we were to be staying two nights, so the suitcase could be more than just opened - we might be able to take some items out too. Ah, the novelty of it all. I went straight for the mini speakers and attached them to the portable CD player. Such extravagance.

That evening, Manda and I skipped the group meal at the hotel, instead opting for a quick explore of the town centre. By the fountain that marks the start of the streets of carpet sellers (primarily), we had a meal of cheesy meatballs and pizza. It doesn't sound very Turkish, but let me tell you that I ordered them in the native tongue, if that makes it sound better.

We were the only people eating at the restaurant, and naturally the guy was very attentive. We even got into a conversation (of sorts) with the carpet seller next door. Realising I was English he asked me what football team I support. I told him that I don't, to which he asked me again whether I am English.

English.

...

Does not support football team.

...

Does not compute.

Day 5 - Thursday - Selçuk & Ephesus

Today began with a walk up the road toward the museum which has many artifacts and information about the site of Ephesus (or Efes, as the locals know it) that we would be visiting later today. As Neil was explaining the plan, he casually slipped in the fact that we would be stopping off for a 'carpet demonstration'. Ah yeah, heard that one before ...

A demonstration normally entails a salesman running through his stock then trying to sell them to you. That's it in a nutshell. Türgei, the shop owner, was a more relaxed fellow than some of the other more questionable carpet sellers in Selçuk (and Turkey in general). We sat and watched, drinking complementary orange and raspberry tea along the way, while each carpet's design was explained in detail. We were shown different designs from various regions in Turkey, and were shown how to spot the difference between real and fake hand-woven rugs. And get this - there really was no obligation to buy. Türgei was cool as a cucumber. At the end of the day, this was the best way to look at carpets - no pressure, useful info and a recommendation from the good people at Explore that could be trusted.

The museum was the usual collection of headless statues, disembodied heads and occasionally even a complete body-head combination! The reason the two are usually separated that the raiding parties went around smashing the heads off the statues of the people they've just run out of town. As an additional touch, many of these Roman statues were also 'Christianised' by having crude crosses carved into foreheads and such like. Augustus and Livia would not have been impressed by this.

The afternoon was free - no plans until 4 o'clock so we made the most of the break by doing nothing, given all the travel we'd had down to Selçuk. 4pm was a good time to visit Ephesus - the temperature would drop, as would the number of visitors. Our guide for this site was Necat, and he told as that just one week earlier the temperature just after midday was 52 degrees Celsius. Ouch.

Ephesus is arguably one of the finest ancient sites in Turkey. Arguable, because there are so many of them, and they all have their own unique features.

What Ephesus has in its favour is sheer scale. There are large areas of distinct attractions, including the heavily mosaiced floor outside what would have been 'boutique' shops, the fantastic library frontage, which is very surreal (there are columns, a portico and statues and then ... nothing), and finally the theatre. When we were there, preparations were underway for a big pop concert for the following evening. The theatre is the largest ancient theatre in the world and has outstanding acoustics. It has been used for a number of concerts in the past including José Carreras and Sting.

The person who decided it would be a good idea to bring Metallica along some years ago has probably found it difficult to get work of late, though. After that band's appearance, the site had to be shut for many years because of damage caused by the vibrations of the massive speaker stacks. Never mind earthquakes, just get some monsters of rock to get these monstrous rocks quaking!

We were originally going to head in to town for a meal but instead we found ourselves back at Türgei's carpet shop, or at least out the back of it. He had invited us, another Explore group and also guests staying at his hostel to come along for a barbeque. He had a hundred chickens to cook and needed mouths to eat them. Result! Free food for a night, washed down with the insanely cheap local brew (which normally costs just 40p for a 300ml bottle), topped off with the opportunity of watching the locals play their instruments and the visitors attempt the local dance. Until the police came along to protest at all the noise, that is ...

Day 6 - Friday - Selçuk to Dalyan, via Alinda

Another day, another day on the bus.

Our midday stop for the day was at a site not far from the town of Karpuzlu - the ancient site of Alinda. This was not like other sites we had visited so far, as there was no tourist car park, no hawkers. In fact, if you did not know it was there you'd drive right past.

In keeping with the site's mystique, our local guide for the day would remain silent - he spoke no English, and was merely there to make sure we all got around and didn't attempt to bring anything back with us. But I challenge you to pick up any of the masonry at Alinda and take it back in your luggage.

Alinda was a Roman settlement, and the first structure we came across was an aqueduct. There followed a smattering of damaged sarcophagi, some impressive lookout posts and another theatre. This theatre was also the location for our picnic lunch, the contents of which we'd picked up on our departure from Selçuk.

We were the only people there. Randomly distributed around the seating area - largely based on wherever there was a bit of shade from the fierce midday sun (34 degrees) - we all sat and took in the atmosphere. It felt very special. We would probably be the only people there that day. The only other living creatures I saw were the hordes of ants who were quickly amassing their workers to ferry back every piece of bread or cheese that fell to the floor. I sat and watched as five ants grouped together to carry a piece that was easily 20 times the size of one ant, and continued throughout the picnic to check on their progress over the yellowing grass, stone and thorns. A feast awaited their friends back at the hill.

After our break, we continued on, back downhill in the still fierce sunlight, past a derelict Roman agora (market place) then down on through the outer reaches of the town of Karpuzlu. The feeling that we might be one group among very few visitors to that site was reinforced both by the lack of hawkers and the genuinly friendly faces who all said a cheery 'merhaba' to us. Along the way we spotted some typically tumble-down houses which had made use of the nearby ancient masonry lying around, so it was not unusual to see a genuine Roman frieze on the corner of a house surrounded by the standard brick and concrete materials.

In the evening we stayed at the King Hotel at Dalyan. Skipping the group meal, Manda and I headed in to the centre, armed with a tripod and camera to get a night-time shot of the rock cut Lyceum tombs. We had not seen them yet, but guessed that they would be floodlit at night. We were right, and got a few shots off for good measure. While we were heading back the hotel, others from the group were heading in to town, so no one was around at the hotel. An early night.

Day 7 - Saturday - Dalyan, Kaunos Ruins, Mud Bath

It was a usual morning getting up, eating the obligatory pieces of bread, feta cheese then checking out of our latest hotel (in traditional good speed). Then we were headed for the gulet boat that would be taking us around the Mediterranean over the next couple of days. First, though, we had a couple of diversions to make.

Having cruised down Dalyan Creek a little way, we alighted at the site of the Kaunos ruins. It is, as people in the group were starting to call these places 'another rubble site'. On this site we found the usual features - a now crumbling theatre, a temple of some kind (whose barely remaining walls hinted at nothing other than a walled structure, but not anything with something as elaborate as a domed roof) and a gift shop. However, every site has its own unique attractions ...

At Kaunos, one thing that caught my eye was the spectacular way that the theatre had crumbled, as if hit in the side with some kind of missile. Huge blocks spilled out of the wound while the mountain goats made use of the unintentional way up to the higher levels where they might chew on whatever they found growing between the bricks. The older goats bullied a young kid who continued to bleat (or whatever is that goats do) loudly for the rest of our stay on site.

There was a vast area which, at first sight, would remain hidden to the unadventurous visitor. Leading away from and below the unimpressive shell that is the Hadrianic baths was a path that was very well preserved and which itself led off to a number of other well preserved foundations. Excavation was still underway, and many of the newly found walls boasted very clean lines. It was evident that even with all this, there was still a great area to be unearthed. This appeared to be true of many sites throughout Turkey - there's a lot out there just waiting to be uncovered by the skilled hands of archeologists.

We then walked back to the riverboat for our next short hop to the mud baths. There we joined in with masses of Germans in their tight Speedos in the mud pools, caking ourselves from the neck down (and sometimes from the neck up too) with the thick grey mud. Having covered everything that could be (legally or comfortably), we then just kind of stood about like lemons, waiting for the mud to dry, checking the progress in a full length mirror as the mud turned to lighter shades of grey, forming unsightly ripples in the skin whenever you flexed anything. Talking also proved difficult for those who applied a face pack too (as I did).

Once the mud was dry, what did we do? Well, we washed it all off then took a dip in a thermal bath! This is the basic routine - get dirty, get dry, get clean, get warm, get to do it all over again. Do this and it will take 10 years off you, or so they claim. Except with our time scales, we would only get to do it the once, perhaps reversing the ageing process by a few hours. However, having seen some of the sights in the communal shower area, where some of the 'less petite' customers were having difficulty removing mud from various nooks and crannies, once was enough of a treat for me.

Next stop - Iztuzu Beach. This was not really much of a stop though - there would be little sunbathing or splashing around in the water. Instead, it was a brief opportunity to sit in the shade of a cafe area, supping an ice cool beer or racing to eat an ice lolly before it melts, while the riverboat transferred all our luggage and other supplies to the gulet boat which was moored further out from the shore.

The boat immediately set sail (under the power of motor) and we spent a good few hours running along the coast until our first stop, a cove by the name of Batik Hammam.

Once there, I got straight into the water and spent the next hour snorkelling, making exploratory dives to the bed some 7-8 metres below (the deepest I've ever dived without the aid of scuba gear). There were many different groups of fish swirling around in the sunlit waters, all of them quite small though.

After dinner, me and Neil tried the old 'how long can you hold your breath for' thing. I reckoned that in my dives I was probably getting around 45 seconds tops (although with a bit of relaxed deep breathing followed by hyperventilation at the surface I later managed a comfortable 70 seconds). On the deck of the boat, where there's no real danger, I managed 105 seconds. Neil suggested that it was simply a psychological thing - under water the brain panics you more into surfacing because of the very real danger, but on the surface there's no real danger.

Overnight, almost everyone decided to stay out on deck instead of the cabins (which were primarily being used as oversized wardrobes or store rooms now). We all fell asleep looking at crystal clear stars, and cutting through them all, the Milky Way, clearly visible without interference from street or city lights.

Day 8 - Sunday - Batik Hammam - Tersane Island

At 4am I awoke and caught another glimpse of the stars through a small clearing in clouds that had formed. In the distance, flashes of light suggesting that the good weather that we had had may be about to end soon. I went back to sleep, hoping for the best.

At 5am I felt the first spots of rain and quickly gathered up my blanket and joined the procession of other half-asleep people from the top deck down to the cabins below. To anyone sleeping down below, the noise must have been quite something. Once we got back to the cabins it wasn't just a case of crashing out on the beds as most people had all their belongings strewn across the beds, so there was much re-organising and hefting of bags and suitcases before anyone could get back to sleep.

9am, and most people were up. To stop the rain getting into the kitchen/bar and seating area below deck, the crew had moved the hatched futher across of the stairs. This meant that everyone bumped their head on their way up to the deck. Some of us managed to do this twice.

The rain was pouring down, the clouds a consistent gray blanket and all accompanied by the flashes of lightning and rumble of distant thunder. Things were not looking good for the day ahead - we joked that our card-playing skills would be perfected from here on in.

Then came the recriminations about who was snoring. I had heard someone snoring away like a warthog with a cold. A couple of times I'd woken and thought "Won't someone please nudge him." My money was on Robert. I then found out that Terry was the main suspect and, to avoid the sounds, Tony and Pat moved only to find themselves near another snorer - me. So, there I am blaming other people and find out that I too was making warthog noises. I promised Pat that next time I would sleep face down!

Then the weather cleared. Almost as quickly as that last sentence. It began with a window in the clouds to blue sky which soon became a completely blue sky. Everything had a freshly washed sheen to it and it felt like the storm had cleared away some of the haze of the previous few days.

We headed off for the next cove - Sarsala Bay - but the crew decided not to stop there, as the water was not very good. The hills on this bay were not covered with much greenery, and a lot of silt had been washed down the hills into the water, making it totally cloudy.

Instead we sailed on to Bedry Rami, where there was a small jetty, a few Lyceum tombs cut in to the hillside, and good clear waters. Probably because of the good condidions here, we stayed for much of the day - until around 4pm - during which time I had three separate snorkelling/diving sessions. Twice I thought I'd found something of value on the sea bed (the level of which dropped quite dramatically just metres from the shoreline). Both times I proved the saying 'all that glitters is not gold' when I found a piece of foil (looked like a gem from the surface!) and a small tulip-shaped tea glass (the refelection on the rim suggested a bangle of some kind from 7 metres above).

Under water, over water - this was a day of new experiences as I took to the skies above our bay. I had taken up the opportunity of a spot of parasailing from a boat visiting our cove. I also took an underwater camera with me (in case it got a dunking) to record the moment that I was lifted high above our gulet boat, looking over the entire cove and over the hill into the next cove.

The surprising thing about parasailing is how calm it is. I expected that when I lifted off I'd be feeling the wind, getting an urge to shout and whoop. However, it is a very peaceful experience, and when you are up in the air, your feet hanging below the clear blue waters far below, there's little to do other than take in the views, smile, and perhaps kick your legs. Whooping it up hardly seems appropriate - or dignified!

Our final stop for the day was at Tersane Island. This is a deserted Greek village which some of the group decided to investigate for themselves. The majority stayed on the boat and relaxed or, like me, got back in the water. Unlike the previous stops, there were very few fish in the water here. The sea bed was very silted up, with very little plant life - nothing living here for the fish to feed on.

Neil and I revisited the breath-holding challenge. He first managed 37 seconds, and then a not-vastly-improved 38 seconds. I told him about the hyper-ventilation thing - relaxed breathing then three successive very quick and deep breaths before going under - after which he broke the minute mark, staying under for 72 seconds.

Come bed time (which seemed to be quite early on the boat at around 10pm), there was a scrum for the best position on deck, but the first lot there soon realised that there was no decent position on the bow - all the mattresses were already soaking wet with dew, so it would be a cabin stay for most. However, Manda and myself found a space on the mattresses at the rear of the boat, which had not succumbed to the dew, alongside Neil and Elina. Before going to sleep I told all around me that if I snored to come over and give me a nudge. Neil promised he would and asked me to do the same if he snored. I then turned in for the night, lying face down. Oh, and I did have to give Neil a jab in the ribs too!

Day 9 - Monday - Lycian Coast, Fethiye & Aphrodisias

Cock-a-doodle doo. Cock-a-doodle doo. Cock-a-doodle doo. Baaaa. Baaa. Cock-a-doodle doo. Mooooooooo!

(repeat x100)

That's how the day started for us moored up by Tersane Island. As the first rays of sun hit the island and surrounding hills, we had a morning chorus the like of which I haven't heard before. The occasional interspersing of a strained cow mooing somewhere just gave it the comedy element it needed.

There was no mad mid-morning dash to get back under cover. The wheather held out and despite a little cold period, the night out on deck went without a hitch. And I didn't snore! The downside was that the mozzies finally got me in four or five places.

At around 8am the crew pulled up the anchor and we were on the the way to Fethiye. We had one last breakfast en-route before arriving at the beautiful coastal town where we would bid farewell to the crew of the Erme Bey, and once more say 'merhaba' to Safet who, with his predictably impressive timing, came to a halt on the jetty just as we were mooring up.

Everyone agreed that it was a shame to leave this leg of the holiday - everyone had enjoyed the time on the boat, relaxing, swimming or sunbathing. As Neil had put it two days earlier, "this your holiday from your holiday", and being back on dry land meant being back on the bus for more daily kilometres.

We had a brief stroll around Fethiye - an opportunity for everyone to get some cash, check e-mails, buy a carpet, whatever it is that people felt they needed after escaping 'civilization' for two days. Then it was back on the bus and off to Aphrodisias, an ancient Roman site.

The route to Aphrodisias took as back inland - no more sea views for us - and through the Taurus mountain range. The bus struggled at times to make it up some of the steeper sections, of which there were many, but made up for it on the downhill stretches.

It's on these journeys - which can sometimes be a bit featureless once you've become blind to the sight of the soaring tree-covered hills - that you start to notice some of the smaller details that can define the country.

On the way to Aphrodisias, I was struck by how often we would see people just sat by the road, seemingly doing nothing. Sometimes it would be two men sat untidily in a ditch next to the road, with no apparant vehicle nearby. What were they doing there? Just passing time.

At other times we would see a couple of men sat on the concrete inclines underneath bridges. Evidently these people preferred to sit in the shade, but again, what were they doing?

With an unemployment rate of 20%, perhaps it should be no surprise that there were people who simply chose to admit defeat and instead go somewhere where they might get to see something happening, some semblance of activity, even if it is just a passing vehicle.

Aphrodisias is another of the larger ancient Roman sites to see in Turkey, comparable to Ephesus. Among the features worth looking at here are the Tetraplyon, the stadium and the theatre.

The Tetraplyon is the now-isolated double gates that would have been the first structure seen by pilgrims visiting the site in ancient times. They stand lonely in a field with only the barest outline of the structures that once sat behind them. However, this makes the gate look even more impressive with nothing else nearby distracting your attention from its magnificence.

The stadium sits just a few hundred feet away from the gates, set into a trough (natural or otherwise, who knows?). As you approach, there is little indication of its size but stepping over the rim it's immediately clear that this is a biggie - big enough to seat 20,000 spectators for the competitive sporting events that would have taken place there. We didn't have a great amount of time to admire this from above, though, as the thunder and lightning that threatened forced us to take refuge in one of the tunnels at the ends of the stadium.

After the first spots of rain died down, we exited the tunnel and made our way past the Hadrianic Baths to a colonnaded street, and beyond up to the theatre.

The scale of the theatre at Aphrodisias cannot match Ephesus for size or Pergamum for its location, but it is markedly more preserved than those theatres, and many others throughout Turkey. The stage area and the arched, covered area behind it were incredibly intact. A modern play could quite easily be performed at this stage - but only if the weather were better than what we experienced. Following a second round of showers, which developed into an almost torrential downpour, we escaped the exposed position and took refuge this time in the cafe area.

While our group of rain-dodging travelers chatted about the day over cups of Turkish apple tea, the rain once again stopped, and the sunlight returned, adding a sheen to everything around us. I decided to go back up to the theatre to see if I could get some better shots in the slightly improved conditions.

I tried to convince Robert to come along too (he had missed it out when the heavens opened), but he looked at his coffee and evidently had to weigh things up: coffee or theatre, theatre or coffee? "But you can have a coffee anywhere, Robert," I reasoned. In the end we reached a compromise - he got to stay and drink his coffee while I took his camera with me! I sensed that Robert was reaching saturation point as far as visiting 'rubble sites' went!

Overnight, we stayed at the Aphrodisias hotel, which faces the stadium and is the only hotel nearby. Correction. It's the only building bigger than a shed nearby. From the terraced restaurant we could see one main road, a dirt track and a herd of goats and sheep. The hotel only served one purpose - as a stopover between places, catering for visitors to the Roman site.

Our evening meal was proof again that Turkish food could be excellent value. I had a meal of buffet starter  (with plenty of choice), a main course, a desert (a delicious baklava) and tea. It all came to 7 million TL, or £3.10.

Over dinner we were entertained by a local musician (whatever local means in this region) to which driver Safet and tour leader Neil had a bit of a dance (the Turkish do like a dance, it has to be said). I was further entertained by Eric's notion that there is a football team in England by the name of 'Twotford Wanderers'. He tried to clarify that it was the team Elton John had something to do with. I tried to explain, using gentle language, what the name implied to an English mind. Or at least to me and Neil (he agreed that it sounded rude ... And added a further rude variation for good measure).

Day 10 - Tuesday - Pamukkale to Lake Egirdir

So, there are a bunch of men that sometimes sit at roadsides, apparently doing nothing. Well, I am building up a theory. In the same way that cows probably sit around and play poker, smoke Cuban cigars and chat about world affairs until a car drives by (at which point they revert to standing, sitting and maybe mooing), I think these Turkish guys are letting rip with firearms to pass the time when no--one’s watching. Throughout the coach journeys, I'd noticed road signs that were pitted with dents that look like the result of boredom combined with air gun. Sometimes, they must get really bored, as there were signs with holes clear through them - the result of a real gun? Or maybe it was all innocent, perhaps nothing more sinister than stone chippings after all. We'll never know ...

Our first sight of Pamukkale (literally 'cotton castle') was from a distance. We parked up below the ridge of white and looked up at the ant-like procession of people down the hillside. We could barely make out the features of Pamukkale from here that we had seen in numerous postcards and pictures in books. It was simply a high ridge that had been dipped in white paint at this stage.

Neil left us at this point, as the tourist police are pretty hot in Pamukkale. If he had done as much as point in the general direction of anything here, he might be arrested for tour-guiding without the appropriate pass. It was no joke - on arrival at the site once before, he had pointed out the location of toilets, was spotted by a local guide who had then reported the bus to the authorities. When they arrived at the gate, Neil was forced to hide at the back of the bus and play tourist, while driver Safet covered for him. They can, and will, cart tour leaders off to the station, fine them and generally inconvenience them and their groups if they feel that they have been attempting to guide a group.

So, Safet drove us up to the entrance and we were given our tickets. The entrance is situated just outside of the Necropolis area, and outside of that were hundreds of sarcophagi that we had already driven past. The Necropolis had a few structures remaining largely in one piece including one building which, with its twin arches, resembled a kind of ancient version of the McDonalds golden arches. There was also a well preserved colonnaded structure.

To our left we could see the theatre through a heat haze, and decided to skip that for a while - it was looking very hot and really quite far away for now! Instead, we stayed on the path which lead us straight to the ultra-white lime rock formations we had come to see.

There was a dubious sign at the beginning that read "Only for walking without shoes and taking photos". So, does that mean no walking with shoes on but photos are OK? Or did it mean that both were not OK? Go barefoot and without camera? We went barefoot, but took the cameras anyway and decided to watch what other people did.

We took loads of photos. Surreptitiously at first, then blatantly. Well, everyone else was and besides, what harm could it do? It was not like being in a museum where the flash might fade colours on a frieze or whatever. Besides, how much more light can you get than brilliant white?

The Travertines - or the 'frozen waterfalls' - are depicted in postcards as flowing with azure waters and with people happily splashing about in the pools in their swimming costumes. The truth is that they have actually been restricted to tourists for a number of years - it's a case of look but don't touch, now.

To try to keep the tourists happy, they have tried to build artificial pools for people to splash about in, into which they have directed warm water. It's not remotely convincing, but for us it didn't matter - we were still able to see the real Travertines and admire them from a distance.

Once we had walked down the escarpment for some distance, we walked back up against the ever-growing tide of visitors. It was obvious that, unlike other areas of Turkey, people did not think it necessary to cover their shoulders or knees. In fact, many were barely covering anything in an attempt perhaps to maximise the reflective light to top up their tans. Others in the tour would later describe the numbers of people and their attire tacky.

Afterwards, we had lunch in a ‘wheel-em-in, wheel-em-out’ fast food restaurant that served buffet food for the princely sum of 3 million TL (that's £1.20 folks!). It looked like every visitor to the site had also stopped by here to. I wondered how any of the other local restaurants - if indeed there were any - could even begin to compete with this. Somehow, it all seemed a bit unfair.

Another afternoon's fairly uneventful drive - livened up only by the occasional near-suicidal overtaking manoeuvre by other cars and trucks - took us to our stop for the evening, Lake Egirdir.

As we approached the lake, I tried to take a photo of a hillside that had a huge Turkish flag painted on the side of it. At every attempt, something seemed to get in the way, be it a tree or a building. As we got nearer, Neil explained that the lake was home to a commando regiment of the Turkish military. As I was still holding the camera to the window trying to get a photo of the hillside, Neil reminded us of the danger of photographing military establishments, referring to the recent prison sentences of the plane spotters in Greece. Manda tried suggesting more suitable vantage points to get the photo, even as we were driving past guard posts with guards in. With guns. I chose not to risk a scene. I was happy - I'd got one half decent shot!

While we drove around the lake side, the microphone on the bus began cutting out on Neil - as it had done numerous times on the trip - and Safet tried to show that it was working fine (as had also done numerous times). Whenever it failed for Neil, it worked perfectly for Safet. On this day, Safet decided to sing for us - with no sound cutting out - thus proving that the microphone was fine and Neil must be a complete fool, or something like that. He finished his little Turkish rendition with the first English words I'd heard him say so far: "What? No problem." Needless to say, we were all in stitches! He then continued with a second verse as we drove up the peninsular, finishing this time with a "Thank you" and a round of applause from everyone.

All this humour was in complete contrast to the surroundings we were in. While it was a beautiful location, there was nobody sitting at any of the lake-side restaurants. All the cafes were empty. Neil explained that Egirdir was very much a locals holiday destination, and that with the souring inflation rates and static salaries, a lot of Turkish people had simply stopped coming. There was also very little through traffic, due to its geographical location. While Explore use it as a stop-over between the long distance between Pamukkale and Ürgüp, many others instead choose Konya. In fact, Explore was now the only tour bus passing through - that's a maximum of 20 people for just one night every two weeks. This was certainly not enough to keep things ticking over, but the restaurateurs sat outside in hope nonetheless, hoping for whatever custom they could get.

The policy in such circumstances is to chop and change. Sometimes, the whole group would eat in the hotel restaurant, at other times they would eat as a group at another restaurant (a different one each time), while at other times it would be individuals' choice. It's the only fair way to spread the meagre spending around the town.

Manda and I set out to get something to eat, and looked briefly at the menu of the Derya restaurant, which is almost directly opposite the Hotel Egirdir. Immediately, the owner bounded out towards us - and this is no exaggeration of his enthusiasm. He encouraged us to come inside to take a look, showing us the starters in the display cabinet - the lights for which were only switched on for us. He also took us in to the kitchen and showed us the starter, still in the pan. It was very hard to walk away, and so we ate there. He was lucky - any of the restaurants further from our hotel would be finding it much more difficult. As we walked to our table, the display cabinet lights were once again switched off. I noticed also that the kitchen was also in almost complete darkness, and this was to be the theme for the rest of the night - nothing essential was left switched on for very long.

The owner/manager offered to take a picture of us. I handed the camera over but switched off the digital display first. Was I following their lead? No, I just thought it was a bit too flash and did not want to appear ostentatious.

Afterwards, we walked into town to discover that very little was actually open. It was barely past 9 o'clock but only corner shops and such like were open. Everyone else had evidently given up any hope of making money - or even breaking even - for the day. The saddest thing is that 5 years ago, all the restaurants would have been busy, often requiring pre-booking, according to Safet.

Back at the hotel - where the lights were on and drinks were available - we finished off the day with a couple of bottles of Efes with Neil and Salih, one of the locals. Salih appeared to be taking something of an interest in one of our group, Elina, who in turn appeared to have drunk perhaps a malibu or two too many. Getting leathered with someone who owns a leather shop, how appropriate.

Day 11 - Wednesday - Konya, Sultanhani and Ürgüp

The distance from Lake Egirdir to today's final destination, Ürgüp, was looking pretty scary, which was the reason for the 7am departure.

Around midday we reached our first sight-seeing stop for the day - the Mevlana Monastery in Konya, home of the mystical Islam sect known as Sufism and, in particular, the order of the Whirling Dervishes.

The city's religious significance is obvious from the start - unlike many of the places we had visited so far, the majority of people we saw (with exception of tourists) were wearing much more traditional Muslim attire. Inside the monastery itself - which houses the tombs of Mevlana, his immediate relatives and other distinguished Dervishes - pilgrims visiting the site were in tears, overcome with the emotion of being in such a holy place.

Interestingly, one of the things that the Sufis believe in is not to value material goods, and some will purge themselves of such goods to cleanse their souls. I thought about this as I, and many other tourists, stood filming with our camcorders, snapping away with our cameras, grabbing anything we could to remember this place that obviously had little significance to our daily lives. There seemed to be a strange irony in there somewhere.

The area where the tombs were situated were exquisitely decorated, and adjoining this was a room full of artifacts that were equally stunning. Even if you understand little of the religious aspect of it, it's easy to appreciate the artistry of the items there.

We stopped for lunch in a fantastic restaurant on a balcony that offered great views of the monastery through the gaps in the vines that were trailing over the balcony woodwork.

We then had another leg of our long journey to make from Konya to Ürgüp. For this section, I somehow managed not to nod off (as invariably happens on the bus), and even managed to find some things of interest in what would turn out to be one of the most boring drives on earth. I felt sorry for our driver Safet. We'd all eaten, and most people had nodded off as we drove along a featureless, dull and very straight road that seemed to go on that way for miles.

I sat listening to DJ Shadow's 'The Private Press' (at times a quite surreal sounding LP), watching the occassional industrial building (finished or otherwise) slide past the bus windows. I found myself picking out details in the tedium: the way that the fields kept the same green/yellow hue for miles; the patterns that shadows of the clouds made on the distant hills, looking like markings on a cow; the similarity to some of the Arizona landscapes used in cigarette advertising (Welcome to Marlboro country); the strangely abandoned metre-long measuring stick by the roadside, not lying anywhere near anything that could be measured (what was it doing there?); the truck that drove past with the legend 'Fargo' on the front. I've seen Fargo. It's icy and cold in that film. Today it was pushing 30 degrees Celsius. Out of place.

Thankfully, the tedium was broken by a few bends in the road (hooray!) which eventually led to our next stop of the day, the Caravanserai at Sultanhani on the road to Aksaray.

The caravansary (to use the English term) was built in the 13th century and provided free lodging, stables and food to merchants heading along the Silk Road. As a result of this, commerce flourished under the Seljuk rule. Today, there are no camels in the stable or traders selling their wares, just one man with a hose to tend to the few plants inside, and a prayer mat in the small arched tower that sits in the middle of the courtyard.

The caravansary is very well preserved, and it's not difficult to imagine how the sight of this would have been a welcome one to weary travellers - well, we had the very same experience! It must have been quite a place when the traders were in town and the impromptu markets were buzzing with people, selling their wares.

Final leg - and a giraffe-sized leg it was too. Plenty of opportunity to witness first hand just how strong the Turkish belief in Kismet (luck) and Kadur (fate) is. We saw numerous drivers put their faith in Allah as they overtook other vehicles on blind bends. The trouble is the truck drivers also have faith - so much so that almost all trucks in Turkey have the phrase 'Masallah' on the front. And I think I know whose luck would be in, and who would be fated to come worse off in the event of a collision.

As we arrived in the area of Cappadocia, we got our first sight of the strangely eroded valleys that have made the region so famous. We drove past towns in which 'modern' buildings nestled in amongst the ancient natural cone-shaped rocky formations which had themselves been carved out as lodgings hundreds of years ago. It was a strange mixture of squared edges set against the cone-shaped natural formations.

We stayed in the Hotel Surban, which itself backs on to a carved-out rock facade. The hotel looked to be bomb-proof - big thick concrete walls and arched roofs and alleyways throughout. One of the most interesting hotels we had stayed in (and were likely to ever again, in all probability).

Having got ourselves settled in, Manda and I took a walk in to town along a road that would normally warrant a sign warning drivers to stay in a low gear - this was steep! We passed Jeff, Louise and Belinda walking, I mean struggling, back up the hill. "It's not so easy on the way back up!" Jeff said, which we later found out to be entirely true.

We ate in a restaurant that overlooked the centre of Ürgüp. The surprise was just how much traffic we could see going past under our noses. It was incessant. Where was it all coming from? Ürgüp only had a population of 15,000 - not quite a one-horse town, but not far off. We could only assume that this was through traffic. Either that or the locals enjoyed going round in circles - I swear I saw the same bus about three times during the meal.

Day 12 - Thursday - Ürgüp

'Day 12 - Ürgüp'. The title doesn't even begin to hint at the day ahead. However, if the title for this day were 'Ballooning, Pottery demonstration, Göreme Open Air Museum, Üchisar Castle, Kaymaklı Underground City, Rose Valley walk and Turkish Night at Yaþar Baba', well ... It'd be a tad long. But that's precisely what we did!

The day started very early - a 4am wake-up call for a 4:45 departure from the hotel. We had decided to take up the offer of a balloon flight over Cappadocia. At roughly £135 per person it's not cheap, but as many people who had also been mulling it over in the previous days said, ballooning might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and here's the place to do it.

The balloon pilots - husband and wife team Lars and Kailie - have something like 20 years’ experience each. This showed once we were up in the air. They had fired up the balloons later than some of the other operators in the area, which gave Lars and Kailie an opportunity to watch what the currents were doing to balloons already up in the air. Because of this, we were able to maximise our time, following currents in and out of valleys, rising to catch thermals that would take us in another direction to repeat the process all over again. In all we managed about an hour and twenty minutes in this strange, stunning and beautiful location.

The pilots were so skilled that when we were down in one of the valleys, the balloon would be gliding between rock formations just skimming the tops of trees or bushes. At one point Lars said "Does anyone want an apple?" and then scooped a handful out of a tree. The next moment, we were ascending, following the curve of the valley as if sliding along some kind of force field (how we never scraped the basket along the rock, I'll never know) and off to the next valley.

At our highest point, we were something like 7,000 feet above sea level and 4,000 feet above the ground, even looking down at some low-lying cloud that was partially broken by a hill in the distance. It was such a strange experience to go from one extreme to another, and then to do it all over again. In a plane it's pretty much "there's the ground disappearing from view, here's the cloud .... and some hours later, here's the ground again"

Like the parasailing from a few days ago, the surprise with ballooning was how peaceful it all is. I had an idea it would be quite calm, but thought that it would be quite blowy. I had a cap on, Manda had tied her hair up. None of that was necessary because as Lars explained: "You don't feel the wind, because you are the wind".

We finished the flight with a group photo, a glass of champagne and cakes and a general feeling of jubilation. Brent summed it up when he said that the balloon flight could be improved - if they could just take us up a second time. Given that Brent took 72 pictures during that flight, Kodak would wholeheartedly support that view.

Ballooning over, we were dropped at the hotel and immediately headed off for our next destination, a family-run pottery business at Avanos.

The pottery we saw was as varied as you could imagine, and all of it stunning. We were given a guided tour through the business premises - another man-made cave carved out of the soft Cappadocia rock - while the various cousins, brothers and other relatives worked on oblivious to our presence while plugged in to their personal stereos. We watched as they applied the most intricate details to some incredibly detailed pieces of art (for that is what they were).

The ceramic style is known as Iznik and the top artists in the family were referred to as ‘the masters’. On the wall of one of the master Iznik craftsmen were press cuttings of him meeting various dignitaries of the government and other celebrities. These are more than mere potters!

From one master we went to the other extreme - Louise, picked to have a go on the 'kick wheel' at making a pot of some kind. As she quickly proved, making such pieces of pottery is not an easy task; giving the group a laugh at her attempts at keeping the clay under control was a much easier task.

A few of the group decided that they would buy a piece from the items for sale, and having seen the amount of work that goes in to creating these plates, pots and so on, it was clear that this was quality merchandise. Naturally, it came with a higher price though!

We then moved on to the Göreme Open Air Museum. While the whole area of Cappadocia has rock-cut dwellings of a number of shapes and sizes, the collection in Göreme is perhaps the finest of examples. Here there are chapels, carved out with the necessary arches, which have friezes showing Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist, among others. Some have been painted directly on to the rock, others on to plaster. Despite the rough surface, the paintings are very clear, even given the amount of deterioration over the years with chunks missing. Each frieze was explained to us by our guide for the day, Murat, who was the youngest guide we'd seen so far at just 24 years old - and he had been guiding for seven years already.

Back on the bus once more .... And off to Üchisar. The largest rocky outcrop in the area, Üchisar is known as the castle and is peppered with holes from ancient dwellings. We took a walk to the top of it in the midday heat, which was a real test of our leg muscles. As we climbed, the call to prayer sounded out with two mosques very close to each other seemingly competing with other. Competing for the title of 'man most sounding like a strangled cat' I think, and they were both trying their best, I am pleased to report. The view from the top of Üchisar is well worth the walk, but given that we'd already been up some height earlier in the morning in the balloons, it couldn't really compete.

We then got back on the bus once more and moved on to the next carved out dwellings. This time, however, they were not simply carved out of a rock face, but rather carved out from under ground.

Kaymaklı is one of a number of underground cities in Cappadocia. It goes to a depth of some 80 metres although visitors are restricted to the first 30 metres, which is roughly 4 stories of eight.

This is one visit that is most definitely not for the claustrophobic. Many of the tunnels required squeezing in and stooping down somewhat, and it was like a maze down there. If there were a power cut it would be a very scary experience, particularly given the extra added fun of random pot-holes which are only just about covered up by loosely secured gratings.

It really is one of the great mysteries of history - how on earth did people find the time or inclination to dig so much out from the rock, and so far down (and remember, it all had to be carried up to the surface - tonnes of the stuff), without the luxury of modern excavation equipment. However, I can imagine that the people who did live here felt very secure behind their stone doors. I also imagine that they were all about three foot tall or walked with a severe stoop.

So, we'd had a hectic day already, and Neil asked who would like to go on an optional walk through Rose Valley. Surprisingly, despite people's tiredness, a number of us decided to do the two-hour walk, during which we stopped for a picnic lunch.

Rose Valley is named after the pink tints visible in some of the weathered rocky sides. Along the route we spotted our first currently-inhabited rock-cut houses. One man tried to sell nuts to us from what might have been deemed his kitchen window. We passed another cave that was accessible only by the extended steel ladder that was pegged in to the ground as a permanent feature. Our picnic spot was actually someone's 'house'. We sat at small tables in small chairs trying to fend off the unwanted attentions of the flies as we ate our bread, cheese and other snacks. Normally, the owner would sell visitors drinks - which would normally be an obligation given the use of his furniture - but today there was no sign of him. We placed our leftover food in his outdoor fridge by way of thanks and continued on our way.

As we walked through the valley, Jeff brought up the subject of flash flooding, specifically was the area subject to it? Where we were walking, there were signs that it was as all the grass was at a right-angle, as if following a once-present current. As we spoke about this, I noticed the first spots of rain, the sound of not-so-distant thunder and hoped that we would not find out first hand about the area's propensity for flooding.

Thankfully the rain was short lived, and just ten minutes later I was accosted by a resourceful salesman on a pony and trap offering ice creams and cold drinks. I bought an ice-cold coke off him partly because of the heat but also for the sheer novelty of it. Moments later, just as I had finished the can, we came to the end of the walk in a village called Çavusin.

We sat at the local café (I assume it's the only one in the village) for a Turkish tea each. Next to us, a table of three weathered-looking locals. One of them signalled to Louise something about taking a picture. "Oh thanks," she said, handing the camera over to them, at which point she realised that they were not offering to take a picture of the group but were in fact signalling that they were ready for their close-up. We thought this was pretty funny, as the three guys arranged themselves at the table, posing for the 'three local Turkish guys relaxing at the cafe' shot.

The day was not yet done. Once back at the hotel, we had just a few hours before we would need to meet at reception for our evening do. Between then and now, I still had a number of things to do with my 'free' time.

Task number one was to get Manda a present for her Birthday (for tomorrow). Despite the attempts of numerous shop-owners in Ürgüp, she didn't leave Turkey with a rug for her living room, but did take a piece of Turkish style away in the shape of a shawl/wrap.

Task number two: get a birthday card. Let me just say that this proved nigh on impossible. As with the present, a request for a birthday card also prompted the response "But wouldn't she like a rug?" or similar variations on that theme. Eventually I persuaded one shopkeeper that I really wasn't going to get a rug and that he needn't bother wasting either his or my time, at which juncture he told me of a shop that might sell cards.

In a half-filled shoe box the shop contained its entire quotient of cards. Once the Happy New Year and Merry Christmas cards were discounted, and a handful of Turkish cards that could have been saying anything, I was left with a handful of potentials. All of them were awful. In keeping with the surroundings, I opted for a card featuring the happy, smiling face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of Turkey. If nothing else, I was sure Manda would not get a birthday card like this again!

My final task was to get some money changed, which I failed on account of it being after 5pm. I did however manage to get a shave in a barber shop, and that really was quite an experience ...

I had been told about a Turkish shave. I had been told it involved flames and a cut-throat razor. Yet there I was, sat in the barber's chair while Brent and Eric were saying things like "You're gonna love this" with less than sincere expressions on their face. However, they had just had a shave themselves, and it looked like a good job done. And they were not bleeding or burnt.

First came the warm soapy foam, followed by a shave with the cut-throat. Pretty straightforward stuff. The guy would pull my face in different directions to get the skin taught for the blade which he wielded skilfully. Thankfully. Then came a rinse followed by a second soaping. This time, each and every bristle on the brush seemed to find its way inside the now-very-opened pores on my face. It stung a little, but wasn't too bad. Then I had another rinse, and I watched the guy behind me reach for a bottle of yellow liquid which he squirted onto his hands and which were then placed on my face. It was evidently a lemon solution of a kind that might normally be used on those clean-up towels you are given in an Indian restaurant. On a freshly shaved face though, this was like acid. I grimaced, Brent and Eric laughed. Eric took a photo. But more was to come.

Next came a massage that I was not expecting. It started with a bit of manipulation of the temples, followed by the barber's attempt to drag the top half of my face down towards my chin (and vice-versa) with his big burly hands. I'm sure it's good for you. I wasn't sure it was good for me though. He then made his way down to my shoulders and managed to pull me around in such a way that I squealed like a girl. This was not relaxing - this was painful! Evidently I was knotted up. I must have needed it, I reasoned.

There was an audible crack as he grabbed my head and twisted it to the right. All of it quite unexpected. To the left, no cracking sound. And we're not quite done yet ...

To finish off, the barber got a pair of tongs, then took a ball of cotton wool and wrapped it tightly around the tip of the tongs, so that it looked like a large cotton bud. He then doused the cotton wool in what must have been pure alcohol, set it on fire then began to fling it at my face. Using one hand to cover the top of my ear and hair, he flashed it against my ear, singeing the small hairs in and around the ear. Eric took another photo.

To finish off, the barber applied some talc and then I was on my way feeling like I'd had a good shave and an experience that I was unlikely to get again in a hurry!

Our evening meal for this evening was at a place called Yasar Baba. Every week they host a night of traditional Turkish dancing, which includes folk dances, a belly dance and plenty of audience participation. We were warned that if you sit on the outer edge of the horseshoe shaped table, you are more likely to be picked on. We chose to sit in the very middle, as did Brent, who ended up getting picked out on two separate occassions.

It was the second of these audience participation moments that provided the biggest laugh yet for our group, as Brent joined five other 'victims' who had their shirts removed and did their best to copy the movements of the belly dancer. As he waited for the events to unfold, he said to one of his fellow victims: "Those who are about to die, we salute you". When prompted to remove his top he duly obliged, then suggested that the belly dancer reciprocate. She didn’t oblige back.

Meanwhile, Robert snapped away with his camera (at the belly dancer, not Brent!) and Neil looked on wistfully (again, not at Brent). Later on, when we boarded the bus, Neil slurred his way through the arrangements for the following morning (each and every slur getting an unintended laugh), then confessed his undying love for Belma, saying: "I bring 18 people here every two weeks and she doesn't even know me. And I don't even know her name!

Day 13 - Friday - Ürgüp to Ankara, via Haçibektas

A 6 am start - another long old travel day. And as we near the end of the holiday, there's less to see along the way too. It really feels like the end of the holiday is drawing near now - none of the selected highlights, such as Cappadocia, ballooning or the gulet boat are ahead of us. From now on it’s just the open road until we return to our start point of Istanbul.

Today was a dull day to celebrate a birthday on, but that's precisely what Manda did - well not celebrate exactly, but rather sit on a bus for her birthday.

Our day was broken up with the occassional comfort stops and the longer midday stop. Our first stop took place much earlier because of our early start. By 9:30 we were at Haçibektas, the site of another revered monastery. The monastery is named after the founder of the Bektashi Dervish order, Haçi Bektas no less, and contains his tomb and that of the secondary founder Balim Sultan.

In a similar fashion to the monastery at Konya, this was a location of great importance to the local Turkish visitors. Dress among the locals is very modest - very traditional. However, the site of the tombs was less busy than at Konya, and at one point our group were the only people inside the building. At busier times, visitors can expect to see the locals kissing the tombs, crying and generally being overcome with the emotion of it all, but there was none of that for us.

We carried on motoring along until we got to Ankara where our first stop would be at the Museum of Anatolian Civilisations.

I had preconceived ideas about what Ankara would be like. In my mind, it would be to Turkey what Canberra is to Australia - a capital in name but not in soul; a place of administrative procedures and busy government officials, but not a place to kick off your shoes and enjoy yourself. How wrong I was ...

As we arrived in Ankara, it was clear that this was a VERY populous place. If we had thought that Istanbul was busy, this soon put things in perspective. As we drove up the busy roads, people swarmed up and down the streets to our sides. When we stopped at traffic lights, a mass of humanity bustled past in front of us. This happened at seemingly every intersection, and every time we drove past another junction we got a glimpse through to pedestrianised areas that were very heavily frequented.

We were dropped off at the museum early afternoon and had a couple of hours to look around the exhibits. Is two hours enough? Depends on how interested you are in the topic, really. I was intrigued by many of the items on show which range from the earliest civilisations' stone arrowheads, through the Hittite stone carved friezes to more 'recent' Roman exhibits. The information provided with each artifact is, for once, well translated. However, if you have time I would advise hiring a personal guide to really explain things - those that I did hear following other paying museum-goers seemed to be doing a very thorough job.

After the museum, we had a couple of hours' break at the hotel before heading back out for an evening meal. As it was Manda's birthday, we opted not to go out for a group meal but instead try to find somewhere for the two of us.

As ever, the main thoroughfares in the pedestrianised areas were strewn with the usual collection of kebab fast food establishments. We walked up and down one street without finding anywhere that grabbed our attentions. Eventually, though, I spotted a place that looked slightly more up-market. It had tables outside that were immaculately made up, decorative fountains, smartly dressed waiters but no menu. I ventured closer to see if there was a menu at the entrance, but still no sign. While I investigated, the head waiter smooched over and encouraged us to follow us upstairs where, I could only assume, a menu would be forthcoming. We were led over to a corner table, as I asked to see a menu and was reassured in words that I didn't understand that something was forthcoming at least. Duly seated, we were fawned over by two waiters and a head waiter who were showing us entree dishes, bread rolls and asking what we wanted to drink, almost at the same time. Once we had drinks and a starter or two, we took a look at the menus that had materialised at last.

I had contemplated bringing along the phrase book - that is the completely useless phrase book that came from a bargain book shop and in which we could never find the actual phrase required. But that's beside the point, Anything would have been useful at this stage. The menu was in Turkish and there was no English alternative. On top of that, the waiters spoke little English, the head waiter spoke some English but confusingly. For example, we would ask about fish, he would say something that sounded like "No fish" then reappear minutes later with a platter of fish. All very confusing. Our dining experiences prior to Ankara had evidently put us into a safe little tourist bubble where phrase books were nothing more than a distraction in the way of an otherwise perfectly straightforward tourist-hawker/shopkeeper/restaurateur transaction.

Somehow, I managed to recognise one of the Turkish names for fish - the lüfer, or bluefish (which I had on our first group meal back in Istanbul). With a bit of pointing at the fish platter and general good luck, we both had an excellent meal. And how's this for service - after the main course, one of our attentive waiters moved in to clear the plates then produced a mini hoover - a dust-buster - to clear any breadcrumbs off the table cloth before desert was delivered (a heavily laden plate of fruit).

There was just one thing left - a bill needed paying. And just how much would this three waiters to a table and dust-buster service cost? Despite this being the poshest dining experience yet, it came to the equivalent of just £14 for both of us.

Day 14 - Saturday - Ankara to Istanbul

Oh dear. This was 'D-Day'. This was the Dreaded Day of Travel. The longest stretch that we would cover in the holiday in one day was upon us. No one was looking forward to this - 8 hours or so on the bus to get to Istanbul.

To pass the time I tried to catch up with my diary notes, did some reading, listened to the personal stereo and had a chuckle at the many people on the bus whose heads were lolling about into the aisles before being quickly jerked back to the upright sleeping position.

En route we encountered another brief storm. As was typical of the storms we'd seen do far, it came and went very quickly, but while it was there you knew about it! I had a peculiar experience of looking ahead and seeing the rain run off the windscreen in sheets, looking left to see dark, dark skies frequently enlivened by lightning flashes, and to the other side bright skies with patches of blue poking through wispy white clouds. Was this the same sky?

We arrived in Istanbul at 2 o'clock, as predicted to the very minute! This gave us enough time to set our bags down and head back out to see some sights missed first time around.

We opted to go first to the Aya Sofia Museum again - that is, to go inside rather than breeze past as we had last time. This was possibly the most expensive of the attractions so far at around £7 a ticket, but inside it really is quite an impressive view - if you excuse the scaffolding tower on one side that has been there for over two years as part of a restoration program on the domed roof.

The museum was once a mosque, and before that it was a church. Because it's no longer used as a mosque, there is no need to remove shoes here, nor are there any dress code considerations. While it might be a museum, in 'official' terms, you can still feel the religious significance of the place.

Another place we had wanted to look at was the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Much like our last walk around Istanbul trying to find the Süleymaniye Mosque, this proved to be difficult to find. We discovered that to get to the bazaar involved heading down ever narrowing streets with ever increasing numbers of people. We were not even sure that we were heading in the right direction, as they all seemed to be locals - no sign of other tourists. Apparently Saturday is market day, and didn't we know it now!

The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, although it does sell more than just spices. It sells rather a fine selection of nuts too, and we ended up buying 2 kilograms of pistachios at one stall. The first - and only - purchase we made after all the effort getting there, which immediately filled up my rucksack. Manda saw a belt at one store similar to one she had bought in the UK. The shop owner asked her how much she had paid for her belt - she replied £2 when it had actually cost around £8. His face dropped at this - he couldn’t believe that it was cheaper in the UK than the best price he could offer. He had no idea he was being wound up!

Coming out from the front door of the bizarre, we found ourselves right outside another mosque - the Yeni mosque - and directly facing the Galata Bridge leading over to the Galata Tower in the distance. We had hoped to go up the tower, but the view today was too hazy, and so we decided not to bother going across the water. Normally, though, it would offer great views back over the oldest parts of Istanbul, a skyline full with soaring minarets.

For our final night out, we went as a group back up to the Sultanhamet district. I can’t recall the name of the restaurant, but the head waiter was quite memorable! Neil had suggested that on the last night, fancy dress was optional. Manda and I had both bought silly hats for the evening, thinking that a few others would join in, but no-one else came prepared. So, Manda’s hat/head-dress ended up being passed around the table for photos; the head waiter seemed to want to wear it more than anyone else.

Throughout the meal, we had children come up to us, tapping on our arms to sell us roses. They had very few takers, given that this was the last night and many people were short on cash. They seemed really put out when one of the waiters demonstrated that roses could be made very easily - from a paper napkin. Enterprising as ever, the kids had a go at it themselves; I looked over and saw two of them, deep in concentration at another table trying to perfect the technique. They might well be on to something here!

Day 15 - Sunday - Istanbul, departure

Not really a last day in Istanbul, barely even a half day. With our flight at just after midday, we had to leave for the airport at 11am. So, in reality, there was nowhere that we could go after breakfast with the others.

We did get to see Safet one last time as he was our transfer driver for the brief trip across town. Neil also accompanied us - us being Manda, myself, Colin, Moira, Rachel and Belinda – to the airport. Very few of the group were on a ‘group flight’ given that they were mostly from Australia.

It didn’t take long to get through the various security and baggage checks - although we did wonder whether Rachel would get her bag through - it looked like it was pushing 30 Kg!

As I waited in line, waving around the wallet that contained my flight tickets and passport etc, something flew out of the wallet - a phone card I had bought on day one, not used once and thought I’d lost forever. Given that I had no spare change left, I asked Neil if he’d want to buy it off me - I figured he might have more use of it than me on his next tour, which would begin later that day when the next bunch would arrive from the UK, US, Canada and Australia. For us, though, it was all over for this summer holiday. All over except for the small matter of a web site that needed putting together, that is ...