Due to the delay in our flight leaving, we only landed in Istanbul at 1am. We had booked a hotel transfer and we found a guy holding a sign with our names pretty quickly, but soon realised he and a few other guys had been left with the task of collecting passengers for multiple hotel drivers who were waiting with their cars most likely outside the airport. We watched our group of fellow travellers slowly dwindle in size as cars in varying states of cleanliness and modernity came to collect them, until finally it was just us and one other Australian girl, also living in London, who was also in Turkey to go to the Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli. We chatted for a few minutes until her van came to pick her up, then it was just us. The guy who had initially collected us from Arrivals was still nearby on his phone but never told us what was happening, until about ten minutes later a very clean, new-looking vehicle pulled up and the driver jumped out and took our bags from us all the while apologising for the wait. My slowly rising apprehension completely disappeared when I got into the spotlessly clean car and we were soon on our way. Our driver offered us water in little sealed plastic cups (like you get on planes) – we thought this was a little odd at first but found out later these are standard on coaches and tour buses.
The drive was faster than I expected as it was past 2am and there was next to no other traffic around (although we did pass a group of guys playing soccer on the esplanade??). By the time we checked in to our hotel (Hotel Sultan Hill) and got ready for bed it was 3am Turkey time (a few hours earlier UK time so we weren’t TOO exhausted), and although we were VERY grateful for our first proper bed in two weeks it still took me a while to fall asleep (the bed was a little hard and the pillow very firm). And then at 5.30 we were rudely awoken by the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque which was literally about 100m outside our window! Not trying to think about the sleep I was missing out on, I pulled the window closed and climbed back into bed. The closed window did not really help. Every time there was a break in the chanting I began to relax, thinking it was over, until 20 seconds later it started up again. I stopped relaxing, expecting, waiting for it to start again. Please don’t start again, please don’t start again, please don’t – nope, there it goes again. Rinse and repeat. Until finally it stopped, and I could sleep again, which I realised at 8.30am when our alarm woke us up!
I knew from my pre-trip research that turkish breakfasts were different, but the breakfast at Hotel Sultan Hill was a little lacking by Turkish standards. It had most of the normal Turkish stuff – olives, hard boiled eggs, tomato, cucumber, this super-pink, super-processed meat that tasted a bit like devon, cheese, dried fruit, some cereals and sliced bread sticks with butter and jam, but the bread pieces were quite small and there was no fresh fruit which we found was normally standard.
We were out of the hotel by 10 in order to walk to the Hagia Sophia where we were to meet our Gallipoli tour group. The reception guy in the hotel gave us good directions, but we were not far away at all (which is why I picked the hotel in the first place). We only had about 600m to walk but I realised after taking about 5 steps outside the door that my cardigan would NOT be necessary. I pushed the sleeves up but by the time we got to the Hagia Sophia I pulled it off and stuffed it in my backpack, wondering if we would need to buy more short-sleeved shirts! We also realised we would have to rectify our sunglasses-less situation, as Andre had lost his mountain biking in Scotland and I, in a moment of insanity, had left mine at home thinking I wouldn’t need them in Scotland or Turkey (?!?). Apparently I’d gotten too used to not wearing them in London!
We found our tour contact quickly who advised us we could leave our bags with him (as we could see some others already had) because the bus would not leave until 11 (which I was aware of). After we took a few photos of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia we found a shady tree to sit under and watch some super-armed police riding around on their motor bikes, obviously just daring someone to try something, until it was time to reunite with our tour group. A bit of chatting revealed most of us were Australian with a few kiwis, and once we got on the bus (which had already collected some others) we found we were definitely in a majority-Australian group. I hadn’t even realised I’d missed the accent!
The drive down the peninsula was long, and we found out that the two staff on our bus (aside from the driver) were students and not qualified guides and so they didn’t really do any talking, so two of the Australians up the front designated themselves surrogate tour guides for the trip – one guy Vulcan whose parents are Turkish and so spoke the language and had visited the country several times, and his mate Graeme. Unlike most of the others on the bus, they’d already been in Turkey a few weeks and in Istanbul for a few days, and what I had initially expected to be a self-indulgent brag-fest ended up being self-deprecating and rather amusing. Graeme told us about everything he had learnt so far on the trip, trying to rope in the more reluctant Vulcan to clarify information until finally Vulcan got fed up, took the microphone from him and just told us the stories himself! We had a stop for lunch at a road-side restaurant which the rest of our trip confirmed was an enormous rip-off by Turkish standards (although we suspected as much at the time).
Finally we ended up in Eceabat (Ah-JAY-a-baht) where we met TJ, our actual tour guide. I was under the impression we would actually be staying in TJ’s hostel/hotel (depending on whether you had booked the hostel or hotel tour – we had booked hostel) but we were ferried across the Dardanelles to Çanakkale (Chan-AK-ah-lee) to quite a nice hotel that everyone, regardless of what they’d booked, was accommodated in. I guessed there must have been some mix-up or double-booking with the accommodation for us to get upgraded! We were provided with dinner in the hotel that night and although the main meal was very mediocre and very western (meat-less spaghetti and potato chips) the sides were more traditionally turkish (mediterranean salad among others) and we had our first experience with a dessert that we never learned the name of throughout the entire trip, although I now think is called Kemal Pasha. They are little fried dough dumplings soaked in a sugar syrup and served at room temperature or cold.
The next morning breakfast was pretty similar to the place we stayed at in Istanbul, and while our itinerary said there were Children’s Day celebrations we could visit in the town, we’d not been given any specific information regarding it and weren’t so interested enough to go looking, although one of the other women had a good whinge about not being informed enough. The itinerary made it pretty clear that it was just an optional thing you could go and have a look at if you wanted to, but I did agree we should have at least been told what was happening, where and when.
Late-morning we were picked up and taken for an early lunch in Eceabat (lentil soup, bread, chicken shish kebabs with rice, salad and chips) before starting our guided tour around the peninsula to all the different war cemeteries and battle sites. Our guide TJ is Turkish but I believe has an Australian wife and spends a lot of time in Australia. He’s very knowledgeable about Gallipoli history, both from an Anzac and Turkish point of view. He explained to us the whole big-picture of the Gallipoli campaign, from how Turkey was dragged into a war it wanted to stay out of, the Allies’ initial attempts at a naval battle through to the decision to launch a land-based attack, the decision on where to land the troops and the subsequent successes and failures of the Anzacs to obtain their goal, and the Turks’ successful defence at the hands of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
I won’t go into a whole history lesson here – you can read about it on wikipedia – but I learnt a lot that day, including that the Anzacs actually made a lot of ground before the Turks realised they had landed and started firing on them. They never made it any further than they did on that first day, being pushed back and regaining ground many times, sometimes moving forward of that line but never managing to hold the land before being pushed back again.
We visited the Çanakkale war museum (new in 2013); Anzac Cove where the first Anzacs landed in 1915; Beach Cemetery, not far from Anzac Cove, where John Simpson Kirkpatrick is buried; the Australian war memorial and cemetery at Lone Pine where Australians launched (and won) a diversionary attack to draw Turks away from the main assaults of the August Offensive (which ultimately failed); the New Zealand war memorial at Chunuk Bair, where New Zealanders were involved in one of the primary assaults of the August Offensive; the Turkish war memorial not far from Chunuk Bair; and Johnston’s Jolly war cemetery, among other sites.
It was a long day and when we got back to Eceabat we were offered the chance to watch the documentary The Fatal Shore which was originally meant to be shown in the morning after breakfast. Many of us stayed behind to watch it while some people returned to our hotel in Çanakkale. We didn’t end up finishing it because we were all very tired and hadn’t been given a chance to have dinner yet, so we went back to Çanakkale and got pides (turkish pizzas) at the little shop across the road from our hotel.
The next day a few of us took an optional day tour to Troy in the morning. There was a lot more left of it than I expected – I had read reviews which said there was basically nothing left, just a few blocks in the ground, but there are lots of foundations and walls with a few ceiling blocks and the ramp up to where the palace used to be. Our guide was an archaeology student who knew a lot about Troy which made it very interesting.
We were back in Çanakkale in time for lunch and to do some groceries to prepare for the night ahead at Anzac Cove.