Istanbul was a welcome change. Still Muslim, but the friendly kind. I spent my first evening eating kebabs at a bustling cafe in the shadow of the Blue Mosque.
It was filled with burly mustachioed men and women playing backgammon and smoking from narghile (hookah) pipes. It felt like part of some elaborate municipal effort to maintain tourist expectations. I had to tap one of them on the shoulder to make sure he wasn’t animatronic. But no, evidently they still get their kicks the way they did a century ago.
I’m certainly not complaining.
Turks are also more willing to cohabitate with tourists in their leisure spaces. Coming from the Middle East, before that Africa, and Asia further still, I’ve been conditioned to accept the vast gulf between visitor and local. Europe, or at least that aspect of Europe, is something I’m ready for.
I slept a lot in Istanbul. First it was recovering from the 4am flight, but I eventually realized I was worn down by much more than that.
Turks are very attractive people. Mostly they look the way Americans do in old pictures from back when we had to work for a living. Their skin is made of naugahyde. Their heads are crunched downward as if from years of backbreaking labor. They appear to have all just emerged from a coal mine.
After a couple days of recuperation, I decided to start touring the countryside. First stop: Troy.
Yes, that Troy. Who knew it was in Turkey? Did some research and it’s pretty well accepted that they found it. They don’t publicize the place much â€“ undoubtedly for a reason.
Took a ferry across the Bosphorus. Bus to Bursa. Stuck there for 8 hours waiting for another bus to Canakkale (lacking the patience to decipher the Turkish alphabet, I’m just going with rough pronunciations). The big surprise there: the Bursa bus station has blazing fast, cheap wi-fi. I pulled down loads of Arrested Development and Sopranos, then caught up on movie trailers.
Am I the only one who thinks the new Superman looks like he sprung out of some gay internet fan fiction? Aberkryptonite & Fitch.
Arrived at Chanakkale at 5am, found every single hotel booked full by tour groups. One night manager took pity on me and let me sleep on the lobby couch until sunrise.
Made my way onto the Troy minibus. Fell asleep waiting for it to leave. When I woke, there was a guy sitting next to me named Xiao Wei.
Xiao Wei grew up outside of Shanghai. He lives in Germany studying chemistry, and is traveling Turkey by himself. He has a gentle manner. I liked him instantly.
We formed a fellowship. I speak English good, so I could help communicate for him and cut travel costs. In return, he could serve as a combination camera holder/alarm clock.
On display at the entrance to Troy: the actual, original, authentic Trojan horse.
During the Enlightenment, kings and intellectuals marveled at the shrewd leadership and military bravura of Julius Caesar. Suetonius tells us that Caesar wept with humility before a statue of Alexander the Great. As a boy, Alexander went to bed each night with Aristotle’s copy of the lliad under his pillow, longing to one day match the heroic feats of Achilles.
Point being: it doesn’t get much ancienter than Troy. And few legends wear more layers of polish.
There are at least nine different versions of Troy, built one on top of another over the course of millennia. The name has changed as well. Another of its names was Ilium (hence, Iliad). The Roman numerals at this spot indicate which version you’re looking at, and show how each one was slightly elevated over its previous incarnation.
It’s believed that Troy VI was the one sacked by the Greeks. As for it being done over the blinding beauty of the proto-MacGuffin, Helen, no one can say for certain. But as is often the case with this sort of thing, skepticism runs rampant.
Xiao is pretty sure the red flowers are poppies. Another passerby felt confident as well. This may explain why I found it such a pleasant place to visit.
I showed Xiao the new dancing video over lunch at the Troy souvenir complex. He watched in silence, as if I were showing him my driver’s license. Afterward, his only comment was that it would be a nice thing to have 10 years from now.
At first my ego was a little bruised. But on reflection, I suppose his mind went straight to the most important part.
Back into town, Xiao led me to a hostel with dorm beds available. I slept through the afternoon, then we left to catch the overnight bus to Ephesus.
Incidentally, the WWI battlefield of Gallipoli is just across the Dardanelles, maybe an hour’s drive and a short ferry ride from Troy.
The Turks sure know how to repel a beachhead.
Dumped yet again at 5 in the morning, this time in the city of Izmir, which some claim to be the birthplace of Homer. Again, who knew he was a Turk? These days it’s a concrete, industrial wasteland.
Another hour by bus to Selchuk. Found another hotel. Got more badly-needed sleep.
Walked to Ephesus in the afternoon. Much more impressive than Troy.
In the amphitheater, a plump Bavarian couple took center stage and sung a duet of Amazing Grace, dazzling us with the unexpected acoustic resonance.
“Germans,” said Xiao Wei, a knowing weariness in his voice.
And onward to the main attraction: the facade of the Celsus Library.
It had to be reassembled block by block from the rubble. A couple thousand years of earthquakes left a lot of damage. They’ve done an amazing job putting it back together.
We continued past the tourist throngs, eventually finding the quiet, somewhat haunting road to Ephesus.
As I’ve grumbled before, I’ll take a few haphazard chunks of column over the big spectacle if it means I can see it on my own, without any guides explaining how it was put together; scaring away that intangible quality that transports us to another when, breaking the spell, ruining the ruins.
Xiao Wei and I had planned to rent a car and drive inland to see the weird frosted pools of Pammukale. After Ephesus, I had a change of heart and just wanted the extra day in Greece. We parted ways early the next morning and I caught the ferry to Samos.
The Athens ferry is getting ready to depart, so time to finish this up.
I’m loosely retracing the path of Ulysses. Seems appropriate.
Frankly, I don’t know what Homer was making such a big deal about. This is easy.
*For the full story of his travels around the world visit Matt’s website www.wherethehellismatt.com