As should be obvious from the past weeks uptick in my blogging and tweeting activity, Im back from my trip to Istanbul and Athens.
My flight from Charlotte to Rome was late, so I missed my connection to Athens (a not entirely unexpected eventuality), and the later flight to Athens they put me on left me less than an hour in Athens to go out past security and customs, collect the bag theyd forced me to check, then check in, then go through security again and get to my flight. Ergo, I had to scamper.
So by the time I got to Istanbul Id spent roughly 30 hours either cramped into four hot sweaty uncomfortable planes, or scurrying through five labyrinthine airports. I was tempted to collapse into bed without dinner. But I felt I needed to decompress after all that; plus I hadnt eaten since breakfast. So out I went and found a delightful warren of narrow cobblestone streets where I could enjoy delicious food plus tea, ayran, and Turkish coffee at an open-air café under a cool night sky. So I went to bed in a much better mood.
My hotel was ideally located, a short walk to Topkapı in one direction and the Galata bridge in the other. Appropriately enough, the password for wifi in my hotel was … 1453.
My talk was well received, though there were worries about anarchy (wont all the countries that arent anarchies yet invade the first country to become an anarchy? into what hands will the states nuclear warheads fall?). I asked my 3H Hareketi hosts Irfans question about the AKP (Turkeys ruling party) in retrospect a timelier question than any of us realised. While their answers varied (some thought the AKPs reforms were a necessary improvement over the old regime, and that it was the best viable party at the moment; others thought its Islamist leanings made it a greater threat to civil liberties; still others thought they were just a bunch of bog-standard politicians with more concern for money and power than religious ideology; one person argued that the AKP represented, for better or worse, a shift to a modern soft-power surveillance state), they all roughly confirmed Irfans impression of vaguely religious leanings, sporadic authoritarianism, [and] sporadic commitment to free market economics. The 3H folks also gave me a gift a CD collection of Yeni Türkü.
The rest of my time I did a fairly standard tourist itinerary. On the Sultanahmet side I saw Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and the Underground Cistern with its Medusa heads (though not yet Topkapı something for next time), plus many little streets just wandering around; on the Beyoğlu sideI saw İstiklal avenue and Taksim square (quiet then); on the Asian side I saw Kadiköy (ancient Chalcedon, as well as the provenance of a woman I dated in the 90s).
Some observations: Burberry check is very popular in Istanbul. The city is filled with cats. The baklava is better than in Athens. The sewage smell is worse, and the vendors are pushier. Aya Sofya is sublime, while the Blue Mosque is beautiful (in the 18th-century sense of those terms).
A highlight of the trip was a Bosphorus cruise to Anadolu Kavağı, at the mouth of the Black Sea, and a hike up to Yoros castle exhausting but with compensatingly beautiful views. So this trip gave me both a new continent (Asia) and a new easternmost point (Anadolu Kavağı, replacing previous titleholder, Cape Sounion in Attica; I guess Istanbul intervened as titleholder briefly). (I extended my westernmost point this year too, from Vancouver to Honolulu Aloha Akbar! My northernmost and southernmost points remain Inverness and San Pedro Sula.)
The day after I leave Istanbul, the Gezi Park revolt begins. Coincidence, or mission accomplished? (For my 3H Hareketi hosts statement of solidarity with the protesters, see here. C4SSs statement is forthcoming.)
On my previous trip to Athens I vowed that next time I would stay in the Attalos, because it has an elevator, rather than the Fivos, which doesnt. I did indeed stay in the Attalos this time (a hotel with an interesting history), and am happy to report that in addition to an elevator, it surpasses the Fivos in having a) rooms large enough to turn around in, b) toilets flashily futuristic enough that you can actually flush toilet paper down them without having to stow your used paper in the wastebasket; and c) a rooftop garden and bar (with dreadful over-sweetened under-chilled cocktails but a lovely view of the Acropolis).
The AtInER conference was much better (in venue, organisation, and content) than last time. It was also farther than last time from my conference hotel, and a steep walk halfway up Lykavittos, but after the climb up the Cirith Ungol stairway to Yoros castle I could hardly complain. Also enjoyed Greek food/music/dancing at the conference dinner at the Hellenic Union.
After the bristling energy of Istanbul, Athens seemed laidback and dreamlike. I know that Greece is in the midst of economic crisis and political unrest, but apart from graffiti (my favourites were From Oakland to Greece, disarm the police and Anarkhia = Eleutheria) and the Nurembergesque cadences of a Golden Dawn speech I caught one evening it never shows any signs of it when Im there.
I visited the Museum of Cycladic Art; wandered through the Plaka; revisited the Acropolis, the National Gardens, and the Mpaïraktaris restaurant (the John Turturro clone is still there); and discovered a stairless access path to the Lykavittos funicular. I also took the one-day Aigina/Poros/Hydra cruise again. This boat was better than last time (more room to sit up top), though the waters were a bit choppier early on. Last time I said that next time on Aigina Id take the Classical Tour instead of the Panoramic Tour in order, in order to see the Temple of Aphaia; but this time only the Panoramic Tour was offered, so I skipped the tour and explored some ruins (of varied Classical and Byzantine provenance) near the dock. The high point of the cruise, as before, was the frustratingly short 90 minutes in beautiful Hydra; next time Im going to stay for several days in Hydra I even have my hotel picked out. We took a different route back this time (because we did the islands in a different order), so no seagulls following us all the way back to Athens as before.
I also took a bus journey to the center of the earth. As the story has it, Zeus wanted to discover what point was the central point of the (flat) earth, so he performed a scientific experiment: he released two eagles simultaneously from opposite ends of the earth and had them fly toward each other. The spot where they met was just above Delphi, on the side of Mt. Parnassos a beautiful spot, steep and craggy, with a view of the Gulf of Corinth, where in later years, at the Temple of the Oracle, Socrates would be proclaimed the wisest of men, Oedipus would have the word of promise kept to his ear and broken to his hope, and an Athenian delegation would be helpfully assured that good laws are preferable to bad ones.
Delphi was also the site (or one half of the site) of the first parapsychological experiment: Crœsus of Lydia tested the Delphic Oracles accuracy by sending a delegation to ask: What is Crœsus doing right now, back in Sardis? The Oracle got it right (Crœsus was boiling a turtle). Crœsus should have published his findings and retired. The tour guide said that the oracles answers were always ambiguous, and that Crœsus came from what is now Lebanon, both of which are false.
Apparently tours differ in the amount of time visitors get at the ruins. Our was better than most; we were allowed up all five levels. But we didnt get to the Tholos.
We also passed through Thebes, and stopped at the typical Greek village of Arakhova. I feel entitled to doubt that any place thats a regular stop on a tourbus route is really a typical Greek village.
On my last night, right behind my hotel I found, and had dinner in, a delightful neighborhood called Psirri/Psyri/Psurrhē (interesting though slightly outdated background info here) that was somehow off my radar last time I was there. The entrance to the neighbourhood looks really unpromising, a dark dingy alley that seems like it leads nowhere or at least nowhere safe, but two blocks in and youre suddenly in a lively area filled with music and sidewalk cafes. Psirri in its present form has its origins in evil (essentially, forced urban renewal to benefit local landlords with political pull), but hey, the Parthenon has its origins in slave labour, and I enjoyed that too.
Photos of all this will follow in due course (the ones in this post arent mine).