I sent my application as soon as the ballots to attend the ANZAC centenary in Gallipoli; Turkey opened in early 2014. I had my sight set on attending as far back as three years ago and had hoped to tie in the visit with a trip to Greece and North Africa to do some research for my book. After three ballot rounds, I finally received news that I had a ticket. By that time, I’d pretty much given up hope and had indefinitely delayed my travel plans. In just over six weeks, however, I frantically organized my flights, accommodation, time off work and was on a plane bound for Istanbul.
My trip was short, just ten days and I’d managed to include visits to Athens and Crete. Before embarking on my journey I’d been warned about looming terrorist security threats (war-torn Syria being located next door), as well as the perils of travelling as a single woman in a relatively conservative Muslim country. The ANZAC centenary at Gallipoli would be a big event. Around 10,000 Australians and New Zealanders were set to attend, and the Dawn Service dignitaries included the Prime ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Turkey as well as Prince Charles and Prince Harry. I’d reasoned to myself that although I was travelling solo I was culturally aware and street smart; I’d be staying in Istanbul, a large cosmopolitan city and be surrounded most of the time by visiting foreigners (Aussies and Kiwis). And with dignitaries like the beloved Prince Harry attending I felt that the security would be particularly high.
My flights were both lengthy and delayed, however on my final flight I met John, a Maori kaumatua (elder). He was travelling to the centenary from Auckland and was meeting his tour group in Istanbul. An army veteran he had travelled extensively, supporting Maori youth and sports teams. It struck me how active he was for his age. I was already feeling exhausted from the flight, but there he sat without a complaint having endured a similar lengthy journey. This was his second visit to Gallipoli; he had attended in a previous year and had also visited Crete and Italy for second world war commemorations for the 28th Maori Battalion. We enjoyed a good chat and in no time we had reached Istanbul, where we parted ways.
Istanbul is a beautiful city. You’re struck at once by majestic mosques rising from the skyline and the hazy blue-grey waters of the Bosporus River. It’s also a damn interesting place. A melting pot, lying across both Europe and Asia, both continents are reflected in the rich Byzantine and Ottoman cultures. I stayed in Beyoglu an inner city area with a reputation as a bohemian centre. Beyoglu was a charming mix of traditional and street cool – cobblestone footpaths and cafes blended effortlessly with bright graffiti murals and European clothing chain stores. At the time I visited the city was celebrating their Tulip Festival. Tulips, I discovered are native to Turkey. And the city was peppered with colour from hundreds of beautiful tulip flowers.
I also have to make mentioned of the cats. Not because I’m an animal lover but because Istanbul is full of them. They’re sashaying down the streets, sitting outside cafes, lounging on stairwells and, naturally, down at the wharves waiting for a feed of fish. The locals like to have them around to help control vermin and in return they are very well looked after. There was not a feral, malnourished moggy in sight. They all looked like happy, well-fed house cats. Such is the people of Istanbul’s fondness of cats that when I was in a museum, a security guard quickly walked outside only to return holding a cat that had been caught out in the rain. And while most Turkish drivers drive in one fashion – very fast – I saw more than driver one slow down or stop completely for a cat or dog that had strayed onto the road.
After spending a day to take in the sights of Istanbul, I woke the next morning to board my 8 am bus for the Gallipoli Peninsula, with a bunch of Aussies and handful of Kiwis. Although it was possible to drive a car to the area, ticket holders were advised to book a private tour bus to the site. We had been warned that there would be significant delays entering and leaving the park, due to both the size of the crowds attending and the heightened security procedures. It wasn’t until we arrived at the site that the mammoth size of the logistics of the event kicked in.
To be continued…