Postcard from Bulgaria

We got the hot gossip washed down with Bulgarian plonk we were hoping for. But that didn’t mean our entire trip was a non-stop booze-fest. In between top-ups, we did manage to drink in a bit of culture too, with a gander round ancient Nessebar, a pretty little town tumbling over a small Black Sea island joined to the mainland by a causeway. It’s full of old Orthodox churches and sprinkled with bars, cafés and places to browse for tourist tat and local handicrafts. The assault course of rough cobbled streets is charming but ladies and drag queens should leave the heels at home. Even the flat-shoed risk a snapped ankle.

Founded in the second millennium BC and originally a Thracian settlement called Mesembria, the town passed down the line to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Bulgars before eventually falling to the Ottomans in 1453. Our guidebook called this ‘the time of the Turkish enslavement’ – memories run very deep in the Balkans. Finally, Nessebar was incorporated into the new Bulgarian state in 1885.

Nessebar has a small but impressive museum exhibiting artefacts from down the many ages. Fallen Catholic Liam loves a religious icon and started to hyperventilate when we stumbled across a room full of ’em.

Thank you to our lovely landladies for putting us up and putting up with us – you know who you are!

But What Are They Eating?

But What Are They Eating?

Author Shelley Workinger runs a blog that provides a unique approach to book promotion – food and the consumption thereof. My expanding waistline is evidence enough of my love of all things culinary, so I bit her hand off to get featured.

Turkish cuisine is justifiably famed as one of the world’s greatest. The Sultan’s table overflowed with extravagant bounty from the vast Ottoman domains that once stretched across three continents. The empire may be history, but food – preparing it, eating it, sharing it – is still of enormous cultural importance to all Turks regardless of status and income. So it’s small wonder the simple act of eating plays a starring role in both of my memoirs, Perking the Pansies and its sequel, Turkey Street. Here’s a soupçon…


The Cult of Atatürk

The Cult of Atatürk

Now we’ve returned to Blighty I feel safe enough to comment on a subject that is taboo in my former foster home, the cult of Atatürk. Mustapha Kemal was undoubtedly an inspirational military and political leader who saved the Ottoman heartlands from the territorial ambitions of the victorious powers following the Great War. The Italians, French, British and Greeks all wanted to pick over the bones of the moribund empire and punish the Sultan for backing the wrong horse. There were scores to settle. Atatürk saw off the pack of hyenas and established a secular Turkish Republic mostly shorn of its imperial lands within more defensible borders. His post war reforms dragged the country into the 20th Century. He was able to achieve all this because of the sheer strength of his towering personality and resolute single mindedness. Yes, he was a dictator, in the age of the great dictators (I mean ‘great’ in the powerful sense, obviously), but his rule was progressive and transformational. His avowed legacy was to establish a  just and secular society based on the rule of Law and gender equality. I wonder, therefore, what he would make of the personality cult that has developed around his memory following his death? I wonder if he would approve of the laws that ban even the mildest criticism of him and require his image to be prominently displayed everywhere? What would he make of monumental scale of his mausoleum and the thousands of grand statues that adorn every town square? I wonder?

Food, Inglorious Food

Bussed in boys have bumped up Bodrum’s population and hustle season is in full swing. The cheap youths in cheap shirts have such impossibly thin waists; you wonder where their vital organs are stored. Tediously, every year these likely lads need retraining not to hassle us as we run the gauntlet of the identikit restaurants along the promenade. It hardly matters which eatery you choose, the fare is the same – a service plate of chips, rice and a compost of shredded limp greenery accompanying kebabs or plain grilled fish. Bodrum is not well-blessed with exquisite Ottoman gastronomy and delicious regional cuisine is hard to find. This may explain why restaurants with an international flavour are so popular, particularly amongst the Turkish yachting fraternity and emigreys alike.

If it’s an ample grill you’re after, avoid the over-priced joints anywhere near the water front. Just one or two streets behind bring better quality at half the price. I would recommend a small family run establishment called Yeni Bodrum Ocakbaşı which is located along Atatürk Caddesi (the street that runs parallel to Bar Street), opposite the Istanköy Hotel. This relaxed and unpretentious lokanta is popular with the locals and serves up a plentiful menu of fresh fare, including pide (Turkish pizza). Their service plate is a superior brand featuring spiced bulgar wheat (instead of plain rice) and a crisp salad of many colours. And, they don’t try to drag the punters in by the scruff of the neck.

Next post: The Istankoy Hötel

Islamic Chic

Islamic Chic

Our second day in Istanbul was spent meandering through the piazzas and pavilions of the splendid Topkapı Palace, epicentre of the imperial Ottoman court for 400 years. The unheralded highlight was chancing upon relics of the Prophet (yes, The Prophet). We gazed incredulously upon bits of His beard, tooth, sword, bow, a heap of soil used for ritual ablution and a clay impression of His foot – all allegedly genuine. Slightly less credible are the rod of Moses (of the plagues of Egypt fame), King David’s skull, Abraham’s cookware, and Joseph’s turban (though sadly not his coat of many colours). We were most disappointed not to see the Ark of the Covenant and a charred twig from the Burning Bush. Naturally we remained suitably deferential to avoid stoning by the Faithful. I suppose it’s no less fantastic than the implausible holy artefacts revered by the old ladies of Christendom.

In the extensive grounds we encountered the phenomenon known as ‘Islamic Chic’. Gaggles of giggling girls wandering about their Ottoman heritage adorned in exquisitely tailored dark hued, figure-hugging maxi coats garnished with sumptuous silk scarves of vivid primary colours. The head coverings, moulded at the forehead into a shallow peek as if hiding a baseball cap beneath, framed their painted faces. Modest and modern, I suspect the look is more a sign of wealth and status than of piety. We finished the day with a flourish by ambling around the excellent archeological museum.

Ol’ Constantinople is simply sublime and just gets better each time I visit. We travelled home that evening wanting more and vowing to return.