2023 TRIP

February 28 Alrewas to Dover

The drive to Dover was predictably dreary. Very heavy traffic for practically all the 233 miles but at least it was dry apart from the occasional short shower. However getting onto the ferry was a laugh: having passed through French customs with a cursory inspection (and my invitation to examine the contents of the portapotty was politely declined) we then had to have our ticket inspected at a long row of kiosks. Each has a symbol of either a lorry or a car and you can’t distinguish between them in the dark. We had three attempts and, if you get it wrong, you can’t do the obvious thing and reverse before trying another kiosk. No, you have to go all the way round. We did it three times, much to the amusement of the blokes operating all the barriers you have to pass through. We even picked up a paper owl. When we suffered this ordeal in 2017, we decided to get out of the terminal and go for a meal, but someone had forgotten to give us an owl which we needed to leave the terminal. We got stopped by an aggressive little man who didn’t believe we hadn’t got an owl. “Wers yer owl mate? Wot no owl? Can’t come here wivowt an owl mate. Yer can’t come froo ere wivowt an owl mate. Can’t let yer froo mate wivowt an owl. Mor than me jobs werf mate.” Then a man with a brain let us out. And now we have our very own owl having forgotten to hand it in.

1st March : Dover to Baden Baden

The ferry crossing was uneventful and we drove to Ypres easily enough, although I couldn’t find it on the satnav, possibly because the locals call it “Leper”. Which meant that I couldn’t find Hamilton Park, where I had planned to spend the night. However we found an empty car park in front of a furniture factory called “Crack” and I managed to wake up in the morning and drive away before the workers arrived. We then followed the motorway through Kortryjk, Mons, Charleroi and Namur to Luxemburg before the satnav took us through France again. The countryside was pleasant as the motorway powered its way over a succession of low rolling hills with alternating farmland and pine forests (including the Ardennes of WW2 fame) until we reached Baden Baden and found the Achern Autohof where I intended to eat and spend the night. It was full of trucks and people and we ate at a truckers caff which we thought might be marginally better than the adjacent MacDonalds. It wasn’t. The waiters were nice but the chicken was crap (pre-cooked and warmed up so one side was roasting and the other cold) and the chips were like cardboard. The site was too crowded for us to have a good night’s sleep so we drove a couple of miles to the Plenderplatz rastplatz and found a nice secluded corner for a good sleep.

2nd March Baden Baden to Venice

There was some extremely heavy traffic on the motorway from Baden Baden to the Swiss border where I had to buy a vignette for 45 euros. The satnav then took us on a rather complicated route through the centre of Basel before we finally got back on the motorway. I was looking forward to driving through the Alps having happy memories of when I used to hitch-hike to Asia in my student days (more then 50 years ago) along little winding roads up over the St Gotthard Pass. Sadly there is now a long tunnel 17.7 kms long, so I have to pay 45 euros for the privilege of seeing nothing. The only advantage being that we drove 460 miles in a day, and that there was a very nice service station on the south side of the pass. Going to the toilet cost one Swiss franc each which we thought was rather exorbitant, so we both squeezed through the barrier and it therefore cost us 50 cents each.

There was a big traffic jam at the Italian frontier for no apparent reason with some very bored looking border guards peering at us as we drove past. Switzerland isn’t in the EU so we have to suffer this border nonsense twice in a day. However the Swiss peages were very efficient because you just pay with your card and drive through. The Italian system is different: you press a button to get a ticket and then insert the ticket and pay when you leave the motorway, rather like a British car park. We didn’t know that, and tried to pay with a credit card at every peage, with the operator raising the barrier for us without giving us a ticket. The problem arose when we tried to leave the motorway at Venice without a ticket and were stuck at the barrier until some grumpy bloke let us pay without a ticket while hundreds of irate Italians were shouting at us. Very embarrassing. After this ordeal I was too physically, mentally and emotionally knackered to drive to the Fusina campsite so we stopped at the next service station and spent the night in a parking bay designated for the workers.

Service station south of the St Gotthard Pass.

3rd March: Venice

Waking up at the crack of dawn we drove away before the service station workers arrived and reached the Fusina campsite just as the office was opening. We parked at a nice spot by the shore and then paid 13 euros each for a return journey on the ferry which took us across the lagoon to Venice. After leaving the Zatterre terminal we crossed the Academia Bridge and made our way through the little narrow streets to the San Marco square, passing the famous La Fenice opera house on the way.

La Fenice means “The Pheonix” and the name stems from the fact that the theatre has burned down three times; in 1774, 1836 and 1996 (arson) when only the walls were left standing, and has arisen from the ashes. The arsonist was arrested in Mexico, extradited to Italy and got 18 months.

We then walked to Saint Mark’s Square and I decided to climb the Camponile (Bell Tower) while Jennifer (who doesn’t like climbing) sat at the bottom. Sadly, you have to go up in a lift after queueing for 30 minutes. The view from the top is spectacular and the pics show Venice from the west, north, east and south. It took ages to take them waiting for the halfwits with selfie sticks to get out of the way. We thought that Venice in March would be quiet, but so did millions of other people, so it was more crowded than in summer when we went last in 2018.

On that occasion the stunningly beautiful facade was covered by a huge sheet while restoration was taking place. We wandered round the cathedral then paid extra to see the Pala d’Oro, and yet more to see the mosaics. In all a beautiful memorable experience. Lunch at a nice little restaurant and we then wandered slowly (looking at umpteen shops) back to the Zattere terminal and home to the campsite.

On the ferry to Venice

Ferry approaching Venice.


Gondola factory

The Grand Canal from the Academia Bridge

La Fenice

La Fenice

Gondolas. No, we didn’t go on one

Typical Venetian cafe

San Marco Basilica

San Marco Square

Entrance to the Camponile (Bell Tower)

Venice to the west from the top of the Bell Tower

To the north

To the east

To the south

The bell in the bell tower

North side of San Marco Square

Inside the Basilica

Inside the Basilica

The Pala d’Oro

The Pala d’Oro

The pulpit




Bronze horses stolen from Constantinople


Roof of the museum

Roof of the museum

Inside of the Basilica from the museum

Between the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace

The Doge’s Palace

Grand Canal from San Marco Square

Had delicious meal here

Side of the Basilica

4th March Venice

We went to Venice on the little ferry again. Jennifer appears to have forgiven the young German couple who parked their van right in front of ours because they have a dog! We were on the same ferry and its a doberman. From Zattere terminal we walked to Academia Bridge and got on a water taxi. We looked at the ticket station but couldn’t believe that the flat rate fare was 10 euros each and we were only going a short distance to Ca d’Oro palace. However we got onto the taxi, expecting someone to sell us a ticket, but no-one did. The disembodied voice giving the names of the stations never mentioned Ca d’Oro and only when we got to the end of the line at Porto Roma did we realise that we had passed it. The walk through the very lively Cannaregio District (with more cafes than people) was good fun, although we walked straight past Ca d’Oro as far as the Rialto Bridge. We walked back and missed it again before a helpful waiter pointed the way. Ca d’Oro is a beautiful Gothic-style canal-side palace dating back to the 4th century and named after the gold plate which once covered its facade.

We then had a delicious pizza at one of the many restaurants and walked towards the Campo San Polo to see the magnificent Gothic-style Frari church. We admired the beautiful “Assumption of the Virgin” painted by Titian in 1518. We also saw the Madonna Ca Peraso painted by Titian in 1519-1526 and the stunning triptykh created by Bellini in 1488. The church was built by Franciscan friars (who have administered it ever since, hence the name “Frari”) in 1220 although the current building was erected in 1492. It is based on an earlier church dating back to the 4th century.

After getting lost many times in the little winding passage-ways, some of which culminated at a dead-end at the side of the Grand Canal, we finally got to Zattere and the ferry home.

Rialto Bridge

Jennifer at Rialto Bridge

5th March

According to my schedule, we should have driven to Sibenik in Croatia but Jennifer made the perfectlug reasonable point that Venice is too nice to spend only two days and as the helpful man in the campsite reception said we could leave the van there to 6 pm rather than 2 we went back to Venice again. Jennifer is a culture vulture and wanted to see an exhibition of photos by two weirdos, Lee Miller and Man Ray (I’ve never heard of them). I thought the only interesting bit was a photo of Lee Miller (who got a job as a war correspondent) sitting in Hitler’s bath after the war. Cheeky sod! I doubt if Hitler would have had the brass neck to sit in Lee Miller’s bath. We had a very nice lunch menu meal at the Pre Bateo restaurant up a side street well away from the tourist hoipolloi paying through the nose for rubbish at the waterside places.

We then went to see an exhibition about the Venetian Inquisition which had all the standard instruments of torture and execution plus a unique device where the victim was strapped in a chair and her feet rested on red-hot coals until she confessed. We then went back to Fusina, paid the bill, filled the van with water, emptied the porta-potty and then set off to find a petrol station. The satnav took us to the Venice end of the causeway connecting the city to the mainland, but the station was on the wrong side of a dual carriageway. In trying to get on the right side, I blundered into a bus station and got arrested by two charming young policemen who gave me the statuary bollocking and let me go. We finally got to the station which was closed and the instructions for filling with a card were only in Italian. A very helpful man showed me how to do it and we then set off for Croatia. The idea was to sneak through Slovenia without buying an expensive vignette, needed for driving a short distance to Croatia, and hoping that the police wouldn’t be cruising about during the night. We found an excellent parking place just over the border and had a good night’s sleep.

This thing passed within 50 metres of our van!

Inside of the palace where the exhibition was held.

The Academia Bridge from the palace

I found it very hard not to behave indecently in the Frari church

Crucifiction in the Frari church

Inside the building opposite the Doge’s Palace

Statue of Demeter, a Greek geezer from the 5th century BC. Folks didn’t have heads on olden days

Something in the exhibition

A monster foot

Mithras slaying the bull

Item in the exhibition

Ancient map of the world by Fra Mauro, created in Venice in 1459

An original copy of the Maleus Malificorum (Hammer of the Witches) written in 1484 which sparked off the European witch crazes.

6th March

Nothing very much happened apart from an extremely frustrating occasion when I found a motorway service station with free wifi. I uploaded a lot of pictures and didnt publish them on the website until the hours free use was up and then lost them all. We travelled for 370 kms down a brand new and almost deserted motorway through some glorious scenery with a very high range of mountains near Zagbozi village, but the toll fee of 49 euros was rather exhorbitant. We crossed the border into Bosnia Herzegovina, which isn’t in the EU so there were some border posts (one leaving Croatia and another entering Bosnia) to circumnavigate but no problems. Approaching Mostar from this direction required some rather nerve-wracking driving on very winding roads and, in several places, steep drops with no barriers into extremely deep gorges which might have been good fun during daylight but it was now dark. Entering Jablanica we stopped at a large restaurant and had a very good (although rather pricy) meal but were able to spend the night in the car park.

Snow in Croatia

Snow at a service station

The restaurant in Bosnia where we had a delicious meal

7th March

On leaving the restaurant car park at 7 AM I drove towards Sarajevo through what was probably gorgeous scenery of mountains, forests and lakes except I couldn’t see it through the mist. The pass on the road from Mostar to Sarajevo which was mentioned by Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden (who played a conceet in the city during the Bosnian war), is now crossed by a new road and long tunnel. I made a big mistake by putting the Basilica in the satnav and was taken to an entirely different town. However we eventually found our way into the centre of Sarajevo where the traffic was horrendous and we struggled to find somewhere to park. There were plenty of car parks but they were all full. Luckily we found a parking spot up a side street outside an Islamic seminary and close to a mosque where the muezzin started calling people to prayer just as we arrived. We found the Baskarija (the old town which is predominently Muslim) almost immediately and enjoyed walking through the narrow streets with restaurants and tourist tat shops. We saw the entrance to the Bezistan (the original bazaar) and the remains of the caravanserai where the traders stayed after delivering their goods.

We then walked towards the river and found the Latin Bridge where a Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the incident is alleged to have started the First World War. There is a set of footprints in the pavement where Gavrilo stood. We went into the museum on the corner of the street which had some fascinating exhibits. I put Sofia into the satnav and it took us round countless hairpin bends up the mountain overlooking Sarajevo and we stopped to eat at a restaurant which was authentically Bosnian because the menu was only in Serbo-Croat, the waiter didn’t speak English, there was no wifi and they only took cash so we had to pay in dollars. We ordered a plate for two and the food was incredible: two large slices of veal, lamb and pork and a hot-dog type sausage and loads of chips and salad. We couldn’t eat it all and the waiter put the rest in a doggy bag. We then drove towards Belgrade and passed through Pale which was the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb army during the siege of Sarajevo. after passing through Visegrad, crossed the border from Bosnia into Serbia. The night was spent in a motorway layby near Uzice.

Centre of the Baskarija, Sarajevo

Bloke with pigeons in Baskarija

Mosque in Sarajevo

Jennifer in Sarajevo

Another mosque

Street in Baskarija

My daughter-in-law’s shop

The entrance to the old bazaar, the Bezistan

Ruins of the Taslihan caravansarai next to the Bezistan

Foundations of the Taslihan

The spot from where Arch Duke Ferdinand was shot.

Pic of the Arch Duke minutes before he was shot

The Latin Bridge

A bloke who got shot for wearing a silly hat and started WW!

Gavrilo Princip who fired the shot

8th March

We must have been driving on a plateau at a fairly high altitude (hence the snow) because, shortly after leaving the layby, we descended down a long steep hill to the industrial city of Uzice. For the next three hours the drive was rather frustrating because I got stuck behind lorries and, having got past one, almost immediately got stuck behind another. The landscape was beautiful with a succession of mountains clothed in pine forests and, near the town of Hnic, a lovely lake which the road crossed on a bridge. From Cacak the landscape was flat and boring and it took us some time to get past the large city of Kragujevac. We then got on to a motorway which took us all the way to Nis and eventually to the Bulgarian border. I had to buy a vignette for 9 levs (Bulgaria is in the EU but not in the Schengen Zone) and we stopped for diesel and a coffee at a filling station where the card was declined so we used some of our euros.

In Sofia we saw a sign for Boyana and decided to drive straight to the church rather than a hotel. Built in the early 10th century it has some stunningly beautiful frescoes. We stopped at a nearby boutique hotel which was very clean and comfortable. However when we went to the restaurant to eat, a very harrassed-looking chef, who appeared to be having a nervous breakdown before our very eyes, told us it was full with non-residents and when I told him we were staying here he said “I don’t care”. We went to the reception to complain and were ushered into the bar where three English-speaking drunks (two Bulgarian men ) and a women (probably Spanish) were making the most raucous noise, bellowing and guffawing at their own so-called “humour”. They provided a most unpleasant background, especially when one of the men gave the women a honking good grope. We mentioned it to the waiter and he said “I know”. We ordered the meal; Jennifer’s came first and was cold. Mine came nearly one hour later. Having said that, the food was delicious. I think it was a new hotel and the management haven’t quite grasped the concept of customer service.

Boyana Church. The 1249 bit is on the right and is full of the most incredibly beautiful mosaics

Front of the church

Very old Giant Redwood. There are two either side of the church.

A beadroll and a psalter

Sofia from the hotel window

Vitosha Mountain from the hotel

March 9th: Sofia

The following morning the hotel allowed us to leave the van in their car park and they called a taxi for us to go into the centre of Sofia to see the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, It was built to commemorate the Russians who were killed during Bulgaria’s liberation from the Ottoman empire in the 1870’s. There is a strong pro-Russian sentiment in Bulgaria as evidence by a demonstration of several thousand people marching past the cathedral. They were members of the Bulgarian Socialist Party which is standing in the forthcoming election, and there were many Bulgarian amd Russian flags. We went to see a nearby church where a service was in progress with the priests hidden behind a screen. The singing was beautiful. We then phoned the taxi which brought us and returned to the hotel before setting off for Istanbul.

Near Stara Zagora, we saw a sign pointing towards the monastery of Saint Athanasius which looked modern but apparently was founded in 344 AD by the said Saint, who brought Christianity to Europe from Alexandria in Egypt. It is the oldest monastery in Europe, followed by the Candida Casa in Scotland in 360! It has been rebuilt many times and the modern version was created on the initiative of Lyudmila Zhivkova, the wife of the communist President Todor Zhivkov. I met them both in 1970 when walking back into Sofia from the Patriarch’s Palace.

We crossed the border painlessly, although the officials looked rather suspiciously at my paper green card, and we stopped for the night at a service station east of Luleburgaz

History of St Athanasius Monastery

The Monastery

Newest part of the Monastery

The well of Holy Water for curing people. It was locked.

10th March

Strange incident last night. I was woken up by a knock on the van window and found two policemen standing outside. One showed me his i-pad stating “There is theft in this area. Move your car next to our vehicle”. So I did so and he showed me another message saying “You may sleep here. Have a good night.” The police car was still there when I woke up in the morning, and drove away when the police saw me yawning and stretching. Strange.

The journey into Istanbul was a nightmare with increasingly heavy traffic, but the journey through the city to a hotel we had booked in the Fatih (old town) area was horrendous. A massive traffic jam, and every time I tried to inch forward a car from either side stuck its front wheel in front of mine and I had no option but to let it in. The satnav couldn’t find the hotel so we tried to go into a car park, but an extremely helpful man drove the van round to Hotel Elisa, spoke to the man in reception and between us we got the van ensconced in a little space 20 metres from the hotel.

We had a delicious meal at the cafe next to the hotel and then went to see the Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) It was closed for restoration last time we went (4+ years ago) and is still closed!!!!. We then went to see the Hagia Sofia, but there was a huge queue so we declided to get up early tomorrow and see it. We then went to see the Cistern which was closed until tomorrow and then walked past the Pudding Shop of fond memory where, 50 years ago, it was possible for scruffy long-haired gits like me to hitch a ride east in a battered VW campervan with a mottley collection of other scruffy long-haired gits. The good old days.

We then walked up the main road through Fatih to see the Grand Bazaar and enjoy the experience of being assailed from all directions by blokes wanting to sell us stuff including genuine fake perfume. None of that fake fake stuff for us!

Our meal outside hotel

Waiter making pomegranite juice

Obelisk of Theodosius. Set up by Tutmoses III in 1850 BC at Karnak in Egypt and transported to Rome by Constantine. Theodosius I had it transported to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Ibrahim Pasha’s palace built during the reign of Bayezid II (1481-1512) on the ruins of the Roman Hippodrome.

German Bell Tower, dedicated to Emporer Wilhelm II in 1898

The famous Pudding Shop

Graves of the wives and relatives of the last Ottoman emporers

Inside the turbe (mausoleum) where the last Ottoman emporers are buried

Entrance to the Nurousmaniye Mosque through which the Grand Bazaar is reached.

The mosque

Entrance to the Grand Bazaar

Spice shop

The Bazaar. Full of tourist tat as well as spices and Turkish Delight

The famous hamam (Turkish bath) where Jennifer is going to drag me kicking and screaming tomorrow.

The Hagia Sofia at night

March 11 Istanbul

Despite trying to get up early, we arrived at the enormous queue to see the Hagia Sofiya about 11 am. Built by the Eastern Roman Emporer Justinian in 532 it was first a church, then (from 1453) a mosque, then a museum and is now a mosque. Last time we went (it closed just as we reached the front of the queue) it was museum and we had to pay to get in. So we saved some money. Now its a mosque again and entrance is free. It is huge and the guide book says that it was the biggest domed temple in the world for over 1,000 years.

We then went to the pudding shop for an unmissable pudding which is basically a very finely ground rice pudding, and then went to see the stunningly beautiful mosaics in the Mosaic Museum which is located off the Arasta Bazaar.

In the afternoon we went to see the Roman Cistern which supplied water to Constantinople. It is much more expensive than when we last visited in 2018. The two differences are that there are no more fishes swimming about in the water, and some clown has installed some silly modern-art sculptures in the water which, in my opinion, spoils the effect of the Cistern. It was built by Justinian in 527

The Hagia Sophia

Entrance to the Hagia Sophiya

The library

The Mihrab, which faces Mecca and where the imam stands in front of the congregation while leading the prayer.

The famous (and delicious) Pudding Shop pudding

Mosaic from the Mosaic Museum. It was discovered in the area near the Sultanahmet and had been created for a Roman palace.

Jennifer in the Roman Cistern, Istanbul

There are two sculptures of Mithras forming part of a column. One is upside down and the other on its side. The theory is that they were installed this way because the Romans believed anyone who looked at Mithras turned to stone.

March 12 Istanbul to Izmit

The last major attraction in Istanbul on our list was the Topkapi Palace, which we had visited in 2018. I was horrified to see that the admission was 50 euros each, but we felt that we had to see it again. We wandered round the rooms with Palace life, armaments, porcelain etc and eventually came to the harem where we were expected to pay a further 22.5 euros each The Turks were only charged 6 and in a fit of moral outrage I refused to pay, so we missed it. We then went to see the sections devoted to coffee making, kitchen equipment and food preparation. After leaving the Palace I was still fuming and then suddenly had a eureka moment when I realised that I had been converting Turkish liras to euros at a rate of 10 to 1 when it was actually 20 to 1. So admission was 25 euros and the harem 11.25. There are times when I can be a complete berk and this was one of them. I plucked up the courage to tell Jennifer and we agreed to go again to see the harem on the way home.

We then set off for Isparta and getting out of Istanbul seemed straightforward until the satnav put us on a ferry to cross the Golden Horn instead of using the bridge. It was good fun and only cost 7 euros. I took a wrong turn in Izmit, a large industrial town, and some miles east of Izmit I stopped at a service station where a charming and somewhat cranky and demented-looking bloke called Mustafa (no music-hall jokes please) at a truckers caff cooked us a fantastic meal. Jennifer had lambs liver cut into chunks in a rich sauce and I had chunks of lamb cooked with tomato, onion and pepper. We shared a tasty salad. We bedded down for the night at the end of the forecourt.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace

Entrance to the inner part of the palace

Crossing the Golden Horn in the “Galatasaray” car ferry

March 13 Izmit to Yeni

We drove from Izmit to Isparta across a high plateau where the temperature dropped to 0 degrees and there was some sleat in the wind. We stopped for breakast of gozleme at a service station. We then continued to Khayaglu, a large porcelain producing centre. The previous night I had walked across a patch of ground and got some extremely sticky yellow clay stuck to my boots. This is the material used for making the porcelain.

We tried to find a hotel in Isparta with no luck and decided to find the village of Alikoi where we planned to meet our dear friend Mehmet who was so kind to us in 2018. We couldn’t find the village and continued along the motorway towards Konya until we came to the tourist town of Yeni on the edge of the huge Egirdir Golu lake. It has a lot of expensive hotels, but we found a free carpark at the waters edge and camped there for the night. I am sure that this was the carpark that Truckmush, an eccentric Frenchman, had told us about in 2018 when we met him at Pamukkale. A 200-metre walk took us to the excellent Selanik cafe where we had a beautiful meal for a total of £14.

14th March

Day 14 Yeni to Alanya

We started the day with a nice breakfast of Menemen (a sort of omelette with tomato, onion and pepper) and Gozleme (a pancake with cheese and meat) and then spent time driving up and down the dual carriageway trying to find our way to Alikoi to see our dear friend Mehmet. We met him 4 years ago when some Alokoi people found us fast asleep in our campervan in a walnut grove outside their village. He invited two complete strangers (us) into his house and gave us the use of his shower and a bed and his wife cooked us a beautiful evening meal and a breakfast. He then sent us on our way with a bag of walnuts from his orchard and homemade wine, His son is learning English so we took him some books.

Mehmet and his son

The castle at Alanya

Alanya from the castle

Day 15 Alanya to Tarsus

After a good night’s sleep, we noticed all the other campervans in the car park leaving in something of a hurry and, fifteen minutes later, a little man approached the van and demanded 20 lira (one euro) parking fee. Which isn’t bad for an overnight stay, but if we had got up 15 minutes earlier we could have saved a euro. We then set off for the large industrial town of Mersin and drove 222 miles during the day. The first 30 were grindingly boring as we passed an endless succession of high-rise blocks which may have been holiday homes for wealthy Turks. The last 50 passed through a succession of scruffy industrial towns including the major city of Silifke plus a further 30 miles on the Adana-Ankara motorway, which took us to a service station 5 miles from Tarsus where we had a nice meal. I had an Adana Kebab and Jennifer had a chicken shish kebab.

The intervening 110 miles were a delght. The road wound its way round or over small hills that extended to the edge of the Mediterranean. Never far from the sea, the road wound round and round and up and down. At times it was barely above sea level with palm trees, cactuses with flat pale green leaves like plates and beautiful flowers. At other times it was maybe 1,000 feet above sea level, passing through beautiful pine forests, and on occasions it must have been 3,000 ft ASL, above the tree line, passing through scrubland covered in small bushes. There was a sheer drop on the right with only a flimsy crash barrier which was smashed in places, suggesting that some poor soul must have gone over the edge. From time to time we passed through tiny villages set away from the road, but with stalls selling fruit at the road side. We stopped at one and bought a huge bunch of small bananas and a large bag of walnuts for 5 euros. The lady was also selling bottles of a dark sticky liquid; she put some on Jennifer’s finger and it was delicious. Later on the stalls were selling oranges and lemons.

We spent the night at a service station on the outskirts of Tarsus.

Where we parked our van at Alanya

The road to Tarsus

Banana stall

We stopped for lunch at Aydincik

Jennifer went for a No.2 at this mosque. A bloke standing outside reciting the Koran but no bog paper

Day 16 Tarsus to Sanliurfa

Jennifer told me that Saint Paul (or Saul to give him his Jewish name) came from Tarsus and a quick glance at the “historical attractions” on the satnav indicated the presence of Aziz Paulus, which was Saint Paul’s Well. The parking was, typically for a Turkish town, a nightmare so we decided to walk there. With help from some kind locals we eventually found it, and the admission price of 1 euro each included admission to a museum which seemed too far to walk to.

So we drove on to Gaziantepe, where there is supposed to have been an earthquake 4 weeks ago. I say “supposed” because the only evidence we could see was when a guard at the world-famous Zeugma Mosaic Museum told us it was closed “because of the earthquake”. I didn’t know what to expect when driving to Gaziantepe – square miles of flattened buildings, heaps of rotting corpses, hordes of hungry desperate survivors with much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. In the event Gaziantepe was just another lively, bustling Turkish town and the only teeth being gnashed were mine as the satnav tried to send me the wrong way down one-way streets and up little sokaks (alleyways) barely wide enough for one vehicle let alone two.

So we decided to drive on to Sanliurfa and stopped for a meal at a motorway service station. There was a very sad incident as we were leaving. Jennifer was paying for a packet of biscuits when there was a terrific crash barely 10 feet away with shards of glass flying in all directions and a lot of blood on the floor. Some poor old bloke had walked into a glass sliding door before it had slid, and totally wrecked it. That’s the sort of thing I would have done. The staff were fussing round him, holding blood-soaked rags to his head. I bet he felt such a fool. We bedded down for the night just as the ambulance arrived.

Our parking place at Tarsus

Saint Paul’s well at Tarsus

Roman remains at St Paul’s Well

Ancient street scene at Tarsus

Portable housing on way to earthquake zone

The museum, closed because of the earthquake

Camels outside the museum at Gaziantepe. It was one the Silk Road

Day 17 Sanliurfa to Bingol

I was looking forward to Sanliurfa. It is a very old town and the Goklikitepe archaeological site is about 20 kms to the north-east. It is thought to date back to 8,000 BC at the time when hunter-gatherers started to settle down in specific places. There is a famous mosaic museum in Sanliurfa and many sites of biblical significance, most notably Bakliki Gol (Abraham’s pool) where Abraham had been sentenced to burn in a fire but God turned the fire to water. Allegedly.

We drove into the town and parked alongside some mysterious-looking caves. I walked into a hut marked “tourist information” and met two very pleasant young men who told me that everything in the town is closed. “The earthquake?” I asked, somewhat sceptically. “No, flooding” was the reply. Apparently there had been a torrential downpour the previous day and 40 people drowned. The caves were a necropolis dating back to 0-400 AD, discovered in 2007 when they were covered by low-quality housing and opened up in 2018. The Roman ruler was a pagan but converted to Christianity; he had a deformed face and when he heard that Jesus could perform miracles he wrote to him asking for help. Jesus sent him a cloth with an imprint of his face and, when the ruler put it to his own face, he was miraculously cured. Each cave is a burial place for a family. When someone dies the body is put in the sarcophagus and, eventually, the bones are taken out and put in the hole in the centre of the cave to make way for the next body. One of the caves has 12 pillars which represent the 12 disciples. An interesting feature of one of the caves is a peacock carved into the wall, which may have been a symbol of the pagan religion before the ruler converted to Christianity, or the cave may have belonged to a family of Yazidis, a sect which worships a peacock and are thought to be devil-worshippers by conventional moslems.

One of the young men showed us round the caves and we then drove to Goglikitepe, which was also closed. I found it hard to believe that a site on the top of a hill could be threatened by flooding, and although the officials were very polite there was no way they would let us walk to the site.

So we set off for Diyarbekir, a very large city with nothing of particular interest. It is located on the Anatolian Plateau which is basically flat with absolutely no trees and not a lot of agriculture. Between Diyarbekir and Bingol, the landscape began to change and it became more hilly with a mountain range in the distance. There were green fields alternating with stony semi-desert with small trees growing here and there. We stopped at a service station 30 miles south of Bingol and had a really nice meal of chicken kebabs and salad for £5 each.

Kahvati (breakfast) at Sanliurfa

Nut shop at service station

Mohamed (our guide) at Sanliurfa necropolis

Mosaic in one of the caves at the necropolis

Peacock symbol

Hole that the sun shines through to illuminate the peacock

Some of the 12 pillars

Frescoe on a wall of the Last Supper

The necropolis

All we were able to see of Goklikitepe

Day 18 Bingol to Gumushane

Actually the service station was about 40 miles south of Bingol and we had a reasonable sleep despite the frequent barking of 6 dogs which appeared to be part of the service station community because they looked well-fed and had green tags. The top dog had a wicked-looking spiked collar. One of the dogs had taken it on himself to be our personal guard dog because he seemed to be sleeping under the van and growled menacingly when other dogs approached. Occasionally he let out an ear-splitting bark. They looked pretty frightening to me but Jennifer, who has an affinity with dogs, stroked them and they wagged their tails.

The breakast was the best yet. The usual kahlvati, but fresh produce (not the normal stuff in plastic packets) from the little villages nestling under the mountains which marked the end of the Anatolian Plateau and the start of the jumbled mountain ranges which dominate eastern Turkey. Within a few miles of leaving Bingol the road began to rise for mile after mile until we reached the small town of Genc where we had to stop at an army checkpoint and a soldier took a photo of the van and waved us on. From then on, the road passed over increasingly high passes surrounded by snow-streaked mountains. The highest was 2,409 metres before the road dropped down into the small town of Bayburt, and the temperature fell to 3 degrees for a short time with a brief fall of snow.

We stopped for diesel at Gumushane and decided that it was time to look for a hotel. There appeared to be nothing in the town so I put Sumela in the satnav because the plan was to visit the famous Sumela Monastery. We went there in 2018 but it was closed for restoration. The internet says that it has the most glorious frescoes. Before we reached it, we came across the Evme hotel 39 miles south of Trabzon so we treated ourselves for a bit of luxury with a reasonable room, a very nice meal of grilled lamb and salad, and an excellent breakfast.

Our guard dog

Hamid, who served us the best breakfast yet

Village opposite the service station, on the edge of the Anatolian Plateau

Mountains between Bingol and Diyarbekir

Frozen lake near a pass 2,350 metres high

A college for social climbers

Day 19 (19th March): Trabzon

A minor hiccup. Having paid Ergun, the very friendly waiter who had served us, I got into the van, pressed the clutch pedal to start the engine, and it sank to the bottom and stayed there. Ergun and his boss came to look at the van, phoned someone who knows about this sort of thing, and gravely informed me that the clutch pipe had burst. We had the option of staying at the hotel and waiting for someone to come from Trabzon, 39 miles to the north, the following day (everything was closed on the 19th because it was a Sunday and Turkish moslems seem to take Sunday off as well as Saturday and Friday) or get a transporter to takes us into Trabzon, which is what we decided to do. We had hoped to park the van outside a garage and sleep in it, but the garage owner wanted the van locked up inside his garage while we stayed in a hotel.

So here I sit in the Grand Vavez hotel a short distance from the garage, adding up the cost. The transporter cost $80 (plus a $10 tip because we were very grateful that he gave up his Sunday and Jennifer paid £150 to be towed a short distance the last time she broke down), $80 for the hotel which was a bit more luxurious than we would have preferred but didn’t want to argue with the garage owner after he took us there in his car) and an estimated $400 for fixing the van which doesn’t seem too much given the price of VW parts. I’m just thankful that the problem happened where help was at hand and not miles from anywhere.

Enough said!!!

Van arriving at garage.

Glorious view from hotel window

Day 20 (20th March) Trabzon to Of.

I walked to the garage in the morning and found the van up on the ramp with a large number of parts on the floor. I don’t know what was done because nobody could speak English and my Turkish is a little rusty, but I did see some parts which looked suspiciously like a clutch thrown in a bin. The van was ready for 2 pm and the cost was higher than the quote at £690 but the California Owners Club says that someone paid £900 to fix a similar problem. And if he changed the clutch (which has done 80,000 miles) as well as repair the fault I can’t complain about the cost. He must have started work Sunday evening and disconnected the battery because the clock was 13 hours out of date.The van is now working perfectly.

In the afternoon we drove about 30 miles to see the Sumela Monastery, which we visited in 2018 but failed to see because it was under renovation. The frescoes were glorious, but it was infuriating to see that the lower ones had been defaced by halfwits scratching their silly names on them.

We then set off for Georgia along the southern shore of the Black Sea through an endless procession of small tourist towns separated by tunnels where the hills come down to the sea. We stopped at a place 10 miles before the town of Of (I didn’t catch its name) in a roadside carpark and went to look for something to eat. We bought a loaf at a bakery and Jennifer practiced her French on the owner who told her that restaurants close about 8 pm in Turkey. However he came running after us and took us across the road to a place that was just closing where we were given a delicious plate of rice and chicken pieces plus a vey nice salad, total cost £5. This incident summed up our impression of Turkey where everyone has been so kind to us.

View from walk up to monastery

Ruins of Saint Barbara’s monastery

Day 21 (21st March) Of to Kutaisi

We drove without incident to the Georgian border and got out of Turkey without problem. However I had forgotten that Georgia is one of the countries we are banned from because of an alleged motoring misdemeanor; in 2018 we didn’t get insurance when entering from Turkey but an officious little man made us buy it when leaving to go to Armenia. I used that insurance when re-entering Georgia, unaware that I was supposed to buy two lots of insurance, which seemed unfair. The Passport Control computer stated (correctly) that I had only bought one lot and a very pleasant man said I would have to pay a penalty of £50 to enter Georgia. We said we would turn round and go back to Turkey, so he telephoned someone and eventually let us through without paying a fine. Perhaps there will be a problem when we try to leave Georgia.

In retrospect, going back to Turkey might have been a better option. Tripadvisor says that there is nothing worth doing in Batumi (the first town after leaving the frontier) apart from walking along the waterfront. We planned to do that, but parking was impossible, so we decided to drive on. The aim was to go to Zugdidi and then Jvari, but we got caught in a complicated tangle of motorways which took us either back to Batumi or on to Poti, and virtually anywhere we didn’t want to go to. We expected to find a decent restaurant in Samtredia but it was a run-down slum of a city with cows walking in the streets, so we drove on to Kutaisi which I know to be a decent-sized town. We found a place which claimed to be a restaurant where a jolly man who spoke reasonable English served us a fast-food version of khachapuria (the national dish – a pizza thing stuffed with cheese) which was just about edible and some wine which was more vinegar than wine. I am writing in the van parked at the side of the road and yearning for Turkey: its food, people and scenery.

We loved Georgia in 2018, but it seems to have gone downhill since. The aim tomorrow is to drive north to the Caucasus mountains where hopefully things will improve!

Rockfall on Black Sea coast road

The Black Sea from the motorway

Church at the Turkey/Georgia border

Day 22 (22nd March) Kutaisi to Mestia

I arose early in the morning and struggled to get out of Kutaisi, having forgotten from 2018 that there are practically no road signs in cities telling you how to get out. I eventually, after nearly two hours of driving around, saw a sign to Tbilisi which took us on to the Poti-Tbilisi motorway. We then found a SOCAR service station and realised we had to go west to Poti before striking north to Zugdidi, Jvari and Mestia. The perfectly straight road out of Poti was 18 miles long with tall trees at either side and the scenery then changed to pine forest with lakes. The road passed through small villages with cows, goats, horses, pigs and dogs in the road. After passing through Jvari we started to climb through the mountains along a winding road full of potholes. We picked up a hitch-hiker called Loshan who was travelling to the small village of Itseri, 18 miles south of Mestia. Reaching Mestia, we had a decent meal at the Lile restaurant and then gorged on cakes from “Kates Cake Shop before spending the night at the side of the road.

Pigs on a taxi

There are lots of towers like this in the Svaneti District of Georgia

Inguri hydro station dam

Pig in the road

Jvari from a tower

Day 23 Mestia to SOCAR service station

Mestia is a down-market ski resort. Some of the buildings are ruins, others are half-built because the owner has run out of money, some like the restaurant and the cake shop are thriving. After we travelled over 100 miles with no filling stations, Mestia has about 10. There seems to be more policemen than people. Apart from some souvenir shops full of tourist tat there is nothing to look at in Mestia apart from a beautiful 10th century church, but the prospect of a visit to Uchguli (which claims to be the highest permanently populated point in Europe) excited us and Kate at the Cake Shop told us the road was “normal”. It wasn’t. We soon rose above the snow line and increasingly deep drifts of snow at the side of the road made driving hazardous, not to mention the animals in the road. Numerous stones and rocks had fallen on the road and a digger was clearing the latest landslip. Eventually the tarmac gave way to a morass of mud and the van got stuck. I was laying stones under the wheels when a 4×4 came the other way carrying a tour guide and some tourists. He told me to reverse, turn round and go back to Mestia because the road got much worse and very dangerous. They pushed the van back until I could turn and return to Mestia. So the visit to Uchguli was a disaster but at least we could stop and take pictures of the church in Mestia.

Mestia main street

The piles of dirt are for putting on the road when it is frozen

Carved gate

Creepy graveyard with pics of the dead

One of the strange towers

A very angry dog

This rock just missed us on the road to Uchguli

10th century church in Mestia

Day 24 (24th March) SOCAR service station to Pasanauri

A very frustrating morning sitting outside the service station using wifi courtesy of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic because one of my customers had paid me and I had trouble sending him the data he needed. We finally got on the road and aimed for Stepantsmindi, which we travelled through in 2018 on our way to Russia, with the border just 5 kms from the town. It is reached through the Gudauri Pass at a height of 7,200 feet. In 2018 the jpurney was delightful and we stopped for lunch just outside the sweet little rustic village of Gudauri with trees covered in blossom, cows, sheep and goats in the road and picturesque little houses. It is now a down-market version of a down-market ski resort with lots of hideous half-finished buildings. A beautiful landscape ruined so that people with nothing better to do can stick pieces of wood on their feet and slide down slopes.

As soon as we left the motorway we were confronted by a queue of lorries parked at the side of the road. They were on their way to Russia and the queue was over 5 miles long. A brief stop at the Ananuri complex of fortresses and churches including the beautiful Tserkov Uspeniya (Church of the Assumption) ended when we were told to leave because it was closing. I then had an argument with a man who wanted to charge us 1 euro for parking although we hadn’t been able to get into the church. We stopped at the Chabarukhi restaurant near Pasanauri and had one of the best meals on the trip so far. Jennifer had barbequed lamb and I had a Georgian delicacy of chicken in garlic sauce called shkmeruli. We stopped in a parking place down the road.

Ananuri fortress

Church of the Assumption

One of the best meals of the trip. I had some pivo razliviye, translated as “drug beer”

I recommend this restaurant

Day 25 (25th March)

The road to Stepantsminda was dramatic as we drove over the Gudauri Pass. At one point we were in a white-out with only the road visible. There was very little traffic as the road climbed through dozens of hairpins and the snow at the side of the road got thicker and thicker. On the far side of the Pass there are are five scary tunnels with no lights and just about wide enough for two cars to pass each other, but not a car and a lorry. Fortunately we weren’t confronted by a lorry!

The aim of going to Stepantsminda was to see the Holy Trinity Church (somewhere called the Church of Saint Gregory the Illuminator) perched on a hill overlooking the town. St Greg was the monk we came across at Khor Virap Monastery in Armenia which we visited in 2018. Born in 257 AD he was thrown into a pit which he shared with vipers and scorpions for 15 years until he was released and converted Armenia from paganism to Christianity in 301. He then proceeded to build monasteries. However the Stepantsminda church was built in the 14th century and there is no indication that he ever came here. We went to the tourist office and booked a drive up to the church in a 4×4 although I think the VW would have made it. The icons in the church were beautiful.

There is nothing else to see in Stepantsminda so we decided to go back to Tbilisi. We got through the five tunnels just before an endless convoy of lorries passed us; it appears that they have to queue and then get released in batches of perhaps 100. We then arrived

at Mtskheti on the outskirts of Tbilisi. Driving in Tbilisi was a nightmare in 2018, partly because there are no road signs so we decided to book into a hotel and get a train into Tbilisi the next day. The Zedazeni hotel was virtually empty and the restaurant was closed, but it was cheap and clean and the room was nice.


Sweet little Stepantsminda coffee house

Stepantsminda from the church

At Stepantsminda you can see a Terricoladaghestanicus. I certainly don’t want to run into one of those

Day 26 (26th March)

The day started badly. Some guests in the adjacent room talked loudly all night, keeping us awake, and at 1.30 am I lost patience and went downstairs in the fond hope of getting the night receptionist to persuade them to go to sleep. She promised to phone them but never did and it was 2.30 before they finally went quiet. We went for breakfast at 8.30, only to be told that it would be served at 11 am. Doubting that this would actually happen, we checked out and drove into Tbilisi.

Then things started to look up. We drove for miles looking for a space to park until we came to a gap in the long line of parked cars in front of a car repair wotkshop. The kind owner said we could park there and directed us to the Old Town, the historical centre of Tbilisi which is known as Metekhi. We crossed the bridge and climbed up to the Virgin Mary Assumption Church of Metekhi which has an imposing position on a cliff overlooking the river Kura..It was built in 1278 on the site of a previous church dating back to the 5th century when Tbilisi was founded by King Vakhtang I of Iberia.

We noticed the cable car to the Narikala Fortress which overlooks the city but it is a ruin with nothing much to see. It is a popular excursion for Tbilisi folk with many stalls selling tourist tat and many people with eagles and parrots which will sit on you to be photographed. I didnt bother, The golden dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral was clearly visible and we walked just over a mile to see it.

Tbilisi has so many interesting things to see, but we were dehydrated and exhausted and decided to return to the van through Rike Park and over the Bridge of Peace. It was entirely predictable that the shortage of road signs would get us lost, as in 2018, but we eventually found the road to the motorway and, quite by chance saw the road up to the Jvari Monastery. It was built in the 6th century AD on the top of a hill overlooking the town of Mtskheta, which was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Iberia. It has remained unchanged since it was built. Despite the huge number of people, it was one of the most atmospheric of the religious places we have been to. We then got back onto the motorway and drove to the Gori service station where we sent the night.

Sorry about the thumb! The light was so bright I couldn’t see what I was doing

The Metekhi church from the bridge

Access to the river from the church

Icon in the church

Narikala Fortress from the church

Inside the church

Narikala Fortress

Holy Trinity Church from the Fortress

Wooden buildings in the Old Town

Holy Trinity Church

Bridge of Peace over the River Kura

Northern edge of Tbilisi from Jvari Monastery

Jvari Monastery

River Kura from Jvari Monastery

David Wilson marrying a faceless man

Day 27 (27th March) Gori to Borjomi

No visit to Gori is complete without seeing the Museum to the town’s favourite son, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhurgashvili. Who? You might ask. Better known as J V Stalin (“Man of Steel”). It was housed in an ornate and rather sumptious building with the green armoured railway wagon in which he travelled to Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam at the end of WW2. At the end of the visit we waited for a guide to open it up and we walked along the corridor past a kitchen, toilet and three bedrooms to a room with a desk.

A priest with a dirty habit

Stalin’s armoured train

Statue of Stalin

The desk he sat at when working in the Kremlin.

The pen he used at the Yalta conference, some of his favourite cigarettes and an identity card from the Tsarist period of someone who we think was his wife.

Two of his pipes, his ceremonial sword and, in the top right hand corner, some stones from the Camp where he had one of his own sons executed.

A box made for him by another son.

His uniform and cap as worn at the conferences.

A painting of Stalin with a group of fellow-students when he was studying at a seminary before he became a revolutionary.

A meeting with other members of the Communist Party before he became leader.

The young Stalin while still a religious scholar.

With other prisoners at a prison camp in Kutaisi in 1903. Perhaps he had to eat the cardboard khachapuri and vinegar wine we had for dinner in Kutaisi.

First decrees on peace and land reform after the Bolshevik Revolution, 25th October 1917.

The battle line of the Civil War against Denikin’s forces in 1918-1920.

First meeting of the Soviet Government, Lenin in the middle.

Stalin and Gorkii.

Some WW2 pics including the iconic photo of the Soviet flag being raised over the Reichstag.

Table in the armoured railway carriage.

Gori fortress.

Church outside the fortress

Statue of Chaikovskii at Borjomi

19 Former railway station at Borjomi.

Borjomi was a huge disappointment. The hot spring bath place that we went to last time appears to have disappeared, the Romanov Palace must still be under renovation because there were no signs for it, and the nice little restaurant has closed. It is now a shop selling cheap shoddy clothes. There were a lot of little shops selling tourist tat that I don’t remember from last time and about 10 chemists shops. The only place to eat is an Indian restaurant which we dined at and the food was adequate. Like the rest of Georgia, there were police cars passing every few minutes. I really believe that Georgia has more policemen than people. A building had an interesting hammer and sickle symbol from the Soviet era. We slept in the same place as last time in the small square where traders sell their fruit and vegetables.

Day 28 (28th March) Borjomi to Kars

We passed into Turkey through the Turkgozu border crossing and the procedure was much more bureaucratic than the last time we came this way in 2018. The Turkish customs control couldn’t be simpler: a very pleasant young man said “Can I trust you?” I said “Erm yes” and he waved us through. A huge magnet thing passed over the van, looking for something or other. Guns?

The road from Turkgozu to Kars passed through high-altitude desert scenery of bare brown hills with not a single tree to be seen. It climbed higher and higher, surrounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains, until we crossed the Ilgar Mountain Pass at a height of 2,550 metres. The occasional abandoned villages consisted of the Turkish equivalents of Lewis black houses.

The abandoned city of Ani is about 40 miles east of Kars on the border with Armenia. At one time it was the capital of Armenia and has been occupied by numerous nationalities and religions from Zoroastrian fire-worshippers to Christians and Moslems. We walked through the site enjoying the different kinds of architecture of the ruined buildings from different eras. It was pleasing to see that the restoration of the buildings, especially the Catholic cathedral, is continuing to take place.

We drove to Kars for a meal at an excellent kebab house and slept in a lorry park outside Kars.

Ilgar Pass on the road from the Turkish border to Kars

Coffee break

House at an abandoned village

The outer wall built by King Smbat II (977-989) at the north-west Lion Gate.

Pic 5 One of the lions at the Lion Gate

Pic 6 The Surp Amenaprkitch (Church of the Redeemer) built in 1035 to house a fragment of the true cross by Prince Apelgarib Pahluvani.

Pic 7 Caves on the Armenian side. A large part of Ani lies underground, accessed through these caves.

Pic 8 The bath-house complex built at the beginning of the 13th century.

Pic 9 The Church of Saint Gregory, completed in 1215.

Pic 10 Front of the church

Pic 11 Ancient gravestone

Pic 12 Frescoes in the church

Pic 13 Roof of the church

Pic 14 Frescoes

Pic 15 Frescoes above the entrance

No info about this church

Pic 16 Ani Cathedral, started in 989 by Queen Katramide, the wife of King Gagik, and completed in 1001. Named after Surp Astvatsatsin (Saint Mary) it was built by Trdat, who restored the dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It became the Fethiye (Victory) Mosque in 1064 after the Seleucid Sultan Alparslan conquered Ani.

Pic 17 Restoration work at the Cathedral.

Pic 18 The Bazaar with its latest shopper.

Pic 19 Door between two shops of the Bazaar.

Pic 20 Thought to be a Zoroastrian fire temple

Pic 21 The Manuchehr Mosque built by Shaddadian Emir Manuchehr in 1071

Pic 22 Entrance to the mosque

pic 23 Remains of a house built in the 11th century

Pic 24 The Church of Apughamer’s son Grigor Pahlayuny in 982

Pic 25 The Church of Arakelots (Apostles) with an inscription dated to 1031

Pic 27 Fire Temple built by the Persian or Sassanids between 1st century BC and 4th AD. The oldest building at Ani

Day 29 (29th March) Kars to Guroymak

The road south from Kars passed through the large pine forest of Sarykamysh which was the site of a major battle between Russian and Turkish forces in December 1914. It resulted in victory for Russia, partly because 25,000 Turks froze to death in the severe weather before the battle began. The Ottoman War Minister blamed the Armenians for the defeat and this lead to the genocide of the Armenians in which one million were allegedly killed. The road from Horasan to Eleskirt went up and down mountain passes surrounded by high snow-covered mountains, and then continued across a flat plain of agricultural land until it reached more mountainous terrain near Mus. In one place the hills were covered by strange heaps of stones which must have been gathered over the centuries to release more grazing land for animals.

There are many police/army checkpoints due to the Civil War but we have been flagged over at only one. When the soldier saw the number plate he waved us on, grinned from ear to ear and said “welcome”

The aim was to reach Tatvan, a tourist resort on the western shore of the huge Lake Van, but a combination of torrential rain and darkness persuaded us to stop at the small town of Guroymak after seeing the Grand Yuksel Hotel on the main road. I wrote this review for Tripadvisor “A very nice hotel with lovely attentive staff, a clean and comfortable room, an excellent breakfast and all for £40”. The restaurant was closed when we arrived but we were directed across the road to a restaurant which had just closed but opened up specially for us and served us a beautiful meal.”

Day 30 (30th March) Guroymak to Idil.

We had a really nice breakfast in the morning: the usual kahvalti with an omelette, and this one included goats cheese. When we left the waiter showed us his translation device which said (in English) “May God protect you. We love you”. Driving from Guroymak, we caught a glimpse of Lake Van from Tatvan and then drove up into the mountains towards the large city of Batman. For some reason, we couldn’t find Cizre on the satnav so we continued towards Sirnak, After passing through a strange landscape of land covered in small stones with the motorway cut through crimson and dark red rock we came to the small town of Idil and saw the Haznedar Hotel at the side of the road. This could be dodgy country due to the Civil War between Turks and Kurds and I thought it better to stay in a hotel rather than run the (admittedly small) chance of being shot at by either side. When you get luxury (a toilet instead of squatting behind a bush) a shower, clothes washing facilities, delicious food, comfortable bed and meeting some lovely Turks) for less than £40 its a no-brainer.

Guroymak from the hotel window

Batman and Robin must have moved from Gotham City to Turkey

Day 31 (31st March) Idil to Dohuk (Iraqi Kurdistan)

A grim day. We set off from the hotel and, reached the Turkish settlement of Habur on the border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. On entering the border complex, I came across the first of the dubious characters who hang round border crossings to make money out of mugs. His friend wrote something on two sheets, apparently our names, passport numbers and van reg, and demanded 20 dollars. There was no indication who he was and, smelling a rat, I drove off while he ran after us. Near the second line of kiosks, two soldiers stopped us and had a conversation with the dubious character. One of them asked me in English “How much does he want?” “20 dollars” “Give him 10” So I did.

I then drove very slowly past two kiosks with no-one in them. Leaving Turkey is going to be a doddle, I thought to myself. On reaching the third line of kiosks, I was instructed to drive backwards to the second line where someone had appeared in the kiosk. A young (ish) girl who would have been very pretty had she not had a permanent expression of “I hate my job and all these wretched people who keep appearing at my window with their poxy documents” on her face. She spent ages examining our passports and the van registration document and then wanted to look at my folder with all the other documents. She even intently examined the MOT, writing down on her computer such important incriminating evidence as “Dee’s Workshop, Carloway”. She then ordered me to walk back to the Line 1 which was about half a mile back. I stopped halfway at a police station to see if anyone spoke English, but none of the 6 of them could. Very friendly, however, and they sent me back to line 2.

At this point, we were approached by a “fixer”. Hatchet-faced, hook-nosed, with the side of his head shaved, he took me back to the bored-looking girl, pushed his way into the front of the queue, had a few words with her and then suggested that he drove the van. Following a circuitous route round red and white bollards, we came to an office where a pleasant young man put our details into his computer, and the fixer eventually told me “You have traffic penalties”. He was given three sheets of paper and paid 20 Turkish lira to the man. Apparently I had driven through three tunnels and not used a card you can buy which allows you to drive through tunnels. The total fee was 17 lira (80 PENCE).

The fixer then drove us round to an x-ray department where a huge U-shaped magnet thing passed over the van. Prior to this the fixer had emptied everything (including the portapotty) out of the van and then he and his mate (who looked just like him and might have been his brother) helped a Russian bloke to empty his car. We then drove down to line three and handed in one of the pieces of bumph the first fixer had given us. We then drove to the Kurdistan passport control, and the only really pleasant man of the whole process told me that the visa fee was 100,000 Iraqi dinars which we has to obtain from an ATM. The visas were $70 each, which is not bad by international standards. I told the man that I wanted to go to Baghdad, but I still don’t know whether the visas we have been given entitle us to drive out of Kurdistan and into the rest of Iraq. Or not. We then went to an office where a jobsworth issued a piece of bumf which the fixer then took to another office where a bloke came and lifted the bonnet, wrote down the engine and chassis numbers and charged us $30 for the privilege. We then got in the van where the fixer demanded $500 for his work. We got suitably outraged and then beat him down to 240. Which is a lot of money for what he did, although to be fair I couldn’t have done it.

Ive been told that the usual fixer fee is $100, so failure to pay 80 p. tunnel fees cost us $140. We then drove through Zakho and stopped for a coffee at the side of the road near a small garage. A very friendly man came from the garage while we were eating a yogurt and advised us that it was Ramadan and we shouldn’t eat until after nightfall. Some time later he came over with a small boy and a box of date sweets (see picture). On leaving the site, I saw a huge pile of plastic containers containing Ad-Blue and thought it might be nice to acknowledge his kindness by buying one. It cost $10 (£8) for a container twice as big as those costing £20 in Britain.

We then set off down the road to Mosul in the hope of finding the road to the Rabban Hormozd monastery. We came to a peshmerga (Kurdish army/police) checkpoint and the soldier had never heard of it, so I told him we were going to Amedi. He told us to turn round and go back towards Dohuk. So we did and promptly found ourselves going the wrong way up a duel carriageway motorway. So we turned off at the first opportunity and shortly after came to the right side of the motorway. Jennifer spotted the “Jambol Restaurant” and, as it was getting dark, we decided to go and eat. A very large and very jolly man took us into the kitchen and showed us the food on offer. The restaurant was full of truck drivers (all men and many wearing the traditional Kurdish green cloak) where we had an excellent meal for less than $10 between us, and slept next to a lorry in the car park. Although Jennifer was the only woman in the restaurant, nobody said anything.

Iraqi visa for the van

Mohammed and his son who came to talk to us

The sweets Mohammed brought us

Meal at the Jambol restaurant.

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