Having crossed the border we head straight for Edirne. The city is famous for it’s oil wrestling, which is when muscular, nearly naked men cover themselves in olive oil and wrestle each other. To Julia’s great disappointment this only takes place in the summer!

To reach the city we cross a very rickety bridge, which reminds us of a similar one we crossed in Shkoder in Albania, minus the begging children. We stop at an abandoned bus repair depot. It is pouring with rain but we leg it inside and shelter from the rain taking photos. There is a large empty space inside and beautiful, tall, arched windows line its walls.

The rain is torrential when we enter Edirne so we book ourselves into the Saray Hotel and decide to hibernate there whilst working on the blog, using the hotel’s wifi connection and waiting until the weather breaks. By that evening the rain had become snow but we venture out regardless and collect a kebab feast to take back to the hotel and to eat whilst watching a movie. It snows heavily through the night and we’re more and more concerned that we won’t make it to Istanbul as planned.

The following morning much of the snow has gone. In fact the roads are clear enough for a long procession to pass by on the street below our hotel room window. School children, army and police personnel and general public are parading through the streets of Edirne with banners and musical instruments in celebration of Atatürk. Atatürk was a Turkish army officer, revolutionary statesman, and founder of the Republic of Turkey as well as its first President. The Turks revere him like a saint and anyone found to be criticising or ridiculing him is likely to find himself or herself in prison.

We walk into the centre of Edirne and visit the Selimiye Mosque, which was built by the famous architect Mimar Sinan. It is a spectacular building and has a dome that is even larger than the Aya Sofya in Istanbul. We have a wonderful vegetarian meal next to the mosque and then leave the city in the direction of Istanbul.

The landscape is rather boring and flat with nondescript villages and towns. Halfway to Istanbul we pull in at a petrol station near Loleburgaz. We initially stop for a warming coffee but find the restaurant closed, however the friendly attendant tells us that we are welcome to stay the night. It is absolutely freezing so Julia doesn’t step foot out of the van whilst Geppe does his usual thing of getting to know the petrol attendant and manager. He explains the project to them through mime language and the internet and leaves with a packet of biscuits as a present.

The roads into Istanbul are horrendous. There are road works everywhere, no signposts that make any sense, solid traffic jams and the sound of horns honking all around us. We decide to head to the airport as this is where our map of Istanbul begins…what a bad idea! They appear to be redeveloping the whole area, there are no signs to the city centre and despite asking different groups of people for help we continue to drive round in circles completely lost. Finally we spot a businessman, who tells us that we need to follow the signs for Ankara. How tourists arriving at the main international airport are meant to know that you follow the signs to Ankara to reach Istanbul we’ll never know! The traffic becomes more and more intense, although with a population of 16 million people this is hardly surprising! Finally we manage to navigate our way into the city centre and to Taksim Square from where we call our good friend Serap Dogu. Serap tells us she will be there in half an hour so we eat fast food in the van whilst people-watching!

We follow Serap to her flat in Cihangir near Taksim. It has the most spectacular views across the Bosphoros, despite the huge flagpole and Turkish flag that, to Serap’s horror, has recently been erected in the middle of her view. We are introduced to Coco, Serap’s very amorous or should we say randy dog!

Poor Serap then has to witness us unloading the contents of our camper van into her beautifully tidy flat! Luckily she has a spare room where we are able to hide most of it out of view! The next couple of days we are all working very hard … Serap on the script and pre-production of a feature film she is involved with and that is set in Turkey, and us catching up on the blog. We meet Serap’s niece Berna who works with refugees that are hoping to gain refugee status and to be accepted into the USA.

Christmas Eve to New Years Eve in Istanbul

On Christmas Eve our good friend Jane arrives from Barcelona armed with lots of pig products…chorizos, hams, fuets, bacon etc! Whilst Serap works Berna takes us sightseeing in Sultanhamet, which is the heart of old Istanbul. We walk into the centre and across Galata bridge where hundreds of fishermen are in line trying their luck in the murky waters below. Miraculously they appear to be catching as most have a small bucket of water at their feet containing live fish. We sample the infamous and very cheap fish sandwiches at the Eminonu end of Galata Bridge.

We walk through Topkapi Palace gardens otherwise known as Gulhane Parki. It is a beautifully peaceful place and a world away from the chaos, crowds and noise of Sultanhamet. We head straight to the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), which was originally built as a cathedral in 537AD and was once the greatest church in Christendom until the conquest in 1453 when it was converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk proclaimed it a museum. It is particularly interesting to us because it has been abandoned several times through its colourful history due to fires, earthquakes and wars. In fact when it was originally built by Emperor Justinian he wanted it to be constructed very quickly so he ordered the use of parts of other ruined and abandoned buildings in the city. So not only has it been an abandoned building it is also in effect an amalgamation of many abandoned buildings.

From here we walk to the Sultanhamet mosque otherwise known as the Blue Mosque. Sultan Ahmet built this in around 1603-17 as an attempt to build a monument to rival and surpass the nearby Aya Sophia in grandeur and beauty. Unfortunately we are unable to enter as the ‘ezan’ (call to prayer) has begun, however we do not mind because it is incredible to listen to the ‘ezan’ from such close proximity and to admire the mosque’s spectacular exterior with its six minarets and the largest courtyard of all the Ottoman mosques. Berna points out one of the gates into the mosque complex where there is a chain hanging from the arched entrance. She explains that the mosque’s architect, Mehmet Aga, included this so that even the Sultan on horseback would have to bow his head on entry.

We visit a very eccentric boutique hotel nearby for refreshments. It is an amazing treasure trove of lanterns and Persian artefacts. The courtyard cafe’s walls contain a juxtaposition of colourful western and eastern ‘things’ artistically painted in bright colours. We also visit the famous ‘Pudding Shop’ which opened in 1957 and used to be a place where travellers on the ‘hippy trail’ would meet to hitch rides to the East and Middle East. Unfortunately it is now rather touristy and over-priced.

Christmas day is spent very untraditionally with Geppe, helped by a friend of Seraps, getting the campervan serviced, brake pads replaced and Julia (perhaps more traditionally) going for drinks with Jane in the trendy ‘Tunnel’ neighbourhood! It is quite strange to be somewhere for Christmas where no one is celebrating and everyone is carrying on like a normal working day. Despite this we head back to Serap’s house and cook a traditional English Christmas dinner with chicken rather than turkey. We even have 2 miniature Christmas puddings and homemade brandy butter supplied by Julia’s Mum as well as traditional Spanish ‘turrons’ supplied by Geppe’s Mum and Jane, all of which is accompanied by a selection of Kosovo, Macedonian, Greek and Turkish wines! Berna and Serap’s good friend Murat join us in the celebrations!

We spend much of the period between Christmas and New Year working hard on the project as well as completing practical jobs such as buying computer hardware, Turkish mobile SIMs, cables etc. We break off briefly to meet a friend called Nick who lives in Istanbul and whose wife is expecting a baby. We also all go out to sample Istanbul’s nightlife at the Peyote club. A great night had by all and is when we meet Nevil who is part of a very interesting and worthwhile project called Picture People.

We visit the area of Dolapdere, which is near Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi. It is an area that was once occupied by Greeks but they all had to leave due to the 1923 population exchange leaving many abandoned buildings. Since then gypsies as well as drug addicts and other unsavoury characters have moved into the many derelict buildings but some still remain totally abandoned. There are even some places which are starting to be renovated but these are definitely in the minority but it is a phenomena that is likely to become more common as the surrounding area gets more gentrified due to its close proximity to the main tourist and commercial area of Taksim Square. We have been warned not to venture into this area after dark but told that during daylight we should be ok! It is full of very narrow streets all hanging onto very steep hillsides. There are many wooden Ottoman style houses and most are in a terrible state of repair. We take many photos and the only problems that we encounter are some gypsy women shouting at us and some gypsy children throwing stones at us…it could have been much worst! At one point we stop taking photos to listen to the call for prayers. It is amazing to hear the ‘ezans’ from the different mosques across the city echoing each other. It is a really spiritual experience and we both feel quite emotional.

The 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey was based upon religious identity, and involved the Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey and the Muslim citizens of Greece. It was the first compulsory large-scale population exchange, or agreed mutual expulsion of the 20th century.

We visit another area of Istanbul where the Greeks also had to abandon their homes during the population exchange. It is called Zeyrek and is across the ‘Golden Horn’ (Halic) from Beyoglu. Again there are many abandoned buildings including both houses and businesses. From here we visit the Grand Bazaar which is a labyrinth of several kilometres of lanes full of 4,000 shops, mosques, banks, a police station and restaurants. It is an overwhelming place where not only tourists haggle and are often ripped off but also real trade still takes place between locals and import/export businesses. We find ourselves in a little jeweller’s shop where Geppe buys Julia the most beautiful engagement ring made from two coloured golds.

We have a preliminary meeting with GAD architects who we shall be interviewing for the documentary. They have been involved with the reuse of two abandoned buildings in Istanbul, the Esma Sultan and the Borusan Music House. In these two projects GAD have retained the historic facades of the buildings and completely removed the buildings’ cores and in their places inserted contemporary glass and steel boxes to create multi-purpose cultural event spaces. We meet Mr. Gokhan Avcioglu who is the head and founder of GAD and is the person we shall be interviewing, Mrs. Ozlem Ercil Avcioglu who is our main contact at GAD and also Mr. Ender Murat (Assistant to Gokhan Avcioglu) and Baris Ucar (architect). We discuss our project and arrange when to complete the interview and film their projects. After several changes of plan we decide to meet again at the opening event of the Borusan Music House on January 7th.

On New Year’s eve lunch time we meet up with some friends of Julias from the UK…the Pace family, and we enjoy a fish lunch by the Karakoy fish market … delicious! Later we also meet up with Julia’s old flat mate Fatima and her boyfriend Chris who are also in Istanbul to celebrate New Years Eve. We go for some food and drink in Beyoglu and are very disappointed when, on several occasions, bar personnel try to rip us off with their prices and hidden charges. It is not as if Istanbul isn’t expensive enough in the first place without being deceived in this way.

Midnight is nearing so way say goodbye to Fatima and Chris and go to meet Serap. Unfortunately we mistime the evening and spend midnight down a dark alleyway rather than enjoying the spectacular firework display that we can hear happening nearby! Eventually we meet up with Serap and go with her to her friend’s party. He is an architect and healer and they have recently completed the restoration and renovation of a historical apartment block. The end result is magnificent with around 6 apartments all showing immaculate attention to detail and each one with a spectacular view across the roof tops of Istanbul. The food and drinks are flowing when Julia rather stupidly decides it is a good idea for the healer to have a go at healing her problem hip. The end result is the she can hardly walk for 4 days … although with time it does recover and is in fact probably slightly better, but not the best start to the new year!

Congratulations to Nick and his wife who since writing this blog are now the proud owners of a brand new baby boy called Ali Leon!

… and a special mention and thank you to Serap for being the most amazing hostess and putting up with us for so long…you’re the best!

To discover more about project ‘Abandoned?’ visit www.wasabandoned.com