As I stand below the Blue Mosque in the early morning, the Call to Prayer is deafening, drowning out all the other senses and sending forth the unmistakeable message — Istanbul is an Islamic city.
But this narrow street hides a wider view. Because just across the road stands one of the great ancient cathedrals of Christendom. The Agia Sofia spans the history of the Holy Roman Empire.
The first church here was founded in 360 AD whilst the present structure dates back to 532 AD — and for almost a thousand years formed the largest cathedral in the world.
Contrasts run through this city, at every level. We landed here in Asia, but we’re staying in Europe.
Last week, this place felt bafflingly exotic and full of oriental mystery. Yet returning now from central Turkey, Istanbul’s efficient trams and city bustle seem much more familiarly European, almost recalling Zürich rather than the Middle East.
I wend southwards through winding streets to reach the city wall. High above it run the last few kilometres of the mighty railway line which carried the Orient Express towards its European terminus at Sirkeci.
From there, the ferry across the Bosphorus sails to Kadıköy, the town which gave the quartz mineral chaldedony its name, where another line begins at Haydarpaşa station for the onward journey to Baghdad.
The long odyssey from Western Europe into Asia is divided in two by just this narrow stretch of water which lies ahead of me now.
The hotel may be still asleep, but by six o’clock a Scottish May morning is already in full swing.
Outside the sky is clear and blue, the lawns still dew-swept and the rhododendron in full flower.
At the end of the driveway, I turn right, and set course hard along the kerb. Any Aberdonian knows that the lethally fast South Deeside road is no place to play in traffic, but for now it’s quiet and a gentle mile is all I need.
A few minutes go by as I ponder the wonders of travel and the rewards of rising early. A long day in meeting rooms will pass more swiftly with an hour of energy spent before the taxi calls to find me.
On the other side of the road, the trees are opening up a longer view, and I step gingerly across the highway to take in the morning glory of the River Dee and the open farmland stretching far beyond.
The river is tranquil here, in the later reaches of its 87-mile journey from the Cairngorm Mountains to reach the sea at Footdee beside Aberdeen harbour.
The Celts worshipped the Dee as a goddess, and today she is blessed with diverse riches. Upstream from here lie some of the most scenic salmon fishing grounds in Britain, whilst downstream the waters flow into the busiest oil port in Europe.
This peaceful view alone has more than repaid my early alarm call, but the fast cars won’t be long in coming, and so I hit the road again and gratefully turn right, uphill and full on into the face of rural Aberdeenshire.
The golden autumn grasslands looked benign enough in sunshine from our balloon flight at dawn today, but 600 kilometres into Asia Minor, and 1,600 years ago, life was hard here. So hard, in fact, that an entire civilisation went underground. Literally.
Cut up to 85 m deep in soft volcanic layers within Miocene to Holocene tuffs and ignimbrites, the underground cities of Cappadocia serve testament to how difficult life was for early Christians on these high and open plains.
Dangerous enough for whole communities of fifty thousand souls to seek refuge beneath the earth — at several places scattered around this part of northern central Turkey.
Life here is easier now than it was back then, but maybe not that much.
Avanos is a one horse town if ever I’ve seen one, and it’s clear the horse left quite some time ago.
“The past is another country” — The Go Between, LP Hartley (1953)
August days are with us now, the ripe Lincolnshire corn shimmering tall and golden in late summer afternoons.
The stuffy, restrictive heat and bustle of London feels a world away from here.
The landscape has changed little across the years — parched harvest fields and desiccated stately lawns still wait ready for a boy or girl delivering some fateful message to Julie Christie in The Go Between or Keira Knightley in Atonement.
Only the slow progress of the monster machines that gather in the harvest serve to tell the tale of a landscape now worked with many fewer people.
Across long, easy days we cycle over gentle Jurassic hills. Three miles to reach another village, four villages to find a pub. It’s a pleasant way to slow down and find the summer.
The pace of life seems slow, and it’s hard to equate this landscape with a world speed record set three quarters of a century ago and still standing firm today.
It’s 6 am and raining. Mid-summer has somehow ended in the night, and a different kind of July stands waiting for me as I step outside.
The street is chill and almost empty. A fine wet shimmer is wrapped around the tramtracks as I cross them, and even now, in my first few strides, I can feel the morning washing clean the heavy dreams of last night’s dinner.
I turn my collar to the cool and damp, and kick my heels slowly east along the lakeshore.
The first minutes of a run like this are always hardest. A body short on sleep but not so short on years is slower than it should be to get going.
My feet are heavy, and my stomach feels heavier still, with a not so faint taste of Swiss Gamay red lurking somewhere down inside.
I raise my eyes and look around. Across the grey lake, the city lies serene and timeless. Geneva is exactly as I remember her. Unchanged, if just a little wetter.
The second anniversary of this site passed midway through a busy August. An office move and a new computer have diverted me since, but the milestone seems worth marking all the same.
There hasn’t been much time to write. This isn’t a site for daily updates – the past twelve months at Roads of Stone have seen just 28 posts.
Still, that adds up to around 20,000 words, squeezed into odd moments here and there, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve been busy.
Those words have extended to travel writing on Kenya (seven posts), Scotland, Texas, Bermuda and France.
Conversations have extended to cover geology, music, golf, UK and US politics, the history of horseracing and Shakespearean theatre, petroleum economics, global warming, the urban development of London and French cooking.
Posted in 2008, Africa, France, geology, global warming, history, London, politics, Scotland, Surrey and Sussex, travel
China. America. Russia. The world order changed this August, as I’m sure you must have noticed.
I found myself in Greece for the Olympics, back where it all started. Four years late for Athens, and half a world from China.
Yet Beijing reached right around the globe this month. Strolling by the beach on a hot summer’s night, the first images I saw were on a gigantic screen installed inside a bar – a mesmerising, spellbinding sequence from the opening ceremony.
Throughout the next two weeks, the dramatic scale and serenity of the show grew and grew.
Each evening I would return to catch another glimpse of something fantastic, incredible, and Earth-changing – the opening up of China to the world, the swallowing of sport and the dawn of a new century on this planet.
And sometimes, I just watched the swimming.