Robert Fyfe

Joined June 2017
  • Day20

    The Eagle's Nest

    Yesterday in Germany

    As I emerged from the Munich S-Bahn at Marienplatz, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I remembered having been at this exact spot with Mum and Dad during our trip to Germany many, many years ago. We sat outside under an umbrella in the square opposite the famous glockenspiel Clock Tower enjoying a German beer. Mum was so taken with the fine lager glasses that she put two in her handbag and I believe still has them. Munich was busy with Friday night revellers, but I resisted, and had an early night at the comfortable Blauer Bock Hotel nearby.

    This morning I set out on a trip to visit the Eagle’s Nest - part of Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. After a pleasant train journey from Munich, I arrived at the charming town of Berchtesgaden. From there a bus took us to Obersalzberg location of the now demolished Berghof, which in the 1930s became, surprisingly, the 2nd seat of the Nazi government after Berlin. Then a further specially constructed bus to cope with the steep climb up the mountain to Kehlsteinhaus (The Eagle’s Nest), where, with its panoramic views, Hitler entertained special guests. It is virtually the only building not to have been bombed or demolished, and now serves as a restaurant / bar.

    To reach the summit you had to walk through a long tunnel constructed in 1938 and take a beautifully decorated brass lift to the top. What fabulous 360 degree views over the Bavarian Alps and Lake Konigsee. It is hard to imagine in this idyllic mountain setting that Hitler and his followers made world shattering decisions on war, persecution and genocide.

    I enjoyed bockwurst and potato salad and a cool, German lager in the main reception room, featuring a marble fireplace gifted by Mussolini, although it was a bit unsettling to see photographs of Nazi leaders and dignatories pictured in the same room. The excellent museum Dokumentation Obersalzberg provided a great insight into the Nazi takeover of this hitherto quiet mountain community.

    I did contemplate making the very short train journey over the border to Salzburg, Austria for some pink lemonade. Some light relief in The Sound of Music city would have been welcome. However I headed back to Munich for dinner and to get ready for the next part of my trip - the overnight sleeper train to Hamburg. Another very special day, sobering in part, but with breathtaking scenery.
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  • Day19

    So long, farewell Austria

    June 22 in Austria

    The overnight SNAV ferry Aurelia from Split to Ancona was clean and comfortable and I was lucky to have a good sized 2 berth cabin all to myself. After dinner on board, I had an early night as the ferry docked in Italy at 06.30. With typical Italian inefficiency we then all stood in a Passport Control line for over an hour - and that was in the speedy European Union line - heaven help us after Brexit! After all the hanging about I was desperate for the bathroom, but I have to say the facilities at Ancona Ferry Terminal would not have won Loo of the Year Award. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that some fellow passengers must have overindulged in curry and lager last night!

    I took the train from Ancona to Bologna and changed for Venice on the impressive new Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) service with leather seats and complimentary coffee. Most of the passengers were smartly dressed business men except for 4 loud Americans sitting opposite with their bare feet up on the seats. The two women were painting each other’s toenails and massaging their partners’ feet while shouting at every stop ‘are we at Venice yet?‘ The conductor tried to clarify ‘are you looking for Venezia Mestre or Venezia Santa Lucia?’ ‘Who cares’ yelled the older woman ‘all I want is a ride on a goddam gondola!’ Such finesse in Business Class.

    We dramatically travelled on the causeway over the lagoon before finally reaching Venice Santa Lucia. A few more metres and the train would have ended up in the Grand Canal. Regrettably I had no time to spend here, but had fond memories of a holiday Campbell and I had enjoyed in Venice some years ago.

    With 2 minutes to spare, I caught the once daily smart Austrian EuroCity train which leaves Venice Santa Lucia every day at 13:50 and arrives at Munich at 20:25.  It uses comfortable Austrian coaches with a proper waiter-service restaurant car, and travels via the beautifully scenic Brenner Pass. What a spectacular journey on a clean and well organised train. The scenery was outstanding. I was travelling in a 4 seat 1st Class compartment. One of my travelling companions was a heavy middle aged woman dressed in Austrian National costume, like a chorus member from St Wolfang Amateur Operatic Society’s production of White Horse Inn. She busied herself with sheafs of paper and an elaborate Kardex system - a sort of Susie B doppelgänger, taking bookings perhaps for the Society’s next production. The other person in the carriage was an IT manager from Padua who was very funny and sociable, telling jokes which were generally lost in translation, and insisting we shared his apple pie and wine. Susie B however was having none of it ‘can ye no see I’m oan a diet, and anyway you’re putting me aff ma tickets’ I think she was saying.

    The sun was splitting the trees as we headed over the spectacular Brenner Pass and through the Tyrol to Innsbruck on our way to Germany. A real highlight of my train trip so far.
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  • Day18

    Split

    June 21 in Croatia

    Although the train was late in the evening arriving, the front of the popular Croatian seaside resort of Split was bustling with bars and restaurants as I made my way to my lovely modernised studio apartment in the old town. What did we do before Google maps? The town reminded me of a very upmarket Blackpool, busy mainly with young people from all over Europe on holiday.

    After a good night’s sleep I set off to find the main attraction of Split - Diocletian’s Palace - built as a retirement home for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD, only to find it was virtually on my doorstep. I enjoyed a guided walking tour of this fascinating place from a somewhat zany guide, who seemed like she had had had too many years on the wacky backy.

    Given the heat again, I headed for the city beach in the afternoon, only a 15 minute walk away and enjoyed a lovely swim in the sea. Two British lads were showing off their sporting prowess in the water - throwing a frisbee to each other while holding a can of lager. Then in the evening off to cross the Adriatic once again, only a bit further north, this time from Split, Croatia to Ancona, Italy.

    Farewell Croatia, it’s been nice getting to know you, even although it’s been all too short.
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  • Day18

    More Zagreb

    June 21 in Croatia

    Did I say what a beautiful city Zagreb was? Had a lovely walk around today again in the warm sunshine. Took in Ban Jelačić Square - the main meeting point; the twin towered Cathedral of the Assumption of our Blessed Virgin Mary - the emblem of the city; the Dolac fruit and vegetable market; the Botanic Gardens; and some of the lovely Art Nouveau buildings that dot the city. Took the world’s shortest passenger cable railway up to the Upper Town and it was even prettier, with its cobbled streets, St Mark’s Church and the Stone Gate.

    Not one for museums when the sun is shining, I couldn’t resist the Museum of Broken Relationships. This very unusual museum was recommended to me by my friend Lorraine Wilson, in her book Facing Forwards, about her 3 month solo train trip round Europe which has been an inspiration for my trip. Well worth a read. The exhibits have been donated by members of the public and each have a short explanation of how it related to the end of a relationship. It was powerful and I was in floods more than once. To console visitors, the attached café offered ‘beers as cold as your ex’s heart.’

    To recover from all that emotion, I treated myself to afternoon tea at the fabulous Esplanade Hotel, built in 1925 to provide top-notch accommodation for passengers on the Orient Express, which made one of its stops at Zagreb. Apparently the locals were shocked at a performance by provocative dancer Josephine Baker in 1929.

    All too soon it was back in the rails and off to the Croatian coastal resort of Split, with beautiful lush scenery all the way. But I loved Zagreb and will be back.
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  • Day17

    Zagreb, Croatia

    June 20 in Croatia

    The 10.25 train from Belgrade, Serbia to Zagreb, Croatia was a bit better than its predecessor in that it was cleaner and more comfortable. However, again there were no announcements about which platform it left from, and none of the TV monitors or platform screens were working. Few of the railway folk spoke English so you really had to keep your wits about you or risk missing your train. After finding my carriage, I noted that the seat I had reserved was taken up by a young Serbian mum and her child. As it was very busy I had no option but to point this out, only to be shooed away by her. ‘You can sit elsewhere, and anyway I have a kid.’ The ‘kid’ looked like a spoiled wee brat and sneered triumphantly at me. Rather than argue, I moved along the carriage and found two unreserved seats. I remember as a child how my Mum taught us always to give up our seats for the elderly - how times have changed. And if that child played ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’ one more time on that bloody gadget of his, I swear I would have thrown it out the window.

    At the Serbian-Croatian Border, the by now usual searches involving screwdrivers, mirrors and panels coming off various train compartments were undertaken. Two black guys sitting behind me were quizzed about having no passports, which they said they had forgotten. After much arguing and toing and froing, they were huckled off the train and never seen again.

    Arriving in Zagreb, Croatia was a revelation - what a beautiful city. So clean, bright and well organised, unlike some of the other former communist states. Lovely squares and gardens appeared around every corner, and gleaming modern trams glided by silently. For the first time on my trip, I booked into an apartment for the night, just round the corner from the station in an old 19th century building. I had two large rooms plus bathroom all to myself and the young female owner seemed proud of her eclectic art collection. For the first time I had a piano in my bedroom - anyone for a singalong?

    In the building next door was a laundrette, and the woman who ran it helped me use it. What a pleasure it was to get all my laundry washed and dried while sitting outside with a local beer from the adjacent cafė run by the same woman. She’s got a good wee business there.

    As it got dark, I made my way to the large square around the corner where there was a free classical music concert taking place. How lovely it was on a balmy evening sitting listening to a 50 piece orchestra with a choir and soloists in this beautiful, manicured square with fountains that worked. As wee Jean McCormack would say ‘Aye, we’re anointed’.
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  • Day15

    Belgrade, Serbia

    June 18 in Serbia

    The 2 star Bristol Hotel in Belgrade where I was spending two nights is certainly faded grandeur. A bit tired and run down, it still exuded a certain old fashioned charm. And at a total of only £28 for two nights including free WiFi and breakfast how could I complain? It does have have a remarkable history, built in 1912 it is said to represent the pinnacle of Secessionist architecture in the city. Apparently at one time it was the centre of fashionable life in the whole of the former Yugoslavia, and previous guests have included members of the Rockefeller family and the British Royal family.

    I set off on a walking tour of the city. A bit down at heel in places, Belgrade reminded me a bit of Glasgow - lots of lovely buildings but you had to seek them out. A climb up to the Belgrade Fortress rewarded me with fabulous views of the confluence of the city’s two great rivers - the Sava and the Danube. Ah, the Blue Danube, or as my Big Granny used to call it, the Blue Daniel. A circular tour on the No. 2 tram helped me get my bearings. I had a delicious Serbian lunch sitting outside - pork chops with a creamy, mushroom sauce. When a thunderstorm arrived in the afternoon, I sought refuge in the beautiful Hotel Mockba (Moscow) where I enjoyed afternoon tea. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it!

    The Church of Saint Sava is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. Although it is bigger than the one I saw yesterday, the Alexander Nevski Cathedral in Sofia, the interior is quite unfinished, and I much preferred the Sofia version.

    Well, I have walked my feet off today. Belgrade may not be my favourite city, but perseverance paid off and I enjoyed seeking out some of its treasures.
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  • Day14

    The Balkan Express

    June 17 in Serbia

    The Cyrillic alphabet is used throughout Bulgaria with very few concessions in English. Accordingly, in Sofia station only numbers are an indication of where you should be and when. The train departure board indicated that my train number was leaving at platform 4 so I made my way there only to find it deserted. The only passengers I could see were a couple of Norwegian backpackers on platform 5, so back down the stairs and along the underground passage and back up the stairs I eventually found my train there. The International Balkan Express consisted of only two carriages, both filthy, littered and covered in graffiti. There appeared to be only 6 passengers on board this once per day international train, so why reservations were essential was beyond me. I eventually found a seat at a window with minimal graffiti which I could actually see out of. Looking around I wished I had packed the G Tech vacuum cleaner Mum had bought us, to freshen the place up a bit. The toilet had no lock, seat, toilet paper, soap or towels and was already blocked before we left Sofia. I can safely say this is the dirtiest train I have ever had the misfortune to travel on. Given there were no catering facilities again on this lengthy journey, I had fortunately stocked up with provisions including what looked like a 4 pack of Greggs sausage rolls mounded into one, with the sausage meat cut up into bits. It was filling if nothing else.

    Again we were stopped at the Bulgarian border for passport checks, and the Border Police ordered passengers to stay in their seats while they searched the whole train - luggage racks, toilets, even ceiling panels and electrical equipment areas were removed by screwdrivers and meticulously searched. A similar procedure took place a little later at Dimitrovgrad as we entered Serbia. Two of the other passengers turned out to be train buffs from Dublin (one of them a driver on the Maynooth-Dublin train, Jennifer) who were excited when the Bulgarian engine shunted off and was replaced by its Serbian counterpart.

    As the train meandered across Serbia at a leisurely pace, the scenery became more mountainous and dramatic, and for a while followed the scenic route of a muddy, brown river. The heat rose, and by early afternoon the smell in the compartment had deteriorated. A Serbian couple a few seats in front fortunately managed to screw open a few windows. She then proceeded to strip off her top half standing in her bra for a good 10 minutes enjoying a cigarette (yes!) before fanning herself and putting her top back on. She had clearly never heard of deodorant.

    Serbia is not included in the list of countries where you can benefit from using your mobile phone at the same rate as your agreement allows in the UK. Neither was I offered the same deal of unlimited calls, texts and data for £4.99 by o2 as you are in some other countries. At £2 per minute per call, the phone would stay off until I got WiFi.

    Eventually, 11 hours after it left Sofia, the Boggin’, sorry Balkan, Express limped into Belgrade, Serbia. I was never so glad to disembark.
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  • Day14

    Istanbul - Sofia

    June 17 in Bulgaria

    After a good breakfast, I headed by tram to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station where I reserved my berth for tonight’s overnight sleeper to Sofia, Bulgaria, the Istanbul - Sofia Express. It is a great pity that the train no longer leaves from Sirkeci Station, the original terminus of the Orient Express, as it has been closed indefinitely since 2013 for line work, and passengers have to take a bus (complimentary) to Halkali, an hours’s drive away. What would the Orient Express passengers think?

    I then took a ferry from the nearby terminal Eminönü across to Kadiköy on the Asian side. I was in Asia 20 minutes later. Another hot sunny day and everywhere was packed with visitors. Although most of the big attractions are on the European side, it was nice to visit here on one of the big, bustling ferries. I took advantage of a trip up the Bosphorus which was fantastic, passing beautiful homes, impressive bridges and fortresses. At only 15 Euros for a 2 hour trip it was great value.

    I returned by ferry back to Europe and took the Metro to Taksim Square, a popular tourist spot with trundling vintage trams, and packed with restaurants. At 20.30 I caught the free coach to Halkali through horrendous Istanbul traffic, arriving only 5 minutes before the train was due to depart at 21.40. I was sharing a very spacious and comfortable compartment with a former English teacher who was now living in Istanbul. I almost immediately fell asleep, only to be woken at 01.30 at the Turkish border station Kapicule. We all had to get off the train and stand in line waiting to have our passports checked. After an hour we set off, only to have the train stopped a few minutes later to have our details checked by Bulgarian Border Control folk - 3 times! Breakfast was served in the compartment by a surly, monosyllabic and unkempt attendant - a carton of warm juice of indeterminable origin and a packet of saltine crackers - no full English here.

    On arrival at Sofia, your first thought is that you wish you were somewhere else. Run down, graffiti covered and quiet, deserted streets - not what you would expect of a European capital city, and such a complete contrast to lively Istanbul. I made the 20 minute walk to my hotel - the Bon Bon - and the approach to it appeared anything but Bon. However inside it was small but clean and comfortable. I asked the receptionist if I could check in early, and although the place looked empty, she told me efficiently that check-in was 14.00. ‘It’s the rules’ she said without smiling, betraying a little of her communist era past.

    I was however permitted to leave my luggage and set off. I joined an excellent 2 hour walking tour of Sofia which was led by a professional but humorous young guide. He gave us a great insight into the history of the city including his memories as a child both before and after the fall of communism in 1989. He also taught us that nodding and shaking your head meant the opposite in Bulgaria. (This almost caused me problems later when a heavily made up woman near the Central Railway Station asked if I was looking for company).

    Although a land-locked country, Bulgaria has numerous hot springs, and our guide let us drink some water from one of these in the city centre. ‘Laydeez, drinking theez waters may increase your bosoms’ warned our guide. Well, they didn’t seem to have harmed my man boobs either.

    The tour finished at the magnificent St Alexander Nevski Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world. The sky darkened and developed into a mighty thunderstorm, bringing the first rain I had seen on my trip to date. I took the modern Metro to the small but interesting Museum of Totalitarian Art, with its fascinating collection of posters and statues from the communist era. At night I attended the Opera House to see a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). With shaky sets, falling props and dodgy wigs, it wasn’t exactly La Scala, but the singing was good and the 35 piece orchestra fairly belted it out. And I couldn’t complain at £15 for one of the best seats in the house.
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  • Day12

    The twice daily train from Izmir to Bandirma Port, known as the Eylül Express, left punctually at 14.00. The term Express was a bit of a misnomer as it trundled along so slowly at times that it might have been quicker walking along its single track. The train however was modern and air-conditioned, and I was glad I had made a free seat reservation as it was extremely busy. Relaxing with a welcome cup of chai from the trolley, the silence was broken by the wailing of 3 toddlers who appeared to take it in turns to scream at the top of their voices, much to the delight of their families, especially one granny, who beamed with delight every time one of them let go with a particularly prolonged outburst. Ah well, it’s only a 7 hour journey, I consoled myself. Two of the babies got off (with their parents) after 3 hours, but shock horror, another 3 got on! What is this - a baby boom? Is the telly so bad in Turkey? I searched my emergency medical kit: paracetamol, Diocalm, Ex-Lax - but no sign of Calpol or even Nurse Harvey’s Gripe Mixture. Lesson learned - be better prepared.

    The scenery was pleasant if unspectacular, and the Turkish countryside was lined with olive orchards for much of the way, with minarets dotting the villages and towns we passed through. The sun was beating down and it was nice to enjoy the cool of the carriage. In spite of the modern comfortable seating accommodation, the loo on the train was another story - literally a hole in the floor for squatting. I was wishing I had purchased one of the pads displayed on the mannequin in the pharmacy outside the station (see photo).

    What’s this? Only five hours after departure and all the little tots have dropped off to sleep. Bless the little darlings, they’re no bother at all.

    On arrival at its northern terminus at Bandirma, I made my way just across the street to the Panderma Port Hotel, an old inn full of character with a large double room facing the front. The interior was dimly lit and the colour scheme was from the 1970s - all browns and creams with illumination coming from 40 Watt bulbs. I could scarcely see the keyhole to my room in the dimness, but the fact I still had my sunglasses on didn’t help. I was pleased to see a late night café still open and made my way there, only to realise that 100 yards (or is it metres?) along the street there was a huge Blackpool-like resort waiting to be enjoyed. A sizeable funfair opened onto a veritable sea of attractions - side shows, candy floss stalls, tattoo parlours, outdoor theatres, hotels and literally hundreds of eating places. There was even an illuminated suspension bridge. The place was thronged with thousands of people all out enjoying themselves. For the first time on my trip I felt a bit out of place - you need company to enjoy funfairs and the like. Young people were queuing up to buy food from takeaway stalls - barbecued corn on the cob and what looked like pickled cucumbers.

    I opted for the safer option of a McDonald’s. Sitting outside people-watching in the still warm evening air, I watched four girls at a table in front of me, all made up to the nines, wearing the best designer gear, showing each other YouTube clips on their top of the range mobile phones, and generally having a good laugh. They got up and left without clearing their table. Seconds later two teenage boys came over and appeared to start clearing up. However they were actually emptying the leftovers of the fries into a packet each, and the dregs of the soft drinks into a cup each and made off with their complimentary Happy Meal. An old lady, heavily wrinkled and stooped with age berated them, waving her stick and shouting something unintelligible. She then sat at the table and proceeded to pick at the remaining scraps left by the young vultures. They had beat her to it. Such an illustration of wealth and poverty at one table in the space of five minutes.

    In the centre of it all, amidst the noise and hustle and bustle of the crowd, the Crier called the faithful to prayer from his minaret, high above the Sodom and Gomorrah scene below. The amplified sound was deafening.

    My comfortable stay at the Panderma Port included a substantial breakfast, all for £27. The three friendly waitresses rushed to greet me, the only diner in a room which was set for 50. ‘You would like an omelette?’ the eldest one said ‘with eggs and cheese?’ Well certainly with eggs I thought. ‘And what about some cheeses? This one is my favourite - and this one too’. By this time my plate was groaning with several large cubes of identical looking (and tasting) white cheese. When I returned to my table the omelette had arrived, complete with eggs and cheese, and tasted delicious. Some Turkish tea arrived in one of the fine fluted glasses I had become accustomed to, and which at home might be used to display small bunches of freesia. This version was very strong like Builder’s Tea, and tasted as if it had been stewing in a can for a fortnight. I gulped it down quickly and went back to the buffet for baklava, returning to see my Builder’s Tea being replenished with a smile.

    Thus fortified, I made my way to the IDO Ferry for the 10.00 sailing across the Sea of Marmara to Istanbul. What a great way to arrive in this grand city. I made my way to my hotel - the Senator, only to discover it had been taken over by Holiday Inn. It had all been refurbished and the room was terrific. I headed off to see the Grand Bazaar which I had missed on my last visit as it was closed. What an amazing place! Then a walk to the Sultanahmet area and a visit to see the Blue Mosque and the ginormous Hagia Sophia. Although both still magnificent, there was a lot of renovation work going on. Took one of Istanbul’s clean, efficient trams to the Galata Bridge and had fish for dinner in one of the many seafood restaurants. It was a lovely sunny evening and I enjoyed looking over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus where numerous ferries plied their way back and forth. I’ll maybe pop over to Asia for lunch tomorrow.

    I discovered my hotel had a Hamam (Turkish Bath) available, and I took advantage of it to rejuvenate myself after walking about the hot streets all day. Bliss…
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  • Day10

    Izmir, Turkey

    June 13 in Turkey

    The short crossing from Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece to Ayvalik, Turkey took only 1.5 hours and it was a beautiful warm sunny early evening for the sailing. On arrival at Passport Control in Turkey however I was advised I had to pay 25 Euros for a Visa. ‘Now you can be in Turkey for 3 months’ an Immigration Official told me, even although I had already told him I would only be here for 3 days. ‘Yes, that’s correct, 3 months’ he insisted.

    I was a bit panicky that with the later crossing, it might be hard to get to my next destination, Izmir, by public transport, and I knew there was no rail connection. I caught a local bus to the bus station just in time to catch the 20.15 express coach to Izmir. This turned out to be quite the luxury coach with reclining seats, airline-style at-seat video screens, and complimentary refreshments on the 2.5 hour trip. And all this for the princely sum of £4.90. It was just like the Megabus Gold to Aberdeen (minus the tablet). Izmir is a huge city of 3 million inhabitants, and the Coach Station was somewhere on the outskirts. I was about to take a taxi but the helpful transport officer told me there was a free connection to the old town, some distance away, and I was even dropped off right at my hotel.

    Given the excellent value in Turkey, I had decided to splash out on the 5 star Renaissance Hotel Izmir. It is one of the best hotels I have stayed in. My room was almost a suite with separate bathroom and shower rooms - a far cry from my cell at the Clink in London. I chilled out with a glass of Merlot on the rooftop bar surrounded by the lights of the city. The breakfast was terrific, 2nd only to the Intercontinental Hotel in Singapore (courtesy of Mr Super Kenny tours!).

    In spite of my late night, I got up early to explore some of the sights of the old city, all within walking distance of the hotel. The impressive Smyrna Agora from Roman times; the old Bazaar selling everything from fruit, veg, fish and meat (including pigs trotters - sorry, Betty) to costumes which would look great in Aladdin; and the elegant Clock Tower, emblem of the city.

    Back at the hotel, there was time for a rejuvenating swim in the pool before heading off, all to soon, to catch the train to Bandirma port. Izmir surprised and is well worth a visit.
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