So, after a six month hiatus, we are finally travelling again, on a cultural walking tour of northeastern Turkey... and I can't tell you how good that feels. With twelve intrepid travellers, all desperate to break off the shackles of lockdown and hit the road (or mountain trails) in a foreign land, we met up at Heathrow with all of us dreaming of adventure.
So one day into the tour, you might be wondering what the experience of travelling in a group in a time of Covid is like. Let me therefore use my first blog to explain.
The first thing to report is that Heathrow was deserted. Okay, it was an evening flight from London Terminal 2 to Istanbul, departing at 22:00, but even at 19:00 there were few other travellers around. As such, passing check in and security was a breeze and we were soon enjoying a naughty burger and chips, washed down with a nice Italian red at Heston's eatery, The Perfectionists’ Cafe. The flight was on time and only half full. Yes, we had to wear face masks, but other than that it was a comfortable flight. They did serve food, but not the usual hot meal on a tray but sandwiches in a paper bag. As we'd already eaten, we passed on this and soon nodded off.
On arrival at Istanbul's new mega airport (76 million square metres, costing apparently $100 billion) there were no health checks and a 20 minute walk through the vast complex brought us to domestic departures where (after a little more shut eye) we boarded the flight to Ezurum. The only thing to report here was that the Turks seem a good deal more diligent about wearing masks than the Brits had been in London. Turkey's numbers on Covid are generally quite low.
So, other than having to wear a mask, the flight experience was really no different to normal.
Once in Erzurum we were met by our guide Tulga, who gave us a quick briefing before we got onto our bus, which was large enough for everyone to have their own seat. We were asked to hand sanitise and had our temperature taken on entering the hotel and rather bizarrely then sprayed with a disinfectant. Our rooms were all as normal and soon we were back in the lobby having our tour briefing.
Tulga, who we already knew to be an affable, knowledgeable and experienced guide, explained to us the Covid guidelines for being in Turkey. In Erzurum province he explained it was mandatory to wear masks in public places, but in Kars province, from tomorrow onward, that wasn't necessary. He told us all public buildings will have hand sanitiser at the entrance and that at restaurants we'd be seated at tables with at least half a metre between us. Other than that there was nothing very different to what we were all used to and so soon we were out sightseeing.
Ezurum is an ancient city, located on a branch of the Silk Road, and as such boasts some impressive buildings which includes the spectacular 13th century twin minaret madrasah, the medieval grand mosque and the town's museum housed in an early 14th century fort. Having had lunch in a local eatery specialising in kebabs, obviously, we spent the rest of the afternoon looking around these splendid structures, hearing about their history and that of the region in general, and then had free time to explore on our own.
Tired as we were after our night flight (not the usual routing, by the way, but the LHR-IST morning flight we were due to take was cancelled) we had an early dinner at a nice traditional restaurant. And having just finished this blog, it will be lights out at 22:30.
So far so good. The Covid regulations are all fine and have had no real negative impact on the tour. The weather is perfect, the group settling in well and we're all looking forward to the next stage of the adventure.
Tomorrow we drive east across the vast Anatolia steppe to Kars and the Armenian border, where we'll visit the ancient ruined city of Ani. I can't wait.