ON THE TRAIL OF THE FOURTH CRUSADERS…
Field notes from an autumn 2005 research trip for the novel, Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade
I’m retracing the steps of the Fourth Crusade. Here, for your anecdotal pleasure and edification (I hope), are some highlights.
First, though: This will be more fun if you know some context. So here’s a simplified intro to the Fourth Crusade:
The (largely French) crusading army hired the Venetians to build and man a fleet for them. Then the army showed up and couldn’t pay for it. For five months, the Venetians kept the army semi-captive on a lagoon island (now the Lido) while the army leaders and the Doge of Venice (Enrico Dandolo) “worked out their issues.” That “working out” accounts for most of what followed.
Saturday, September 24th, 2005
PLANES, TRAINS, AND FERRIES
Early Friday evening, I leave New York to begin a 24-hour trek to Venice by way of London. After some misadventures with my luggage in the London Underground (prompting one fellow to say to his girlfriend, “Why doesn’t she get her bloke to help her with that?”) I arrive Venice close to midnight Saturday, to meet up with my German cousin Stephie, who will be with me for the first couple of days.
Sunday, September 25th, 2005
Venice? Come and see it for yourselves before it sinks into the lagoon. It’s my kinda city, because there are NO CARS. You can walk around and see the whole thing by foot in a couple hours. No cars. No horns. No fumes. It’s the anti-LA. It’s bliss. Yes, there are places where a cup of coffee is 10 dollars, but only the touristy parts, and we don’t go there; otherwise a cappuccino and croissant can easily be had for 3 bucks. We go to a supermarket and buy enough food to feed both of us for three meals, for maybe $20 (nice food, too – local cheese, capers, olives, fresh fruit, etc.).
One of my characters is Jewish. So in the afternoon we go to the Ghetto – the original Jewish ghetto, home of Shylock and 5,000 others during the late Renaissance. Not enough time for the research I want.
After dark, we head toward the piazza of San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). A trio plays an Italian waltz for a small audience in the near-empty, enormous square; I twirl around in the dark as we enter the piazza, trying not to trip over my shoes,which are the size of sofas.… and as the waltz is ending, I spin around for a final flourish, look up — and find myself face to face with the up-lit Basilica of San Marco. I start crying. It exceeds words. Come and see it yourselves, before it sinks into the lagoon.
My awe-struck reverie is broken seconds later, when the classical trio breaks into another Italian gem: “New York, New York.”
Monday, September 26th, 2005
OUR OWN PRIVATE SAN MARCO
An hour before dawn, we drag ourselves out of bed and head out to the oldest, most commercial part of town, to see the ancient market come to life – the Rialto. Between our room in San Marco and the Rialto Bridge is the most famously busy part of the city by daylight …but at 5:30 am we encounter exactly three other people in the whole area, and they are all going to work (and all smoking). The old market itself, a stone plaza alongside a stretch of the Grand Canal, is very quiet; we’re here even before most of the vendors or their supply boats. So we wander through the dark, cobbly, lamp-lit streets, as I try to decide where a particular scene in my book takes place (the exact house, the sequence of alleys between the back of the house and the lagoon, etc.). Getting lost in Venice is fun – and almost unavoidable.
At dawn, we wander into St. Mark’s Square. Like last night, it is nearly empty, although now there are a gazillion pigeons. A door is open in the church, leading into a small side chapel, where a priest intones a morning mass for a handful of worshipers. We enter. To our immediate right is… all the rest of the basilica of San Marco, with thousands of world-famous, ancient gold-leaf mosaics under the huge multi-domed roof. It’s not yet 7 am, and the church is completely empty — and right here. So of course we go on in.
After 5 mesmerizing minutes of just the two of us and God, we are ushered out, because according to the city of Venice we are NOT, in fact, allowed to have a private audience with God, even if it’s okay with God. No problem – we’ll come back in a few hours, as soon as God is officially open to the public, before the crowds begin.
We wander along the quay and then head back to San Marco so that we arrive mere minutes after God officially opens – to find several thousand people in line ahead of us to get in. St. Mark’s Square is crammed. This is partly because two of the largest cruise ships in the Milky Way came into port in the interim.
Every moment it takes for us to “do” San Marco’s (once it is open to the public) is not worth writing home about. It’s amazing – come see it before it sinks into the lagoon! – but it’s touristy. Not our thing, except what I need for research (don’t even get me started about those thieving medieval Venetians).
After an afternoon siesta and more museum research, we dine in the neighborhood called Dosoduro (you can tell it’s beautiful just by the name). Wandering back to the center of town after dinner, we come across a Venetian lutist and an English tenor who have joined forces in a courtyard, performing early English music. We listen for about an hour while I nurse a little Dixie cup of limoncello. The weather is mild, the sky is clear, the music is good, the company delightful, my longstanding writer’s block is resolved. Things can’t get much better than this.
But they can definitely get a little worse.
(That is called foreshadowing.)
Tuesday, September 27th, 2005
WE’RE NOT IN SAN MARCO ANYMORE
As dawn breaks we wander the pre-tourist Rialto again, then slowly head through the city to the train station, and Stephie leaves. My solo adventuring begins. As soon as I turn away from Stephie’s departing train, I can hear my main character chuckling in my head: “Ha! You’re all mine now! Let the wild rumpus begin!”
Ignoring this call to arms, I decide to brave another Tourist Experience and check out the Doge’s Palace. (I walk all the way there; still have not stepped into a boat. In a city founded on ferocious self-sufficiency, asking somebody else to transport me somewhere seems like cheating.)
I realize something at the Doge’s Palace: historical Venice fascinates me because it reminds me of contemporary America, pros and cons alike. My novels deliberately have a modern tone to them, in part because I am not a pre-modern European and I can never be one, but that spiritual chasm does not exist for me as an American looking at pre-modern Venice. We (=Americans) would do well to look not only at the fall of Rome, but at the fall of Venice, as a model of why no empire lasts.
On a less lofty note: Must change lodgings today. (Remember foreshadowing?)
My first three nights here were a treat from my mother, who wanted me to be someplace comfortable and safe while I got over jet-lag. (I declined the first 8 times she offered, feeling a perverse need to tough it out like my predecessors. She was right. Thanks, Mum!) Now the real roughing-it, traveling-almost-like-they-did-back-then part starts.
I move from a small room in the heart of Venice to a “camping establishment” over on the mainland – turns out to be a sagging cot in a tin garden shed, one of many hundred such garden sheds arranged in uneven, haphazard rows interrupted by occasional flocks of toilets, showers and outdoor sinks. There is also a canteen. It’s safe to say I’m probably the oldest, least adventurous, most conventional person here. (My luggage is hands-down the wimpiest, because you can’t go white-water rafting with it.) In the spirit of our sweetly rural surroundings near the most romantic city in Europe, loud techno-pop music blares until 2 am. Then lots of drunk young people wander by laughing with impossible shrillness until about 3.
I lie awake like a fuddy-duddy, wondering if medieval army camps would be this rowdy – surely Count Baldwin of Flanders (who did not allow any of his men to engage in non-marital fornication) would have put a stop to it at once.
It rains hard overnight and when I finally pull myself out of bed, my eyes are so swollen that they can hardly open; there aren’t enough loos for everybody, and they’re skanky; I already know from my supper experience that breakfast will be overpriced and disappointing. This is sort of a writer/researcher’s version of “method acting.”
GET THE TO AN ARMY CAMP, or, WHERE’S THE BEACH?
After pulling myself awake from a whopping 4 hours of sleep (thanks, Techno-pop!), I take the shuttle from the camping-disco village into Venice, to meet an historical linguist who has been helping me (over the internet) deal with language questions, such as, “When an Italian, a Greek and a German all convene to solve their family grievances by co-opting the Pope’s army, do they speak French to each other’s whores?”
Then I head out to the islands of the lagoon. There is really only one I must see, which is the Lido: 700-odd years before it was an exclusive beach resort it was the temporary, icky home to 10,000 crusading soldiers for 5 long, hot months, while their leaders argued with the Doge about money. My novels open on the Lido, in that army camp –at sunset. So I will go to the Lido myself at sunset. Thus, I go to Torcello and Burano first, and would love to tell you all about them, but really you should just come and see them for yourselves before they sink into the lagoon.
Finally, as afternoon is wearing thin, and my legs are wearing out, I get to the Lido. The Lido is basically an 8-mile long sandbar, which I had naively thought might have a big sign saying, “Crusader Army Camp – 400 meters (arrow sign).” Nope.
So I do what one must in such circumstances: cheerfully filthy from Torcello’s swamps (I’m in black, and the filth is sand-colored, so it really shows up nicely), I wander into three consecutive luxury hotels, and ask the startled concierges where the army of the Fourth Crusade bivouacked. They have no idea what I am talking about. That’s a little like people in Woodstock not knowing where the concert was. Nobody even recognizes the name Enrico Dandolo (the Doge), which would be like us not knowing Ulysses S Grant (or William the Conqueror or Henry V, for the Brits among us). I had already noticed that Venice has an intensely uneasy relationship to the Fourth Crusade, but this really takes the cake. Although I am about to fall on my face with exhaustion, I decide to figure out the mystery of the army camp for myself. Ha!
Common sense sends me toward the only building that existed on the island at the time of the army encampment (the church of San Nicolo, still standing). It’s been turned into an international center for peace and good vibes, and is right next to a military installation. Therein follows a ridiculous series of events in which I retrace my steps three or four times, about a mile each time, searching for the elusive medieval army camp, following clues provided by baffled locals who truly don’t know Venice had anything to do with the Crusades at all. I’ll spare you the details, but the rhythm is consistent: “Here’s a clue! Oh, psyche out – Dead end!… Look, new clue! Oh, psyche out…” etc. This goes on for a couple of hours, as the light is fading and my legs are turning into squid. I always know I’m overtired when my attempts to speak a foreign language come out as Japanese; now I am so far gone I am even muttering to myself in Japanese, which is alarming because I’ve forgotten most of it, and half the time I don’t even know what I’m saying to myself (something about squid).
What I finally establish in my exhausted tromping about is this: the area that was an army camp 803 years ago is now a secret military site, and I can’t get in (it’s not on any maps I could find, but it is surrounded by barbed wire and signs that either mean “Access forbidden – Military!” or “No drinking Cappucino after 11 am, you stupid Americans!”).
The light is fading, my feet are pulsing with pain, and I’ve eaten almost nothing all day. I just want to go back to my moldy garden shed and lie awake listening to techno-pop all night. But this is the Lido – at one time the most famous beach in the world! – and I haven’t actually gotten to the beach yet! (It’s not a beach on the lagoon side, only on the sea-side.) So having given up on the army camp, I head out for the beach. Let me at least accomplish that.
But it’s a repeat of the army camp debacle: wherever I go, no beach. How is that possible? I am a walking anti-compass! I’m about to take a ferry back in to Venice, awed by my own incompetence: I will be the only person alive who, having spent 10 months planning a trip to the Lido, can’t find the beach. That’s amazing. That takes a very special kind of dumb.
Wait… look at that… it’s… the beach! At last! With rows and rows and rows of snug little changing tents. I’ll go check it out.
Oh. There’s a fence. Well, I’ll just follow it until I find an open gate.
There’s an open gate!
Oh. It opens onto another gate, which is closed.
There’s a hole in the fence! I can slip around the whole fenced-in area, and head straight down to the water. As night falls, I can look out over the very channel where the Crusaders and Venetians set out.
I’m so close to the beach, the ground has turned from dirt to sand. This is so cool. At the end of this long, fruitless endeavor of a day, I am going to dip my hands into the Adriatic sea, just like my characters did. Neato-keen.
I hear a noise behind me. I glance back. Oh, that’s OK, it’s just a strange man following me through the hole in the fence, carrying a large bottle of alcohol and some club-shaped object in his arms. Nothing to worry about. I’ll just keep heading to the beach, which is now only about 15 feet away. I’ve walked at least 15 miles today.
Okay, Galland, hold on: you know better. You’ve seen the movies — and bought the T-shirt. This is NOT the scene where you go down to the dark, empty beach with this man following you; this is the scene where you turn around, walk straight at him to show him you’re not scared of him, then get the hell back to the populated strip, and live to tell the rest of the story. You only get one take. Go.
So I turn back, without going to the beach, and scowling fearsomely, I walk right up to the strange man in the growing dusk…
He is about 17 years old, carrying a bottle of Pepsi and a large salami for his dinner.
I am so relieved that I almost giggle. Then I almost turn around to walk with him back to the beach, but I decide that would be far too socially awkward, given that I was just scowling fearsomely at him and he thinks I am insane. So I head back toward the ferry landing… having never made it to the beach.
On the bright side, the techno-pop music doesn’t start until 2 am.
Thursday, September 29th, 2005
I wake before dawn the next morning (3 hours sleep) and flee the camping-disco on an early bus into Venice; leaving my bag at the station, I hang out in the alleys of Venice for a good 5 hours before catching my train to Ancona (where I’ll get a boat across the Adriatic.) My Venice time includes a trip to the Accademia, yet another bastion of staggering art, none of which (to my knowledge) is featured in The Da Vinci Code.
The Crusaders have set sail for Croatia, and so must I. Here’s the deal the leaders have worked out with the Venetians: to make up for not paying their bill on time, the (Catholic) Crusaders will help (Catholic) Venice re-conquer one of its former colonies, Zara, which happens to be – wait for it – Catholic. The (Catholic) Pope is furious and threatens to excommunicate the entire crusading army if they attack Zara. They sail from Venice with the intention of doing it anyhow, although most of the soldiers are unhappy about it, and would definitely refuse to attack if they were ever informed that the Pope had forbidden it. They haven’t been informed. Yet. So here’s the million-dollar question: when they get to Zara, will they actually attack? Or not? Tune in next up-load to find out, but here is a hint:
Look for Zara on a map. Did you find it? I didn’t think so.
This summer, Croatia was listed as the hottest new tourist destination by both the New York Times and one of the hip travel guides like Lonely Planet.
They were not talking about the place I came to.
To review: the Venetians and (mostly French) Crusaders are sailing to Zara, which the Venetians want the French to help them conquer. The French leaders agree because they owe the Venetians a ton of money, but they are severely irked about attacking Catholics.
I’m going to gloss over my favorite part of the story, which is where (in the most Pythonesque of all Monty-Python moments), a splinter group of crusaders, determined to protect Zara from harm no matter what, attempt a good-hearted but brainless stunt that ends up harming Zara more than if they had just kept well enough alone. As a result, the Crusaders and Venetians DO attack Zara, Zara surrenders, and its people flee into the countryside as winter is coming on. The army and the Venetians move into Zara for the winter.
Now that this “diversion” to Zara is over, they all just want the winter to pass uneventfully so they can head to the Holy Land in the spring. However, the winter is not quite uneventful — and the future of the western world will be altered as a result .
But we’ll come back to that.
I DON’T THINK WE’RE IN VENICE ANYMORE
It took the crusading fleet more than 5 weeks to get to Zara from Venice (they had to stop to get fresh water and do the odd plunder), so I can’t really complain that it takes me 18 hours. First, a train down the Italian coast to Ancona. Here, Shad, a ridiculously charismatic Moroccan musician in a café, spends a couple of hours trying to pick me up. I thoroughly enjoy this but don’t take it personally, because that’s just what charming Moroccan musicians do. I have to credit him, though, with a very original opening line: he laments that the philosopher Schopenhauer has a bad attitude about women. I love when people start to fulfill a stereotype, but then tweak it a little, just to keep you on your toes.
I take an overnight ferry across the Adriatic Sea to Croatia, straight into the port at Zadar (the place that used to be Zara), arriving at 6 am.
Friday, September 30th, 2005
I SAY ZARA, YOU SAY ZADAR
The place I’ve reserved is wayyyyy out of town, and after the disco- extravaganza experience near Venice, I am leery of hostels anyhow. So I join forces with five American college students I met at the ferry terminal; through the tourist office, we rent rooms in a private apartment.
Our host is a retired Croatian ballet dancer, and his name, improbably, is Robert Wagner. He looks like most of the men I see here between the ages of 25 and 45: tall, lean, dark, intense. I see almost no women under the age of 50, except a very few working in clothing boutiques. There are no young woman on their own in the streets or cafés. (By the time I leave the city, this starts to unnerve me).
Robert Wagner’s apartment is the top floor of the tallest apartment building in the old city. The elevator hasn’t worked for years, and the place itself is very post-communist blasé, but the panoramic view is AMAZING. Zadar is a tiny peninsula, a tongue of land covered by a semi-walled city full of old churches, and forming a natural protected harbor with the mainland; a few miles inland, huge white limestone cliffs jut dramatically toward the sky; in the other direction, out into the Adriatic, islands that look like the tip of submerged mountains erupt from the water. We see it all from our balcony. (When Robert Wagner’s laundry doesn’t get in the way on the clothesline.)
That afternoon an aging fisherman takes the college kids and me out in his wee boat for a 4-hour tour of some of the outlying islands. The Adriatic is so salty that crystals remain on my hands and clothes when I get splashed; the color is astonishing – like royal-blue velvet. All of it. All the time. Except in the shallows farther south, where it is fluorescent teal.
Later, I sit down with my guidebooks and the section of my novel that takes place here, to put together a research itinerary for tomorrow. It’s not easy, because the thing that put Zara on the map is the same thing that wiped it off the map: the Fourth Crusade. The Venetians tore down the entire city when they left (except the churches). In fact the current “hot” Fourth Crusade historian didn’t even come here for research — there’s simply nothing left. Zadar, like most of Croatia, has far too much recent tragedy to care about anything from 800 years ago.
I check material from the tourist office, which is enthusiastic, but not very useful. It proudly proclaims: “The touristic attractiveness of Zadar is built on a foundation of culture and tourism as well as other original and high-quality contents, autochtonic and specific touristic-hotel offerings, which are found in its attractive spatial, socio-cultural and economic surroundings.”
Saturday, October 1st, 2005
HOW TO MAKE UP REAL STUFF (Historical Fiction 101)
I know the Fourth Crusade fleet sailed into the narrow harbor (which must have been awfully cramped). The army set up camp on the mainland, and then various Pythonesque, melodramatic things happened before the army ended up within the city walls for the winter. So I need to scope out the mainland as well as the old city.
The harbor-side, now a commercial wharf, has been built out and fortified, so I can’t even tell if there would have been a sandy or a rocky beach where they landed. I have almost nothing to go on, but I actually love this kind of thing, which isn’t research so much as a combination of trespassing and guesswork – and, in this case, a little nautical archaeology. A tiny swatch of the harborside (really tiny, about 5 feet) by a restaurant receives the brunt of a passing current, and a mini-beach has built up. I examine the sand (coarse, multi-colored) and organic detritus like seashells; I stare at what else is, or isn’t, in the water; I wander into private apartment grounds and examine the soil. I scope out the relationship of high ground to harbor-access to the city’s one land-gate.
A woman wandering around solo already attracts suspicious attention around here, but I’m making it worse for myself by acting like a bad CIA operative. I think I figure out where the army camped, but I’m aware that I’m pretty much just making it up. (Thank God, I’m a novelist, I’m allowed to do that.)
Then I go into the city for an urban version of the same thing. Conclusions are harder here. I must determine where in the city my (fictional) characters passed the winter, but I can’t pick a spot at random; it has to have a certain relationship to real-life historical events, which means I have to figure out where that real-life historical stuff took place. If I can guesstimate that, I can then work out where my characters were in relationship to it. This might sound obsessive, but it’s a fun exercise in practical logic and more than that: I’m the characters’ mom, I can’t leave them homeless.
So I wander the streets for an hour, noting where the streets slope a little higher or lower. I figure out the highest point in the city, which is probably where the leaders stayed. Then, on a street map, I deduce where my characters must have stayed relative to that, and finally, I head toward that spot to see it in real life. I’m tired and cranky, but increasingly excited as I finally approach the passage that will take me to the spot where my characters would have passed the winter.
I turn the corner…
And find myself in front of my own lodgings.
After all of my tortuous visual engineering, the whimsy of this makes me burst out laughing. I take it as a message from the gods: stop worrying so much, we’re putting you exactly where you’re supposed to be. Take a break!
So I go to look at Saint Donat’s, the oldest church in town, built in the 800’s by a traveling Irish saint. Outside this church, I meet 3 actual (Northern) Irishmen, academics who are sailing around the region just for fun. They had no idea this church was built by a fellow Irishman, but they’re not proud. “Oh, aye, we were always goin’ off and doin’ that sort of thing,” says one casually.
We spend the next three hours looking at churches and imbibing various things; one of them is an experienced Adriatic sailor, so is able to give me all sorts of unexpected useful information for the book. I love the Irish!
I part company from them, just in time to watch the sunset from the steps of the Water Organ, a public-art invention that uses the pressure of waves slapping up against the sea wall to force air through pipes, which play music (tourists often go there and hold out their cell phones so the folks back home can hear it). It sounds sort of like hump-back whales singing in a perfect pentatonic scale. It’s a phenomenal accompaniment to a sunset.
And not a bad way to end my Zara research. I have one more day here, mopping-up, and then it will take me three days and nights of travel to reach my next stop (but hey, it took the crusaders more than three weeks, so I’m not complaining.)
So: to recap, and hint at what’s to come.
The Franks and Venetians are wintering in Zara, and as soon as spring comes they are supposed to head to the Holy Land to smite the heathens. But the Franks still owe the Venetians a lot of money. A LOT of money. More than nine tons of minted silver. Where the hell are they going to get that kind of money?
Funny you should ask. Alexius, deposed heir to the Byzantine Empire, is in Europe, where he propositions the Crusaders: “Hey, I have lots of money but I need a fierce army to get me on my throne. You have a fierce army – and you need lots of money. What a cool coincidence!”
Can you see where this is going? Tune in next week…
Are we smiting heathen yet?
History review: The army and Venetians wintered in Zara after conquering it.
But: the army still owed the Venetians much moolah.
BUT: The deposed heir of the Bzyantine Empire has propositioned the Crusaders: “I have much moolah but I need an army to get me on the throne. You have an army – and you need much moolah. Let’s talk.”
Surprise! The leaders go for it. They will put Prince Alexius on the Byzantine throne; he will pay them much moolah. The whole army leaves Zara in the spring and sails to Corfu, to wait for Alexius to catch up to them.
But the soldiers are extremely upset about this diversion (pious pilgrims all, they only want to spill the blood of heathens; Byzantium is Christian) — and half the army deserts, en masse. It pulls up stakes (literally), relocates to another part of Corfu, then sits and waits for transport directly to the Holy Land. In a scene I’d love to see the current administration imitate, the leaders fall sobbing at the feet of their critics, admitting their errors, begging for forgiveness – and offering to compromise. In the end, they get their way, and the army is reunited.
Sunday, October 2nd, 2005-
Thursday, October 6th, 2005
YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
The crusaders and Venetians sailed straight down the coast, but I can’t do that – I can’t even take a land-route straight down, because Albania is in the way, and she doesn’t get on well with her neighbors. As many travelers have discovered, the sanest way to get from Croatia to Greece is to crisscross the Adriatic via two overnight ferries. Still much nicer than what the crusaders went through.
First, a comfortable bus ride from Zadar south to Dubrovnik. I’d been told it would take 7 hours, so when – after 7 hours – we pulled up in front of an official-looking building, I thought it was the terminal. It wasn’t. It was Bosnia.
Probably to allow it a sea-port, Bosnia sticks out an elbow to the Adriatic and separates Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia.
At sunset I finally arrive in Dubrovnik, after 9 (not 7) visually thrilling hours on the bus. I won’t describe it, because the Dalmatian coast is best left to those who are good at actual travel writing, not to people who compare the color of the Adriatic to Tidy-Bowl, which I did at one point.
At the Dubrovnik bus station, I’m besieged by a sea of short, middle-aged ladies who want me to room in their house. I say yes to one I like the looks of. She lives near the top of the mountain out of which Dubrovnik is carved. This means that once I am settled in, to get to Dubrovnik’s Old Town I have to climb down a lot of stairs. My hostess’s son assures me that if I take a particular short cut I will have to descend “only 10 steps.” Turns out he means only 10 FLIGHTS of steps. LONG ones.
By the time I arrive in the Old Town, it’s dark. It looks so much like Disney Land that I hear myself say out loud, “You must be joking.” Only it’s real. It was shelled to pieces in 1992 by Serbia (et al), but they rebuilt it just as it had been.
I see it next day by daylight; it really sort of is Dubrovsneyland, but it’s still incredibly special, especially considering the 2000-plus bombardments it survived just 13 years ago. Talk about a place that picks up the pieces and moves on.
Three of the young kids in the house where I’m rooming take a liking to me (well, let’s to be honest, to my laptop), so the parents/grandparents warm to me, and feed me a traditional working-class Croatian dinner, which resembles nothing so much as a traditional working-class American dinner, complete with Wonder Bread, which in Croatian is probably spelled hrkcg brthdl. (To pay for the Dalmatian Coast, God put a heavy tax on vowels, and the Croats usually just go without).
They also try to ply me with homemade boozes of various sorts (including their own wine, which is about 700 proof). These people are pretty rough-and-tumble, but their veranda has a magnificent view, and anyhow I wouldn’t trade this “insider experience” for the most elegant hotel in town. Despite the subsequent indigestion.
That night, I ferry back across the Adriatic to Italy, and spend a dull day getting lost in the port town of Bari (sort of like Los Angeles but without the charm). At night, I take ANOTHER ferry BACK across the Adriatic. On the ferry I meet 2 lovely gay Swiss vegetarians who have just traveled almost exactly the same route I have, except they started up in Zurich – and they’ve done the entire thing by bicycle, camping the whole way.
IT’S PINK TO ME
On Corfu at last, staying at The Pink Palace, a place the Crusaders would probably have taken to.
I did not really understand what the Pink Palace was, when I made a reservation here for 3 nights. This place is understandably world-famous, but you sort of have to experience it (or avoid it) for yourself. It offers cheap bed-board-and-booze deals (they give you a free shot of bright pink ouzo when you sign in, which in my case was 9 am). The place is a self-contained complex made entirely of flamingo-colored buildings (every room has a balcony with stunning views of mountain and sea). It operates on a highly regulated daily schedule designed entirely to coax people (young and English-speaking) to drink as much as possible, all the time, everywhere (beach, volleyball court, giant jacuzzi, breakfast, etc). It is an ashram for alcoholism. I’ve never seen so many happy young people on the make in my life.
The staff makes everyone wear pink hospital-style bracelets, so that if they wander drunkenly off the premises they can be returned, like a pet to its owner, by the locals. Every Saturday night is a pink-satin Toga Party. This is a place where breakfast conversation among the young ladies commonly includes, “I feel like shit, but at least I’m still drunk.” The gentlemen are somewhat less demure. I’d love to meet Dr. George, the man who created the place 30 years ago and still owns it. I’m very curious about such a diabolical genius.
At the Pink Palace, I’m joined by my friend Jess who arrives at about the same moment that I succumb to a painful bacterial throat infection, requiring a 3 a.m. house-call from the local doctor. Most of my time on Corfu is spent sleeping and recovering.
We’re amused – and astonished – at where we’ve found ourselves. Jess has a scathing, bitchy sense of humor; his epithets for the Pink Palace include: “Provincetown for straight people,” “a kibbutz for drunkenness,” “fascism meets Spring Break” and other things I don’t want to consign to print.
But my favorite Corfu one-liner actually dates from 1203: the Orthodox priests who ran the show here were debating with the Catholic (crusader) priests, about which was the true church: Orthodox (based in the east, closer to Jesus’s ministry), or Catholic (based in Rome). Said one of the Eastern Orthodox priests: “What has Rome ever done for Christianity other than crucify Christ?”
On my third day here, we do manage to rent a car and drive around the west side of the island, which is incredibly beautiful and surprisingly unspoiled (for details, please find a good travel-writer). We have a final day in the town of Corfu itself, climbing around the Old Fort. And when it’s time to go, boy oh boy, between ravaging bacteria and ranting bachelors, we are ready to leave Corfu. But where exactly are we going, in the end?
The plan is to go to the Holy Land and smite heathens – just as soon as we’ve gone to Constantinople, put Alexius back on the Byzantine throne there, and gotten paid insane amounts of money from him. So, next stop: Constantinople. Won’t take long. Then we’ll be off to smite the heathens. Really. Trust us on this.
(For those of you who really don’t know where Constantinople is: The medieval residents of the city shortened the name, affectionately, to ‘Stanpoli. This, over time, morphed to Istanbul.)
You are hereby forewarned that I have completely given up trying to be pithy.
We, the crusaders of 1203, are off… not to the Holy Land like we originally vowed, but to Constantinople, because even though our argument is with infidel extremist varmints in the Holy Land, a despot somewhere else is suddenly a threat to our national security…
Wait, sorry, wrong millenium. Let’s try that again.
We’re going to Constantinople to get rid of the tyrant (aka the Usurper) who seized power, and we’ll give the people back Alexius, their proper ruler. Then we’ll get back to the important stuff, all that freeing-the-Holy-Land stuff. Because we’re CRUSADERS, after all, and that’s what we DO.
The crusaders/Venetians/Alexius get to Constantinople. When the citizens don’t spontaneously rise up against the Usurper to welcome Alexius back, the army and Venetians, with Alexius, reluctantly attack the Usurper’s army. They do a lot of damage – however, the all-important battle that will determine who gets to be Emperor never takes place, because as the two armies are lined up for battle, the Usurper inexplicably turns tail and runs off. He is eventually found cowering in a bunker somewhere, and CNN takes us there live. Oh, sheesh, I keep doing that, sorry…
Because the Usurper flees, Alexius is put on the throne with lots of pomp and circumstance. Hooray! Mission Accomplished! God is obviously on our side! Now all we need to do is get paid and we can go on to the Holy Land and smite heahens!
Sunday, October 9th, 2005
We fly from Corfu to Thessaloniki and spend a day getting ludicrously lost in Thessaloniki, a sprawling city with no center (but lots of car exhaust). We put in great efforts to see Things Byzantine here, but only manage to find the remains of one monastery, which is guarded over by a Greek version of Lady Havisham. Finally, tired and cranky, my throat infection having transmuted to an ear infection and Jess starting to succomb to a virus himself, we fly on a little turbo-prop plane to… Istanbul.
Sunday, October 16th, 2005
TURKISH DELIGHT (OR NOT)
We check into a cheap little hotel in the Sultanhamet, the old part of town. IT IS AMAZING TO BE HERE. This place really is half-Asian and half-European; the people look different even from their Greek neighbors; the language sounds like a combination of German and Japanese; everything is just slightly Other. The Turks are incredibly beautiful (at least, the men are; the women are largely out of site, or wrapped up in some way). Everyone has a gentleness to them that surprises us, but we wonder if this is perhaps because it’s Ramadan and they’re all hypoglycemic.
In our first 24 hours, we stay close to home; eat all sorts of food we’ve never heard of before; go to the Turkish Baths; wander around the site of the old Hippodrome watching people break their Ramadan fast; and, of course, go shopping for Turkish rugs, something neither of us has the need or the funds to buy. But this is the old section of Istanbul, where 50 percent of the shops sell rugs. It’s a caricature of a stereotype of an old wives’ tale: EVERYONE sells rugs. And they are breathtakingly beautiful.
The Turkish Bath (or hamam) is a remarkable experience, and not what I expected. It is not remotely sensual or seedy. We go to a hamam 450 years old, built and used by Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s one of the few co-ed baths in the city, and it has the whole roast-the-tourists-and-ship-em-out-again thing to a science. There are 7 of us, strangers, who go through the experience like a small herd of sheep. First we all strip and are given a wrap to wear, and awkward wooden flipflops; we’re taken into a round, unadorned, domed room of pale marble and told to lie back on a large slab of marble (because there are 7 of us, it becomes a jigsaw puzzle of arms and heads).
The slab is heated from below with water boiled from a wood-burning fire. It just seems a little warm to lie on, not even sun-baked warm, but after half an hour, one’s body temperature feels permanently raised. (There is no steam involved, which surprised me). Eventually we are called by pairs into a side room (also pale marble, unadorned, lit by naked bulbs from above) where 2 smiling young Turks, wearing loin cloths just like ours, spend their day loofah-ing, rinsing, soaping up, shampooing and briefly-but-vigorously massaging herds of tourists. All of this happens on marble slabs, and is regularly interrupted by their dumping bowls of cold water over us without warning (they get a kick out of the shock value of that). Then we are given dry wraps and turbans, and sit around in an empty room for awhile sipping Turkish tea, then change back into our clothes and get shipped back to our various hotels. That’ll be 20 bucks, please.
Over the next few days, we try to revisit all of the places of significance to the book, in roughly the order the characters encounter them. As above references to Ramadan, hamams and rugs above suggest, this city is now deeply Turkish and Islamic; it is very hard to seek out the pre-Turkish stuff, especially when the population is 20 times what it was in 1204, and everything is industrialized.
So for example: the river across which the two armies faced each other (when the Usurper turned tail and fled) no longer exists; it has gone dry, and now a major highway runs where it was. The great palace of Blachernae, site of most of the political machinations around the crusade, is now ruins in one part and working-class housing everywhere else.
Jess and I spend a couple of days wandering through this part of the city trying to get a tack on what would have been where, bemused by the disinterest and disrepair that hangs over this incredible ruin. The residential area that now exists in what used to be an immense palace compound ranges from derelict slums to shabby apartments. I buy a headscarf and wear it because it feels like a bad idea not to. Everyone stares openly at us, and everyone says (to Jess), “Hello, my name is (X), where do you come from? Hello!”
A 10-year-old uniformed schoolboy (Ibrahim, whom Jess described as “Bart Simpson playing Peter Sellers”) does more than that; he takes it upon himself to lead us a circuitous route through the neighborhood to the only café in this part of town. Then he charges us $3 for the service. He is to the manner born.
We do the usual variant of poking around, going places we shouldn’t (which is easy with these ruins because they’re just sitting there, getting eaten away by exhaust fumes from the mega-roadway running along beside them), climbing up and down places that aren’t very safe, and delighting in our finds as the geometrical puzzle of hills, ruins and maps comes together (I carry 7 different maps for this, constantly cross-referencing: 4 historical, 1 topographical and 2 modern).
Besides the “Indiana Jones” satisfaction, there are 2 brief moments while climbing around on the ruins that will stay with me for years.
First was the official moment of sunset: the silence of the neighborhood was shattered when every mosque in the whole of Istanbul simultaneously huzzahed that it was time to say prayers and break the fast. We were on a high point and experienced it in surround-sound, in the peach-colored evening light that bathed the many hills and valleys of the apparently endless metropolis.
The second event was a few moments before that, when we were in the outdoor basketball court that was once a major meeting room of the palace. A small apartment building across the way had a balcony, where a woman was watching us. We thought it was very sweet when she stepped inside and then back out with her three little children and her… what is that? Oh, a machine gun. (Jess insisted it was a toy.) And she’s holding it up. And pointing it… right at us. For several moments. Then she gives it to her little son and goes back indoors.
This is the part of town that really I can’t do justice to, without writing a long essay, and I’m doing all this on the fly. The relationship of poverty to plenty, the use of space, the sense of community, of aesthetics, of economy, of architecture – it is all so different from what I think I know about cities. In all parts of town, many buildings are of wood, with graceful, overhanging second-floors; grapevines grow up out of solid pavement and let down tresses from wires that span over streets. The main thoroughfares are impossibly busy; other streets are mostly quiet. Rugs are used casually all over the place, inside and out, for standing, sitting, throwing over tables, chairs, benches, stairs. Women, when they appear, might be dressed like chic but modest westerners, or might be wearing scarves and floor-length, tailored coats (often made of denim), or might be all in black with only eyes and noses showing.
And yet today’s Istanbul is modeled on the western sense of the urban, so everybody (well, every male) watches television even if their roof is about to cave in. As I said, we are here during Ramadan, which means everybody fasts all day and breaks the fast at sundown. All over the city there are booths set up in groups, and a non-inebriated streetfair attitude rules the evening – every evening for a month! People wander around talking, laughing, stuffing their faces. Nobody is drinking alcohol and that has a lot to do with why it feels perfectly safe and pleasant even though gangs of young men make up a large part of the crowd.
We do other things to scout out the book: take ferries over to the Asian side of the Bosporus; take them also across the harbor over to Pera (wherein lies the hotel where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and where we are charged $7 for a 5-minute tour of 2 rooms with Ataturk memorabilia). We come over here to see Galata, a large tower that was built in the 1300’s, replacing an even older, larger tower which is featured in the Crusaders’ first attack on the city.
Inside the tower is a gift shop, where one small mystery is explained to us: all over the city we see a ubiquitous image of a stylized blue eye, in windows, for sale, as key chains, etc. What is it? Turns out it goes back to the Crusades.
The European attackers wore metal armor and nothing could be seen of them except their eyes, through their helmets- and they all had blue eyes. So the locals all believed that it was these strange blue eyes that gave them their power – and they constructed their own blue eyes, for protection and strength, as an image to try to ward the attackers off. A sweet young Kurdish man explains this to us – almost apologetically, as if he might insult us with the story. Except for this anecdote, the city is so dense with history that the Middle Ages just sort of get lost in the shuffle. There is no way to learn everything that needs to be learned. I hate that.
THAT OL’ MERCANTILE FEELING
Trade was, of course, a big reason that the west was so concerned about who was in charge here, even back in 1203. And it’s why they were all so delighted when the Usurper ran off, and they got to put Alexius on the throne after all. There was much rejoicing. For a couple of weeks, the crusaders took off their armor and wandered around the city going to all the churches and monasteries, taking in the “touristic” wonders of the city. I’m finally going to spend a day or two doing that now myself, but let’s not kid ourselves… if history is any indication, there is trouble brewing.
Saturday, October 22st, 2005
A LONG, LONG WAY TO FALL
The time has come to imitate the crusaders in one regard: we have to start acting like pilgrim-tourists, wandering around and being amazed by the great sights and sounds of this astonishing city. We start with the biggie: Hagia Sophia. This church is one of the great architectural wonders of the world, and it is astonishing, but we had been anticipating it too long. Our response was a respectful, “Yep, this is just as amazing as everyone says.” And that was that (although seeing the grave of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice during the Fourth Crusade, was satisfying).
But then we went to the Cistern, about which we knew diddley-squat, and were blown away.
The Cistern is a 1600-year-old enormous underground room/cave with scores (hundreds?) of large columns holding the roof up; it used to be filled with water for the city (it still has about a foot or two in it so we tread on boardwalks). It’s like being in the womb of the Earth Mother, after she’s hired the ancient Greeks as interior decorators. And there’s nobody down here trying to sell us carpets. This place is so delicious, it obviously has to figure somehow into my story.
The next day is the most extraordinary day of the entire trip. Having fallen in love with the Cistern, we want to go to the Aqueduct which supplied its water. The Aqueduct is a large, above-ground structure that looks like an ornate railroad bridge or overpass, nearly as old as Christianity and once part of a waterworks system 125 miles long. Now there is a 2000-foot stretch of it left (100-plus feet high at the tallest point), in the middle of the city. Traffic passes under it through its many lower arches, so it’s black and grimy, but still a handsome structure. A problematic part of the book can be fixed by using the cistern-and-aqueduct as a device, so Jess and I decide to get up onto the thing, and see it close up.
We wander along the whole stretch of it down at street-level, craning our necks to stare up and figure out a way to access it. No luck. Then a kid about 12, with a smattering of English, lets us know that he can show us how to get up. We nod eagerly, knowing it will cost us something (maybe we’ll have to buy a carpet from his uncle’s shop).
Well, turns out there is no hidden stairway up – we have to scale the wall, literally rock-climb, without any gear, straight up. Jess tries first, gets up a little ways, can’t go further, goes back down. I try next, get a little higher – and then I start having flashbacks to the final time I ever went rock-climbing, and got stuck. I decide I’d better back down before I fall off and smash my head open on the street below. But it’s too late; my hands have started to cramp, and I can’t make myself move forward or back. I feel panic setting in. I am going to fall to my death in a strange country doing something illegal. Well, at least that’s anecdotal.
And then the most unexpected thing happens, like right out of the movies.
Just before my body approaches pre-posthumous rigor mortis, the boy and his three friends start to excitedly call out, “No, okay, lady! He’s expert!” and a man’s hand, extending from a black leather jacket sleeve, descends into my very limited view (the rock wall is inches from my face). I look up and a stranger’s grinning face nods to me reassuringly from above. He keeps shaking his hand in my face: take it, take it. I have NO IDEA where he came from; there was nobody up there when we started this!
I’m frozen, I don’t trust my own hands to keep their grip or my arms to keep their strength, so I force myself to let go of the rock and grab his hand. The-stranger-who-materialized-from-nowhere is shorter than I am and probably weighs no more than I do, but he heaves me up to a place where there is a better foothold, and then steadies me as I eventually, somehow, climb up to a foot-wide ledge where I can stand, my head about 15 feet above the road. Then he coaxes me to move along the ledge (for what is probably 5 feet but feels like 100), even when I announce that I am too old and don’t want to play anymore, I just want to go back down to earth and have a cappuccino…. He keeps smiling and giving orders. I obey, because my life was just literally in his hands. But this is the sort of thing you get grounded for, even when you’re a grownup.
I can’t remember what happens over the next few unnerving minutes but somehow, Jess and I – and all five youths of this multigenerational gang – are on top of the aqueduct, with our weighty knapsacks (we are both carrying our laptops).
This is how we finally realize, first-hand, that the aqueduct was paved over years ago, so there is nothing to actually be learned by having gone through that ordeal. It used to be open to the sky but it is now a celestial sidewalk going nowhere, with no railing or parapet. It’s 12-15 feet across, and there is NOTHING but thin air on either side, and then concrete and cars 60-100 feet below. These guys casually stroll along it all the time — and they’ve decided we’re going with them this time. We’re not really in a position to refuse. It is occurring to each of us, independently, that we’re here with camera, computers, and cash, completely at the mercy of a gang of five. We’re just waiting for the moment of reckoning.
Until that happens, though, I grab Jess’s hand, while one of the boys loops his arm through mine on the other side to steady me. Our savior is named Orhan – an automotive electrician and would-be actor – and he is chatting, smiling, effervescent. For each of us, he picks a bouquet of little yellow wildflowers growing in the cracks between the stones up here, and plays tour-guide as we stroll, if stroll is the word for it. We see the city from an extraordinary and unique vantage point, but I am trembling too much to hold the camera steady to capture much of the panorama.
When we get to the far end, we stop and at Orhan’s insistence, we all take pictures of each other. Looking at the photos later, I see from my hair that the wind was whipping around, which, when coupled with our being top-heavy from the backpacks, no doubt contributed to the sensation that we would go flying off, like the bridge-keeper near the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
After the photo session, we “stroll” back in the opposite direction (there’s no way down on the far end), and descended by sliding down a tree, fire-station-pole-style.
At this point, since none of them had even attempted to pick our pockets or run off with our packs, and the adventure was safely behind us, Jess murmurs with Orhan about giving the whole gang – especially Orhan himself — a generous tip. We know from experience that this would be expected; we had already whispered with each other about how much to give.
But Orhan refuses adamantly, repetitively, and then announces that he will shepherd us around the Fatih mosque just up the road. Two of the older kids (who belong in a Turkish Wayne’s World) come with. Orhan – the love-child of Puck and James Dean – takes us to a part of the mosque where tourists don’t go, and instructs us to peek in the window at people praying at the tomb of a dead sultan. Jess and I both feel very awkward about this, but we feel just as awkward about refusing to obey Orhan. After that little disrespectful stunt, Orhan leads us around the bazaar surrounding the mosque, buys both of us gifts but refuses to let us buy him anything.
I have developed a monomania about the full-length coats worn by many Muslim women. These are not for sale in the Grand Bazaar or Sultanhamet. But at this mosque, there is a stall full of them. It’s an amazing experience to interact with the women selling them, none of whom spoke English. I didn’t realize how trying it is to be surrounded constantly by men, until I have a few minutes of being surrounded by women. It is GREAT.
They are all adorable, and have fun dressing up the crazy western lady. They show me how to tie on a headscarf (it is not a flattering look on me, but one does not refuse such expertise unless one is a cow). And the best thing is: once I’ve got such a coat, I become invisible to most Turkish men, which gives me freedom. It means I can walk down the street sans Jess, without having carpet salesmen (and other types) right in my personal space, as had happened the only time I’d tried an outing on my own. This is as much of a relief to Jess as it is to me.
So thanks to Orhan, we now know about the aqueduct, but if it is going to be in the story, I need to know how it functioned. That means I need to speak to a water engineer. How the heck do I find a water engineer? Oh, the usual way: meet one the next morning at breakfast.
My hotel provides morning nibbles, and I share a table with Havi (a Canadian/Persian Zoroastrian), and her husband Allan – a water engineer. He’s delighted at the prospect of a historical puzzle; they go to the aqueduct themselves then leave me a 10-page handwritten note explaining how it probably functioned. With some of the challenges and hassles Jess and I have been facing, I salaam the universe for these occasional gifts.
The next day we take a ferry cruise up the Bosporus, in a mix of rain and sun; the gods smile on us and we get to see the mouth of the Black Sea with a rainbow spanning it. That night we treat Orhan and two of his friends to dinner and a waterpipe; Orhan tries to convince me, in very broken English, that I should write a best-selling novel based on a poem he has composed; he will take 30 percent of the profits and I will take 70 percent. He doesn’t understand that it is not my decision whether or not the book will be a bestseller.
We have a confusing but wonderful conversation about religious beliefs; he’s a practicing Moslem but seems to have a John Lennon view of the universe. When the talk turns to politics, Orhan sets the tone with sign language: “Clinton” with thumbs up and “Bush” with thumbs down. Then with impressive thoroughness he lists (in broken English) nearly everything the White House has fouled up in terms of international relations, and with a compassionate, fatalistic tilt of his head, sighs, “Problem,”
to describe the outcome of each event.
Other experiences we’re enjoying (as good pilgrim-siteseers) include sufi dancing, the Blue Mosque, trying to shop at the Bazaars, and a concert of traditional music. We are certainly racking up the “classic Istanbul experiences,” but the most valuable is the time spent researching and thinking about the story.
Speaking of the story:
We (the crusaders/Venetians) got rid of the Usurper, and Alexius is back on the throne of Constantinople and owes us LOTS of money. And as soon as he pays us, we’re going straight to the Holy Land to smite heathens.
But immediately, Alexius starts to bite the hand that fed him: he is unable to pay the crusaders/Venetians what he promised. So the crusaders/Venetians are upset with him, and his citizens dislike him because they see him as a tool of the West, and the army and the citizens don’t much like each other either. The crusaders/Venetians are going to hang around until they get paid. In a nutshell, things get pretty icky, and stay that way.
The army stays through the winter (as an occupation force), as Alexius’s grip on his empire gets shakier and shakier. Finally, he is deposed and murdered by one of his most trusted courtiers, a man known to history “Bushy Eyebrows.” Bushy declares himself the new emperor. The crusaders and Venetians holler, “Hey! You killed our buddy!” and attack the city again.
In a remarkably familiar scene, Bushy Eyebrows (the new usurper) sort of engageds them in battle but then… wait for it… he turns tail and runs!
The city has run out of possible emperors (there had been 2 others, short-lived, in the midst of all the chaos), so it just capitulates and opens its gates to the crusaders.
That’s when things got ugly.
So ugly, in fact, I haven’t had the strength to write that part of the book yet.