Lists

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Towns Seen

  • Sofia, Bulgaria
  • Rila
  • Blagoevgrad
  • Bansko
  • Plovdiv
  • Edirne, Turkey
  • İstanbul
  • Safranbolu
  • Amasra
  • Kastamonu
  • Güzelyurt
  • Konya
  • Ankara

Methods of Transport Used

  • Plane
  • Local Bus
  • Taxi
  • Dolmuş
  • Deluxe Coach
  • Foot
  • Train
  • Tram
  • Ferry

Books Read

  • 3 May issues of The New Yorker
  • Laurence Bergreen: Over the Edge of the World
  • Geraldine Brooks: March
  • Stuart Isacoff: Temperament
  • Saul Bellow: Henderson the Rain King
  • Don DeLillo: Mao II

Last Day in Turkey

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Ali from Güzelyurt convinced us to swing by his hometown of Konya on our way to Ankara. It was only two hours out of the way and we had an extra day so we figured what the hell. Ali went so far as to draw a diagram to show us at what table to sit in his favorite tea garden in Konya center.

Unfortunately, Konya was mostly unpleasant. The only bright spot of our time there was seeing the Mevlana shrine, which houses the tomb of Rumi and is the holy center of Sufism. Not that I know too much about the Sufis, but it was a beautiful space nonetheless. We missed the whirling dervish performance by a day. The rest of the city was charmless, carpet-salesman intensive, and felt strangely dangerous. A real step down from sleepy Güzelyurt.

Now we’re in Ankara, a city famed for its lack of attractions, tying up loose ends before our flight home tomorrow. My head is mostly filled with the logistics of our return, and I have little energy left to try to digest the experiences I’ve had so far. I’ll have plenty to chew on in the next few months: Turkey is the first Muslim country I’ve travelled through, and it was in many ways vastly different than anyplace else I’ve seen.

Heading home

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We’re in Ankara now, biding time until our flight tomorrow.  My head has started to transition from travel planning to wedding preparation.  I will have a busy week when we get home finishing last minute plans, unpacking, repacking, and making sure my hair and nails don’t look like they’ve been through a Turkish blender.  

I can’t wait for the wedding.  Don’t worry, we took a vote and 2-0 we still want to get married.   In fact, we’ve been practing for three weeks now.  In Turkey men and women are only allowed to sit together on buses (or really anywhere) if they are married.  So we’ve gotten used to calling eachother husband and wıfe.  Steve has even been wearing his ring.   

As we expected, traveling together has been a blast.  We are already brainstorming about where we’ll go next. 

Güzelyurt

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Without question, the sleepy village of Güzelyurt was my favorite stop of our trip so far.  Some of the townsfolk still live in the caves that are dug into the rocky cliffs which define the landscape of Cappadoccia.  Tourism is a foreign concept, maybe even unwanted by some, though everyone was very friendly to us.  The rocky cliffs are patterned with holes leading to rooms, homes, rock ovens for bread, and even churches.  Hidden amongst these holes are entrances to an underground city, which stretches for kilometers underground.  It was used throughout history when the village felt threatened or was under attack.  The entire population would descend and could live underground for months without surfacing.  Little “moon holes” provided light.

Steve and I explored part of the underground city below Güselyurt.  Sometimes we had to precariously lower ourselves down big holes to get to the next room below.  What an incredible feat of engineering! 

Güselyurt sits on a hill with a view of an imposing volcano.  Eons ago, an eruption carved out the Ilhara valley, a 14 km geological wonder that now connects two even-sleepier villages, Selirme and Ilhara village, near Güzelyurt.  We decided to test our endurance and walk the entire length of the valley.  First we had to get to Selirme.  There were no direct buses so we hopped on a dolmus enroute to a larger city and asked to get off at the junction with the road that led to Selirme.  It was a little disconcerting to be abandoned at a barren intersection, but it’s hard to get lost on a plateau with one north-south and one east-west road.  We strolled along 2-3 km until we found the entance to the valley.  We fueled up on trout fresh caught from the valley stream, village grown vegetables, and homemade yogurt.  Then we headed in.

The valley was everything we hoped and so much more.  The moonscaped cliffs that rose up on either side were awe inspiring.  We saw people living in the cliff holes, shepherds herding their goats and sheep, people riding on donkeys, kids fishing with homemade nets.  An occasional family picnicked on the stream.  We saw Turkish cowboys urging their cows up the steep cliffs and old women bent over small gardens.  It was in the valley cliffs that we followed signs up the steep slope to unmarked holes that opened up into beautiful one-room churches.  Some still had visible frescoes of Jesus and the disciples dating to the Byzantine era.

Needlesstosay, by the end of the day we were quite fatigued, but every step was more than worth it.

Cappadocia

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I hate to keep going on like this, but this last town we saw has really blown away every place that we’ve been. Moving on from Kastamonu we opted to head to Cappadocia, an area we were thinking about skipping entirely because of its reputation as a tourist mecca. We decided to plant ourselves in Güzelyurt, a sort of obscure village an hour west of the main tourist town, in the hopes that we could steer clear of the crowds.

The region is known for its bizzare rock formations, ancient churches carved into cliff walls, underground cities and other geological oddities, and it is well worth its drawing power. Güzelyurt was a great choice. We were, once again, the only foreigners in town, and we got to monopolize the resources of the village tourist bureau. The resources of the tourist bureau, to be precise, was a guy named Ali from Konya who spoke good English and showed us around town.

The underground city below Güzelyurt was astounding, and perilous enough: navigating the passageways required dexterity and some rock-climbing intuition. We certainly would not have attempted some of the holes down there if Ali hadn’t told us where to put our feet and where to hold on.

We spent most of two days scrambling among rock formations, checking out ruined Greek Othodox cave churches, and hiking suprisingly untrod paths through the alien landscape. The whole experience had the real feeling of adventure because the attractions were mostly empty, unsignposted, and not obvious to find. Great fun.

A few random notes

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1.The Turks have a habit of rounding prices.  I recently purchased three things and the guy carefully wrote down 20+5+4=30.  If the total is 1.60 and you give them 2 they will either say thank you or give you .50 back, depending on their mood.  They never bother with small change.  Sometimes I stand waiting for my .65 back and they look at me like I’m crazy.  Dude I could buy a çay with that.  Just as often it is in my favor so it isn’t like they are ripping me off.  They just don’t want the hassel.  Or something.

2.  On our many bus rides we continually hear a commercial that features a trumpet fanfare that is wrenchingly out of tune.  And it repeats over and over and over.  I have no idea what they are selling, cannot understand a word, but there is some truth to “music is the universal language”.  Let me tell you, if I hear that fanfare as I enter a store I’m outta there.

3. Our humiliating World Cup defeat has made for a great no-common-language-required conversation topic:

Turk: “Gobbeldy gook”

Us: blank stare

Turk: “Germany, Czeck Republic, England?”

Us: Ah Hah.  “America”

Turk: “ooooh, futbol, world cup, very bad, ooooooh”

Us: Head in hands. “oooooh, yes, very bad”

Etc.

Hospitality

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Though we still sometimes pretend to be Canadian, our welcome here has been truly remarkable.  The Turkish people are incredibly friendly and their hospitality must rank right up there with the Japanese.  Most often this hopsitality comes in the form of a delicious cup of tea–çay as it is called here.  When you are shopping in a store they bring you tea, when you are waiting for the bus or checking into a hotel they give you tea.  As we quickly learned, it is impolite to say no and useless anyway because they always insist.  Also, you are given tea at breakfast and expected to order tea at the end of every other meal.   Needless to say, by the end of the day I am often quite shaky from the caffeine. 

Turkish hospitality begins but does not end with tea.  When my glasses broke the optica store refused payment for the repair.  Taxi drivers and waiters have given back our tip.  And young people have more than once approached us when we looked lost and happily accompanied us to our destination. 

I won’t pretend that it is always so hunky-dory.  We have gotten ripped off a couple times and some people seem to twitch if we admit to being Americans, but mostly, American or Canadian, we have been welcomed with open arms.

I am sure the Turks are always this welcoming, though I do know that this year they are especially happy to see us.  Tourism is at rock bottom this year.  We have yet to see a single other westerner outside of İstanbul for example. The tourist officer in Guzelyurt listed three main reasons: bird flu, the Danish cartoons, and the World Cup.  These were, in fact, the very reasons we almost considered changing our plans, but once here it is obvious that such worries were needless.

The “real” Turkey

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Our search for “real” Turkey has reached it’s terminus.  We are in Kastamonu, a beautiful city in the heart of the country, not a tourist in sight.  And it’s got a great pulse too.  The city has about 60,000 people and they are all out on the streets carrying on with their day to day business.  The vendors are cater to locals, so gone are the endless stands of junk.  Instead there are practical stores selling tvs, washing machines, and groceries.  But with a little searching one can also find beautiful scarves, cloths, and rugs. We even saw some craftsmen at work. Actually working that is; not toiling for the tourist’s entertainment. 

We have past plenty of nontouristy “real” turkish towns on our bus rides, but from the bus window they’ve all looked pretty unappealing–very poor, rundown, industrial.  Kastamonu, on the other hand, is charming and lovely with plazas, beautiful mosques, and the best pastries yet.  Furthermore, we took a cab a few km out of town to one of the finest surviving wooden mosques in Turkey, dating to 1366.  It was sitting quietly in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields and a little neighborhood of rundown houses.  The imam was working in the mosque’s garden when we arrived and he unlocked the door for us.  Inside was exquisite.

I met a really nice girl on the bus ride to Kastamonu who didn’t speak as highly of the city.  She is living here for a year because her dad’s work (something to do with Islam she said) required them to move.  She usually lives near İstanbul.  Of course no highschooler likes to relocate, no matter how pleasant the new town.  She was a very sweet girl. It took her a while to work up the courage to talk to me I think.  Steve said he could overhear her and her friend practicing their English.  Finally she leaned over and said “Hello, where are you from?  Welcome to Turkey”.  In perfect English. She really made my day.  It is often hard to know how we are being received.

The Beginning of the End, Fez-wise

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Perhaps you’ve heard of Kastamonu as the city where Atatürk lauched his Great Hat Reform of ’25. No? Well, shows what you know. There’s a statue in the town center of the man holding a fedora, the Hat Of The Future. Fezzes out!

This was just the town I was looking for at this stage in the trip. Travelling around a country like this you find yourself jonesing for the ideal of the Real Turkey. Frankly, I don’t even know what this even means: the Real Turkey–I certainly haven’t seen any Fake Turkeys recently–but the quıxotic concept still nags at the traveller.

Kastamonu, a mid-sized town with no tourist sights to speak of, seems to fit the role as well as possible, and while at a different time of the trip I may have wanted to breeze right through (there’s nothing to see, after all) I now find it strangely satisfying, and we are lingering here for another night.

Still, the gumption waxes and wanes, sometimes hourly. Three weeks is a long trip, and sometimes I feel ready to come home. But sometimes not: this afternoon we took a taxi to a village outside of town to see this astounding fourteenth century wooden mosque housed inside of an unassuming exterior. Luckily, the imam was outside laying down a sidewalk with his gardener buddy so he was able to let us in. This all served to recharge the gumption, and now I’m back in fine spirits.

Honeymoon

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Our last two cities have been a wonderful reprieve from the craziness of travel and big cities. Safranbolu lived up to our expections and was our favorite stop on our trip so far.  The Ottoman architecture was exquisite and the town was quiet without feeling abandoned.  We enjoyed a much needed rest day there and then took a short bus ride to Amasra on the Black Sea. 

I’ve never seen the Mediterranean Sea, but I can tell you that the Black Sea is the bluest water I’ve ever seen.  The vistas were absolutely beautiful as the minibus descended the winding road from the mountains to the sea: houses and farms perching on the hillsides, mosques and their minarets poking out of the trees, waves lapping up against the rocky cliffs…

It really felt like a honeymoon, in the traditional sense.  We had dinner overlooking the sea, walked along the pier ın the evening, and sat out on the rocks as the sun set.  We even got someone to take a picture of us with the sea in the background–probably the sole picture of us together on our honeymoon. 

But their wasn’t much else to do there and it was crowded with Turkish tourists (we were again the only non-Turks), so we have left the sea and moved inland for the final stretch of our trip.  We are planning to explore Kastamanu and then Capadoccia for a few days before heading to Ankara for our flight home. 

Gender Inequalities?

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For the most part any gender inequalities that exist do not affect the western tourist.  Every once in a while I put on a head scarf to better fit in, but that always seems more of a novelty than a burden.  My experience on the female side of the Turkish bath, however, was quite a disappointment. 

Steve returned from his bath (we took turns so that someone always had the stuff) aglow with stories of saunas, steam rooms, thorough scrubs, and a massage unlike any he’d ever imagined. My back is famously achy and I practically ran to the bath anticipating chiropractic relief.  

The women didn’t seem very happy to see me, but reticently sent me into the bath.  I admit it was wonderfully steamy and beautiful-like a marble tub the size of a small cathedral.   There was no sauna but that I didn’t mind.  A lady finally came in and started scrubbing me all over.  This part was on par with Steve’s description.  She removed dirt I never knew I had.  Seriously, rolls of dirty skin cells were visably falling off.  It was a bit painful–lıke being scrubbed with steal wool–but satisfyıng.  Then she rubbed soap over me ever-so-lightly, scrubbed my hair with hand soap (which later left it feeling like straw and my imagining a bald bride), dumped bucket after bucket of water over my head (some of which I guess I accidently swallowed in my desperate gasps for air because I later had my first real bout of Ataturk’s Revenge), and then proclaimed “Finish!”.    No back cracks, no kneading hands, no revelations. 

At least I was clean! 

Black Sea Coast

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We bounced up to the Black Sea coast yesterday and stayed in Amasra, a pretty coastal resort town that’s popular with Turkish tourists. We seemed to be the only foreigners around, so, needless to say, I was probably the tallest man and Hazel was certainly the tallest woman in town.

Amasra was dreamy, with the sea and some nice cliffs and the sunset over the harbor etc. etc. This was basically our only honeymooney destination so far, so we tried to take what advantage of it we could with a romantic walk down the pier at the end of the day.

We only stayed one night, and the romance abruptly ended when we took a bus down the coast on the scenic but treacherous, winding, and poorly maintained road to the next town over. They pretty much handed out barf bags when we stepped on, and by my count three of the passengers were throwing up within the first fifteen minutes of the trıp. So Hazel and I abruptly cancelled whatever plans we had to continue down the coast and took the next dolmuş inland, to Kastamonu.

Here in central Turkey I was expecting women to be mostly absent from the public sphere, the way they are in India. This is not at all the case. I see women performing all the same roles that men do, at least in the service industries, and the women just as often speak better English so they’re the ones we often interact with, just like in the states.

I would add that women are notably absent from the gaming/Internet cafes that we blog from. Hazel’s outnumbered maybe thirty to one at the moment. But I’ll protect her from the World-of-Warcraft adolescent male gamers!

The Turkish Bath

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Did you know that Turkish Delight exists and is real? Tasty stuff, and available on every street corner. Also in the non-mythical column goes the Turkish Bath. I had my first one in Safranbolu, and it was a transformative experience.

First of all, I’ve never exfoliated so much in my life, thanks to the sinister black exfoliation glove that my Turkish Masseur (enormous belly, enormous moustache) used on me. Then came a pretty thorough washing. This is all done in a very steamy, very old, very large, all marble room. Spectacular acoustics for humming.

The massage reached its high point when my Turkish Masseur laid me down onto a large slab of marble, lathered me up, and subjected me to a series of devastating Turkish streetfighting manuevers. It was pretty painful, and I normally wouldn’t elect for my body to assume some of the positions it was forced into, but after it was done the guy towelled me off vigorously and cooked me up a cup of çay, so we parted as friends.

A long day

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Yesterday was a travel day.  Goal: get out of İstanbul.  This proved much more trying than we had expected.  It started great with a ferry ride across the Bosphorus to the Middle East–a new area for both of us.  From the boat we were surrounded by İstanbul and could really get a sense of how big it really is.  Water runs through and in and out of the city, much like Hampton Roads (the similarities end there).

The ferry dropped us off in Harem, the name for the Middle Eastern side of the city.  No prostitutes in sight despite the suggestive name.  We exited the boat into a crowd of touts each trying to get us to ride his bus.  It was unbearable.  I had to exert the greatest self restraint to keep from bopping them on the head with the waterbottle I was holding.  That said, we did in fact need a bus, so we eventually followed one such tout into a smoky office and got a ticket to Safranbolu.   

An hour later a van pulled up and we were told to get in.  Within minutes we were packed in like sardines with people, bags, luggage, and a wooden chair that an old woman was very protective of.  My heart sank as I imagined a 6 hour drive in this.  I though longingly of the deluxe busses those other touts might have brought us to, not that we had any idea what anyone was offering.

20 minutes later the dolmus van dropped us on the side of the highway, leaving me with a funny feeling equally relieved and nervous.  But there was no reason to be concerned because 30 minutes later we climbed aboard a plush travel bus complete with a very friendly steward. 

The bus ride was easy, though a good 3 hours longer than the tout had promised. And the steward seemed to find us very amusing.  We were the only tourists aboard and certainly the only non-Turks. He enjoyed giving us backgammon tips and found it absolutely hilarious every time Steve blew his nose–Turks must have some other method of nasal relief.

In any case, after two more uncertain dolmus rides we made it to the beautiful Ottoman town of Safranbolu–a paradise after smoggy crowded İstanbul. 

The highlight so far (separate from the plethora of pita!!) was our invitation to tea (çay) at the police station.  This is a tiny town with zero crime, so the police apparently enjoy spending their time entertaining tourists.  The station was unlike any you’ve ever imagined. Turkish carpets line the floors, framed pictures of former police chiefs and a few old fashioned criminals (each with enormous moustaches) adorn the walls, and there is a little prison cell that is nothing if not comfortable.

Today we plan to hire a driver to take us to an even more remote town and then take our turn at a Turkish bath house.  And get our laundry done (this is very exciting!)

Entering Asia

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We crossed to Asia on the car ferry from downtown İstanbul, out of the mouth of the Golden Horn and across the Bosphorus. It was the start of a reasonably stressful and uncomfortable ten hour trek out of the city to the old Ottoman town of Safranbolu in central Anatolia, near the Black Sea coast.

As we progress further east the culture becomes more and more Middle Eastern, but the shift is not striking. Headscarves are becoming more prevalent: maybe half of the older women and a quarter of the young women wear them around here. In İstanbul and Edirne they were more of a rarity.

Other cultural factors are more difficult to espy. The five-times daily Muezzin cry continues to be one of the most evocative aspects of the local culture, but the people don’t seem to pay it much mind. In fact, I have yet to see any reaction at all from any Turk when the broadcasts begin.

Safranbolu is wonderful, especially in contrast to İstanbul. It’s a small, friendly town. When we arrived one of the local cops invited us into the police station for a cup of çay and we had a nice chat with him. Hopefully we’ll be able to spend the rest of the trip in such relaxed environs. We’re within striking distance of our final destination of Ankara, so our plan is to more or less poke around the region in the general orbit of Ankara until we have to catch our flight home.

On food

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The food in Turkey is fantastic, though not at all what I had expected.  When you go to a Turkish restaurant in America you fill up on hummus, babaganouch, and pita.  Turns out these are Lebanese and nowhere to be found in Turkey.  That said, the food is very tasty.  Yummy yogurt sauces, mezes galore, the freshest gooist baklava in the world.  And lots of eggplant.  According to a Turkish cookbook there are 900 ways to prepare eggplant.  900!  And none of those are the rubbery cubes you find in America.  The other prized ingredient is lamb, which, though I haven’t eaten red meat for 6 years, I decided I had no choice but to eat–it was that or bird flu.  I do not dislike the taste of lamb so a kebob/day seems to be working out okay wıth my mind and stomach.  

But yesterday I ran into a hurdle.  Steve and I sat down for lunch at a kebap house and asked for the menu.  The man made it obvious that there was no menu and that they had only one dish.  Not knowing what it was, but being quıte hungry and by this point pretty much stuck, we ordered 2 plates.  Shortly thereafter the man returned and proudly presented us each with a heaping plate of just-out-of-the-oil fried lamb slices.  No vegetable, no garnish, no sauce, not even any potatoes.  He did bring a huge basket of the now-dreaded bleached white bread.  Needlesstosay my stomach was a little lurchy on the bus ride that followed.   

My biggest disappointment is the preponderance of white sliced bread.  I’m not talking about the tannısh white bread of America.  No, here it is napkin white, bleached through and through white bread.  Only once have we found fresh-from-the-oven pita, and it was absolutely spectacular.  We have decided to choose our restaurants by the bread we see people eating through the windows. Bread aside, our meals here have been meals to remember!  Tonight we are headed to the hippest part of town for some Armenian grub!

The City of the World’s Desire

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Let’s just say that İstanbul is more than three times as populous as the entire nation of Bulgaria. Sixteen million people; that’s like the size of Bombay. It’s a hectic place. Also the most important city in the western world for about a thousand years, although I know shamefully little about that stretch of history. Ruins from all sorts of different empires. You sort of take Rome and Bombay and squish them together and squint real real hard, and presto! İstanbul.

We busted out of Thrace towards the City of the World’s Desire on a deluxe intra-city Turkish bus, complete with bowtied attendant who periodically walked the aisle sprinkling a refreshing rosewaterish concoction on everyone’s hands, which apparently is de rigeur on these long-haul treks. They were playing Barbershop 2: Back in Business on the TV screens, dubbed, naturally, into Turkish. The voiceover on Queen Latifah was particularly convincing.

I’m not so crazy about İstanbul. It’s too busy and combative, and too squarely on the international tourist circuit for my taste. We sightsaw this morning, and I’m happy to have the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar behind me. We’ll probably leave tomorrow to more reasonable climes.

I had my first wedding-anxiety dream last night. Cute, right? So I’m preparing myself (backstage?) for the ceremony. I had decided to wear a T-shirt with a sport coat, Miami Vice style, but now all of a sudden I can’t find the sportcoat. So me and my uncle Jim are like, tearing through the suitcases in this backstage area trying to find something that fits, but we can’t find anything, and then my mom busts in and she’s all, WE’RE ALREADY RUNNING BEHIND SCHEDULE!!! Very stressful.

Edirne

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First off, let me take back all the nice things I said about Bulgarian food. In Turkey, every dish in every restaurant is tastier by a factor of four. Even at the divey place we had lunch yesterday, every stew was delicious. And the roadside stalls? More deliciousness. Tastiness is the order of the day on every corner of every street, and I couldn’t be happier.

Edirne has one of the great mosques of Turkey, from the heyday of the Ottoman empire, and Hazel and I walked through it both last night and this morning. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything in the western architectural tradition that matches the splendor of some of these Islamic works. The contrast of the pointiness of the minaret with the roundness of the dome, the smoothness of the arches with the baroqueness of the ornamenation, all creates a kind of perfectly balanced gestalt.

“No by foot, need auto”

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We set out for Turkey after much consideration and with almost no information.  We took the pre-crack of dawn train out of Plovdıv to Svelingrad, which as far as we could tell was as close as we could get to the border without taking an overnight train to Istanbul which didn’t stop at our desired destination: Edırne.  So we figured we’d get to Svelingrad and a way through the border would then become obvious–I mean someone must go from Bulgaria to Edirne, right? 

A single taxi sat by the station exit, which we hailed:”taxi na Tursky?”  Sure enough, without a glitch he drove us right up to the border gates.  We hopped out, through our bags over our shoulders, and headed through the crossing on foot.  Didn’t seem crazy at the time.  The crossing was endless.  Gate after gate of passport check, stamp, laugh at crazy Americans standing in line with cars, check passport, send back to buy visa, stamp passport, failed attempts to draw the long a of ‘Hazel’, passport check… 

We could see the final gate just 100 yards ahead when the Turkish customs stopped us.  “Where auto?”  “No on foot” “Need auto”  I started to dread the trek back through the gates to Bulgaria… The customs officers were quite dumbfounded, but told us to wait over by the cars that were being searched.  We twiddled our thumbs until the officers saw that a car was coming through with empty seats. 

Minutes later we found ourselves hitching through the final checkpoint with two very friendly Bulgarian women.  As soon as we got through the gate, literally no more than 100 yards forward, they dropped us off.  We looked around confused for all of 10 seconds before the taxi drıvers swarmed us–clearly crossers on foot in need of a taxi didn’t come along very often.

So here we are in Edirne, safe and sound.  Mosques interjecting the skyline, juicy baklava adorning bakery wındows, and colorful markets busy in every neighborhood.

Bulgaria gets 4 stars and I have high hopes for Turkey as well.  

Across the Border

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To travel is to have to work around inconvenient train schedules. The easiest escape from Bulgaria was a 5:10 train to the border town of Svilengrad, from where a taxi took us to the border proper. The border zone was a real piece of work. About five Bulgarian booths separated by a hundred yards each, and at each one some guy would look at our passports and wave us through. More of the same on the Turkish half.

Needless to say, we were the only people negotiating the damn thing on foot, and a few of the agents craned their necks back and forth as we approached their booth, as if searching for our car. At the penultimate booth the guards wouldn’t let us walk and threw us in the back of a passing car for the next hundred yards, because, well, rules are rules.

So the Bulgarian leg is over and overall I couldn’t be happier with how it went. My gloomy expectations were pretty far off the mark; the country reminded me of Italy in a lot of ways: friendly people, good wine, beautiful countryside. Cyrillic was a joy, it was like a fun puzzle, with a satisfying fraction of words transliterating to cognates. Bulgarian food is actually pretty good: I feel like the chefs of Bulgaria all got together awhile back to decide whether they were going to look southeast to Greece and Turkey or northwest to Serbia and Romania. They made the right decision.

We haven’t seen too much of Turkey as yet–it’s raining in Edirne and so we haven’t really seen the town, but the handful of stunning mosques in the city center serve notice that we’re entering a land whose cultural lodestar is no longer Paris, as it was in Bulgaria.

Bionic Thracian Pollen

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We’ve just completed our ambitious sweep through Bulgarian Macedonia; three towns in three days: the Rila monastery, the university town of Blagoevgrad, and the inexplicably abandoned mountain resort town of Bansko. From Bansko we took a train out of Macedonia, tracks cut into the mountainside, out of the Pirin and the Rhodopes and into the Plain of Thrace, a flat agricultural expanse that will stretch us to Istanbul and the first shores of Asia. The five-hour train ride cost about three bucks.

We’re currently in Plovdiv, the onetime capital of Thrace and now the most happening metropol in Bulgaria, relaxing and regaining our gumption to set out again. Plovdiv is not as populous as Sofia but is tangibly hipper. There’s a wide boutique-lined pedestrian avenue in the center of town, which is pretty clearly the place to see and be seen by Plovdiv’s young and careless. There’s a labyrinthine old town that is now purely a tourist construct, and there are ancient ruins scattered throughout town, notably underneath the plexiglass floor of one of the shopping centers.

Don’t think it’s all fun and games here in Thrace! I’m nursing what I imagine to be an allergic reaction to the bionic pollen they pave the streets with in this area. And Hazel is worried that her traveling clothes, chosen as not to outrage the more conservative Turkish elements later in the trip, are making her look prudish and frumpy in the local Bulgarian context, which admittedly tends towards the tight and the skimpy.

We’re trying to figure out the best way to get to Turkey. At one travel desk I started the conversation with my usual, halting “Goovarettilee Angliski?” and the lady shot me back a “Nay. GoovarettiLEE Russki?” My look of panic must have given her a little pause, so she continued, “Franski?” So I was all like “Oui! Heuu…. oui. Heuuu… bonjour! Heuuu….” But soon enough my high-school French came back, and before long the Bulgarian lady and I were like old mates.

Thrace

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After a wiz tour of Macedonia, we took a narrow-guage train through the moutains to Thrace.  We were eager to move on from Macedonia after a disappointing trip to Bansko.  Bansko is a small town surrounded by huge mountains, very similar to Aspen or Vail really.  It is supposedly the hot weekend getaway for uppity Sofia-ites.  We arrived friday night–perfect we thought–and picked a hotel  that came with a travel-book warning of loud roucous parties in the courtyards below.  Imagine our dissapointment as the afternoon wore on and the plazas remained abandoned and the restaurants empty or worse, closed.  The whole town was eerily desolate.  Though the incredible views made the stop well worth it, we were itching for a little more life and happily caught the first morning train out. 

The train ride to Thrace was one of the highlights so far.  It was five hours of unbelievable views as we slowly chugged through one moutain range and into another.  Now were are in Plovdiv trying to figure out how to get across the border–neither our Bulgaria or Turkey travel books give advice on getting to/from the other unfortunately.  Let me tell you, as great as Bulgarian food is, I am ready to replace the dry white bread of Eastern Europe with the soft pita of the Middle East. Hummus here I come!

The Blitz

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One of our greatest adventures happened this morning by accident.  We walked out to the Monastery parking lot to find out when the bus to Rila village was and after much watch-pointing, bus-mimicking, no-nodding, and yes-shaking we gathered that we had just missed the bus and that the next one wasn’t for 7 hours.  Looking dismayed, a nice Greek couple offered to take us aboard their car if we didn’t mind sitting with their dog.  The dog was cute enough so we grabbed our stuff and hitched the ride.  We drove Euro-speed down the mountain to Rila where our Macedonian speaking chauffeurs asked two local women for the bus to Blagoevgrad.  One pointed one way and the other pointed in the opposite direction.  After some more words exchanged and some giggle on both side, they agreed that it was behind us.  We turned around and they dropped us off just up a hill from where we thought the bus station was. 

As we were pulling our bags out of their car a bus lumbered up the hill and Steve and I both craned to see the sign on its front.  This is not an easy task you see: we have to decode the Cyrillic.  We managed to get b…l…  and figured this was our bus and started running down the road after it.  The bus stopped, we climbed aboard, and sat down.  Looking out the window I saw the nice Greek man who had just dropped us off shaking his head and smiling–“those crazy Americans”.  45 minutes later, we pulled into Blagoevgrad, got a taxi to the recommended hotel, and found ourselves in an upscale room with a hot shower, throne toilet, and a bed with springs and a board! 

Living Monkish

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Our destination in the mountains was Rila Monastery.  The outside looks like a fortress, but inside it is beautiful.  There is an open courtyard with incredible views of the surrounding mountains: snow-capped peaks at a distance and green rolling hills all around.  The view wasn’t so different from New Hampshire, but from the vantage of a monastery it was incomparable.  We spent the afternoon hiking in the moutains and admiring the frescoes on the church walls.  We decided to stay at the monastery that night, which was an interesting experience.  One I’m glad I did and glad I’m not doing again tonight.  The rooms were stark and cold.  The toilette was on the other side of the courtyard and was merely a hole in the ground.  The only water was ice cold and the beds had no springs or board, but rather were just thin mattresses on sagging chainmail.  That said, I had my first full night of sleep (without the now familiar Steve-Hazel 2-3am jetlagged chat).

We awoke to bells and Monks walking the courtyard banging on wooden planks, which really did sound like nailing.   We attended a service of Monks chanting in Bulgarian, with an occasional candle lighting, and lots of Catholic cross signing and kissing (not Catholic I guess, Eastern Orthodox).  We were definitely the only non-devotees there.

Superlative Galore

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Traveling in the past few days I keep finding myself using superlatives–best meal, prettiest vista, most delicious wine…In other words, so far everything is great.  We ate at an upscale Armenian restaurant our last night in Sofia and it was, well, one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  Of special note was the Bulgarian Cabernet (only sold by the bottle, no glasses) and the yogurt dish.  Oh, the Bulgarian yogurt!  To die for.  This particular dish was strained yogurt topped with green onions and walnuts with a honey, balsamic vinegar, olive oil dressing. I know you’ve never thought of yogurt in this context, but let me assure you, it was spectacular.  In fact yogurt is everywhere here and always spectacular.  It’s much thicker and sourer than American yogurt and is usually eaten plain.  We’ve had cow yogurt, sheep yogurt, and buffalo yogurt! 

 Moving on from Sofia, but not from yogurt, we took a bus into the Rila mountains.  The scenery as we entered the mountains was beautiful.  After a totally positive experience in Sofia, I was surprised by how great it felt to leave.  Sofia, like any car centric European city, is pretty crowded, smoggy and smoky.  But out in the country it was all fields and mountain vistas.  People work in their fields pulling weeds by hand, travel around in carts pulled by donkeys, and live in houses with vine covered trellises.  The balanced life struck me as well: everyone seemed to use just what they needed.  The fields were in plots just big enough for a family and the rest of the land was left wild.  Donkeys and horses were kept only as they were necessary for farming, transportation, etc.  There were no ranches, plantations, hoarding, or excessive houses.  And it’s not because the people were poor–the houses were modestly sized, well kept, and with gardens.  I really wanted to get out and explore the fields, take photos of the donkeys, and get a better feel for the neighborhoods, but not knowing when the next bus would happen along we stayed aboard.

To and From Rila Monastery

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I admit that one of Bulgaria’s big draws for me was that the average American would probably not be able to come up with a single noteworthy thing to say about it, except perhaps that it used to be on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. What a delight, then, to find in this unknown country such beauty, with vine-covered trellises, red-tiled roofs, snow-capped mountains, tomato-hoeing Babushkas, road-blocking donkeys: all your standard fairy-tale bucolic schtick, with no trace of pretense. All the better when punctuated occasionally by large-scale Soviet sculpture.

Hazel and I took public transport out of Sofia towards Rila Monastery, Bulgaria’s biggest attraction this side of the Black Sea coast. We were pretty much the last people on the local bus as it pulled into the monastery parking lot, where we met up with about a dozen luxury tourist coaches. The monastery grounds themselves were tourist central, so Hazel and I connived to take a two-hour hike up to the grave of St. Ivan of Rila, and by the time we got back the masses of day-trippers had gone back to Sofia. We booked a room in the monastery itself, and so had the grounds pretty much to ourselves until dark. You should have seen the look on the monk-receptionist’s (long black robe, long black beard) face when we gesture-asked if perhaps they had a room with one double-bed instead of a room with three singles.

It was a beautiful place; the view from our (spartan!) room was in fact the picture on the front of our guidebook. The next morning we walked around the grounds a few last times, and almost couldn’t find a way out; we missed the morning bus to town, and the locals told us it would be maybe six hours before the afternoon bus swept through. Hazel and I sort of bemoaned our fate opportunistically in the parking lot, and pretty soon a middle-aged couple offered us a ride. Friendly pair, a Dutch woman and a Greek man on a trip towards Romania, and they dropped us near the bus station in town. Just as we finished thanking them we saw the bus to Blagoevgrad whiz by. Good thing our Cyrillic is getting keen! We chased the bus for about half a block, waving our hands. I caught sight of the Greek guy standing with his hands on his hips, shaking his head at us. The bus slowed, and we were promptly off to our day’s destination.

Blagoevgrad, where I write, is a university town with huge swaths of cafe life strewn about an enormous pedestrian zone in the center of town. I get the impression that, culturally, Bulgaria has pretty easily shrugged off its communist past. Then again, my imagination of life in a communist country is surely caricaturish: factories and bread lines. The Bulgaria that I’ve seen so far has been vibrant and really pleasant.

Sofia

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Flying into Sofia was beautiful.  I was in a great mood because I had finally gotten an hour of sleep on the plane, and when I awoke to the pilot’s announcement that we were landing, the view out my window was of green fields surrounded by a ring of moutains.  The most imposing Mountain was still snow capped.  We successfully made our way out of the tiny airport and found bus 84, which the travel guide promised would take us into the city.  Unfortunately the driver didn’t announce any stops and the bus stop signs we managed to glimpse were in cyrillic.  As we drove along, I was a bit dismayed by how rundown everything was.  Prior to the trip Steve had predicted a dull, depressing city,  but former-soviet-satellite had struck me as potentially fascinating, unique, maybe cute in its otherness.  Driving through the outskirts, though, it seemed resoundly drab and entirely cement.  Luckily, once we got to city center (which we did find successfully), things were more lively.  Our hotel room does indeed overlook a collapsing concrete building-or maybe it’s in construction, hard to tell, but the streets are vibrant and full of day to day hustle and bustle.  I especially enjoyed the street market filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, honey, just baked bread, and sweets galore.  And the food is delicious!  Our dinner was dish after dish of tasty roasted peppers, buffallo cheese, trout in vine leaves, and on and on.  One of my predictions did not disappoint–the women are dressed as though the 80s hadn’t ended: turquoise and hot pink outfits, crimped hair, poofy bangs, t shirts with palm trees and the like.  All in all I am delighted by the city, but it’s quite small and we’ve pretty much walked through the sights by noon.  Tomorrow we head to Rila Monastery in the mountains.  

First impressions

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Sofia is a town not entirely devoid of charm, which came as a bit of a surprise upon arrival. I was expecting a post-communist sprawl, but there are cobblestones, there are rows of cars perched nervously on the sidewalks, there is a small-city bustle amongst the potato and zucchini stalls.

Now that the strain of the predictably unpleasant three-legged flight is beginning to fade off, I’m getting a better touch on the Balkan feel of the place. The city is almost entirely devoid of tourist presence–there is very little to see–which is nice. People go about their business and don’t take much notice of Hazel and I, who with our blond hair and modest noses don’t exactly blend in. It gives the city a sort of honest vitality that is difficult to find in more touristy places.

Our window looks out on the construction site directly adjacent to the hotel, although to tell the truth I haven’t seen any actual construction going on. Not exactly the honeymoon vista one imagines in one’s tender years, but what of it? Most likely we’re going to head out of town tomorrow, south, into the mountains.

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