23.10.2012 - 24.10.2012
We took a slow dirty train from Bucharest to Sofia. It left at 1 pm and arrived at 1030 pm. No time change.
Once on the train we could not get off and there was no dining car or food of any sort to be had on board.
We secured our seats and had the area to ourselves in what would have been an 8 passenger booth. Having the area to ourselves was the best part. I sanitized the arm rests and door handle and settled in. We had only had a coffee, served nicely with a tiny cookie at the hotel and a miniscule yoghurt drink at the station. We had with us 8 tiny cookies from the hotel bakery and one bottle of Kinsley tonic water. I was positive I had another bottle of water in my backpack but when we needed it, no, not there!!
Anyway we thought there would be food on the train. Long trip on an empty stomach. But we also had a small bag of cracked walnuts that Eugene in Brasov had given us, picked fresh from his walnut tree, and a bag of hard candy from Budapest that I had bought as a souvenir. We rationed the food and once I knew there was no bottle of water in my pack we rationed the few swallows left of the tonic water.
I liked the train ride though. It was peaceful sitting alone with Jeff looking at the scenery which was lots of trees and small mountains. We crossed the Danube, stopped in every little town it seemed, to pick up or unload passengers, but we could not get off.
We saw lots of garbage along the way, I was thinking maybe the train just threw their empty bottles and other garbage out along the tracks. Also very run down houses with laundry flapping on the line and holes in the roof. And donkeys, frequently on the street, loose in the little towns. It is not uncommon to pass a horse drawn cart. It seemed we had travelled back in time.
When darkness came only a quarter of the fluorescent tube light in our compartment worked, dimly flickering for four hours.
We kept the door closed to deter beggars who might get on during the numerous ten to fifteen minute stops along the route.
Before we left the station in Bucharest a few beggars hit us up but we did not give anything, even to the elderly man in a tan suit who exposed his bandaged lower leg as he implored us for money. (it looked infected, not that I looked as you want to look the other way).
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria. We walked about seven blocks from Hotel Budapest to the old town and went on the free walking tour. The sites are very nicely laid out, a lovely walk on a sunny day. We saw the St George's Rotunda, the National Theatre, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, (lovely, huge, domed church), Sofia Church and the ruins of an ancient settlement. We watched a street musician play the 'gaida', a Bulgarian bagpipe.
St George's Rotunda was built by the Romans in the fourth Century on, apparently, what had been a pagan site. It is the oldest buidling in Sofia and was used as a mosque during Ottoman times. The Ottoman rule of Bulgaria lasted almost 500 years, commencing in 1396.
First came the Thracians in 400 BC. Then came the Romans in 100 AD. Bulgaria has a long history of being under somebody's rule, it was under Communist rule from 1946 to 1990, a satellite state to the Soviet Union. Bulgaria was the one eastern European country where we heard nothing negative about communist times.
Sofia Church, the Hagia Sofia, is the East Orthodox Church which gave its name to the city of Sofia. It is built of red brick in byzantine style and dates back to the fourth to sixth century. St Sofia is built on the former site of a Roman theatre from the second century. The bronze lion in front of the church is protecting the tomb of the unknown soldier.
In Bulgaria they nod for no and shake for yes. This is confusing for us. Also they use the cyrillic alphabet, Bulgaria invented it in the ninth century - street names are now extra hard to pronounce. It is difficult to change Romanian money to Bulgarian. The banks will not accept it but the money changers will. Interesting. Recommend you spend your Romanian money in Romania and start fresh in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria invented yoghurt. Therefore for lunch I enjoyed their wonderful cold yoghurt, cucumber, dill and walnut soup, Terator. I also learned the "sour milk" drink is likely yoghurt mixed with water, thinned. We dined at the Mehana Izbata - located in the lower level, accessed down an alley or small side street - a picture of the dining room and the sign follows - great place, reasonable prices, good food, some ambience.
Bulgarian Rose: buy soap, rose water, rose oil, anything made of roses. Bulgaria is the major producer of rose oil in the world. Of course when you travel with only carry on luggage you are restricted in the amount of liquid you can take so I just bought a bar of soap and some rose lip balm. Worked for me. However, if you are checking luggage make sure to pick up rose oil!!
One Bulgarian lev is about 69 cents Canadian - I just knock thirty percent off the price to get the general idea so ten lev is seven dollars, forty lev is twenty eight dollars etc.
Population of Sofia, 1.3 million.
From Sofia we took an overnight trip to Rila Monastary and then proceeded to Plovdiv
We decided to take in Plovdiv as it is on the bus route from Sofia to Istanbul and figured we would see an interesting city, the second largest in Bulgaria after Sofia, with an historic (could it be anything else?) old town. By spending the night in Plovdiv we would shave two hours off our trip to Istanbul.
Plovdiv is considered one of the OLDEST continuously inhabited cities in the WORLD, having been inhabited first in the sixth century BC. It is situated on seven hills - how many cities are there situated on seven hills you might ask? Maybe sixty, maybe more and they include the following cities that I am either going to on this trip or have already visited: Seattle, Lisbon, Rome, Istanbul, Edinburgh, Budapest, Turku and San Francisco.
We arrived by bus from Sofia and immediately started looking into our bus tickets to Istanbul tomorrow. The weather is warm, it is a Friday. We book our bus tickets and go back to find a place with Wifi to book our hostel, get that done and then start looking. We arrived in Plovdiv at 4 pm and checked into our hostel at 8 pm. We were so lost the streets are really old time, very lumpy, bumpy cobblestones, nothing is straight, very few street signs, it was a relief when we finally got there. Yes, we had a map and asked for directions numerous times. We did stop for a cold drink occasionally as it was really warm until after dark.
The morning of October twenty seventh was a bit overcast but not cold. We walked around the old town, saw the amphitheatre but were not allowed to go into it, saw some really old ruins of the city wall, peeked into an East Orthodox church, really elaborate wood carving. The Roman amphitheatre is 2000 years old.
We stayed at Plovdiv Guest House in the Old Town, twenty five euros per night, no breakfast included. Seventeen dollars each. On budget.
In Bulgaria and Romania there are numerous stray dogs and cats. Jeff tells me it will be like this in Turkey as well. Where is the SPCA?
We made it to the bus station in good time, by cab. We are travelling with the Turkish bus company called Metro. No bathroom on the bus but they do have an attendant who passes out wet wipes for your hands, water, cakes, coffee or tea.
The bus is a Mercedes, new and clean, it is a big holiday in Turkey, this is Saturday, the bus is full. We have seen a lot of Bulgaria, many mountains, quaint little villages trudging up hills and tucked into valleys, crumbling roofs in occupied houses, clothes hanging to dry from balconies and lines, donkeys and horse carts. We reached the border about two o'clock.
We went through customs on the Bulgarian side and then were held up at customs on the Turkish side for six hours, what a long and boring wait with very little information. So instead of getting into Istanbul at five we got in after eleven at night, the bus station is massive, buses pulling in everywhere, lots of honking and really we did not yet know about those service buses that Metro has so took a cab to our hotel near Sulhamet square, really a hostel but we liked it and it had a very good location to visit all the sites.
If you take a Metro bus in Turkey point to your watch and say Service. The bus stations are not centrally located and they typically have small service buses to take you to the centre. Although Turkey is a secular country I am estimating almost half of the women I see on buses and public transport are wearing scarves. Maybe the modern dressed women are driving.