Here at Amber Travel, every necessary journey is an opportunity to visit new places. At the end of February we had to attend the general meeting of TURSAB, the Union of Turkish Travel Agents, to elect an new executive. Always a contentious and lively event, it is loudly democratic in a very Turkish way. While most of out travel agent friends were flown if from around the country courtesy of the candidates, such fuel wastage is not for us! The path less traveled is always the one of interest to us, and avoiding aircraft use wherever possible is important to us. Having to go all the way to the wonderful Istanbul and back is equally a waste of fuel, so while going all that way we decided to visit the old Ottoman capital of Edirne (Hadrianapolis) and then take the train to Sofia and Plovdiv in Bulgaria.
The route we took:
Day 1 Kas to Izmir by bus.
Dinner in Basmane and then the Izmir Blue Train in sleeper comfort to the much overlooked Eskisehir.
Day 2 Visit Eskisehir and then the High Speed Train to Istanbul, where I met up with my good friend and expert guide Ozgecan Simsek. Now by bike we crossed the Bosphorus to visit the newly restored Bulgarian 'Iron' church on the Golden horn, the took to the colourful backstreets of Balgat, before a chance encounter with the Greek Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
We bought our Sleeper tickets in Istanbul's Sirkeci Station, once the terminus of the Orient Express before we took the ferry back to Kadikoy for some craft beers. A busy day!
Day 3 After the TURSAB congress I took the bus to Edirne, ancient Hadrianopolis, and visited the Selimiye mosque, thought to be the finest work of the finest architects that ever lived, Sinan. Possibly one of the world's most beautiful buildings, the Selimiye mosque was built between 1569 and 1565 at the peak of Ottoman power, and was considered by Sinan himself to be his finest work. The lightness and balance of this massive building is hard to fathom the skills and planing that went in to this piece of architectural perfection.
Dropping of the hill we walked to see some of the famous bridges of Edirne, the source of this city's wealth on the only way across the Meriç, Tunca and Ergene rivers which flow from deep within the Balkans merging near Edirne, before flowing into the Aegean.
After a fine dinner I took a bus to Çerkezkoy, from where we boarded the Balkan Express.
On boarding the train the friendly attendant gave everyone a private cabin, in spite of us having paid for a shared one.:-))) This is the kind of things that I love about Turkey! this would never happen in the west.
After a couple of tasty beers the rythmic sound and gentle swaying of the train had me off to sleep in no time....
Until the border that is! Arriving at Kapikule at 02:30, a gentle knock on the door 'Pasaport Kontrol!'.. Bleary eyed I quickly jumped into my trousers and tried to get off the train first, under the underpass to the room with the little window. Very happily I was first in the cue, when the Turkish police officer took my passport for stamping, and handed me it back saying bye bye.
It was could out there so I scuttled back to the warm comfort of my little moving hotel room and back to sleep.
1 hour later another knock on the door, this time a Bulgarian Policeman. I proffer my passport and he shines a torch in my face. OK he says and goes away.
Knock-knock.... This time a customs man pokes his head round the door and looks at my bad, before deciding not to check it. Sleep time starts now.
Day 4. Sofia and Plovdiv.
Opening the picture blind I am treated to a winter wonderland, with snow coming down in great slow snowflakes. Welcome to Eastern Europe, I really feel like I am in a spy film now.
I munch on the provided biscuits and fruitjuice in the fridge, still amazed by the amount of snow. 'Will I be able to get back to Turkey tonight' I ask the friendly attendant. 'bir şey olmaz' - Nothing will happen( In a bad sense) he says. 'See you tonight!' I say, he looks at me like I am mad..
Crunching across the snow on the platform I go into the modern building of Sofia station, and change some currency into the local Bulgarian Lek.
I start uphill crossing the river and heading to the town centre, noticing how polite the drivers are to pedestrians. But disaster has struck... I have lost my hat and my head is starting to hurt with the cold. On arriving at Serdika square where the stature of Sofia stands I fould the perfect solution. A good old Russian hat, an Ushanka, complete with hammer and sickle! It cost a bit but it really did the job. And now I look like a true tourist!
Admiring the stature of Sofia, who was reclothed due to outrage of the conservatives at the site of a female breast heat towards the rotunda church of Sveta Nedelya, so similar in design to the churches of Istanbul.
The small choir sing sweetly in response to the deep chanting of the priests during the ancient orthodox rites, the devotion of the faithful is plain to see. Trying to observe the fine frescoes without disturbing the faithful at prayer means you have to move round carefully, and I got warned once for putting my freezing hands in my pockets, taken as a sign of disrespect. Should you want to take pictures you must make a payment to the lady that sells the icons at the back.
Coinciding with the Bulgarian presidency of the EU, I was lucky to coma across a military guard of honour sending off some international visitors. The long feathers in their hats picking up the snow still falling heavily. The deep moan of the soldiers to send off the dignitaries is even more chilling!
From here I head Past the lovely golden domed Russian church of Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski. It's little onion domes in the true Russian style.
I arrive at the most recognizable site of Sofia, the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski.
Set on it's own on a wide boulevard this cathedral was built in honour to the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.
I head back to the station to travel to Plovdiv..
The train journey takes around 2 hours.
Plovdiv, the second-largest city in Bulgaria,There is evidence of habitation in Plovdiv dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, ; it is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe originally known as Phillippolis, this city of Philip, King of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great.
Another city 'built on seven hills', like Roma and Constantinople , there are many preserved ruins such as the ancient Plovdiv Roman theatre, a Roman odeon, a Roman aqueduct, the Plovdiv Roman Stadium.