Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Plovdiv to Istanbul

I was able to convince the management of the guest house in Plovdiv to let me hang out in their common room for a few hours, so that I could have a nice warm place to sit and relax until time to leave.  They have a cool 1950s East German radio in their common room.  I don't know if it still works.

It was snowing again last night by the time I left, with my luggage, to get a quick dinner before heading to the station.  The train to Istanbul arrived right about on time in Plovdiv, 9:43 PM.  The conductor, who looked like Danny DeVito, showed me to my compartment.  Since nobody else was in there I asked if anyone would be joining me.  He said no!  I was glad to have it all to myself.

My compartment

Looking out the window

Some Bulgarian beer

The communist era Bulgarian couchette car was much nicer than the Serbian one.  It was relatively clean, except for some nasty looking stains on the place where I was about to try to sleep.  We stopped at several stations in Bulgaria, one for quite a while.  The snow was coming down pretty heavily for the time we were in that station.  I could hear something that sounded like a tree shredder, reminding me of the tree shredder scene in Fargo.

It was hard to sleep because the ride was so noisy, especially in Bulgaria.  Ka chunk, ka chunk for hours.  Then I think it was some time around 1:30 or 2:00 AM that Bulgarian passport control and customs boarded the train at the border.  We must have been stopped a good 45 minutes or so, but it was pretty uneventful.  Then we started moving again, and after maybe 20 minutes more we had the Turkish border checkpoint.  We had to get off of the train for that.  I first had to go and buy a visa, but there was nobody at the visa window of the building and it was dark in there.  So I stood out there in the snow and slush (at least it was not snowing any more) for 15 minutes or so, and finally somebody showed up.

Turkey requires visas for visitors from many countries, including the United States and Britain.  The visa is just a sticker that they put in your passport after you pay the visa fee that Turkey has designated for your country.  A Turkish visa is not something that you have to get in advance like, for example, an Indian visa.  I think it is really just a way for the Turkish government to collect a tax on visitors.  For visitors from the United States, the visa fee is US $20.  For visitors from the United Kingdom, it is £10. When I handed my UK passport to the visa guy, he gave me a blank look and said that he didn't have any £10 visa stickers.  Since he had just dealt with some Americans, and since I happened to have a twenty dollar bill, I handed him that and asked him if I could just use that.  He said okay, and then he gave me $5 in change.  That seemed about right.  Then I went with my visa to the border police window and got my passport stamped, then got back on the train.

Once back on the train, people from the Turkish border police came though to inspect passports and make sure everything was in order.  When they saw my passport they got into a big discussion about it. I gathered that they (correctly) thought that I had the wrong kind of visa sticker in my passport.  They made me get off the train again, and go back to the border police window.  I told the guy there what happened and he was as confused as me.  After I went back to the train, I told them that they border police guy said that it was okay.  So that was the end of it.  By the time we had a customs check too, and started moving again, it was well after 3:00 AM.   So, I didn't get a lot of sleep.

Istanbul Sirkeci station, the main station on the European side is closed because of the Marmaray project which is creating a rail tunnel, connecting Europe and Asia.  All inter city trains coming from Europe are terminating at Halkali, which is an outer suburb of Istanbul.  From there I had to take a city bus into Istanbul, then a tram, and then a short (but steep) walk to the place where I am staying.  I am in an area of Istanbul called Cihangir at least for the next few days.  It has a lot of nice restaurants and cafes, and seems to be a pretty secular and liberal place.

After arriving, outside of Istanbul, going to get the city bus the rest of the way.

After getting off the city bus

Waiting to cross street to get on the tram

The Golden Horn

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pretty Plovdiv

Yesterday I got the 10:35 AM train from Sofia to Plovdiv, with arrival in Plovdiv 1:23 PM.  I found the platform.  I looked for the train to Varna, because that is the ultimate destination of that train.  The train was sitting there covered with ice.  I found a compartment with only two other people in it and sat there.  The departure time came and went.  After about half an hour I began to wonder whether I might have gotten on the wrong train.  I was able to ask the lady sitting across from me by showing her my ticket, and she was able to communicate to me that I was on the right train.  The train finally started moving almost an hour late, and, to my great relief, in what I believed was the right direction.

All of the escalators at Sofia station area in an advanced state of decay.

The train to Varna (via Plovdiv).

Sofia to Varna

The ice covered train.

Another passenger joined out compartment at the first stop, which was in the suburbs of Sofia.  All of the people in the compartment except for me were having a vigorous discussion, I think about politics.  That's about all I was able to pick up from it.  After several stops (in some very grim towns full of abandoned looking factories) I started to worry that I might miss Plovdiv because the stations in Bulgaria are not well marked.  I kept going to the window and looking out, trying to see the station name, whenever the train stopped.  I got some help from my fellow travelers.  One spoke a tiny bit of English and he told me when we were approaching Plovdiv.

I had heard that Plovdiv is a really beautiful city.  When I saw the area around the station, I began to wonder about that.  It was dirty with trashy looking stores, and no place to eat that looked like it might have edible food (I was very hungry by this point - it was after 2PM and I had not eaten all day).  There was also the inevitable betting shop / gambling place which seemed busy.  I bought some sort of thing that looked like bread with slices of bologna baked into it for 1.40 leva (about 70 Euro cents).

The area in front of the station.

The inevitable gambling shop.

Simit stand.

The street my place is on.

I managed to find the place where I was staying with no problem.  It's more of a B&B than a home.  Since I was by myself, they gave me a discount and I only ended up paying 40 leva (about 20 Euros) for the night.  Everything is pretty cheap in Bulgaria.  After checking in I went back to the station and bought my onward ticket to Istanbul, leaving tonight.  That was 50 leva (about 25 euros).  Since entering Slovenia all of my transportation has been very cheap.

This morning I checked out of the hotel and explored the old town part of Plovdiv.  Now I can see why Plovdiv is considered a beautiful city.  There is a Roman amphitheater up on top of one of the hills.  I went to the musty old ethnographic museum which, according to the sign in front, was completely renovated in 1962 (and that was the last renovation I believe).  I had a good time walking around the streets of the old area, but it was cold.  My train does not leave until almost 10 PM tonight - I may go back to where I stayed last night and see if I can sit in their common area for a while.

Orthodox church

Old houses

The mosque

Old house

Part of the amphitheater.

The ethnographic museum.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Snowy, Sleepy Sofia

It's cold here and it's snowing most of the time since I got here yesterday.  Sofia is a decent sized city, but not huge, about 1.3 million people.   It does not have the "bustling" feel that I have found in other capital cities like Belgrade or Zagreb.  Ljubljana, which is quite a bit smaller, seems livelier.  Maybe people are just staying in because it is cold.
Chinese restaurant near the apartment.

A Wartburg (East German car).  You don't see many of these any more.

A Trabant (another East German brand of car).  You don't see many of these either.

A monument near the Palace of Culture.

The Palace of Culture.

In the train station.

The main hall in the 1970s train station.

Last night I went to a restaurant called Manastirska Magernitsa which was very good (and like everything else here, cheap).  Unlike Serbia, Croatia or Slovenia, I think Bulgaria should be very popular with vegetarians (though not vegans - they love their yogurt and cheese here).  They have wonderful bread at that restaurant - warm, a little gooey on the inside, crusty on the outside - and there is this mix of salt and herbs (including oregano, not sure about what else is in it) that they serve it with.  They have really good salads in Bulgaria that are meals in themselves and so I had a salad with red peppers, beets, lettuce, feta cheese, and some other things.  They have good wine too in Bulgaria, so I had some of that too.

Today I went and took a walk in the snow.  I went to the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral and bought a ticket so that I would be allowed to take pictures in there.  After the cathedral I had lunch at the Happy Bar and Grill.  It seems sort of like a Bulgarian version of TGI Friday's or Bennigan's but with Bulgarian food.  They have musical instruments (guitars, saxophones, trombones) mounted on the wall.  They seem to have "happy" everything there.  There was a "Happy magazine" on each table.  I could have had some "Happy" sushi, but I don't think I want to sample sushi in Bulgaria.  That might not be a happy experience.  I had another Bulgarian salad there, and I was happy.

The apartment building, and the shack next to it.

A Lincoln Town Car limo parked up the street.

Another crumbling house up the street
A church I saw while walking to the city center.

Walking to the city center.

A mosque in the city center.

In the cathedral.

In the cathedral

In the cathedral

In the cathedral

In the cathedral

Cathedral from the outside
My happy salad

I see a lot of "sex shops" in Sofia, and there was one right next to a store selling wedding dresses.  Another thing I have noticed, which I also noticed in the former Yugoslav countries, is that there are a lot of betting and gaming shops.  I wonder if this is something that appeared after the fall of communism.  I suspect that it is, and that it is a byproduct of weak and corrupt governments.

Sex shop and wedding dresses.

Tomorrow I am going to Plovdiv, the second largest city in Bulgaria.  The overnight train from Sofia to Istanbul stops in Plovdiv.  I am thinking that by spending a day in Plovdiv I not only get to see what is supposed to be a very pretty city, but I take a few hours off of that long overnight train to Istanbul.  Plovdiv is my last stop before Istanbul.