Turkey, Bulgaria & Greece
Roger Short Travel Scholarships Report – Stuart Perrett (2012, PPE)
First things first, I am not much of a traveler, and even less of a travel writer. But this is my collection of pieces taken from the notes I jotted on trains and buses, or in bars and cafes. This diary represents a roughly chronological, factual account of the places I visited, the characters I met, the food and drink I consumed whilst travelling in Northern Turkey, Central Bulgaria and through Greece in September 2015. I have attempted to avoid boring any reader by eschewing the day-to-day details of my personal journal and including only those events and my thoughts and ideas about travelling more generally that have returned to me since those exploring different cities, and when recounting my travelling to family and friends. My journey began in Istanbul and ended in Athens.
One of the most impressive aspects of Istanbul becomes apparent even before you arrive: the transfer from Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen airport takes a good couple of hours to get to the centre of Istanbul. The sheer size of the place cannot be avoided, with my plane landing in Asia, and the bus taking me back into Europe through the sprawling metropolis and hasty developments of Istanbul. The neon signs and concrete buildings gave the city anonymity during that night’s bus journey.
The anonymity was broken the following morning, with my first visit to Istanbul’s wealth of mosque I have ever had the pleasure of visiting was in Istanbul. The… is small , placed by a major multi-lane road, and a small grassed park where the homeless and their dogs slept. In what would become the usual routine of taking sandals off and washing ones feet, I entered a mosque for the first time… Perhaps more surprising than the tranquility provided by the mosque, was the comprehensive complex that mosques are: they are complete community units containing public baths, soup kitchens and schools.
The walk across the Galata Bridge transports any visitor (and they were plenty), from the European quarter across the Golden Horn. The heat of the tarmac intensified the smell of fish, freshly caught by groups of men lining either side of the Bridge. My memory of standing halfway across the Galata bridge is for me the short cine-reel footage that plays on a loop and constitutes my memory of Istanbul; behind me is the Galata Tower, and in front is the New Mosque, and behind that the minarets pierce the skyline. The seawater rushes below, carrying ferries, yachts and a fleet of small fishing boats.
The underpass that takes one from the end of the Galata bridge to the historic centre is the busiest that I have ever encountered. Indeed, night or day the steps leading down were dangerously full. Vendors selling plastic toys and cheap clothing slowed the crowds passing through the short, fat underground street.
The centre of Istanbul buzzes with tourism, with an endless flow of unwitting and directionless visitors. Nowhere is this more the case, than in the park between the Hagia Sophia and the ‘Blue Mosque’. The diversity is- as is often the case such tourist hotspots, like the Trevi Fountain in Rome or the Eiffel Tower in Paris- quite baffling. I find such experiences rather confusing; the fluorescent T-Shits glaring in the afternoon sun, tourists looking as if their selfie sticks with cameras attached at the end were pulling them forward by some unknown force, a Korean sports team in matching tracksuits, and cameras, phones and sunglasses obscuring every other person’s face. The positioning of the Sofia and the Mosque seemed almost standoffish, with the two the grand religious constructions opposing one another. In any case, those buying Simit (sweet bagels sold absolutely everywhere for around 10p) and cans of Coca Cola weren’t dwelling on the
symbolical ambiguity of the two building’s positioning. I wondered what my fellow visitors were thinking about.
As an aside, it is worth noting that the ‘Blue Mosque’ is a name given to the Sultan Ahmet Camii by Westerners. It is also full of Westerners. Pale and wrinkly Australians listen to local tour guides, reddening and glistening. I overheard more than one tour guide proclaim the Turkey is the true home of Islam. Intriguingly. ostrich eggs are used to keep out birds- evidently their scent wards off unwanted birds. Despite asking, I never was able to find out how often these eggs are replaced and how they hang them so delicately from chains to the ceiling.
I stayed in Istanbul with a man named Fasil, and his various other lodgers (most of whom seemed to be his friends, rather than paying guests). He offered cigarettes at every opportunity, as well as smoking sesha at night. He worked at a Vodafone store at Taksim Square, leaving early in the morning and never arriving back until after 9 in the evening. Our late night sesha sessions (which could not be avoided without great offence) involved stories of girls, or our watching the Turkish version of Top of the Pops. I helped explain the slang used in the American raps and songs blaring from the small television. Fasil was an exceptional host: his willingness to share was comprehensive. In the mornings Fasil actively encouraged me to use a pair of neon green dumbells and join him as he did his morning workout in the small living room.
Here I learned that accepting gifts of alcohol and cigarettes forms an important social function in building trust. Surprisingly often, the individuals I stayed with greeted me with a drink.
The steep, cobbled, narrow roads run through the European quarter, before widening to evenly paved boulevards. When walking through these winding roads, one feels crushed by the tall terraces lining either side leaning in. more than once, I asked myself more than once how the crumbling buildings held themselves together, especially given the heavy air conditioning units bolted onto the aging brickwork. Such concerns evaporated with coming of generic, identikit European shops share the street uncomfortably with century old tombs and smaller mosques behind the main streets.
It is in the winding streets behind the busier shopping district, that I breakfasted at Café Privito (recommended by 2014 Roger Short scholar Odette Chalaby). Here I enjoyed glass upon glass of çay (Turkish tea), looking out at an empty plot behind the tall colonial terrace which housed the restaurant, with the simmering mid-September sun beating down on the Golden Horn and noises of the historic centre of Istanbul beyond. Large and late breakfasts become an integral part of my stay in Istanbul; including, variously (but most frequently, altogether) Ekmek or Simit breads, jams and honey, black and green olives, cucumbers, Beyaz peynir (a white cheese, a saltier version of Feta) and stringy Kasseri, along with eggs and Sucuk (a delicious, spicy sausage made from ground beef). Almost every other café would offer Menemen in addition- a more intense form of omelet with peppers and tomatoes. A breakfast of Menemen, always accompanied by fresh bread and çay was by itself a sufficient meal and can be found everywhere. After once ordering a coffee with breakfast, a young Turkish couple explained that I should always drink çay with breakfast, for Turkish word for breakfast- kahvaltı- means ‘before coffee’.
I was distinctly unimpressed by Istanbul’s ‘top’ visitor attraction.
Topki Palace was, on the grey but warm Thursday afternoon I visited, amass of brightly coloured tourists. A long queue snaked back from the the Gate of Salutation, which lead
to the largest of the courtyards. The truly international feel did take away from the grandeur of the palace; its Byzantine architecture of the outer walls cried out for silence and calm. The delicate Ottoman kiosks within were surrounded sweating visitors being loudly told off by security for smoking or for lying on the thin grass on the various courtyards. Elderly Australians, it would seem, potter about Istanbul, ticking the checklist of their visit and listening selectively to an expensive audio tour moving in similar way to grey cats wondered indiscriminately.
Asian tourists struggled with the persistent demands of small Turkish children begging and playing. Should visitors follow a different ethical guide than citizens? I felt unhappy with my fellow tourist’s digital cameras pointing above the pestering vendors, the children and the homeless. Despite an enthusiasm bestowed upon me by Fasil and his infectious love for the city, I must admit that I too tired of the constant street haggling towards the end of my stay- I asked myself whether this practice is really necessary whenever it happened.
My plan to travel further North to Edirne, and beyond into Bulgaria was halted by the news that there were no trains running North at all from Istanbul. Instead a coach would take me. My internal Interrail ticket seemed like an unnecessary luxury compared to the cheapness of a one-way coach journey. Indeed, trains in this part of the world are viewed as secondary to coach travel- in all three countries, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece, my hosts perceived train travel to be the transport of the poor. Indeed, coach travel was cheaper, quicker and more reliable.
Istanbul’s internal bus terminal Büyük Otogar, seemed to have little organisation or order with coaches arriving and leaving in berths marked for different services. For this reason people congregated parallel to the hundreds of berths that marked both the inside and outside of the stations circular concrete buildings.
As I waited for my coach (having been directed to range of possible berths to which it might arrive), a man asked which bus I was catching. He spoke fluent English and looked around thirty. As he explained about his travels from Morocco, the coach pulled in. the crowd swayed as those waiting for different buses moved along and passengers disembarked. My newly made friend, and his travelling companion, were refused entry onto the coach by the conductor and driver, without even looking at his travelling documents and despite his waving a ticket. The conductor nodded me onboard without checking my passport. The experience was an odd one: with the rush of passengers leaving and boarding simultaneously I hadn’t had chance to intervene or even to shake the head of the man that chatted cheerfully to me for twenty minutes. I assumed from the coach operators did not let the men on because of their dark skin, taking their appearance to be cast-iron evidence of their status as Syrian refugees. As the coach headed past the sky rise blocks and concrete developments on the outskirts of Istanbul, with the sun quite literally setting on my time there, I wondered about those men. It was a confrontation without aggression- the conductor shook his head and the men protested tamely. The crowd behind the men seemed oblivious. Was such a refusal commonplace?
The Metro Tourizm coach to Edirne took around four hours, with the only event of note involving some plucky Turkish teenagers finding the store for snacks and soft drinks, behind the onboard toilet. They distributed biscuits and chocolates these around the bus grinning.
A cool, deserted bus station, which looked much like an abandoned car dealership forecourt, with a low plastic roof sandwiched between two glass waiting rooms, marked
my arrival in Edirne. It was around midnight and the information desk was closed so I followed others, who silently filed into a narrow minibus. I didn’t have much luck confirming with my fellow passengers whether or not this bus would take me to the centre of Edirne; the enthusiastic biscuit liberators were nowhere to be seen.
The minibus sped along a dual carriageway, before hurtling to a stop. Two armed policemen searched the bus at length and checked passports- their vigour was apparent and filled the cramp space.
I stayed at the wonderful Limon Hostel in Edirne, with its brightly coloured green exterior setting it apart from its sandy-coloured neighbours, topped with red tiled roofs.
Edirne is one of the most Northwestern cities in Turkey, less than 20 kilometers away from Turkey’s borders with Bulgaria and Greece. The third capital of Ottoman Empire from 1363 to 1453, and because of this it boasts the most impressive Selimiye Mosque built by the famed architect Mimar Sinan. Edirne was charming in a way that Istanbul’s sheer size preventing it from being. The city hummed with activity and a busy market on the Saturday. The Selimiye Mosque simply towered above its surroundings and was truly (and I record here my physical response and not just cliché) breathtaking. The city itself is famed for its oil wrestling- a tournament that has taken place continuously for over 650 years.
The local delicacies of Ciğer tava and Cacık, were surprisingly delicious. Deep fat fried lamb’s liver served with yoghurt and cucumber as well as a seemingly unnamed spicy sauce.
I was informed by the staff at the hostel that I could not leave Edirne without seeing the famous Roman bridges that crossed the Tundzha river. Beautiful though the stone Faith and Kanuni Bridges were the early Sunday evening I visited, I found it difficult to cross them. Only just wide enough for two cars to pass side by side, this had two disadvantages: the set of bridges created long tail backs of traffic at either end and seemed as if they would be constantly congested; this also made walking beside the wall on a raised pavement as narrow as my body rather precarious.
The challenge of travelling across the border into Bulgaria became apparent: Due, I suspect, to the intensifying Syrian crisis (in previous months groups of refugees had gathered in Edirne before attempting to travel to travel into central Europe) there were no direct buses leaving Edirne into Bulgaria. Luckily the brother of the owner of the hostel gave up the necessary information. After hitchhiking to motorway service station close to the Border, I would be able to catch an international bus heading to Sofia, and it would drop me off in Plovdiv (my planned destination). I was told the bus would arrive at around 11 that evening, it would pull up on the hard shoulder and stop briefly in front of the petrol station and then leave, without entering the forecourt.
I arrived at the place where the bus would (hopefully) pick me up at around 8pm. Behind a small petrol station, and beyond an empty concrete car park, stood supermarket and motel complex.
Waiting for this unofficial bus was a bizarre event. I sat on a picnic table, with several Turkish families sat nearby eating sandwiches and kebabs. However, we were completely surrounded by several hundred armed police; each one with sub-machine guns and gas masks. The motel most probably served as a base for the police who were preventing Syrian refugees from crossing into Bulgaria; those young men off duty were wearing tracksuits and flip-flops, with automatic pistols tucked into their waistbands. I
was shocked by this causal brandishing of weapons as policemen, both on-duty and off, chatted over cigarettes, coffee and kebabs.
At around 10pm, the uniformed policemen were picked up by three unmarked, white coaches and on their way. My own bus arrived, amusingly given the nature of the its stop, exactly at 11pm. The driver checked by passport and within an hour the bus was being checked by both Bulgarian and Turkish border guards.
The lengthy process at the border delayed my arrival in Plovdiv. However this inadvertently resulted in perhaps my fondest travelling memory: sitting in the café of a music school overlooking the Roman Theatre of Plovdiv, with the Balkan mountains in view beyond and behind the porticos of the Theatre’s marble stage. Drinking espressos, I felt relieved to have made it across the border in one piece, and pleased with my navigation from Plovdiv bus station to the Old Town along dark, empty streets at 5 o’clock in the morning.
The contrast between Plovdiv and Edirne immediately apparent. For a start the temperature had dropped by over 10c, with the cold, wet cobbles of Plovdiv’s old town a shock compared to Edirne’s dusty roads. The minarets of Istanbul and Edirne were replaced by quaint wooden structures of Plovdiv’s Old Town, and larger Soviet buildings in the administrative and financial center. There were less tourists, and those that wondered aimlessly past Plovdiv’s pastel-coloured buildings and the Orthodox churches seemed less panicked than those consuming Istanbul’s must-sees.
The most rewarding part of my visit was a hike up Bunarjik Hill with a towering concrete statue of a liberating Soviet soldier installed in the 1950s. A waitress had explained to me the previous day that popular demands to remove the statue (an imposing and unavoidable figure on the Plovdiv skyline) were equally matched by demands for preservation. I was unsure whether this reflected accurately softening public opinion towards Soviet rule, or simply affection for the familiar and the status quo. At any rate, the view from the hill was magnificent- encompassing the entirety of the Old Town and much of the city to the East.
I felt my stay in Plovdiv was too short- a knock on effect of choosing to spend a few extra nights in Istanbul and the difficulty of finding transport into Bulgaria from Turkey.
The train journey from Plovdiv (Bulgaria’s second city) to the capital Sofia was simple enough- with regular services and only being five hours long.
My time in Sofia was completely dominated by my hosts: Laura and Ivan. The couple were both 23; Laura studying Political Science at the city’s university, and Ivan working full time in a call-center. I stayed in their large flat in central Sofia. The place had a dilapidated Soviet grandeur- with 1960s wooden cabinets, ornate plastering on the ceilings, and a smattering of pale green tiles in a windowless bathroom.
Laura and Ivan cooked for me- and they could not be discouraged from doing so- every morning and breakfast. These meals, without fail, involved the (often, inventive) use of crumbly blocks of Sirene cheese (again in the family of cheeses close to Feta). According to Laura, this cheese defines Bulgarian cuisine, and certainly did so during my stay. In addition Laura gave me several tours of Sofia’s center: explain the stories behind Sofia’s eclectic mix of Roman, Ottoman, Neo-Gothic, Baroque and Stalinist buildings.
Conversation over dinner ranged from that day’s activities and the near constant drizzle that hung over the city during my time there, to how Laura and Ivan met over an
Internet chat room. Laura’s political views were an almost contradictory combination of anti-immigration, specifically in reference to Syrian refugees, who she saw as members of a different “type” of person, and strong support for the EU. She did not see her and Ivan’s planned move to central Europe in the same
The train journey down to Athens was long, taking about 14 hours and sleep-filled.
My arrival in Athens was again marked by a change in weather and temperature. I felt as if- strangely- I had come full circle, back from the quiet of the northern Turkey and Bulgaria and into the bustle of tourism proper. The queues to see the Acropolis or the Panathenaic Stadium could have contained the exact same individuals as those waiting to go inside to the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.
Athens has been far more articulately described over the centuries than by my observations, so I shall end my Diary by noting that I very nearly missed my flight home after staying up late with the retired doctor, Nick, in owed the apartment that I stayed in, and a group of Dutch university students who were also staying there. Nick cooked and provided copious amounts of wine. We shared stories about our different travels, and it was then that I began reflecting upon the wonderful opportunity that the Roger Short Scholarship had given me.
I would like to thank all those involved in the Roger Short Scholarship for the wonderful opportunity to visit Turkey and its neighbouring countries; I simply would have been able to explore this part of the world without the fund. A special thank you goes to Victoria Short who was so hospitable and especially enjoyable company one evening in Istanbul (in addition the view of Istanbul from her apartment roof in the European quarter is ‘postcard perfect’ as they say).
Published: 15 October 2015
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