Days 17&18: Veliko Tarnovo to Istanbul

Posted: August 4, 2014 in Getting Around, Istanbul, Veliko Tarnovo
Tags: , , , , ,

Our day started well enough. It was pretty late when we turned in last night so we ended up sleeping in a little bit this morning. We still made it downstairs in plenty of time for our free breakfast, though… and what a breakfast it was. A small glass of orange juice (glorified Tang), a cup of tea and 4 slices of white bread with salami and cheese. But it was free so no one’s complaining (at least not loudly).

After breakfast we finished packing up and went back downstairs to check out and store our packs for the day then headed out to explore Tsaravets Castle (more accurately Tsaravets citadel or acropolis) – I don’t know much of the history of this place other than it was built during the middle ages and is pretty huge. It’s situated (as is the case with most such fortifications) at the top of a hill with sheer cliffs on a couple of sides and must have been quite something in its day. Now all that’s left are the foundations of the inner buildings, some reconstructed buildings (not spectacularly accurately, I suspect) and sections of the fortress walls and towers. It cost us 6 Bulgarian lev (about $4.20 cdn) to get into the site and you can pretty much explore to your heart’s content so it’s good value. Unfortunately, all the signage is in Bulgarian or German so we didn’t get as much out of it as we might have liked but it was still worth a couple of hours.

After the fortress we hopped on a little tourist train (4 lev each for the adults but the “child” rode for free – Caitlin is still seething at being relegated to child status but Marie was happy to save the $2.80). The train was really nice (basically brand new) but the “tour” was pretty lame – basically the train acts as a shuttle bus for a parking lot at the bottom of the fortress… so you drive down to the parking lot and then you turn around and go back the way you came. There’s no commentary of any kind and not much to see so in all it was sort of disappointing. But we didn’t have anything else we needed to do so it was no loss.

After the train, we roamed around a bit checking out the souvenir shops – good prices, decent selection of things we haven’t seen before – the pottery was especially good value (like $14 for pots that would cost $50-60 back home) but we’re pretty limited in our space so bringing back a whole bunch of cheap Bulgarian pottery isn’t going to happen any time soon. After a bit of souvenir shopping we took a break at one of the cafes and grabbed something to eat and drink and played a couple of hands of hearts and then headed back out to do some more exploring and shopping. Marie and Caitlin found a few bargains while I popped into a hillside restaurant/bar to check out the scenery, work on the blog and have a cold grapefruit Radler…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve our packs. After picking up our packs we stopped at a pizza/pasta joint and ordered some food to go, then grabbed a taxi to the train station ($3.50 cdn and saved a half hour of walking at least). At the station we queued up with our fellow Istanbul-bound passengers and waited for the bus to arrive. It showed up more or less on time and we piled on to start our 13 hour epic bus and train journey to the fabled city of Istanbul… If only it had all turned out that way.

We had only been on the road for about 25 minutes when we turned off and stopped in Middleofnowheresgradski – as in one store with 16 bottles of beer and a can of Fanta in the fridge – we waited there for almost an hour for a mini-bus to show up with 3 people on it… The highlight was definitely the running of the goats down the main drag… Yup, a whole herd of goats comes trotting down the main street and then splits off into 3 smaller groups – each going its own way. Which explained the two guys sitting on a chair drinking beer with long wooden “switches” – as soon as “their” goats turned up, they finished off their beer and headed after their goats. It was quite comical… After what seemed like an eternity (but only because we hadn’t experienced a real eternity yet) we piled back on the bus and resumed our trip. I think we might have made a couple of quick stops after that but nothing noteworthy… But then came Dimitrovgrad… Somehow we ended up there about 2 hrs earlier than the schedule we were given said we’d get there… They needn’t have bothered with a schedule.

As soon as we pulled in our driver was like “it’s off the bus time to switch buses, wait here” and then, after throwing open the luggage compartments, was gone – never to be seen again… Which was probably a good thing because someone might have killed him as the evening progressed. We waited for about an hour until the anticipated bus (the one that was supposed to take us to Kapikule, Turkey) showed up… When it finally arrived it had 5 empty spaces… Only problem? There were about 30 of us looking to get to Istanbul tonight… It quickly became apparent that we weren’t all going to fit on the bus. With visions of Hunger Games dancing in our heads we queued up for a while at the front door of the bus until it became clear that it wasn’t going to work out.

So we waited (without any explanation from the bus company staff) for another hour and half until some genius decided to call for a second bus for the overflow passengers (or maybe he called earlier – we wouldn’t no because no one did any explaining). So we waited another half hour for the second bus to show up… Then we waited another half hour for the driver to show up… Finally – more than 2.5 hours later we were pulling out of Dimitrovgrad headed for Smilograd or Smaugville or some damn place… all we knew is that it most definitely was not the place we were scheduled to go to… Everybody dozed fitfully for a couple of hours until it became increasingly clear that the driver was completely lost… He was talking to someone on his cell phone while going the wrong way down one way streets for a while until we turned off onto a rutted gravel road that apparently led to the Smirnoff of Sackville or whatever it was called customs station… Where a guy in nothing even remotely resembling a uniform collected all our passports and went back into the station to do something with them (I think he was writing down the pertinent information on a sheet of paper but who knows). After about 45 minutes we were back on the road again heading for god-only-knows-where-grad but hey, we did pass some signs saying “Istanbul” so we must be on the right track… Alas it was not to last.

We pulled into a 24 hr kind of rest stop not far from where we cleared Bulgarian customs (presumably that was why they collected our passports) around 3:45am and were told we’d need to wait for about an hour for the Turkish bus to arrive and then it would take us to Istanbul… It’s now 5:40am and I’m sitting outside on a plastic chair typing this blog entry (I’m outside with the frogs and the mosquitos because with the doors closed and the engine turned off the interior of the bus heats to 6th level of hell temperatures in about 9 minutes). We left Veliko Tarnovo around 7:30pm… We’ve been on the road (metaphorically because much of the time has been spent waiting) for 10 hours and apparently we have 5 more hours of driving in front of us whenever we leave.

Highlights of the trip thus far:

1) The kids who pulled out a ukelele and headed to the nearest shop to buy beer as soon as it became apparent we were going to be in Dimitrovgrad for a while. Kudos to them for making the best of a bad situation… but please, please, for the love of all that is holy and good learn some decent music. Beyonce songs are not made for the ukelele nor should they ever be played on such…

2) The Bulgarian grandmother who clearly has a timetable to keep to… She speaks no English but has pestered every single person on the bus at least twice to confirm we’re going to Istanbul, to ask how long it will take (presumably because she keeps pointing at her imaginary watch) and who just finished railing at the driver (who, remember was pulled out of bed – or the bar – at 2am to drive) so vociferously that he gave up trying to sleep and is now out here with those of us who are braving the bugs and the frogs… She has, at one time or another, managed to disrupt almost everyone’s sleep on the bus by chewing out the bus driver. Her days may be numbered if this trip lasts any longer.

3) The spectacularly creepy dude who took way too much interest in Caitlin and Marie – fortunately he deciphered the cave man glare I gave him (assisted no doubt by some strategic body positioning to quite deliberately put myself between him and them) before anything more drastic had to be done… Kudos to Caitlin for picking up on his creepiness instantly. Her radar was obviously working overtime at 1am in the sketchy Bulgarian bus stop.

4) Nature pees… Caitlin and Marie heading off with a flashlight to let ‘er rip in the urban park (more accurately a strip of green space with a couple of trees sandwiched between the bus depot and the strip clubs and late night stores) where we waited incessantly for the bus – any bus to arrive. They weren’t the only ones doing it… There was a pretty steady stream (no pun intended) of people heading for the bushes while we waited.

5) Marie feeling okay for most of it… Of course the half bottle of Ginger Gravol she took over the course of the trip (okay it wasn’t half a bottle… it was only 8 tablets… out of 20 in a bottle…)

It’s now 6:04am and we’ve just finished piling onto an even more dilapidated bus (I wasn’t sure that was even possible given the state of disrepair of the ones we’ve ridden so far) and are pulling out of the parking lot. If I understand things this is going to go one of two ways from this point: either this bus is going to take us all the way to Istanbul or this bus is going to take us to Kapikule and we’ll need to get on another bus that will then take us to Istanbul.

We just cleared Bulgarian passport control (everybody disembarks from the bus and walks up to a window where your passport is scanned and stamped) then you pile back on the bus and drive across the border to Turkish passport control. There’s a line of maybe 4 buses ahead of us (most with a stream of passengers catching up to the bus with their duty free purchases). At the Turkish side of the border, they come aboard the bus and collect passports (not all but most – some countries must not need visas or scanning or something) and then disappear into officialdom with our passports and printed visas (you apply for and get them electronically before you leave Canada – at a cost of $60 USD for each!). We’re just sitting in the line idling and then it’s off to Kapikule to switch buses (again) for the final trip to Istanbul. In all, it took us just under an hour to clear the border and get to the Kapikule bus depot so it’s now about 8am…

At Kapikule, order and decent customer service took over. The Turkish side of the operation quickly got us off our beater bus (this thing was clearly pulled out of retirement for tonight’s shenanigans) and onto a smaller bus (perhaps a bit too small as there wasn’t enough luggage space for all our packs) that was in pretty decent shape. They showed everyone to the bathrooms (something most of the people on the bus hadn’t seen since just before 2am when we left Dimtrovgrad) and were friendly and communicative – a stark contrast to the Bulgarian side of the operation who never spoke, never smiled and couldn’t have cared less if anyone needed to use a toilet…

We pulled out of Kapikule and headed for Istanbul (about 3 hours away) in a much better frame of mind. The only downside to this part of the trip was the heat in the bus – in about 5 minutes it was literally a sauna in the bus – a bus, remember, with 22 (Marie counted) people who have not slept well and who have not showered in quite a few hours (some in quite a few days from the smell of them)… It got pretty ripe and extremely hot really fast – which just helped everyone get a bit more sleep. After 2 hours of driving we stopped at a rest area (with a variety of food options and bathrooms no less) for a quick 10 minute pee break and then piled in and made the last part of the trip…

There are a couple of jobs I would not do for love or money – a bus driver in Istanbul would be very near the top of that list. The traffic in this city is insane – think 3 lane highways made into 6 lane highways by people just driving wherever there’s a space. Think roundabouts with no lights and people cutting from the outside of the roundabouts to the inside at high speed. We entered Istanbul around 10:30 am and didn’t arrive at our destination (Silecek Train Station) until 11:30 (most of that last hour was stop and go bumper car traffic – no wonder the driver lit up a smoke (despite the no smoking signs all over the bus).

In all, our trip from Veliko Tarnovo ended up taking 16 hours and 4 separate buses… But we made it. There were a few moments where we weren’t entirely sure they weren’t just going to dump us off the bus and leave us but in the end they got us all here in one piece (more or less).

Once in Istanbul we found a bank machine and stocked up on Turkish currency, then hit a tourist information booth for a map and some instructions about using the tram system to get to our apartment/hotel… We figured it all out, shouldered our packs and climbed aboard the first tram heading in the right direction. Four stops later we piled off (right at the historic Grand Bazaar no less) and then made a quick right and started walking down a pretty impressive hill towards the water… Near the bottom of the hill we hooked another right and within 5 minutes found Ajans Pi House. They were awesome! Grabbed us a seat. Offered us some tea or coffee while we waited for the manager (Muharrem) who quickly showed us the room and then walked us to his restaurant around the corner a bit where he gave us some information about Istanbul, talked a bit about the food we were eating (which was delicious – although a bit higher priced than some of the more touristy restaurants in the area) and then left us to our well-deserved (and much needed) afternoon power nap. He was a breath of fresh air after all the lousy and indifferent service we’ve had on this trip. We’re hoping to touch base with him a couple more times during our stay…

Our room here in Istanbul is small but comfortable. It’s suffered a bit of wear and tear but is clean and they provide daily room cleaning (something we haven’t had much of at all this trip) and they provide free bottled water and soda water (a nice touch in a place where even the locals drink bottled water) and tea for breakfast.

After a couple of hours we roused ourselves long enough to do a quick turn around the neighbourhood (we’re staying in the Kumkapi area near the sea with lots of fish markets and restaurants) and then headed back to one of the touristy places near the tram stop and had a light dinner (this area is lile the Plaka in Athens – every restaurant has people outside trying to convince you to eat their place… we choice ours because the guy called Marie “calm and kind” – she was hooked! After dinner, it was off to a market to stock up on breakfast foods (yogurt, cereal, juice and fruit) because the room includes a bar fridge (score!) and now we’re just finishing up blogs, checking emails and reading the news before turning out the lights and calling it a day… Or more accurately two days I guess.

It’s been an adventure getting here and Istanbul – a city of 15 million people – defies description but we’re super excited to be here and have a pretty full list of places we want to see and things we want to do so it’s off to bed now…

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