Posts Tagged ‘Veliko Tarnovo’

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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Our only objective for this morning was to be up and out of the apartment by 11am and at the train station by noon. After another home breakfast of yogurt (with some orange juice this time!), we left the apartment precisely at 11am and, thanks to the efficiency of the Bucharest subway system were at the train station by 11:30am. As our train didn’t depart until 12:55, we had a bit of time to kill. Much of this time was spent trying to spend off the last Romanian currency we had because it’s pretty much worthless anywhere else in the world… I think we had 53 leu (about $17 cdn) to spend so we stocked up on food for the train ride to Veliko… In the end we had about 3 leu ($1 cdn) we couldn’t find anything to spend on so we’ll add it to the souvenir bag of coins from the various countries we’ve visited – which is much more complete given that we finally solved the one mystery of our Europe 2012 trip… we carried a bag of coins and bills from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia around for the last half of that trip and then it just disappeared… We thought it might have been taken out of one of our hotel rooms (although why anyone would want those currencies outside of those countries made no sense) or that maybe we’d left it behind somewhere… When we got home at the end of the last trip we scoured the many pockets of our packs and daypacks and still didn’t find it. As we were packing for this trip, there it was at the bottom of one of the day packs… No idea how we all missed it when we went through the packs at the end of the last trip but at least we finally solved the mystery…

Back to this trip. Today’s train trip would normally be done on the Bosphorus Express – an older but apparently well-maintained train with wood panelled sleeping cars and a cool kind of retro vibe. Not this time. With the disruptions in the train routes, they appeared to have pulled a couple of very old passenger cars out of storage and pressed them into service. Our tickets said we were supposed to be sitting in the usual 2 facing 2 kind of car with a little table between us. For some reason they put us into the car with the little 8 person “cabins” – I think these tickets are usually more expensive but I’m not sure this was an improvement – although instead of air conditioning, you get windows that open (always a bonus when traveling through agricultural areas and past sewage treatment centres!). We were “helped” onto the train by one of those super high energy people who just pull you along… the kind who (even through you don’t actually need help) kindly show you to your compartment – in this case whichever one happened to be open (numbers don’t matter he says) and then once you’re settled, makes his pitch for, in this case, helping people with TB. After he left, we double-checked with the real train staff if we were in the right car and then settled into our assigned seats. Our cabin-mate for the trip was a young Romanian woman traveling to visit a friend in Sofia… she didn’t seem too pleased at first to have to share her compartment but warmed up when we let her have one whole side of the cabin so she could stretch out and sleep. On our train were a few other travellers making the trip to Istanbul who really weren’t sure how the whole thing was going to work out… It appeared we’d been given the most complete information (we even got a little slip of paper with all the train and bus times on it)… which given the amount of confusion in the explanation given to us makes us wonder whether some of our fellow travellers might end up a long way from Istanbul.

The train pulled away from the station right at 12:55 and the first part of the trip passed without incident until the Romanian border town of Giurgui – which occasioned muffled howls of laughter from Caitlin and Marie (not to mention our Romanian cabin-mate) as they listened to the older Aussie woman in the cabin next to ours trying to pronounce the name of the station… It was almost as funny as Marie’s Cafe Aleebee moment. What wasn’t funny was the officious looking border police who showed up, took all the foreigners’ passports and then disappeared into the train station – this was cause for much concern on the part of some of our fellow passengers who (like us when it happened to us the first time) recalled the dire warnings you receive with your passport to never, ever let it out of your sight… We have had this happen a number of times on our various trips so it was kind of old hat… Besides, we weren’t going anywhere – our locomotive had disconnected and bailed out as soon as we arrived at the station…. More concerning was the quite vociferous command not to take any pictures of them as they walked away with the stack of passports. More humorous was the fact that there were two of them who came on the train but only one guy actually did anything – the other guy (a quite heavy set guy to be polite) did absolutely nothing. He just chaperoned the guy who did all the work… Maybe he was there for muscle and wasn’t authorized to touch passports. Who knows?

After about 15 minutes they returned with the stack of passports and handed them back to everyone all stamped and ready to go. I think they actually managed to complete this entire task without cracking a single smile. Must be in the training manual or something – no smiling at the tourists – it will just encourage them… A few minutes after our passports were returned, a locomotive (along with a couple of extra passenger cars) attached itself to our train and we were off.

Soon, the process more or less repeated itself at the Ruse train station in Bulgaria. Only this time they came on the train (1 guy at each end of the car) and prevented anyone (or at least tried) from getting off the train. This time they radioed the information on our passports in to the central office, spelling out our names and other pertinent information and presumably getting some kind of confirmation before stamping our passports. This process also involved a bit of delay as an English family we talked to a couple of times during the trip as they were heading to Istanbul as well and weren’t really sure how it all worked – ran into a problem with their passport that was expressed as “too much names” – This resulted in about a 20 minute delay as the issue of “too much names” was sorted out. After that it was smooth sailing (well not that smooth really – this was a really old train). At some point during the journey we discovered that it was the sort of train where the toilet “flushes” directly onto the tracks below (probably explains why you never see anyone walking the tracks here). Caitlin’s first (and only for the rest of this trip, I’m sure) trip to the “water closet” resulted in the best line of the trip thus far… “I think I need to disinfect my bum!” This caused a bit of a confused look for Marie who explained that she perfected a technique a long time ago (for the outhouses when we were doing a lot of camping) where her butt never touches the seat in such places!

After a couple of stops at barely decipherable stops we arrived at Gorna – at least we were pretty sure it was Gorna because most everyone piled off the train. A quick check with someone in uniform confirmed that it was, indeed, Gorna and that the bus to Istanbul would be out front in 5-10 minutes… More like 35 to 40 minutes but at least he had the location correct. So we waited out from with the other dozen or so folks heading for Istanbul (or various stops along the way) until a battered old coach showed up and piled us all on. Before we pulled away, we confirmed with the driver that the bus would be stopping in Veliko, that it would be stopping there again tomorrow night and that we could board it from Veliko to make our way to Istanbul… So far so good. We piled on the bus, avoiding a minor international incident when Marie tried to sit in the front row of passenger seats (she must have forgotten that those seats are always – on every bus we have ever taken – reserved for bus company staff… even when there is no bus company staff riding the bus).

After about 20 minutes we pulled into the Veliko Tarnovo train station and with some pointing at old analog watches confirmed that the bus would be returning to the same spot around 7:15 the next night and that we could catch it then. After that we were approached by a gentleman who spoke good English who had a) a car and could give us a ride and b) rooms to rent if we needed them… We literally had no money (having spent down to our last 2 Romanian lei before we left) so told him that we would walk… He helpfully decided to show us the way… Along the dirt road through a sketchy looking park. Fortunately, I’d google mapped our destination before we left and the park was shown as the quickest route so we followed along… At some point he asked again if we would like him to get his car and give us a ride… We explained we really didn’t have any money and that we were happy to walk so he left (with a bit of a disgruntled look but he did give us rudimentary directions to our hotel).

So we headed off through some sketchy overpasses, a couple of highway underpasses and a residential part of the town before we saw what looked like a main street and followed it to another main street which led us to a bank machine and what had to be the main tourist drag. At this point we’d walked about 2.5 km with our packs in the early evening heat and the sweat was literally dripping from us… So we decided to stop at the first restaurant we came to, used their wifi to confirm where our hotel was and grabbed something to eat and drink. We picked a place called Ethno that turned out to be a stroke of very good luck. They had wifi. The food was excellent (we tried a couple of local potato dishes with boiled potatoes, a cream sauce and ham or sausages – kind of a heavier version of scalloped potatoes), the prices were very good and the service outstanding. And the beer was cold. Suitably restored and knowing the hotel was only 750 metres away we shouldered our packs and headed off into the growing darkness.

Editor’s Note: I have been informed that my description of the sketchy walk with the sketchy man is too, how shall we put it… sketchy. So Caitlin and Marie have told me to flesh it out… Let’s see. The train station itself is dusty, rundown and looks abandoned. So this guy says he’ll show us the right way – which involved crossing multiple sets of railroad tracks and entering a large, park-like area with a number of dirt roads running in all directions and some derelict buildings and assorted piles of garbage. In front of us, a guy is peeing in the bushes. Over to the right another guy is packing a hot water heater on his back. We walk briskly along a dirt road in the direction of some buildings in the distance but first we have to cross a slow-moving river filled with garbage… It’s at this point our guide leaves (because he ain’t getting any money) and we walk on… Under one of those highway pedestrian underpasses. This one is filled with graffiti and homeless peoples’ blankets and other evidence of prolonged camping. Then we walk the side of the highway for a bit before coming to another pedestrian underpass filled with even more garbage and graffiti… Then we emerge into a quite deserted looking residential area… Caitlin has mentioned several times the bad example set… Her “if we were a couple of women traveling alone imagine what could have happened” comment indicates a level of discomfort with our shortcut into town… In my defence, it wasn’t that sketchy…

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We found the hotel right where we expected it to be (gotta love google maps) and checked in without difficulty (although the front desk staff spoke no English) and were soon comfortably ensconced in our room for the night. This is our cheapest room of the trip (€36 or about $54 cdn) but turned out to be a great value – huge walk-in shower, a double bed (two singles pushed together but that’s not uncommon in Europe it seems) and a twin sofa bed for Caitlin. The room even had a small bar fridge and air conditioning and wifi… Score! Caitlin would like to point out that she entered the hotel in a stare of abject terror as a large frog had leaped out at her just before we got to the hotel… In reality it was probably a very small and cute frog who made the potentially life-threatening decision to move within 100′ of Caitlin…

A couple of random observations that didn’t make their way into earlier blogs:

1) The apartment building across the way from our apartment in Budapest was liberally scored with marks that looked suspiciously like bullet holes… Lots of bullet holes. Hmmmm

2) There were cockroaches in the entry way of the apartment when we came back from our day exploring… That’s not so unusual (although we haven’t seen many of them since our trip to Thailand a few years ago). What was most concerning was that they were dead – not squished bug dead – just dead… Which when you consider that cockroaches can endure nuclear fallout makes you wonder what kind of industrial waste they use to kill the things…

3) I said this in the blog for our last trip but will say it again… Radlers are amazing! They’re beer-based grapefruit or lemon or cherry (and sometimes other flavours) low alcohol (1.8% usually) drinks that are a great alternative to soft drinks (especially for those of us who don’t drink pop) and they’re amazingly refreshing… They sell them occasionally in the BC liquor stores but they’re not easy to find – which is a shame because they’re an amazing summer drink. They have a very mild beer taste (sometimes) and a refreshing fruit zing… And they’re usually ridiculously cheap.

4) We have seen a number of posters for “Hooters” restaurants in some of the cities we’ve visited. Now, Europeans don’t seem to have as much of a thing for silicone enhanced busts as Americans so their posters have featured women of more modest proportions… which prompted Caitlin at some point to remark “she could work at Hooters here!”

5) Since Romania, we have been taken for people from Britain… score. No one in this part of the world mistakes us for Americans… Apparently American accents are much harsher than ours… People are very impressed that we are from Canada… Although most only know of Toronto… Thank goodness our last name isn’t Ford…

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