Thursday, December 07, 2006 Bulgaria Bulgaria / Turkey Turkey

In need of a Turkish bath

Huge Turkish flag [Enlarge]

We walked down to Sofia bus station (right next to the train station) about ten minutes before our coach was due to leave. One of the advantages of travelling so light is that it makes it easy to take our bags on as carry-on luggage—this includes onto coaches.

The bus was almost empty when we boarded. Almost as soon as the bus pulled out of the bus station into the madness of Sofia's morning rush hour one of the two stewardesses came round with free tea or coffee, water and cake. Later there was Coca Cola, Fanta, and more tea. Good job there was a loo on board. If we had known there was such a good hostess service on the bus we wouldn't have bothered buying a huge picnic the night before.

It took a while to get out of Sofia and even once we did, the thick fog made it hard to see anything of the Bulgarian scenery. Even the GPS couldn't get a lock! We picked up more passengers in towns along the way and made excellent progress along the completed stretches of the E80 that, when finished, will link Serbia to Turkey with six lanes of unbroken tarmac. A Bulgarian lady sitting behind us had realised that we spoke no Bulgarian and translated the stewardesses announcements into English for us. If we had carried on at the speed we were going we'd have been in İstanbul hours ahead of schedule, but unfortunately we had the small matter of crossing the border into Turkey to contend with first.

Research on the internet had reassured us that although, as UK passport holders, we do need a visa to enter Turkey, it is easy to get at the border provided you have enough hard currency (i.e. pounds, euro or dollars) to cover the GBP 10 / EUR 15 fee. The border guards won't take Turkish Lira.

The border crossing was a multi-stage process. First we drove through Bulgarian customs. A shout came into the bus "Anything to declare?" (in Bulgarian) to which the reply was a deafening silence. The guards seemed happy enough with this and we were waved through. Then it was Bulgarian passport control. We had to get off the coach, leaving our belongings behind, and file past a guy in a little booth showing him our passports. Then we all got back on the coach on the other side of passport control. We drove on a little further to Turkish passport control. Anyone who needed a visa had to get off again. There were just the two of us plus an American. We were sent across the tarmac to tiny booth labelled "cash office" where a very smiley man sold us a sticker for our passport. We asked to pay in Euros, because we ran out of pounds long ago, which he found amusing. He said "but the UK doesn't like Euros! Only pounds!" Hard currency is hard currency though, and he took the cash happily enough in return for a sticker. We walked back to passport control to get our visa sticker stamped.

Back on the bus again for a drive of several hundred metres to Turkish customs, surely the final hurdle. So far, in terms of time, we were doing well. But any chance of a swift crossing was dashed when the coach parked up and one of the stewardesses ran over to yet another booth and talked to the man inside for ages. When she returned the expression on her face said it all. Today all coaches were being searched. We worked out that we were third in the queue and we sat with the engine off as, one at a time, the two coaches ahead of us moved forward from the parking area to an open sided, roofed space with wooden benches. Although the border guards had decided to search every coach, they hadn't thought it necessary to have enough staff to open more than one search bay at a time. We watched as the coaches reversed through the checkpoint, all the passengers got off and collected their bags, then the empty coach pulled forward again to be searched. In the mean time the passengers laid out their belongings on the benches. Eventually the customs officials seemed satisfied, the passengers got back aboard and their bus moved on.

Our research before the trip had led us to expect our driver to have a whip round before the border for a little baksheesh to make the crossing speedier. A "border crossing fee", it we would be called. But this hadn't happened—maybe Metro Plus builds the fee into its ticket price. Anyway, if a fee had been paid, it hadn't worked. When it was our turn we lined up with our fellow passengers at the wooden bench and unzipped our bags. The Turkish customs official walked down the line giving a cursory glance to each bag (he actually touched Isla's bag). The whole process had taken nearly two hours, for a final inspection of each bag that lasted less than two seconds. One lady with a big suitcase seemed to have had a slightly harder time as she rejoined the coach after several minutes.

Again the engine was started and we pulled off, only to stop at an unexpected fifth checkpoint for another official to board the bus and have a final check of everyone's stamped passport. The Turks now completely happy, we drove off towards İstanbul into the night away from the sunset.

İstanbul's main Otogar (bus station) is more like a small city than a bus terminus. Having spiralled around for several minutes in the vast subterranean complex, the coach pulled in at the side of the road. All around it in every direction were travel agents and kebab shops. Our helpful English-speaking fellow passenger told us that if we got off here we could get a courtesy bus to the downtown area—we were still ten kilometers out of town. She was going downtown too so we boarded the courtesy bus together. Once we'd left the underground area and could get a GPS signal we watched the kilometers tick down. Then we suddenly made a turn and sped off in the wrong direction. Our friend spoke Bulgarian and English, but no Turkish. She had a friend who spoke Turkish and Bulgarian, but no English. This friend suddenly jumped off the bus when it was stopped at some traffic lights and told our friend to do the same. In turn she beckoned us to pile off before the lights changed. After a moment she told us that this was as close to downtown as this bus was going and that we'd have to get a taxi the rest of the way. With this, her acquaintance jumped back on the bus and it screeched off into the traffic. The three of us decided at this point to share a taxi, since none of us had any idea where we were or where we were going, and having found one we negotiated with the driver that he'd drop her off at her hotel first and us second. She would pay him EUR 5 and we would pay the same. A quick left turn and the GPS said we were heading back in the right direction. We sat in the back as night-time İstanbul passed our windows, but as the taxi cruised through Sultanahmet it became clear that the driver wasn't as sure about where the first hotel was as he had previously made out. In fact, he hadn't a clue where it was. Over the next 20 minutes or so we were treated to three or four laps of the sights of the city's old quarter, pulling over repeatedly, each time our driver jumping out and asking the nearest policeman, taxi driver or shop owner if they know where our friend's hotel was. No one seemed to have heard of the Ottoman Empire hotel. Eventually our friend called the hotel on her mobile and handed the phone to the driver, and they managed to describe their location to him.

Having dropped our friend off (who, by the way, was supposed to be spending the weekend in Vienna with her husband, who works in Brussels, but Sofia airport was closed due to the fog so she had decided to get a bus from Sofia to Istanbul, the nearest open airport, where he would also fly from Brussels, they would spend one night there, then both fly to Vienna the next morning. And all this was only for a shopping trip!) we sat back to see the sights as the driver assured us he knew where our hotel was.

When we reached the hotel there was only one thing we were thinking about. We checked in, hopped in the lift, tipped the porter and rushed into the bathroom. And there it was—a bit on the small side, but clean and shining white, with a plug and taps and hot water: a bath!

Map of Day 013

Day 013
Sofia to Istanbul

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Fransisca said...

Hi Isla and Glenn,

Glad to find your blog... it's very detail and informative...

I am planning to go to Turkey next month.. I would like to ask, what is the best method to travel from city to city? Bus/driving/flight?

Reading from your story, there were obstacles (schedule, language, bus point, etc) with traveling by bus...

Glenn Livett said...


Thanks for your comment. Personally we wouldn't drive in Turkey, but it depends what standard of driving you are used to in your home country.

The bus is the best and cheapest way to see the country but we would not recommend taking overnight buses unless you are the sort of person who can easily sleep anywhere. The confusion at the Otogars just makes things more interesting.

It all depends what your priorities are... Comfort? Price? Time? Experience?

Martin said...

Great sultanahmet trip.
Great holiday.
Thanks for sharing.