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Day thirty-seven - Overnight to Sofia

Wednesday 2 October 2019

overcast 18 °C

Border crossing

The train crosses the Turkey/Bulgaria border so we had to go through passport control in the middle of the night. On the previous overnight train the officers came on board but at the Turkey/Bulgaria border, you have to get off and queue. Apparently if you do it from Sofia to Istanbul you also have to take your luggage off the train to be scanned. Luckily we didn’t have to do that. As the train wasn’t full passport control didn’t take too long and as I was near the front of the queue I got it over and done with so that I could get back onto the train. I think the smokers appreciated the stop.

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A little bit further down the line the Bulgarian border guards came on the train to check passports so at least we didn’t have to get off again. The rest of the journey seemed to go smoothly although I was aware that we stopped for quite long periods - not sure why. The train was due to arrive at 8.37 but rolled in an hour later. I felt bad as a friend was meeting me at the station and I had no way of getting in touch with him as my O2 international sim failed to work. It's also hard to know how long you’ll be when you have no idea where you are and with no announcements on the train.

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Sofia and friends

When you get off someone will come up and try to pry your luggage from you. Basically, they pretend they work for the railway but will then demand payment. Luckily, my friend Tom arrived and we exited the station. It’s quite a monolith with a huge lobby area. We walked to Tom and Sarra’s apartment for a coffee. I know Tom from when he was a journalist in Bristol but has been living and writing in Bulgaria for two years now and hopes to continue for the foreseeable future.

We had lunch at a nearby cafe and then I went to find my apartment which was close by. I booked Visito Apartments because of the funky colour scheme although the one that I actually got was muted blue. Maybe it was for the best as probably more restful. The first thing I did was put a wash on. I hadn’t been able to wash clothes since Yerevan so I had a full load and was able to hang it out on the balcony. Very satisfying.

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A far cry from Soviet times

The last time I was in Bulgaria was 1978 when it was communist. I remember how the shops didn’t seem to have anything in them and food shops had big queues. Well, it’s very different today. There are plenty of cafes with interesting menus and a variety of shops, just like any other major city.

Tom and Sarra came round to collect me in the evening and we took the metro into the city to eat at a vegetarian restaurant close to Vitosha Boulevard that they wanted to try. Because Tom and Sarra are very involved in the cultural sector, the community they mix with are mostly Bulgarian with some British people. Although English is spoken widely, particularly amongst the younger generation, they have also been learning the language.

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It’s distinctly colder after Istanbul but when the sun is out, still quite mild. There is a cafe culture here in Sofia but people have to wear more layers. Climate is quite temperate - around 22c in summer and below freezing with snow in winter. It definitely felt Autumnal. After a drink we made our way back on foot and I was kindly escorted back to my apartment. I was amazed that I was still awake after midnight considering the broken sleep on the overnight train. Looked forward to crawling into my very large bed!

Posted by Cath_Greig 10:48 Archived in Bulgaria Tagged friends cafe sofia bulgaria Comments (0)

Day thirty-five - Istanbul

Monday 30 September 2019

sunny 29 °C

Vibrant Istanbul

I planned to visit my friend Yusuf at his ceramics shop in the Sultanahmet area on Küçük AyaSofya Caddesi no 37. Rather than jumping on the tramway, I walked across the city, firstly down the narrow streets near the Galata tower to the Galata bridge.

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There are a lot of fish restaurants on the lower level of the bridge, and above, it's lined with fishermen. The river itself is incredibly busy with ferries, small boats and tourist boat trips. Istanbul is a real city of movement.

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Once across the bridge, I found myself near the spice market so wandered through, the sight and smells are very enticing, but I wasn’t here to buy. From here I was in the Grand Bazaar, much busier than when I was last here in 2016 after there had been several bombings in the city. Definitely more tourists around, and like Armenia, large groups, mainly Chinese. You still need to go through security when entering the bazaars and other key places and there is a huge police presence around the city - it feels as if they are on constant high alert.

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Bustling Bazaars

I stopped for a coffee at the Grand Bazaar. It’s a great place to people watch. It’s interesting to see young women walking arm in arm, one in very western tight fitting clothes and the other wearing a traditional headscarf. It’s a real mix of East meets west. Getting out of the bazaar is a challenge as it’s huge. Once I managed to get out I headed past the Blue Mosque towards the area of my friend’s shop.

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Chewing the fat - Istanbul style

Yusuf and I sat outside in the shade, drinking coffee and catching up. It made me feel like a local. Apparently, friends are always passing by for a catch up. Yusuf has adopted a cat that loves to sleep at the front of the shop. If Yusuf charged everyone for very photo they've taken of the cat, he would be a millionaire. We arranged to meet later at Hamid restaurant near the Galata Bridge. Yusuf closes his shop late so we arranged to meet at 10.30pm - my default bedtime since travelling on my own! I had to keep awake somehow.

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Cat City

I found somewhere for lunch and probably made a bad choice - going into the Capadocia restaurant. They have pushy people outside encouraging patrons into the restaurant, but once inside the service is quite lacklustre. The food is okay but nothing to write home about.

There are lots of cats in Istanbul. There is even a film called Kedi [2016] - the City seen through the eyes of its resident cats. I haven’t seen it but would like to try and get hold of a copy when I back to the UK. People leave food and water out for them and they can often be seen in shop doorways guarding the goods. Little huts are also provided for them. There is a definite affection for cats, just like there is in Cyprus and Armenia.

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After walking over the Galata Bridge, I thought I’d try out the funicular. Not that I can’t walk up the hill, but I love going on the different modes of transport in the city. The top station is very close to my hotel. I sat out on the terrace reading and relaxing until the sun started to set. The view across the river was beautiful. Soon it was time to get ready and cross the river again to get to meet Yusuf.

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Hamid's

Hamid restaurant is a bit of an institution, and is one that features on a lot of the highly recommended lists. However, it’s quite meat orientated so I chose food off the starter list - stuffed peppers, pickles, shepherd's salad and Muhammara - more than enough for me. Yusuf hardly seems to eat anything at all. Apparently, once he’s full, he stops eating. Now I know where I’ve been going wrong all of these years. Anyway, I hate wasting food so I ate all of mine! It was very delicious.

I was happy to walk back to the hotel but Yusuf didn’t feel it was safe, so we got a taxi which dropped me off close to the hotel. The Beyoğlu area is busy so probably be safe to walk around there but I wondered if the Galata Bridge was maybe not so safe. Certainly, I was grateful for Yusuf's concern. It was way after midnight when I got back so I was glad to crawl into bed for a good night’s sleep.

Posted by Cath_Greig 07:22 Archived in Turkey Tagged bridges river istanbul bazaar coffee cafe Comments (0)

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