Bucharest - Sofia - Plovdiv - Istanbul - 596 miles
On our taxi ride from Bucharest station to our apartment, Jefris used google translate to ask our driver, 'where is everyone?'. Mostly on the metro or in their cars it seemed. We didn't ever quite 'catch the vibe' of Bucharest, but we did find one of our favourite, and best value, digs so far: a fifth floor apartment in an art deco building, complete with original tiny lift with wooden flappy doors. It was so nice to be able to relax in a pleasant, spacious room, and have breakfast on our little balcony overlooking the city. I'm rather obsessed with my breakfast, and pretty delighted that so far I've been able to find dairy free yoghurt at least all the way to Bulgaria.
Food in general has been a bit of an issue - well, to be honest, a lot of an issue. I'm sure everyone reading this will have at least one experience of wandering around, tired and hungry in a strange city trying to find somewhere decent and affordable to eat. Add dietary restrictions into the mix and things can get very trying. Our firsr day in Bucharest we went out around 1.30 to look for lunch and ended up eating at around 5pm - a nothing-to-write-home-about overpriced tourist trap meal. By the time we'd finished that, we were knackered and ready for an early night. With decent wifi in our little apartment we got ourselves a VPN and were able to tune into UK Drag Race - my favourite escapist entertainment. On Tuesday we headed out with packed lunch and a plan - which went slightly wonky when we realised we'd navigated our way to the wrong park, one that turned out to be undergoing major renovations. Managing to negotiate our way around numerous blocked paths and barriers, we eventually found a spot beside an uninspiring artificial lake, where we tucked into our picnic. It was after lunch that we realised that the park we'd intended to visit was about three miles away in the opposite direction! It took us about an hour to get there, but it was worth the journey, a much prettier park with a beautiful lake, where we both enjoyed a classy tinny and had a play - I had my first proper hooping session since bruising my ribs, and Jefris got to 69 kick ups! That night we managed to find a sweet little local restaurant tucked down a back street. A good night's rest in our lovely art deco apartment, and then off to catch the train for our ten hour journey to Sofia and a late night check in to a crappy little room near the station... and then a day exploring 'that's more like it' Sofia, with it's gorgeous orthodox churches, bustling cafe culture, gardens, fountains, and mountain views, and on the train to Plovdiv in the evening, Arriving after 10pm, we rejected the offer of a 15 euro taxi ride and set off to walk the 20 minutes or so to our guest room, but found ourselves thwarted by massive road works, closures and barriers. Jefris, always the first to ask for help from passers by, hailed three lads who turned out to be from Reading, recently arrived in Plovdiv to study medicine - no loans but slightly cheaper fees and substantially cheaper living costs. Delightful well brought up young men they helped us all the way our room, lugging my bag in tricky places, bless them! Guest room Filipopol (favourite name so far) turned out to be sweet little attic with foot high windows at floor level under the eaves, perfectly centrally situated just between the old town - first settled 6000 years ago, one of the oldest cities in Europe - and the busy centre, and just five minutes walk from the remains of the huge Roman stadium. It was lovely to spend a couple of days in a place where everything was in walking distance, and we managed to find our way to the local food for local people - though to my surprise Jefris didn't go for duck hearts or tripe soup. So far we have not done well in our side mission to find local music. I forgot to mention that we made it to a gig in Ljubljana - very professional local band doing a mix of covers and own material with remarkably excellent sound in a back street bar ten minutes from our place. In Plovdiv we passed a place during our day time wonders that was advertising a live band on Friday night. Billed as 'a sweet jam of psychedelic rock, blues, junk, desert stoner & some other secret ingredients' I thought it sounded promising but three guitars was at least one too many, and desert stoner seemed the overwhelming ingredient in the sludgy sonic soup. I do hope I'll have some more exciting gigs to report on before too long! On Saturday night it was farewell Plovdiv as we boarded the sleeper train for Istanbul at 9.50pm. Having booked two berths is a four person couchette I couldn't help fearing the worst - would we end up sharing a tiny space with anyone noisy, smelly or weird? In fact when we boarded it was just us - and our bags which were just a bit too big to fit into the racks or under the seats. An hour or so later we were joined by two lovely English guys: Michael, who had travelled from Orkney with his wife, sister and two little girls who in the compartment next door; and Lewis who was on his way to India; hopefully without flying, without a set itinerary, and - admirably - without a smartphone. After the 1am border shenanigans when we all had to exit, get our passports stamped and our bags scanned and wait until the thorough search of the train before we could reboard, we settled down for the night. Poor Michael and Lewis, it was them who ended up with the dodgy cabin mates. As well as our bags taking up almost the entire floor space, we all heard Jefris getting his usual excellent night's sleep. Our train was due to arrive in Halkali on the outskirts of Istanbul at 6.30am, so it was actually a welcome surprise to wake up around 8am, shortly before we got the knock from the guard to say we'd arrived. Istanbul - the last familiar place we'll see until we get home to Sumatra - ee visited for a few days eight years ago when we took Ompung (Jefris's mum) for a little holiday, with 18 year old Amos and 14 year old Zeph. I say familiar, but of course we only recognised a few landmarks on the skyline and near the centre. At first it was the usual half hour of tired confusion as we worked out how to buy, fill and use our Instanbulcards and which way to go on the Marmary metro trains. This is also the end of EU roaming, so our next priority was to find a cafe with Wifi for breakfast. Not cheap, but very tasty, Turkish style spicy scrambled eggs with peppers and tomatoes and Turkish coffee for Jefris, served theatrically with a bubbling little glass of dry ice on the side. Having located our home for the next two nights - a humble basement apartment ten minutes down a steep hill from the tramway to the centre - we had a much needed shower and rest before heading off towards the Blue Mosque, just 20 minutes walk away. A lot has changed since our last visit. What was once a huge open square between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is now surrounded by security barriers, with bag scanners on the way in, and there were so many more people than we had seen there before - both domestic and international tourists. Smartphones hadn't yet taken over the world back in 2015 either. That afternoon we admired the outside of the Blue Mosque and entered the Hagia Sophia for the second time. Last time we were there it was a museum, as decreed in the 1930s, but since 2020 it has returned to use as mosque once again. As we emerged into the square, the call to magrib prayers began; the two azan callers taking turns to sing each line - both incredible masters of their art, as befits two such glorious buildings. We made our way to sit by the fountains, where Jefris struck up a google translate assisted chat with the guy sitting next to us. He turned out to be glazer so they joked about going into business together making windows. We asked his advice about where to look for local food and set off in the direction of Eminonou. As we approached a busy road, Jefris noticed that we were walking behind two Indonesian ladies, and called out to one of them who was just about to cross the road into oncoming traffic. We walked along chatting for the next five minutes and found out that they were living and working in Istanbul. After parting ways they caught up with us again and asked us if we'd like to go with tto a goodhem cheap Indonesian cafe near Taksim square. Of course we would! Delicious iced chendol (coconut milk drink sweetened with palm sugar) and a whole menu almost entirely of gluten and dairy free dishes to choose from - fantastic! And with the great comofrt of familiarity too. Back in our little basement we were relieved to find the Wifi working, albeit patchily, so we could sort out the next bit of our itinerary. It was only then that I came across further information about our obligatory and very necessary reservations for the 26 and a half hour Dogu Express from Ankara to Kars, warning how quickly tickets sell out and how tricky it can be to book them. Up until that point everything I'd read on the interrail site and the Man in Seat 61 had just said we could only book from main train stations in Turkey. This gave us cause for concern, as we don't have much time to spare to make our border hop flights from Georgia to Azerbaijan - we booked Debrecen after ascertaining that all land borders remain closed since Covid. I managed to put aside my worries enough to sleep on our very hard but very saggy bed - I didn't know it was actually possible for a bed to be both, but believe me, it is - and next morning we made our way straight to the Sirkeci, our nearest big station. There were two ticket desks, and the first one we were very much not greeted by a surly chap who had clearly had more than enough of dealing with tourists. I showed him my interrail pass and asked if he could help us with reservations. Though we couldn't understand a word of his Turkish response it was very clearly dismissive and negative. We turned to each other and I turned back to him - 'What can we do? Where can we go?'. He shrugged, half snarled and cocked his head to indicate that we may as well try talking to his colleague at the next desk. As Jefris remarked, some people aren't particularly well suited to customer service occupations. We waited our turn with a mixture of hope and anxiety. The lady behind the counter looked as though she was being very helpful to the two gentlemen she was dealing with, but the sign above her desk said 'veteran and disabled passes' . Was her colleague just sending us to her so she could explain to us more clearly that we hadn't a gnat's chance of getting reservations at such short notice? We started off with the easy part, our seat reservations for the next day's journey to Ankara which were quickly sorted out, and then tentatively asked bout sleeping berths for the Ankara to Kars. "For which date?" "Any of the next three please, but ideally Wednesday!" Yes places were available. 'Seats?'. 'If possible sleeping places!' (an easy mime). Yes! We were then offered a choice. We could each have our cheap interrail places (interrail covers the ticket price but not the reservations which is a separate cost) in four berth compartments men's and women's sections of the train. Or we could book together in one compartment and buy the other two tickets at full price to have it to ourselves. At just over sixty quid it was a no brainer and a massive relief!
Almost exactly four weeks since we set off, we headed over the Bosphorous - past all the fisher folk hooking sardines for the sandwiches that sold on the banks; about twenty chaps with their rods set up at each end of the bridge, and amongst them one elderly bescarfed lady - on our way to celebrate with gluten free baclava! In week 4 the real travels begin as we head into the wild east! Lots of love to all our friends and family xxx