Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bulgaria!?



With only one day left in Selcuk, Sarah and I decided to spend the afternoon at the beach. So, that morning, we hopped on a shuttle bus that took us a half dozen kilometers down the road to the beach.

Since the beach was supposedly one of the few sand beaches in Turkey (most are gravely or rocky), we considered taking our camera with us, but -at the last minute- decided to leave it behind so that we could spend the day relaxing and not worrying about it sitting on the beach. As it was, we probably didn't need it.

To enter the beach, we had to make our way through a campground... or as I called it "the campground time forgot." It was a desolate spread of ground litered with tents that appeared to have been erected sometime in the mid-Eighties and then promptly forgotten about. On the beach itself, someone -at some point in Turkey's misty past- had set up a number of woven umbrellas for people to lie under. But, most of those had fallen into various states of disuse too.

So, needless to say, the whole situation wasn't particularly scenic. But still, managed to provide a relaxing afternoon for Sarah and I.

After reading and attempting to swim (the water was surprisingly cold) for a few hours, we caught the bus back into town. In town, we used to hotel pool and shower to clean off, had a couple of iskender kabops, learned how to play Turkish style dominos and then caught our bus to Istanbul that evening.

Now, with any luck, this will be our last night bus of the trip. And, after fitfully trying to sleep through the wee hours of the night, we arrived at the Instanbul otogar (bus station). The Istanbul otogar is the largest bus complex I've ever seen in my life. It's a multilevel structure in which the top level is dedicated to the apparently countless number of bus companies operating in Turkey. And, if your bus happens to decend into the otogars lower levels you are treated to what can only be described as auto-shop version of the Mines of Moria.

Switching buses, we quickly found ourselves on the road again. This time our destination was none other than Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

Plovdiv. Bulgaria.

Let me say something really quick. Sarah and I know next to nothing about Bulgaria. In fact, before coming here, if you were to ask us, we'd have great difficulty not only placing Bulgaria on a map; but even filling a single page of notebook paper with facts on Bulgaria.

Let's see... Bulgaria is in Eastern Europe somewhere. It was a Communist country. And, I think, part of the Ottoman Empire for a bit. I'm pretty sure they drink beer and eat sausages. Also, despite similarities in their names, Bulgaria is neither Belguim nor Mogolia.

And, as of yesterday, that would have pretty much summed up my knowledge of Bulgaria.

And, unfortunately, because of an overlong boarder crossing, it took us several extra hours before we could become more familar with Bulgaria. Although Bulgaria is now part of the European Union (something which Turkey is not yet part of), the boarder crossing still had a distinctively Cold War feel. First the bus pulled up to one check point. The stewardess working the bus collected our passports and disappeared. After about 30 minutes, the bus pulled forward 100 meters, and parked next to a duty free store, where IU passports were handed back (thought the stewardess was oddly reluctant to return ours). We then sat in that parking lot for 30 minutes or so before climbing back into the bus and advancing another 100 meters. There, we all filed out of the bus again, and one by one went through Buglarian immigration. finally done, we climbed back on board, and headed into Bulgaria. The entire process took only about 2 hours.

Once across the boarder, we got our final peak at the Bulgarian countryside. It was everything you'd hope for from an Eastern European country: Miles of rolling, green farm and pasture land, with scattered clusters of house built from crumbing brick. Each house possessing a tiled roof that looked like it could collapse under a good rainstorm.

After rolling through the Bulgarian countryside for about an hour, we reached Plovdiv. Plovdiv is Bulgaria's second largest city, but still has far less than a half million people. The outskirts of the city are made up of drab Soviet-era apartment complexes, but the inner, older portion of the city centers around a number of small neighborhoods and hills (Plovdiv notably had seven hills, until the Soviet's levelled one), which manage to have both an old town feel and a slight cosmoplitan undercurrent.

Sarah and I checked into a hostel, and then spent the afternoon and evening exploring the town. And, we could both tell right away that we'd like Bulgaria. The city is modern, but in that sort of dorky Eastern European way where people dress like they've discovered every single fashion statement from 1950 to 1990 all at the same time (which, in some regards, is the case). They like beer, and sausages, and ice cream. They have menus worth of potato dishes. The streets are narrow, cobblestoned and filled with cats.

I make friends with one of Plovdiv's countless cats.

And, there's a lot of babies. Sarah's already dubbed it the Bulgarian Baby Boom. We're not sure if its a real phenomenon or not, or if Bulgarians have always had lots of children, but we haven't seen this many toddlers and infants since, well, ever.
Some of the children of Bulgaria. We thought it was entertaining how -even though it was only the three of them watching the show- they were all sitting so close.

In general, there's something just pleasing overall about Bulgarians. Or, at least Plovdiv, since that's all we've seen so far.

The next morning, we set out to do some sightseeing. First, we wandered around "old town" a narrow network of streets filled with old houses, older fortress walls, and the occasional Roman ruin that makes both the houses and walls look downright new. The main show stopper of old town is the amphitheater. A large halfdish that looks out over the rest of Plovdiv and is still used for performances to this day.

A typical street in old town.

Sarah in another small alley.

The amazing amphitheater. It would be great to see a show here.

In addition, we checked out the Icon Museum, which features a variety of old Orthodox icons from churches throughout the area. And, paided an elderly organ grinder, who played his ancient organ and looked confused when we didn't walk away.

Making our way down off the hill, we walked down the main pedestrian avenue. We'd been ther ethe night before, but wanted to check it out again in the daylight. The entire street is lined with charming looking buildings painted in pastel colors that have inevitably been turned into small clothing stores (with a disproportionate number of naked mannequins) and ice cream shops.

The center square in Plovdiv.

After pausing at the main fountains, and checking out some slightly less impressive Roman ruins, we made our way through a small park to the Hill of the Liberators. The Hill of the Liberators is a decent sized hill, which have been turned into a decent sized park, and crowded with some Communist monuments. Climbing the hill, and standing at the base of a gaint statue of a man in a fur lined jacket, we were provided with a view of all of Plovdiv. Interestingly, despite its size, you could easily make out the edges of town in each direction and see the pasture land spreading out beyond that to the distant mountains.

Walking back down the hill, we made our way down another avenue, where we stopped at a Thursday market and Sarah bought a bag full of plums.

Returning to our room, we rested up before going to check out the Orthodox Church of Sts. Contstantine and Helena. the small churck was entirely covered in paintings and religious icons. But, sadly, photos weren't allowed, so you'll just have to trust us that it was impressive.

After that one last bit of sightseeing, we spent the evening having a beer, playing some dominoes and then eating a nice dinner. Tomorrow, we have a busy day, before heading off to our next Bulgarian city: Veliko Turnovo.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Avunkhaah! Bileesh! Krontoinie Szechpekum.

Rick said...

It was interesting to here your discription of the bus ride from Istanbul to the Bulgarian border. I took the same route when I was there. Of course, the big diference was that Bulgaria was part of the Soviet block then. I couldn't get a bus thru Bulgaria so I thought I would hitch hike. Only problem was...no hitch hiking allowed? I manged to do it, but I don't remember having near the problems you described crossing the border, even though I was very nervous at the time.