Brass Monkeys in Bulgaria

Wednesday & Thursday 15 & 16 Jan 2020 Brrrrr. It’s cold in Bulgaria!

From central Istanbul we took the metro back to the suburb where the international trains start and end. As we arrived with more than an hour to spare (for all her extensive travelling cautious accountant  Christine always makes sure that she is at the station or airport early) we were grateful there was a warm waiting room in which to sit rather than on a chilly, draughty platform.

Once we climbed onboard the conductor came into our compartment several times to feel the output from the heating system which was clearly struggling. Slowly things warmed a bit and we were ok for temperature in bed with a thick blanket but it was never really comfortable.

The journey to Sofia was uneventful apart from the expected stop at 2.30 in the morning for the border crossing when we again all had to pile off the train to have our passports stamped by the Turkish border police. Ten minutes later, just as we were snuggled up in our beds, they knocked on the door to check them again. A bit later on it was the turn of the Bulgarians!

This third interruption proved to be the last thankfully and we dropped off to sleep. We woke to a landscape of wooded hills and shabby villages made pretty by a very heavy frost. 

We pulled into Sofia station nearly an hour late and so were grateful that we had followed The Man in Seat 61’s advice that you should expect to spend a night in the Bulgarian capital. Although according to the timetable you have half an hour to make the connection to the once a day Belgrade train, the reality is that the train from Istanbul is generally late. He also recommends the Favorit Hotel as cheap, comfortable and convenient for the station. He is, once again, dead right!

Whilst walking to the hotel we “enjoyed” a very light sleet/snow shower (or was it freezing fog?) – wet and cold is always a favourite with Christine. Luckily the hotel let us into the room even though it was only 10 o’clock (well before the official check in time) and we spent an hour or so washing and relaxing before heading out to see what Sofia had to offer. In that time the sleet/snow/fog had disappeared.

There were some nice churches and imposing brutalist style buildings – the 6th century (Roman of course) church of St Sophia was particularly impressive – but I’m afraid Sofia didn’t have the same appeal for us as Bucharest.

On Thursday we took a day trip (by train of course) to Plovdiv – 2.5 hours back towards Istanbul – which we had read is the longest continually inhabited city in Europe. It was also the European City of Culture in 2019. This was much more appealing (once away from the area around the station) with lots of Roman remains on display, some more sympathetically restored and displayed than others and, in the Old Town, many pretty buildings and churches. It felt very different and didn’t remind us of anywhere else we have been. It’s a place we can heartily recommend – go there rather than Sofia if you only you go to one place in Bulgaria.

Tomorrow it’s back on the train heading westwards with Belgrade as our destination.

Inimitable Istanbul

Sunday-Tuesday 12-14 January 2020 The train from Bulgaria terminated at a station on the outskirts of the city which was the start of one of the metro lines. After buying the Istanbul equivalent of Oyster cards we hopped on board a train and headed towards the centre. Although Stephen had been to the city 4 or 5 before they had all been business trips and he only has the vaguest of ideas about the different parts or where the touristy bits are. And, in typical Christine and Stephen fashion, we had done little research or planning, so we thrashed around on four different metro trains trying to decide where to head for.

Eventually we returned to daylight near the Golden Horn and looked on booking.com for a decent nearby hotel. After negotiating what we considered a reasonable rate (500 lira or £65) for 2 nights in a small suite (a rather grand term!) we were pleasantly surprised that we were allowed into the room at 10 a.m. but we took full advantage and crashed out for 3 hours to catch up on the sleep missed the previous night.

Since then we have been exploring the city and thoroughly enjoying it. The Aya Sophia is awe inspiring – to think that such an enormous building more than 50 metres tall could be built nearly 1500 years ago! Equally impressive is the Basilica Cistern which is an underground reservoir 180 metres long, 50 metres wide and 9 metres high capable of holding 100,000 tons of water. This too was built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.

We took a ferry across to Asia (as you do!) and walked along the bank of the Bosporus admiring mosques and soaking up the atmosphere as we went. Then another ferry and a tram ride (each costing about 40 pence) took us to the Grand Bazaar. This was really interesting but we preferred the one in Muscat which we visited almost a year ago where the vast majority of customers were local Omanis – Istanbul’s version is definitely more geared towards the tourists.

The Blue Mosque was quite underwhelming because the ceiling of the central part was obscured by scaffolding and a mezzanine which we assumed was for refurbishment and the walls at ground floor level were relatively plain. Above this they and the parts of the ceiling that we could see were stunning but the effect was spoiled for us by the renovation works and the crowds.

The bargain of the trip was a cruise on the Bosphorus – for less than £3 each we had 1.5 hour trip up the European side to the second of the two bridges over the waterway and back down the Asian side. Granted the English commentary was somewhat limited being about 1/10 of the length of the Turkish version but, as Christine pointed out, the view is just as impressive even if nobody is telling you at what you are looking.

The weather has been very kind to us – chilly but not as cold as we feared it might be. There were a few spots of rain as we arrived but since then it has been dry and the sun came out after the first day.

As stated above we have had a great time here. We considered heading further east – our tickets would take us all the way to Kars which is close to the Armenian border. However, from Ankara the trains are slow and we read that the temperature was -16°. So we are starting to make our way homewards at a leisurely pace probably with a couple of diversions as we off through the Balkans. We are still pinching ourselves to believe that we have ridden right across Europe and spent three days in Istanbul having left home little more than a week ago!

Bulgarian Bummel

Saturday 11 Jan 2020 (Bummel is one of Christine’s favourite German words meaning a slow journey and is also in the title of one of her favourite books Three Men On A Bummel by Jerome K Jerome, a sequel to the Boat book.)

An 11 o’clock train meant a leisurely start to the next leg of our journey which would take us from Bucharest to Istanbul on 4 trains over more than 18 hours. This took us out through the scruffy western suburbs of Bucharest into the countryside which was as flat as a pancake and characterised by enormous fields, poor looking villages and piles of rubbish alongside the track.

After 2 hours we arrived at the last town in Romania where a policeman took the passports of all 8 passengers (3 Aussies, an elderly Chinese lady, a Hispanic Canadian, a young Luxembourgish lad and us) away for 20 minutes. We were all very relieved he returned them!

Jumping back on the train we crossed the Danube which forms the border round here and into Ruse in Bulgaria. Again our passports were whisked away for checking but returned more quickly this time. A short wait and we were off on the second train to Gorno Orjahova somewhere in the middle of deepest, darkest Bulgaria. As we moved away from the river the countryside became more rolling but the villages still looked poor and we saw several horse-drawn carts.

At Gorno Orjahova we changed trains again with over an hour’s wait in between which the the Luxembourgish lad used to find WiFi in a local bar to arrange his Turkish e-visa. (He had been a little surprised when Christine told him that she had read these are not issued at the land border we were going to cross – unlike at Turkish airports.)  However, it transpired that Luxembourg citizens do not need a visa unlike us Brits. We used the time to reserve a 2 berth couchette on the last (overnight) leg of the journey as this hadn’t been possible in Romania.

The third train of the day, although nothing to shout about from the outside, was definitely a step up on the previous two when it came to the interior. It even had power points so we could top up the charge in our phones, etc. We couldn’t see much out of the windows because night had fallen but there was one point, when we were at nearly 1,000 merits altitude, where there was several inches of snow lying on the ground.

We reached Dimitrovgrad right on time at just after 10 o’clock having taken 11 hours to cross a little of Romania and most of Bulgaria. This was where we were expecting and hoping to catch the sleeper train to Istanbul. Promisingly the arrivals display showed that the train was running only 5 minutes late and so we were optimistic that, with a scheduled 30 minute halt, we would be leaving on time. The three of us settled down to wait for 10 minutes. We were the only people on the station apart from four policemen.

Our optimism was rewarded by the train turning up as promised and the couchette attendant showed us to our cabin. We couldn’t really settle down to sleep because we knew that an hour or so later we would reach the border. Firstly, as we reached the last town in Bulgaria, their police knocked on the door and took our passports away to check that we were allowed to leave the country. This completed, we trundled over the border and then stopped at the first town in Turkey for the Turkish authorities to have their turn. This was a more onerous procedure as we all had to disembark with our luggage. We had to queue to show our passports and get them stamped. Thankfully the three carriages of the train were only carrying 20 passengers so this wasn’t too lengthy a process. Then we moved down the platform to have the luggage scanned. This was a very cursory inspection as the cases went through the scanner very fast and the one official didn’t seem to be paying much attention to the screen.

This all took well over an hour so we were grateful that we weren’t crossing in the high season and this combined with putting the clock forward an hour for the Turkish time zone meant that we had only 4 hours until we reached our final station on the outskirts of Istanbul.

We are so chuffed to have travelled overland all the way to Istanbul on a total of 12 trains. When we set off we weren’t sure we would make it, but thanks to the brilliant and accurate information on www.seat61.com it was far easier than we had imagined.

Beautiful Bucharest

Friday 10 Jan 2020 We took a day’s rest from the train travel in order to further explore Bucharest, particularly given that we may never return (a thought that is under serious reconsideration after today’s experience).

After breakfast we headed to the Casa de Bilete at the Gara da Nord (Christine is fascinated by the obvious close links that Romanian has with French and Italian) to book our tickets for tomorrow’s journey across Bulgaria. Here we “enjoyed” what many will think of as typical Communist era service with the lady insisting on completing punching holes in a large pile of papers before she deigned to serve these pesky foreign customers who were interrupting her very important task of filing. It must be said that this is a complete contrast to most of our experience here where waiters and shop assistants have been very helpful and generally excellent at English.

This task completed, we headed back towards the historic centre (which we had briefly passed through yesterday) by way of Cismigiu Garden which was rather nice apart from the drained lake and the semi derelict restaurant in the middle. The centre has many fine buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries but we also found the tiny Stavropoleos church dating back to 1724 which has an incredibly ornate wooden interior and lovely carved doors.

After a couple of hours wandering and sustained by coffee/hot chocolate and slices of pizza (costing less than £1 – Romanian prices are in the very affordable band) we headed north to Herastrau Park and the National Village Museum. This was started in the 1930s and has around 100 old houses, churches, windmills and barns from various parts of the country. They were all very different to British buildings with many having steeply sloping, wooden tiled roofs. Most were circled by fences of various types, some of which had their own little roofs as well.

We came back past Bucharest’s equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe (which amusingly translates as Arcul de Triumf in Romanian) and through the embassy quarter to complete a 18km walk around a city which has surprised and charmed us quite unexpectedly.

A Surprising Gem

Wednesday & Thursday 8 & 9 Jan It was a leisurely start to the day as we had decided to catch the 11.30 train to Vienna. Stephen popped out to the nearby supermarket for croissants for breakfast in the room and some excellent German rolls and cheese for lunch. Then we had a short walk back to the station via a local park and past the imposing palace of justice.

The journey through Bavaria and into Austria started Christine reminiscing about our bike ride down the Danube nearly five years ago (sheesh is it really that long since we set out on the Big Trip?) which led to a broken arm just outside Belgrade and also our many other holidays in the area. The Alps were visible with a dusting of snow, the lakes looked beautiful (but cold too) and all the towns were picture postcard pretty and spotless.

We alighted in Vienna and headed to the ticket office to book ourselves on the evening sleeper to Bucharest via Budapest. There we were given the bad news that they could not book us in couchettes but we might be able to arrange them on the train. We sat down to explore our options and saw that there was a train leaving for Budapest in a few minutes which arrived there about 40 minutes before another train to the Romanian capital left. We rushed to Platform 9 – and found ourselves back on the train we had just left!

Another city, another ticket office and again we were told they could only reserve seats for us but we might be able to arrange couchettes on the train. Deciding that that seemed to be the way of the world we went for it.

By now we had less than half an hour before the train left in which to buy ourselves dinner and food for the next day because the train was due in to Bucharest just after noon and there was no buffet or restaurant car. To make life even more interesting we only had about £1.25 in Hungarian money! 

A quick dash into KFC with payment by card and two sandwiches from a little stall in the station paid for with a mixture of our few forints and some Euro coins meant that we would not starve so we joined the shabby old Romanian train and settled down to wait for the conductor. Luckily the train was far from full (we can’t understand why there aren’t throngs of people wanting to travel overnight from Budapest to Bucharest in early January!) so we secured two beds in an otherwise empty four berth couchette compartment.

After all the excitement we decided to have an early night and turned in just after 9 o’clock. We were just drifting off when the train stopped and the conductor opened the door to murmur something about the border before he hurried off down the train. Christine hurriedly dressed and was decent by the time the door was unceremoniously flung open by a Romanian policeman asking for our passports. He went away satisfied thank goodness and after a 40 minute stop the train set off again.

But only for about 5 minutes before it stopped again and the door was opened by another police officer (female this time) who also wanted to see our passports. It is not clear to us why there were two separate checks so close together but hey ho.

That proved to be the last of the interruptions to our sleep and we woke on Thursday morning to the sight of fields and trees covered in snow as we climbed up into some mountains (the Carpathians?) in the middle of Romania.

The heating in the compartment was pretty woeful but in the corridor seemed nonexistent – you could see your breath as you made your way to the loo. (And you did “your business” as quickly as possible, there being a big disincentive to having a leisurely sit down!)

The ride through the mountains was very pretty with snow several inches thick in places but once we got down onto the plain it had all disappeared.

Arriving in Bucharest, we checked into a hotel near the station and headed off, without rucksacks, into the city. We were very pleasantly surprised. The guidebook said that the city didn’t deserve its bad rep and we would agree. There are some rather impressive buildings set on wide boulevards. Some buildings may be a little shabby or dilapidated but there are many grand ones. It seemed to us to have echoes of Paris or Vienna, even if not so illustrious yet – just give it a few decades.

We had read about the Palace of Parliament which was built by the former dictator Nicolai Ceausescu and us the second largest adminstrative building in the world (after the Pentagon). Of course it was a folly built at vast expense paid for by the impoverished people but you could say the same of the medieval cathedrals in Western Europe which we admire so much! We were left impressed by the building but conflicted by the effect it had on the people.

Off We Go

Tuesday 7 Jan 2020 The train from Worcester to Birmingham was surprisingly uncrowded compared with previous rush hour journeys we have taken on that route so we managed to get seats all the the way and they were even next to each other!

The journey continued smoothly via (1) train to Euston (2) short walk to St Pancras (3) Eurostar to Brussels (we decided French railways were too difficult at this time and we could get a refund of our Paris tickets because of the disruption) (4) short but extremely smooth change in Brussels to see us on the German ICE train to Frankfurt.

However, it all appeared to be going wrong shortly after we crossed into Germany when there was an announcement that the train would be stopping at the next station due to a technical fault. We would have to wait for another train for Frankfurt which made it look unlikely that we would make it connection to get us to Munich that evening as hoped.

We should have had more faith in Deutsche Bahn! After a 15 minute wait an empty train pulled into the platform and we all piled on. It sped off and pulled into Frankfurt Airport station only 10 minutes late meaning that we still had 3 or 4 minutes to wander across to the next platform for the Munich train.

We could now book the hotel in the Bavarian capital using the train WiFi with confidence that we wouldn’t waste another night’s hotel cost (in the kerfuffle of changing plans we had booked a room in Mulhouse in eastern France for the previous night – I told you cockup was involved!)

We rolled into Munich main station and a 5 minute walk saw us settled in our hotel in southern Germany 14.5 hours after leaving home.

Trains Not Bikes

Monday 6 Jan 2020 Stephen hasn’t (quite) forgotten how to write a blog post even though the last one was nearly 18 months ago and left our readers dangling in the US! Sorry if we left you on tenterhooks but we returned home for the funeral of Stephen’s uncle and then “life” got in the way.

Anyway, we off on our travels again! Christine has always hated the British winter (cold, dark, wet, miserable) and aspires to heading off somewhere warmer after Christmas for as long as she can get away with. Last year she surprised Stephen with an 8 week trip to the Middle East and The Maldives to celebrate his big Six Oh. This year the plan was a bit more modest – a train trip to Sicily, perhaps with a side trip on the ferry to Malta or even Tunisia thrown in.

As soon as the cheap Eurostar tickets came available in October Christine was on the computer booking us in to Paris and then trains down to Rome via Milan. The planning then ground to a halt while we waited for Italian railways to get their cheap tickets to the south sorted and Christmas got in the way.

However, over the festive period we received an email saying that because of the strike action being taken by French railway workers (plus ça change…..) our sleeper train from Paris to Milan was cancelled. This prompted a furious tapping of the keyboard to find out how we could get out of Paris and on to Italy. 

The costs started to mount up and then a suggestion was made that it might be cheaper to do it with an Interrail ticket. This seemed like a good idea but then it occurred to Christine that we could perhaps go further afield with such a flexible ticket. In fact we could relive our student days! So she leapt into her favourite website (www.seat61.com) investigating how to reach Istanbul by train.

And that’s where we’re going. Due to technical reasons (I’m not going to explain but “cockup” may be involved!) we are not leaving today as originally intended when Sicily was our destination but are off tomorrow. This has given us a chance to do the packing in a slightly more measured fashion (but we’ll still find we have forgotten something inevitably) and let Stephen go on his usual Monday morning bike ride with the U3A.