Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bulgarian Border-Run

The picturesque Turkish-Bulgarian border.

As some of you already know, we just returned from spending a night in Bulgaria. We had to leave the country so that Peter could re-enter with a new visa, good for another three months. It was definitely an interesting experience.

We took the bus from Istanbul to Edirne, which is a town that boast 5 borders: two with Bulgaria and three with Greece. We were to cross the border at the point called Kapikule on the Turkish side, passing into the checkpoint known as Capitan Andreevo on the Bulgarian side. Our original plan involved catching a bus from Edirne to the small Bulgarian town of Svilengrad, near the border, where we had booked a hotel room for the night. Things did not go according to plan.

We arrived in Edirne without incident, then asked for a bus to Bulgaria. We were told to take a dolmus -- a van that is sort of a shared taxi that runs on a regular schedule -- into the center of Edirne and that we would be able to get a bus from there. When we got to the city center we asked for a bus to Bulgaria and were quickly herded onto yet another dolmus which took us to the border and put us out. Rather than waiting for a dolmus to take us back into town and attempting to find an actual bus into Bulgaria, we decided to make the crossing on foot.

From the moment we passed the first Turkish checkpoint, things began to look a little like the movie "Mad Max." The area between the borders is barren and desolate, with run-down, empty buildings on either side and a lot of construction. Apparently there will be, at some point, some very nice parking and shopping facilities, and multiple high-tech booths for cars to pass through customs and visa control. But for now there is only a lot of scrap metal, mud, and a series of small shacks staffed by Turkish border patrol who seem to have very little to do. There are no pedestrian lanes. Actually, there are no lanes at all, just a big open area that cars and buses occasionally pass through, so we had to watch our backs and be on the lookout for vehicles while we walked. We thought it was probably best not to be strolling through snapping lots of pictures of the border area, but Peter snuck a couple that give some idea of what it is like:

Empty checkpoints on the Turkish side of the border.

There was not really much to see on the Turkish side, other than a burning trash dumpster (see picture at top).
There is a duty-free shop, but the prices are as high or higher even than in regular stores in Turkey, so there seems to be no point to it.

After walking about a mile we reached the last Turkish checkpoint, only to be told that we had somehow missed an important earlier checkpoint and had to go halfway back to get our exit stamps from one of the little border patrol shacks. We finally made it to the first Bulgarian checkpoint, where the border guard did not want to give Candace an entry stamp because he did not recognize the additional visa pages that had been added to her passport. Luckily he was able to find a bare spot large enough for his stamp on one of the pages that had already been technically filled, or otherwise we might have had a problem! We are a bit nervous now that that might be an issue again in the future, but we don't really know what to do about it -- when your passport is full but not expired, the US government just adds the official additional visa pages, so what do you do if you travel so much? Maybe it was just that this particular border is not one where American citizens pass much so they did not recognize what they were seeing. We hope!
(We'll get back with you on this when we go to Cyprus in two weeks).

Once we made it through the Bulgarian checkpoints we were not sure how we would get the last 18 km to the town of Svilengrad. But there were several local men hanging out just inside the border, asking if we needed a "taxi" into town. Of course they were not really taxis, but we took one of them up on the offer since there were no marked taxis around. Our Bulgarian friend Rossitsa had told us that this might be a problem since very few people make the crossing on foot (we certainly didn't see anyone else doing it), and that the people waiting with cars at the border would try to charge the "stupid tourists" much more than a taxi would for the same ride. We are sure that this man did. We ended up paying 20 Bulgarian leva (about $13). However, in a country in which the average monthly income is about $400 U.S. dollars, we did not mind, for once, playing the role of "stupid tourist" and giving what was for us a small amount of money to someone who needed it much more than we do.

We made it into Svilengrad earlier than we had thought we would, since we made the crossing faster as two weirdos on foot than we would have as two of thirty people on a bus who all had to have their papers checked. This meant that we had plenty of time to stroll around the town and see what there is to see. That would be pretty much nothing.

The nicest building we saw in Svilengrad.

Svilengrad seems to be a dying city. There were few people walking around. Many buildings are derelict. There is quite a bit of new construction, mostly of cheap apartment complexes, but the overall feeling of the city is such that the buildings that are half-built seem less like they are being constructed than that they have decayed to that point. The general depressed air of the the town is greatly heightened by the tradition of hanging black and white posters all over town with the names and pictures of people who have recently died. They were tacked to houses, trees and telephone poles, and taped to fences. There were dozens and dozens of them, everywhere. Other examples of what make the town so strange and slightly creepy must be accidental. We can only assume that the name of this building is a mistranslation of "hostel":

The hotel that we had booked a room in turned out, on inspection, to be of questionable character. It's not just that it was not clean, but that it seemed to be a place where certain unsavory business transactions probably take place. We declined the room and found a vacancy in what is surely the nicest hotel in town. It set us back a mere $35 or so. That was the one good thing about Svilengrad -- everything is ridiculously cheap. Our meals cost about $7 for the two of us. A beer was $1. Candace even bought Lindt chocolate bars for about $.75, and socks for the same price. Yes, it is a little weird that we went sock-shopping, but clothes were SO cheap but yet we were going to have to carry everything we bought for the next 24 hours, so socks seemed like a good thing to pick up.

The next morning we got a real taxi back to the border. We noticed that the meter had only reached about 7 leva just shy of the border, when the driver suddenly turned the meter off, but again we did not balk when he asked us for 12 leva. "Stupid tourists" once again, we even tipped him an extra 2.

Then it was back across the border on foot. There was much more traffic passing from Bulgaria into Turkey, probably because Friday was the first day of the Bayram weekend. We will write more about the Kurban Bayram holiday after we really experience it this coming week, but it is a HUGE travel time for Turks, and there are many Turks living and working in Bulgaria and elsewhere in eastern Europe, who make their way back to family in Turkey for the week of Bayram. Whereas we had seen one or two cars the day before, there were 15 or 20 now waiting in the various lines at the border. Because there are no lanes dedicated to pedestrians, we had to stand in line between vehicles, just as if we were a car. Some drivers were happy to wave us in front of them, but others would have cheerfully run us down to keep their place in line, so we had to be very cautious.

So it was back across the border in reverse. Bulgarian exit stamp: check. Duty-free shop: check. Burning dumpster: check (yes, still burning). New Turkish visa for Peter: check. On the Turkish side it was easy to catch the same dolmus that had dropped us at the border the day before and make our way back into Edirene.

We made it back into the city by mid-morning and had plenty of time to look around. Edirne is a very pretty and interesting city, and well worth spending a day (or two). It was the capital of the Ottoman empire until the Turks captured Constantinople and moved their capital there, and many of the Sultans continued to spend time in Edirne even after the capital was moved. There are several very important and beautiful buildings there. In ancient times this area of Turkey, and into the southern Balkans, was known as Thrace. The men were world-renowned as expert horsemen. The Thracians were also highly prized fighters, and slaves taken here by the Romans were often trained as gladiators for the arena. The "Thracian" was even the name of a type of gladiator who fought with a curved sword or dagger and a small shield, whether they were actually from the geographical area or not. Spartacus, the gladiator who led the somewhat successful slave revolt against the Romans in 73 BC, proving that the Roman army was not invincible, was most likely a Thracian.

Ancient Edirne was founded by the Roman emperor Hadrian and named for himself -- Hadrianopolis. The only remains of the ancient city are part of the Roman wall, including a defensive tower:

Part of Hadrian's city wall. The top section of the tower is an Ottoman addition.

The area is technically an archaeological park, but is not frequently visited and was locked up when we arrived. We were peering through the gate when the caretaker showed up, let us in, and gave us a tour. There is really not much left to see, and what is there was built over in the Byzantine and modern periods, but there are the foundations of a church and a couple of Byzantine pottery kilns. After showing us around the small site, our guide took us to the mosque next door, which is called Üç Şerefeli Camii, or "Mosque of the three balconies" because one of the minarets has three separate balconies with three separate stairways so that three muezzins can stand on them at the same time and harmonize the call to prayer (although this is no longer done). You can see the tower with the three balconies behind the Roman tower in the picture above. The mosque was built in 1447 and is quite pretty on the inside, though heavily restored:

Interior of the Üç Serefeli Mosque

Our guide spent quite a bit of time telling us the history of the mosque, and we thought for sure he was going to expect some money for his trouble, but it turns out that it is the mosque where he and his family worship, and he just wanted to make sure that we saw it. After showing us around he happily went back to guarding the Roman ruins.

We visited two more mosques next. The Eski Camii (Old Mosque) was the first mosque of the city (built from 1403 to 1414). The decoration includes large calligraphic renderings of the names of the Mohammed and his followers. It was Peter's favorite:

Calligraphic decoration in the Eski Mosque.

The Dome of the Eski Mosque.

There is also restoration work going on on this mosque. The men were busily at work:

Next we visited the Selimiye Mosque. This is an extremely important building because it was built by the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Sinan, who also designed the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul, as well as dozens of other buildings and bridges throughout the Ottoman empire. He considered the Selimiye his masterpiece, having designed it towards the end of his career when he was 80 years old (he lived to be 98). Although it is nowhere near as large as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Sinan was able to make the dome a few centimeters greater in diameter than the dome of that famous building, an accomplishment of which he was justifiably proud. It is an impressive building. The other buildings in the complex house two museums with collections of Turkish calligraphy, metalwork, etc.

The Selimiye Mosque built by Sinan

The interior and dome of the Selimiye Mosque.

After that mosque we visited the archaeological museum. It was interesting, but nothing was particularly spectacular, compared with other archaeological museums in Turkey. After viewing it, we took a dolmus out to another neighorhood to visit the mosque complex of Beyazit II, built between 1484 and 1488. The mosque itself was empty and we had it all to ourselves. More interesting than the mosque, though, is the rest of the complex. It was constructed as a hospital and medical school, and it is now a Museum of Health. The rooms are filled with dioramas showing the original usages of the spaces. The tableaux are based on illustrations in Ottoman medical textbooks from the 15th century. Here are a couple of examples:

An Ottoman doctor operates on the head of a boy who has encephalitis.

Making a viper bite a rooster, which will then become the test case for perfecting an anti-venom.

It is really cool! The most interesting space is a large centralized hospital for the insane and depressed. It was the first centrally-planned hospital in the world, a design that allowed for greater efficiency on the part of the staff. It also meant that the central area could be filled with a fountain and an area for musicians to play, because the doctors thought that the sounds of water and music would soothe the "lunatic" patients. They were probably right, at least in some cases. Here are a couple of pictures of the crazies:

An insane patient.

A "lunatic" patient.

We highly recommend the museum to anyone who goes to Edirne, although it is a bit off the beaten path.

After taking a dolmus back to the city center, we traded it for yet another dolmus that took us outside of town in a different direction to Thracian University's campus, where there is a memorial commemorating the Turkish soldiers and civilians killed in and near Edirne during the Balkan Wars in 1912-13. It is particularly meant to commemorate 20,000 soldiers who were left to starve in nearby Sarayiçı:

The memorial is interesting, and the main building of Thracian University is the old Edirne train station, which is worth seeing:

An old Turkish train in the station. Can you find Candace in the picture?

After looking around, rather than catching a dolmus back to town we took advantage of the pleasant weather to walk about a mile and a half back, down a tree-lined street with farmland on either side. We stopped at the river and had tea overlooking a bridge built by Sinan, then caught a dolmus the remaining half-mile back into town. We made a quick stop in the covered bazaar (also designed by Sinan) to buy a local trinket -- a broom with a mirror and evil eyes on it. Edirne is still the nation's center for traditional broommaking and they attach mirrors to decorative brooms to further ward off evil. Here is a statue in the city center of a man performing traditional broom making, which apparently requires so much strength that the artisans must chain themselves to a fixed point in order to exert enough force to bind the brooms!

It was also in Edirne that we finally learned why it takes packages to and from Turkey so long to get to us. Check out the Turkish UPS truck:

After a quick dinner we got on yet another dolmus to ride out to the otogar and catch our bus back to Istanbul. All in all, we rode 9 different buses that day, which must be some kind of record! But we could leave saying that we really felt like we had seen Edirne. It would be worth going back to though.

What we were NOT expecting came at the end of the trip. Our bus to Istanbul was about 45 minutes late. Anyone who has done bus travel in Turkey knows that this is highly irregular. Usually the buses run like clockwork and if you are only halfway in when the bus is scheduled to leave, the driver will take off with you trailing out the door. But this time it was very late. When we arrived back in Istanbul a couple of hours later, we saw why. There were literally thousands of people at the bus station taking buses to visit their families for Bayram. We sat in lines and lines of buses, creeping towards the station, for hours. When we finally got to the main bus station we had to get on yet another bus to go to a smaller bus station to catch a dolmus to get back to our apartment. This is a process that normally takes 30 minutes, 45 at most. This time it took almost 3 hours. You just can't imagine the people! And of course everyone was making it worse by wandering all over the road on foot, or driving on the wrong side of the road to get ahead of traffic. It was a nightmare. We highly suggest that anyone traveling in Turkey try to avoid traveling on the first day of a Bayram. We certainly learned our lesson!

But we did make the trip successfully, and got Peter's new visa, which was the important thing. Now we have two weeks to rest before our next trip, to Cyprus.


Christina said...

Glad you made it all safely. Did you happen to see the train station we passed through? I've often wondered what it looked like during the day.


Candace said...

Christina -- No, I did not see the train station, although it can't have been far from where we crossed. I have to say, Edirne is MUCH nicer than I ever would have thought based on what the border looked like in the middle of the night!

Celia said...

Sounds like quite a trip - glad Peter is legal for a few more months. I can't remember if it was this post of the one after that you mentioned your neighborhood being popular for holiday shopping. Do they give gifts for this Bayram (or any?) or is it just an opportunity for out of towners to shop in Istanbul?