Istanbul - SofiaJune 17 in Bulgaria
After a good breakfast, I headed by tram to Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station where I reserved my berth for tonight’s overnight sleeper to Sofia, Bulgaria, the Istanbul - Sofia Express. It is a great pity that the train no longer leaves from Sirkeci Station, the original terminus of the Orient Express, as it has been closed indefinitely since 2013 for line work, and passengers have to take a bus (complimentary) to Halkali, an hours’s drive away. What would the Orient Express passengers think?
I then took a ferry from the nearby terminal Eminönü across to Kadiköy on the Asian side. I was in Asia 20 minutes later. Another hot sunny day and everywhere was packed with visitors. Although most of the big attractions are on the European side, it was nice to visit here on one of the big, bustling ferries. I took advantage of a trip up the Bosphorus which was fantastic, passing beautiful homes, impressive bridges and fortresses. At only 15 Euros for a 2 hour trip it was great value.
I returned by ferry back to Europe and took the Metro to Taksim Square, a popular tourist spot with trundling vintage trams, and packed with restaurants. At 20.30 I caught the free coach to Halkali through horrendous Istanbul traffic, arriving only 5 minutes before the train was due to depart at 21.40. I was sharing a very spacious and comfortable compartment with a former English teacher who was now living in Istanbul. I almost immediately fell asleep, only to be woken at 01.30 at the Turkish border station Kapicule. We all had to get off the train and stand in line waiting to have our passports checked. After an hour we set off, only to have the train stopped a few minutes later to have our details checked by Bulgarian Border Control folk - 3 times! Breakfast was served in the compartment by a surly, monosyllabic and unkempt attendant - a carton of warm juice of indeterminable origin and a packet of saltine crackers - no full English here.
On arrival at Sofia, your first thought is that you wish you were somewhere else. Run down, graffiti covered and quiet, deserted streets - not what you would expect of a European capital city, and such a complete contrast to lively Istanbul. I made the 20 minute walk to my hotel - the Bon Bon - and the approach to it appeared anything but Bon. However inside it was small but clean and comfortable. I asked the receptionist if I could check in early, and although the place looked empty, she told me efficiently that check-in was 14.00. ‘It’s the rules’ she said without smiling, betraying a little of her communist era past.
I was however permitted to leave my luggage and set off. I joined an excellent 2 hour walking tour of Sofia which was led by a professional but humorous young guide. He gave us a great insight into the history of the city including his memories as a child both before and after the fall of communism in 1989. He also taught us that nodding and shaking your head meant the opposite in Bulgaria. (This almost caused me problems later when a heavily made up woman near the Central Railway Station asked if I was looking for company).
Although a land-locked country, Bulgaria has numerous hot springs, and our guide let us drink some water from one of these in the city centre. ‘Laydeez, drinking theez waters may increase your bosoms’ warned our guide. Well, they didn’t seem to have harmed my man boobs either.
The tour finished at the magnificent St Alexander Nevski Cathedral, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox Cathedrals in the world. The sky darkened and developed into a mighty thunderstorm, bringing the first rain I had seen on my trip to date. I took the modern Metro to the small but interesting Museum of Totalitarian Art, with its fascinating collection of posters and statues from the communist era. At night I attended the Opera House to see a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). With shaky sets, falling props and dodgy wigs, it wasn’t exactly La Scala, but the singing was good and the 35 piece orchestra fairly belted it out. And I couldn’t complain at £15 for one of the best seats in the house.Read more