Having crossed the border into Bulgaria on Sunday night we drove a few hours on Monday morning to arrive in the town of Veliko Tarnovo – A beautiful, historic town with an impressive citadel and central monument. It was in the church of the citadel that we were introduced to some fantastic Bulgarian art which impressed us greatly. It is unfortunate that we didn’t get a chance to see other examples in Bulgaria. From Veliko Tarnovo we headed out to the Shipka pass. At the top of the mountain we climbed the 921 steps to the monument of freedom which was created to thank the Russians for their help in freeing Bulgaria from Turkish rule. Of course, the Russians invaded Bulagaria after the second world war but the monument was built by then so what can you do? The view from the top was magnificent and to make things even better a massive storm broke over us resulting in torrential rain. An opportunity should not be missed so I broke out the soap much to the amusement of passing drivers. Unfortunately, we only had a day in Bulgaria so we didn’t get the chance to explore the capital Sofia. Instead we drove straight down to Svilengrad and crossed the border into Turkey at noon. The crossing was fairly straight forward and we reached Istanbul by 6pm. Istanbul is mind-boggingly big. For 20 miles before it there are suburbs which lead into the vast, bustling city. We drove straight into the Sultanahmet area (the old town), getting our first real taste of Turkish driving on the way. The law of Turkish driving is simple – you accelerate and beep continually – to do anything else is the mark of a simpleton who must be beeped at and accelerated past. Indicators are for degenerates. We spent from Tuesday to Thursday evening in Istanbul and saw all the main tourist attractions – which to be honest are disappointing. The Topkapi palace in particular deserves scorn for being possibly the least interesting palace in the world. The bone-crushing heat and the pervading presence of irritating touts armed with every known scam in the book soon persuaded us to head further south.
On Friday we drove through the fields of Gallipoli (the scene of a great slaughter during WW1 and remembered by the Australians on Anzac day). We then visited the ruins of Troy before stopping at the town of Bergama. Here we experienced first-hand the famous Turkish hospitality. Attempting to find an internet café, Richard asked in a medical supplies shop beside the hospital where we could find one. Dr Ahmet (who spoke fluent German) and his wife kindly allowed us to use their connection over a cup of coffee. As we got talking it turned out that Ahmet was a bit of a musician and specialised in playing traditional Turkish Bolzak music on the saz (a 3-coursed mandolin type instrument). We all headed down to a bar where Ahmet, the bar owner and Dwyer all played the night away over many beers. We crashed in at 3am feeling much happier about Turkey than we had from Istanbul. The next day we visited the stunning ruins of Ephesus (1800 years old). The ruins are amazingly well preserved given their age and the reconstructed library façade gives a superb illustration of how opulent the city must have looked in its heyday and how advanced the technology was. The amusingly communal latrines (30 seated side by side) had permanent running water. On Sunday we awoke to find we had a missing hubcap – odd but we had driven some rough roads. After fixing this problem with a cunningly cut yoghurt carton and some tape we headed to the famous Turkish postcard site of Pamukkale. The travertine pools were formed when warm mineral water cascaded over the cliff edge and deposited its calcium. The site is beautiful but fairly small and an hour or two was enough to cover it.
Afterwards, we stayed in the city of Isparta where we encountered more hospitality from the locals in the form of a café owner driving us to another one as he was closing. Istanbul didn’t give us a great introduction to the country but the people we met on our subsequent travels really gave us the true picture of Turkey as a land of great hospitality, with warm and friendly people who take a real pride in making a stranger welcome.