At the end of March 2010, I decided to travel alone, for 10 days, to 5 different destinations.
Originally I’d planned more countries, but expensive and time concerns put me off: I didn’t want to exhaust myself, I still wanted to enjoy my time and not be constantly travelling.
Nor would I be entirely on my own; the idea was to meet up with my ex’s family in Bulgaria where she was holidaying with my daughter, so I could see her for a few days.
My original grand plans had been to start on the Italian east coast and get a ferry across to Croatia or Greece, then work my way up to Turkey and Bulgaria before travelling onwards.
I hadn’t realised how time consuming and expensive the boat connections were.
The next plan was to fly to Athens – I’d always wanted to visit and to this day still haven’t had the chance – and get a sleeper train through the Greek mountains.
Research showed the trains to be slow, unreliable and uncomfortable. Connection information was sketchy, and the flights to Athens weren’t ideal either.
Ok, lets start in North Greece, in Thessaloniki.
Nope, flights were too expensive.
Greece was scrapped. I’d already visited two or three Greek islands, I could give this country a miss this time.
Turkey, however, was a different proposition.
Istanbul held some weird fascination for me; the diverse culture, turbulent history and geographical significance of the ancient city as it’s role of gatekeeper between Europe and Asia, beckoned to me.
Plus the flights were cheap.
I was a little scared of travelling on my own there, especially after reading about the various conmen that befriend you on the street and you end up going for a friendly drink with… in a bar in which you find the door closing on you before being presented with a huge bill for the drinks. Don’t pay up, and you get beaten up.
And I was indeed approached by said conmen within 10 minutes of taking a stroll down the popular Istiklal Street to Taksim Square. True, I was alerted to their dodgy intentions by the somewhat unorthodox greeting of “Hi, wow, you have such blue eyes!” – especially from another man – but his friendly chatting was surprisingly skillful and disarming, especially with the background story that he wasn’t local himself (allegedly being Syrian) and therefore on his own, but offering background knowledge on the area and being able to suggest where to go when he ‘bumped into’ an old friend who also wasn’t Turkish, but happened to be working there so could name a few drinking establishments we could all go to…
So just be careful. I’d read the warnings online beforehand, but as a tired traveller, and with an Englishman’s ridiculously polite inability sometimes to just say ‘no‘, you can easily find yourself in a tricky situation.
The next day I adopted a trick I’d read about online to avoid eye contact in the busy streets: wear sunglasses. It was pretty sunny anyway so I didn’t look daft, and it worked well – I merged into the crowd, not looking like a tourist as I looked around without anyone being able to see my darting eyes figuring out which was I was supposed to be going.
That’s when I really started to enjoy Istanbul.
There was so much to see. I wandered around the Golden Horn, hopping on the tram and taking in all the sights. There’s the huge
and impressive former church and former mosque Aya Sofya (now museum), the 17th Century Blue Mosque with it’s six minarets and
the formidable Topkapi Palace, home to generations of sultans and their wives, closeted on the famous harem.
I also visited the Basilica Cistern, an amazing underground water storage system created by the Byzantine empire in the 6th century. That was simply stunning.
I’d learnt a few words and basic phrases in Turkish; the usual ‘hello‘ ‘can I have’ ‘please’ ‘thanks’ and ‘bye‘, etc. Saying these little words to the various people I met at the tourist attractions and cafes resulted in huge smiles of appreciation at the effort to speak their own language, so I was glad I’d tried.
I got a boat down the Bosphorus, the sea separating Europe and Asia. I drank some of the hot spiced apple tea that is sold everywhere as the cool breeze wafted by us as we sailed under the Bosphorus bridge and then back down the Asian coast. I’d actually hoped to get a boat to the other side so I could have visited Asia, but in my short time there hadn’t found anything suitable.
I sampled ‘Balik Ekmek‘, basically a fish sandwich; the fish was fresh out of the sea and fried in front of your eyes -delicious.
My favourite attraction though in Istanbul were the Hamami – the Turkish Baths. I decided to visit the oldest first, Çemberlitaş, built in 1584.
You can just enjoy the steam room and relax, choosing a self service option to clean yourself, or a number of message or scrub options. I decided not to opt for a full massage but paid a ridiculously small fee from some massive bearded half naked Turkish guy to grin at me hugely and ramble incoherent (to me) Turkish at me whilst scrubbing me down rigorously and then throwing cold water at me.
It was very refreshing actually; especially going to lie down on a hot slab afterwards and enjoying the atmosphere and history of the place.
The next morning I decided it was worth getting up early and visiting another steam bath in Istanbul before catching the bus to Bulgaria. I decided to visit Cağaloğlu Hamam, built in 1741. The haman was featured in the film Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom. I opted for a self service clean this time round.
For more on Istanbul, you can get the Lonely Planet Istanbul (Travel Guide) from Amazon. For me, it was time to head onwards to Bulgaria.
I figured that the 10 hour bus journey probably wouldn’t be so great; the only other bus journey of that length had been from Sharm el Sheik in Egypt to visit the pyramids at Giza, and that was horrendous. Mind you, the toilet had been out of order and I was suffering from food poisoning and it’s, erm, related side effects…
However, the journey wasn’t so bad. There was a toilet on board; but that too was out of order. Fortunately the bus made regular stops so my pea-sized bladder didn’t struggle too much. I also got chatting to the Bulgarian chap in front of me, who spoke excellent English; seems he’d lived and worked in Luton for a couple of years. The world being small, it also transpired that he was from a village in Bulgaria I knew well – having sold a house to a South African chap we’d remained in touch with during the years we’d ran a Bulgarian property business.
So the journey passed relatively quickly and I ended up in Rousse, which lies on the Danube river in North Bulgaria, without much
fuss. I met up with my ex’s family and spent a relaxing 3 days with my daughter. She was only 3 at the time and I’d never spent much time away from her, usually taking her for a day or two at the weekend and also popping by midweek for an hour or two to see her, so it was lovely spending some time with her in the warm Bulgarian sunshine and seeing the house we’d bought a few years back, now for sale. We went for a walk around the rock caves at Ivanovo and the fortress ruins at Chevern.
I then hopped in a minibus across the Danube and into Romania, to spend an evening in Bucharest.
More in my next post.