Bulgaria or Bust!
The Road from Istanbul to Bulgaria
Energized by our time in Istanbul we were eager to get into the meat and potatoes of what this trip was all about: The Balkans! From Istanbul’s main bus terminal international bus routes ran to various points in Greece, Bulgaria and beyond. We chose Plovdiv, Bulgaria as our destination and I was excited for the adventure of the 6 bus ride. The Istanbul bus station turned out to be a bit tricky and confusing with a hundred different ticket offices depending on your destination. The extra time it took us to find the right office and platform cost us the last two tickets on the bus we wanted as another couple snatched them up right before we got there. So much for that early morning wake up call to reach the terminal by 7am. With a long 4 hour wait ahead of us and no wi-fi to entertain us (gasp!) we had to do as the locals do, sit and sip cup after cup of tea or Turkish coffee.
Finally on the bus we snuggled in for the ride and wondered how the border crossing would work. The bus had an attendant that busied herself with the 3 hour trip to the border by whipping up and down the aisle offering tea, crackers and Turkey’s answer to the Ho-Ho. Before long we were in line at the border and we obediently followed her instructions to get out of the bus, get in line and she collected our passports in the order in which we stood. It was all very smooth and efficient to exit Turkey and we were even given a 10 minute pit stop in a duty free shop. Everyone on the bus made a mad dash into the shop and came out carrying exactly 3 cartons of cigarettes, presumably the limit per person. This should have been our forewarning as to the quantity of second hand smoke we were about to suffer in the Balkans, but at the time it was just oddly amusing.
The line moved quickly at the Bulgarian border check as Luis and I were the only foreigners on the bus, the rest all being either Turkish or Bulgarian. The immigration agent didn’t give my passport a second glance but when Luis got up to the window it was clear she was caught off guard and it quickly became apparent that not too many Mexicans roam around these parts. She called a few of her colleagues who all quickly came over to curiously look at the passport and the exotic foreigner. A quick check with her supervisor as she didn’t automatically know if he needed a visa (he didn’t) and we were on our way, having likely spiced up her day a little. Later, we’d repeat a similar version of this at each and every border crossing we passed throughout the Balkans. While we couldn’t ever understand what the chatter was all about we could pick up the words “Mexico,” “American,” and “visa”. We figured that each of the conversations went something like this:
“Hey, check out this passport. Mexico.”
“Let me see, I want to see. Where is he?”
(Fingers pointing at us while we smile and wait patiently)
“Over there. With the foreign woman who is apparently American.”
“What do you suppose a Mexican is doing here?”
“Hey boss, does a Mexican passport holder require a visa to enter our country?”
(Boss doesn’t know either and walks back to his post to double check)
“Nope. No visa required.”
(flips through passport one last time and finally stamps it and returns it)
Later that day over dinner, he says to his spouse – “Honey, you’ll never guess the passport I saw today?”
Or something like that. We were entertained. They were entertained. Lesson learned: Americans are boring, dime a dozen. Mexicans are exotic.
Catchy campaign by the municipal tourism department, don’t you think? After passing through endless bland and dreary towns on the bus from the border to Plovdiv I was concerned that this town wasn’t going to be any different. We made our way from the terminal to the historic part of town to look for our hostel and my worries immediately dissolved. Plovdiv is one of the oldest cities in Europe and we found the center of town was quite charming. Our hostel ended being in the tiny, eclectic art district. Settled into our room and with a full belly courtesy of a nearby restaurant I couldn’t help but lean back and smile – I’m in Bulgaria! Who’d of ever thought?
In the morning we set off on a complementary walking tour of the town and loved nearly everything about it. The young tour guide who worked for tips-only had a great set of anecdotes and old legends to share as he lead us through the beginning of the tour through the more modern downtown. And right underneath the main walking street lie the remains of a Roman stadium that once held up to 30,000 spectators. They have it partially excavated and the rest is left up to the imagination with the help of a few models.
We then made our way into the small and compact Old Town with twisting streets and elegant old homes. The Roman Amphitheater was only just discovered in the 1970’s and now hosts live music in the summers. Dreamy!
In the afternoon while Luis tucked himself away in the hostel for a few hours to get some work done I went back along some of the streets we’d passed on the tour and popped my head into a few of the tiny museums and shops that the guide had recommended and simply enjoyed being in Bulgaria. Plovdiv is currently in the running for Cultural Capital of Europe 2019, and I can clearly see why. I certainly have a newfound LOVE for pLOVEdiv! 🙂