I thought I’d do a short post now otherwise the one I write once I reach Istanbul will end up being way too long. I’ve just spent a day off in Edirne, Turkey. I’d planned to go straight from Plovdiv to Istanbul but the other day I had a quick look into the towns I’d been cycling through and it turns out Edirne is a huge place with mass of interesting stuff to checkout, plus some great dishes to try. But first lets go back to Plovdiv…
From Plovdiv I first did a side-trip in a rental car to the Buzludzha monument which you can read about here if you like. I was very happy I chose to drive instead of cycle, I think I would have destroyed my bad knee if I had done that climb in the storm. Plovdiv is a really nice city, definitely worth a day or two, and I also met a lot of people in the hostel there. There is a chain of Hostels in Bulgaria called “Hostel Mostel” whith three locations in the three main tourist cities (Sofia, Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo). The Sofia Hostel Mostel is supposed to be incredible and this leads to most people who visit the country staying in all three locations. Despite the Plovdiv location not being so great this fact did ensure a constant flow of people which was a nice comparison to the nearly vacant hostels I’ve seen for most of this trip.
Plovdiv also offers a free walking tour run by the same company that ran the Sofia tour which I had enjoyed. We walked through the centre of town checking out the un-modernised communist post office and then up into the historic old town passing an excavated Roman chariot track and a Roman amphitheatre up on one of the cities famous seven hills (only 6 remain as one was quarried!). I also spotted another Christmas market and couldn’t buy a Mulled wine fast enough, they are wonderful in the cold weather.
The next day me and someone I met in the hostel headed up to the cities Ethnographic museum which is located in the former home of the richest family in town many moons ago. It seems Bulgaria is the inventor of the shag carpet as well as some rather creepy traditional costumes…
As we stepped out of the museum we heard a marching band playing and were greeted by a procession coming up the street into the museum. They began to give a presentation and just as I went to snap a photo one of them fired an old pistol into the air! The smoke from which is just visible in the second of these two photos…
The only other thing of note about Plovdiv is how terrifyingly quiet the town centre is at night. We went out to a bar at around 8:30pm to find out they were closing at 9! I also remembered I needed to sort my Turkish e-Visa before leaving (more of a tax than a visa) and a Canadian in the hostel was shocked to find that the visa that had cost him $60 cost me $20, weird how these things work.
I set out the next day to ride to Haskovo about 80km away. A city whose claim to fame is being the home of the tallest statue of St. Mary on earth. The ride was down one long road and was not particularly scenic, to the extent I didn’t end up taking a single photo. The road from Plovdiv city to the border between Plovdiv district and Haskovo district was decent but by the sign that divided the two the tarmac become extremely coarse. Fine for a car but it made this 80km day feel like 120, especially when combined with the rolling hills on this route.
I reached the city at 2pm and went to cheapest hotel in town (£12!). After getting showered and changed I walked over to the statue as I felt I was obliged to really. Slightly more interesting than I’d thought it would due to the style being slightly modernist rather just realist.
Whilst walking around I stuffed myself with some pizza from a kiosk (40p a slice) and realising that Christmas is sneaking up on me and raided a stall selling decorations (total cost for tinsel, a tree and two baubles… £1.80), you’ll see why in a minute.
The next morning I was up and out of the hotel before 8am as I was hoping to cycle 105km to the first town in Turkey, Edirne. If my knee played up my backup plan was to stop in the Bulgarian border town of Svilengrad. The first 30km of the day were tough going up a climb towards the town of Harmanli although once at the top of the small pass I did get a nice view down the valley (slightly tarnished by the fly tipping that is rife here).
From Harmanli to Svilengard I passed two separate groups of road cyclists out training, the first I’d seen in a very long time and I think they were as surprised to see a long distance tourer at this time of year as I was to see them! I’ve also found that the farmers shifting stuff around on horse and carts quickly change from staring at me to smiling and waving as soon as I give them a little wave first. At one point I heard police sirens behind me with something behing shouted over a loud speaker in Bulgarian, I thought I was being pulled over but was sure I was doing nothing wrong. The police car went past me but the voice had decided to go international and was screaming STOP! I looked behind me to spot a lorry hauling a massive oversized load flying up behind me and got out of the way promptly.
I detoured off of the main road around Silvengrad as I was keen to cycle over the cities nearly 500 year old Ottoman bridge famously crossed by British traveller, Peter Munday, in 1620. I’m always a bit jealous of what it would’ve been like to travel then before globalisation, but, at the same time I’m aware that this awareness we have of what the rest of the world is like is what drives us to want to travel. You can also see in the first picture of the bridge the purpose of those Christmas decorations.
The decorations have been getting me a healthy mix of rounds of applause, thumbs up from cars, the odd bemused look and they’ve definitely raised my own spirits! After stopping for a snack I was feeling good enough to carry on to Edirne and road towards the border. I took the back road, wanting to avoid the highway, and was amused to spot this sign on a little road, it reads “Istanbul” in Cyrillic.
This amused me as this was on an absolutely tiny lane and Istanbul is 300km away, in another country, and there is a Bulgarian town before the border. It’d be a bit like driving down a road in Northern France and seeing a sign pointing left for “Londres”.
I’d anticipated that there would be a big queue of lorries waiting to enter Turkey but was surprised to find it started about 7km from the border.
I cycled past the lot of them getting a cheer from one driver who was leaning against the guard rail smoking. As I reached the front of the trucks there was no queue at the car checkpoint and rolled up to the window. The man asked me what I thought was an odd question “Why are you going to Istanbul?”, I said tourism and he said “Why?” again pointing to the bike aggressively, “For fun?” I replied. Due to being tired I was bit annoyed at this because as far as I know it’s not protocol to ask an EU citizen why they are travelling out of an EU country.
Off to my left they were building an absolutely massive new border complex, I assume this is part of the preparation for Bulgaria joining Schengen as this road will now become even more of a gateway to Europe than it already is.
I cycled through the 300m of the old no mans land towards the Turkish border to see a queue of about ten cars waiting to go through. After waiting five minutes only one car had passed, this was going to take forever I thought. Suddenly I saw a Turkish border guard jogging towards me with a big smile on his face and he waved me to the front of the queue! I parked up my bike and was stamped into Turkey. As I was about to cycle on a German guy in one of the cars shouted after me and asked where I’d cycled from and where I was cycling too. Turns out he’d driven through Central Asia before and was currently driving part of a convey of Mercedes Benz people carriers from Germany to the Syrian border to be gifted to the Syrian Red Crescent, we exchanged contact details and I cycled off.
I cleared customs without being searched, I’ve now gone from London to Turkey without anyone looking in any of my bags, insane! I stopped to take one of my border photos and as I was fiddling with my self timer a cab driver ran over from his car and offered to take a photo for me, a nice welcome to Turkey…
I now had to cycle 8km or so on the hard shoulder but the road was empty almost the entire way and I was getting the odd wave from truck drivers queueing on this side which cheered me up as I was beginning to get quite cold and tired by this point.
As I pulled off the highway I went past a dog kennel which abruptly erupted in to a cacophony of noise as all of the dogs spotted me and proceeded to go crazy. A kilometre down the road I received a wonderful view of the cities huge Selimiye mosque, it’s 83 metre high minarets taking the crown as the tallest in Turkey and it’s dome higher than the Hagia Sophia.
I cycled past the mosque and up to the cheapest hotel I could find as I’d be staying for two nights. The weather is slightly warmer here, above freezing at night, so I hope to camp a couple of the nights on the back road to Istanbul.
I’d read about Edirne’s famous dish, Ciger, which Istanbulites are known to drive the two hours to this city just to eat it how it’s supposed to be made. The dish consists of breaded and deep fried Lambs liver with a side of dried, extremely hot, chillies as well as salad. I’d been recommended to get a side of yoghurt to combat the chillies.
Deep fried liver may not sound too appetising but this was a really nice dish, I’m tempted to get it again but, as the city is famous for it, it is slightly overpriced (the bill for the meal above plus a drink was about £5). I headed back to my hotel exhausted after a long day stopping to grab a picture of the mosque on my way back up the hill to my room.
The next day I headed out to spend a day in my first Turkish town and had a couple of things I’d been looking forward too eating for weeks. Firstly… a kebab. I’d deliberately avoided buying a kebab anywhere in the Balkans as I wanted to stick to the local fast food places in each city and was determined to wait for a real kebab in Turkey, and my oh my was it worth it. This spicy chicken kebab was delicious and, with a drink of yoghurt on the side, cost only 80p.
I then went on a walk around town stopping to watch the extremely vocal fish mongers trying to sell the days catch. I was keeping an eye out for somewhere nice for my second food goal of the day, Baklava. As Baklava is more of a delicacy I decided to go somewhere a bit fancy and splash out for the first time I would be having it in Turkey. I soon spotted a cafe and placed my order.
The picture doesn’t convey how delicious they were, they made all the Baklava I’ve head in England taste like heavy, soggy, syrupy lumps of pastry and I fear I’ve spoiled the cheap stuff for myself. Maybe the fact that the cost of these three pieces, £5, was 6 times the price of the kebab I had will hint at the level they were on. My heart is telling me to go back but my wallet is saying no!
Edirne is littered with mosques and fortifications, I’ve never seen so many minarets in a city this size. I took a stroll through one of the old bazaars and one of the converted caravansaries before heading over to the main mosque for a look inside.
This mosque is considered a masterpiece of the architect, Mimar Sinan, and is regarded as one of the pinacles of Islamic design. It’s main feature is that the octagonal structure requires no columns meaning that the mihrab (the marker signifying the direction of mecca) is visible from any point inside the mosque. I also got particularly lucky with how well my picture of the dome came out.
On my walk back to the hotel I also spotted one of the cities many birahanes (pub’s). In Istanbul people drink out in the open but in Edirne (as well as in Diyarbakir that I have previously visited) I’ve noticed that, whilst completely legal, alcohol seems to be very taboo. All of the birahanes in Edirne have blacked out windows so you cannot see who is drinking inside! I must check one of these places out tonight.
Anyway, time for another kebab and an early night before I start the 4 day ride to Istanbul.
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I also want to divert the interest this trip generates towards helping out a charity that made a big differance to some friends of mine. Samuels Children Charity are a Lewes based charity providing support to families throughout the UK who are currently affected by childhood cancer. I hope to raise the sum of £5,000 from people who hear about this trip to help them continue their work, and to also keep me motivated throughout the challenges this trip will provide! If you’d like to see how the fundraising is going (or even better would like too donate!) then click here.