Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Istanbul-Where West Meets East

We crossed the border into Turkey at a small crossing near the Black Sea. I had read and heard that the crossing into Turkey could take around 3 hours due to the long lines. To my surprise and delight, there was no line at all! After stopping at a booth and showing our passports, we were instructed to park our car and enter the building to get our visas. Once inside, we met the friendliest border officials who guided us first to the visa window where we paid 15 euros each and got our visas in a matter of minutes, no forms, no questions, just smiles. Then we went to the second stop, customs where we showed our vehicle registration, title and driver’s license. The official looked over the paperwork, handed it back with a smile and we were on our way. We couldn’t believe the beautiful highway that welcomed us to Turkey. It was such a difference from what we drove on in Romania and Bulgaria. I almost wanted to get out and kiss the asphalt, but I restrained myself. We drove to Selimpasa to a campground about 35km west of Istanbul called Istanbul Mocamp. When we drove in we were greeted by a choir of frogs who lived in a pond at our campground. Their sound was really unique and incredibly loud both of which made us laugh. It was so nice, especially after the place we stayed at the night before in Bulgaria. I was so happy to be in Turkey and excited about all the adventures that awaited us here. While enjoying the sunset and a meal of Kraft macaroni and cheese which I brought from home, the load speakers from a nearby mosque’s minaret announced the ezan (the call to prayer). In Turkey there are five calls to prayer each day (sunrise, noon, midday, sunset and night), so we would hear the ezan many more times throughout our trip, but this first one was especially memorable.

Istanbul (June 1-3)
The next day we headed into the city of Istanbul. A Dutch couple we met the night before at our campground suggested that we do what they did and leave our car at the campground, take public transportation and stay overnight in Istanbul since the commute takes many hours. We followed their suggestion and were glad. After two different buses and a tram winding through packed streets, we finally arrived in the center of Istanbul 3.5 hours later. We checked into Hotel Ararat in the Sultanahmet district. This area is “Old Istanbul” and is designated a Unesco World Heritage site. It was a perfect location to stay since the majority of sights are located here. As a bonus, our hotel had an incredible view of one of the main sights, the Blue Mosque, from its lovely rooftop terrace.

Breakfast at Hotel Ararat

One of our main things to do in Istanbul was to pick up our visas for Iran at the Iranian Consulate, so after checking into the hotel we headed straight to the consulate where we left our passports and were told to return the next morning. With the rest of the day ahead of us, I decided to visit one of the famous sites, Aya Sofya. This building was built as a church by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD and it reigned as the greatest church in the Christian world until the Ottoman Conquest in 1453 when Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque. It remained a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, made it a museum.

                                                                       Aya Sofya

Inside Aya Sofya
In the evening, Stani and I visited the Blue Mosque. It’s impressive from the outside but even more breathtaking from the inside with its blue tiles numbering in the tens of thousands, hundreds of windows and huge central prayer space. This mosque was built between 1606-1616 to rival and even surpass Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. We find the mosque truly breathtaking. Afterwards we walked through a bazaar with shops selling plates, tiles, carpets, hanging lanterns and other Turkish goods and on to a street filled with restaurants and cafes. We found a nice restaurant and ate dinner on the rooftop terrace with a great view of the Blue Mosque on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other.

Ceiling of Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque from rooftop restaurant

Ezan (Call to prayer) from Blue Mosque

The next morning we went to the Iranian Consulate and waiting for us were our passports, visas for Iran and a plate full of cookies. We happily accepted two cookies and were on our way to see more of Istanbul. Topkapi Palace was our first stop. The palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1453-1839 is definitely a must see! There are four courtyards, ornate buildings and exhibits of costumes, weapons and gifts given by other countries which all give a glimpse of the lavish lifestyles of the sultans.

Imperial Council Chamber within Topkapi Palace

Young boys dressed up for a ritual of passage ceremony

The highlight of the palace, architecturally speaking, is visiting the harem. Because there is an additional admission price, the crowds thin out significantly which was a welcome relief. This area was the private living area of the sultan, his wives, concubines, other family members and eunuch servants. I can only imagine that living in such a place would be a daily soap opera, but Harem life on the other hand was governed by tradition, obligation and ceremony. Interestingly the word harem really just means private.

Sultan Murat III's private chamber inside the Harem

After the palace we stopped for a quick lunch of pide (Turkish pizza) and then walked to the Galata Bridge with views of the Golden Horn on one side and the Bosphorus Strait on the other. The Bosphorus divides European Istanbul (the West) from Asian Istanbul (the East). In the early evening we headed back by public transport to our campground, this time it took us only 3 hours to get back. When we put our heads down at the end of the day, we were exhausted but full of good feelings for having the opportunity to be able to experience such an incredible city as Istanbul with its kind people, history and beauty.

View of the Bosphorus from Galata Bridge

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Cartographer’s status report (May 5th to June 1st)

After nearly a month on the road we are where we planned to be. We successfully crossed Europe from the northern most point of mainland Britain (Dunnet Head, Scotland) to the southeastern most point of Europe (the western bank of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey). We have had a great time and are so happy and thankful that everything went well and that we have the ability and desire to continue our trip into Turkey and the Middle East. Stay tuned…

Our route so far

Friday, June 11, 2010

Romania and Bulgaria (May 28-June 1)

I don’t know many Americans that have been to Romania and Bulgaria and these are the first countries of our trip that I’ve also never been to before. We keep saying, “Now our trip has really started”, and upon entering Romania we say it again.

Romania and Bulgaria were in many ways our first real tests of the trip. We would visit places that are less wealthy and have different histories and cultures than Western Europe (What images does Transylvania bring to mind versus London or Frankfurt?). We were also worried about theft, especially car theft. Our guidebooks, friends that had been here, and friends that hadn’t, all told us to watch our belongings and our car. A Czech friend summarized the common message with, “Every one of my friends that drove to Bulgaria with their own car came back without it.” An Austrian friend said basically the same about Romania. Since our car is our home and our trip, we were concerned.

On May 28th we hit the road early to hopefully reach our destination in Romania – Sighisoara, Transylvania, from where we were staying in Hungary. The roads to the border are fine and the border crossing also goes smoothly. Romania is part of the EU but a real border is in place because Romania isn’t part of the Schengen agreement. We give our passports and vehicle registration to the official that comes to our car, wait 5 minutes, and are told to go on. The rest of our drive, nearly 12 hours, is pretty tough though.

Horse-drawn buggie

The road passes through countless villages and most of the time we can only average 30 mph. Then traffic becomes heavy and we really notice the great variety of vehicles using the road, ranging from horse-drawn buggies to giant intra-EU lorries, all using the same narrow road passing through the center of every village. In addition to the folks trying to get through town, there are plenty of residents sitting, strolling or playing, chickens scratching in the dirt, and cattle being herded through town as well. One stretch of road, perhaps 10 miles long takes us about an hour because in addition to the congestion, the road is littered with the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen. Not sure what happens if your tire drops into a square-edged, 18” deep, 2 feet diameter hole, but I think it’s more than a flat tire or a bent wheel. And there aren’t just one or two holes like this; we swerve around thousands of these while semi-trucks, farm tractors and communist era “Dacia” cars (Kirstin says they look like old Saabs; I’m too much of a Saab snob to agree) do the same in the opposite direction. No mistakes allowed here!

As we approach Sighisoara the road becomes an excellent, fun-to-drive climbing mountain road and we are pleasantly surprised about Sighisoara and our home for the night, Camping Aquarius, which has grassy spots, internet, is right downtown and has gated access. On our way to dinner we walk past the stunningly beautiful Orthodox Cathedral and have some delicious stone-oven baked pizza with Romanian Ciuc beer and a straight-on view of the illuminated Sighisoara Citadel, the walled city where Vlad Dracula was born.

Sighisoara Orthodox Cathedral

The next day (May 29th) we go inside the Sighisoara Citadel, admire the clock tower and see where Vlad ‘Tepes’ (the impailer) Draculea was born and lived until he was 4. Vlad Dracula the historical figure was the ruling prince of Wallachia from 1456-62 and 1476-77. His nickname came from the terrible and inhumane way he tortured and executed his enemies including the Turks. His cruelty was not unusual during the times, however. Vlad Dracula the fictional character was created in “Count Dracula”, a book published by the Irish writer Bram Stoker around 1897.

Vlad ‘Tepes’ Dracula

Clock tower and gate of Sighisoara Citadel

Shoemaker’s shop in Sighisoara Citadel

In the afternoon we visit Biertan fortified Lutheran church nearby and then on to Bran, Transylvania, where we camp at Vampire Camping. On May 30th we visit Bran Castle, a.k.a Dracula’s Castle because of its architecture (Dracula probably only visited here once).

Bran Castle, a.k.a. Dracula’s Castle

After lunch we drive south out of Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains and then east to the Black Sea, where we set up camp in Mamia, a resort town that my dad visited about 50 years ago. On the 31st we walk along the beach, pack up the car and make our way south. We stop at a nice beach cove along the way and I enjoy some “Crap” with bread. Crap tastes like a salmon cream cheese spread and I hope that is what it really is.

Camping in Mamia

Stepping in the turquoise water of the Black Sea

Enjoying some "Crap"

Later that afternoon we arrive at the Romania-Bulgaria border. The Romanian border official takes our passports and registration, but after 5-10 minutes another official comes back and tells us that we entered Romania in a Mercedes! We immediately say, “no, no, no!” I say “Toyota, no Mercedes. I have never owned a Mercedes.” After a little more of “Mercedes, no Mercedes” he walks away again and we start to worry. We look for some proof that we entered Romania in our Toyota. After a while the first official brings us our documents and says bye-bye. Phew! Don’t know what that was about but I’m glad it didn’t turn into a big mess.

Relieved to be through the border, we drive south into Bulgaria, the southeast most part of the EU. We’ve come a long way from Dunnet Head, Scotland. We stop for lunch on a park bench and then have coffee in the park cafĂ©, keeping an eye on our car, and are soon joined by a couple of British ex-pats that both comment on how great the schools here are with kids. Back on the road we continue to admire the incredibly rich bird life here, including this stork’s nest with what must be two dozen sparrows’ nests built on its underside.

Stork’s nest with maybe two dozen sparows’ nests built on its underside

We continue driving south along the Black Sea coast and then stay at Neptune Camping, an old communist summer cabin settlement just south of Varna. The only other people staying there are some Dutch cyclists that have travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. They say that foreigners usually stay at the resort up the road. “Only Bulgarians and westerners with something wrong with them stay here.” There’s a grassy areas for tents and the lush trees are filled with birds but the facilities – oh-my! The cabins haven’t been fixed up or even painted in maybe 50 years and everything is damp and rotting. I wear my heavy hiking boots to use the toilet, sink or “kitchen” area, which looks more like a torture chamber to me.

"Kitchen" area

Kitchen soap

I find it interesting to see such a place, Kirstin was just grossed out. There are hundreds of cabins in clusters organized by village name. I presume party members of each village got a settlement of cabins where they would spend their summer vacations. They didn’t pay anything for this but also didn’t have any say in where their settlement would be or when they could go. Central planning, not independent travel. In earlier times the government ran and took care of the cabins, but now the place is a crumbing city in the woods. We go to sleep, happy to be next to our car.

Crumbling city of communist era summer cabins

The next morning we continue south to the Turkish border. We stop for lunch at a little chapel just off the road. It’s a great place for a picnic. Good thing we have 4WD though.

Exiting our picnic spot

Final thoughts on Romania and Bulgaria
Now our trip has certainly begun. We visited two countries that we’ve never been to before, seen some beautiful things, learned a bit of history, walked in the footsteps of my dad, held onto our car and belongings (and actually never felt unsafe or that our things were in any danger of being stolen), experienced some drama with the condition of the roads and nearly had trouble on the Romanian border. We are doing fine and ready for more. Turkey and Middle East, here we come!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


May 26-28

Today we crossed the border into our sixth country, Hungary. The border crossings so far have been nothing more than a sign indicating you’re in a new country since all the countries we’ve been in are part of the European Union and have signed a treaty called the Schengen Agreement. This treaty basically removes border controls between signatory countries. The other convenient thing for travelers is that many EU countries use the same currency, the euro. For the countries we’ve visited France, Germany and Slovakia use the euro while the UK, Czech Republic and Hungary still use their own currency, the British pound, koruna ceska and forint.

Our first night and day in Hungary was spent in an adorable village called Holloko. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The two street cobblestone village has white washed houses with dark wood trim, tiled roofs and flower boxes filled with red geraniums. The village also has a beautiful church and an impressive castle ruin. The women are dressed in folk costumes and you can walk around the village exploring the little shops with hand woven linens, woodcarvings and other handcrafts. I loved it!

Like all good villages, Holloko has a legend that has been passed down orally from generation to generation. According to the ancient legend a warlord captured a beautiful young lady and locked her up in his nearby fortress. Unbeknownst to the warlord was that the young woman’s nurse was a witch. The witch, discovering what had happened, sought the help of the devil to free the young maiden. The devil transformed his offspring into the shape of ravens. After rescuing the beauty, the ravens demolished the fortress and constructed Holloko castle on the cliff overlooking the village using stones from the demolished fortress. The ravens as guardians of the maiden watched over her as she ruled the area from her castle. The women of Holloko are descendents of that beauty and are said to have magical powers over men.

From Holloko, we drove east to Eger, a town famous for it’s wine, specifically Bikaver (Bull’s Blood). The area where the vineyards are located is intriguingly called The Valley of the Beautiful Women. I didn’t have to twist Stani’s arm to go there! We stayed in a campground called Tulipan Kemping owned by a real character that I nicknamed Sadam. He claimed that his wine was the best in all the valley. I think he was shocked when my facial expression told otherwise when I had a taste. We did however discover some really delicious wines, both red and white, in one of the wine cellars in the valley.