Entering Europe

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
Trip End Mar 21, 2008

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Flag of Bulgaria  ,
Saturday, August 11, 2007

Istanbul has a tiny train station. Stories of the Orient Express, the most famous of all train routes, which deposited its well-heeled European passengers into Istanbul throughout the 20th century, had suggested a grand, spacious and busy railway station bustling with international travellers, hawkers, porters and railway staff, arrival and departure boards furiously clicking away and trains chugging to and from far-flung destinations. Instead, it is a small box on the side of a city street. Most of its tracks serve suburban Istanbul, only two or three platforms venture further abroad. The only sign of the now discontinued Orient Express is a classy Victorian-style restaurant of the same name alongside Platform 1. Its bow-tied waiters sit at an immaculately laid table waiting in vain for customers, while the greasy hamburger stall outside does a roaring trade - a sign of the changing times and evolution of travel.

A hundred years ago this train station would have been the transport equivalent of a five-star hotel with the rich and famous stopping in for a meal before or after their decadently expensive train journey to or from Paris, Rome or Vienna. Nowadays the rich fly and the middle class drive, leaving the train for the likes of us. Indeed, a quick look around the small assembly of passengers waiting to board the 22:00 to Sofia reveals mainly backpackers and a few other budget types, certainly no celebrities or high rollers with top hats and valets as one would have spotted back in the railroad's golden years.

Our six-berth compartment is designed with economy in mind, not comfort. The two bench seats become two beds, and two more tiny mattresses fold out of each side of the wall, the top two of which are right up close to the ceiling, a death-defying leap to the ground for anyone requiring a middle-of-the-night toilet break. Our roommates for the night are Tomasz and Kashka, a young Polish couple on their way back home after a week in Turkey, and Rob, an Irish chap on a yearlong RTW. Everything folds out like it is supposed to and, in spite of the hard beds, the predictable rocking and clacking of the train sends us all to sleep. Until 3 A.M. that is, when we get to the Turkey/Bulgaria border. Now, on most European trains, a border crossing is simple as pie. Some border guards get on, walk through the carriages checking passports, then get off again, without stopping the train or disturbing the passengers. You don't even have to move. This wonderfully convenient concept has not caught on in Turkey yet. The entire train has to disembark and line up so that the solitary guy, who puts the 'bored' into border guard, give us a Turkey exit stamp. We aren't even entering a country, we're leaving one, and they make us go through all this. At three o'clock in the morning. Reason prevails as we cross into Bulgaria - the guards get on, do their thing and we're on our way.

So, thanks Turkey, it's been real. Actually, despite your European ambitions, we'll lump you in with your neighbours to the south and say 'thanks, Middle East'. You've been a real eye-opening region and one we would recommend without hesitation. You may have some sneaky touts, carb-heavy food and pervy men but those are offset by your great sights, intriguing culture and history and cheap prices. Except you, that is, Turkey.

The train pulls into Sofia station and, like a familiar taste or smell, we can sense that we are back in Europe. It just feels European. Istanbul was a real half-and-half kid of place, a Middle Eastern city trying to be European but now we are officially in Europe again. That doesn't mean everything is easy though. For a start, everything is written in Cyrillic, which renders me pretty much useless. Luckily, Jane learned Russian, and therefore Cyrillic, at school, so she can read the words and then we try to work out what they mean. Jane is much better at that than I am too. The Soviet tentacles spread deep throughout the Eastern bloc during those communist days and there are plenty of words she can pick up. What she can't recognise as Russian, she can usually understand as being similar to Slovak. When all else fails we can just ask someone in English, most people speak a little. But not much, despite it being a compulsory subject at school.

Interestingly, the amount of English that the local people speak is decreasing the closer we get to England. People in the larger cities of India and Nepal generally spoke great English, Tanzanians and Kenyans likewise. Things dropped off as we went up through the Middle East and dropped another level in Bulgaria. And we know that very few people over the age of 25 speak any English at all in Slovakia. Having said that, we are extremely lucky that English - my only language - is so widely spoken. It would suck to have, say, Lithuanian or Mongolian as your only language.

The other thing that strikes us as we lug our bags down the main road of Sofia, a city of over a million people, to our hotel is how quiet it is on a weekday morning. Then we realise that no one is honking their horns. Traffic is simply moving freely and uneventfully, without any random and unnecessary tooting. People on the street are not shouting as they converse and no one is hacking and coughing.

Apart from the relative quiet, Sofia doesn't have a huge amount to offer the budget visitor. It is an old city, one of the oldest in Europe actually, dating back several thousand years, and it has all the requisite old churches, cobbled streets and little squares you would expect. It also has the soulless apartment blocks and vast concrete town square, the hallmarks of Eastern European cities.

One other telltale Eastern European sign is the abundance of gypsies, particularly in the marketplace where they can be seen milling and lounging around. No group of people seems as universally disliked as the gypsies, the Roma. In this part of the world, where their numbers are highest, mention of the Roma is usually accompanied with a disdainful flick of the hand and a spitting noise. Common complaints are that Roma don't pay taxes, don't pay for public transport, steal and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Although this is a reputation that tends to follow the Roma everywhere they go, I have yet to experience any of it first hand so I can't say if the reputation is justified.
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