From Sofia to Side to see a solar eclipse
I had got back from South America on the first of February, and had spent a relaxing six weeks seeing out the winter at my parent's house, the first time I'd been at home for that long for about ten years. While I'd been away, I'd spoken to John about possibly going to Turkey in March to see a solar eclipse, and after I was back we decided to go for it. John got flights to Istanbul, but I found some cheaper flights to Sofia, and decided I'd fly there, explore Bulgaria a bit, and then travel overland to Turkey. So I dragged myself out of retirement in County Durham and headed back south. I moved into a new house in Tottenham, and after a couple of days settling in there, it was time to hit the road.
I arrived in Bulgaria on a warm afternoon, and it was good to be back in the world of Cyrillic script, almost four years after my travels through Russia. I found a place to stay and then went out exploring. As night fell I walked along the cracked and crumbling pavements, barely lit by the dim streetlights. Bulgaria was a matter of months away from joining the EU, but it was clearly a poor country by European standards.
The next day I bought a ticket for the night train to Istanbul, and then explored more of Sofia. I walked down the city's main street, Vitosha, to Yuzhen Park which contained a huge and crumbling monument, apparently commemorating 1300 years since the founding of Bulgaria. I walked on south, past an open air DIY market and the National Palace of Culture, eventually stopping exploring when I found myself amid motorway flyovers and grim-looking suburbs.
As the sun was setting I walked north to the train station, to catch the train to Istanbul. At the station there seemed to be an organised scam operating, with people latching onto unsuspecting travellers, saying there were 'tourist information' and then demanding money for 'help' given. One of them spotted me looking at the departure board and ended up walking with me to the Istanbul platform. I tried to get rid of him but couldn't, and ended up giving him a couple of leva, worth about 60p, at which he looked pretty offended. I saw another one further down the platform demanding five euros from a group of travellers.
We left Sofia at 7.45pm, and for the first few hours I had a sleeping compartment to myself. At 11pm we reached Dimitrovgrad, and suddenly there was a lot of noise in the corridor. I could hear a lot of American accents, and from what I could gather there was a large group of them all trying to find spare beds. I had two, but I had liked having the compartment to myself and so I was considering quietly locking the door and ignoring them all, but then my conscience got the better of me. I opened the door and asked if anyone was looking for beds.
And I was glad I'd asked because I ended up sharing my compartment with Dorna and Lauren from Iowa. They were part of an orchestra touring south-eastern Europe, and they were fun company. We talked for the next few hours, until we got to the border with Turkey at about 4.30am.
Leaving Bulgaria was easy, but getting into Turkey proved to be more long-winded. At every other border I've ever crossed by train, the border officials have walked down the train to stamp passports, but here at Kapikule everyone had to get off and file into a small building, where a couple of guards slowly processed the queue. If it hadn't been for the crowds of Americans I'm sure we'd have been through within minutes, but as it was we spent almost two hours there. At one point, guards started shouting and blowing whistles, and it turned out that Lauren had almost got everyone deported by taking a photo of the train.
Finally I got my Turkish entry stamp, and we got back on the train. By 8am it was a bright sunny day, and we finally left Kapikule and headed into Turkey. I slept for a while. We finally reached Istanbul at about 1.30pm, five hours late after a journey of just 300 miles.
It was cold and grey in Istanbul. I said goodbye to Dorna and Lauren, and walked from Sirkeci station to Sultanahmet. In the evening I met John at the hostel we were staying at, and we went out for a drink at a nearby bar. Here we spent the first of many evening puffing on shishas.
The next day was much nicer. We went to the Topkapı Palace, from which Ottoman sultans ruled over their huge empire for hundreds of years. The palace was OK, but better than the inside was the view outside over the Bosphorous to Asia. We had a strong Turkish coffee and watched ships passing through the straits while ferries crossed back and forth between the two continents.
For the eclipse, we'd decided to go to Side, almost dead on the centre line on the Mediterranean coast. So after a couple of days in Istanbul we got an overnight bus from there to Antalya, a tiring journey in part because overnight bus journeys always are uncomfortable, but also because a bunch of noisy Australians were on the bus as well. I cursed them all night, and then decided they were OK after all when we got chatting to them over breakfast in a cafe at Antalya's huge and airy bus station. Our transient friendship lasted until they left to get a bus somewhere, while we got another bus to Manavgat, and then a third minibus to Side.
It was hot and sunny, and right outside Side's small and dusty bus station there were some ancient ruins. The town has Greek and Roman ruins all over the place, and with a day to kill before the eclipse we wandered around and took in the vibe. We were far from the only people who had decided to come here to watch the eclipse, but the town didn't seem too outrageously busy.
I got up before dawn on eclipse day, and walked down to the Temple of Apollo to watch the sun rise. I listened to 'Mute', by Porcupine Tree - I'd done the same seven years before on a hilltop in Cornwall, and two years after that by the Zambezi in Africa. We'd decided to watch the eclipse from the end of the breakwater, and by the time we got there shortly before midday, the moon had already begun to cross the face of the sun.
Until the sun is at least half covered, you never notice the light fading, but it gets quicker and quicker, and in the dying few seconds the eeriness is incredible. The sky faded to a deep, deep blue, Venus appeared brightly near the sun, and the sun itself shrunk to a single brilliant point, and then disappeared, leaving a hole in the sky surrounded by the glowing corona.
Probably I'm getting used to seeing eclipses. In Cornwall, I genuinely thought there had been some kind of mistake in the calculations and that it had lasted about 20 seconds instead of the claimed two minutes. The Zambian eclipse was well over four minutes long, and didn't seem to go quite as quickly as the Cornwall one. This one was also four minutes, and I felt like I actually had time to appreciate what was going on.
The sun returned, to cheers from the crowd. Within a few minutes, it was like the eclipse had never happened. Daylight returned, spectators teemed away from the sea front, and we walked along to the beach to watch the Moon's silhouette slowly disappear. We chilled in the returned sun for a while, before packing up and leaving Side on a night bus to Denizli.
From Denizli I could see a bright patch of white on a distant hillside, and this turned out to be Pamukkale. A spring here spouts amazingly mineral-rich waters, and over thousands of years a huge terrace of limestone has built up. The Greeks built the city of Heirapolis here 2200 years ago, and it was a kind of health resort, with ill people hoping the chalky waters would cure them.
We walked up, ditching our shoes and padding barefoot across the soft white ground. Apparently until recently, there were hotels right next to the terraces, and water from the springs had been diverted to fill swimming pools. Without water flowing over them, some of the white cliffs turned brown, and a road was carved across part of the terrace. Recently, many hotels had been demolished, and water flowed over the cliffs again.
We paddled our way to the top of the terraces. Distant mountains towered over the ruins of Heirapolis. In the valley below, Denizli sprawled and gave off a distant roar of traffic. John had decided to stay a night in Denizli, but I felt like getting back to Istanbul, so after a look around Heirapolis I headed back down the terraces, got on the first dolmuş that passed by, and went back to Denizli to catch the Pamukkale Ekspresi back to Istanbul.
It had been a long day, starting as it had at 5am in Aydın. I was tired as I boarded the train, and would have loved to go to sleep straight away. Bu as we pulled out of Denizli, my carriage filled up with boisterous young Turks. The three in my carriage were very friendly, sharing food and practising their English. This mainly consisted of the two boys pointing at the girl and saying "prostitute!", which she responded to by pointing at one of the boys and saying "wanker!".
Night fell over central Turkey. In the morning, I woke up feeling angry with my guide book, which claimed that buses were always better than trains in Turkey. This was nonsense - I'd slept fantastically, and as I had a morning coffee in the restaurant car, we were rumbling along by the Sea of Marmara, with curls of mist rising from the waters. This was far better than the night bus to Denizli.
We got to Istanbul at 10.15am. We were two hours late but I was in no hurry. At Haydarpaşa station, I looked at the departures board, saw that a train to Tehran was leaving soon, and thought about what a fantastic journey that would be. But I had to leave Asia behind, and I got on a ferry back across the Bosphorous, to return to Europe for the time being.
The next day was grey and cold again. John had arrived back in Istanbul from Denizli, and we went to look at the Aya Sofia. Although there was a lot of restoration work going on, it was still obvious what a spectacular place the building was. Its massive dome is 15 centuries old and it's hard to believe it was possible to build things like that, so long ago.
By the time we left the Aya Sofia it was sunny again. John wanted to go to a museum, but I fancied some fresh air. I wanted to go to the Prince's Islands, in the Sea of Marmara, but it took me too long to find the right ferry terminal, and instead I randomly decided to go to Üsküdar, back in Asia and at one end of the mile-long suspension bridge which joins the continents. I walked along the shores of the Bosphorus for a while, stopping occasionally for an ice cream. The waterfront was busy, and the views over to Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet were good. After a couple of hours relaxing in this relatively laid-back part of the city, I headed back to the bustle of Sultanahmet.
I got a night train back to Bulgaria. There were no fun people to share my compartment with this time, just an angry Hungarian who hadn't much enjoyed Turkey and thought that more or less everyone had been ripping him off. The border crossing was quicker than it had been in the other direction, and we were more or less on time when we reached Plovdiv at 9am the next day. I met a Swiss girl in the restaurant car who was also going there, and we both got confused when the train stopped at a station in the outskirts of the town. We thought we needed to get off, but there was a very large woman with some very large bags blocking the exit, and the train only stopped for a few seconds. We thought we might not be stopping again until Sofia, but luckily we soon stopped at a much bigger station that was clearly Plovdiv's main one.
The station was still quite a way from the centre. I walked up Ulitsa Ivan Vazov to the central square, and without any particular aim in mind I walked up the main street, eventually reaching the reedy Maritsa River. I crossed the river but soon realised there was nothing but suburbs up here, so I wandered back into town. I stopped to look at the incredible Roman Amphitheatre, which lay hidden for centuries, right in the city centre, until a landslide exposed it in the 1970s.
My guide book didn't have a map of Plovdiv. It mentioned how impressive the old town was but gave no clue about how to find it. I wandered irritably around town and wondered if I'd have to leave without seeing it, when I suddenly chanced upon a narrow flight of steps which led up a hill. I went up, and found myself in what felt like an entirely different city, far from the concrete and traffic of the new town. Quiet cobbled streets were lined with grand restored buildings.
I found my way to the top of the hill of Nebet Tepe, where the old Byzantine city walls lie in ruins. There were people hanging around here playing music, painting, smoking and chilling in the hot sun. I sat on the walls and looked out over new Plovdiv below. Far to the south I could see the snow-capped Rodopi Mountains, with just a few rising columns of smoke from some city factories interrupting my view.