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Monday, January 9

Turkey and the Orient Express

Brett: After the long border crossing process into Turkey, it was starting to get dark, so we headed for Gazientep. Mary found the best deal in town, the Velic Hotel (€32pn) (fastest internet ever) where we stayed 2 nights to just relax after several days with not much sleep. As soon as we turned on the TV we saw a BBC report on the massive increase in violence in Syria over the previous few days – we were glad we had seen no trouble. Gaziantep isn’t a tourist town, and nobody spoke any English (including at the hotel), but it was great to have some “time off” and wander around trying the cheap & friendly local restaurants.

Although Turkey has great highways, the drive to Cappadocia was long. We bought a 50 TL (€22) KGS Toll Card to get us through the many tolls – which lasted for the whole drive across Turkey. We had booked a 3-night Christmas break at Cave Life Pension (€25pn – one of the cheapest options) in Goreme, which looked pretty run down from the outside. It was actually fine, very close to the centre of town, and it had great views over the “fairy chimneys” – tall pointy columns of rock found all round the valley. We managed to get a cave room, carved into the rock – a fantastic experience, but you pay the price with a strong-ish smell of damp. We had a lazy morning and wandered along to the Goreme Open Air Museum (€7pp) – dozens of ancient churches carved into the rock structures, including the spectacular Dark Church (€3pp extra).

On Christmas Eve I woke up early to walk up the hill behind the hotel to watch about 40 hot air balloons launching – it was fantastic to see them flying over the snowy landscape. We had Christmas Eve dinner (Norwegian tradition) at one of the restaurants in town, and sampled the local wine. On Christmas Day it started snowing and we headed to Derinkuyu Underground City (€7pp), where we wandered around lazily on our own and ignored the guide who was trying hard to get us to go on a guided tour for a ridiculous €20.

We had originally planned to spend some time travelling along the Turkish coast before making our way Istanbul but the 1000km detour didn’t seem worth it in the winter so we changed the plan and headed on a more direct route to Istanbul – and started hatching a plan to get back to the UK in time to surprise Dad for his birthday on the 9th Jan…

Mary: We headed from Goreme to Ankara through great snowy mountainous landscapes, and on to Istanbul. We crosses the Bosporus and headed to our hotel, hidden in the middle of a maze of narrow one-way roads packed with traffic. We were staying at Istanbul Port Hotel (€32), in the lively Sultanahmet district, but the parking space in front of the hotel is on a super steep hill – fairly nerve wracking when you have no handbrake! We went out to dinner and were lured into one of the expensive, touristy sea food restaurants in the Kamkapi Fish District where we were entertained by some extremely loud live Turkish music, including one instrument that really did sound like a screeching cat.

We did all the big tourist sites - Aya Sofia (€9pp), the Cistern Basilica (€4pp), the Blue Mosque (donation) and Grand Covered Bazaar before heading to a local restaurant just off the Kamkapi district where we had a really great meal for a fraction of the price of the previous night. After getting up a few times in the night to check the car wasn’t rolling down the hill we got an early start to get to the Topkapi Palace (€9pp) before the crowds (the queue was at least 500m long the previous day). It is really big and there is a lot to see, but the best part for me was the Treasury, where – you guessed it – the treasures are kept. The ancient Turks knew a thing or two about jewellery – there were plenty priceless necklaces, bracelets, crowns, daggers etc studded with wonking great rubies, emeralds, diamonds etc the size of marbles. There were also a couple of 45kg solid gold candle sticks and a gold throne with hundreds of opals, rubies and diamonds all over it – nice! It was also very interesting to see the collection of teeth, bones, hair, swords etc from the Prophet Mohammed, John the Baptist and various other AIP’s (Ancient Important People). The Harem (€7pp separate entrance fee) was a bit disappointing - the rooms all seem a bit samey after a while – maybe we are just peasants.

On our way out of Istanbul, we stopped at a big Carrefour where we bought ourselves some Christmas presents – a frying pan and a set of new tea towels for me, and an extra warm jacket and some batteries for Brett. What a treat! We spent the night at the Istanbul Mocamp (€7pp), which is actually about 60km from Istanbul in Selimpasa – it would be a great campsite in summer, but it was so cold we nearly froze to death in the night (our little thermometer registering minus 6 degrees by the time we got up) and that was it for camping until it gets warmer!

Brett: We entered Bulgaria from Turkey through the Edirn / Svilengrad border, with our fridge full of dairy although they didn’t check. The Turkey side was something like a drive-thru McDonalds: Checkpoint, Immigration, Customs, Checkpoint, thanks and come again. It took about 30 minutes, but only because there was a long queues of cars. The Bulgaria side started out well, but we needed to buy Green Card 3rd party insurance before we could go through customs which cost us a whopping €319 for 2 months. We had seen cheaper on the internet, but many of the companies offering it don’t have offices at the border, so you are pretty much stuck with whatever companies you find at your border post. For some crazy reason the insurance company would only accept payment in cash, but there were no ATMs at or near the Bulgarian border and the banks had closed early for New Year’s (do they expect everyone to carry that kind of money in cash?). After some discussion, the Customs guy suggested I re-enter Turkey and go to the duty free shopping centre a few hundred meters away to draw some Turkish Lira there (which they would change into Euros at a really bad rate). They wouldn’t let me leave the car on the Bulgarian side, so I had to drive. They cleared a huge queue of cars entering Bulgaria so that I could drive back to the Turkish side where I was waved through the checkpoint. Easy enough, and I managed to draw money at the duty free, but then on my way back I wasn’t allowed to turn the car around to exit Turkey again, since I didn’t have my South African passport on me. We had exited Turkey on our SA passports and entered the EU on our UK passports, but I only had my UK passport and Mary was dutifully holding on to the SA ones while she sat waiting at the insurance company. Finally after explaining the story to several different people I had to get a special letter explaining why I was crossing the border without my passport, and crossed back to the Bulgaria side where they just waved me through again. When I finally got back it was an hour and a half later and had been dark for about 45 minutes. Mary had been sitting in the insurance company offices desperately hoping the guy wouldn’t turf her out and shut the office as it was well past closing time, with no phone or money as it was all in the car. Fortunately for us it all worked out and we got the insurance, bought our Vignette (road toll card - €7 for a week), and headed to our hotel where we collapsed straight into bed.

It started snowing as we reached the car in the morning, so we were making the first tracks through the snowy road for a while. We turned off the highway and started heading into the mountains – after a while the roads were covered with a thick layer of snow and were getting steeper. We engaged 4x4 and were doing fine until we came to a queue of about 20 cars all stopped on a steep section.  The 2 wheel drives couldn’t make it up the hill with their snow chains, so we decided not to take a chance in case it just got worse, so we followed some boy-racers on a detour, where the roads had been gritted and were much better. The snowy landscape had put us in a very festive mood and we were seriously impressed with how well the Beast handled the snow (especially being born in sunny Durban and raised in Bloemfontein), and the BF Goodrich All Terrains have just been fantastic through the trip – we just use 4x4 on anything where the tar is not showing and the car feels very balanced and grippy.

Mary: We had booked in for 2 nights at the Pirin Palace Apartments (€50pn) in Bansko, over Near Year’s. Our batteries have not been coping with the cold weather so we were glad to be able to park facing downhill. We were staying in a studio apartment “with kitchenette”, but it was a bad description unless you can cook spag bol with only a kettle (mmm, well maybe…). We arrived on New Years Eve, so after sorting out some skis and ski passes for the next day we went out on the town. We quickly discovered that most of the bars and restaurants were only admitting people who had made reservations, despite it only being about 5:30, but we happened upon the lovely Lion Bar which we helped prop up for a few hours (great gluhwein and fajitas) before hitting the streets. After a good wander round town and some of the worst hotdogs we have ever tasted we headed back for a rest before heading out to watch the fireworks. Everyone had spilled out onto the streets and it was a really great atmosphere, even the strippers from the nearby strip club came out to throw a couple crackers and count down to the new year.

The slopes thankfully only opened at 10am to give everyone a chance to sleep in, so we set off in the morning to collect our skis (€10pppd – we had also bought our lift passes the night before - €30pppd). The weather was perfect – thick fresh snow from the day before and mostly clear blue skies.There were several long ski lifts to get to the top of the mountain, way up above a few clouds. We skied mostly the blue slopes, and even these were steeper than we both remembered from Western Europe, but we did fine and in no time we were back to the ace skiers we normally are, even getting in a couple of really technical tricks like backflips and somersaults. We had an awesome time, and before we knew it the day was fading. We took one last run down the ski road to the bottom, which took just over an hour of relaxing skiing (when we weren’t being dive bombed by amateur snowboarders), watching the sunset as we went. What a great day!

Brett: We slept in and by the time we had packed up it had warmed up to minus 12 degrees. The car started without us needing to roll-start it, but after a few minutes of driving the engine temperature started rising above normal. We stopped to investigate and saw that the anti-freeze had turned to slush puppy. We had filled up the radiator before we left South Africa but I guess it doesn’t get very cold there and the antifreeze definitely wasn’t coping with European winter. We bought some local (extra strong?) anti-freeze and some more water (the 50 litres in the plastic jerries inside the car were still frozen solid), poured it in and took some time to let the engine thaw (starting the car for a minute, turning off when the temp climbed and then massaging the pipes to pump it through by hand). Eventually all was ok and we headed for Sofia with the masses heading back from the long weekend.

In Sofia we stayed at Hostel Mostel (€15pp), which had a great vibe. We walked around town seeing the sights (there aren’t that many) before heading back to catch up on internet and hang out in the chilllout area – they also offer spaghetti with a suspicious-looking but good tasting sauce and a glass of beer included in the price of the dorm. Unfortunately our dorm also came with one very sick girl coughing, hacking and wheezing all night, and in the morning we were both feeling a bit grotty.

We got an early start towards the Romanian border at Vidin. There is a new bridge under construction, but for now the ferry (€30) is the only way to cross the Danube here. We arrived at mid day and waited 2 hours for enough other cars to arrive before the ferry could leave. The Vidin/Calafat ports are a few km apart, so we hung out on the deck with the other truck drivers. At Calafat we paid €4 port tax (they supposedly don’t accept Bulgarian Levs so you either have to pay in Romanian Leu or Euros, but once again there are no ATMs for drawing Leus and neither Romania or Bulgaria actually operates in Euros, so in the end they did accept our Bulgarian currency, when they realised it was that or letting us go without paying at all) and the Romanian Vignette (€3). The part of Romania that we entered was very rural – pretty much everyone in the villages were sitting on wooden benches outside their fallen-down houses and the whole area looked totally impoverished. Because of the delays on the ferry, we drove the last 1.5 hours in the dark, which was a little hairy with all the kamikaze Romanian truck drivers. It wasn’t a great first impression of Romania, but it was greatly improved when we reached Timisoara (quite a big commercial & industrial town) and checked into the brilliant Hotel IQ (€18 on booking.com) out in the peaceful suburbs. We went to the swanky local restaurant attached to the local football stadium (Dag Junior) where the food was great and the prices were so low we had to check if they were actually in Euros instead of in (massive mains were around €3 each) – what a good find!

The border crossing into Hungary was a simple passport check – again we had to buy a vignette which cost €10 (+50% for paying in Euros). After a while we heard a strange noise from the rear suspension – upon investigation we found that it went away when we turned up the music (it turned out later it was universal joint on prop shaft going). We stayed at the Silk Road Hotel (€13) in Budapest, which was a bit of a dump, and out of town, but near to public transport and a huge Tesco. We caught the metro to Buda, walked up Buda Hill and walked round the whole area before crossing the SzĂ©chenyi Chain Bridge to explore Pest. Budapest is absolutely beautiful and we kept seeing amazing buildings/views/sights, going “WOW”, turning the corner and being absolutely blown away by something else. Part way through our walk around town, to test our resolve, it started drizzling, but we pulled out our trump card (cheap gluhwein at roadside stalls) and kept on sightseeing. We headed to the interesting but confusingly presented Terror Museum (€7pp) which had very good displays about the misery brought upon the Hungarian people by the Nazis and the Russians, but it was hard to work out what happened when. Even still, it is a very interesting exhibition.

Mary: feeling absolutely frozen by this point, we walked to the Szechenyi Baths (€13) and spent a couple hours soaking in the heated pools. The baths were full of locals (old men playing chess) and tourists (young couples kissing) and it was great to get really warm again – in fact at 38 degrees the outside pool eventually got too hot for us. We dashed across the frozen concrete to the indoor pools and wished we could stay there all night. Eventually we headed back, stopping on the way at a dodgy-looking Chinese restaurant where we had the most fantastic chilli & peanut chicken with special fried rice. On our way home we were tempted by the 24 hour Tesco which ended up in me buying a couple of pairs of boots at about €7 per pair, earings for 1€, and a lovely warm jacket for about €20 (I had nothing smart to wear in London anyway so it was well worth it). We got back around 1am and crashed into bed.

There was nobody at the border into Austria the next morning and it felt like we had made it through enough “border countries” that we were no longer going to be asked for passports and the borders would just be imaginary lines you drive over from there on in. We had to buy a vignette again but paid €8 for a week which was better than the previous rip-offs but still crazy considering we were only planning on being there just over 24 hours. Austria definitely has a very different feel – efficient and upmarket. We stayed at Hutteldorf Hostel (€13) in Vienna, which is pretty much a model of European hostelry at its best – super organised, plenty of facilities, friendly motherly types at the front desk intent on giving you directions and making sure you didn’t get lost, and a lovely breakfast complete with the segmented round bread rolls I remember from the skiing holidays of my youth. We caught the U-Bahn and walked around the old town. They really do go a bit spazz with the sparkly Christmas lights and we felt very festive. We found a couple of interesting fancy food shops (Fortnum & Maison style, but with people actually buying stuff instead of just browsing) and had a nosey round, picking all the pretty things up, going “ooh!” and putting them back down again. After an hour and a half we came away with a couple of weird flavoured chocolate bars and some fancy pate (something like Hare and Mandarin) for the princely sum of €17 – I was delighted! Brett was quietly horrified. 

Brett: The border to Czech Republic was easy and the vignette was €12 (+50% for paying in Euros again). We reached Prague and stayed at the fairly random but comfortable Aaron Hotel (€27). We walked into town and through the old town center, across the Charles Bridge and up to the castle, by which point Mary’s cold (which she had been fighting since the Sofia dorm incident) had gotten really bad. She was pretty much able to propel herself up the steep streets with the force of her sneezing, if she aimed right, and by sunset was looking a right state. There was something strange about Prague – quite a lot of the local people we met seemed to really resent tourists (including people working in the tourism industry) and we came across several really rude people. Even still, we probably would have enjoyed Prague a lot more if it weren’t for being sick. We went for a quick bite at a cool Italian place and caught the metro back to the hotel.

From Czech Republic we headed through Germany. The autobahns are fantastic, even when driving an overlanding vehicle at snails pace. We stayed at the Formula 1 Hotel (€30) in Dortmund and wandered round the suburbs until we found a ridiculously cheap local restaurant that was still open, and had the obligatory Bratwurst, Schnitzel, Chips and Beer for dinner. We were passing through countries quite quickly at this point and didn’t stop to do much sightseeing at all. We passed through Netherlands and Belgium and stayed in another Formula 1 Hotel (€35) in Calais, France, before catching our ferry (€42) to Dover (UK). P&O ferries do a decent full English breakfast and Mary went a bit mad as she had been missing cooked breakfasts badly. It was a bit surreal to be back in the UK, but we were really glad we had made it and stopped at M&S to get a birthday cake before heading to Wheathampstead to go and surprise Dad.

So the Orient Express was a train which opened in 1883 with the original route going through Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Bucharest, Varna and Istanbul (with various later routes taking in London and Sofia) – hence the title of our blog post. Ok, we didn’t quite get to all of those, but if you look at the route on a map it looks very similar to what we did. Europe felt fairly rushed and we were on the move pretty much every day, so there are definitely places we want to go back to sometime to see again (Mary: in Summer!)

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