Night Train from Istanbul to Bulgaria

Night Train Istanbul to BulgariaIn 2012 while living in Istanbul, I was fortunate to make many friends and have many adventures. This was the beginning of one of them.

If a Turkish night train sounds dangerous to you, you might want to consider getting some travel insurance  before you begin your cheap trip to the Balkans.

Leaving Istanbul is like leaving home. As I say goodbye to my friend Gaye, I can’t help but feel sad to be leaving this incredible city that delights the eyes, mind, body, and soul.

Still, the fact that the bag with all my ‘good’ clothes in it and another bag with the rest of Hanane’s and my things from Turkey both sit in Gaye’s basement means that I’m coming back.

Not to mention, I’ve got a flight to catch to Malaysia at the end of the month. And then another flight from Istanbul to North Africa when I get back. So, like friends and those we love, for Istanbul it is really only a ‘see you later.’ That helps.

Also helpful is the fact that I’m boarding an overnight train from the former Constantinople and into Sofia, Bulgaria. Not only is Bulgaria new and unknown to me, I’ve got a berth on a sleeper car. There’s something just incredibly cool about that. The cost of the ticket…about 30 euros including the sleeper.

The train itself looks old and as if it has come out of a Soviet Republic. I admit I knew nothing about Bulgaria before leaving and it was only when I mentioned on Facebook that I was going into the former USSR, that a friend told me I was wrong. Still, it was Eastern Block and hardcore communist, so I suppose that excuses my American ignorance a bit…that and the fact that I am American. Usually I do better, at least I don’t think Cuba is in Australia or Asia.
An American couple are in the cabin next to the one I share with a Bulgarian mountaineer who is just returning from Nepal. He actually lives in Seattle, he tells me Nepal was the most disgusting place he had ever visited.

The story continues below, but I thought you might want to see all the pictures I took first…the the slideshow is next with the story below it.

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Next door, the American man and woman are getting progressively more smashed and I swear I hear one of them crash down from the bunks to the deck. At the border crossing at 3 am they go to the tiny duty free stall and carry back what looks like a bottle of whiskey. When we arrived at the border the Turkish engine detached while we went through a relatively painless customs procedure. The conductor had to wake the Americans by pounding on their door for about five minutes. This was, of course, before they went to the duty free.

The two hour wait at the border was because we had to wait for the Bulgarian engine to come to us. We arrived in Sofia about 3 and a half hours late at right around 1:30 pm. Prior to that we made a stop in Plovdiv where the conductor this time spent ten minutes waking the Americans who staggered out with their clothes hanging on them the wrong way. As I had gone to sleep I heard them having progressivly more slurred conversation. Something like “Just because you fell, doesn’t mean you can’t be proud of getting up there, I mean you did it.”

I kind of loved these two. Getting shitfaced on a night train from Istanbul to Plovdiv. I didn’t want to talk with them because I was afraid it would spoil the nice spell they had charmed me with. when they staggered past to get off the train at Plovdiv the man, who looked a bit like Johnny Depp said “Hi” to me in the drunkest tones and the smell of bourbon wafted up. I took their pictures as they looked around the platform completely confused. I just didn’t want to forget them. Even if they wouldn’t remember their trip.

Arriving in Sofia, it was cold. The train station was freezing and the effect of having cyrillic alphabet all around me was that giddy feeling of culture shock that I both love and hate. I felt completely disoriented. My phone  wouldn’t work in Bulgaria, but I was very pleased to find that Bulgaria has the decency to put a wifi hotspot in the train station. Sitting in the cold station, I found my couchsurfing host’s number and then called him with Skype. You have to love technology.

He told me to go to the bus station and get a cab to his house instead of using one from the train station since the guys at the station would rip me off.

The cab was just about three euros and that took me to Tim’s door. In my pocket was the drunk American girl’s hat which I’d spotted in their cabin as i got off the train, picked up, and kept as a souvenir. It was very fluffy and very blue. I imagine it was how the two of them felt when they woke up later.

Kadikoy – A Trip to Istanbul’s Asian Side – Flashback Friday

From 2010 to 2012, I was fortunate to live in several Turkish cities. Istanbul, Izmir, and Manisa. Turkey and Turkish people won my heart over and over. There is nowhere like it on Earth or presumably anywhere else in the universe. I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in Turkey. For a time, I began to feel like a true Istanbulu, a resident of Istanbul. This was written during that time….

Istanbul

Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits in both Asia and Europe. The amazing part of that is that many visitors to the Queen of All Cities never leave the European side. In fact, a day trip to the Asian side can be interesting, delicious, and won’t cost you very dearly.

The ferry from either Eminonu or Kabatas will cost you 2 Turkish Lira each way. The trip itself across the Bosporus takes about fifteen minutes and while you are gawking at Sultanahmet from the sea on the right side or the Bosporus Bridge on the left, don’t forget to pay attention to the little tower that rises from an island in the middle.

IstanbulThe Princess Tower is a place of legends and fairy tales and dates back to the Byzantine era. While there are more than stories than one, the most famous is that of a king who wished to save his little girl when a seer told him she would die. As in most such stories, his plan backfired. In any event, keep your eyes open on the left side of the ferry.

Arriving in Kadikoy you will notice the big thing that looks like a balloon. In fact, it is a balloon. Filled with helium, the Turkbaloon takes passengers up for sight seeing during the summers.

IstanbulAfter you disembark from the ferry you will see a lot of construction work underway. This is for the tunnel under the Bosporus. In a city with 5000 years of history, every inch yields new archeological finds…and bureaucratic red tape to hinder completeion. It should be complete in a couple thousand years more.

Passing the construction head into the backstreets of Kadikoy and enjoy some shopping without the hassle of the Grand Bazaar or other touristic areas. Duck into the passageways and you will find both treasures and oddities. One passageway is filled with the odd collection of comic books, military gear, and sporting equipment. Somehow the three go together.

IstanbulDifferent passageways have different themes so you can find book areas, clothing areas, and of course there are the street vendors offering all kinds of deals on all kinds of things. In fact, Kadikoy is home to the biggest food market in all of Turkey!

Further along pull a chair up to one of the tables at Hamsi. Hamsi is oneIstanbul of the best kept secrets in Istanbul. Here you can enjoy great mezas, fresh black sea sardines (Hamsi), and a couple of pints of cold Efes beer. If that doesn’t appeal to you, right next door is the most delicious lahmacun (Turkish pizza) in the city. Some may argue about this, but when you taste either the meat or the cheese version, you will know the truth. Don’t forget to sprinkle the purple spice on it. It’s a form of poison ivy, but don’t worry, it’s not poison, it’s slightly bitter and delicious. Make sure you also sample their fresh Ayran (yogurt drink).

In fact, Kadikoy is filled with bars, restaurants, and even cinemas. This neighborhood dates back to about 5500 B.C. and today has approximately a half million residents. With all that, a trip to Kadikoy is definitely worth your time.

 

Turkey and All The Trimmings – Diving into Culinary Istanbul

I’m thankful that I had the chance to live and work in Turkey for several years. On this Thanksgiving, I am in Hawaii, but I look back at Turkey…and all the Trimmings. Happy Thanksgiving from Vagobond!

The Blue Mosque Spiritual Center of Istanbul

I love Istanbul. It’s big, it’s ancient, it’s filled with people from all over the world, but most of all – it’s delicious. Like the city, the food of Istanbul is a mixture of the large, the old, the international and, well, deliciousness. To help explain what I mean by that – here’s a very brief history of Turkey.

Turkey was the birthplace of the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the greater part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, it was the Eastern Roman Empire, and it controlled Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa as part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, Turkey was split into regions controlled by different European powers and after Attaturks’ war of Independence it became modern Turkey. The Western part of Turkey is in Europe, the Eastern part of Turkey is in Asia. If you’re looking for the center of the world – Turkey is it. If you’re looking for a world cuisine, go no further than Istanbul.

Peacock was a delicacy served in Ottoman Palaces for a different kind of Thanksgiving

Italy may be the birthplace of pizza, but when you go to Turkey you get something more magical. Pide. Cooked in wood fired brick ovens and served on long wooden planks, pide is essentially a large pizza stretched out until it is often more than a meter long and a hand wide. This is the ultimate Turkish fast food and it’s a great place to start when you want to eat Turkey with all the trimmings. Pide isn’t the real Turkish Pizza though, that distinction belongs to lahmahcun.

Pide in Turkey

Pide is the longest pizza in the world!

Lahmahcun is a thin oval shaped Turkish pizza on a very thin pita crust. You can get a cheese lahmahcun or the traditional which is finely chopped meat and herbs baked until crispy. To eat it in the true traditional style, squeeze a bit of lemon on it, put a small bunch of parsley or sorrel on it, and then sprinkle it with sumac. North Americans invariably ask “Isn’t that poison?” and while there is indeed a poison sumac (similar to poison ivy) the Turkish version is a slightly sour purple condiment that goes perfect with lahmahcun. Now, just roll your lahmahcun up and eat it like a burrito.

This next is a statement that can cause some controversey. Turkish home food is very similar to Greek home food. The controversey comes because any Turk will twist that statement on it’s head and say that Greek home food is like Turkish home food. I sat in a cafe on Kos and watched a Turkish man try to order a Turkish coffee and refuse the Greek coffee that the Greek waiter kept offering him – was it possible that only I knew that they are exactly the same thing?

The Turkish Home is the Culinary Center of the Country

Stuffed grape leaves. Dolmates in Greek, dolmades in Turkish. I took a cooking class in Istanbul recently. A New Yorker in the class learned that we were going to be making stuffed grape leaves and said to me behind her hand “I thought this was a Turkish cooking class, not a Greek one.” The truth is more complex. Dolma means stuffed in Turkish but has no meaning in Greek. As one Turkish pundit put it “in Greek dolmates means ‘stolen’.“

That brings up a good point. Watching foreigners interact with Turkish food is one of the great Turksih delights. Americans say that kifte is like hamburger, Mexicans say that a donor durum is like a burrito, Greeks say that everything is like the Greek version, Italians raise their nose at pide and lahmahcun but then eat it with simple smiles. One of my favorite reactions was when an older English lady was eating a bowl of iskembe chorbasi (chorba, by the way is a generic word for soup in Turkish, though it is often used to describe a minestrone type soup – which makes sense when you realize that shorba is an Arabic word that is used to describe a minestrone like soup.) The English lady was obviously enjoying her chorba and asked me what it was made from. The name iskembe is derived from a Persian word – shikamba. Shikamba and iskembe both mean – tripe. Tripe soup. When I told her, she wouldn’t eat any more despite her earlier enjoyment. “I won’t eat cow stomach,” she said, “Even if it is delicious.”

For Turks, iskembe is the perfect cure after a night of hard drinking. Hard drinking usually involves drinking raki, the Turkish national liquor. An anise flavored hard liquor that typically is served with fish. For Turks the word fish always goes with raki. So, raki balik, liquor and fish. My kind of country.

In a way – with the drinking, the fishing, and the tripe – Turks are the masters of feasting. if you don’t believe me, you can look at one of the most famous of the Ottoman palace foods – a quail cooked inside of a chicken, cooked inside of a duck, cooked inside of a peacock. The North American redneck Thanksgiving version is a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey – suitably called Turkdukin. I’ve no idea what the Ottoman/Turkish version is called – but one thing you can be sure of, it’s going to be delicious.

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