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Trip 7 -- The Balkans

Message 3: Tiraspol to Istanbul

Date: 13 Sep 2003 07:42:09 -0000
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Southeast Europe update #3: Tiraspol to Istanbul

I spent my final afternoon in Moldova at the striking Orheuil Vechi monastery, which was carved out of a cliff in the 13th century. I descended the stairs into the tunnel and entered the main room; when the resident monk noticed me he launched into a thirty-minute breathless description of the place. The view from the monastery, about 70 kilometers outside of Chisinau, was stunning; this was very rural Moldova, where kids still collect water from roadside wells and shepherds still keep tabs on their flocks.

After re-entering Romania and spending a few hours at the university town of Iasi, I began a long series of train trips. The overnight train back to Bucharest arrived at 5:30 in the morning and, with no plans until that evening's train to Sofia and no particular desire to spend another day walking around the capital, I jumped almost immediately on a train to Sighisoara, in north central Romania. It was nearly five hours there and six back, but it was most certainly worth the long ride. The old town of Sighisoara is perched on a steep hill and entered via an archway under an elaborate 14th-century clock, complete with figurines that strike the hour on a drum and indicate the day of the week. There's also an interesting history museum and a bunch of delightful churches. I crammed in as much as I could and then headed back to Bucharest, connecting just in time for the train to Bulgaria.

A bustling city with some unusual churches and a pleasant old town, Sofia can be explored in a day, especially if, as I discovered, the main art and history museums are closed for renovation. Upon making this discovery, I dutifully crossed the street to the Archaeological Museum. It had some interesting artifacts, such as a first-century military diploma and a ninth-century column with an inscription of a peace contract between Bulgaria and Byzantium, but the fact is that by this point I'd visited a lot of museums in succession and was feeling the onset of museum fatigue. I can recognize it because the descriptions of things - "Statuette of the goddess Turpentine. Antarctic jade inlaid with dried yak dung and the fingernails of disobedient children. Third century BC to 15th century AD." - all start to sound the same. I'll read one six or seven times, trying to digest it, and vigorously proofreading it (that a church was destroyed by a series of "carthguarkes" was the most amusing error I've seen so far this trip), and then finally I'll move on, only to return a few seconds later, realizing I'd spent so much time focusing on the description that I'd forgotten to look at the thing itself.

When museum fatigue sets in, it's time to do something recreational and relatively meaningless, so I took the subway out all the way to the end of the line and then walked back into town. This wasn't too hard, as the subway has only eight stops; when I emerged at the end, I was greeted by a shepherd with his flock and a couple of meandering cows. It wasn't the most earth-shatteringly exciting of walks, but it did take me through a pleasant park and worked up my appetite for the fabulous kavarma (meat stew with onions, tomatoes, egg, and wine) that I had for dinner.

The next morning I rather spontaneously took a local train to Koprivshtitsa. It was the kind of ride where whenever the train stopped, I couldn't tell whether it was at a station. For most of the end of the trip I was the only one in my car. When we finally did get to Koprivshtitsa, it looked just like everywhere else we'd stopped - wide-open fields against a backdrop of lush mountains - and I had to yell out at the only person on the station platform to ask whether it was the right station. It was then a nine-kilometer ride to the mountain village, on an ancient carcass of a bus that laboriously sputtered and belched its way uphill.

Koprivshtitsa is known historically as the site of the April 1876 uprising against the Turks. It's a town of only about 3000 people, and six of the old houses - most dating before the uprising - have been frozen as museums and memorials to the people who lived in them. Most of the other houses are equally old; I stayed in an 1859 house owned by a woman who rents rooms out for $8.50 a night. But above all, the town was a most tranquil place, perfect for strolling the steep streets and little stone bridges over the stream and river, and listening to the late-afternoon symphony of horses, chickens, and sheep. I had dinner to the sights and sounds of the evening rush, a procession of cows.

Monday morning I took an early bus to Bulgaria's second-largest city, Plovdiv. Here the juxtaposition of old and new was striking: There are relatively new parks, and a major paved pedestrian mall, but you get to the end of the mall and suddenly there's a 15th-century mosque and you're walking above Roman ruins. That night I got on the final train of the trip, which led me, at a snail's pace, to Istanbul.

"Hundred dollar!" and "Money, money!" were the only phrases the officer could bark in English, when we crossed the border into Turkey at 3:00 Tuesday morning. He took great pleasure, upon noting my American passport, in demanding the new $100 visa fee. "No transit visa for American!" yelled the policeman - I should have been eligible for a $20 72-hour visa, since I'd be in Turkey only until Thursday. If another American in Koprivshtitsa hadn't warned me about the outrageous fee, I'd certainly have thought it was a forced bribe. Indeed, two other Americans fought with him furiously and futilely for an hour - they weren't aware of any visa requirement and, understandably, thought it outrageous that a little sojourn into Turkey would cost them each a Franklin. I skulked back to my train compartment and hoped their border-patrol building would fall victim to a carthguarke.

The price-gouging continued in Istanbul. To visit the two main attractions, the Topkapi Sarayi (15th-century sultan's palace) and Aya Sofya (Emperor Justinian's sixth-century masterpiece, used as a church for a millennium and then converted to a mosque by the Turks), now costs $34 - more if you rent the audio guides. They are splendid buildings, certainly - the church is an architectual masterpiece, supported by a series of arches and full of gleaming mosaics and a giant tower of Turkey's best representative scaffolding. The palace allows visitors to see, among other things, the sultans' harem (which simply means their families' and servants' living quarters) and an awesome collection of period arms, including formidable swords emblazoned with beautiful Arabic calligraphy and rifles as tall as I am. It's no wonder all those other countries spent all their effort defending themselves from the Turks.

The other must-see building, the Blue Mosque, is free - and dazzling. You can't help gazing up in amazement at the intricately crafted tiles and gorgeous calligraphy and feeling serenely content. Islam forbids images of humans and animals, so decorations must be derived from geometric patterns and Arabic script itself. I seldom fail to find them breathtaking.

Walking aimlessly around old Istanbul is eminently enjoyable if you don't mind getting lost. There's the huge, rather touristy covered market; the titillating scents of the spice market; and all the streets around them, which twist and turn uphill and downhill and side to side and teem with traffic and pedestrians. Everything is sold here, everything is bargained for at length, and the pace and conversation are frenetic. For respite I had to take a ferry over to the Asian side and climb to the park at the city's highest point, where I enjoyed magnificent views of the Bosphorus stretching up toward the Black Sea.

The eating is fabulous in Istanbul, and moderately priced if you've just come from New York - exorbitant if you've just come from Bulgaria. On most street corners you can get a kebab; at the ferry terminal they sell sandwiches of freshly grilled fish off of violently rocking boats; at little stands in passageways you can help yourself to stuffed mussels and then pay per piece. But the best dining, I think, is in an alley just off of Istiklal Caddesi, in the newer northern part of the city. The alley is lined with restaurants and packed with people, and if you don't know Turkish you can just wander up and point at the salads you want. My final meal of the trip, ordered tapas-style, consisted of spicy vegetable puree, salted-bonito salad, and lamb-brain salad - it really did look like a brain, like a white model they might use in a high-school biology class, and it was sweet and creamy.

I wrapped the trip up with a drink at one of the bars on the lower level of the Galata Bridge, feeling the sea air, gazing at the protruding illuminated minarets of the city's many mosques, and watching the last of the night's ferries cross the Bosphorus into Asia.