We didn’t really want to leave Turkey, but plan to return once we’ve caught the backend of the ski season in one of Bulgaria’s top ski resorts, after a final stopover in Sofia. We decided to take the bus from Turkey into Bulgaria as this was the cheapest option. We will be spending a couple of weeks at the Bansko Ski Resort where we plan to learn ski for the first time, but also doing some sightseeing around some of Bulgaria’s cities.
Before travelling there we decided to break up the journey with a couple of nights visiting the historic city of Plovdiv. We had tried to book the bus tickets on-line, in Istanbul, for the bus to Plovdiv. Alas, the booking system didn’t work so we decided to risk it and just turn up at the bus station.
Getting to Istanbul International Coach Station (Otogar)
We took a taxi from our Istanbul hotel that was located in the Sultanhamet area of Istanbul, to the metro station at Aksaray which connects to Otogar (the main international coach terminal). There was a tram station much closer to our hotel where we could have jumped on a tram but we knew they were going to be busy and not backpack friendly. The bags are just too large and heavy to climb up the steep and cobbled streets of Istanbul and squeeze amongst the commuting Turks during rush hour.
The taxi was a 10 minute ride from our hotel to Aksaray Station and cost 11 Turkish lira. Here we would be able to get on a train, that started from this location, and was going away from central Istanbul so we’d easily be able to get ourselves comfortably seated for the journey to Otogar.
Taking the Bus from Istanbul to Plodiv or Sofia
The bus we wanted to catch was the 9:00am with MetroTurizm coach company. There are about 5 or 6 different buses operating on variations of this route on the internet, but information is pretty patchy. We arrived at about 8:15 and purchased our bus tickets, from the first Metro office we came to (there are many at Otogar). The transaction was smooth and courteous, and it was a short walk from where our bus would depart at gate 121, so we enjoyed the last Turkish breakfast we’d have for a while. We were getting off at Plodiv, to break the journey up, but this bus continues on to Sofia which takes about another 2 hours if you are in the mood for a long haul ride.
Taking the Bus from Turkey to Bulgaria with Metro
Our coach tickets tickets to Plovdiv cost 50 Turkish lira each and the journey takes around seven hours. The bus was luxurious with spacious comfortable seats. Handwipes, water and tea/coffee were available (for free) and we were also given a banana muffin by the on-board stewardess. A big bonus was the bus had free wi-fi, which worked perfectly in Turkey (but not at all once we crossed the border into Bulgaria), for quickly checking emails and twitter. The bus even had seatback television sets, but as you might expect no English speaking channels, and my own attempts to upload some films from my own USB stick failed.
Immigration and Customs Travelling By Coach from Turkey to Bulgaria
Getting through customs at the border took well over an hour in total and it was freezing with a cold icy winds blowing. You spend quite a bit of time queuing outside. Only one person processes the passport checks for coaches at each side of the border and any cars that turn up take priority. One thing that I did find unbelievable is that not one sniffer dog was to be seen checking the cars and coaches laden with booty crossing the borders, a quick cursory glance from the customs officials seemed all that was necessary.
This is the exact conversation I had at Turkish passport control, I was very cold and maybe my brain wasn’t functioning as it should.
Turkish Customs Official: Where have you been?
Turkish Customs Official: Where are you going?
Turkish Customs Official: Thank you.
Having finally completed the Turkish passport inspection checks, and the searching, probing interview questions, it was time for a bit of duty free shopping before we had to go through the same passport process on the Bulgarian side.
The passport officials we’re very interested in John’s passport, due to the amount of passport stamps and visas it contains. The duty officer pointed out the large number of stamps John has and said “I see you’re a traveller” to which John replied, “I’m going skiing in Bansko” at which point he let him pass without any further questions. We didn’t realise at the time, but John was flagged as a ‘traveller’ on the computer system. The word traveller in Bulgaria seems to have many meanings, not all of them complimentary. On our return journey and exit from Bulgaria back to Turkey, John was separated from the coach party and was taken off to a an office for some real questioning, so always play nice with the immigration officials.
Duty Free Shopping at the Turkey Bulgaria Border
We stopped off at Duty Free, and with everybody else on the coach, we stocked up on cigarettes. What we didn’t know at the time is Bulgaria seems to be a nation of smokers. Cigarettes are cheaper at duty free than you can get in the shops in either Turkey or Bulgaria so make for a good buy. With regards to alcohol, unless you want a particular brand name, we found the booze duty free prices the same or more expensive than in wine shops in Bulgaria, but much cheaper than you will pay in Turkey.
A Very Bleak Introduction to Bulgaria
I remember as a teenager, the word grey being often used in the West to describe communist states back in the day. It wasn’t a color I would have associated with modern day Bulgaria who now has a seat at the European Union table. However, this is the word that sprung into my mind as we entered Bulgaria.
The weather did not help in offering much in the way of sights or light. Neither did the large number of crumbling abandoned buildings and factories along the roadside, or the repeated architecture of municipally designed dwellings for mass occupation. Remaining residents of these blocks have made their own modifications over the years, changing things like windows and doors, creating a rather chaotic and unappealing appearance.
It was a very grey day, the trees were bare of leaves, the vines had yet to produce grapes and there were no signs of life as the sun was hidden and the rain poured down. However, the weather had been similar on leaving Turkey, but the contrasts couldn’t have been starker. The feeling of economic prosperity from the newly built businesses and houses witnessed from the bus window in Turkey up to the border with Bulgaria, just disappeared after crossing. They were replaced with decay and litter strewn across the fields and roadsides, we were beginning to wonder what we had let ourselves in for.
I wanted to buy a few tins of paint and inject a bit of colour into the scenery. The only real colour came in the form of rust from the large amount of abandoned, salvage and scrap car places dotted along the roads with petrol stations that had long since closed down.
Always the optimist I was excited to see the many working horse and carts as they dashed down the roads as we passed through villages. In our next post, we’ll be sharing our first impressions of Bulgaria, lets hope they get a bit more upbeat and colourful. As we proved though, getting there is easy and comfortable using Turkey luxury buses, there really is no need to fly.