Feb 28, 2015

Museums and Churches and Transit and Plans

Since my last update, I've spent hours upon hours in a very select few museums in the old part of the city. I've attended Lenten services at several churches. I've walked around some touristy bits of İstanbul, as well as a few neighbourhoods where I was the only person in sight wearing "Western" garb. I've experienced some of the stellar transit system on my way to church in the morning when it's deserted and have been packed in too tightly to move during the afternoon rush (and any time after about 10:00 in the morning on the weekend). I've sat on park benches watching seagulls spiralling above the Golden Horn and leaned against the rail on the Galata Bridge hoping to see one of the many anglers land a fish. (Judging ‎by the lack of success I observed, I assume this is not their sole source of food.) I've had several long and lazy conversations with a man I met when we were both students at St John of Damascus Institute of Theology in Lebanon.

All of this was accomplished during the daylight hours. Evenings I've spent in my hostel, reading and catching up on the news. I know that in a city this size, there is a lot happening at night, but even if we weren't in Great Lent, that's really not my thing.

Tomorrow morning I intend to leave the hostel bright and early. (I've already confirmed that I can leave my backpack there and pick it up in the afternoon just before walking to the main bus station.)‎ Apparently the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday in Great Lent) is the second most important feast at the Patriarchate. All the members of the Holy Synod are expected to be in attendance, including Metropolitan John of Pergamum. (Reading his book "Being As Communion" was an important step on my journey into Orthodoxy.) If I arrive by 7:30, I hope to claim a seat for the duration of the services which begin at 8:00 and will wind down sometime past 1:00 in the afternoon. Following that, I'll be going for "breakfast" with an American fellow convert and then it'll be time to pick up my pack and start walking again.

Tomorrow I'll only be walking as far as the bus terminal, which is an easy ten kilometres from my hostel. There are multiple bus companies offering overnight service to Antalya, and if I manage to sleep well during the twelve hour trip, I intend to start walking again Monday morning. (Perhaps I'll walk even if I'm not well-rested, just not as far.)  It's 390 kms to the port of Taşucu and the ferry to Lebanon only runs once a week, on Monday. Two weeks should be plenty of time to walk along the Mediterranean coast, and the forecast for the next couple of days looks fantastic.‎ I looked into booking a ticket in advance, but I've decided to just show up. If I miss the boat to Tripoli by a day or two, I'll go to Cyprus instead, walk a few days to the airport, and buy a round trip ticket to Beirut. And at some point before trying to enter Israel, I'll need to book my flight home so I can show the border officials that I'm planning to leave. It seems like I've only just begun...

Feb 25, 2015

Lazy Days

Monday I was up early, and made it to church before the monks. Everything was in Greek, so although I knew where I was ‎in the services, I missed out on the specific texts for the day. My prayer rope got a lot of use.  About an hour after the beginning of Orthros, the first bus load of tourists arrived. Many of them were Orthodox, but this was the first stop of many for the day so they didn't stay long. After ten or fifteen minutes of a subdued hubbub, stillness returned to the sanctuary.

Once the prayers were completed, I headed back to the hostel, pausing along the way to purchase and devour several bagel-ish items. The forecast called for a lot of rain all day.  The streets were wet when I headed out to church, and the rain began anew shortly after I returned to my room. I slept off and on, uploaded some photos, and started investigating the next stage of my journey online. I didn't make it back to church in the afternoon, which is a shame, since they probably did the Great Canon. On the other hand, this service is all about the text (and, depending on local practice, prostrations), and staring at my smartphone for an hour and a half to follow along just ain't all that appealing.

I simply took too many days as a tourist while I was in Italy and the Balkans -- never mind the three weeks I was laid up because of the infected blister! While it might be possible to walk from İstanbul to Antalya to Taşucu in six weeks‎, that would feel very much like a forced march and would leave no time for the walk across Cyprus and then south to Jerusalem from Haifa if I want to arrive in time for Holy Week.

I still need to find a bus schedule, but I know it's at least a 12 hour bus ride to Antalya. I should be able to cover the 390 kms to Taşucu in two weeks, and it looks like ferries to Tripoli run twice a week on Monday and Wednesday. I'll need to confirm that as well, although being stuck waiting on the Mediterranean coast is not the worst thing I can imagine. Once I arrive in Lebanon, I'll spend a day or two at the Balamand before heading south to Naccache to spend a few days with my old friend Abouna Semaan and his family. Then I'll catch a flight from Beirut to Larnaca (Cyprus) and another from there to Haifa. The walk from Haifa to Jerusalem along the Israeli National Trail should take about eight days. I don't know how quickly the Easter crowds will disperse, and with Pascha just a week later, I should probably try booking accommodations online now. (It's probably already too late.)

Tuesday morning was a repeat of Monday, although they celebrated Pre-Sanctified Liturgy after Orthros. (I think that's the earliest I've ever heard Phos Hilaron.‎ {And for my non-Orthodox readers, I swear the above makes sense, but don't worry about it.}) 

It was fairly cool when I left the hostel at 7:30, but by the time I left church at 11:00, it had warmed up considerably. Since I was in the neighbourhood, I decided to do a bit of walking and visit two of the places I'd seen in 2006: the Pammakaristos church (now known as the Fethiya Museum) and the Chora church (now known as the Kariye Museum). They were both converted to mosques in the years following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, but the incredible 14th century mosaics and frescoes are very well preserved. Following that, I made my way to the Church of Panagia Blachernae. ‎ The current building dates to 1867, fires having destroyed the previous ones. I was the only person there apart from the staff, and it was an oasis of peace.  I'm sure that outside of the winter months, the gardens are quite beautiful.

I then proceeded to meet my friend Ribon, and we spent several hours together, talking and drinking tea and watching tourists. Eventually it started to get dark, so I took my leave and went to do some grocery shopping. Then I headed back to my hostel, where I ate dinner and chatted a bit with my Korean dorm-mate. İstanbul has a population of over 13 million, 18 with the suburbs, so I know there must be a vibrant nightlife. I spent the evening in my room, editing photos and writing this update. (Sorry to be so boring, Oğuz!)

At the Kariye Museum, I shelled out 85 lira for a three day museum pass, so Wednesday and Thursday I'll forego morning prayers with the monks and instead make the most of the pass.

When I visited the city in 2006, there was a massive scaffold set up inside Agia Sophia for restoration work. I'm hoping that's been completed, but I'll find out soon enough. (And this is one of the times I am sure I'll regret mailing my camera home!) Restoration work was underway at the Chora Church, so the nave was closed to visitors, but the gorgeous 14th century mosaics and frescos in the narthex and parecclesion were still visible. Additional lighting has been installed since my last visit, which was nice to see.

The weather forecast for the next two days looks pretty good, so I'll be covering a lot of ground and taking lots of photos. Not so lazy after all, I suppose!

Feb 22, 2015


Friday morning I looked at the weather forecast before layering up. It was to be partly sunny with a high of 4° and (for a change) just a light wind. The first 12 kms from Kumburgaz went quickly, so I decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant rather than dine on my supplies. By the time I was done, the weather had changed. It was less than a light rain but more than blowing mist. Blowing? Yes, the wind had picked up again.

It was then and there that I should have put on my rain poncho, but my weather resistant windbreaker ‎was enough to keep me dry at that point so I didn't bother. (sigh) It was also at that point, just a few hundred metres past the bridge in Büyükçekmece, that I left the D-100 and took a detour through town. The nice wide shoulder I'd been walking on for the last 200 kms vanished as the road headed through the first of İstanbul's western suburbs. Looking at my GPS app, it seemed as if the road through town rejoined the highway in a less built up area, and I hoped that the shoulder would reappear at that point.

I set out uphill along the sidewalk, and quickly realised this was not going to be fun. The road was more or less clear of snow, but unless individual shopkeepers had cleared the sidewalk in front of their stores, I was left slogging through a wet‎, sloppy, treacherous mess of slush, running water, and ice. Even Goretex won't help in that situation, and my socks were soon squishing with every step I took. (Thanks to the wonders of wool, my feet weren't cold for long after each new dousing.)

It took a long time to cover the next few kilometres, and when I encountered a traffic jam at 2:30 in the afternoon, I decided to call it a day. Gas station for directions, supermarket across the street for supplies, and then another kilometre of wading through ice water to the nearest hotel in Beylikdüzü. I checked in, showered, did some laundry ‎in the bathtub, and wound up watching TV for several hours after dinner. Ahhh, luxury!

Saturday I had an early breakfast and stepped out into the bright morning sunshine with the hope of reaching ‎central İstanbul‎ by early evening. I made  my way to the D-100 and was surprised at the amount of traffic there was on a Saturday morning. I was further dismayed to discover that my hope of continuing to walk along the shoulder was impossible. What little space there was between the live lane and the concrete crash barrier was filled with the snow which had been cleared from the road. 
There was a pedestrian overpass nearby, so I headed up to see if the situation improved further along.‎ It didn't, but I discovered that the overpass led to the final stop of the İstanbul‎ Metrobüs line, which runs along dedicated lanes separated from traffic by a crash barrier topped with a chainlink fence. It's a fully electronic fare system, and there was nobody in the ticket booth to sell me a card, so I made another detour along the neighbourhood sidewalks to the next station east. The ticket booth there was empty as well, but a very helpful security guard showed me which machine would dispense a pre-paid transit card.  A three-fare card cost ten Turkish lira -- unfortunately, that was the only time I expect to use it, and it's not valid on the regular city transit.

After a few kilometres, I noticed that sidewalks had appeared alongside the road. I don't know how other people have managed the walk into the city, but I was just as happy to be inside a vehicle for that stretch. About 45 ‎minutes into the ride, I spotted the towers of the western wall, completed in 413 during the reign of Theodosios II. I decided this was a good place to resume walking, so I hopped off the bus at the next stop.

I took my time, enjoying the warm sunshine and marvelling at how quickly the massive snowfall of the preceding week had melted away. My first stop was the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George, in the Fener district. This is one of several buildings in a compound which hosts the official residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch. After entering the church and paying my respects, I wound up speaking with a priest. Judging by his accent, Fr. Niphon was raised in North America. He was happy to tell me what time services are held on the weekend, and asked a few questions about my pilgrimage. Unfortunately, there is a massive construction project underway at the moment -- most of the clergy have had to relocate for the duration, and it simply wasn't possible to put me up for a few nights.

Because I'd taken the bus, it was still early afternoon and I had plenty of time to locate a cheap and conveniently located hostel. For 22 lira per night, I've got a spot in a three bed dorm room, which is even cheaper than what I'd paid on my visit back in 2006. No breakfast, though, but that's fine. There's a small grocery store just a few storefronts down where I'll be able to buy the essentials. ‎About the same distance in the opposite direction there's a souvenir shop which has several washers and dryers in the back room. For ten lira per kilogram, my clothes are now clean and dry. :-)

Sunday morning I attended Liturgy at the cathedral, and then headed to the Sultanahmet district to meet an old friend from my days at the Balamand. He and his family are living in İstanbul now, although they're from Antakya originally. Yes, he is Antiochian! (Interesting historical note: the Patriarch of Antioch has not resided in Antioch since the 14th century, when Patriarch Ignatius II transferred the See to Damascus.) After drinking tea and catching up a bit, I had time to grab a cheese pizza and some ayran before heading back to St George for Forgiveness Sunday Vespers. I'd downloaded the full text of the service, so I could follow along as it was chanted in Greek. Normally I don't bother, since the structure of Matins, Liturgy, and Vespers doesn't change no matter which liturgical language is used, but the hymnography for this service is worth burying my head in my smartphone.

After the service, I got talking with an American who's attached to the embassy in Antakya and who had come to the city specifically to begin Great Lent here. We wound up talking for two and a half hours, and would probably still be talking if not for the fact that he's heading back to Antakya at 6:00 tomorrow morning and still has a lot of reading to do this evening. As I've said before, the best part of my pilgrimage has been connecting with people. Sometimes these are residents, while other times they're fellow travellers.

I'm planning to stay in İstanbul for a week. My original plan would have seen me setting out for Antalya after only two or three days‎, but I have since revised that. Brandon Wilson recorded his walk to Jerusalem from France in "Along the Templar Trail," which I had read over a year ago while still in the research and planning stage. In the appendix, he included a list of dates, towns, and distances, and the route he took across the mountainous Anatolian peninsula involved several 50+ kilometre days, usually followed by a rest day. Because he was walking in the warm months, he didn't have to carry winter gear, meaning that his pack weighed about half of what I'm carrying. April would be an ideal time to tackle this portion, since it's warm enough to camp out (and thereby avoid those 50 km stretches) while being cool enough during the day to remain comfortable. Since I'm aiming to be in Jerusalem for Pascha, which this year falls on April 12, that is clearly not going to work for me. It is still possible for me to do this section by foot, but I've been examining a few other options.

What I think I'll do is take the bus to Antalya and then walk to Taşucu, where I can catch a ferry to either Girne, Cyprus or Tripoli, Lebanon. Yes, Lebanon!‎ By skipping the long and gruelling cross-country trek, I'll have the time to go visit some old friends before flying from Beirut to Larnaca, Cyprus and from there to Haifa, where I start walking again. That means I won't get to see much of Cyprus at all, but I think it's a worthwhile tradeoff. I'll have to find an Internet café in İstanbul, as browsing websites in Turkish (which I don't understand) is rather tricky on my smartphone.

Another travel decision I have to make before arriving in Israel is when I will return home, and from whence. When I looked at flights last summer, flying from Tel Aviv to Toronto would have cost several hundred dollars more than leaving from either Amman or Cairo. I've never been to Jordan, but on the other hand, I would love to revisit Cairo and perhaps return to St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai on the way.

And now, to bed. I'm hoping to make it back to St George's for the service tomorrow at 8:00 am.

Feb 19, 2015

İstanbul, here I come!

When I left Çorlu Wednesday morning, my weather app said the temperature was -2, but the 50 km/h wind made it feel like -11. This amused me, since one of Çorlu's "sister cities" is Alert, Nunavut.

I've decided that walking with a crosswind ‎is more demanding than walking into a headwind. While there is more direct resistance (and exposed flesh) with a headwind, all a walker (or cyclist, for that matter) has to do is press forward. With a strong crosswind (and yes, 50 km/h is STRONG), there is a constant struggle to walk a straight line.

The good news is, my windbreaker and nylon shell trousers worked very well, and my thin inner layers were enough to keep me warm. For most of the day Wednesday, the wind was coming at me from about 7:30. (If my left side is 9:00 and my rear is 6:00. I don't know how else to explain it succinctly.) That meant that by tilting my head somewhat, the floppy brim of my Tilley hat was able to keep the wind off my face. (Because it was flattened against it, but never mind.)

Right around lunchtime, I noticed a small industrial compound at the side of the road. There were no cars, but one of the gates had been left open.‎ I approached warily, but the dog house beside the gate was as empty as the food dish beside it. I looked around for a place to shelter from the wind, and saw a guardhouse. Windows on all sides, the door was unlocked, and there were three chairs behind a table. On the table, there were a few Turkish newspapers spread out.  The most recent one was from February 2. It was an ideal shelter on a sunny but very windy day!

It was 4:05 pm when I topped a hill and finally saw the Aegean Sea spreading out before me. The road had changed direction slightly a few hours earlier, bearing more east than south. That meant I was getting pushed by the wind at 90° to my direction of travel. When I spotted a hotel, I was very happy.

I decided that I would splurge this one night and stay at the massive 5 star hotel, resort, and conference centre. It was worth every penny and I didn't even make use of the spa or sauna! Dinner was marvelous, and the breakfast buffet Thursday morning made me very happy. :)

The wind was still quite strong when I left my refuge but it was considerably warmer on Thursday‎, and after an hour or so, I reached the coast and started walking directly east. Looking at my GPS the evening before, I assumed that meant I'd be struggling with the wind again all day, but the area along the coast is built up enough that the buildings served as very effective windbreaks -- most of the time.

I had picked a destination for the day somewhat arbitrarily, based simply on the distance and the likelihood of accommodations being located along the coast near a major crossroad. As I arrived in Selimpaşa, I stopped at a service station and asked about a hotel. I was told to keep straight on for about a kilometre, and I'd find an economical one beside the next gas station.

I found it easily enough, but the guys there said it was closed, and that it wasn't nice anyway. Just keep going, they said. Another five kilometres, and there's a good hotel. At this point, I put my headlamp on and adjusted the reflective strips I'd scavenged from a discarded safety vest in Bulgaria. After half an hour, I spotted a hotel on the other side of the road. I knew I hadn't walked far enough for this to be the one that had been recommended, but I crossed over‎ and went on in. The room was pretty nice, and I'm sure the view of the ocean is lovely by day, but (strike one) the WiFi signal was very weak in the room, (strike two) breakfast was not included in the rather steep price, and (strike three) the gentleman at reception told me it was cash only when I could plainly see the credit card reader on the desk behind him. I thanked them, picked up my things, and walked on.

By this time I'd been on the road for ten hours, so the next time someone greeted me in English, I took the opportunity to ask about a hotel. (I've learned the phrase in Turkish.) Unfortunately, the greeting was the extent of my guide's ‎English, but "petrol station" is easy enough to understand, and he communicated his directions very effectively. I found the hotel, but it was full. Again, I got directions in Turkish. This section of Turkey along the Aegean coast seems to be a resort area, because there were plenty of swanky properties which backed on to the coast. I settled on one, and was very pleasantly surprised when the desk clerk quoted me a price that was more than 20% less than the rates posted on the wall behind him. It's warm, it's clean, and breakfast is included in the price of the room. And he didn't blink when I handed him my credit card.

(A note about my long days: I've found that once dusk settles in, my stride lengthens and any feelings of exhaustion I may have had simply vanish. I'd written about my "night moves" while I was still in Italy, and the pleasure I derive from walking at night hasn't diminished at all. [As long as it's not raining.])

I was watching for the 100 km and 50 km signposts for İstanbul  but I was in an urban are for each one and either I didn't see them or they simply aren't posted in cities. A few minutes before finding the hotel I'm currently booked into, I spotted a sign that said İstanbul 34.‎ That's one good day's walk, but the distances on these signs are to the city limits. İstanbul is an enormous city, and it will take me a second day to reach the area where I hope to spend a few days. It's 5220 km square, and unlike some of the large "cities" in America, it has a population density of greater than one person per square kilometre. (Sitka, I'm looking at you!)

So, I may not write an update until I'm settled in İstanbul, hopefully by Saturday evening. I'd really like to get to church this Sunday, both for Liturgy and for the evening service which marks the beginning of Great Lent. God willing!

Sea of Marmara


Car Lot


Feb 18, 2015

newly shorn

I visited a barber yesterday before I stopped for the day. It was either that, or buy a comb! http://flic.kr/p/rfnXik

Feb 17, 2015

Atatürk Leading the People


Feb 17: Çorlu

When I left the hotel in Büyükkarıştıran this ‎morning, I discovered that there was at least one other option to the ridiculously overpriced and incredibly shabby place I'd stayed in. If I had walked an extra 30 seconds last evening I'd have seen it, and in another two minutes I'd have been there. (sigh) Lesson learned, move on.

It had snowed very briefly around dawn, just enough to get the roads wet and turn the dirt on the shoulder of the road into mud. However, I noticed that several westbound vehicles had several centimetres of snow covering their hoods and roofs. As I kept walking, the snow on the ground gradually increased, but apparently some regions in İstanbul got ‎hit hard, by their standards at least. (Everybody in North America, stop sniggering!)

One constant was the crosswind. It was even stronger than yesterday, and the air temperature was just a little lower. I stopped more frequently today, just to allow the left side of my face to warm up. That also meant several conversations and cups of tea. Tomorrow the temperature is forecast to remain below freezing, so even if the path hasn't dried out by then, it should at least be solid. Following the advice given me by Oğuz the other day, I'll be leaving my scarf in my backpack while I'm in Turkey. Perhaps tomorrow I'll use the t-shirt I'm not wearing to wrap my face and protect it from the wind.

And that just about does it. Tomorrow's walk will bring me to the coast, but it's about six kilometres farther than I walked today, so I'd best finish here and get settled for the night.

Feb 16, 2015

Feb 15-16: Lüleburgaz and Büyükkarıştıran

On my way out of Babaeski on Sunday, I passed by the town hammam. Had I known of its existence the night before, I'd likely have taken my first Turkish bath of the trip. I must admit, I hesitated a bit before moving on. My next stop was only 22 kms away, but I'd made plans to meet up with one of the guys from the day before when I reached Lüleburgaz, so on I went.

After walking a few hours, I spotted a cyclist approaching on the wide shoulder. As we drew closer, he greeted me in English with a North American accent. Guanto (and I know that's not how he'd spell his name, but it's the best I can do) is from Taiwan. He had gone to China to meet some friends and do a two week bicycle tour before returning to school. That was 18 months ago, and he's been riding west ever since. ‎ Since most people traversing the Eurasian landmass by foot or bike are heading east, Guanto has encountered many of them - at least a hundred‎!  It was great to exchange stories, although after standing in the strong north wind for a few minutes, it did start to get a little chilly.‎ (I suppose I could have set my pack down and added an extra layer or two.) After a few photos, we parted ways.

Unlike the previous day, there were plenty of gas stations along the road, which meant I was able to get out of the wind fairly often. At one of my stops, I'd set my pack down in the sheltered patio when another customer greeted me. Murat and his wife were travelling from Istanbul to Edirne, where they were renting a flat. He's a doctor of internal medicine, and until his retirement five years ago, an officer in the Turkish navy. Because Turkey is part of NATO, he had learned English while in service, and was glad of a chance to practice. (These days, most of the patients he sees are Syrians.) They bought tea which we drank while we chatted, but they had an appointment to keep and another hour to drive, so our conversation ended all too soon. After they left, I began to pull my things together when I heard a tap on the glass window from inside the service station restaurant. One of the employees was holding up a plate of food and offered it to me. I nodded in acceptance, and the plate of pasta, fries, and salad was brought to my table, followed in short order by ayran (a delicious yoghurt drink), soup, and a loaf of crusty bread. I made short work of it all, and when I headed inside to thank the four employees, my attempt to pay was politely but firmly rebuffed.

One thing I'm missing from my time in Bulgaria is the ubiquity of free WiFi. Since I wasn't sure where (or even if) I'd be meeting Oğuz, I connected to a local mobile network and turned on my data connection. (Side note: in Kapikule right after I'd crossed into Turkey, I was picking up signals from multiple mobile networks in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece.) We arranged a rendezvous in Lüleburgaz, and once I'd checked into a hotel and left my gear in the room, Oğuz showed me around the central part of the city. Lüleburgaz has a population of 108,000, and the city fills the valley and spills over the hills on either side. (When I cleared the last hill before the city I should have taken a photo or three, but I didn't think of it until I was halfway down the hill, and I was too lazy to backtrack.) There is a large neighbourhood closed to vehicles, with fountains, shops, an open air skating rink, and even a section of street with a red carpet for the pedestrians!  We wound up at a café, drinking tea and talking until it started to get a bit chilly. (We were seated at the edge of the patio, far from any of the heaters.) After walking around a bit more, it was time for Oğuz to head home. Does it sound terribly patronising to say he reminds me of myself at that age?
I went back to the hotel and did some equipment maintenance, uploaded some photos‎, and continued composing my last update. I should probably have gone to bed earlier than I did, but I knew the walk to Büyükkarıştıran was only 20 kms. I slept in and after breakfast I meandered around the nearby squares for a bit. It was 10:30 by the time I started walking towards the day's destination. 

A stiff north wind has been my constant companion since leaving Plovdiv, but today was the strongest I've encountered since ‎walking in Albania but at least this time it wasn't a head wind. The few times it slackened, I stumbled a bit because I'd been leaning into it for so long. As was the case Sunday, gas stations were conveniently located, and I could not pay for the tea I drank.

I arrived in Büyükkarıştıran ‎and found the hotel. 100 Turkish lira is a steep price, but I'd dawdled too long to continue on, so I paid. Once I saw the dangling electrical cables and tattered upholstery in the room, I began to regret my choice, but at that point there was nothing I could do. Then the live entertainment in the restaurant three floors below started. I'll be sleeping with earplugs tonight, for the first time on the pilgrimage. If you're thinking of staying in Büyükkarıştıran , just don't.

Tomorrow I'm aiming for Çorlu, which judging by the bus traffic is a much larger place, hopefully with more than one option. It's a 35 km hike, so I'll be on my way bright and early in the morning.

Feb 12-14: "Türkiye harika!"

‎Turkey is wonderful!  Or more to the point, the people I've met here are.

It started even before I had finished the border crossing. At the second of the three checkpoints on the Turkish side, I was asked if I would like some tea. (I'm pretty sure the folks in vehicles don't get that offer.)‎ I declined, but that was just the first of many unexpected offers of help and hospitality.

I've already mentioned Kaan, the night receptionist at the hotel at the border. What I didn't mention before is that he gave me his cell phone number and said I should call him if I needed any help.‎ I hope I won't need to take him up on his offer, and I told him so as I thanked him.

My first day of walking in Turkey was a short one. Edirne is only 18 kms from the border, so I set my alarm for later than usual and took my time over breakfast.‎ There was a pretty strong wind all day, but most of the time it was at my back. I wound up walking with the hood of my jacket up to protect my neck and ears from the wind, but kept my jacket unzipped to avoid overheating.

The GPS app on my phone is pretty good, but it uses Open Street Maps‎ for navigation. This is an open source project generally comparable to Google Maps, although without the massive funding and fleet of camera cars to feed information into the system.  Previously I had come across gas stations and hotels along the route that I hadn't seen when going over the route before setting out for the day, and on Thursday I learned this wasn't necessarily because of a lack of information. When I'm identifying likely end points, I zoom right in to the town and search for facilities, but when previewing my route, I use a 5 km scale. It turns out that the details I'm most interested in only show up when I'm looking at the 200 m level. This isn't practical to do when scanning a 30 or 35 km route, hence the occasional pleasant surprise.
I took my lunch break on Thursday at one of these unexpected finds.‎ As I walked towards the gas station, I heard a few dogs barking, but I ignored them until I realised they were neither tied up nor fenced off. There were two of them, and they were not small dogs. I kept them at bay by pointing my walking stick directly at the snapping fangs of whichever creature was closest. Thankfully, they were not making a concerted effort to bring me down, and within a minute two guys came running out of the office to drag the dogs off. They invited me in out of the cold wind, and I introduced myself via the one man present who spoke English. Tea was produced, and after warming up and drinking several cups, I excused myself and went on my way, after declining the offer of a ride.

When I reached the city limits, I was surprised to see that Edirne has a population of 150,000.‎ I received a further surprise at the first gas station I came to, where a man with a DSLR slung around his neck introduced himself with "Journaliste. Journaliste." It wasn't much of an interview since we didn't have a common language, but I introduced myself, explained what I was doing, and then pulled my little Moleskine notebook out of my pack and started going through it showing him the stamps from all the places I had stayed, and the dates I was at each place. He took a few pictures and gave me his card. I don't know if the "story" will appear online, but the paper's website is staredirne.com

The walk from the border had been flat, with small hills to my left and right, but the city of Edirne sprawls over and around the first of many gently rolling hills to the east. At the very top of this hill is a grand mosque with four tall minarets. Once I was settled in a hotel, I consulted the Wikipedia article on Edirne and learned that the mosque was the work of Mimar Sinan, the great mediaeval Turkish architect.  The minarets are the tallest in Turkey, and the dome of the Selimiye Mosque is 2 m taller than that of Agia Sofia in Constantinople. Edirne had been the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 90 years, until 1453. In fact, Sultan Mehmed II, the military leader who conquered The City (Constantinople), was born here.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, its population was over 300,000. It would have been nice to explore the city and visit some of the museums, but I'm eager to press on. Great Lent is about to begin, which means I'm running out of time to walk to Jerusalem. 

I had done some online research using the hostel computer in Plovdiv, but wasn't able to find any hotels between Edirne and Babaeski, 53 kms away. The thought of covering that much ground in a day did not thrill me, but I had seen something in Edirne that gave me hope.  At the large traffic circle by the Selimiye Mosque, there was a sign pointing in the direction I am headed, with two names: Havsa and Istanbul. Havsa is halfway between Edirne and Babaeski, and it's located at a major crossroad. Even though I'd found no online evidence of hotels there, I reasoned that it must be at least moderately significant to rate a signpost pointing the way.  I was further encouraged as I began walking the next day and observed a large number of passenger vans and 20 seat busses making the run between Havsa and Edirne.

‎As I continued walking in the sun with the wind at my back, an approaching minivan ‎pulled over next to me. I walked up to the open window on the  passenger's side and was surprised to see three of the guys from my midday stop the day before. They had seen me, and decided to stop and see if I needed any assistance. Ali asked me three times if there was anything they could do for me. Having satisfied them that I was quite happy to keep walking, we shook hands and parted.

I continued on, pausing to take a photo of the sign that indicated it was 4 kms to Havsa and 200 to Istanbul. Shortly after that, I stopped at a service station for a quick break. They didn't have any hot caffeinated beverages available so I grabbed an energy drink from the cooler and headed to the cash register.   ‎Ömür speaks better English than I speak Turkish, and at the conclusion of our chat, he brushed away my attempt to pay for the drink. He also told me that yes, there was a hotel in Havsa, and it was just 2 kms away. Very encouraging!

When I reached the town limits, I was surprised (but also vindicated) when I saw that the official population is ‎8,500. I didn't see any evidence of that until I topped the next hill and saw the dusty and bustling town spread before me. Sidewalks. Streetlamps. Municipal bus service. A hospital. And not one, but two hotels, plus several "pansiyons" - normally the word for hostel, but also possibly meaning flats to rent.

Prices in Turkey are about 30% higher than I'd grown accustomed to in Bulgaria, and the accommodations are not quite as upscale, but the people more than make up for that. At the hotel in Havsa, the woman working reception spoke a very little bit of English, while her brother who was doing the overnight shift spoke even less. Thanks to WiFi and Google Translate, we spent the next several hours chatting, until finally I realized I was both very hungry and yawning uncontrollably. I excused myself and headed out to find some food. On returning to my room, I finished unpacking and went straight to bed. Laundry and blog updates can wait!‎ I was disappointed that I didn't see either Tuğçe or Uğur before I left the next morning, but I hope they'll see this and translate it so they know how much I enjoyed their company!

From Havsa, it was on to Babaeski. An hour or so after my lunch break, a car pulled over on the opposite side of the highway, heading east. When I drew even with the car, the window went down and I was offered a ride. I thanked the two occupants, and explained that I wanted to keep walking. After a few more words, they drove off. Several minutes later, the same car pulled up, this time heading west. I went over and this time accepted their offer to go to the driver's home, have some tea, and meet his mother. The hamlet of Mutlu ("Happy") is about 5 kms off the main road, and I'm pretty sure both guys would be happier if it was bigger.  After a very pleasant hour of conversation, tea, and some delicious home-made rice pudding, Doğa and Oğuz drove me back to the highway and dropped me off a few kilometres closer to Babaevski. ‎They'd have taken me all the way in to town, but neither of these seventeen year olds is licensed to drive, and they were afraid of getting pulled over. That's them in the photo, along with Doğa's parents.

As on the day before, the town of Babaeski revealed itself to me gradually. Those gently rolling hills I mentioned earlier are actually pretty uniform, being about two kilometres from peak to peak. In many of the broad valleys, there are villages a kilometre or two to one or other side of the highway‎, while the larger towns straddle the road. Babaeski turns out to be a town of some 20,000 souls. Not quite as dusty as Havsa, it's still a great place to be a pedestrian, since the roads are in such horrible shape the traffic crawls along. Several times as I walked towards the centre of town people said, "Hello!" This was sometimes followed up with, "What is your name?"  On the way to the hotel that had been recommended to me by a young couple whom I stopped on the street, I passed a supermarket, so I went in and bought a few supplies. Once esconced in my room, I had dinner and then began composing this update. Although I still haven't caught up, I'll post this now and hopefully be more prompt with the next one.

Feb 15, 2015

Westbound Traffic

Guanto (I'm sorry for the misspelling) set out on a two week cycling tour of China before school started. Eighteen months later, he's still on the road and heading west. Now THAT is hardcore! http://flic.kr/p/qVdTVX

Istanbul 150


Feb 14, 2015

Durr Hurr Durr

Of the eight countries I've visited on my pilgrimage so far, Turkey is the first which does not use the English word "Stop" on its stop signs. In my opinion, Turkey's example should be followed by other non-English speaking countries. http://flic.kr/p/rbwMvm

Feb 12, 2015

side walk

The sidewalk along one of the main streets in Edirne. http://flic.kr/p/qSqYa3

Selimiye Camii

Designed by the great architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1574, the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne has the tallest minarets in Turkey, and its dome is two metres higher than that of Agia Sofia in Constantinople. For more info, see the Wikipedia article: http://ift.tt/1DJyIlT(Edirne) http://flic.kr/p/r9VwYG

Feb 11, 2015

To Where God Dwells

Instead of working on my Turkish or getting an early night, I spent an hour watching a stunning documentary filmed by a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Johannes M. Shwarz. It will only be online until Monday, the 16th of February, so I encourage you to check it out before then.

Here's Fr. Johannes' description of the video:

This film documents the first 5000 miles of my walking pilgrimage from Central Europe to Jerusalem and back (8700 miles/14.000 km total). Making a film was never the object of my journey, but when you bring a GH3 some things are bound to get "shot."
After I returned 6 months ago, I thought long about how to tell the tale in 60 minutes and it was not easy. I watched a number of travel docs and road movies, but I felt nothing of the sort would do those first 33 weeks to Jerusalem justice (same old, same old). So I opted for a different approach, inspired by the film "The Great Silence." Whether I succeed or fail miserably to tell my story is for the viewer to decide. So I'm making this preview available for one week, in the hope of getting helpful feedback and input from the vimeo community.
Monday 16th I will make this video private or delete it, hopefully having good suggestions to work on.
For German speakers there is a book coming out in a month and more info at: 4kmh.com

St George, Kapitan Andreevo


A Day of Surprises

I'm in Turkey!

Last evening, between my five hour "afternoon nap" and the eight hours of sleep I got at night, I went over the possibilities for today's walk using my GPS app and searching for hotels, motels, hostels - anywhere I could spend the night within 40 kms of Lyubimets. 

After breakfast, I asked the motel owner if there was a hotel in Kapitan Andreevo, which is the last town in Bulgaria before the Turkish border. ‎ "Yes, there is, and my husband is driving there today. Would you like a ride?" (This in German.) I thanked her, but said I preferred to walk. It's only 28 kms, and after all the sleep I got yesterday, I was feeling good.

When I got to the outskirts of Svilengrad, the last major town before the border, I stopped for a coffee and asked the folks at the gas station the same question. My GPS app wasn't showing anything in Kapitan Andreevo, and my online search had turned up nothing. There was a brief consultation, and again I was told there was a hotel at my destination. (I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.)

I passed one hotel about 5 kms from Kapitan Andreevo, but it looked like it has been closed for a few years. At the first gas station in town, I bought a coffee and inquired about a hotel. Turkey or Svilengrad was the response.‎ The latter was 12 kms back the way I'd come, and the first hotel that I knew about in Turkey was about the same distance again. And the sun was rapidly approaching the horizon. I used the free WiFi to do another search, and then approached the men and asked about the hotel I'd passed earlier. As I suspected, that is closed, but after explaining where I'm from and what I'm doing, I got a more helpful answer. The nearest hotel in Turkey is 2 kms away, just across the border. (It was actually 4 kms, but never mind.)

I'd been planning to spend my last night in Bulgaria with my phone's translation app, building up my Turkish vocabulary, but that was clearly not going to happen before I crossed the border. I started to gather my things, and as if to prove me wrong in my somewhat unflattering description of Bulgarian hospitality in my last post, they gave me a bottle of water. This came a few hours after they wouldn't let me pay for my coffee in Svilengrad, and a day after a little old lady selling fruit gave me an orange. And how could I forget the wonderful people of Novi Han!‎ Clearly, not all Bulgarians are indifferent to strangers. (The exceptional staffers I met at the hostels and hotels are "professionals" in the hospitality industry, so they are not rrepresentative of the population as a whole.)

As I walked towards the border, it was with some apprehension. About an hour before I reached Kapitan Andreevo, a Border Police patrol had stopped me at the side of the road and asked to see my passport. They kept me standing there for at least half an hour as they flipped through the pages, recorded the details and made several phone calls. One of the officers had told me, "Tu‎rtsiya, ne" and I could see the line of trucks waiting at the border was at least 6 kms long. Had there been an incident? Was the border closed? When they read my passport details to the person on the receiving end of the phone call, had it been entered into a database that would cause problems when I tried to leave?

Well, since the very first sentence in this update was "I'm in Turkey!" it's obvious that I made it across. I was moving much faster than the line of trucks, but when I got to the border, the non-commercial traffic was nil. Four checkpoints later, I was safely across, and could even see the hotel from the last one.

So now it's time to get some Turkish vocab committed to memory, and get some sleep. (Kaan, the desk clerk at the hotel, told me he's probably the last English-speaking person I'll meet before I reach Istanbul. Thanks again for your help!) Tomorrow I'll be stopping for the day in Edirne, the first city I'll see in Turkey. My GPS app shows multiple hotels‎ in town, and it's only 20 kms away. 

After that, I don't know where I'll be staying. There are small towns about 25 or 30 kms apart along the direct route to Istanbul, but they're VERY small, with no indication of even a gas station in most. I may just hop a bus to Istanbul from Edirne, depending on what I am able to discover tomorrow when I arrive. Or perhaps I should just keep going and trust that things will work out. Walking to Istanbul should take about a week, and it's still too cold for camping out. If I'm unable to negotiate some sort of accommodation the first night after leaving Edirne, I'll be on the next bus to Istanbul.

Feb 10, 2015


They offered me a lift, but I was happy to keep walking in the sun. http://flic.kr/p/r8BfYF

Catching up...

After leaving Plovdiv, I had several long days. The distances weren't all that great, but it was well past nightfall when I arrived in Parvomay, Haskovo, and Harmanli.‎ As I mentioned in my "brief update," the walk to Parvomay ‎was not an easy one. After a good stay in Plovdiv where I met several wonderful people, my body was reluctant to get moving again. (I'm not planning to take a break day again until I reach Istanbul.) My arrival was eased somewhat when I discovered the hotel in Parvomay had a heated floor in the bathroom, and a bathtub!

I'd actually arrived on the outskirts of Haskovo shortly before 7:00, and paused for a break at a gas station. While there, I got to talking with one of the attendants, who has a friend who moved to Canada some years back. The city of Haskovo is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and in 2003, the city officially unveiled a 31m tall monument consisting of a chapel in the base of a 14m tall statue of the Virgin and Child. I'd asked Vasil (the gas jockey) about the statue, and he in turn offered me a ride when his shift finished at 8:00. I was tired and sore and had another 4 kms to cover before I arrived at the hotel I'd marked as my destination, so I decided to take him up on his offer. He left me at the base of the monument, which saved me making a detour to visit it in the morning. From there, I used my GPS app to locate a nearby hotel. The first one was closed, but the one around the corner from it was open.‎ The hotel restaurant was closed, but I'd seen a hole-in-the-wall donair place in the neighbourhood. Dinner taken care of, I washed some clothes in the sink and crashed out hard. As in Parvomay, the cost of the room included breakfast, but just like so many of these breakfast deals, it wasn't geared to someone walking 30+ kms in a day.

One of the things which had made the walk to Parvomay challenging was the lack of places to stop along the way. The walks to Haskovo and Harmanli had villages or gas stations about 7 kms apart, which is an ideal distance for me at this stage in my journey. 

My experience so far in Bulgaria has been markedly different from the rest of the Balkans.‎ In Albania, it was next to impossible for me to pay for my coffee, and roadside fruit vendors kept waving me over and giving me fresh produce. In Macedonia, I was welcomed into peoples' homes twice. In Greece, an inquiry about directions turned into a three hour meal and conversation. Everyone I met was curious about where I was from and what I was doing, and everyone understood what I'm doing. (In Italy, people were impressed by the distance I was going to cover. In the Balkans, it was the destination which people focused on.)

I arrived in Harmanli quite late, in part because I'd met people along the way who were interested enough in this strange character to strike up a conversation. The hotel was at the far end of town, and I passed a supermarket on the way there. I was probably their last customer of the day, but I picked up a few supplies for dinner and breakfast. These late starts have not been helping me any, and the complimentary breakfasts have been relatively insubstantial. It's a good thing that I did, since the hotel in Harmanli was pretty basic. That also meant that I was on the road before 9:00 - still much later than my norm in Italy, but an improvement. 

Tuesday started out bright and sunny, for the first time in almost a week of walking. (No rain except for one day in Plovdiv, so I'm not complaining!) Unusually, I woke up feeling very stiff and sore. Even with my trek through the Alps and my last long days in Italy, this has not been a problem, but it took longer than usual for my legs to warm up and settle in to the business of walking. The sun was glorious, but once I left town, the wind out of the north picked up. It was cold, and strong enough to keep me listing to the left against the constant pressure. 

Shortly after noon, I spotted a place that was both out of the wind and in the sun.‎ In the time it took me to unpack my food and settle down for a lunch break, it had clouded over and the wind shifted. It was still the best shelter I'd found for hours, and there was no temptation to linger! I continued on, but the wind kept getting stronger. As I approached the first town I'd seen all day, I decided that if I spotted someplace to stay  along the route through town, I'd make it a half day and continue on to Svilengrad tomorrow. By 2:00, I was speaking with the proprietor of a seven room motel and by 3:00 I was fast asleep. After a five hour nap, I woke up and had dinner, and started typing this update. In spite of the long nap, I don't think I'll have any difficulty getting back to sleep tonight.

Tomorrow it's only 16 kms to Svilengrad, and then 20 kms to the Turkish border on Thursday, and the next stage of my journey.

Feb 7, 2015

Brief update: scattered observations from Parvomay

In spite of the wonderfully caffeinated beginning to my day, it was not an easy walk. I just couldn't seem to hit my stride until quite late in the day, when I was already tired. It remained overcast all day, and there was a strong headwind all afternoon. Still, I arrived. Breakfast is included in the price of the room, but it isn't served until 8:00. I'm planning to be packed and ready to go by then, and won't even head back up to my room afterwards. An early start and a slightly shorter walk should help make tomorrow more pleasant, and the traffic should be extremely light on a Sunday morning. There are also more towns between Parvomay and Haskovo than there were today, so more chances to sit and rest out of the wind. The only precipitation in the forecast between now and Friday is 2 mm of snow on Monday, so that's promising. And now it's time I said my prayers and got some well-deserved sleep.

Feb 4 - 6: Three Nights in Plovdiv

Breakfast was included with the price of the room in Pazardjik on Wednesday. It wasn't particularly memorable, but at least it provided calories for the day of walking ahead of me.‎ In Sofia, the staff at the hostel had recommended a hostel in Plovdiv, and I'd located it on my GPS app before setting out. I knew it was 38 kms from door to door, so I got underway shortly after breakfast.  

When I reached the main traffic circle leaving town, I saw that there were large signs diverting eastbound traffic south because Highway 8 (the direct route) was closed. Great news, since this usually means several kilometres of walking on a smooth road with no traffic. (One day in Italy, I got 18 kms of private road.)‎ In this case, I got a few more car-free kilometres than I'd anticipated. After two hours of walking, I came to the work crew that was resurfacing the road. What I'd had no way of knowing until then was that the bridge that spanned a small river was also part of the work project. It had been removed, but not yet replaced.  The water was flowing swiftly, and it was too muddy for me to see anything beneath the surface. 

I started downstream to the nearest bridge, following the cowpath on the top of the levee. It was actually a nice walk, and at one point I spotted a heron.  Once I crossed the bridge and reversed direction, however, ‎I became aware of a small breeze blowing into my face from the north. It wasn't much, just enough to convince me to add another layer. By the time I completed my 6 km scenic detour, I decided it was time for lunch. The construction site on the east side of the river had a conveniently sized rock, so I sat down, pulled out my supplies, and refreshed myself. 

As I'd suspected from looking over the maps provided with my GPS app‎, there wasn't a whole lot of anything along the route, but I still managed to find places to sit and take the load off every 90 minutes or so. The road took me just north of the southern range of mountains, and the walk trended gently downhill all day - my hostel in Plovdiv is 60 m lower then the hotel in Pazardjik, and the hostel is located on one of the six hills in the city. There was a bit of a steep climb up the cobbled road, but I arrived feeling very good. I'd been maintaining a pace of 6 km/h for the last few hours of the day, only slowing down once I hit the sidewalk on the outskirts of Plovdiv. I used the last few kilometres as a "cool down" after the fairly intense walking I'd been doing until then.

When I arrived at the Old Plovdiv Hostel, I was told that the hostel was fully booked for Friday night, so I could only stay two nights. Turns out that Lonely Planet had listed the hostel listed as the fourth best hostel in the world for 2014 in the category of "best value" stays. (Anyone planning to stay here in the summer would do well to book at least four months in advance.) I stayed up quite late chatting with the Lebanese-Bulgarian night clerk, but I was still up early Thursday morning.

From the hostel, I set out to explore the "Old Town" district which spans three of the six hills in the city. Most of the extant houses ‎were built in the 19th century in a particularly Plovdivian expression of the National Revival style. (Photos coming soon to Flickr.) The current Church of Sts Constantine and Helen dates to the same period, but the first church on the site was erected in the 4th century. The ornate "Bulgarian Renaissance" appointments and the typical 19th century iconography were not particularly inspiring to me, but just as in Pazardjik, there was something about the church which drew me to prayer. A few doors down, the City Art Gallery had an icon exhibit hosted in a building in the church complex. For an admission fee of 4 Bulgarian Leva (€2), I had the place to myself. Again, as a matter of personal stylistic preference, I found myself most drawn to the icons dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.

Continuing on, I came to the ancient Roman amphitheatre which had been built ‎in 114-117 AD in the saddle between two hills overlooking the city. The site had only been rediscovered in the 1980s, and extensive reconstruction work had been required to piece together the stage and seating. It's estimated that it originally held 6,000 people, but when it's used as a venue for folk music festivals or concerts now, it only seats 4,000. The Acadamy of Music, Dance, and Fine Arts is located directly behind it, as is the Faculty of Biology of the local university.

It was a short walk down the other side of the hill to the Cathedral of the Dormition of the Theotokos. ‎As with many of the churches I've visited in Bulgaria, this was a 19th century reconstruction on the site of a much earlier church. Although the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria had been an autocephalous church in the early mediaeval period, the fall of Bulgaria to the Ottoman Empire in the 14th century meant that all Orthodox Christians were subjects of the "Rum Millet." It was only in 1858 that the bishop of Plovdiv broke with five centuries of practice and celebrated a Liturgy in Bulgarian instead of Greek, and it was in this church that he did so. This reassertion of Bulgarian national identity came after several decades of increasing prosperity for Bulgarians. Schools were established, privately funded, and various secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of the Turkish yoke sprang up. The revolution which followed was brutally crushed by the Ottomans, and the European powers took note. Finally Russia intervened, and in 1878 her armies defeated the Ottomans and secured independence for Bulgaria. The subsequent partition of territory was opposed by England, France, and Austro-Hungary because they feared an expansion of Russia's influence in the Balkans, and a new treaty was drawn up which split Bulgaria into an independent state with Sofia as its capitol and an Ottoman dependency known as East Rumelia with its capitol in Plovdiv. The final unification of modern Bulgaria was effected on the 6th of September1885, and it was in Plovdiv that this was formalised. The president of Bulgaria celebrates the national holiday every year in Plovdiv for this reason.

From the church yard, there was a good view over the city. I kept moving downhill towards the minaret I saw from above. This is one of two functioning mosques in Plovdiv, which also has a synagogue, a Catholic church, and several Protestant churches. The mosque was initially built in the 14th century following the capture of the city by the Ottomans. Earthquake and fire necessitated its reconstruction on several occasions, but it's still fundamentally the same building. The large pedestrian square nearby has a portion of the Roman stadium revealed. Archeologists had suspected there was a stadium in the city, but were uncertain of its location until excavations in the 20th century uncovered it. The stadium was completely intact, but the majority of its 240 m length is beneath a modern street and the foundations of the historically significant modern  buildings on either side. Plans are being prepared to create an underground museum, although funding this will be difficult.

I walked along the pedestrian street as far as the city centre, with the central post office dominating the east side of the large square and an extensive park‎ stretching south and west. Two large sections of the Roman city are also visible near the post office, and once the sun finally broke through the clouds I walked down through the ruins along the vast paving stones.

After lunch at a café, I met several other visitors for the free walking tour of Plovdiv. These normally last about two hours, but our group kept the guide almost half an hour longer. (Constantin was my source of information ‎provided above about Bulgarian reunification.) One of the frustrations I've experienced on this trip arises from seeing so little of a given city because I simply don't have the time to research and explore. I'm resigned to this reality, but the city walking tours I've taken have been rewarding experiences, even with the limitations they have. (But still, there is so much of which I will remain ignorant!)

For dinner, I went to an excellent local restaurant that my Lebo-Bulgarian friend had recommended, and spent the rest of the evening on one of the hostel's computer terminals using Google Maps to plan out my next week or so of walking.

Friday morning I was awake before my alarm, and after a leisurely breakfast (my favourite kind!) I borrowed an umbrella from the hostel and set out for the bus terminal. It was a grey and blustery day with rain in the forecast for twelve hours, beginning in the early afternoon. (I was quite glad when they told me there'd been a cancellation and I could spend an extra night at the hostel.)‎ My father's Bulgarian friend had recommended that I visit the 11th century monastery near the town of Bachkovo. When I arrived at the terminal, I learned I had missed the hourly bus by five minutes, so after buying a ticket for the equivalent of €2, I settled down and started composing this update.

The monastery in Rila is bigger and more impressive architecturally, but I enjoyed my visit to the Bachkovo monastery more. Perhaps part of that was the freedom I felt to take my time and explore, whereas my trip to Rila had a driver and two other people who I could not keep waiting. Even more significant was that at Bachkovo, the monks were interacting with the guests. I saw one monk deep in conversation with a young man,‎ and I was also approached in a friendly manner. Our mutual incomprehension didn't hamper the exchange of brotherly love.

After taking the time to soak in the atmosphere, I headed towards the main gate, pausing briefly to examine the multilingual information board. That's where I learned there's a small museum on the grounds. I hadn't seen any signs, so I approached a passing monk and asked about it. He pulled out a smartphone and placed a short call, then told me to wait where I was. Very soon afterwards, an English-speaking man with a set of keys introduced himself and explained there were two sections. The old refectory, built in 1643, had been covered with frescos, and they were extremely well preserved. Photography is prohibited, so I took my time inside. I was delighted to see depictions of several Greek philosophers on the walls. They didn't have halos, and rather than "Agios" (holy or saint), they were ‎labelled as "Sophos" (wise). Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, and Galen were present, along with three others who I didn't recognise. The other part of the museum had display cases and bilingual cards beside each item. The most fascinating pieces were the small wooden crosses with very fine details carved by hand.‎ 

Taking my leave, I headed towards the bus shelter. There was no schedule posted, but less thn five minutes later, my ride appeared. The bus was very warm and the seats nice and soft. I was soon sound asleep. I missed my stop in Plovdiv, but realised what had happened after a few short blocks. The bus driver obligingly pulled over  and I headed to the supermarket I'd spotted near the terminal earlier in the day. I picked up a few things for dinner and to eat on the road Saturday. Rather than walk half an hour through the cold wind and blowing rain, I hailed a taxi at the bus terminal. Five minutes later, I paid my €2 taxi fare and entered the hostel. With the rain blattering outside, I had no need or desire to go out again.

After dinner, I settled in to finish writing this post, but soon fell into conversation with an Australian who had spent a semester studying microbiology in Edinburgh and was now taking the scenic route home. We spent the best part of the evening talking, and exchanged URLs. Trish's travel blog is at scenicroute.ghost.io

Saturday morning I was up early again, and I am currently enjoying a post-breakfast coffee before I head back to the room and start packing up. At least two other people in the room are now awake, so I won't feel too guilty about the noise I'll make.  Then it's farewell and a 40 km hike along Highway 8 to Debar. The forecast is calling for a partly cloudy day with a high of 7, so it should be good walking weather.

BREAKING NEWS: Silva, the Lebanese woman who works at the hostel, brought some ahwe in to work with her this morning, and poured me a cup. Oh, that is good coffee!!!

Feb 4, 2015

Road Closed

"Road Closed" usually means several kilometres of walking with no traffic. Today I got a little more than I bargained for when I had to make a 6 km detour to cross the river. http://flic.kr/p/q7tqYt

Feb 3, 2015

Feb 3: Pazardjik

The snow that had been forecast overnight failed to materialise and the morning dawned bright and clear. Since I knew I only had to cover 18 kms today, I slept in and had an extra cup of coffee with breakfast. I was walking along the road in the warm sunshine by 9:30, and it was one of those days when I just flew along.

I arrived in Pazardjik by midafternoon. The clerk at the hotel speaks fluent English (something I've learned not to take for granted in Bulgaria) and was able to give me some suggestions on what to see in the city. There is an extensive pedestrian area in the heart of the city, and he also mentioned the church I'd walked past on the way in to the city.

The cathedral was built in 1837, more than forty years before Bulgaria was freed from the Ottoman Empire. It's the largest church from that era, and its decorations are emblematic of the Bulgarian Renaissance. I must confess that I'm not a fan of most 19th century iconography, and I found the overall aesthetic effect to be overwhelmingly gaudy. In spite of that, I felt very comfortable there, and spent some time with my prayer rope. On the way out, I noticed people gathered in one of the side chapels. I'd missed the first ten minutes of Vespers, but stayed for the rest. 

I walked around the centre of town for the remainder of the afternoon, then bought some food to carry with me tomorrow. It's a 38 km walk, and unlike the past few days, my GPS app isn't showing much of anything along the route. I grabbed dinner from a small grill and now I'm about to turn in for an early night. Breakfast is included in the price of my room, but it isn't available until 8:00. My plan is to be fully packed and checked out by then and start walking as soon as I'm done breakfast. I should be in Plovdiv right around sunset, although with a level path and not many places to stop along the way, I may make better time than usual.

I'm planning to spend a few days in Plovdiv, at the hostel that the folks in Sofia recommended. My dad's friend had recommended a few things to see and do in the area, and by all accounts the city is worth spending some time in.

Feb 2, 2015

Feb 1 - 2: Kostenets to Varvara

It snowed in Kostenets Saturday night, and then the temperature drifted above freezing and the snow changed to rain. By the time I woke up Sunday morning, there was 8 cm of snow on the road, along with some very substantial puddles. And it was still raining, lightly but steadily. I knew that the forecast called for sunny skies by late morning, but I didn't relish the idea of starting the day with wet feet. I crawled back into bed, and spent most of Sunday right there.

During my three week convalescence in Santhià, I had done a lot of reading. A day‎ or two before I finally set off again, I'd started reading Moby Dick. Yesterday I finished that novel, and got two-thirds of the way through A Tale of Two Cities.

Monday morning I'd set my alarm for 6:00. This had been my default throughout Italy, but once I left the Schengen area, I began staying up later and sleeping in more frequently. ‎That's all well and good, but I need to start moving a little more quickly now. One way to do this is by being ready to walk by sunrise, and taking full advantage of the daylight hours. (I wound up hitting snooze repeatedly, and finally got underway by 9:00. Great theory...)

I followed Highway 8 for most of the day, and was pleasantly surprised at the abundance of dry seating I found along the way. There were numerous bus shelters along the route, rusted out and apparently disused, but the benches underneath were clean and dry. There were also a number of towns located along the way, so I was able to get a few coffees today. (When ordering a coffee in Italy and in the Balkans, it always comes with a glass of water, but this practice is not observed in Bulgaria.)

Although I started walking in the foothills, the general trend of the road was downhill. Eventually I reached the central plain again, which slopes down gradually to the shore of the Black Sea. My destination for the day was Varvara, which entailed cutting south away from the highway and climbing up again, but I still wound up over 200 m closer to sea level at the end of the day. My GPS app tells me I walked 34 kms today, although the staff tonight told me it is 40 kms between Kostenets and Varvara. (See my comment in the last post about people's ability to accurately estimate distances.)

Varvara is a town in the foothills, and its main claim to fame is the hot mineral springs. The "motel" I'm staying at tonight has the rooms arranged around a very large central square. The swimming pool has been drained for the season, but the pool with the steaming hot mineral water has been covered with a large tent. By the time I had unpacked and settled in, the sun had set and the full moon was only partially obscured by clouds. I soaked in the hot water for a while, and then had to make the cold dash across the yard to my room. (Yes, there were still small patches of snow on the grass.)‎ After a hot shower and good meal, I'm ready to hunker down and spend more time with Charles and Lucie.

Breakfast isn't available until 8:00 in the morning, but tomorrow will be a short walking day, so I don't mind having the opportunity to sleep late. (It's either walk 54 kms to Plovdiv tomorrow, or 18 kms to Pazardzhik and then 36 kms on Wednesday. I *could* do a 54 km day, but I'd really rather not.) My desire to consistently walk 30-35 kms per day is contingent on finding a place to stay each night. Although the weather has been beautiful, it's still too cold overnight for camping. They're calling for snow tonight‎, so I'll snuggle into bed with my (electronic) book and read until I fall asleep. It's been a great day!

Feb 1, 2015

St Theophylact of Ohrid

The commentaries of St Theophylact of Ohrid have been very helpful to me over the years. http://flic.kr/p/r1GcmH