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.