Ever since I had entered Turkey 2 weeks earlier I had been singing the Istanbul/Constantinople song to myself, this was slowly starting to drive me insane, especially since I only knew one line and kept repeating that over and over again. I was hoping now that I had arrived in the historical city I could finally forget this cursed tune but of course it only got worse, everywhere I went while I explored the city I would be silently singing the few lyrics I knew to myself, I decided to just embrace the madness and enjoy my self-provided soundtrack to the city. There are very few cities in the world with a more checkered and colourful past as Istanbul, so here is a very quick history lesson thanks to Wikipedia. The settlement was founded by Thracian tribes as early as the 13th century BC and was originally known as Lygos, it was then colonised by the Greeks in the 7th century BC but fell to the Romans in the 2nd century AD where it was known as Byzantium. The city was renamed Constantinople in 330 AD by Emperor Constantine who made the capital of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantium Empire. Constantinople’s fortified walls, which were thought to be impregnable saved the city and the empire from many sieges and attacks, that was until the city finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire the republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara, since 1930 the official name of the city has been Istanbul. With a past like that of course there are plenty of sights to see in the old city of Istanbul, The Sultans palace, the Blue mosque and of course the famous Hagia Sophia, which is now a spectacular mosque but was originally a specular cathedral. Below the city streets are underground Byzantium cisterns that were built by Emperor Justonian I to store fresh water, a stroll through the spooky, dimly lit rows of ancient columns is sure stir up your imagination. Better than the tourist attractions themselves was the walk getting there, for me making my way through the streets of the old city gave me the most enjoyment. As I made my way through the grand bazaar and alleyways lined with cafes and restaurants I got the feeling that a new experience would be waiting around every corner. Rather than frantically rushing from one tourist attraction to another, one of Istanbul’s best experiences is taking the time to sit at a café with a Turkish coffee or shisha and watch the many interesting people pass by.
I was enjoying the huge city more than I had expected but looking out at the sprawling metropolis from the old city I got the feeling that the old walls were once again providing sanctuary, now it was a haven for tourists from the bustling mass of people that called the city their home. No matter how much I enjoy a city it is never long before I get the urge to seek out less populated areas and with new suspension on the horizon I was soon back on the bike and making my way to Europe.
I decided to head to Thessaloniki via Bulgaria, it wasn’t much of a detour and I was told that purchasing green card insurance was cheaper there than the rest of Europe. Also as I am a dual citizen of Australia and Germany and I wanted to make the passport change a smooth as possible, this seemed the best way and would ensure no Schengen zone visa headaches later. As I crossed the border from Turkey into Bulgaria and passed into Europe I cheered at the top of my voice, if anybody had heard me they would have thought I was crazy but passing this milestone seemed like I had really accomplished a big part of my journey, Europe has always been a huge goal and although I still had a long way to go I couldn’t hide my excitement. Usually when I travel through a country I do my best to see as much of the countryside as possible, not In Bulgaria however, because of my suspension troubles it was all on the highway until I arrived at Sofia. After so many huge cities in Asia I was a little surprised when I arrived in Sofia, the KM’s on my GPS kept ticking down and I was waiting for a huge city to appear around every turn but it never happened, although it has a population of around 1.2 million Sofia has a much smaller feeling about it. Once again I was happy to find a hostel, park the bike for a few days and explore the city on foot, I jumped on a free walking tour of the city and had soon seen most of the city sights, as well as learning about the countries ancient history and its more recent history under communism. It wasn’t long before I discovered something else that the city is currently known for….. cheap alcohol, this was the first time I had seen 2 litre bottles of beer and the price was less than what I’ve paid for water in some countries. I hadn’t had too many opportunities to drink in central Asia over the past few months so I didn’t drink too much and we headed out to some local clubs where I was surprised to see that instead of dance music it seemed that the standard in most bars was hard rock and heavy metal, an interesting but nice change. Sofia also has a very strong café scene, at times it was hard to get a seat at one of the many cafes that lined the walking street. With a slight hangover the next morning a few of us headed down for a coffee, that was until we read the menu and saw that a double Gin and Tonic was cheaper than a Latte or cup of tea, not to mention that the shot size here is 50 ml, not the 30 ml we get in Australia, needless to say that it was time for some hair of the dog.
The 4 days that I spent in Sofia was more than enough to see the city, I would have to save the rest of the country for another trip when the bike was fixed, now it was time to head south into Greece and Thessaloniki where the big girl was going to get some love and care.
|Blue Mosque, Istanbul|
|Hagia Sofia, Istanbul|
|Blue Mosque, Istanbul|
|Byzantine Cisterns, Istanbul|
|Byzantine Cisterns, Istanbul|
|Mosaic, Hagia Sofia|
|Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia|
|Palace guard, Sofia|
|Looking back at Istanbul from the old city|