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Istanbul!

We arrived in Istanbul on Monday morning after an overnight train ride from Sofia, Bulgaria. I loved the rickety train ride but couldn’t help but think that it was an experience whose days are numbered. The train was delapidated, the bed a joke (lumpy wood with itchy fabric stretched over it??), and the food and drink… none! We came prepared with our favorite Hungarian drink Palinka, and bought some Black Ram Bulgarian whisky in the station, plus our usual bag of cheese and salami and bread and goodies, so we were fine. We got a good introduction to Turkish music along the way thanks to a host of weird electronic equipment we have with us. Ali has quite the collection, not surprisingly, and one band, Baba Zula really caught our ears. We even got to see them the first night in town! How’s that for good timing??

Here are some shots from the train first, then a lot of images in my pipeline for Istanbul. We got a beautiful sunset on Sunday night as we whizzed across the Bulgarian countryside…

Then we got stuck for a while in some godforsaken station, and while lounging around on the platform, Ali took this great, eerie shot:

We got into Istanbul not well rested, but very happy to be here. On arrival, and upon entering most stores and businesses, you are met by the glare of the Big Brother of Turkey, Attaturk, the founding father of modern Turkey. Here he was to greet us at the train station:

This is a world-class, front-line city in every respect. It’s thriving, dynamic, extremely wealthy, absolutely sprawling, 16 million inhabitants, hundreds of hills spreading over several land masses surrounded by water: to the far north, the Black Sea, cutting the urban area in half is the famous Bosphorous, and the Golden Horn is a smaller bay that drains a river and separates the old Byzantine Constantinople from the newer part of Istanbul to its north… Ali is an amazing host and our first task after dropping our stuff and showering was to head back to the Bosphorous for a hour and a half ferry ride to the northern end at Anadolu Kavagi where there is a centuries-old Genovese castle ruin overlooking the touristy village (it is still part of greater Istanbul though)… here are some shots of our trip there, starting with our gang sitting on the boat enjoying being here after an arduous night, then Francesca enjoying a much needed Turkish coffee:

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Sofia, Bulgaria

We had a great meal in a kitschy but apparently authentic Bulgarian restaurant last night. I had a veal dish, which I rarely order for obvious reasons, so it was a treat to have it in a clay pot prepared in the local style with peppers and onions, very rich, really delicious. Also sampled a Traminer white Bulgarian wine and another red one whose name I forget… lots of local wines here and in Hungary (one of our Budapest hosts, Krista, is a wine writer and had a lot of advice that we had no chance to take advantage of… next time!). After dinner we went to a super modern hole-in-the-wall bar and the bartender was a woman who had lived in the U.S. for six years so spoke perfect English. We chatted with her a bit, and when we queried her on local politics or protests, she looked a bit nonplussed. I don’t think most tourists come here and ask about such things. She eventually told us about her uncle, who had been a dissident spraypainting poet, writing satirical poems on the walls to impress his girlfriend. As our bartender put it, “every other” Bulgarian was an informer, so the police knew it was him, and he was shot by them at the foot of her building, wounding him in ways that took him a very long time to recover from…

The hangover of anti-politics that the failure and fall of “really-existing socialism” left behind is pretty palpable, both here and in Hungary. Not much graffiti here even, just a tiny bit of nazi skinhead swastikas and a Stop Bush stencil … mostly everything is in Cyrillic so we can’t read it at all… here are some shots I grabbed as we walked around today. Nothing particularly revealing, but they do show the charming, crumbly old capital of Sofia in a good light I think…

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Romance of the Train

A very short entry, mostly photos, of our trip from Budapest to Sofia… we slept through the night to the rhythmic clackety-clack of the train, a great sensation. It was very hot so we kept the windows open, amplifying the sound but cooling us down. By morning we were well into Serbia, and stopped at the Belgrade station for about 45 minutes before continuing on east/southeast. Here are pictures of the trip during the day yesterday:

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