One of the trip’s great surprises was Bulgaria’s superb city of Plovdiv. Walking the cobbled streets in its old town was pure joy.
The Greeks called Plovdiv Philipopolis. The Romans built an amphitheatre for gladiator fights. The Crusaders ransacked it, the Ottomans looted it, and the Communists cloned its outskirts into a Soviet lookalike. Luckily several of the old merchants’ houses somehow survived.
From Plovdiv I turned south to the Rhodope Mountains and the Ottoman village of Shiroka Laka, famous for its music school.
Transport in these mountains is a bit behind the times.
Where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey come together, a broad river called the Maritsa flows south towards the Aegean Sea. In the 15th century the Ottomans built a bridge across it, and in 2012 the Greeks built a razor-wire fence along it. This is now one of the most coveted entry points for aspiring immigrants to the European Union. The fence is so sensitive that the Greek police and army flatly refused to let me photograph it. I took the right-hand picture below secretly from Greek territory, looking towards Turkey.
Many immigrants have tragically drowned whilst trying to cross the river. Survivors are taken to a controversial detention centre before being released into Greece.
My next stop was the often overlooked Turkish city of Edirne, whose Selimiye Mosque has the biggest and most richly decorated dome in Turkey. For several centuries it was actually the biggest in the world.
Nearby I was invited to well, actually I gatecrashed a celebration taking place around some elaborately costumed boys. What could it be? Of course it was that most traditional of Turkish events, a circumcision party!
And so to the Bosporus and journey’s end. Istanbul has almost doubled in size since my last visit, but its legendary old ferries and trams are still going strong.
The Grand Bazaar is as chaotic as ever. Turkish Viagra, anyone? (Click the picture below left.)
Twenty-five years ago, the splendid Pera Palace Hotel haunt of the famous from Agatha Christie to James Bond refused to let me in because I wasn’t wearing a tie. Not so this time. Its standards must be slipping.
I’m still theoretically in Europe but it feels more like Asia. I’ve finally left the Balkans, winter is approaching, and somehow it’s time to go home.