This was a drive in two parts. A run to the Bulgarian border where we met up with the rest of the group again and then across Bulgaria with the group to Plovdiv.
Following the heat of the past few days, we were relieved to wake to find that it was overcast, a few drops of rain and a cool breeze bowing in across the Sea of Marmara. Unfortunately we had not given the hotel notice that we wanted to get our car out of the garage, os when we asked the question, there was a lot of consternation. The problem was they had jammed about 30 cars into a space for 10, including all the way up a steep driveway and our was at the furthermost point. The Concierge suggested that it would take 45 minutes to extract our car and I was to wait in Reception until called. He was stressed, so I obeyed.
Somehow he managed to do the shuffle in just 15 minutes. Maybe this was a manoeuvre to get a better tip, but we were relieved.
Like our way in to Istanbul, things went well on the road out of town for the first 10 kilometers before we hit a wall of near stationary cars. Luckily with the cool weather I was not faced with the on/off engine starting routine every time the vehicles progressed a meter.
We had arranged to meet the others at the border at 1200. As usual, I had planned this to the minute, but had not factored in the delay with the car extraction and only some delay with traffic.
In the end all went well and we arrived 30 minutes early.
The run across what was ancient Thrace, the European part of Turkey to the Bulgarian border was different. Rolling hills, lots of sun flowers, harvested wheat and a few interspersed town. The traffic, once we were out of Istanbul, was light. The only challenge was the tolls on the motorway. We had driven part of this section previously when we went to Gallipoli 12 years ago and recalled the toll booths. These have now been replaced by electronic tolling. The signage was all in Turkish and there was no line for a cash payment. So we just ran the gauntlet. Despite the Traffic Policemen stationed 50m past th etoll plaza we went through with out too much drama: we found a lane without a boom gate and the alarms must have ben muted.
Things were progressing well on the border crossing as well. We did not have to get out of our cars. We sat there, presented our Passports and Registration Papers and were processed quickly. We were through both sides in less than 30 minutes and on our way to the gloriously name Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
I had images of donkey carts, pot holed two lane roads and a generally impoverished rural environment. As we drove down the 4 lane divided motorway, our first stop was a Shell Petrol Station to get our motorway toll pass. The shop in the service centre sold everything from the tags to Johnny Walker and a fine selection of local wines, a wide selection of cigarettes and a few snacks.
The rest of the drive through rolling hills and acres of bright yellow sun flow unfolded uneventfully. Our hotel in Plovdiv had the aura of a large Soviet resort, but seemed to function coherently. The town was a bit of an eye opener. A large percentage of the population are university students and they were wandering up and down the main traffic free town plaza as we headed in to explore the Old Town. Lots of restored 18th and 19th century local buildings and a couple of beautiful small orthodox churches.
Loris and I had found a restaurant in town we intended to return to for dinner after a shower and change. But did not make it further than the veranda of the hotel. Most of the twm were already seated there but we managed to find a table and save the walk. I know many of you may find this surprising that I gave up the opportunity for a walk, but we were in Plovdiv. Beers, local Bulgarian wine and a very enjoyable salmon steak and we were ready to be entertained by the military parade in the city square next to the hotel. We knew the parade was about to start when the Generals left their wine and table next to ours.
The speeches were rousing (well the locals were roused) and we knew it was coming to an end when everyone went down on one knee and sang the national anthem (I think) and pounded their hearts with a clenched fist. And then the fireworks. Not Sydney Harbour style, but these pyrotechnics were accompanied with machine gun fire for the entire performance. Not just a few 1812 Overture loose canon volleys.
I think we went to sleep after that content in the knowledge with so much military personnel around, we would be safe.