“What’s the best way to get to Istanbul?”, we asked some Greek friends over drinks one evening at their apartment in Thessaloniki. They suggested a more adventurous route than we had planned, thinking we might enjoy a visit to the Turkish city of Edirne along the way and spend some time experiencing its unique health museum. Our friend’s description sounded appealing and we gave it considerable thought but in the end, decided against it, preferring to take a more direct route and maximise our time in Istanbul instead.
We made the journey to Istanbul by bus over two days, spending the first night in a cheap Airbnb apartment in the coastal port of Alexandroupoli. It was a nice way to break up the trip after four hours on the bus and allowed us to rest and relax and enjoy some good food and sea air. The next day, in the early afternoon, we caught the bus to Istanbul, a journey that took almost six hours.
At the Turkish border, only forty minutes from Alexandroupoli, everyone had to get off the bus on the Greek side and hand over their passports for inspection. While we waited, we piled into a nearby cafe and duty-free shop. Although only a few people occupied the cafe, the duty-free shop was a hive of activity. Lots of passengers and even the bus staff were buying alcohol, cartons of cigarettes and boxes of sweets. You could purchase a 2 litre flagon of ouzo for just 10 euros. One couple I noticed had two such flagons in their shopping trolley along with at least ten cartons of cigarettes.
After nearly an hour, everyone was back on the bus. We crossed the Maritsa River that defined the actual border and five minutes later we stopped again on the Turkish side for a second passport check with Turkish border control. Clare and I were both told we needed visas to enter Turkey and were directed to a small office where we could purchase them. We hoped our visa diversion – something we perhaps should have pre-arranged – would not hold up the bus any longer than necessary. As an Australian, my visa was 50 euros (the price for Australians tripled in 2012), while Clares, was 25.
While organising the visas we heard the muslim call to prayer for the first time on our trip, emanating from a series of anonymous speakers. It would be something we would hear much more frequently as we travelled further east. In towns or cities with more than one mosque the call to prayer had a call-and-response aspect and the prayer as a whole would end up being vocalised across every corner of the city. Its commanding presence and unique tone always sounded so much more serious than the the church bells you still hear from time to time in the West.
In total, our time at the border had been an hour and twenty minutes. It was Sunday and I remember someone in Alexandroupoli bus station mentioning to us that delays tend to be longer on weekends. On both sides of the border there were a long line of lorries waiting to cross. On the Turkish side, the line extended for at least 8 kilometres into Turkish territory.
For most of our journey since leaving Thessaloniki, it had been raining, something we hadn’t seen much of on our trip. By the time we reached the outer suburbs of Istanbul it was still raining. The skies had been cloudy and overcast most of the day but now it was night-time and we were only seeing the city lights. I was surprised by how modern Istanbul was, with its sleekly-lit high-rise buildings and big shopping malls with signs in English saying ‘Mall of Istanbul’ or ‘Mega Centre’. Perhaps I was expecting some Ottoman-era hub of Silk Road trade, full of ancient bazaars and old boats ploughing the Bosphorus. I told myself we were still in the outer suburbs and that the old city could be quite different.
We arrived at Otogar international bus station and found our way with the help of some friendly Turkish locals through the maze of kerb-side vendors and manic traffic to the Metro where we got a train to the station closest to where we were staying. From there, our Airbnb hosts had kindly agreed to pick us up and drive us to the apartment.