Turkey, So Close So Far

In the winter of 2001-2002, friends suggested we take an excursion to Istanbul for the New Year’s holiday. We booked a four-day trip and set off by bus from the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. It was a very long bus ride that took us southeast through Svilingrad to reach the Kapitan Andreevo village, the last stop on the Bulgarian side. Perhaps it is more pleasant now, but border crossings seem designed to be quite the opposite however modern the facilities may be. This one is said to be the busiest in Europe. However long and unpleasant the bus ride was, we enjoyed Istanbul tremendously and vowed to return for a longer stay there and exploration of other parts of Turkey. We haven’t yet made it back.

Last week, though, we went to Малко Търново (Malko Turnovo) for an afternoon. We had first gone to Царевец (Tzarevetz). Leaving Tzarevetz, we were uncertain about the best way to go and asked a man crossing the street. He asked “Do you want to take the good road or the bad road?” “The good road,” answered my husband, not quite suppressing his bemusement. The man explained that the bad road took you through the Strandja forest and a few, sporadically placed, tiny villages. This was the straighter road, but full of holes. The good road—“първа класа!” (first class!)— was reached by driving north to Приморско (Primorsko) and making a semi-circle to avoid part of the Strandja and all of the presumably third-class road. The explanation was detailed and various points were reinforced to ensure that we understood. My husband thanked the man very much for the copious information and then set out on the bad road. He found the drive through the formerly forbidden (during Communist rule) Strandja irresistible. The road was indeed bad, the potholes forcing very slow and careful driving, and we saw no other cars. But the reward was the Strandja Nature Park, beautiful, dense, and quiet. Periodically we passed large signs describing the plants, animals, and birds found in the vicinity as well as the camping, biking, and hiking possibilities and trails.

After perhaps an hour, we saw street signs pointing the way. Turn one direction to reach Malko Turnovo, turn the other to reach Istanbul. My son asked if we could go to Istanbul and we said but for leaving our passports in Sinemoretz we might easily go—and that we certainly would go with him one day. Border crossing delays aside, the drive would be less than four hours. No reason not to go, we thought.

But on this day, our destination was Malko Turnovo. As the name implies—“malko” meaning “small”—this is not a large town. Yet its Historical Museum and Petrov’s Field, the latter commemorating an unsuccessful Macedonian rebellion, are included in Bulgaria’s list of 100 national tourist sites. We arrived too late for the Historical Museum, but not too late to stroll around the central part of the town. Malko Turnovo is remote and can’t be said to be thriving, but the ladies at the tourist office were full of information and nicely printed brochures describing both the town and the region’s attractions. There was even a brochure listing guesthouses for overnight stays. We took the “good road” towards Primorsko on our way back to Villa Victoria, the small family hotel where we were staying in Синеморец (Sinemoretz).

En route, we passed field after field of vineyards. Logically, my husband thought, where there are grapes there is ракия (rakia, the classic Bulgarian grape—or any fruit really—brandy). Driving through Ново Паничарево (New Panicharevo), he stopped to ask a man where he could buy some real Strandja rakia. He gave a name, pointed a finger, mentioned a house a bit further on. A bit further on, my husband stopped and called to a man standing beside his house. The man looked hesitant at the request, remained impassive as my husband explained, took a look at my son and me in the back seat, went to discuss the issue with his family seated in the yard by the house. The authorities don’t approve of alcohol being sold privately.When he came back, still impassive, he nodded assent and asked how much rakia my husband wanted to buy. We waited. A woman came out with a liter and a half plastic bottle filled with rakia. Ten leva exchanged hands.

Now the man returned. In a friendly tone, he advised my husband not to put the bottle in the front seat and then asked if we liked fish. Yes, we said, yes we do. He began to tell us of an excellent place to eat fish, very fresh, just past the bridge leading out of Malko Turnovo on the road towards Turkey. “Oh,” we said, “we are just returning from Malko Turnovo. Perhaps next time.” He warmly waved us on.

On Wednesday, July 13, we decided to go to Резово (Rezovo), the most southeastern point of Europe. There the natural border of the Rezovo River forms the line that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. We snapped photos of the two flags, the river, the sea that laps at the edges of both countries. We saw two white vans pull up on the Turkish side and enough soldiers coming out of them that we could think only of circus clown cars disgorging more passengers than seems possible. “Why are there soldiers there?” my son asked. “Perhaps they are on a field trip,” I answered casually. I had no reason to believe anything else and perhaps they really were on a field trip of some kind. They seemed so informal as they walked around a bit and maybe they too simply wanted to see a spot with two flags and take a few photos.

We took a stroll through the town, ate a few джанки (janki, small wild plums), sighted storks, and made our way through flat, dry fields to the rocky cliffs that led to the sea. Rezovo was a quiet place, a calm, peaceful place. We waved at Turkey before making the short drive back to Sinemoretz.

Two days later, a military coup was attempted in Turkey. Bulgaria closed its borders and sent soldiers to the checkpoints.

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