After 10 nights in Turkey, today was finally time to say goodbye and cross back into Eastern Europe at the Kapikule/Kapitan border of Turkey and Bulgaria. It was only about a 20 minute drive from our hotel to the border post, and the road took us parallel to the River Maritsa which marks the Greece/Turkey border in this area. This meant we could see Greece on the other side, and also passed by the Triangular Point where the borders of Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey meet, though the border post was too busy for us to have a chance to stop and get out to see the marker point with the three flags. This border crossing is on the main motorway route from Turkey to Europe unlike the previous time we entered at the quieter post further south at Ipsala on the Greece/Turkey border. This meant it was the busiest border in terms of regular cars we have seen so far (Sarpi border between Turkey/Georgia wins for most lorries), and felt more like going through the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone on a peak day. The crowd seemed to be about 95% Turks who live in Europe, with the cars mostly from Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands, and full of families. My guess is these are families who come to Turkey for the school holidays and are now heading back at the end of August in time for the start of term next week.
As for the border crossing experience, we first had to get stamped out of Turkey, which meant picking a queue of cars to join out of the few available. This is a bit of a gamble, since you never know when someone at the front might get held up for some reason, or they might open another line and everyone rushes to join it. Unfortunately we didn't get a great one, and it took the best part of an hour to get to the front. We had an outstanding motorway toll balance of 57 Lira (about £2.50) to pay, and had heard you cannot leave the country without doing so. Therefore while I inched the car forward, Melisa walked over to a counter at the side to pay the balance, though they didn't take cards, and the booths which did take cards told Melisa to go away and get back in the car. In the end the passport process was a simple stamp out, no questions asked, and the woman at the adjacent customs booth which doubled up as the credit card-accepting toll payment booth just waved us by. We are hoping the outstanding 57 Lira doesn't come back to haunt us at some point, not that we are planning to drive back to Turkey any time soon, and they don't have our address in the system.
After leaving the Turkish area, the next thing we had to do was drive through a lane which sprayed disinfectant all over the car as we went by. The nearby signs informed us this was to prevent African Swine Fever, which apparently can be brought on cars from Turkey into Bulgaria and affects pigs and boar. Reading online this evening it seems this has been quite an issue for Bulgaria in the past, and they therefore are doing their best to keep it out of the country. Slightly frustratingly there was a manned booth right after the disinfectant lane where we were asked to pay €5.57 for the privilege of the spray down, and of course they only took cash. We paid up and then moved on to another selection of car queues, where we decided to take the right-hand lane after previously taking the left-hand lane on the Turkish side. This turned out to be a good lane, and it only took 30 minutes to get to the front of this one. The Bulgarian passport control was simple enough, and we weren't asked for any car insurance papers as we had been when we entered the EU to Greece from Albania. We then had to face Bulgarian customs which was a bit of a pain. First they did a standard "open the boot" check, had a look at Summer in the back of the car, and then asked me for our passports. The man asked me what we were doing in Turkey, and when I told him we had travelled all around and been to Georgia and Armenia he looked a bit suspicious and asked what my job is. I told him and he then asked if I have tobacco or alcohol, to which I confirmed we only had a little bit of gin in the boot. He then asked if I have any drugs, to which I smiled and said no. He also smiled and said "are you sure?", and I confirmed with a promise that I didn't have any drugs. He let us go, and thinking that was the end of it, we drove on to another final barrier where most people were being let through into Bulgaria, but some cars were being stopped and asked more questions. Unfortunately we were stopped (Melisa thinks this was because the official saw me using my phone), and the official looked annoyed and told us we cannot pass and must go back to the previous customs officials. We had to reverse back about 100m to the other officials, who asked why we had come back, and then looked confused when we said we were sent back; we were all having our time wasted it seemed. The official asked the same tobacco, alcohol, drugs question again and then let us return to the final barrier. This time we were waved straight through and we were finally in Bulgaria!
Our first stop in Bulgaria was the country's second city of Plovdiv, which was about 90 minutes drive from the border on the same motorway. Turns out Bulgaria has a vignette tolling system for cars a bit like Switzerland and Slovenia, but it is strictly enforced with ANPR cameras after every motorway junction unlike in Switzerland at least where it is more based on trust and the occasional police enforcement. It was possible to buy the vignette at petrol stations near the border but we did it online instead, which was a simple process on the government website on our phones, and only costing 15 Lev (about £6.50) for 1 week. When we arrived in Plovdiv we took a walk through the city centre to get some lunch on the main shopping street and see some of the historical sights. It turns out Plovdiv has a fairly similar history to nearby Edirne, in that it used to be an ancient city under a different name (Philippopolis) and eventually became part of the Byzantine Empire, becoming its third largest city at one point. Its location between empires meant it was destroyed during conquest and rebuilt various times throughout the centuries. Unlike the sprawl of Edirne though, the centre is compact and we were able to see the restored Ancient Stadium and the modern shopping area. Unfortunately we didn't make it up to the Ancient Theatre though since it sits on top of a steep hill with poorly cobbled streets that we simply couldn't push the buggy over. Given it was also 34 degrees, we couldn't face walking back to the car to get the harness and then climbing up with Lucy attached.
Once we were done in Plovdiv we got back in the car and drove the last stretch up to the Bulgarian capital Sofia. First impressions on driving into the city are that it indeed isn't particularly pretty as I had read beforehand, though it is fairly easy to drive in with big blocks and long avenues. It reminds me a bit of some of Warsaw or the suburbs of Prague beyond the historic centre. For dinner we drove to the centre where parking was easy to find and free on a Sunday evening, and we walked down and had dinner on the bustling main shopping street, Vitosha Boulevard. Tomorrow we will do a free walking tour of the city and report back with more details.
After taking an hour out of our afternoon and spending £32 to get Summer's healthcheck and deworming treatment yesterday in Istanbul, of course we weren't asked to show any of Summer's paperwork as usual at the border crossing. The Bulgarian customs official did interact with Summer a bit though, which made her stand up on her bed and wag her tail at him. We've had a few officials interact with Summer like this throughout the trip, and it got us thinking today that perhaps this is an informal check to see if the dog looks diseased or rabid. Our guess is that if the dog acts normally as Summer did, this means they then don't bother to check the papers since catching us out on a technicality and having to send us back across to the other side would be a big pain for everyone involved, including them (not to mention they usually speak almost zero English). It is just a theory of course, but it seems strange we haven't been asked about Summer's papers at any border crossing all trip.
First impressions of Bulgarians are that they seem rather like the British when it comes to Summer. We can see people pointing a bit and commenting to themselves that there is a Corgi, but they are too reserved/shy to come over and ask about her or pet her. There are a fair few pet dogs out and about though, and it is quite refreshing to be in a place where people are not scared of dogs like was very common in Turkey.
Since forgetting to use the free ProCredit Bank chargers on the previous leg of our trip through Eastern Europe and the Balkans, it was on my mind to use them on the return leg. Today was the first occasion to use one, since there are quite a few in Plovdiv and Sofia. We're still not sure why they are provided free of charge, but no complaints from us!
- Free AC charger at ProCredit Bank Plovdiv on Boulevard 6. Quite hidden on the wall of the bank at the back of the parking area out front. The Bank's own EV was parked in one of the spaces which provided a good clue.