Tag Archives: EuRail Pass

Istanbul – Trains and Whirling Dervishes

12/4 – We have only a few more days in Istanbul. Friday we will pick up our passports from the Chinese Consulate, and Saturday we head south to see other parts of Türkiye. We walked north today to get our train tickets to Izmir, which will get us close to Selçuk and the ruins at Ephesus. On the way, we passed a restaurant advertising a Whirling Dervish demonstration, not too far from our pension. Jim said, “I think this is something you would like to see.” So, we are going tonight!

When we arrived at the train station, the ticket seller had no English, and seemed to be telling us there was no train to where we wanted to go. I had spent a lot of time researching on line, and knew we had to take a ferry to a Metro to a bus to catch the train 20 miles east of Istanbul (there are no trains running directly into or out of Istanbul until their rail upgrade is completed sometime next year). We had one more travel day on our EuRail pass, and this would be our last chance to use it.

We went next door to Tourist Information, and asked again. No, the man said firmly, we would have to take a bus. Remembering our nightmare entry into the country, we allowed that this might be true. He directed us to a travel agency two blocks away. This didn’t feel right… We’ve always dealt directly with the train company, not a private agency. The travel agent said we could take a 10 hour bus ride, but why not fly and get there in an hour? And why not hire a shuttle to and from the airport? And better also arrange a tour, as people can’t get from Selçuk to the ruins of Ephesus on their own. Jim thanked the man for the information, and marched us out of there. It was too slick, and smelled fishy.

Back we went to the train station. This time we got another agent, and determined that there WAS a train after all, just like I had researched. Whew! 20 minutes later we had our tickets for the train from Pendik to Eskisehir, and the overnight sleeper to Izmir. We walked next door to the ferry terminal to make sure that wasn’t going to be any sort of a problem. Looks like our Metro Card will get us across the Bosphorus for 2 lira. Yay! We’re back in business.

While we were in the city, I wanted to see if I could get a refill on my allergy prescription. Unlike other countries we’ve visited, it is not clear what a pharmacy looks like here. We went into a likely looking shop that had a vitamin display in the window, and found a guy in a white coat behind the counter – a good sign. I showed the package to the pharmacist, and he brought out the exact same name brand med, no prescription needed, and charged $7 for a bottle that costs $120 back in the US of A. Don’t know what to say about that, except I’m glad to have my medicine. Maybe I should stock up?

After supper we walked to the restaurant to see the Mevlevi, or Whirling Dervishes. The restaurant folks were disappointed that we were not eating in their establishment, but we figured the $40 cover charge was all they were going to get from us tonight. Lighting was provided by a very-80s disco ball, which gave the whole place a colorful, pulsating and surreal quality.

Followers of the poet Rumi, the Sufi whirl in ecstatic joy. First came three musicians – one playing a stringed instrument that sounded like a viola, one playing mandolin, and the third playing a bamboo flute, who was also the vocalist. image

After a while the three dervishes came out in black robes, bowed and knelt for a period of meditation while the music played.IMG_5011.JPGIMG_5012.JPG

Then the three cast off their black robes to reveal white costumes with wide skirts. One by one, they bowed, then started to whirl, arms raised, eyes closed, skirts creating a breeze like room full of ceiling fans. They rotated, and also revolved around the room. They were graceful and looked serene, never faltering, losing step or appearing dizzy. They whirled for a long time.





Jim introduced me to the poetry of Rumi years ago, and I can understand that whirling is another way that he and his followers expressed their joy. Here is a Rumi poem:

The Secret Turning

A secret turning in us
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.

Sofia to Istanbul, Turkey

11/23 – please forgive the level of detail in this post, but some fellow travelers may need this information if traveling to Istanbul.

We planned to use our EuRail pass to travel from Bulgaria to Istanbul. This involved getting onboard in Sofia at 5pm, changing trains 4 times, then transferring to a bus for the last leg to arrive into Istanbul at 7 in the morning. We negotiated the first two trains successfully (by asking “Plovdiv? Train to Parvomay?” Remember, we can’t read the signs…) then were told there was a problem. No train runs from Dimitrovgrad to the Turkish border, so we would have to take a bus instead. This is a long term issue, not just today. (Both EuRail and DB Bahn show a train.) No problem! We’ve done this before!

The train conductor was very kind, but had no English, so he sought out a student who spoke English to explain the situation to us. We never really got an explanation, just that there was no train, and we’d have to wait alone in the empty Dimitrovgrad station from 9:30 – 11pm for the bus. Our high school student, Constantina, had very good English, and wants to work in communications and study abroad. Translating for the conductor, she relayed that things were getting better in Bulgaria, as the Bulgarian singer had come in second place in the European Sing Off show on TV, and he believed that peace on earth was coming. He also recited many place names he learned about America: Boston! AnnaPOlis! Trenton, New Yersey!

When we got off in Dimitrovgrad, the conductor called ahead to make sure the bus would stop for us. He warned us to stay in the station to avoid pickpockets (there was no one around at all), and he even took us to the conductors office to use the bathroom as there was none in the station. He bade us good night, then came back a half hour later – 10:30 at night – to give us a tract – he was a Bulgarian Jehovah’s Witness! What a nice man.image

Here we are, waiting in the station. There are evidently many things you’re not allowed to do here.

The promised bus arrived a little after 11, and we got on. The bus made several more stops, until only we and three middle-aged Romanian women were left. We caught a little shut-eye until we reached the Bulgarian border. We all had to get out of the bus and stand in the cold until the officer stamped our passports, then got back on the bus. It was now around 2am.

The bus drove forward toward the Turkish border, and joined a queue of other buses. The border looked like a toll plaza, but only one lane was open, and it was not our lane! We waited (and dozed) until the driver ordered us out of the bus. We trooped over to the open station, and waited while the border officer processed cars through. When there was a lull between cars, he examined our passports. It was VERY cold, probably in the 20s, and this took quite some time. Once stamped we all got back on the bus.

The bus was still in a queue of other buses. What were we waiting for now? When the bus moved up sufficiently, we had to get out again, this time with our luggage, and troop over to go through a security scanner. Then we waited outside for over an hour, until it was our bus’s turn to be scanned (for weapons? contraband? No idea). We were all freezing cold by this point, jumping up and down with teeth chattering. I will add that at no point was there any opportunity to use a restroom.

Finally, we were allowed back on the bus – it was now 6am – and were driven to the Kapikule train station on the Turkish side of the border. We all got off again. Train now? No, another bus! The Romanian women complained loudly at this point, (bless them!) so the driver agreed to wait while we all ran to the WC next to the station. Boarded the new bus and fell back to sleep, reaching the Istanbul Sirkeci train station around 11:30am.

So, fellow travelers, do not plan on making any sort of connection based on the train schedule, as you will miss it by a mile. But, you will eventually arrive in Istanbul – how exciting!

We changed our Bulgarian lev to Turkish lira and walked the mile to Hotel Buhara on yet another drizzly grey day. At least it is a little warmer here – mid-forties, which feels warm compared to where we’ve been. Our host gave us hot tea in little glasses, with sugar cubes on the side.

After a nap, we went out in the late afternoon to see the Blue Mosque. A little before 5pm, the Call to Prayer sung out over the loudspeakers, with another mosque nearby responding as a duet:
Allah is Most Great
I testify that there is no God but Allah
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
Come to Prayer!
Come to Salvation!
Allah is the Most Great!
There is no God but Allah.

It took my breath away.


Salerno to Venice

11/3 – time to put another notch in our EuRail pass, and make our way north to Venice. We hate to leave the warm weather, but our quest must continue, and Italy is one of the more expensive countries we’ve stayed in. The high speed train took us northeast from Salerno to Naples then Rome, Florence, Bologna, Padua and finally to Venizia, where we skimmed across the water as if we were in a boat instead of on a train. First class passengers in Italy get free espresso, wine and crackers on board!

It’s definitely jacket and scarf weather here, although still nice and sunny. As soon as we got out of the station, I was overcome with the realization that this place really is not like anywhere else. There is water where the streets should be! Houses have boat doors! Taxis have outboard motors!

Jim got us a B and B in the heart of the old town, just down the street from the Rialto Bridge. We were instructed to call when we got in, so the manager could meet us there. I programmed the phone, which said we were 15 minutes away, so I called. “No!”said the manager, “don’t call me until you are standing in front of the door!”

45 minutes later, I understood why. We went over bridges, down alleyways, and who knows where, trying to reach the address. Our phone instructed us to turn every 20 feet, and then cut out periodically from exhaustion. We finally reached the street, a well-lit row of shops, and called again. “Are you right in front of the door?” Yes! “Then I’ll give you the code to let yourself in.” Another 20 minutes of hilarity ensued, while we set off the alarm, knocked a painting off the wall, and enlisted the assistance of the young woman in the shop next door to interpret what the man on the phone was saying. Once we got in and found the light switch, we were in a very nice ensuite with wifi. Oh happy day!

So, now we are ready to go out for a light supper (after all our snacks on the train). We find a little pizza place right around the corner, and order an 12 euro pizza. This is much more than a pizza cost in Rome, but we’re cool with that. We enjoy our meal and ask for the check – 22 euro! It seems that in Venice you pay a coperto (cover charge) per person for sitting at a table, in addition to a service charge, which is a percentage added to the price of the food. If there is music playing, you also pay an entertainment charge! Sheesh! Our bad for not boning up on local customs before venturing out to eat…

We look carefully at the menu posted outside the next cafe, where it clearly states: espresso ordered at the bar: 1.50. Espresso ordered at table: 7.50. From now on, all our meals will be eaten standing up!

We walked through St. Mark’s Square in the darkness. Tomorrow we will explore!

Santiago to Barcelona

10/17 – we took the bus back to Santiago, bidding farewell to grey and rainy Finesterre. We are no longer pilgrims, now we are just backpackers.

With our (slightly wrinkled) EuRail Pass in hand, we went right to the train station in Santiago to book our first train ride. The Pass allows us 10 travel days anywhere in Europe within the next two months. We only have 30 days left in the European Union (you can only remain in the Euro Zone for 90 days), so will see several places within the next month, then use the rest of the travel days to get through Eastern Europe and into Turkey. It’s a tentative plan, subject to change.

So, our first travel day will take us from Santiago in the northwestern corner of Spain, to Barcelona in the southeast. We can’t just show up at a train station, we must prebook our seats and pay a reservation fee for each ticket. Very complicated!

Our sleek and modern train left at 9am for Madrid, and then we take a second train to Barcelona. There is a snack car, and a refreshment cart offering coffee and pastry. An American movie is showing, but it is both dubbed into Spanish and has Spanish subtitles. Even so, I still cried at the end of Saving Mr Banks. I managed to take a few pics out the window, verifying once again that the rain in Spain stays mainly in Galicia.



At 14:50 we arrived in Madrid, and had an hour to get to our connecting train, which leaves from another station 5 miles away. We negotiated the Metro between the two stations, and arrived with time to spare. The train to Barcelona was a high speed train, and got us there in under three hours.image

Our pension was a mile and a half from the train station, and we considered taking a cab, but once we left the train station we could see that this was a walking city. The streets are well lit, and everyone was out strolling, eating in sidewalk cafes, riding bikes and kids riding scooters or on roller skates. image


What a groovy city! Tomorrow we will explore!