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My Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey Road Trip

Quest Bulgaria member, Bryan Figg, shares his road trip experiences in the three countries. Its been only four months since I last drove the two lane route 79 from Bourgas airport to Elhovo, and I was prepared for it this time! It was 3am Tuesday morning, pitch black, having had a 2 hour delay on our flight and taking 30 minutes collecting our hire car. Having successfully negotiated the seemingly continuous flashing yellow traffic lights looming from the overhead gantries at every major road junction, the decision was always - do I stop or do I go?


Fifteen minutes later we were out of town and I slid the car onto the main two lane highway 79, heading for Elhovo, about a 2 ½ hour trip. 'Continue straight for 40 miles' said the female voice on the sat nav. Then updating directions every few minutes, with my brother also saying 'slow down there is NO ROAD! It's disappeared!' every 20 minutes or so, and me with my face pushed right up to the windscreen my chin touching the steering wheel which I was holding in a vice like grip. We were really cruising now at 30 kilometres per hour and we had only embedded the front wheels twice in the potholes.

But the road really did disappear: it was like its dropped off, I mean it was a road then a drop of up to six inches onto an undulating surface covered in a white dust and huge pebbles! Steve retorted, 'it's like driving across no-mans land, these were not potholes they were ravines strewn across the road. Edging the front wheels over the precipice we had no idea how deep the drop was. These hazards were compounded by the fact that we were being continuously overtaken, the cars appeared like ghosts out of the night gloom and then disappearing through a cloud of dust into the darkness.

As we know some roads are in a state of very bad repair with a proliferation of potholes, lack of road markings no lights. But its not just the roads. Horse drawn carts, cattle, sheep, wandering aimlessly down the road, and the threat of oncoming traffic overtaking on blind bends all add to the hazards.

We are used to heavy truck traffic heading both ways along the two lane routes, North Eastwards from Greece and Turkey and from East to West from the two Black Sea Ports, along the highway, taking long minutes to overtake each other and hogging both oncoming lanes - and that’s just during the day!

The infrastructure, especially the roads, are now being upgraded and repaired all over the eountry which is why route 79 was so bad. We covered around 1500 miles driving around the country, and we saw the huge extent of the road works going on. Signs bearing the EEC starred images saying the road is being funded with money from the EEC. This upgrade work I found absolutely wonderful, at last Bulgaria is on the map.

I have an affiliation with my fellow Bulgarian drivers…. Yes they flash!.. and the reason is that round the next bend there are police. In the main it has to be said that they are often just chatting at the side of the road but at least we were prepared in case we were stopped, 'dobber den comrade we are English'. 



Saturday
Dear Diary
Steve (my brother) and I decided to have a day out at Alexandroupoli in Greece. I plugged Svilingrad into the sat nav and headed for the Border crossing. Left Elhovo mid morning and slid the car onto the highway. Its about 2 1/2 hours from Elhovo to the Svilingrad border crossing.

Having paid 40 euros to the hire car people to ensure the papers were in order to cross into Greece from Bulgaria, I was confident that we would sail through the check points. The Bulgarian side of four check points just waved us through. Then crossed no-mans land to the Greek check points, where we stopped, showed passports and were allowed into Greece. Less than 15 minutes in total.

My concern about the state of the Greek roads was completely put to rest as the highway heading south was fantastic. very new, three lanes and tarmacked. This major highway was broken up on a couple of occasions as they are still finishing off the connection roads, and where this happens you get a good indication of what the roads used to be like.

Compared to the houses in Elhovo, where the houses are grey and dull, every building here is white, which gives the illusion of them being in good shape, very clean and picturesque. Caressed by the sun the landscape and architecture conjure up Ancient Greece and all its mythology.

What we found at Alexandroupoli was a perfect example of an unspoilt, untouched virtually unknown-by-tourists paradise. With a volcanic island three kilometres off shore silhouetted through the hazy shimmering heat, like it's just risen from the sea - an absolutely stunning picturesque vision.

The sand in this alcove of paradise, is white and very fine, the beach itself washed by the Aegean Sea is just perfect. Its also about three degrees warmer here than in Elhovo. We decided to have a meal at a restaurant just off the main road, which runs on top of the Aegean coastline West to East inland to a mountain range and East to West following the contours of the coast. The town has a small airport, which backs onto the Sea. Deciding to eat at the restaurant next to the beach, I had Calamari, which arrived on 2 plates, along with a salad in a huge bowl. My meal along with a bottle of water was 20 euros. A 4 ½ hour trip from Elhovo, well worth it.


Wednesday
Dear Diary. Driving down the 02 Edirne - Istanbul highway, windows wide open, air con on full blast drinking in this tremendous scenery, watching the shimmering new road ahead, in a temperature of around 102 heading towards Istanbul.

We had taken the main highway out of Elhovo and headed for the checkpoint at Hamzaybeyli which took about 25 minutes. When I booked the hire car I had asked them to ensure we had a border pass for Turkey, which was an additional cost of 20 euros. I was now about to put this preparation to the test. Passing through the first three Bulgarian checkpoints we were going well, then we came to the Turkish side second checkpoint where we had to pay 15 euros each for our visas crispy new notes, if you don’t mind! Then we had to show the green card, passports and all the paperwork at the third checkpoint, were waved through two more checkpoints, and we were on the open highway. What a highway, it was like a Formula 1 racetrack. Foot down, this highway would complement any so called developed country. Brand new tarmacked road, very flat, three lanes wide on both sides, crash barriers, sign posts were new and easy to read. It cut and wove its way through the Turkish countryside. As we progressed into Turkey the typically Bulgarian houses and countryside changed into another place, another culture, another time.

The turn off to Saray, was negotiated easily, then back onto standard roads, which were in very good condition So far the infrastructure had surprised me.

Driving east towards the Black sea, the scenery changed from flatland through to hilly areas and then into mountains. Sharp bends, inclines, steep sided valleys, ravines, stuck behind Turkish lorries which seemed to appear from nowhere, this mountain pass road took us through undulating mountain ranges covered with dense green forests. Dropping down from the mountain pass the woodland and mountains gave way to a valley and then we saw the Black sea and a harbour. We passed into the village of Kiyikoy through the Castle walls, these walls were old, very old, you could almost visualise the Crusaders in full regalia riding through these gates.

The architectural inheritance of this so profoundly Turkish village, along with its culture and people, was a mixture of ancient and modern, Thousand year old facades but with 21 Century shops, bearing modern advertising. Complemented by the sprinkling of young people, wearing jeans, T shirts and Adidas trainers, not a Burkhart in sight. We could almost reach out and touch the history of this place.

There in front of us was the harbour, beach, and the Black sea. Stunningly beautiful and picturesque with not a tourist in sight.
Following our four course, freshly caught seafood meal, eaten inside the restaurant at a table overlooking the sea and harbour (cost was £18.50 each), we headed back home to Elhovo.

The trip back to the border took about three hours, taking 15 mins to pass through both Turkish and Bulgarian checkpoints, due to the long queue of all of two cars in front of us.