Visiting a different kind of Europe

I can’t believe it’s only a month until I leave this beautiful Istanbul again. For an exchange student enjoying life to the max, a weekend trip to a different city is a must. This time we were heading back to Europe! While Europe is usually associated with a flawless train system, this trip to Sofia would teach us that everything has exceptions. Actually the entire trip was rather exceptional for my West-European ideas of Europe. 

Well-nourished after a pasta+pizza dinner we started our adventure Thursday night and had our first stop at 1:00 AM at the Turkish – Bulgarian border, after a 3 hour of bus drive. Bus? I thought you took the train? Well yes a bus, because the railway is under maintenance. At this wonderfully creepy bus and train station we had to wait for a different bus to take us across the border. A girl told us this could either take 1 or 5 hours. Great. Especially since toilet paper was absent in all toilets, even the women’s (I checked).

Once the bus arrived after 2 hours we proceeded with entering into Europe, and realized two of our people had forgotten their passports at home. Luckily, ID cards combined with a Turkish residence permit are valid enough.


I checked our position with the last signals of my Turkish 3G network and realized that Sofia and Istanbul are a mere 580km apart! Wonderful, that means we’ll arrive early morning, right? NO!

Not if highways are foreign to Bulgaria. Not if we have to wait 1 hour for our train to arrive. Not if we have to wait another 2 hours at the next train station for a different train. And especially not if this second train putters through Bulgaria’s voids with less than 50km/h.

After this 16 hour journey we arrived at Sofia’s train station and were wondering where the heck we had gone to. The state and appearance of Sofia’s train station fitted in rather well with the run-down buildings we had spotted during our train torture.

Generally, everything seemed a bit ‘old German’. Including the hairstyles. This Germanness started with the fact that we took a train that was identical to the one I took to school as a 5th grader and continued with the old Mercedes cars and architecture of the buildings.


Somewhere in a cute little village in Bulgaria, waiting for our first train to arrive.

After these culturally insensitive and negative comments influenced by my Western-European background, I now want to provide some positive comments influenced by my Western-European background.

How can it be this cheap?!?!

That was one of our main questions and highlights. 2€ for a Big-Mac menu, 0,30€ for a coffee, 4€ for a grilled salmon. It’s impossible not to be happy.

After dining like kings (or fools) at a very pleasant restaurant we strolled through the calm streets of Sofia and headed to a German Christmas market. We were utterly delighted to find Currywurst (my stomach always has room for Wurst) and Glühwein at this mini Germany. Although Istanbul has “Christmas” decorations (for them it’s “New Year’s” decorations because they have no clue about Christmas), it was nice to feel this Christmas vibe. And of course to eat something from ‘home’. They also played German music of the kind I generally tried to escape from when I was living in Deutschland.


Bulgaria does not use the Latin alphabet…

The next morning we joined the ‘Free Sofia Tour’. A two hour walk along the city’s main monuments, where a student guide tells many amusing anecdotes for free (most people do give a tip at the end). Despite the rain, we were in a good mood, not the least because our guide was so full of excitement and energy she could’ve powered a whole village.

I had never been in such a cheap country, but also never in a Christian-Orthodox culture. Thus it was interesting to enter a church that looks quite different than all the ones I know. A whole different kind of interesting was a flee market we found in the basement of a different church. It was difficult to imagine how one basement could store so much curious old stuff, ranging from war helmets to Dutch playing cards.

Next to the prices, my highlight of the weekend were the Bulgarians themselves. Not only do they speak better English than Germans, they’re also incredibly friendly. Whether you ask for directions or eat at a restaurant, these people attend to your request with special patience and hospitality.

I am very happy I got to know Bulgaria. Although they are just as much a part of the EU, I didn’t know anything about them. Good change of perspective.

It’s always a bit foolish to draw quick conclusions, but I think Bulgaria’s history did play its part in this friendly culture. As Bulgaria was always oppressed by some other Empire, they can’t boast about imperial pasts and maintained a humble attitude up to this day. Both Western-Europe and Turkey seem different in this sense.

Some older history surrounded by newer buildings

Some older history surrounded by newer buildings

I’ve already made up my mind to come back to Sofia. For both the people and its mountain that rises right behind the city. And maybe to stuff myself for little money.

What Bulgaria has in common, not with Turkey, but with Germany, is the existence of Lidl. Not having eaten certain products for a couple of months, we went a bit crazy in this nice store that looks exactly the same everywhere on the world.

When we wanted to take a Taxi, we were surprised how reluctant they were to take four people in the back, something almost common in Istanbul. This adherence to the rules was not something we expected. Why not? Good question, stereotypes I guess…

The other great experience we had with cars is that they always stopped for us! Of course I’m used to that in Switzerland, but living in Istanbul I got used to slaloming through the driving traffic when crossing a road.

Sunday night we decided to have dinner at our hostel. Since it didn’t really stuff our stomachs (and we had a long night ahead of us), we decided to have an after-dinner-snack. For the price of a (Dutch or German) snack we ordered fancy stuff like Duck, Quinoia, and Salmon. Because, why not? Afterwards we also just had to add another slice of pizza, which was so huge that in the Netherlands it would’ve cost the same as we paid for our Duck salad.

After spending all of our Bulgarian money we were meticulously gathering all our coins to decide whether we could buy some water and still pay the taxi, taking us to the train station to return back to Istanbul. We laughed at the irony of being so rich all day and suddenly struggling to buy water. Since the taxi prices exceeded our expectations in the best possible way once again, we did not have to thirst on our way home.

Equipped with enough water and literally kilos of chocolate we commenced our return ‘home’, this time with just one bus, which drove through the most curious places that definitely do not qualify as ‘highway’.

After some more struggles at the border due to multiple reasons we entered back into Turkey and were back in time to go to class on this wonderful Monday. Thanks for welcoming us back Istanbul, you do feel like home.


  1. Girl Gone Expat on December 12, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Enjoyed reading you blog! A bit embarrassing, but even though I’m from Europe I know very little about Bulgaria so interesting reading about:)

    • Frank Holleman on December 15, 2014 at 2:23 pm

      Thanks! 🙂 Yes it really encouraged me to see even more of Europe. There is so much to learn from all of our countries

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.