After a year and a half of not having set foot on the Old Continent I decided that it was time to go back and visit my family (unlike OA260, who always refers to his family as "the Family" I will refrain from doing so because -being Bulgarian and all- you'd think I'm referring to the Mafia). November is not exactly the heart of the tourist season so I was curious to see what kind of deals I could find out of ORD. My hometown (and destination for this trip) is the little town of Petrich, Bulgaria, which sits (relatively speaking) equidistant between SOF and SKG. I personally prefer flying to the latter but I couldn't find any good deals for it. In the end TK came to the rescue and offered me an open-jaw itinerary via IST allowing me to arrive in SOF but depart from SKG for the return, all for the very good price of around $800. The catch was that my layover at IST on the way back would be nearly 21 hours long. I saw this as an opportunity to explore a city I've never been to before so I went ahead and booked it. I was therefore going to try a new carrier (TK), a new airport (IST) and visit a new country (Turkey). How very exciting.
This is a report that covers the first part of this trip (ORD-IST-SOF and destination photos from Sofia and Southwest Bulgaria). The second part will cover an amazing road trip I took to the alpine Greek region of Epirus (which left me speechless with its unexpected beauty) and my return flights (SKG-IST-ORD), including photos from my overnight layover in Istanbul.
Here's the final itinerary: ORD-IST-SOF and SKG-IST-ORD, and here's how it looked like on a map:
Red lines represent flights and white lines represent travel by car. Created using the help of gcmap.com
Here are the segments covered in this first part. Labelled as "1" on the map is the town of Petrich.
Carrier: Turkish Airlines
Reg: TC-JND, "Antalya"
My trip did not start in the best way. I arrive at ORD nearly 4 hours before my flight and I find the check-in counters staffed but devoid of any pax yet. I walk up to one of the counters and I kneel to retrieve my passport from by bag. As I kneel I hear a loud tearing sound coming from behind me. To my horror I realize that the entire butt-section of my jeans had been torn. After the initial panic I remember that I have another pair of jeans in my (still unchecked) suitcase. I quickly pull the new jeans out of the bag and then hand the bag to be checked in. There was hardly anyone in line behind me so the incident went mostly unnoticed (I think). After completing my check-in I wrapped my rear with a jacket and made my way to the restrooms where I put on my new pair of pants for the day...
Security was uncharacteristically fast (by ORD standards) so I found myself airside with over 3 and a half hours to spare. I went to the gate where our A330-200 was already waiting, albeit mostly hidden behind the jetway. A BA B777 and an Etihad B777 were the only other visible aircraft in T5 so after I snapped a few photos of them I settled in front of a TV monitor showing a Thursday Night NFL game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts. Despite not being a fan of either team it was an interesting game that kept me entertained until it was time for boarding. (side-note: Despite not being a fan of anything that has to do with New York my favorite NFL team is the New York Jets. Can anyone guess why? ).
Our bird wearing the old livery hiding behind the jetbridge. I hate that.
Our neighbor getting ready for a late departure to LHR
The tail of our A330 barely visible behind the jetbridges.
Boarding was something out of a horror movie. When pre-boarding was called for pax with babies or in need of special assistance the awful sound quality of the announcement combined with the apparent poor English skills of the majority of the pax led to the instantaneous and en-masse gathering of literally hundreds of people in front of the gate. To my surprise the gate agents allowed boarding to take place in this way, ignoring the group numbers we had been assigned at check in. Not cool. This negative first impression of TK's operations was somewhat alleviated by the sight of the chef (with hat and all) greeting us at the door of our aircraft. I've never been greeted by a chef on an aircraft so I found this to be a rather cool touch.
While walking to my seat I notice from afar that it is occupied by a toddler next to its mother. I point out to them that they must be sitting in the wrong spot and sure enough they realize that they should be sitting a row ahead of me. I'm hardly surprised that (yet again) a toddler is going to be in my general vicinity during a flight. Paedoproximia Repetitiva Aerii is a phenomenon that both palmjet and I are very familiar with.
Nice branded seatbelt buckles
The seats on board our A330 are not great to say the least. A huge IFE box is occupying the best part of my legroom, a stupid foot-rest is fighting for the same space as my left knee, the headrest is not adjustable and located incredibly low thus stabbing me between the shoulder-blades, the PTV screen is located rather low too meaning I can't see most of it. I'm not sure what the designers had in mind when they created these seats but sure as hell it wasn't a 6'3'' person. To make things worse the windows on my seat are misaligned.
Evil IFE box
This seat is causing me pain indeed...
We push back right on time and take off over a Chicago that's getting ready for sleep. Soon after takeoff we are distributed amenity kits which come in cute TK-branded pouches (see below). How lovely. My seatmate is an interesting character. A retired cowboy-looking fella from Arizona who's heading to Kyrgystan to go hunting. He shares with me a ton of stories about his travels in Mongolia, Yukon and other God-forsaken lands. Chatting with him makes time go by fast.
Nice view of ORD soon after takeoff
Amenity kit (shot later on at home)
Amenity kit contents
Most pax appear to be Middle Eastern and Indian. I can hardly hear any turkish around me which I find surprising. Then again even if there were Turkish people around me I wouldn't be able to hear them because a kid a couple of rows in front of me is being slowly murdered for the past 2 hours. That's the only explanation I have for its constant wailing and crying. Its poor mother is in despair but the little brat won't shut it. Meanwhile behind me an old man is having the coughing fit of a lifetime. Good times.
OK, perhaps I have complained too much. Let's talk about the food. TK is known for its excellent catering and it certainly did not disappoint me on that front:
First Serving: Grilled chicken breast with roasted vegetables, Turkish-style bulgur salad, iceberg-tomato-mozzarella salad, and cheesecake. Instead of chicken we also had the choice of mushroom raviolis. It was all really delicious and served with metal cutlery no less! My apologies for the bad quality of the photo but for some reason we were served in the dark and I didn't want to use a flash.
Delicious roasted hazelnuts. For this photo I simply turned on my personal light (I should have thought of this earlier!).
PTVs. A multitude of TV shows, movies and documentaries were available but unfortunately clicking on some of them simply brought up a message saying: "Program not available"
Checking out some info about our aircraft
Flying over lake Balaton in Hungary
Second serving: Scrambled eggs with cottage cheese and sauteed spinach, tomatoes and potatoes, fresh fruit salad, assorted cheeses with tomatoes and cucumber, and fresh bread. Superb once more. The pieces of melon in the fruit salad smelled like one's dirty foot so I had to skip them.
Now a few words about the crew. Actually just one world: Cold. Not a single smile the entire flight and at times even abrupt with the pax. This however was to get even worse on the return leg (in Part II). The rest of the flight goes by with me reading or sleeping (or trying to). At some point we overfly Sofia which is kinda weird as I'm not used to overshoot my destination. The approach to IST offers some nice (albeit hazy) views of the north shore of the Sea of Marmara. The touchdown is rather smooth. I'm surprised to find out that instead of a jet-bridge we are heading to a remote location from where we would be bused to the terminal. No big deal, now I can even shoot a under-the-wing photo for Markus (FLIEGER67).
Flying over Sofia. Can't we just make a stop?
First glimpse of Turkey after the clouds cleared
Getting closer and closer to Istanbul
A few moments prior to touchdown
Applying the brakes
A nice Atlasjet airbus
IST terminal building view
Our aircraft's tail as seen from the bus
Dedicated to you all know who
Once in the terminal I follow the signs for the international transfer pax until I find myself at a security check-point. Just before I go through the metal detector a security guy stops me and the following dialogue takes place:
-You have laptop in bag?
-Where you from? Germany, eh? (***I'm thinking to myself "WTF? Germany? Are you drunk?***)
-No, I'm from Bulgaria
-Stoichkov, Lechkov, Konstantinov, Penev, Berbatov, (at this point he waives me through), Sirakov, Balakov, Kishishev, Bojinov, Ivanov...
By the time I'm collecting my stuff off the belt on the other side he is still spurting out names of Bulgarian soccer players in quick succession. I'm impressed.
Carrier: Turkish Airlines
Reg: TC-JPG, "Osmaniye"
IST is a very interesting place. Extremely crowded and with a demographic that resembles the exaggerated portrayals of international airports in Hollywood movies: People with turbans, ladies in traditional Asian dresses, people in shiny African clothes and some even in Mongol-style outfits,. Had I seen anyone wearing a lederhosen I would have thought the whole airport was set up to prank me. There was no place to sit so I simply walked around, manoeuvring around people sitting on the floor. In the restrooms I saw an African guy (in an arab outfit) in a gymnastics posture washing his feet on the sink, most likely in preparation for visiting the airport mosque. I mean, seriously?
Watching nightfall from my gate
A lot of TK traffic around here (obviously!)
The still empty gate area.
An MS Airbus departing from a nearby gate
Our A320 hidden behind the jetbridge
When the gate for my flight was announced I walked up to it to find a bunch of gate agents (left from the previous flight) arguing with each other in loud voices. I couldn't tell what was going on (they were speaking in Turkish of course) but eventually they just picked up their stuff and walked away. Weird. The gate was nice and spacious, with huge windows offering nice views to the apron but it lacked an information monitor. There was no way of knowing whether your flight was still leaving from that gate or not. As people started arriving they were asking each other if this was still the gate to Sofia. Even the most podunk airports have monitors by the gates, why not here? Not very practical.
A few minutes prior to official boarding time I see 6 guys escorting a person in handcuffs to the gate. They walked with him to the aircraft and then 4 of them walked out. I'm guessing the guy must have been deported from Turkey (or elsewhere) back to Bulgaria: probably just another example of Bulgaria's famed criminal exports. Boarding was moderately orderly (by Balkan standards anyway). I was expecting an A319 for this flight but it seems like there was a last minute change and we got an A320. I'm cool with that.
Interesting pink armrests
Legroom is OK this time
A very short hop today
Taking off over Istanbul
TK once more impressed me with their catering service. The amount of food offered for this 50-min hop could only be described as an overkill. A cheese-ham and tomato sandwich, a salmon salad with greens and potato, a cherry pie and crackers. And it was delicious. The flight went by in a heartbeat and before I knew it we were descending over Sofia.
This is a ridiculous amount of food for a 50-min flight
SOF is not terribly busy at this time of day
An OS Fokker is one of only a handful of aircrafts present
After anchoring on a jet bridge I made my way to immigration (which literally took 5 seconds) and I was one of the first few to arrive at the luggage area. My bag took forever to show up and for a moment I thought that it got stuck back in IST. Fortunately it showed up as one of the last bags on the belt.
A quick sneak of SOF's airside area (photo taken on the move while trying to beat people to passport control).
SOF luggage reclaim area
A very ugly logo if you ask me. We could do better than this..
After arriving at the Arrivals area I started looking for my father who was meant to pick me up from the airport. Instead of him however I saw a family friend waiving at me. To cut a long story short, my father felt really sick that afternoon and had to be taken to a hospital. He had driven to Sofia earlier that day with a friend of mine and after getting to Sofia he collapsed. Not the way I wanted to be greeted back in Bulgaria. Fortunately by the time we got to downtown my dad was discharged from the hospital and we all made our way to the hotel I had booked for the night. We stayed at the Kempinski Hotel Zografski in the Lozenets neighborhood. A unique hotel in many ways as it was build by Mitsubishi in conjunction to the Bulgarian government back in the 70s. The hotel has a number of unique features including the only Japanese-style garden in the Balkans. Depending on how you see it we were either fortunate or unfortunate enough to get a room that belonged to the small minority of rooms at Kempinski that have preserved the original 70's look. The room was clean and great looking but the furniture took me several years back.
Our hotel entrance
This is seriously old-school
I had made some preliminary plans to get in touch with user eco to meet and get out for a beer but the whole ordeal with my dad left me psychologically exhausted so we just stayed at the hotel and went to bed early. The next morning I woke up very early and having a couple of hours to spare before leaving Sofia for Petrich (I had some business to attend in Petrich in the afternoon) I went out for a walk around town in order to shoot some photos. The last few times I was in Sofia I stayed there only during night hours so this time I really wanted to see the town in daylight before leaving. Due to the lack of time I had to walk fast and ride a couple of taxis in order to shoot all the photos I wanted.
Panoramic view of Sofia from our hotel room in the morning.
View of the Japanese Garden from our room.
Our hotel from the outside
The Japanese Garden inside the hotel premises:
Some nice Bulgarian banichki pastries. They make an excellent breakfast
Sofia apartment blocks
An adorable Zaporozhets ZAZ 968M
Not a terribly unusual sight in downtown Sofia
Some typical local architecture
Entrance to the Evropeiski S'yuz Metro staton
Cherni Vr'h Park monument
Old buildings with western ads on their roofs near the National Palace of Culture.
The National Palace of Culture (known as En-De-Ka) square with a total DPRK-esque absence of people at this time of the morning,.
The newly uncovered ruins near the TsUM (the socialist era shopping Mall)
Sveta Petka church and TsUM in the background.
The Largo and the National Assembly building (the old Bulgarian Communist Party HQs) in the center.
Some nice neoclassic architecture
Empty benches in Banski Park
Detail of the Central Bath House building
Entrance to the Halite market
The Banya Bashi Mosque, one of Europe's oldest.
Church of St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker
National Archaeological Museum
The former Royal Palace (now the National Art Gallery)
Buildings around the Yellow Cobbles area.
Alexander Nevski Cathedral.
An exhibition of some well-preserved East German Trabant cars in the front of the cathedral
Alexander Nevski Cathedral detail
Metro station sign
University of Sofia
Entrance to the St.Kliment Ohridski Metro station
Monument to the Soviet Army
Orlov Most (Eagle Bridge)
A true hybrid: Made in...България.
Leaving our hotel room. Sofia looks kinda pretty from up here
After I was satisfied with my photo shooting I headed back to the hotel, checked out and got ready for the drive down to Petrich. Getting there required that we drove south all the way to the Bulgarian-Greek borders. Petrich is just 2 miles from the Greek border (yet one has to drive 10 miles to the nearest border crossing at Kulata/Promahonas).
One of many tunnels on the way home
Interesting rocky landscape on the way south. This area is part of the Kresna Gorge, which in bio-geographical terms is the northern border of the Mediterranean.
Interesting water tower or whatever this is
A stop by a roadside restaurant for some food and one of my favorite Bulgarian beers: Kamenitza
We're almost on the Greek border by now
Getting nearer and nearer to Petrich
Greeting sign with the Petrich coat of arms at the city limits
Welcome to the "west side".
Petrich is a quiet place with very few tourist attractions. Nonetheless it used to be (and still is to some degree) quite popular with shoppers from Greece who come here to buy clothes, food and gas for much cheaper than back in Greece.
The main square in front of the Town Hall
One of the many statues scattered around town
Another pedestrian square
Some more old buildings
Bulgarian-style wild boar stew
Pirinsko Pivo is the local beer of southwestern Bulgaria (made in Blagoevgrad).
Enjoying some Sofia-made Ariana beer too
My absolute favorite Bulgarian salad: Ripe tomatoes, grilled red peppers, garlic, parsley, olive oil and a touch of vinegar.
Bulgarian lukanka (semi-dried Bulgarian salami), another of my all-time favorites
Last summer my parents caught a huge octopus in Greece and they saved it so we could eat it together. I don't care what some of you say this is just so unbelievably tasty. .
A few words about my flights. TK was exactly as I expected them to be. Great catering and very generous overall service but by a less-than-charming crew. The seats were atrocious for a person of slightly above average height which made me dread the (even longer in duration) TATL crossing on the way back. Nonetheless it was great to try a new airline and especially one that keeps growing so fast.
My time in Petrich was quite limited: An old school friend of mine (and best man at my wedding) and I had plans to make a long roadtrip in Greece. Both my friend and I love mountains so we were particularly interested in the mountainous Epirus region of Greece, known for its pristine rivers, forests and breathtaking landscapes. After a few days of rest at home we jumped into his car and we drove off into Greece for one of the best roadtrips I've ever taken. This trip and the return flights to the US (plus a day in Istanbul) will be described in Part II.
Thank you for reading.
To be continued...
Entering Greece as the night falls.