Destination Bulgaria … Need to do the driving licence shuffle? Associate editor Steve Parsley reports on the three-day road trip to Svilengrad with half a dozen other expats keen to hang on to the UK documentation.
One thing you learn after a little while as an expat in Turkey is that, if you want to hang on to your home country driving licence, you need to cross the border every six months.
If not, you’re supposed to surrender your current licence and apply for Turkish one. Like it or not that’s the rule.
However, for some at least, there’s one significant obstacle; regardless of your age, to qualify for a Turkish licence, you’re supposed to produce documented proof that you have completed secondary school education.
No O or A level certificates squirreled away? No deal.
So, as a result, there’s a living to be made by some who specialise in shuttling expats backwards and forwards across the Turkish border once or twice a year – even if it’s just for an hour or so.
Until COVID-19 arrived, it was easy enough. A day-trip to the tiny Greek island of Meis off the southern Anatolian coast, a couple of days in Rhodes or even a trip home to see family back in the UK was all it took.
Now, with Greek borders closed and flights “home” either tortuously contrived or frighteningly expensive, an alternative is a three-day minibus ride to Bulgaria.
So what’s it like? Is it three days of hell stuck in a metal box with a dozen strangers or a jolly song-filled road trip Cliff Richard would love to join? The answer is probably neither – but, if you’d like to know more, read on:
Things we learned
PCR tests are nothing to worry about
As you’re going to be crossing a border, it stands to reason that the authorities are going to want some sort of proof that you’re not carrying COVID-19 so the first day includes a PCR test.
Some on the trip were concerned about just how invasive the swabs would be and the atmosphere on the minibus was perhaps a little charged when the two nurses from Menemem’s Sada Hospital climbed aboard to carry out the necessary checks without us potentially putting patients at risk by entering the building.
A fellow traveller was particularly worried that his hair-trigger gag reflex may mean an unpleasant reaction we’d all end up riding with.
However, with a deft flick of the wrist, swabs were taken from the back of the throat and the nose of each of us and without any real discomfort. Indeed, we were on our way again within 20 minutes with negative test results phoned though to the trip leader a few hours later.
The days when buying a coffee at a motorway service station was as simple as walking up to a counter and asking for one are long gone. These days, it’s as complex as a visit to Nando’s.
At some, you must first acquire the correct-sized cup from the cashier and only visit the machine once you’ve paid. Only after you’ve done that do you place your receptacle in the correct slot, select the size of beverage you want, make your choice from the electronic menu and press the appropriate button.
I can almost guarantee – probably after a worrying array of hisses, gulps and glugs – you’ll think the dispenser has finished before it coughs into life a second time to regurgitate the actual coffee element into your cup.
At others, the acquisition of the correct-sized cup from the cashier still comes first but you pay by inserting your credit or debit card into the machine and telling it what you want by selecting your drink from an electronic menu.
The spluttering from the dispenser is still the same though – as is the pregnant pause before the delivery of the caffeine bit.
Turkey is a big country
Back in the UK, the drive from Leeds to Bath would take about four hours, which can feel long enough. Day 1 of the trip from Fethiye to Gelibolu (Gallipoli) takes 12 – enough time to do Leeds to Bath and back with enough time left over to do a quarter of the trip again.
Admittedly, the drive up the Aegean coast is broken up with comfort breaks or stops for meals and snacks every couple of hours or so but there’s no denying it’s a long way.
Indeed, it’s enough to be aware of both a change in the landscape and the air temperature. If you’re used to Mediterranean Fethiye, take an extra layer to wear like a fleece or a jumper, particularly as there can be quite a bit of hanging around at the border.
The View From The Window
It’s perhaps a cliché to say that Turkey is the meeting point of east and west but, when you drive it north to south in a single day, it’s fascinating to watch the country gradually change before your eyes.
The first thing I noticed were the magpies – not that numerous in coastal Fethiye but more and more common the further north you go. There were more exotic birds to see too including great egrets, an eagle of some sort and even flamingos in a small lake a little south of Küçükkoy.
But it’s not just the birdlife. The more miles you clock up travelling north so the landscape alters too; from the mountains and weather-sculpted roadside rocks north of Muğla and the olive groves and flat plans of Çine to a generally more verdant backdrop including gently rolling hills and fields on the approaches to Canakkale and on the Gelibolu peninsula.
I was also delighted to find the route takes in the countryside surrounding the supposed site of Troy as well as Canakkale itself – the location of an ignoble defeat of the British Navy during the First World War.
Much is also made of the Turkish soldiers’ dogged determination and bravery during the subsequent Gallipoli campaign along the same shores – and rightly so. After all, they probably saved their country from invasion in much the same way as The Few during the Battle of Britain.
However, some of the troops on the northern shores of the peninsula were also famously led by none other than Lt Col Mustafa Kamal, destined to later become Atatürk – the founding father of the Turkish Republic who is still revered today.
We actually crossed the Dardanelles by ferry twice and it was impossible not to imagine the straits dotted with damaged battleships or shrouded with smoke drifting from the battlefields inland.
Today, the only sounds to hear are the rumble of the ferry’s engines and the occasional cry of a gull. However, although it’s now more than 100 years ago, the costly conflict which played such a huge part in forging Turkey’s destiny still feels relevant.
The Overnight Stops
I don’t know why but, before completing the trip, I presumed at least one night would be spent in Bulgaria. However, both overnight stays were actually in the 8 Rooms Boutique Hotel in Gelibolu (Gallipoli) which was a pleasant surprise.
Overlooking a sandy beach and adjacent seaside promenade, the rooms are comfortable with their own Juliet balconies and modern en-suite facilities and equipped with a mini-bar and TV. The restaurant and bar downstairs are also reasonably priced and both evening meals were perfectly adequate.
However, one word of advice; if you’re approached by a bearded bloke in the bar who says he owns an Italian restaurant somewhere along the prom, you might want to side-step an invitation. Some in our party enjoyed the hospitality immensely but found themselves paying dearly for it.
Probably the best word to describe them would be “unpredictable”. Our crossing was uneventful and over within an hour both ways – but that hasn’t been everyone’s experience by any means.
First of all, there can be long queues of vehicles waiting to get in and out of Turkey and each one needs to be processed and thoroughly checked.
The actual procedure isn’t all that complex. On arrival at the border, you will be asked to leave your vehicle, proceed through passport control to get your exit stamp and then climb back on board for a short drive across a buffer zone to meet the Bulgarian authorities.
Here, you’ll need to leave your vehicle again, go through another passport control area, show your documentation to medical staff to prove the results of your recent PCR test and wait while your vehicle is searched for contraband. Once approved, you can drive on.
On the way back, it’s more or less the same procedure in reverse. The first stop is to get your Bulgarian exit stamp, the next to have your PCR test results scrutinised by the Turkish authorities and then on to another kiosk to get your entry stamp.
However, there’s still another security and customs check to go and, even when that’s complete, there are random Jandarma checkpoints to navigate a couple of hundred metres inside the Turkish border.
Be aware an officious individual, a new admin procedure or even the sheer volume of travellers can throw a spanner in the works. We were fortunate but others have reported delays of several hours so an extra layer of clothing and a considerable helping of patience may be required.
Every country has its good and bad sides of course but the short drive to the supermarket in Svilengrad doesn’t do Bulgaria any real favours.
The dual carriageway isn’t a great deal worse but the landscape is uninspiring and dotted with tired old tractors and ramshackle huts and agricultural buildings. However, someone also seems to have told the Bulgarians travellers heading north from Turkey are mostly inveterate gamblers as there’s a giant billboard for a casino almost every 300m.
Don’t expect all that much from the Janet Grand Market either; in fact, think “giant Lidl”. It’s home to some goodies some may miss from home but it’s not really the place for a duty-free bonanza. There’s no café either – although there are some loos.
If you’ve set your heart on a spending spree, it might also be an idea to check the current exchange rate for Bulgarian currency before you go in. Remember, as the phone service from your current provider probably won’t be available, the internet and translation apps may not work.
Although it does involve an early-morning ferry crossing, make sure you eat well at breakfast before setting off on the journey home. While the journey north feels like a long one, the trip back to Fethiye is missing the sense of discovery and can seem to drag even more.
There’s every likelihood you’re already going to be tired after more than 48 hours on the move anyway but a good book, a podcast or some music from the privacy of your own headphones may help. One guarantee is that it will be a long time since you were so pleased to be back in your own bed.
However – for me at least – if we’re still in the grip of the pandemic in six months’ time – repeating the trip wouldn’t seem so bad. It may be tougher than the hop over to Meis, but it would be a chance to make a few more friends, buy a bit more chocolate and even use a coffee machine like a pro.