It is a month and a day since I’ve published a blog post and I’m sure some of my regular visitors will be beginning to think that I’ve disappeared off the planet. Rest assured – I haven’t! However, I have been absent from Prague for 23 of those 31 days only returning to the Chaplaincy Flat on the afternoon of Tuesday 27th October having left on the afternoon of Monday 5th October. Over the next few weeks I’m going to write about what I’ve been up to, hopefully making up for the lack of news during most of October.
As the title of this post says, Sybille and I have travelled to Asia and back and we’ve done the whole journey by car! I’ve driven 4,500 miles/7,200 kilometres and we’ve visited twelve countries in total. The trip has been part work and part pleasure – let me explain.
St. Clement’s Anglican Episcopal Church, Prague is part of the Church of England’s forty fourth diocese, the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. As with the other 43 dioceses that make up the Church of England, the Diocese in Europe is divided into Archdeaconries. My previous group of parishes were part of the Archdeaconry of Oxford, one of the three Archdeaconries that together form the Diocese of Oxford.
The Diocese in Europe is divided into seven Archdeaconries. Even the smallest of these, the Archdeaconry of Switzerland, covers the whole of one country. And Prague belongs to the largest of the seven, the Eastern Archdeaconry, which consists of everything eastwards from Poland, Czech Republic and Austria, including all of the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and all the former Soviet Union except for the Baltic States.
Once a year, each Archdeaconry has an Archdeaconry Synod where the clergy, together with elected lay representatives, meet to discuss and report on issues facing our scattered congregations, to pray and to study, as well as to make decisions regarding the common life of our chaplaincies. Because of the distances involved, the synod meetings have to be residentiary. This year, the synod meeting for the Eastern Archdeaconry took place between the afternoon of Thursday 8th and lunchtime on Sunday 11th October and was hosted by the Izmir Chaplaincy in Turkey. In their wisdom, this year’s Annual Meeting of the Prague Chaplaincy elected Sybille as one of their two lay synod representatives. So we decided that it would make good sense to combine our attendance at the Synod with my remaining annual leave.
Once we had decided to do this, I was very pleased to be able to arrange for Rev’d John Dinnen from Northern Ireland, accompanied by his wife Jane, to come and take up residence in our flat and for John to be locum chaplain for the three Sundays I would be away from Prague. John had been the first locum chaplain in April-May 2008 after the retirement of my predecessor John Philpott. What is more, Jane likes cats so they needed no persuasion to agree to also look after Oscar.
Because we would be on holiday once the synod meeting finished, rather than flying to Izmir, I thought, why not drive there? Instead of two airfares, there would only be the cost of petrol and overnight accommodation and we would have the car to explore Turkey and various chosen places on the way back. So it was that, at 2pm on Monday 5th October, we set out to drive from Prague in Central Europe to Izmir on the Asiatic west coast of Turkey.
Monday 5th October 2009
That afternoon, we headed south east out of Prague on the motorway towards Brno. Just before reaching Brno, we turned south and entered Slovakia, passing around the capital, Bratislava. Then it was into Hungary by which time it was beginning to get dark. So we ended our first day’s travel at Györ, an interesting historic city about an hour’s drive short of Budapest.
Tuesday 6th October 2009
The following day, we drove towards Budapest before heading south across the Hungarian plain to the border with Serbia, near the Hungarian town of Szeged. Here we left both the EU and the Schengen area. Entering Serbia, we had our passports stamped to show our date and place of entry and were also asked to produce our insurance green card for the car.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website offers the following advice about driving in Serbia.
“You should also be aware that some parts of the motorway between Novi Sad and Belgrade have two-lanes with a hard shoulder on only one side. Some drivers use the ‘middle’ lane to overtake, thus forcing the ongoing traffic onto the hard shoulder. We advise you to take additional care when driving on these stretches”
In fact, it is mainly the section from the Hungarian border to Novi Sad that has these characteristics. Frequent memorials at the side of road were a constant reminder of those who had previously failed to heed the wise advice of the FCO! Serbian police lurking under bridges were also an effective visual aid!
We crossed the Danube for the third time on our journey near Novi Sad, (having previously crossed it in Bratislava and just south of Budapest), and drove on to Belgrade. From Belgrade, there is a good dual carriageway/four-lane highway motorway passing through ever increasingly attractive scenery, all the way to the southern Serbian city of Niš where we spent the second night of our journey.
Wednesday 7th October 2009
That morning, we headed east from Niš, now on an ordinary single carriageway road, eventually reaching the border with Bulgaria just over an hour later. Here the Serbian border police stamped our passports, this time to show when we had left the country. They also took the cards, dated and stamped by the hotel where we slept in Niš, which proved where we had stayed during our time in Serbia. Apparently, the Serbian authorities can be difficult if you don’t have the proper evidence to show where you’ve been in their country! Entering Bulgaria, we re-entered the EU (but not Schengen!) and headed further east on a good road until we reached the outskirts of Sofia.
It was here that we experienced the worst section of road during the whole of our journey – the Sofia ring-road. Clearly dating from the Communist era, it is single carriageway nearly all the way around the city. Each crossing with a road heading out of Sofia is controlled by traffic lights with no roundabouts or flyovers. Because of the impact of heavy trucks, the road surface is severely rutted in many places. Unfortunately, we followed a large slow moving truck for the whole of our journey around it. Eventually, the last little section suddenly became three lanes each way and then joined the motorway enabling us to head east towards Turkey.
We had lunch at a motorway service/rest area in an establishment called ‘Happy Bar & Grill’. The food and service were good and reasonably priced and with our complete inability to speak Bulgarian, it was most helpful to have a waitress who could speak English. But the abiding memory we both have of our visit, is of the outfits worn by our waitress and all her colleagues which featured the shortest miniskirts you are ever likely to see!!! Some internet research since reveals that ‘Happy Bar & Grill’ are the largest and most successful restaurant chain in Bulgaria. I wonder why??!!!
After an enforced detour around a section of motorway still under construction, we eventually reached the border with Turkey. Leaving Bulgaria was easy but successfully entering Turkey was another matter. At the first of numerous check points, we had our usual problem of explaining why a Czech registered vehicle had right-hand drive whilst the two occupants produced German and British passports! The Turkish passport officers were all smiles once we’d explained everything but they then forgot to stamp our passports or tell me where to go to pay €15 for an entry visa.
When we got to the next check point, this time for the car, I duly produced my Czech registration document and green insurance card, together with my passport, in order that a record could be made of the car being brought into Turkey. It was then that the failure to obtain my visa and have both passports stamped came to light. We had to park the car, go to the cash office, buy the visa, go back to passport control, get both passports stamped and then return to vehicle control!
There I got a lecture about why I must not try and sell my car whilst in Turkey but instead, export it again when I left the country. Why anyone in Turkey would actually want to buy a nine year old right-hand drive Czech registered car is beyond my comprehension!!! However, a record of my car was duly entered in my passport and woe betide if I dared try to leave the country without it.
We returned to the car in order to reverse back to baggage control when the car, for reasons known only to itself, refused to start! Eventually we had to ask someone from baggage control to come to us and then get a nearby coach passenger to help push the car in order to bump start it. Next it was customs and another check of documentation before finally, over an hour after we had arrived at the border, we were actually allowed to drive into Turkey.
The absence of part of the Bulgarian motorway, together with the Turkish border delays, meant we were somewhat behind my anticipated schedule. However, Turkey then produced the first of several surprises. I had expected the first section of motorway from the border to, & then around the city of Edirne, to be good. But when we left the motorway to head south towards the Gallipoli peninsular, I discovered that what I had expected to be a single carriageway road, was in fact a dual carriageway/four lane highway or well on the way to becoming one. Throughout our time in Turkey, time and again we were to be impressed by the standard and quality of the roads we drove on.
Eventually, after experiencing a wonderful sunset across the nearby Aegean Sea and driving for another hour and a half in the dark, we reached the town of Eceabat on the Dardanelles. As we drove slowly into the town, we saw a hotel sign and at the same time, two men sitting outside the building almost jumped out in front of us to flag us down. Seeing our foreign number plate, they suspected we were looking for somewhere to stay and were very keen to find more paying customers for their hotel. So it was that we booked into the somewhat eccentric but very pleasant Aqua Hotel in Eceabat.
After putting our overnight bags in our room, we went back downstairs to the restaurant. We were told that the menu was on the far side of the restaurant. When we got there, it was not a printed menu nor written on a blackboard on the wall as one might have expected. Rather, it was a glass fronted refrigerated unit! Within it was a selection of fresh fish, no doubt caught in the waters immediately outside the hotel, a variety of meat including kebabs, together with a selection of side dishes from which to choose. Basically we pointed to what we wanted and it was taken out, cooked and delivered to our table.
We chose a large fish to be cut in two & shared between us, together with some side dishes and a salad. All this we washed down with our first Turkish Efes beer. The meal and the liquid refreshment were most welcome after two and a half long days of driving.
Thursday 8th October 2009
After breakfast on the terrace by the sea, we drove about 3 km further along the road to the little port of Kilitbahir. Here we boarded the ferry that would take us on a short journey across the Dardanelles but also one that would take us from Europe to Asia. As you can see from the photograph, we were the first car on the ferry & therefore needed to be the first one to drive off on the other side in Canakkale. Fortunately on this occasion, the car started first time!
The journey from Canakkale to Izmir along the Turkish Aegean coast is one that I had made in reverse as part of a coach party, nearly 35 years previously in April 1975. For Sybille, it was her first time in Turkey or anywhere in Asia for that matter. Whilst the views and scenery were as beautiful as I remembered them, what I couldn’t help but notice was the scale of development of hotels and apartments all along the coast to support a tourist industry which was only in its infancy when I last passed along this self-same road. Also, as noted previously, there was a considerable improvement to the road itself.
So finally, after three days and nights, 1300 miles/2080 km of driving, just after 2pm, we arrived in the city of Izmir. There then followed a rather interesting 45 minutes or so whilst we tried desperately to find our way to the Kaya Prestige Hotel, the venue for our synod meeting. No, we don’t have a GPS/Satellite navigation system and guess who forgot to print out a Google map? However, assisted by the proprietor of another hotel who answered our crie de coeur by hopping in the front seat of the car to direct us around the one-way system, we finally arrived, two hours before the synod meeting was scheduled to begin.