Out of Turkey and through Bulgaria – Edirne, Plovdiv and Sofia

I went to Istanbul and in particular Edirne to revisit the greatest works of Mimar Sinan – Sinan the Architect – who built huge domes and other daring structures at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the dome of St Peter’s in the Vatican. (Begun in 1506, St Peter’s was redesigned from 1547 by Michelangelo (then in his seventies), and completed in 1626; its dome is nine metres wider than that of the Haghia Sophia, completed a thousand years before, but slightly smaller than those of the Pantheon – 1,400 years older! – and Neri and Brunelleschi’s great dome of the duomo of Florence, completed in 1436.)

Sinan was born in about 1489 and it’s worth noting that he was a janissary, ie not Turkish but probably born a Christian, perhaps in Shiroka Luka in Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains, and taken away from his parents to join the Ottomans’ elite military force. He became a military engineer and in 1539 was appointed imperial architect, in charge of engineering projects across the Ottoman empire; he’s credited with designing over eighty major mosques, sixty madrasas (religious schools), 32 palaces, 17 hospices over the next half-century, as well as bridges, aqueducts, baths and other structures.

The Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul

In Istanbul I saw not just his sublime Süleymaniye Mosque (1550-57) but also the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex (1580) and the imperial kitchens of the Topkapı Palace (rebuilt after a fire in 1578, and opened to the public in 2014, with displays on

The dome of the Süleymaniye Mosque – on four huge pillars, buttressed by half-domes

the food and medicines supplied to the sultan’s court). Sinan also added minarets and external buttress walls to the Haghia Sophia. I seem to have missed the Caferağa Madrasa (1559), just northwest of the Haghia Sophia, and the Sokollu Mehmed Pasha Mosque (1572), just north of the Little Haghia Sophia, as well as various others more out of the way – shame on me.

The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne
The dome of the Selimiye Mosque – supported by eight columns

Anyway, I then took a bus to Edirne, three hours west, which is dominated by Sinan’s true masterpiece, the Selimiye Mosque, built for Sultan Selim II in 1564-75. The high point of Ottoman architecture, he claimed that here he had finally achieved his goal of creating a dome larger than that of the Haghia Sophia (built in the sixth century, let’s not forget) – but in fact it’s only half a metre wider (31.28m) and higher (42m). Nevertheless, at the age of 80 (he died in 1588, somewhere around 99 years of age), he finally succeeded in creating a fully unified structure that provides a breathtaking sense of space beneath the seemingly weightless dome, decorated with glorious polychrome Iznik tiles. This is mirrored by the external stacking of volumes and the pencil-like minarets in counterpoint on the four corners.

Edirne was once the city of Hadrian (and is still known as Adrianople to the Greeks), although its present name comes from the Odrysi, the first Thracian ‘nation’, who built their capital Uskudama here. It was the second Ottoman capital, a century before they captured Istanbul, and it remained the sultans’ refuge whenever Istanbul was gripped by plague, and the base for their military campaigns west into Europe. It now stands just east of both the Bulgarian and Greek borders with Turkey and is a major transport hub on the routes from Istanbul to both countries. Bulgarians and Greeks come to Edirne for cheap shopping, while Turks cross to Svilengrad, the first town in Bulgaria, for wine, women and song. I’ve just read Kapka Kassabova’s Border, in which she writes rhapsodically about this, and about the Strandja mountains where Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece meet in a mysterious nexus of spiritual forces. Not quite your normal travel book, but fascinating. I was also thrilled to discover while writing this that it was published in the US by an old schoolfriend of mine – I hope it’s done well for them.

The Selimiye is indeed huge and breathtaking, but it’s hard to photograph internally due to the usual low-hanging chandeliers. Compared to the main mosques in Istanbul there are few tourists (and no barriers or separate entrances for tourists) and it’s delightfully relaxed, with locals chatting on their phones and indeed taking selfies. Incidentally, I was told that a letter left in a bottle by Sinan had been found in the 1990s, giving detailed instructions for repairs to the Selimiye mosque – he supposedly used an equation with no fewer than 13 unknowns in his design work. I visited two other old mosques in the centre of Edirne, which were even more relaxed and peaceful – the Eski Cami (Old Mosque, 1414), and the Üç Şerefeli Cami (‘the mosque of three galleries’, 1447).

Heading south from Edirne you’ll cross two old Ottoman bridges; heading west towards the border (see below) you’ll cross a new bridge over the River Tunca, with the old one (ripe for conversion to a cycleway) immediately south, and fifteenth-century mosques at either end. About a kilometre north, also on the west bank of the Tunca (reached by a bridge built in the 1550s), is the site of the Edirne Sarayi or sultans’ palace; built in 1450-75, it’s in ruins, thanks to an earthquake in 1753 and the wars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alongside is the Beyazit II mosque and Darüşşifa or hospital and medical school, built in 1484-88; this was the origin of Trakya (Thrace) University, which has run a good museum of health and medicine there since 1997.

Moving on

When I arrived from Istanbul at Edirne’s bus station I was surprised to find that the only bus to Plovdiv in Bulgaria left at about 1am and took all night – in fact I now know that there are fairly frequent buses to the drab industrial town of Haskovo, between Svilengrad and Plovdiv, which would have provided a very easy connection. (I also noticed that Bulgarian road signs and distances were all to Sofia, with no mention of intermediate places such as Plovdiv.) In any case, it was a very easy border crossing – there are hourly minibuses from Edirne to Kapikule, which will drop you at the border, and less frequent ones on the far side (walk on and take an ad-hoc path left into Kapitan Andreevo) to Svilengrad, from where you can get a bus to Plovdiv.

Additionally, in June 2019 a new Plovdiv-Edirne train service started running on Saturdays and Sundays only, taking about 4 hours to cover the 180km, including time for border checks – this is slightly faster than the buses manage.

And so to Plovdiv – I came here a couple of times in the 1990s, when I was leading hiking trips in the amazing Bulgarian mountains, and I was keen to return when I heard that it was to be one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2019. However as it turned out I got there a bit early – and with hindsight, the Orthodox Easter weekend was probably not likely to yield a lot of cultural activity anyway. Easter in Kraków in the early 1990s was similar – we’re going to church, never mind the tourists wanting to give us their money. I noted previously that Hull’s preparations to be Britain’s City of Culture 2017 were somewhat delayed, but they did seem more ambitious than Plovdiv’s. Košice seems to have put together a better legacy from being ECC. Anyway, a friend who visited Plovdiv a month or so after me assured me that it was all happening and the year should be a rip-roaring success (José Cura was due to sing Otelo in the Roman Theatre a few days ago, which must have been thrilling).

The Roman theatre remains as stunning as ever, as do the old town’s striking Bulgarian National Revival merchants’ houses, which house some great museums. There’s also an exciting long-term project to unearth the Roman stadium which lies beneath the pedestrianised main shopping street, Knyz Alexander I (or Alexander Battenberg) – built early in the second century AD under Hadrian, it was 240m long by 50m wide and held 30,000 spectators. There’s a 3D movie reconstruction of the stadium (ancient-stadium-plovdiv.eu), and the plan is to open up underground access beneath the H&M shop (yes, every high street is just the same these days…). In a separate project, the whole of the Central Square (a wasteland of communist concrete anyway) has been torn up for relaying and beautification, and the remains of the Roman forum can now be seen and indeed visited (free) on either side of the post office building. The Trakart (ie Thracian Art) NGO has a couple of small new museums displaying stunning recent finds of Thracian and Roman glass and ceramics, plus 160 square metres of Roman mosaic, still where it was created in the third or fourth century.

One hears far too much about the Kapana area, immediately north of the old town, and how it’s the equivalent of Hackney and Brooklyn – it really isn’t, but there are a few traffic-free streets now with some pleasant bars and cafés (some serving macarons, so very on trend). The Cat & Mouse bar (and co-working space) in Kapana stocks over 100 types of bottles beers from Bulgaria, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Serbia and the Czech Republic, as well as three of their own draught beers – rather oddly, they started early in 2017 with a blackberry ale, and then followed it with a pale ale and a session IPA. I don’t know which my friend was drinking, but it went down well on a hot day. Another decent local product is the Bavarian-style Hills Beer from the small town of Perushtica, near Plovdiv. I was drinking Stolichno amber pils, from Stara Zagora, which I also found refreshing on a hot day – they make Bock, Weiss and Pils beers as well. Stolichno is now owned by Heineken, but at least I managed to avoid the mass-market Kamenitza, brewed in Plovdiv since 1881 and now owned by Molson Coors.

Next, I had a couple of hours in Sofia, just long enough to ascertain that the promised new Regional History Museum has indeed opened in the former Central Mineral Baths (it was a Monday, it was closed, of course). As in Plovdiv, long-buried Roman remains are being opened up – the crossroads at the city centre are exactly where the centre of Roman Serdica was, and eight streets, a basilica, baths and other large buildings were discovered during construction of a metro station in 2010-12. Beneath the modern streets you can now walk along a stretch of the Decumanus Maximus, still lined with columns and sheltered beneath a modern bubble roof.

My vegan food correspondent (I’m sorry, I’m merely vegetarian) says he was very pleased to discover a city that reminds him of Zürich – ‘no skyscrapers in the centre, nice renovated houses, wide avenues, a great transport system with tramway and metro. The city is not noisy, there is a lot of space, it’s green, and there is a large central pedestrian zone leading to a large park.’ I’m not sure Zürich is the first place that comes to mind for me (no lake, no sky-high prices, no incomprehensible Schweeezerdutsch), but it’s a fair comparison.

He continues, ‘like in Istanbul, there is no real invasion of foreign food concepts or fast food. In all Sofia you can find only three Starbucks and only a few international fast food outlets. Pizza I think is the first choice here, you have more pizza shops than Donald Trump can tweet in a day. Farmer’s is one of the best places for a healthy bite – it serves fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches. I visited a great vegan restaurant called Edgy Veggy, very good food, great team.’ Another friend has recommended the Drekka coffee shop and the Vitamin B craft beer bar, which stocks bottled beers from all over the world as well as Bloody Muddy, from a small brewery in the mountains near Sliven, between Plovdiv and Burgas.

Finally, returning to Mimar Sinan – he left his mark here too, building the relatively small Banya-Bashi mosque, which was originally part of the natural hot baths complex – a plaque gives a date of 1576 but it seems it was already there in 1553.

Roman remains and the Banya-Bashi mosque, Sofia