Trespassing at the Sophia
Greece is stunning! The northern part is mountainous, coastal, rugged and depending where you are, dotted with forest. We passed through all of these terrains on our drive from Albania to Turkey. Most people are interested in the ancient civilization that spawned democracy as we know it. Shit – Americas greatness comes in part from the values bestowed upon the modern world by Ancient Greek philosophers. Team Baja Llama on the other hand was interested in getting from point A to point B with minimal car damage and maximum fun.
From the Albanian to the Turkish border, the roads provided us with neither smooth travel or a good time. Not because of the roads quality, they were actually pretty nice. But because of the inordinate amount of toll roads. Crossing back into the EU was great for comfort, but we exhausted all of our euros in exchange for Albanian Leks which led to near constant delays dealing with the Greek toll operators. We had to pull over constantly to have our information written down so we could have a ticket to pay at the next toll booth. There was one time a young man started yelling at the toll booth lady to let us through saying something to the effect of – “Look at these ass clowns and their shit bag of a car. Clearly they’re not from here and they will leave as soon as possible, just let them through. I’ll pay for them!” He was a champion. On one such stop we got out of the car and decided it would be a good idea to hop on top of the car for a little mountain side drive by. Prove it. Video below.
We left Thessaloniki not wanting to deal with this again. We made sure we had enough change to get us to Istanbul sans toll booth tickets.
The drive was flat from here on out. We stopped for some treats and filled up right before arriving at the border around 7pm. Thinking we made good time, the team was in high spirits excited to get into Turkey. None of us had been there before so the anticipation was higher than normal. But what happened countless times before, and what would happen countless times more on this journey, the border lines were excruciatingly long. It got to the point where everyone just got out of their car. We hopped out of the car to escape the cramped seats. We fired up the music, chatted with other weary travelers and FaceTimed our friends back home. JH made the smart move and jumped over the guard rail to the last salvation of snacks and beer across the street. He came back and dusk was settling. The semi’s were parked to our right in an endless line of stillness. As the sun set, the bugs came out in full force. Jeff was stubborn and completely gave up on caring about the 100 mosquito bites that were taking place. The rest of the crew huddled in the car waiting for our admittance to the land that unites east and west.
After a few hours of slow going, we made it to the border. We blasted Michael Jackson as loud as possible to the delight of a few of the guards. Of course, there was always the one dickhead cop would tell us to turn it down. That still never really deterred us from a good time. Jeff had to run circles around the area to buy car insurance and pay the entrance fees. It was now 10pm but we made it through! We drove a few more hours before we finally arrived to Istanbul.
Here’s the thing about Istanbul – when you arrive by car, you haven’t really arrived. With no pre-planning or prior research about the city, none of the team was prepared for how truly immense this bicontinental city really is. It took us over an hour from the time we entered the city until we arrived at our hotel. We obviously took a few wrong turns through some pretty harrowing turns, onramps, off ramps and roundabouts. The best part of our arrival was the last few streets.
We were so freaking close to the street that our hotel was on, but unbeknownst to us was the closure of all the surrounding ones. We took a left down an old road with pavers that was beautiful and lined with rails for a trolly. This was a clue that maybe we shouldn’t be there. The road ended and to the right was a small opening in an otherwise closed off street that went right through the middle of what looked like a park. What this really was was the space between the two most majestic and touristy mosques the city has to offer. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. I mean we were right in between these two Goliaths racing around a pedestrian only path in our go-fast inspired 1999 Ford Fiesta. It was after midnight by this time so there were no people, or thankfully cops, as this was unquestionably illegal and most definitely offensive to their cultural icons. We were really freaking out by this point. Not because of the legality, but we were so ready to arrive at our destination that screaming matches were taking place from all sides. Finally after a few quick turns on the 1,000 year old cobble stone walking paths, we arrived at a random stand (to most). This could very well be Jeff’s paradise on earth. One man tending a little juice stand selling fresh squeezed orange juice. We bought a few to squash our quarrels, which by the way works every time. As if OJ cures misdirection as much as the common cold, we finally found a path to our hotel. Albeit going the wrong way down a 1 way street. But who cares.
The hotel was cramped with us 5 in a 12×7 love den. But it was comfortable and the owner was incredibly helpful and nice. We hunkered down for the night and went to sleep almost immediately. We had a couple more days in Istanbul to sort our car out knowing the roads were about to become worse and worse.