Notes from a September 2011 ride through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece
For the past 3 weeks, I have been riding through Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece; I thought it might be useful for others planning to do the same if I provided information to answer some of the questions I had before starting this trip. I'm travelling on a Canadian passport with a Canadian plated motorcycle (a ST 1100).
I've had excellent experiences at all border crossings.
The Romanians are quite thorough - they wanted to see my passport and my vehicle registration documents. They were also the most friendly and sociable customs folks - they were curious about my motorcycle, where I planned to go, etc. and offered me many useful suggestions about where to visit, good roads to ride, etc. I spent 10 minutes on the entry formalities and another 20 minutes afterwards socializing with all the border guards. This pretty much mirrored my previous experience with Romanian customs when I visited the country in 2008. I think that the Romanian government has provided the customs folks with some on-the-job training, letting them know that they are the first people visitors meet when they enter Romania and first impressions are important.
The Romanians still stamp everyone in and out of the country, despite the fact that they are now part of the Schengen group.
Bulgarian customs was pretty laid back - the guy took a look at my passport, gave it a stamp and waved me through with a smile. Same on the way out. Fast and friendly, about a 30 second stop in each direction.
Turkish customs and immigration staff were very detail oriented, but again, very friendly, courteous, and helpful. The whole process was kind of complex and took about 45 minutes. I needed to purchase a visa (because I am not an EC citizen) - that cost €45 for 3 months. Various currencies were accepted for that - Euros, Swiss Francs, USD, etc. Then came the vehicle formalities - looking at the registration document, making an entry in a computer (apparently to ensure that I did not leave the bike behind in Turkey), and providing a second stamp in my passport for the motorcycle. Then a police check, then finally visiting the customs folks for baggage inspection. By the time I got to the customs guy (who had been observing me moving around from department to department), I was almost a familiar face to all the staff in the office, and the customs guy just waved me through - he told me, with a big smile, that he could think of no good reason to need to go and look at my motorcycle or luggage.
I had to buy a 'validation' of sorts for my EU green card, because there was an 'X' in the space for TR, indicating that my insurance coverage was not valid in Turkey. That cost €9 and was good for 3 months. Interesting to note that the cost for any motorcycle is €9, and the insurance underwriter (at the border crossing) is Alissa, which many of us know from buying green card policies for the EU. That was a fairly quick and trouble-free process.
Finally - after all that - there was yet one more stop 50 meters down the road, at the "final checker" who looked at all the stamps and made sure that everything was in order.
Everyone was very nice, very helpful, but it did take a long time and there were a lot of complex procedures. I think I showed my passport, vehicle papers, and insurance document to about 4 different people, including the "final checker". The same process happened in reverse when I left Turkey. So, for those of you planning to visit Turkey - get all your papers organized before you hit the first border crossing, and don't put them back into storage until you are at least a couple of kilometers inside the country!
Entering Greece (from Turkey) was a non-event - one immigration control guy who looked at my passport, put a stamp on it, and waved me through. About 1 minute total.
I think that the trick with border crossings is to be relaxed, don't ever be in a hurry, lift the visor of your helmet and take your sunglasses off before you come to a stop - that shows courtesy to the border guards, and they then return the courtesy to us.
I try to stick to secondary and tertiary roads - I don't like motorways. The Romanian roads were surprisingly good, except for one tertiary road that I took across the Carpathian mountains - I should have had a BMW GS for that one. Bulgarian motorways and secondary roads were superb, almost on par with Swiss roads, but their tertiary roads are for sure 'dual-sport' roads, not at all suited to a ST 1100. Bulgarian roads are either flawless or impassable, there is no mid-range.
Turkish roads were excellent in every respect.
The E90 expressway across Greece is like an autobahn, but every other Greek road is neglected, suffers from vegetation encroaching on the sides of the road, is poorly marked, and often full of surprises (very dangerous potholes, or changing from pavement to dirt without any notice, etc.)
All things considered, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the roads in Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Motorcycles are absolutely, positively exempt from the need to have vignettes in both Romania and Bulgaria. This is "for sure", "guaranteed", and "carved in stone". On several occasions, I attempted to buy a Romanian or Bulgarian vignette, and was told by officials that it was not needed for motorcycles.
Turkey has an electronic toll collection system on the major expressways that is not really well suited to visitors. All toll stations - both going in and coming out - are totally unattended, and it seems one is supposed to buy an electronic card (RF card, transponder, whatever) in the cities before entering the expressways, and swipe this card when entering and leaving the toll motorway system. I didn't know this, so, I just drove through the entry point (nothing happened), and drove through the exit point (a bell rang). We'll see if they sent the bill to my home in Canada... or if I get tossed in jail the next time I visit Turkey.
There were a few speed cameras in Romania (though it appeared that most of them had been abandoned and were not in service), none that I saw in Bulgaria, electronic monitoring in Turkey, and Greece has speed cameras everywhere. The Greek ones are set up as 'speed traps' - 20 meters past the point where the limit changes from 90 km/h to 50 km/h in the middle of nowhere. I had a Garmin GPS with an up to date speed camera database. Even though I generally ride at close to the speed limit, I would consider this to be absolutely essential equipment for riding in Greece... don't even think of going to Greece without a speed camera database. FYI, the 2012 Garmin cartography for all four countries is really excellent, with 100% coverage, although the quality of the routing in Turkish cities is kind of poor (I don't think Garmin has enough detail data about the various road widths, road capacities, etc. just yet).
I think it would be unwise to ride after dark in any of these countries on any roads except possibly major expressways that have been recently constructed... there is just too big a risk of coming across a huge pothole, or broken pavement, or an unmarked/unsigned hazard. I only rode during daylight hours.
Remember - with the exception of Istanbul, I generally stayed in rural areas.
Romanian rural drivers were generally quite courteous. Contrary to what I have read elsewhere, they also tended to obey the rules - meaning, obey red lights, yield the right of way, and generally be cautious and courteous. In the one large city I visited (Constanta), the taxi drivers were pretty reckless, passing on the right, running red lights, etc. but everyone else was pretty good.
The Bulgarians were also pretty tame.
Things got a bit more stressful in Turkey, most especially in Istanbul. Heck, there are 20 million people in Istanbul, and every one of them has a car. Traffic there is hopeless, often total gridlock both in the city and on the expressways. Drivers are aggressive and don't give a sh*t about anyone else. During the three days I spent in Istanbul, I was sideswiped twice and rear-ended once... and in each case, the other driver didn't bother stopping and clearly didn't think that anything unusual had happened.
Greece is also pretty bad - motorists generally don't pay any attention to traffic lights, one-way street signs, the paint markings on the road, or any of those other little road decorations. But, they generally move slower than in Turkey and are less aggressive.
To sum up - no big worries in Romania or Bulgaria, but look out for your own life in Turkey and Greece, because no-one else in those two countries has the least bit of concern for your life, your vehicle, or your well-being.
I stay in hotels, and generally speaking, I was not particularly worried about security of my motorcycle. In all the counties, large touring motorcycles are quite uncommon, and the hotel operators always permitted me to park the moto in the front of the hotel, proximate to the main entrance. I never saw any evidence of the moto being tampered with.
I also did not encounter any areas where I had any concern for my personal security. Romania has a problem with one minority ethnic group aggressively begging, and on one occasion, I could see I was getting sized up for a possible intimidation (or maybe a robbery) by a couple of ratty looking adults when I was walking back to my hotel from a restaurant after dark, but for the most part, the beggars are children (some as young as 3 or 4) and women. If you just keep walking, or call the restaurant staff to shoo them off, they are not a problem.
I stopped once to help a group of Roma people who had a flat tire on a horse-cart that was full of scrap metal. At first, they thought I was from outer space, but once we communicated (through hand gestures, etc.) that I had a tire plug kit and an air pump, they were the friendliest people you could ever want to meet. There were about 20 people travelling in that group, little kids, teens, adults, old men, grandmothers, the works. The kids liked the motorcycle and they all wanted to sit on it. We got the tire fixed, sort-of inflated, and had tea afterwards. I think that the Roma who still travel and live in the rural areas are doing OK, it's the folks who are down on their luck and gravitate to the urban areas that are having troubles and not fitting in.
Feral dogs are a problem in both Romania and Greece - they tend to run around in packs. There are more dog problems in Romania than in Greece. I didn't see any feral dogs at all in Turkey or Bulgaria.
Romania appears to be in real trouble. Abandoned factories (from the pre-1991 revolution days) are everywhere, and nothing new has been built. There are a lot of abandoned, partially constructed buildings - perhaps fallout from the 2008 economic contraction. In the countryside, you won't find anyone under the age of 65, and all the senior-citizen farmers are gathering their crops by hand, cutting them with scythes, stooking the grain by hand, and transporting the crops with horse or mule-pulled carts. It's like riding into a time warp and going back to the 1920s.
One day, I rode for 6 hours through the countryside (secondary roads) and could not find a single cafe or restaurant. In the rural areas, there doesn't appear to be a functional cash economy anymore... folks have gone back to barter. Near the cities, hookers hang around the road entrances to all the truck stops. In the cities, elderly women (I mean REALLY elderly - 70s and 80s) are standing near churches, quietly hoping someone will give them a loaf of bread or some small change. That is really sad.
Bulgaria, on the other hand, seems to be doing very well. Cross the Danube and you will find three huge John Deere combines - each worth well over $200,000 - running line abreast and combining a 60 meter wide swath. Instead of small, patchwork fields, Bulgaria has huge farms - bigger than some in western Canada - and very modern agricultural practices.
It is noteworthy that I saw a great number of young families - parents with kids under 10 years old - out for strolls every night in the Bulgarian villages and cities. That was a big contrast to Romania, where I saw very few children (except the beggars) and very few people between 20 and 65 outside of urban areas.
Turkey is an economic powerhouse that is running at full steam ahead. The prosperity and growth (construction, restaurants, etc.) there is amazing. I think that the economy in Turkey is in a lot better shape than the economy in Western Europe or North America. If that country was listed on the stock exchange, I would by shares in it. In every respect, Western Turkey is on par with the first world.
Greece is a write-off. Abandoned factories are everywhere (similar to Romania), about 20% of the retail space is empty, and the only economic activity still going seems to be restaurants and bars, where, as mentioned before, everyone is trying to pocket the cash and not remit the VAT or declare the income for tax purposes. Any doubts I might have had before this visit about Greece's economic outlook have been put to rest - this place is going to go broke, and go broke in a big way. The cause of the problem is simple: No-one here wants to obey any rules, including the rules that say "pay your taxes". This country might have been a great civilization at some time in the past, but today it's no different from sub-Saharan Africa.
What is most worrisome about Greece - at least in my opinion, anyway - is the amount of vandalism in the country. There is graffiti everywhere. The majority of the road signs have been defaced with spray paint - not marked up with graffiti, but simply defaced or obliterated. Posters and graffiti cover all abandoned storefronts, mothballed factories have had their windows broken. This sure doesn't bode well for the future.
I liked Romania. I enjoyed it the first time I visited (2008, when I did the north-west corner) and I also enjoyed it this time (southern part, west to east). Despite the economic difficulties the country is going through, I will go back again - it is a beautiful country with lots to explore. BTW, don't change money near the border crossings in either Romania or Bulgaria - there will be lots and lots of money-changing shops in the cities of those two countries, and the rates are far, far better in the cities where there is very active competition.
Bulgaria was a very pleasant surprise - nice country, nice people. I didn't get to see as much of it as I wanted to - just the part between Romania and Turkey. Like Romania, Bulgaria offers great value to the visitor. Good hotels for about €40 a night, good food for about €10 a day, and pleasant people in both countries.
Turkey (at least, the European portion that I visited - I didn't cross the Bosporus) is a fully developed country, on par with Canada, the USA, or Germany. It's a heck of a lot better developed than Romania, Bulgaria, or Greece. It's difficult to find places to change money except near the border areas, but there are ATMs everywhere that accept North American and European bank cards. Turkey is not cheap, prices are similar to France & Germany for like services.
Greece is going downhill. High taxes (23% VAT on everything), the locals always try to pocket the VAT themselves (you don't get a printed receipt for anything unless you ask), and no maintenance or repair on any of the infrastructure - public or private. I have been trying to buy a postage stamp for a postcard for 3 days now - have visited about 8 post offices, every one has been closed and doesn't have a sign in the window indicating what the hours of operation are.
Hope these notes are useful to anyone planning a visit to any of these countries in the future.
Roma in Romania
Ruins in Romania
Route Taken (clockwise direction)
Thanks for taking the time to do this report :thumbup1:
Im heading that way May 2012 and always looking for more info on those countries
Geordie aka Will
FWIW, I went into Romania via southern Switzerland, the 'South Tyrol' province of Italy, Slovenia, then Hungary. I chose this route primarily because my Green Card insurance only includes the EU countries, and all four of those were included in my coverage.
The South Tyrol portion of Italy is really nice, absolutely awesome twisty mountain roads, not too crowded, and the whole province runs with Teutonic efficiency - in fact, German, not Italian, is the most common language.
Slovenia and Hungary are both pleasant countries to go through.
I think you will get more than enough of the "Balkan" experience just spending time in Romania and Bulgaria - really no need to go into what was formerly Yugoslavia unless you really, really want to visit there.
By the way, the weather has been amazing - up into the 30s every day so far in September. It is still summer here.
Its the start of my RTW trip, with Turkey being the jump off point to the East.
Ive done quite a few European trips venturing to Spain and Portugal and East to Poland and Slovakia.
As for the Balkans I spent a year in 1996 wearing a Blue beret :thumbup1: its on my wish list to return with a motorbike and see it all again
Geordie aka Will
Thanks for sharing this excellent report!
Any more pics like these? Do you have an account where we can see more of them?
Great write up with essential details. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
Ah-ha - then that explains all the stamps in my passport! :smartass:
Sorry for the error of assumption - not being a European citizen, I assumed that membership in the EU also brought with it participation in the Schengen 'free movement' club. Clearly, that is not the case.
Thanks for pointing out the error.
Just a bit more detail information.
Those visiting from the EU also have to buy a visa. IIRC, it is £10 or $US or Euro can be used to buy it.
According to some information put out by the Turkish govn, it is the 16th largest economy in the world.
But, yes, thanks for the information and impressions of those countries.
Greece is going to be in the news, for all the wrong reasons, over and over.
Thanks PanEuropean for your very useful report on your experiences.
My wife and I intend to travel on our Pan European from the UK to Greece and Turkey next year and then double back to Athens in Greece from where we'll fly on to Australia and a friend will ride the bike back to the UK.
The bike is UK registered and we are all UK citizens, but I recently noted in the Lonely Planet Guide to Greece (albeit a 2004 edition) that Greek Customs make a note in your passport if you enter as a tourist with a vehicle and you are unable to leave the country without it. It sounds like that wasn't the case when you entered Greece from Turkey.
Can I ask whether the stamp they put in your passport made any mention of the bike at all?
I don't want a situation where they refuse to let us get on the plane, and/or refuse to let the bike be ridden out of Greece by someone who didn't bring it into the country.
If anyone else has any recent experiences that are relevant, I'd be grateful.
Now, whether Greece will still be in the EU next year is another question altogether... :confused1:
Many thanks for the report, some good info. Looking to head that way next summer.
Good to hear that both Romania and Bulgaria do not require a vignettes.
Oh, and will have to keep an eye out for the dogs.
Travelling through this area myself at this moment, resting up in Budapest for a few days.
There was one special move that was committed by the drivers in Romania especially nearer the cities.
The Romanian Slingshot
Traffic held up by truck/horse with around at least 8 cars waiting to overtake with indicators all blinking........
The 9th car to arrive at the very back of the queue normally decides to overtake all the other cars/truck and tends to do it at 180kph.
Those life saver checks have proved their worth several times already.
Hi, i am a huge fan of both Romania & Bulgaria which are great places for trail riding, they have a sense of adventure that Western Europe doesn't have and are of course considerably cheaper.
I have always found the horse & carts with 20 people on them incredible friendly and will instantly pull over to let you pass but beware the large black 4x4 's they will happily run you down.
another word of advise, if there is a car wanting to overtake coming towards you he will pull out into your path as he expects you to move over.
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