How a weekend trip rescues Edirne

What brought me to Edirne, Turkey that weekend were the rumors, the ease of the COVID – 19 restrictions, and of course, my curiosity. I wanted to see in person the economical phenomenon I heard of and took the trip particularly in the days when the magic happens. Another spontaneous and accidental journey, provoked by a close friend’s invitation. 

Long story short, I was told that half of Bulgaria is traveling for shopping on the weekends to Edirne, Turkey, where the prices of some stocks are ridiculously cheap compared with the same in Bulgaria. Half of Bulgaria? Well, I thought it must be a bit exaggerated. I can’t imagine more than 3 million people crossing the border every weekend. “It should be just a figure of speech”, I told myself. 

When I arrived at the border with Turkey, called Kapitan Andreevo on the Bulgarian side (the Turkish side is called Kapikule), I realized that the affirmation above could be actually true. On Saturday early morning, only the cars were divided into six kilometric waiting corridors. In addition, 20 busses with an average of 50 passengers each, were queued at the Customs. Most of the vehicles wore Bulgarian registration plates, a few Romanian, and a few Serbian (other neighboring countries). 

To be correct, all this madness started in the autumn of 2019, when the devaluation of the Turkish Lira had been already sensed. In March 2020, the shopping tourism was suddenly cut off because of the COVID – 19 pandemic and the closure of the borders. From September 2020 Bulgaria and Turkey eased the pandemic restrictions – no PCR tests in advance, no test upon arrival, no quarantine required. The free motion was recovered, and the shopping tour wave flooded again with new power.

The location

Edirne is the biggest city, located on the European side of Turkey (without counting the European part of Istanbul). Only 3% of Turkey is located in Europe, the rest takes part in Asia. Edirne is only 15 km away (9 miles) from the Bulgarian border and is extremely easy to be reached if…were not the endless queues at the border. From Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, to Edirne it takes a 4-hour drive and another 2 hours (minimum) waiting at the border. 

Historically and politically Edirne (called Odrin in Bulgarian) has been a part of Bulgaria before being conquered in the 14th century by the Ottoman Empire. There are plenty of common features with Bulgaria. Residents, speaking Bulgarian, (if not fluently, at least understandably) could be found literally at every step.

Most of the signboards in the city are duplicated in Bulgarian language (parking spots, main shops, historical sightseeings). Because of the proximity, the trade is extremely well developed and the Edirne vendors are very much aware of the expectations and the demand of the foreign customers.

Usually, the hosts address the clients “Komshu” which means in Turkish “Neighbour” in a very sweet and friendly way. It was obvious that everyone in Edirne is more than happy to welcome the shopping tourists, who literally rescued and keep rescuing the local economy through their weekly shopping. 

The currency

The Turkish currency is the Turkish Lira. Years ago, when I used to visit Edirne for the first time, the Turkish Lira (TRY) and the Bulgarian Lev (BGN) have been kind of equal – 1 TRY exchanged for 1 BGN. But now, there is a huge difference. 

After the Turkish Lira devaluation, at the moment 1 TRY is only 0.23 BGN (about 0.11 EUR). This way, if a year ago, for example, a washing detergent that costs 18 TRY was approximately 18 BGN, now the same item costs 4 BGN only (almost 5 times cheaper). The same ratio is applicable to the rest of the stocks.

The shopping tourism 

The situation above turned to be a Paradise for the travel agencies in Bulgaria. They adequately adjusted to the new setup and started offering organized one or two days excursions to Edirne. I saw the program of those excursions, there are two real sightseeings in – an old Bulgarian Orthodox Church built in 1869 and the second biggest mosque in Turkey, Selemyie, built in the 16th century by the architecture guru Mimar Sinan. The rest of the program … are shopping sites.

I got curious and talked to some of the bus tourists. It seems like it is super worth it to enroll in the bus shopping tour. The round-trip ticket for a one-day excursion from Sofia to Edirne is between 13 to 15 EUR per person. The price varies depending on the agency. The travel from Sofia starts very early in the morning, in the hours between 1 am and 5 am. The bus collects on the way to the border tourists from other cities. Back to Sofia, the vehicles arrive between 8 pm to 11 pm the same day. 

The main day of the week for such a trip is Saturday. On Friday most of the shops are closed because it’s the main prayer day in Islamic Turkey. On Sunday the shopping is working well, but it’s not that popular and the Edirne vendors are very much aware of it. Anyway, in Turkey and Bulgaria, the weekend is Saturday and Sunday, so it works out for both countries quite well.

The shopping sites 

Here I am, a real shopping guide 🙂

The first to visit is Margi Outlet. In fact, it’s an outlet Mall with all the famous brands. This first stop offers mostly clothing and shoe deals. Approximately, one to one and a half hours is enough to be patroled. The second stop, super important, is the Market. If you don’t know how to find it, just ask around for “Borsata”. 

This is the heaven of the washing detergents, shampoos (extremely popular is the one with garlic extract and bay leaves against hair loss), hair conditioners (Bioblass and Hunca Turkish brands), all the types of home-related chemicals, toilet paper, kitchen rolls, baby diapers. In the same street is the olive market – more than 10 types of olives and about eight kinds of olive oil. It could also be bought pomegranate tea and vinaigrette, the super famous and extra delicious Turkish kashkaval, butter, and white cheese. And of course, this is the right place to buy baklava, pishmaniye, kadayif, nuts, and all the Turkish sweets. One hour here is enough, the shops are not so many and easy to be gyrated. 

Be prepared to pay mostly in cash. The good point is that all the vendors here accept Bulgarian Leva (BGN) if you didn’t manage to exchange. I would highly recommend paying by debit or credit card wherever it’s possible because the exchanging rate of the foreign banks is much better than the vendors’ rate.

Then comes the Erasta Mall. It’s a real modern Mall with all the popular European and Turkish brands. My absolute favorite is the Turkish brand IPEKYOL but this time I had nothing to choose. One and a half to two hours max is the time to spend here. I would recommend hanging a bit longer in the Turkish brand KOTON. The store here is really large, a lot to offer, including discounts. 

And the final stop is the Edirne downtown. Do not miss it! It’s full of a different class of shops and everywhere you can negotiate. By the way, an important stop of this shopping tour is the pharmacy. The medicine could be purchased much cheaper as well. I saw a lot of tourists coming with an entire medicine list and giving it directly to the pharmacist.

Also, this is the place you can buy electronics (two-pin plugs like in Europe, excluding the UK, Malta, and Cyprus). The downtown shops are the only place (in my opinion) to buy proper shoes, kid’s clothing, and toys.

The shopping secrets  

+ Ahhh, yes, mentioning discounts, you don’t need to speak Turkish to be a successful shopping maniac. All you need to do is to look around and find the magical Turkish word INDIRIM (means discount). Usually, somewhere around is the % discount in numbers, quite understandable in all languages.

+ Do not forget, Edirne is geographically in Europe, but the commerce is totally Oriental, so you can always negotiate the final price, especially at the markets. You do not need to speak Turkish or English, just show the digits preferred to pay as a discounted price on your mobile screen. It works perfectly.

+ The price drops at the end of the shopping day on Saturday. The vendors are quite tired and, in a hurry, to sell whatever left, so about 6 pm you have a real chance to get a better offer. At this time, most of the busses and the cars with one-day shopping tourists have already left Edirne. The markets are no longer crowded, and the locals are aware that every next client is a gift, so they become more negotiable.  

+ Even if you are not Bulgarian, pretend you are. The Bulgarians are loved by the Edirne residents because in the time of crisis they are the ones who support the local business, purchase really a lot, are aware of the price range, not arguable, are constant and easy customers. 

+ Be polite and smile! It opens all the doors in Edirne. The local vendors are calm, sweet, and highly hospitable, so they do not deserve the client’s sour attitude, are not used to it, and would not tolerate it. 

+ Wear a mask! Regardless of being inside or outside, at the moment of writing this article, it’s obligatory while moving in the public areas – markets, institutions, public transport, taxi, sightseeing, and on the way to them to wear a mask. The fine is 900 TRY (100 EUR) per person. 

The border 

It’s a nightmare on the weekends. In both ways, to and from Turkey. If you have the mischance to be at the border at 7 am or 7 pm, then it’s twice the nightmare. The customs shifts are changing and during that time about 30 to 40 minutes no one is working, and everything is frozen.

Make sure that you have bottles of water upon the border arrival, especially coming from Turkey to Bulgaria. I haven’t seen a place at the Turkish border where you can buy anything, no water, no restroom. So, be aware that the minimum layover on the border will be around 2 hours. There is a WC on the Bulgarian side, about 1 BGN (0.50 EUR), but there is always a queue and the hygiene is not proper. Being in a car, you can’t afford to wait for the WC, because the car should be moving in the tiny corridor.

Here the same mask rule is applicable – the Customs and the Passport control, both, the Bulgarian and the Turkish one, require wearing a mask, regardless of coming in a bus or by car. The officers are polite, and I believe they do their best, despite the impossible traffic to let everyone move ahead. 

I was traveling by car and it seemed to me we were moving faster than the buses. A fellow of mine who traveled by bus shared with me that the last time she went on a shopping tour, her bus arrived back to Sofia at 2 am because they made the mistake to leave Edirne after 6 pm, caught the shifting on the border, and spent three and a half hours there.

Her tip was, the latest time for leaving Edirne should be 4:45 pm. Otherwise, you are going to be trapped on the border. So be aware when you are choosing the travel agency offer and program.  

Tava Ciger 

Before leaving Edirne and heading to the border, this super delicious meal is a must to try. Edirne is the homeland of Tava Ciger [d͡ʒijæɾ]. It contains gently marinated and fried tiny juliennes of veal liver, often cooked with thyme. There are plenty of small restaurants that offer Tava Ciger and each of them has their family recipe on how to cook it. 

Just pick one because everywhere it’s super delicious and freshly made. Do not forget to order a seasonal salad and a glass of beer along. In the end, the waiter will be offering you the traditional Turkish tea. It’s prepared from the leaves of a bush that grows only in the Turkish land nearby the Black Sea. In fact, it’s a Black tea, 1/3 tea extract, and 2/3 hot water – otherwise, it’s too bitter. The freshly prepared Turkish tea has a rich red color. If the color is brown, the served tea has been prepared a long time ago and is no longer fresh. I am not the Turkish tea admirer but it’s a must to taste it if you visit Turkey for the first time. 

Here we are at the end of my Edirne shopping tour. I would like to believe that my contribution to the rescuing Edirne trips has been significant, as I went with the flow and bought a tremendous amount of stocks, as a real Saturday shopping Edirne economy supporter.

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