Ancient Macedonia

So this was the ‘Ancient Macedonia’ tour from Explore–taking in (parts of ) Bulgaria, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, and Greece (Province of Macedonia).

Saturday 14 August

Since it’s an early start tomorrow, I spend the night at the Arora International Hotel.  My Oyster card pays GBP 1-20 for the ‘complimentary’ journey there, and I notice a general disordered lack of signage at the bus station that could be very confusing.  Some foreigners appear unable to comprehend how awful it all is.  The hotel reception staff whine that they ‘need’ to swipe my card for extras, then try to sell me on a taxi to the actual terminal.   My cold and I feel deeply unimpressed.

Sunday 15 August

View from our hotel in Sofia

I wake up at 0500 and get my things together and manage to get the U3 (free this time!) to the bus station and the Heathrow Express (free)  to Terminal 4.  The screen says that I should go to Area E to check in, and there is no sign of Bulgarian Airways there.  I think that this is the excuse I need to turn round and go home, but then I see that check-in is really Area B.  I check in and have an insubstantial breakfast in the ‘Dining Street Restaurant’.

The flight to Sofia is uneventful.  When we get there, our guide is one Elaine (not a local) and she says that Chris and I are sharing.  This surprises me, since I thought I booked a single room.  Anyway.  Chris and I coexist quietly in our room, then go for a walk around Sofia and change some money at a bank.  Then Elaine assembles us and leads us through a very warm evening to the Mehana Izbata.  We eat what we are given.  Sue says I am being uncommunicative.  I say I have a cold and may be about to develop a headache as well.  We go back to the hotel, where it is rather warm.  The combination of the heat and Chris coughing at inopportune moments keeps me awake most of the night.

Monday 16 August

We get on the bus and go into the centre of town.  A local guide called Dani tells us about it.  A friend of mine once said that Bulgaria was Russia writ small–in fact it’s a dreary provincial shithole in Southern Russia writ small.  When we are freed, I wander off nervously and have lunch (seafood risotto, beer) in a place called Bunuel that is not too bad given the pretentious name.

We move off to the accompaniment of a long lecture from Elaine about various things and have some uninspiring formalities in crossing from Bulgaria into Macedonia.  We arrive at the St Johan Osogovski monastery and Elaine says how we should enjoy this spiritual place.

St Johan Osogovski Monastery

At dinner, Avril breathes alcohol on me and says I look like someone called Piers from JAGS.  Back in our cell, Chris has the large bed and I have the small bed.  Chris keeps me awake with snores and choking noises.  I silently extract the earplugs I carefully packed and discover the fucking case is fucking empty.  I decide to speak to Elaine and see what she can do.

Tuesday 17 August

The day begins and I am very much out of sorts.  I go top speak to Elaine–she says I am definitely down as a sharer, she can phone ahead and see if there is an extra room at the next hotel.  We have an almost entirely inedible monastic breakfast before setting off for the Kratovo place, which I don’t see the point of at all.  The important guy shoves us round places and a TV crew (mauve microphone with number 5 on it) pitches up to capture proceedings.

I doze a bit on the journey to Skopje.  When we arrive, there are no extra rooms–Elaine says she will ring ahead to the following place.  After an enforced siesta, we go into town to get a tour from an opinionated Macedonian-American.  The claim that both Macedonia and the US comprised gold foil covering shit was perhaps a little exaggerated, but we  certainly thrilled to the awfulness of the Mother Theresa memorial.

Fortress in Skopje

We spread through a shopping centre looking for an exchange bureau that appears to be open.  We end up resorting to various ATMs, after which I tag along with Jean and Marion–we go to a Spanish-themed place called La Bodeguita del Medio and it turns out OK.  Then on the steps of the Holiday Inn Royston gives Elaine a bollocking about the money-changers being closed.  At the hotel, I sign up for both a chamber concert and The Caucasian Chalk Circle in Ohrid.

Wednesday 18 August

I sleep soundly, aided (in various ways) by the aircon.  We have breakfast and I translate a notice on the door as meaning we won’t get coffee unless we pay for it.  We proceed to the Matka Gorge and get on a boat, and then on to a cave thingy where we frighten some bats after our local guide and boatman fires up the generator.

A cold (underwater) spring at Matka Gorge

Soon we are back in central Skopje.  I find myself behind Chris in a bank queue, and we go over to the Old House Restaurant, as recommended by Elaine.  A nervous Macedonian bloke comes across to talk to us, and tells us about the national question, Macedonian politics, aesthetics, New Zealand (he is sound on New Zealand).  We finally bid him goodbye and I consume liquid refreshments in the New Town, after which I feel refreshed.

In the evening, we set out for the fish restaurant near our hotel and it turns out to be closed.  So we go to the Alexandria restaurant next door.  Since there is no English menu, the waiter and I try to work things out on the basis of my limited understanding of the Macedonian menu and his less limited English.  Avril demands burger and chips.  We all wait a long time.  Avril demands burger and chips again and after she has eaten Mark takes her back to the hotel.  We have a certain amount of fun in sorting the bill out at the end.

Thursday 19 August

I sleep pretty well really.  Nikola and his bus have disappeared and we have a new driver.  We drive to a place called Mavrovo and I sit in a cafe with Janice and Jennifer–I have an espresso and they have chocolate-covered baklava.

Then we drive to a monastery of St John the Baptist, and a pig rooting in the garden is quite interesting.

Pig in monastery garden

Then we drive to a place called Debar–we are detained for some time by the local fuzz so they can mulct the new Nikola for having a cracked windscreen.  We sit in a nice cafe in Debar.  Elaine says that there is no room at the next inn, while I say that I am quite happy with Chris and I can look into the booking process when I get home.

We proceed to Ohrid, and wander round town.  Elaine procures tickets from the festival box office (it seems to be 8 Euro whatever the event) and some of us dine in a place by the lake.  I have Шкампи, which turn out to be prawns, and jolly nice they are too.  Others have a long and fascinating conversation, while I spring into action at the end, plying Jill’s notepad and torch in the gathering doom.

Lake Ohrid in the evening

We go to the St Sofia church for the evening’s concert and wait outside for the evening’s concert.  I advise people to sit in the middle for the best sound.  The Kodalyi Quartet do Haydn 54/1, and they do it very well and make much more of it than the obligatory concert-opening-Haydn that quartets feel obliged to undertake, followed by Schuberrt Op. 125, where I’m not too convinced by the music.  Avril is distracting me by jangling her jangly bracelets, so I move to the front for the Schumann Piano Quintet in the second half.  We are much too close to the players and I really can’t get the different lines to fit together and make music, though I do enjoy the reprise of the scherzo that forms the encore–the quartet play with real Hungarian fire and the Macedonian pianist is not too bad either.

Chris has a good cough at two minutes after midnight.

Friday 20 August

We go round the town under the guidance of an archaeology graduate called Льупчо.

Important church in Ohrid

Then we set out in two boats to cruise around lake Ohrid.  I lose myself in the play of the light on the waves.  Avril asks me about returning to Macedonia and I agree it is a good idea.  The boat trip comes to an end and I visit the archaeological museum, which is rendered a bit enigmatic by the absence of labelling (and of exhibits in some cases).

'The idea of a museum'

The strap of my watch breaks, and I head off to the market near our Hotel Cingo and I get a replacement fitted for 50 dinars.  Emboldened by this I try the same with my shoelaces that have been provoking adverse comment for the past week and after I’ve been directed from shop to stall to stall it’s once again 50 dinars.

Chris and I go to a pizza (etc) place and I have spaghetti carbonara, which is unbearably bland in the absence of pepper.  We proceed to the theatre for some tedious speeches (with translation into English) since it’s the last night of the 50th Ohrid Summer, and Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (in Macedonian, without translation)–the Brecht apparently won all the prizes in all the categories of the Macedonian drama awards.

Macedonian Brecht

It features a revolving set comprising metal ladder things that seesaw and also forms a platform; different actresses (and one actor) playing the heroine in different scenes; singing along to extracts from Offenbach, Ravel and other music; worthy proletarian activities going on at the same time as the drama; a chalk circle made of cinders; and so on.  I rather enjoy it and think it’s more what Brecht intended than the naturalistic treatment at the National a few years ago.  Then Chris and I blunder into the buffet for important people but of course we’re not scared and merely retreat to the hotel to brief our comrades on the proceedings.

Saturday 21 August

Most people go off early to walk in the Macedonian countryside.  I come down to find hungry Croatians swarming over breakfast.  I try again later and breakfast on some remnants, using the only surviving knife and fork.

View of Lake Ohrid

During the day I make a list of bookshops from the local Yellow Pages in reception and walk around town looking at them.  I discover:

1)  a lack of street names;

2)  a lack of building numbers;

3)  a lack of pavements;

4)  the shops I do find are closed on a Saturday afternoon;

5)  most of then are in fact shops selling children’s things that also carry books;

6)  in no case does the stock I can see make me regret not being able to buy it.

I also visit the bus station, where women flap bits of card offering Apartaman/Соби at me, and taxi drivers propose a ride to Skopje.

In the evening, a party of us proceed to the Dalia restaurant on the lakeside and have a pretty reasonable meal, except that musicians performing next to us inhibit conversation.

Sunday 22 August

We manage to salvage some breakfast from the hungry Croatians, and then set off for Sveti Naum, which turns out to be an overcrowded tourist spot with a religious theme and damned few toilet facilities (I end up using the bus drivers’ bush toilet).  We also go on a rowing-boat trip to observe some more springs.

More springs

Our coach climbs cumberously round hairpin bends to a picnic spot called Korito, where my lunch of bread, sardines, yoghurt and beer makes an impression.  We have another squeaky ascent to the Hotel Molika, and Nikola our driver loudly advises the drivers coming the other way on how to improve their level of performance.

Tour group enjoying a picnic

I attempt one of the trails in the forest, then come back and rest on the bed with my eyes closed.  At dinner, Francis advises me to visit Belgium, since nobody does.  Later on, he ventures an incautious remark about Athens being the furthest place where we could still feel at home.  That certainly provokes a response…

Monday 23 August

We drive to Heraclea.  The sole guardian of the place tells us some facts in the museum, and also overlooking a mosaic allegedly representing Christian cosmogony.

Mosaic at Heraclea

Then we drive to Pella, where there is a very new museum full of people standing around to make sure we don’t do anything wrong.  After that, we visit the site itself, which is certainly large.  In the evening we feel very tired and have dinner in a restaurant in a square in Thessaloniki.

Tuesday 24 August

We have a tour of Thessaloniki to start with–I once had a student from there, who said the place was a shithole but the inhabitants were less likely than other Greeks to sit around with their mouths open waiting for a roast pigeon to fly in.  Chris sees a restaurant he likes the look of in the Upper Town, and I manage to translate about half of the dishes advertised.  We get on the bus and drive to Vergina, where the tombs of the Macedonian kings have been turned into a very impressive museum.  I wander round in the dark inspecting gold wreaths, and think how childish the pagan attempt to keep death at bay with grave-goods and libations.  Man up, Philip of Macedon!–You’ve killed enough people in your time, haven’t you?

Vergina museum exhibit

Back in Thessaloniki, Chris and I go round the Archaeological Museum and the Byzantine Museum, which is certainly very well-designed (as well as being completely empty of other visitors by now).  Then we climb for ever up to the Old Town, where I have French fries and some octopus thing, together with taste-free beer.  I lead the way back to the hotel on the basis of ‘go downhill and bear left’, and eventually we are rewarded with the sight of the welcoming ‘Sex Shop’ sign.

Wednesday 25 August

We arise early and get on the bus clutching our breakfast boxes.  After a useful sleep on the coach, we arrive at Ouranopoli and occupy what are meant to be advantageous seats (under cover) on the boat.  I take pictures of monasteries on Mount Athos.

St Pantaleimon--looks like a Russian monastery to me!

Then back in town I have an infeasible amount of gyros for lunch.  Naida reports that the shopgirls have come here from Latvia, Georgia and so on since the conditions are so bad at home.  I buy a rebetika CD for 6 Euro, and it’s pretty good.

Back in Thessaloniki, they have fixed our aircon (which looks as though it burned out in the time of Alexander the Great).  We go back to Chris’s fave place for some dinner.

Which is the tzatziki and which is the cheese salad?

Thursday 26 August

Roman theatre on Thasos

We are up early and on the bus, then we get a ferry to cross over to the island of Thasos.  Together with Sue and Mark, I climb up to the Roman theatre and the Byzantine fortifications, then I scramble further into the window-hole of the fortifications to photograph the view across the bay; my camera instructs ‘Replace the batteries’, but I manage to take a picture anyway.

View across the bay

I have lunch in a place with the unpromising name of Zorba, and to my surprise I get a very good kleftiko.  The bloke comes out when I have drunk two-thirds of my beer and pours the remainder into a new cold glass.  I don’t try to explain about specific heat capacities.  Then since I’m getting bored with this holiday thing I go into an Internet cafe and spend a rewarding couple of hours there.

So next it’s Kevala and the Hotel Nefeli.  We have a group meal at a fish restaurant called Panos Zefaira where a lot of the dishes on the menu are not available and the waitstaff get rather confused.  I end up with taramasalata followed by calamari, and wonder whether I will in fact retain my stomach contents all night.  As we return to the hotel, the streets are full of Greeks watching an AEK-Dundee match on strategically-positioned screens.

Friday 27 August

We get up early and buy some provisions for lunch before setting off for Philippi.  A guide leads us round and gives explanations of varying reliability while a couple of dogs follow us.  I don’t think they ever get any food from us–they just like company, the way that dogs do.  At the end, Elaine gives me 20 Euro to give to the guide and I fall over.  Then I hide in a patch of shade (also pissing under a nearby rock) and listen to my rebetika CD for an hour or so before rejoining the others.

Byzantine remains at Philippi

We have lunch at nearby Lydia and a Greek who once served 10 years in UK higher education system introduces his charming wife and son to us.

After arriving at our really rather nice hotel in Bansko, Chris and I go out for a walk round the streets.  I buy a CD of Bulgarian folk music and am also very interested in the rehearsal for the evening’s (free, over-amplified) performance of Tosca in the main square.  We fall in with some of the others and manage to secure some bottles of sparkling white wine at an outdoor bar type of place.  The idea of it having been refrigerated in frozen turkeys strikes us all as hilarious.  People say they have enjoyed their tour, and Janice describes her experiences in teaching a special child, which we think is rather like being a tour group leader.

Another group meal

We proceed to a restaurant for another group meal.  Nikola the driver instructs me to dance and I do, several times.  We do a decent хоровод on a couple of occasions.  Avril impresses people with her gupsy dancing–well, she impresses me anyway.

The opera is still going on when we leave–Scarpia is bending Tosca to his wicked will.  It may be a third-rate performance of a piece of hokum by that blunderer Puccini (actually, the tenor is quite good), but it still has enough of the opera magic to be better than anything else that isn’t opera.  I weep silently to myself during E lucevan le stelle and the Bulgarian sitting next to me looks at me with incredulous distaste.

A dim and blurry Tosca!

When we get back to the hotel it appears that others left after the stabbing, so t I recount what they missed.  After I explain why you can’t stab someone the way Tosca did, and how to do it properly, Nikola says he was afraid to go to the disco without me.

Saturday 28 August

After another early start it’s off to Rila monastery and I hide behind a tree and fill in my feedback form, which Elaine says we have to do now.

Rila monastery

Ex-King Simeon of Bulgaria at Rila Monastery (picture by Sue)

We proceed to Sofia and I go round some bookshops in the heat of the day while Chris sleeps, before spending a couple of hours in a nice quiet Internet cafe called Garibaldi.  Then Chris and I meet and finally manage to find a restaurant called Manastirska Magenitsa.  We are hidden away in a room upstairs and eat traditional amounts of large Bulgarian food.  I point out that we’re in better case than the Bulgarian we passed in the street rooting through a rubbish bin for his dinner.  The mysterious object in the male toilets leaves me baffled, though it would have provoked hours of delighted speculation among my colleagues in the days when I worked in HIV/AIDS.

Mysterious object in male toilets

We retire early…

Sunday 29 August

…and get up at 0330.  The rest is bus, airport, plane, Heathrow, Tube, bus, home and a feeling of dislocation!

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