Saturday 18 June 2011

Balkan Journey


Friday 7 August 2009

In England the great train robber Ronnie Biggs slips away from prison.  A figure from my 1960s childhood, playing in the street,  along with Georgie Best, Bernadette Devlin, Henry Kissinger, the  Viet Cong and Cilla Black.

The drive to from Bucharest to Vratza, four pretty hours . A wonderful hotel,  the Chaika Hotel, found by me in a few moments on the net coast €25 a double room overlooking the Vratcata Gorge.  Leaving Patrick in the hotel, I walk through the gorge as darkness falls. Feel proud of myself. Good food.


Walking. Lunch. Drive to Sofia. Not via the mountain road. We miss it. I point it out. Patrick doggedly refuses to believe it is the road.

Sofia. Dullsville. Sunshine. Quiet and hot on a Saturday evening in August. 

The Hotel Anel. I thought from listening to Tony  that other people thought nothing of paying €60 a night for a five star hotel but Patrick who does not like to give himself presents is dismayed and I consider expensive places corrupt.

The mosque. The man wants me to wear flip-flops which I decline grateful for the feel of sock on carpet. What kind of Muslims are these? Attractive, empty except for one white foreigner praying energetically, head down and bottom up.

Too much food in a very dimly lit pizza terrace near the mosque full of 20-somethings talking loudly in the dark. 

Sunday, Sofia

The dark (pastel coloured actually) satanic mall in the middle of Sofia doesn’t make me very nostalgic for Communism. That’s far in the past now. I tell myself it makes people happy. Finally with difficulty after I from boredom bought a striped tie in an extraordinary mint green (only Americans wear striped ties I know) we find the exit from Sofia  for Macedonia. 

Kyustendil. Little town near the border with a beautiful derelict mosque. The guidebook says there is no longer a significant Muslim population here no doubt veiling all sorts of human tragedies. Sunshine. Quiet. Balkan. The profound Bulgaria. The great calm of small towns in Eastern Europe.

Just over the border is the monastery of St. Joachim Osogovsky, near Kriva Palanka, Macedonia’s most attractive monastery. In fact there are two twin monasteries, on the Macedonian side of the border perched on a hill, just like one I visited in Syria where the villagers  spoke Aramaic. One is old. Many Macedonian Mass-goers pilgrims, day trippers. Very pretty road through mountains. The journey from Sofia to Skopje took three and a half hours not the seven which it took me when I went by bus including much time on a mountain top waiting while customs officers on both sides went through our luggage piece by piece (I as an Englishman was spared this). by bus. Rain torrential. Skopje.

Much though not all of Skopje was destroyed in an earthquake in the 60s and rebuilt not in a Communist style but in the same style as Winchester would have been rebuilt had it been destroyed in the 60s. The result is that it is charming but a bit like Hornchurch. And what is so wrong with Hornchurch after all?

That great cafe in the centre which Philippe took me to.

The dingy, strange hotel with character, the Jadran, which I discovered last time and found again, with its mock Arab facade.  Setting for a ghost story. By Le Fanu perhaps. Empty sitting rooms on each floor with splendid wainscoting. One has an ironing board in a corner forgotten. Ottoman Empire’s dying gasp. A pastiche built in the lost 1920s before Tito and the horrors of modernity.

Monday Skopje

Woke in the strange room with its ceiling 20 foot high and the chandelier at 5.40 = 6.40 Bulgarian time and escaped and finally found refuge in a hotel where I ate breakfast. The only thing about Patrick that interests me is his inner life and that to a limited degree. And my pride does not want me to be his friend. I am exciting. He is not. So say I. He would disagree about my being exciting, I know, nor if he thought me exciting would he have wanted me as a friend.

Hot. The Muslim town north of the river and I saw many things I didn’t see with Philippe. The bazaar. Tea and lemonade served in cafes for tiny prices. Very very like a small town in Turkey but less spruce than say Antioch?  The cars driving at 10 mph reminded me of Aleppo. Utterly un-European and enchantingly so. We saw three beautiful mosques. There were others but Patrick told me his appetite for mosques is not unbounded. Mine is.

The drive to Ohrid is very beautiful – we took the scenic route but it is hard to remember scenery especially writing this up six days later.

Tetovo the capital of the Albanian region, traffic choked and unexceptional. We did not get out but carried on.

A number of lakes. We lunched overlooking one. Too much very beautiful scenery and too many hair pin bends. Finally Lake Ohrid. Little places on the lake where people rent rooms cheaply looked fun a bit like the fringe of Constanta. The jolly and comfortable hotel for €35. Seemed a great price but now I recall the 80s when I didn’t travel one could stay in the centre of Madrid for £1, Istanbul in a three star hotel for £4.

My first impression was that it would be more vulgar than I had expected and Patrick said it reminded him of the Romanian seaside at which I protested. He wisely said that late afternoon was when resorts were at their worst people coming back dishevelled and sunburnt. Patrick said is it so bad to see people being happy?

Excellent table by the lake in a good restaurant watching the reflection of the lights of the town in the lake. It reminded me of Amasra very much.

Some beautiful women of twenty. A blonde and brunette nymph laughing.

Tuesday Ohrid

Patrick said we should spend the day alone until dinner and this was an immense liberation.

Three cappuccinos a cheese and ham pancake and I reread Mark Marzower on the Balkans. A wonderful essay. History like great paintings and good jokes reveals a hidden meaning in the universe.

The long promenade.

The St Sophia church with the best C 11 wall paintings in the world outside the St Sophia church in Kiev. Where I have also been though I do not recollect any wall paintings


Relaxed. Unintellectual. Not too warm. I shall return.

The Muslim quarter with mosques and a market which might be called the bazaar. A British lower middle class voice heard for a moment. An Englishman does not travel abroad to meet Englishmen.

We ate at a dull restaurant of Patrick’s choosing on a road not on the lake.

Wednesday Ohrid

I can scarcely jog any distance. Climbed some of the way to the top of the castle. The small very old churches are closed. A bit like Nesebar before Nesebar was ruined by tourism and synthetic new old buildings.

Patrick and I  get very lost looking for the crossing into Albania. Bad maps and we lacked the courage of our convictions. And Patrick always gets lost for psychological reasons that I do not understand. But we found some places on the Macedonian Western shore of the lake before the border which seemed wonderful. Little villages. The armed 19 year old soldiers guarding a disused border crossing to Albania.  An air of the Cold War within the Cold War between Tito and Hozha. An isolated hotel where they spoke German. Getting lost is the beginning of wisdom or at least of genuine travel.

The mountain crossing and suddenly immense heat. How I wish I had not unselfishly suggested we take Patrick’s old car, the bright red SUV which looks like a Southend hairdresser’s babe hoover but has no air conditioning. Very hot indeed. Amazing scenery much more like from a Clint Eastwood film. Wild. The badlands. A road better than I expected. Pretty reasonable. Deserted country.

Berat. Slummy hot higgledy-piggledy. Down at heel. Eastern. Oh I love it said Patrick and my opinion of him suddenly changed fundamentally. The first time I ever heard him express enthusiasm for something?

The main street at 6 p.m. lined with dusty trees where a dozen ATMs didn’t work for either of us until one released money for me. A kind of corso where young girls walk and families and old couples sometimes with grandchildren slowly. Outside the cheap cafes under the dusty trees sit men of various ages from twenty to sixty smoking and looking. A very curious scene which I want someone to explain. Like the corso in Dubrovnik where girls saunter with friends to be looked at?

[I have been told since by Kim Hakkenberg and Bill Cash that this is common in Romanian provincial towns where it is called the promenada.]

None of this seems post communist but third world. Patrick does not agree with third world, thinks it looks  more affluent than he expected but I do not understand why. All of Albania makes one think that like somewhere in Asia, in some ways Communism brought a kind of progress much as I would very much prefer what went before.

I called my sister to share the scene with her, the very opposite of what she I think would like. I didn't want to make her jealous and perhaps I slightly wanted to remind myself that my tastes are not those of Middle England.

In Berat I like Albania much more than ever before. This is life but not as we know it. This is the Albania I was looking for.

An Ottoman hill-town like Gijrokastra but with much more life. Three mosques. A river running through the town.

I found a good hotel the Malibu Club with AC and a good view and breakfast for €25.

An indifferent dinner, Turkish food, kababs not cooked with love,  in a roof restaurant with a great view overlooking the river.

Thursday Berat

An epiphany as I drew back the curtains and remembered the unexpected view of the bridge across the river and the Ottoman wooden buildings on the other side crawling up the hill. Then I got cross trying to put Carmen in touch with Nir using Facebook and the HTC. Excellent breakfast wonderful olives the best I ever tasted. The guide book said Berat is famous for its green olives and the fame is deserved. I sat for two hours loving the scene from the roof garden of the hotel. 

Hot beyond words, a Middle Eastern heat. The harem built when Northanger Abbey was finished. The inevitable and enjoyable ethnographical museum (the one in Bucharest across the road from my office i was guiltily aware I had never visited and I repaired the omission when I returned).

The coastal road. Hairpin bends but the road has been remade since last year. I saw no deserted beaches (but I remembered them from last year) and someone told me for those you need a boat. The guidebook said that most coves now had a hotel and a single hotel would have been great but we could not find even that.

A road off to the left and the coast and Patrick unlike most drivers is keen to explore. Twenty minutes of rough unmade road and red soil and very sharp hair pin bends and finally a cove with four or five bars on the beach built from straw like the illegal beach bars in Vama Veche in Romania. A cheap hotel which was full. And we found a camping site where for €9 we got a tent with ground sheet and sleeping bag and breakfast and a decent supper. A piece of ground lit by coloured bulbs on strings full of people of twenty bursting with youth and good spirits. A blonde girl with amazing dimples seraphic with happiness and life.

Friday Jar

I was very tired but did not sleep for hours, my first night in a tent.

A good cappuccino on an isolated beach in Albania. Then another and a third. The man selling them to me warned me two was too much.

Sea as clear as water in a wash basin. Every stone as clear at the bottom as if seen through a window. Too lacking puff to jog. I swam, read Kaplan.

The road to Saranda, in places a potholed track last year,  has just been remade. Saranda itself chic colourful. Like where? Like a setting for a Lesley Charteris novel I thought. Like the South of France thought Patrick. Yes.

Great meal at that place overlooking the  sea where I lunched last year: octopus risotto. Some lovely Albanian faces. One in particular intelligent clear-sighted and womanly belonged to a 15 year-old.

The long drive back. Through winding roads among cold damp mountains of North West Greece no doubt as Patrick said full of stories of gods and nymphs. Deserted and very beautiful.

A little town before the motorway called Napoli pop. 5,000 (thank heaven for Wikipedia on the HTC) where I drank a Greek coffee and ate divine baklava from the shop across the street. Patrick asked me not to buy baklava and eat it in the cafe. I asked the waitress if I might and she said yes of course. I still wish you hadn’t done it said Patrick. The best meal of the holiday.

Long drive. Salonica. Walking around negotiating with hotels at close to midnight. I found a 4 star hotel yards from the waterfront for €60 which was more than Patrick wanted to pay. Good to know that Tony Gray is not the standard for spending money on hotel rooms but this was a good deal and I prevailed.

Saturday 15, Salonica revisited

Salonica has this time a certain charm. When were you last here asked the girl in reception. Seven years ago I realised with a start. It has changed a lot in the last seven years. So have I for the worse said I. No doubt Salonica has changed for the better.

No-one in Greece speaks a Slav language she says. She thinks the Jews who built the hotel in 1926 were forced to leave because of problems between Jews and Greeks.

Lunch in a place called Sidirokastro, which Wikipedia on my HTC told me was in Bulgaria 1912-1918.  The conveniences of the 21st century. I see that little towns in Greece and Turkey are very similar. Full of bright shops and cafes and plastic advertising. Modern. Rebuilt in the 70s. If Macedonia is really Bulgaria, Bulgaria is not very different from Greece. And Greece and Turkey are still the same place. We eat chicken rissotto made with tinned peas and carrots.

Shooting through the mountains of Bulgaria on the motorway then turn off. The Rila monastery as night was falling extraordinary wooden galleries painted white and read. Unlike anything in Romania or elsewhere. The heart of Bulgaria. Empty. We only have a short while before the place closes. Boris III’s tomb. Sculpted on the tomb he looked like a Mosleyite.

After a very long search we find a  hotel that smells of antiseptic like a clean WC. €30 for a suite. Empty sterile room with balcony. Crashed.

Patrick saw that the ads for DJs in Jar includes DJs from Macedonia and thinks this is the future without ethnic hatred. He still thinks he says that decency kindness and gentleness will conquer terrorism. I think ethnic groups live together at best without liking each other and thus is human nature. The world is being remade by liberals who think human nature basically good.  Perhaps they are unusually good themselves.

Sunday, 16 August 2009 Rila

Rila. The monastery burnt down in the 1840s and was rebuilt. Very atmospheric with high arcades which reminded me of the Great Mosque at Damascus. But I still felt cheated – only Victorian. Swiz in Molesworth’s lingo. A coach party of British at 10.30. Bulgaria is no longer obscure. This is however ersatz the real Bulgaria which survived only via the Church. Suddenly I forgot my Metternichianism and became a Bulgarian nationalist. How wonderful that they threw off the Muslim yoke after 500 years.

Long journey home broken by uninspired late lunch at a hotel in Ruse, the Bulgarian river port on the Danube.

Hot sunny motionless Sunday afternoon in Ruse. I tell Patrick: all of us spent our adolescence in Ruse. Patrick: Some of us spent us adulthoods in Ruse.

©Paul Wood 2011

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