Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Macedonia? Wasn't She Kingfisher's Wife?

Plovdiv was a really nice place. If I had to stay there for a week I probably wouldn't have minded. But last night I had already walked to everywhere there was to walk.

And having now seen both Plovdiv and VT, there weren't any other Bulgarian cities worth seeing. Sure, there were still lots of Bulgarian mountains and villages, but without a car they were somewhat problematical.

Which made me reach the strange but logical conclusion that it was time to leave one of the main countries I had wanted to see. Which put me on the 9 o'clock bus to Sofia. Which put me on the 1 o'clock bus to Macedonia.

We wound our way through the various subhills of another of Bulgaria's mountain ranges, and I found myself sitting behind a certain sixtyish lady named Patricia. She had emigrated to Canada from Australia in the Sixties, and now lived off of a certain fixed income. She warbled about how she had been to 'at least 300' countries, and so we sat there and traded travel stories.

We crossed the Macedonian border about 4 o'clock, and at that point she let me know that she was shortly going to be dropped off in the middle of nowhere, from where she was going to walk up a long hill where there might or might not be an old monastery with one nun. I was reminded of another Canadian immigrant named Patricia that I had known, and how she too had such utter confidence in her foolhardiness. So I just smiled and said, 'You know that you're insane, don't you?' and let it go at that.

She went up to the driver and showed him a note in Bulgarian that someone had written for her. He then tried to explain to her in Bulgarian that she was insane, but then just shrugged and pulled the bus over to let her out. So there she was, in the middle of frigging nowhere, pulling her luggage up a hill that went up and up, not having a dinar of Macedonian money or knowing a single word in Macedonian, as the sun was going down and the clear sky promised a cold night.

Well, me and the bus were still rolling towards Skopje. I was finally out of the Eastern Bloc, even if it was the former Yugoslavia, and soon we hit the Athens freeway. At seven we finally pulled into Skopje.

Except that now it was six since we had gained an hour. Which was critical to my own foolhardy idea, which was, since I knew that Skopje was eminently missable, to try and continue on tonight towards Macedonia's principal tourist attraction, Ohrid.

For once the LP's mistake went to my benefit, and instead of having to find a second 'Ohrid' bus station, it turned out that the buses went from this one. Even better news was that there was one leaving at 6:30.

The bad news was that the ATM didn't take Visa, and the 'money change' guy gave me a scowl and said he was closed for the day. Some desperate running around then took place, with someone over there finally relenting and changing a twenty for me. Ticket bought, I then lucked out again because the one food stall in the place agreed to make me a couple of cheese sandwiches.

Stuffing my mouth with one hand and stuffing my bag under the bus with the other, I was now ready for the night bus to Ohrid. As we drove along under a bright moon I saw that finally I seemed to be hitting some serious mountains. Indeed, from here on out the population would be mostly Albanian.

Getting into Ohrid at around 10 I found a taxi driver who finally said he knew where 'Lujia's Hotel' was. When he deposited me in front of a plain square building I was puzzled. Then he showed me a small unlit sign and I rang the bell. Sure enough, Lucija opened the door, and for once the LP had come through. The room she had was big, clean, and had a bathroom with really nice tiles and a classy glass shower stall. Bye, bye, Commieland.

She was middle-aged, and she and an older friend went about plumping up the room for me. I was surprised by her warm human warmth. Surprised because they don't do warmth in China and they definitely don't do it in Russia.

The next morning I set out to discover Ohrid. Now back in 1978, when I was hitchhiking through Yugoslavia, I got a ride with a couple of Albanians who went on and on about all the medieval churches in Ohrid. And ever since then I had dreamed of seeing all those ancient frescoes in that little town lost in the mists of time on that mysterious lake hard up by the forbidden country of Albania.

Well, not exactly. It turns out that Ohrid is actually a small city, a rather busy summer resort, and a place where the pizza parlors literally outnumber the medieval churches 15 to 1.

On the other hand, once my mind had adjusted to the real reality, taken on its own merits as a resort town I found Ohrid and its setting to be really quite nice. Especially on a sunny day in the off season. I poked around all the restaurants and villas and with some difficulty found the churches, which turned out to be very small and mostly closed. But Lake Ohrid is quite blue and clear and splendid, and it is surrounded by mountains in a setting a little reminiscent of Lake Tahoe.

Although instead of Nevada over there, it's Albania.

So I spent the day doing not much. In the afternoon I took the local bus about 20 miles all the way down the lake to the Albanian border. And then rode it back.

And then I had a Greek salad and pasta in the back patio of one of those pizza places. Twenty yards away from me stood the ancient stonework of the back of one of those tiny medieval churches.


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At 4:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite interesting, your view on Eastern Europe. Even for me, as I'm born in Western Europe and used to visit quite a lot of eastern countries in the last 10 years, going to places like Romania always is something like a flashback to ancient times.

But I adapted a, well, different kind of travelling. Meanwhile I don't give anything for the well-known tourist attractions over there. I've been to Transylvania a couple of times, but it never took me to Dracu's castle. When you try to get rid off those expectations where to go and what to see, even Romania can be fascinating. Strolling over the food markets in Cluj-Napoca at 5am or renting a small hut in the mountains you can only reach by foot or on a horse... this is something hard to experience in Europe's mainland.

But, still, I agree: the people in the major cities of Romania, Russia or Bulgaria give one the impression that they somehow faded away. Sometimes I had the feeling of walking through a world of grey ghosts, trying to find anybody else not dead yet.

But, heck, still thanks a lot for your impressions. I enjoyed reading, even though I only hit your blog when searching the web for "Michael Folz".

Michael Folz.

PS: I also know one insane candadian immigrant named Patricia. She left Germany ten years ago, and after some years tumbling through Asia, South America and - as I recall - South Africa she somehow got stuck to Quebec. She makes her living as musican and as clown. Those Patricias in Canada, they seem to be something special...


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