Friday, June 29, 2007

FYROM Part Two: Ohrid

As soon as we arrived in Ohrid, we immediately understood why so many people had urged us to come here. This charming town of 50,000 sits near the northern end of Lake Ohrid, one of the oldest lakes in the world. Because of its rich history and unique flora and fauna, the lake was declared a UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage site in 1980. The town could be a UNESCO site too, with its winding cobble streets and beautiful old churches.

We ended up staying two nights. The first night was spent at the Riviera hotel on the lakefront. However we had to move since it was one of many booked for the 5000 plus attendees at a NATO Security Forum which started the next day. It was quite a sight seeing all the police and black suited security around town. Sally surmised that every police car in Macedonia was in town.

Ohrid’s living history as a town goes back 2400 years. There are so many churches scattered around the region, locals say there is one for every day of the year. We visited a church at the monastery of St. Naum that dated back to the late 9th century. To get to it, we took a boat cruise around the lake. It was a last minute thing, but turned out to be a very good outing. As we rushed onto the boat, a grinning Balkan in a Macedonian hat congratulated us in accented English on making it aboard. I soon realized he wasn’t Macedonian; but couldn’t decipher his nationality. It turned out he was from Pitea, in Northern Sweden. He was in Macedonia with his wife and a dozen young musicians to perform, as he put it, Swedish-Macedonian music!

For a while, we had the boat to ourselves. But we were soon joined by over a hundred noisy Belgradians. So it was the Canadians and the Swedes quietly discussing the Sedin twins playing hockey in Vancouver and the origin of the names of IKEA products, while all around us, gregarious tattooed Serbs drank beer and smoked cigarettes incessantly.

We very much enjoyed cruising around with the Swedes; however, we enjoyed even more hearing them perform that evening in the town square. Once again, I thought about Tom Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’. Here we were; 12 musicians from Northern Sweden and two misplaced Canadians feeling we had so much in common while meeting up in an obscure Macedonian town!

After the concert we set off for a waterfront restaurant where we previously had had a very good lunch. We ordered a local specialty, grilled Ohrid trout, which is quite different than the trout we get in Canada. While we were waiting for our food, I started to chat to a very attractive young lady dining alone at the table beside us. “Where are you from?” I asked. Russia” she replied. It turned out that she had studied Macedonia at university in Moscow, and had developed a real fascination with the country. It was the very first place she had visited outside of Russia, and had returned regularly. We spent the rest of the evening talking about life in Russia, Belarus, Kosovo and Canada. As we were leaving, we urged her to come and visit us in Vancouver. “I can’t”, she said. “Your country will never give me a visitor’s visa”. It was a message we heard over and over again while in Macedonia. While we think it is difficult arranging a visa for Russia, it seems that it is almost impossible for many people to get a visa to visit Canada. It doesn’t seem right. We should try and change this.

Early the next morning, we set off for the fortress that overlooks the town. It was a magnificent climb and we were awed by the beautiful vistas as we climbed to the top.

But just before noon we set off in a cab for the bus station in a nearby town. We had decided we couldn’t go back to Skopje. Instead, we would try to get into Albania. Since we didn’t have visas, we picked up some Euros at a local bank. Just in case. Although we’re told it’s now easier to get into Albania than Canada.

FRYOM Part One: Skopje

“Why did you come here?” It’s the question we were asked all day long by just about everyone we met in Skopje, the capital of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)

We traveled to Skopje by bus from Sophia since it was on the way to Dubrovnik. Moreover, our guide book described it as an up-and-coming city with a lively café and restaurant scene, an interesting old town, and a new town designed by the renowned Japanese architect Kenzo Tange, following a disastrous 1963 earthquake.

Once again, we arrived at the station without any local currency, assuming there would be an ATM and it would be easy to exchange some money. I was wrong. There was no one to exchange my few remaining Bulgarian levas for Macedonian denars. I eventually found a money changer who would accept Bulgarian money, but he admitted his exchange rate was so unfavourable he wouldn’t give me a receipt. But I could have my money back. There was a bank machine. However, it only dispensed large bills. Life on the road would be so much easier if ATM machines dispensed smaller denominations. It’s hard to pay for the toilet or negotiate a cab fare with a 1000 denars note! (even though it’s only $23.

Unfortunately, none of our favourite hotel web sites had any suitable listings for Skopje. The other sites required a longer lead time to book. Not knowing anything about the city hotels, we picked The Bristol since it had an interesting listing in our guide book and the price seemed reasonable for the location. Most importantly, my dad was born in Bristol!

When we arrived and saw the available rooms, we wished he had been born in Sheraton!

We had a late lunch and spent the afternoon walking around the old and new towns. Unfortunately, the temperature was in the low forties, and it felt a lot like being back in India. While I found the old town interesting, and charming in places, other parts were very run down and dirty. Shopkeepers were watering down the pavement in front of their businesses in an effort to keep the dust down.

We climbed up to an old fortress from where there were some impressive views of the city. But the heat made it difficult to enjoy the experience.

Mr. Tange would not be pleased with how his ‘new city’ looks today. Many buildings have been poorly maintained and much of the infrastructure is in disrepair. However, his attractive pedestrian street was very lively and there is a new riverfront walkway lined with restaurants. But many of the men hanging around the streets, with their short brush cuts, angular features, and dirty t-shirts and blue jeans, seemed like pretty tough characters. Even the women looked a bit menacing. Well, not all of them. Some looked absolutely fantastic in their revealing tops and tight pants!

As we wandered around the old town, there was a surprising number of jewelry shops; reminiscent of Turkey. There was also a bazaar area with an excellent choice of nail clippers, sun glass cases, batteries and electrical cords.

Since we didn’t have lunch until 4, we went out for dinner around 10:30. We were astounded to find the street outside our hotel teeming with people. It seemed like Robson Street on a Friday night. Gone were the menacing men and women, replaced by very trendy and sexy singles, amorous young couples, and families with young children. They were milling around the wall-to-wall cafes and restaurants. Suddenly we understood why our guide book described Skopje as the buzzing capital city of Macedonia. While the city seemed somewhat sad in the daytime, it was a happy, lively, and attractive place at night.

Around midnight, it was just as busy. I asked the couple at the next table why so many people were still eating and drinking. “Don’t people have to go to work in the morning?” I asked. The young man responded in excellent English that it was too hot to go home. Moreover, he said, Macedonian people like to be out with other people. “It’s our culture”

Everyone we met was curious to know why we were in Skopje. “Do you have a friend here?” asked the lady managing the internet cafe. It seemed like they weren’t used to North American tourists. At the same time, they were playing American music almost everywhere we went. Especially songs from the 80’s and 90’s; although we did have to listen to ‘Only You’ by the Platters at breakfast!

When we told people we were on an around-the-world trip, they all said we had to see Ohrid in southern Macedonia. So we decided to take their advice, even though it meant heading southwest instead of northwest. But it gave us new choices. We could continue on to the Albanian coast that looked wonderful in travel agency posters, or return to Skopje and catch a bus to Dubrovnik as planned the next day. But first things first: we were off to Ohrid.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sophia, Bulgaria

In his bestselling book ‘Blink’, Malcolm Gladwell writes that first impressions are often very accurate. He hasn’t been to Sophia, Bulgaria.

We arrived on the overnight train to find a very depressing train station with a filthy broken escalator up to the street level. I needed to go to the toilet, but the attendant wouldn’t let me in with my Turkish money, and there didn’t seem to be a money changer nearby. Finally, I got some money exchanged but the only thing we could find to eat were some very greasy pastries that might have had cheese in them, but it was hard to tell. We had arranged to have our hotel pick us up at the station, but we arrived an hour earlier than expected. So we wandered over to the adjacent bus station to check on buses to Skopje, our next destination, en route to Dubrovnik.

Unfortunately, no one could give us the required information, and we returned to the train station. There was no one to pick us up. Finally, we decided to take an OK taxi, since Sally had been cautioned not to use the other companies. The hotel was advertised as a kilometer from the centre of the city, but it seemed much further awayh. I was also astonished at the cost on the meter for the ten minute trip, since it was comparable to what we would pay in Vancouver.

Eventually we got to the hotel, only to learn that they had no record of our request for a pick up, and didn’t even have the advertised shuttle bus service. Moreover, we had taken the wrong OK taxi, and the price we had paid was about nine times what is should have been! Fortunately, I had written down his license plate number, and gave it to the person at reception. He subsequently advised me that there was no registered taxi with this plate number. Despite being much further away than expected, the hotel looked good and even offered wireless internet. We decided to clean up and set off to see the town.

What we found was a very dour, quiet place. There was a lot of garbage around the main square, and not much joy to be had. We found a restaurant that claimed to serve typical Bulgarian food, and not knowing what typical Bulgarian food was, decided to try it. It can best be described as ‘heavy’; a lot of meat and cheese and bread and pastry, along with some chopped salads.

Somewhat tired from the overnight train trip, we decided to get on one of the decades old electric trams and tour around. But it was hot, and after a while Sally was ready to get a cab back to the hotel. She asked if we could leave the next day, rather than stay on as originally planned.

While I too was disappointed with what we had found, I was sure there was more to the city. After all, it is the capital of Bulgaria, and the guide book described some very impressive sights, including one of the largest synagogues in Europe. But I agreed we would leave the next day.

That evening we decided to check out a restaurant recommended by the guide book. But the lady at the hotel reception suggested we go somewhere else, and we did. We found a very trendy spot, with a lot of chrome and orange leather furniture, with some very attractive people inside. While it looked promising, we decided to check out another spot, and THAT’S WHEN EVERYTHING CHANGED!

While we didn’t find the restaurant we were looking for, we found an elegant place across the street where almost everyone was…dancing the tango! We were told that an instructor had been giving lessons, but we were too late. However, we could stay and have a drink and watch if we wanted. We decided to stay. We looked at the menu, and it was like going back in time. Few entrees were over 5 or 6 dollars, and a litre of wine was $8.50. We ordered belinis with smoked salmon and caviar, and a litre of local wine. An hour later, we had another, along with a recommended chicken dish and fresh local trout. Our waitress was terrific. She told us about life in Sophia, what to see, and where to go for dinner the next night. We had such a good time, we decided to stay on. She made reservations for us, and wrote out a note to give to our waitress to ensure we were properly taken care of. We were the last to leave the restaurant. The bill came to just over $30!

The next day we exchanged our hotel for a place in the centre of town. We managed to see most of the major sites, including the heritage synagogue, and had an entirely different impression of the place.

We had a wonderful, albeit ‘heavy’ lunch, and a good walk around the city. We realized that the reason it seemed so quiet the previous day was because it was Sunday! And much of the garbage had been the result of a concert in the square.

We went to the recommended restaurant for dinner. It wasn’t as good as hoped, but it didn’t really matter. We had had a wonderful day, and had gained a much better appreciation of Sophia. Our first impression was not the right impression, nor the lasting impression. We were glad we had given the place a second chance.

Turkish Delights

Marmaris, Selchuk and Istanbul. We have just spent a week in these three delightful places in Turkey.

We went to Marmaris since it was the only Turkish destination for the ferry from Rhodes. We chose Selchuk as a base for visiting Ephesus, since I didn't have good memories from my last visit to Kusadasi. We chose Istanbul because it is without doubt one of the great cities of the world.

In Marmaris we discovered a very pleasant small resort town with literally hundreds of hotels f ronting along the beach and waterfront promenade. It is a popular starting point for a variety of boat cruises along the Turkish coast. Unfortunately, Claire's restricted schedule prevented us from taking a multi-day cruise; but we did have one very enjoyable day on the Turquoise Coast. Two highlights were a visit to some amazing tombs carved into the cliffs, and a dip in the mud-baths near Turtle Beach. Fortunately, we did not take family photos for the blog, since there were so many complaints about the red spandex shot taken at the Great Barrier Reef. But here are some of our fellow passengers after frolicking in the mud.

Selchuk turned out to be a delightful small town with a very pleasant walkable centre. Although very close to Ephesus, it remains relatively unspoilt by tourists. We stayed at Jimmy's Place, despite its name, because of its location, the guest reviews on, and a recommendation from the fellow who ran the internet café where we were searching for accommodation. It turned out to be a good choice.

Rather than try to visit Ephesus on our own, we joined a small tour group. We also visited a home supposedly occupied by the Virgin Mary. I was impressed that the Turkish government had spend so much money maintaining a property that appealed primarily to a Christian audience, only to be told that the Vatican was the major funding source for the property’s maintenance.

We also visited the oldest mosque in the region. Inside, I heard a guide telling a group of American tourists that the Koran makes numerous references to Mary and Jesus. He added that although Moslems do not regard Jesus as God, he is considered an important prophet. "Is this really such a big difference that we have to fight wars with one another?” he asked the Americans. “I don't think so".

Ephesus is the most impressive archeological site I have ever seen. While this visit was not as awe inspiring as my first sojourn 13 years ago, when I went with my father, it was wonderful to be there with Claire and Sally. We had traveled quite a long way to get to Ephesus, but it was definitely worth the effort.

While Claire enjoyed Turkey’s smaller towns and archeological sites, what she really wanted was to get to Istanbul to experience the bazaars. So the next morning we took an early shuttle bus to Izmir airport, and from there a short flight to Istanbul.

Anyone who has seen the movie ‘Midnight Express’ knows that you don't want to spend time in a Turkish jail. But try telling that to the people who pay $420 to $630 US a night to stay in a double room at Istanbul's Four Seasons Hotel. Opened ten years ago, it occupies a neoclassical structure that was built as a prison in 1917. But having lunch in the courtyard café, or staying in one of the spacious rooms or suites, you wouldn't know it was once a jail.

We didn’t want to pay that kind of money to stay in a jail, so instead we chose the Hotel Romantic off It had an excellent location and looked quite attractive in the web photos. However, we discovered the name was a bit of a misnomer when we found separated twin beds in our double room!

To get an overview of the city, we again decided to take a ‘hop on hop off’ bus. What a mistake! While I thought the service in Athens was poor, in some respects, the one in Istanbul was even more disappointing. There was very little commentary...."in front of you is the Hilton Hotel", and most of it was punctuated by very monotonous music. There were few stops, and very infrequent service. Moreover, it ended at 4 pm on the longest day of the year! It was such a bad experience, I wrote to the management in the hope that they might improve the service for future travelers. But I won't hold my breath.

After completing most of the bus route, around 1 pm we decided to get off and visit the Blue Mosque. As we were crossing the road towards the entrance, we were stopped by a man who told us it was closed. Every guide book warns you to avoid people who tell you attractions are closed, since invariably they want to take you to a friend’s jewelry shop or somewhere else which you really don't need to see. Given my disappointing experience with the tour, I wasn't in the mood to deal with this guy, but he kept insisting that I not try to enter the mosque. Suddenly, I saw three policemen across the street and approached them. "Is the Blue Mosque closed today?" I asked. "No" they replied in unison. I then pointed out the fellow who had tried to tell me otherwise, and requested that they find out what he was up to. I left as he was showing them his identification papers.

Since I did not have the appropriate clothing and had been inside the mosque before, I decided to let Sally and Claire go in without me. But a few minutes later they returned. "It's closed for prayers" they said. “It opens at 2”!

Instead we decided to visit St. Sophia, another major attraction. It was originally built as a church, then converted into a mosque, and subsequently a museum. On the way, we lamented the fact that we didn’t know anyone in Turkey who could show us the real city, so we didn’t have to go from tourist site to tourist site. Unfortunately, the only Turkish people we knew were the Filisophs, our neighbours on Deering Island, and Chela Herman, our next door neighbour.

So imagine my surprise when I turned a corner in St. Sophia and there stood Miryam and Rafael Filisoph! They were as surprised to see me, as I was to see them. It turned out they were in Istanbul for a couple of weddings, and we spent some good times with them over two days. A couple of highlights were a trip up a very old tower for a 360 degree view of the city, and a dinner party at the Bosphoros waterfront home of one of their friends. It was magnificent.

Unfortunately, after seven days it was time for us all to move on. On our final afternoon we decided to experience ‘one of the 1000 places to see before you die’; one of the oldest Turkish Baths in the city. Sally described it as interesting, although not relaxing. I would have to agree. My memory is of a jolly half naked Turkish gentleman who seemed to take great delight in scrubbing the skin off my forehead, and pummeling my sore calves with his elbows.

At 8 pm, we saw Claire off on an overnight train for Athens, and two hours later we boarded another train on the very same platform for Bulgaria. It had been a very good week, but we needed more time to see the rest of Turkey. So we will return for a much more extended stay at some time in the future. But we may just skip the baths.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Medieval Rhodes

I first learned about the medieval town of Rhodes in my History of Architecture class, 40 years ago. But the textbook photos didn't do it justice. A World Heritage listed site, the old town is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe. It is in remarkably good condition, given its age.

Our boat docked right outside the old city, and the juxtaposition of the modern ships and the historic wall was most impressive. As is becoming our habit, we arrived without any hotel reservations since we didn't know where to stay. But as soon as we saw the medieval streets of the old town, now lined with shops and restaurants, we knew this was where we wanted to be. So while Sally had a coffee and watched the tourists go by, Claire and I set off and quickly found what she described as a very ‘funky’ place for the night.

We then set off to explore. The history of Rhodes has been both fascinating and tumultuous. It has gone through many regimes and rulers. In 1100 BC, it first began to exert influence and power, and at one point joined forces with the Persians against Alexander the Great. But when it became apparent he couldn’t be defeated, it joined with him. After a subsequent victory, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World was constructed. However, according to some historians, it was tragically destroyed by an earthquake only 60 years after it was completed.

Rhodes was part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and then enjoyed independence. In the middle ages, it was ruled by the Knights of St John, until taken over by the Ottomans, who were then defeated by the Italians. In 1947, after four decades of Italian occupation, it became part of Greece. However, the Italian connection is reflected in the local language and the number of pizzerias!

At one time it was home to a sizable Jewish community and the 'Jewish Quarter' exists to this day. A monument to the Jews who were killed during the Holocaust occupies a prominent location in a major town square. Although there aren't very many Jews living here today, there is a synagogue that was originally built in the 16th century. It is still operating, and on Saturday I dropped by, along with a small group of Americans who had just come off a cruise ship. In one respect, it reminded me of a very old synagogue I had visited in the Virgin Islands. The floor. The former had a sand floor; this one had a pebble floor. However, like many other floors and pavement surfaces in Rhodes, the pebbles had been arranged in an intricate and quite beautiful pattern set in concrete.

One of the reasons the walls of the old town walls have survived so well is their construction. They are generally 12m thick! Many of the medieval buildings are also in good condition, although the Palace of the Grand Masters was destroyed in a gunpowder explosion in the mid 19th Century, and had to be rebuilt by the Italians. As we walked along the main street constructed by the Knights, I couldn’t help but overhear two of the Americans off the cruise ship. “Touch these walls, Agnes” said one to the other. “They’re history!”

We visited Rhodes to use it as a stepping stone to Turkey and see the old town. However, many areas around the island have become very popular tourist destinations, especially for Brits on package tours. While we avoided them, we did visit Lindos, which is famous for its hilltop archeological site, and the white painted hillside village that surrounds it. Most of the streets are too narrow and treacherous for vehicles, but they are just fine for the donkeys that regularly transport goods and tourists up and down.

As a result of our recent harrowing experience with animals, (the camels in Rajasthan!), and our need for some exercise, we walked. But in a couple of places, we would have preferred the sure-footed donkeys, especially given the steep incline and sudden drop to the valley below. (I find that as I get older, I seem to be developing a fear of falling off narrow winding walkways onto the rocks below.)

At three in the afternoon, we again packed our bags and walked back to the port where we had arrived only 30 hours earlier. It was amazing how much we had seen and learned in such a relatively short period of time. We had arrived not knowing what to expect, where to stay, and what to do. We were leaving with the feeling that we really knew the place, and were so pleased that we had come. Now we were heading off to Turkey on a fast ferry, not knowing what to expect, where to stay, and what to do.

It’s a pattern that will likely repeat itself many times over the next three months before our return to Vancouver.