I have already been to most of the Balkan countries, but the disintegration of Yugoslavia has created new statelets that will augment my country-count.
The cheapest way there is via Rome, direct from Atlanta then a connecting flight across the Adriatic. The trans-Atlantic leg is operated by Northwest, so my chances for an upgrade should be good.
Curses, although the plane and crew are Northwest, the seat assignment is handled by Delta; ergo, no upgrade. At least I am on an Airbus 330, which offers the least uncomfortable coach seat. There is a layover of six hours in Rome, not really enough to travel into the city. I would like to take a look at Ostia, the ancient port, just on the other side of the airport, but there is no convenient public transport and I am too cheap to hire a cab.
The third leg is on Belle Air to Tirana. My fellow passengers look Albanian, but, on arrival at Mother Theresa International Airport, about a third of them queue up at the foreign passports window. I planned on taking the bus but end up negotiating a taxi ride for ten euros, half the initial asking price. (Having agreed on a price doesn’t keep the driver from acting all put out at the end when I won’t pay more.)
The highway from the airport is lined with car showrooms, suggesting that the economy has evolved from being the hot car capital of Europe. (Moldova is still champ, with many new Mercedes are on the streets but no dealerships.)
The main square used to feature a thirty-feet tall statue of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator from 1945-85 who broke with Moscow and aligned with Peking. During that time the country was noted for xenophobia, bizarre policies, and being the poorest country in Europe. The statue was pulled down in 1990 along with Lenin and Stalin (I found the latter two looking forlorn behind the fine art museum). Also on the square is the Palace Of Culture, which was started by the Russians but, after the split, the architect went home and took the plans with him; it looks it.
Also on the square is the National History Museum. The story starts with the stone age – so far as I can tell, Albanian cavemen looked pretty much like all the others. A capsule history of Albania: it was a backwater of the Greek and Roman worlds (known as Illyria), then of the Byzantines, then of the Ottomans; it gained independence in 1912; a military adventure by Mussolini led to the exile of King Zog; under the Fascist regime much of Tirana was built; in WWII there was a heroic communist resistance that achieved success, as so often was the case, coincident with the arrival of the Red Army. The section I was most interested in seeing, covering the post-war period, has been closed for remodeling.
Tirana has a fairly modern European air, but with prices to like: a large sandwich costs $1.25; a cup of gelato 30¢. I stay in guesthouse smack in center. The price is fifteen euros ($20 a night), which is my benchmark for lodging on this trip.
The ugliest edifice in town is the former Hoxha Museum, shaped like a pyramid. (A disco inside is named “The Mummy.”) The building is currently empty; these days, kids slide down the sloped exterior walls.
I take a stroll down George W. Bush Blvd, by my reckoning the most prestigious address in town.
On my second full day I visit Kruja castle, a mountaintop fortress that was home to the national hero, Skanderbeg. In the 15th century it withstood three assaults by the Ottomans. The historical significance is that after the fall of Constantinople, his was the principal resistance to the Turks. Shortly after his death (from malaria), Kruja, too, was taken.
Today the fortress is mostly ruins, in the center of which is a modern faux-castle that houses a Skanderbeg museum. Inside, a very Hollywood depiction of medieval glory with larger than life statues and murals of noble knights battling bare-chested, turbaned Turks. The visitor can view his helmet and sword (only replicas, the originals having somehow ended up in Vienna) and postcards of Skanderbeg statues around the world, including Rome, Brussels, Geneva, and Michigan.. There is a library holding 1000 books on Skanderbeg from 70 countries and 25 languages. The museum is full of Albanian tour groups enduring a comprehensive room-by-room, exhibit-by-exhibit explanation. Fortunately, as in the National History Museum, I am favored with scanty English captioning, enabling me to keep a brisk pace.
Albanian is impossible to pronounce. The spoken language sounds vaguely Italian (not Slavic), but the written language is all consonants. In a 19th century nationalist revival, the Roman alphabet was adopted. The problem, as explained to me, is that “we have 36 letters but only 26 characters.” The results are vowel constipation, e.g., the name of the country is Shqiptar. There are three famous Albanians: Skanderbeg, Mother Theresa, and the guy who guy a Nobel Prize for inventing Viagra.
This being a big tourist spot, all sorts of tacky souvenirs are for sale. You can pick from many busts and statues of Skanderbeg and Mother Teresa, but none of Mr. Viagra. I go for quality and purchase a set of George W. Bush commemorative postage stamps.
On the way back I change buses at the town of Frushe Kruja, where George W. Bush performed his disappearing watch trick while shaking hands with the crowd. I make it a point to stop for lunch at the George W. Bush Café, but, to my disappointment, they don’t serve food. I am sure that Dubya would be displeased.
On to Durres, Albania’s second city and, until 1920, its capital. Originally a Greek, then Roman city, it is the port at which boats from Italy arrive. (three hours by fast ferry.) It is a down-at-the-heels place made even worse by the hideous new hotels that sit cheek-by-jowl along the Adriatic seafront.
The sights include a large Roman amphitheatre recently discovered and unearthed -- houses sit atop what was the stage – and a titanic monument to the Unknown Partisan – I have a theory: his name is not unknown, just unpronounceable.
The next day I take a three hour bus ride south to the town of Berat. Along the roadside enroute are the famed Hoxha pillboxes, concrete mushrooms with horizontal slits. Presumably in event of an invasion the populace would retreat into them and keep fighting. There were designed that a tank could roll over the top without crushing them; at five tons each, they are way too much trouble to dig up so they continue to dot the countryside.
The history of Berat is similar to that of Kruja: both began as 3rd century BC Illyrian mountaintop fortress and were greatly expanded by Byzantines, the difference being that Breat continued to thrive under the Ottomans. Today it is a museum town, world heritage list and all that, but very much an inhabited one. In a more accessible part of Europe it would be crawling with tourists, but here it’s delightfully uncrowded. With UNESCO listing comes English signage and trash bins, both amenities being utilized solely by the tourists and ignored by the locals.
By late afternoon I have seen everything. I could go back to Tirana, but I have already checked out of my guesthouse there and checked in one here. At least it is very nice and new and I have beat the price down to 15 euros from the requested 20.
I leave Berat early the next morning by minibus, the preferred mode of transport. It’s more expensive than a big bus but quicker because the drivers make fewer stops and drive like maniacs. (In Albania, only by those who can’t afford to go by bus take the train.) Two hours later, I am back in Tirana. I cross town to where the minibuses leave for Shkoder. Two more hours more, and I’m there. To cross the border into Montenegro I find a shared taxi that costs me 10 euros for the ninety minute drive. At the border, I am asked only one question (the same one asked at the Tirana airport): do I have swine flu?
Ulqini is an Albanian town that ended up on the wrong side of the border. It’s an old pirate haven where Cervantes was held captive for five years. No time to tarry and sightsee. I get dropped off at the bus station and catch a bus to Bar. The forty minute ride costs 3 euros; for that you would get a three hour trip in Albania.
It’s a sparkling blue day, and the drive up the Adriatic coast is most scenic, including a nice view of Bar harbor (it’s Montenegro’s principal port). Then, for the last leg, a bus to Budva. My most ambitious travel day so far: five bus trips totaling eight hours in a ten and a half hour span.
Accommodation in Montenegro is notoriously expensive; I have picked Budva because it is a resort area and I am guessing there will be lots of rooms for rent. They fill up in July and August, but it is out of season and a Monday. My theory pays off: within minutes of arrival I have located a properly priced room (15 euros) and am ready to begin exploring.
Old Budva is like a miniature Dubrovnik, a Venetian walled city with stone houses and tile roofs. Like Dubrovnik, it’s been prettified and completely touristified. (I am unable to suspend disbelief that the inhabitants of the ancient town spent their days in boutiques and jewelry shopping.) Modern Budva is a Russian playground and where biznesmeni (those who can’t afford Monte Carlo) keep their yachts.
What language do they speak in Montenegro? Why, Montenegrin, they would tell you! Except that it used to be called Serbian, and before that, Serbo-Croatian. And somewhere along the line they switched from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one, which makes it practically indistinguishable from Croatian. Thus, in the hyper-nationalism that following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, one language became at least five. They also suffer from the regional vowel shortage: e.g., the word for “square” is trg –it reminds me of those “if u cn rd ths” ads for speedwriting. Along the same lines, the Greek island of Corfu is Krf and Trieste is Trst.
On the second day I set out for the capital, Podgorica, formerly Titograd, a ninety minute bus ride away. To borrow a phrase, there is no there there. The newest statelet on the continent, it is trying to become a modern European capital, i.e., to be filled with overpaid eurocrats. So far they have mastered sitting around in cafes smoking and trying to look cool while endeavoring to figure out how to live on someone else’s dime.
Montenegro has adopted the euro and with it, it seems, a western European price level. Everything seems to be three or four times the price in Albania. One good thing about Montenegro: cars yield to pedestrians. (The down side is you are supposed to only cross at crosswalks.)
On the way back I stop at Cetinje, the former capital of the short-lived Kingdom of Montenegro. It is an overgrown village with a smattering of palatial mansions and former embassies converted to other uses, although one still serves as the current presidential palace.
The religiously inclined and the merely morbid can visit the monastery that displays a piece of the true cross (big deal, everybody’s got one of those) and the mummified right hand of John the Baptist (take that Turin, and your stupid sheet!). The latter is in a glass case at eye-level and kinda gross. Unlike tourist-starved Albania, the streets here are thronged with hordes of day-trippers from the coastal resorts.
Finally, the island of Stevi Stefan looks great from afar, but that’s all you can see. The entire island was bought and turned into a luxury hotel that is now closed along with access.
Another day, another country (actually, two more). I leave at six AM to catch the early bus to Dubrovnik with the intention of being in Mostar by noon. The drive along the Adriatic Highway is reason enough to make the trip. On entering Croatia, our passports are inspected by a cute gal sporting a pony tail and dangly earrings and a huge pistol on her hip.
Just after ten o’clock we arrive in Dubrovnik, where I learn that the next bus to Mostar is not until 3:15 PM. Most people think a day in Dubrovnik would be a treat, but I’ve already been here and that is the five hours that I was going to use to check out Mostar. Oh well, when you travel ad hoc, you gotta be flexible.
What a tourist trap! (Exactly what I thought last time.) Bus tours and cruise ship passengers by the thousands. This place has gotten to be even more of a rip-off: when prices are quoted in euros rather than the local currency, you know you are being taken. But it’s a nice day, so I wander around, retake the same pictures (this time digitally, so I can improve them with Photoshop) and check out the eurochicks.
On to Mostar. Driving north from Dubrovnik, we pass briefly through a bit of Bosnia-Herzegovina, back into Croatia, then plunge back into B-H, each crossing occasioning a new passport check. Bosnia is noticeably poor than Croatia. The area is mountainous, but our route follows a river valley crowded with vineyards. Herzegovina is a wine-producing region, and Mostar its principal city.
By the time I get settled into a guesthouse (located on Marshall Tito Blvd.), there is only time for an evening stroll.
Mostar was an Ottoman city, then briefly came under Austro-Hungarian dominion, then was part of Yugoslavia. It made the news in 1992-3 when it came under siege by the Croat and Serb armies. The front line ran along the main boulevard. By 1994 the city looked like Berlin in 1945. (In Dubrovnik they carry on ceaselessly about how their city was the victim of Serbian aggression but exhibit complete amnesia over what they did (much worse) to Mostar.) Since then the place has been largely rebuilt with tax money from you, me, and the EU, although plenty of war damage remains.
The star attraction is the Old Bridge, Stari Most (“Mostar,” get it?), built by Suleiman the Magnificent (who also built the wall around Jerusalem) in 1566. It lasted until destroyed by Croat artillery in 1993. The entire Ottoman old town surrounding it was pounded to rubble. The rebuilt bridge opened in 2004. A museum has old photos of plume-hatted Hapsburg dignitaries visiting the bridge and shows film of the moment of destruction and the rebuilding.
There is a busy tourist season in July and August, but in May it’s not so bad. I can tell the season has started, however, by the gypsy beggars that have come out of winter hibernation.
It’s a pleasant slow-paced city. Apart from the old bridge area, there’s not a lot to do or see. Because I intend to take the morning train out, I stay for a full day, more than needed. I play war-damage voyeur, and note the markers in the cemeteries all display expiration dates of 1992 and 1993.
There are three official languages here: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. That’s like American, Canadian, and English. Luckily, the words “fast food” displayed at an eatery means the same in all three, as is also does in Albanian.
The train station is a huge 1970s Tito-esque monstrosity that serves four trains a day, two in each direction. The ticket window is staffed twelve hours a day by two clerks, probably to keep each other company and awake. Each ticket is laboriously written out by hand. They don’t sell advance tickets, only for the next departure.
Sarajevo is two and a half hours journey, the same as the bus. We travel slower, but the route is more direct and has the advantage of numerous railway tunnels. This train continues on to Budapest.
In Sarajevo I take the tram to the center. I am not surprised to see the recycled trolley still has German placards, but I do not expect to see that the advertisements for the Vienna Streetcar Museum haven’t even been removed.
Sarajevo is a quaint place, very Ottoman with an Austro-Hungarian overlay (the latter aegis 1878-1918) It’s a real east-meets-west place: cobblestone streets in the Turkish quarter, broad boulevards in the newer. The city is famous for three things: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that triggered WWI; the 1984 Winter Olympics, and the 1992-95 siege by the Serbian/Yugoslavian army.
No war damage evident; this place didn’t get shot up as bad as Mostar. Also, it’s a lot bigger and the front lines didn’t run through the middle of the city. It has lots of mosques, all seeming to date from the 16th century. In the center of town is a Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran with a window display of books featuring the unsmiling countenance of Ayatollah Khomeini. Also, a bunch of Hare Krishnas and their electronically-amplified chanting. Where are the Serbian snipers when you need them?
I was planning to stay two days, but I manage to get almost everything in on the first. Rather than stay a full day longer, I am out early for the 7:00 AM train to Belgrade (or, as they call it, Beograd). Sarajevo lies southwest of the former federal capital, but there is no direct line to the northeast. Instead, I must travel northwest towards Budapest (the rail lines were laid out by the Austrians), crossing into Croatia, and catch an eastbound train coming from Zagreb. The train that departs Sarajevo bound for Budapest comprised two rail cars; the Belgrade train is twice that length. The journey takes ten hours, including a ninety-minute wait between trains; to travel by bus takes even longer. Its not that the train is fast (it isn’t), but that the bus is so slow, winding along mountain roads and detouring into every small town to drop off and pick up passengers. I could have taken the night train, but that option entails changing trains at midnight, then being woken up twice more at border crossings, plus arriving at 6 AM, too early to look for cheap lodgings.
I have time for a brief walkabout before dark. Belgrade is a much more attractive city than I expected, a combination of a little Paris with more than a touch of Budapest and Leningrad. This has been a capital city for a long time and has many aspects of a grand European capital. There are a number of McDonalds, the first I’ve seen on this trip, though I am not even slightly tempted.
Taking advantage of the cultural offerings of the big city, I catch a showing of the new Star Trek movie. The film contains an important lesson: in the future, everyone will speak English, even the Vulcans and the Romulans, and Serbian will be relegated to subtitles.
After the show, the streets are packed even though it’s 10:30 PM. Everyone is out promenading on the pedestrian malls, a combination of people enjoying the spring weather and those seeking cheap/free entertainment. I suspect that much of the national GDP has gone to armaments and invading their neighbors.
The next day, Sunday, is my first full day in Belgrade. My schedule is tight because museums have limited Sunday hours and everything will be closed on Monday.
My first stop is the Tesla Museum. He is a local boy made good who invented the AC motor -- thus enabling just about everything electric – and a whole host of other things. He was also a bona fide mad scientist/crackpot who so alienated everyone that he died a pauper. Understandably, the exhibits and tour leave out that aspect of the man. The airport is named after him and his face is on the 100 dinar note. The museum contains informative displays, cool whiz-bang working models and his ashes and archives.
Next is the Tito Museum. Officially, it is the Josip Broz Tito Memorial Center and the Museum of the Revolution of the Peoples and Nationalities of Yugoslavia, now combined as the Museum of Yugoslav History. It started as a building to display gifts from foreign leaders, then a Tito Is Great museum was added in the 70’s, and finally he was planted in the garden. It actually has been revamped as presented as a theme: “Charisma As Political Legitimacy.”
I start at the new museum. The first hall is devoted to portraits of Tito, mostly done by amateurs of no real talent. In the next couple of rooms are samples of the gifts given to him by an adoring people. Most, as you can imagine, are in spectacularly bad taste. A multi-screen video presentation shows hundreds of others not on display. In the final hall are large video screens running propaganda films from the fifties and sixties, mostly on the theme of His love for and inspiration of the youth of the nation. On the walls are some of the 20,000+ batons presented to him. Each year on His birthday, also celebrated as Youth Day, relays would be run around the country passing specially designed batons to be presented to Comrade Tito at a stadium ceremony of mass gymnastics. The vintage films present scenes very close to those we see today in North Korea adoring the Dear Leader.
Although it was designed as something very different, the museum is a thoughtful reflection on the cult of personality and its uses in binding diverse and fractious peoples. The strongest argument is to simply look at what has happened since, although the Serbs are hardly blameless. One quote I like offered the best apologia yet for the Tito years: “The system was not inherently bad, but it gave great opportunities to bad people.”
A pavilion in a rose garden holds his grave under a block of white marble. On the walls are still more batons. The comments in the visitors’ book are all adulatory so I add my own: “At least he wasn’t as bad as Stalin.”
The old museum has been turned into (yawn) an ethnographic display. The cool stuff – kitschy presents from foreign heads of state – has been replaced by native costumes from around the world presented by various delegations and visiting toadies.
Finally, the Military Museum, housed in Belgrade Fortress. From earliest times a fortified city has overlooked the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. The area within the ancient walls is now a park. The museum is a disappointment. Outside the main entrance there is a captured Humvee, but the exhibits stop at 1918. There is supposed to be wreckage from a stealth fighter they shot down in 1999 on display, but perhaps they have given it back with the onset of better relations;
I look for other damage from the NATO bombing campaign: a couple of government buildings across from the Foreign Ministry have been left in ruins, but everything else must have been fixed or rebuilt.
The rest of the day I spend walking around enjoying the beautiful spring weather and photographing the many handsome buildings.
One day is enough to take in most everything. Time to move on. The next stop on the map is Kosovo, but the late unpleasantness has caused a suspension of rail service. (I could go to Macedonia and backtrack, but that takes way longer.) There still is thrice-daily bus service, so I head out on the noon bus.
The Serbian country is quite pretty, at least in May. Farmhouses, hayricks and small villages are set amongst green, forested hills. Much of the way the road follows river valleys. There are no exit formalities on leaving Serbia since they don’t recognize the border; they still maintain that Kosovo is part of Serbia. The Kosovo border police check the ID cards of locals and stamp the passports of foreigners (three of us). They also take the trouble to correct our pronunciation of our stated destination: it’s PRISH-ti-na, not Pris-TEEN-a. We reach the bus station at 6:15.
This is an especially unlovely city. It was a middling market town until the 20th century and then rapidly expanded cheap and ugly. But for early 20th century politics, it would be part of Albania. The population is 88% Albanian, 7% Serb, 5% other, and the official language is Albanian; nonetheless, the Serbs consider it their spiritual and historic homeland under temporary occupation by the Turks (since 1389).
The center has a small old quarter, some Tito-era concrete piles, and a number of modern buildings, all surrounded by ugly, cheap houses and apartment blocks. A two-hour stroll is enough to take in everything. They are short of local heroes so have erected statues of Skanderbeg and Mother Theresa. They must REALLY be short of heroes: Lenin Blvd. is now Bill Clinton Blvd; his giant mug looks down from the side of one of the slums that line it. One of the trashy shops on the ground floor is named “Hillary.”
A short ride to the ‘burbs takes me to the 14th century Gracanica monastery, located in a Serbian enclave and protected by Swedish soldiers. The official currency of Kosovo is the euro, but the Serbs are so disgruntled that they use Serbian dinars in the shops and everyday commerce; even the ATMs dispense dinars, not euros.
Kosovo is a poor country (in a race with Moldova for European last place), yet the Pristina economy is a bubble of prosperity. The city abounds in fine restaurants and hotels with nightly rates greater than a typical monthly income. Most commercial signage is in English. A building boom is underway financed by European and American aid. Several nations have large troop contingents here on peacekeeping duty. But one day the aid spigot will be shut off or reduced and the armies of well-paid eurocrats and do-gooders will go home; Kosovo then will be a very different place.
It doesn’t take long to see Pristina, and there is not a whole lot more to see in Kosovo, so I am ready to leave by afternoon. However, I still have a week left on this trip so I stay a second night at “Guesthouse Professor,” a large house located in an upscale neighborhood and run by a retired professor who studied in England. His field was electrical engineering, so everything works, albeit in a jury-rigged fashion. Everybody not on an expense account stays here: aid workers, do-gooders, students, researchers, grant-seekers, and the occasional traveler.
I am leaving just in time. On the way to the bus station (also the road to the airport) is another bit of visual pollution: a billboard of Joe Biden and proclaiming “Welcome and Thank You.” My driver tells me the Veep will be arriving tomorrow. (Must be part of his Foot In Mouth Tour, or maybe just exiled by his boss.)
It’s a two and half hour bus ride to Skopje (Shkup, in Albanian), capital of Macedonia. When the Balkans were resliced following the Ottoman collapse, historic Macedonia was parceled out mostly to Greece, a bit to Bulgaria, and the rest to YugoslaviaAt the insistence of Greece, which claims exclusive rights to the name, it is known in international bodies as FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia. They speak Macedonian, which is basically Bulgarian with an accent.
Staying on the main streets, it seems a long walk to my lodging, the Art Hostel; when I arrive am given a map with the shortcuts that cut the time and distance in half. It is another funky place, where I have a large room with a balcony just a few feet from a tree full of red cherries. Unfortunately, my arms are not long enough to reach for a snack. You can tell the crowd the hostel attracts when they tell me that breakfast is served from 9 AM to noon!
Skopje is another Ottoman market town catapulted to capital prominence. In the last half century its population has increased twenty-five-fold. For a modern, former commie city, it is surprisingly pleasant. The new city is a combination of elegant European buildings, Tito-esque concrete monstrosities, and modern glass and steel edifices. The old Turkish quarter has been pedestrianized and partially touristified. There are a lot of old mosques, although I wonder how many are still in use. The population is nominally Orthodox, just as Kosovo is nominally Muslim, but it’s not that important because they are not busy ethnically-cleansing each other here.
The oldest part of the city is a large fortification on a bluff overlooking the river. The most interesting building architecturally is the just-completed Mother Theresa Memorial House, a one room museum on the main pedestrian mall that is a surreal mélange of Byzantine and post-modern style that could have resulted from a collaboration by Dali, Dada, Escher and Frank Lloyd Wright and that looks wildly different from every angle. Although both Albania and Kosovo claim her, this was her hometown.
An afternoon is enough to get the feel of Skopje. The next day I ride to Ohrid, a historic resort town on a lake of the same name that forms part of the border with Albania. It’s a three and a half hour bus ride, but very scenic: forested mountains, green hills, and quaint villages with church spires and minarets.
Ohrid was an early Christian center; this is where St. Cyril worked out his alphabet. Lots of churches and monasteries were built and enlarged until the 15th century, when the Turks took charge. Now it is a grossly overdeveloped tourist resort. Luckily, the season has not yet begun so the streets are only moderately crowded with holiday makers. The old churches and lakeside setting offer some nice photographic opportunities. The interiors contain important icons, if you like that sort of thing. (I don’t.) Next to a reconstructed church are foundations of a 4th century basilica with partially preserved floor mosaics.
Ohrid is a large, ugly town in a nice setting. It still has street awaiting renaming, e.g., October Revolution Blvd. Everyone tells me I have to spend at least a night. I take the 8 AM bus, walk the 20 minutes into town, have lunch, see everything, and walk back to the station in plenty of time for the 3 PM bus back to Skopje. I learned my lesson in Berat, which should have been also just a day trip.
I was planning to continue on to Greece tomorrow but am stymied: the Greek railway workers have called a two-day strike (this is day one). I could take the train to the border and try to scrounge some transportation onwards, or I could take a bus all the way but that leaves at 6AM. I am one day ahead of schedule so I decide to take the day off and hang around Skopje.
I deliberately skipped the National Museum, but now I have time to kill. The archeological collection consists of bits and pieces and shards from antiquity. The arrival of the Slavs in the 7th century doesn’t appear to have done much for progress. My favorite item is a relic, not an exhibit: in a corner taped to a supporting column is a poster on what to do in the event of an air raid or nuclear attack.
The pride of the museum is their collection of beat up old icons and fragments of frescoes from various old churches and monasteries. (Yawn.) I note that the subjects are always looking directly at the camera – for all their talent, the artists were incapable of depicting anyone in profile (the exact opposite of the Egyptians).
The history section of the museum stops at 1945 so I don’t get to learn anything about the glorious achievements under The Party. I do learn from the ethnographic section that the people of Macedonia like to dress in colorful costumes and sing and dance.
The next morning drag my bones down to the station for the 7:20 train to Skopje. The station looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. It’s the same setup as in Mostar, two agent writing out tickets by hand. Apparently, no one shows up to buy a ticket until ten minutes prior to the scheduled departure. When I arrive there is a local train leaving soon and a big crowd at the window.
The train, which left Belgrade last evening, is two hours late; because there is no notation on the departures board, the time is spent waiting on the platform. Even though it is behind schedule, the train sits in the station for the full scheduled twenty mintues.
Having traveled from the northern, western, and now southern borders, I can state that Macedonia is largely an empty place. At the Greek border we have to get off for passport control, which permits me to take a census: the train has two sleeping cars, three seating cars, and sixteen passengers.
My plan, devised on the fly, is to continue to Kalambaka, the base for visiting the monasteries of Meteora. There is a direct train at 6 PM, giving us 4 hours in Thessaloniki. We (me and a cute Japanese girl I chatted up on the platform at Skopje station) stash our bags and tour the sites: the White Tower, Rotunda, Arch of Galerius, Aya Sofia church and seafront promenade. It’s Saturday afternoon, meaning everything is closed and everyone is sitting around in cafes. Here’s the drill: when sitting you have you take out your cell phone and place to your left on the tiny round table and to the right of it put your cigarettes. And you must wear dark sunglasses at all times, including indoors and at night.
We arrive in Kalambaka in the late evening. In the morning I cadge a Japanese guidebook and a ride from a couple of Japanese tourists with a rental car, saving the one hour plus hike uphill to Grand Meteora, the biggest and highest monastery. The landscape consists of huge rocks atop which are perched monasteries, six of which are open to visitors. The interiors are not that interesting; what people come for are the views. The season is just starting, and already there are bus tours aplenty.
It is supposed to take all day to visit the six, but with our automotive head start and skipping the next five interiors we are done by noon. Just as well, it’s sunny and HOT, close to 100°. I wouldn’t want to be hiking uphill in the afternoon heat and especially not in summertime. There is a shortcut downhill through shady woods back to town.
The trip back to Thessaloniki sucks – the train is sold out due to weekenders returning home on Sunday evening, and we have to stand almost three hours. Although Kalamabaka was cloudless, it is raining when we reach Thessaloniki, breaking my two and a half week streak of perfect weather.
The next morning it’s dry but cloudy. I usually designate Monday as a travel day because most everything is closed, but luckily, the museums here are open Monday afternoon. The Archeological Museum has high quality specimens in good condition and well-presented. The highlight is its exhibition of the Gold of Macedon. It used to also contain the treasures from the tomb of Phillip II (Alexander the Great’s father), but those have been returned to the burial site and housed in their own museum. The stated reason was for historical authenticity, but I suspect the real reason was to force tourists to stay longer and spend more to travel there.
By mid-afternoon the sun has returned in full force. The companion museum is the Museum of Byzantine Culture. Salonica (now Thessaloniki) was the second capital of the empire, but not that much survives beyond some churches. (It odd to see 700-year old churches amidst modern buildings and three feet below street level.) The exhibits are well-presented, but the stuff is not so eye-popping. From an archeologist’s perspective, the advent of Christianity was a negative because people were no longer buried with their worldly goods, although the custom persisted of including a few coins to pay for the passage to the other side (which helps to date things).
A beef about Greece: these days it’s every bit as expensive as western Europe. On crossing the border the price level triples or quadruples, not just for equivalent items but for the same stuff. The euro costs about $1.40 but its purchasing power is between sixty and eighty cents. The only bargain is local bus fares: a ticket is good for 70 minutes so you can get two or three rides for one fare. Also, the bus to the airport stops right in front of the hotel and only costs sixty cents.
An early morning flight to Rome lets me transfer to my Atlanta-bound flight without the necessity and expense of overnighting near the airport. In the lounge at Rome I ask for filter coffee; the barista makes a face and sniffs “Oh you want American coffee.” Yes.