Catha's Seat

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Days 54 to 59: Banished History in Bulgaria to Modern Monuments in Macedonia

Some roads on a long trip are better forgotten - such was the road from Pirot, leaving Serbia and taking us to Sofia. Basically on a motorway passing rows of derelict factories and power stations we felt cold and grey. We pulled into a petrol station cafe we chatted with the lady in charge. A native Bulgarian, she had the opinion that joining the European Union had ruined Sofia, leaving it overrun with "crime and gypsies" and generally giving us the impression we shouldn't bother. She and her Turkish husband were planning an exit within the next year.

When looking on the surface Sofia was very much in contrast to her description; bohemian, cosmopolitan and buzzing with life - a Berlin of the Balkans. The thing you notice however, is that; perhaps some of the old soul has been flattened by the EU franchise, where the corporate door has been opened and branded coffee joints, posh burger bars etc are flooding in.

Maybe though, this is a young Sofia putting the past to bed and welcoming in a new future? All of the communist propaganda art in Bulgaria has been annexed into a small museum on the outskirts of the capital, a place seemingly unknown to the locals. We were the only people there, apart from the despondent staff that dutifully took our cash and put on an introduction video.

Statues of Dimitrov and Lenin at the Museum of Socialist Art, Sofia. (Photo right courtesy of EA Gow) 
Later in the day, on the fantastic "Free Sofia Walking Tour", we saw where the socialist monuments used to live. The Star had previously adorned the Government buildings and the statue of Lenin had been replaced by the city's patron Saint; Saint Sofia. Our tour guide Niki was quick to point out that the capital is not named after her, but rather the Hagia Sophia Church. 

Although we found out that the Bulgarian symbol is the lion due to their courageousness, unfortunately it appears they haven't always been successful in fighting off invaders. The places of worship of the various rulers; Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim, meet in the so called "triangle of religious tolerance". 

Hambara in Sofia - a candle lit hideout for poets and artists oppressed by communism. (Photo courtesy of EA Gow)

The "Art Hostel" in Sofia ranks among the top 10 boutique Hostels in Europe. The party never stops at the bar downstairs and the thumping basslines start up again at 9am so you feel like you are waking up at a music festival! Here we are pictured with friends we met on the "Free Sofia Walking Tour". Either side of Alex are Christian and Marie who are Erasmus students studying in Istanbul (of all places!). Next to me is Renato; a chef from Mexico, who had been on an internship in London and was looking to ride out the rest of his European adventure somewhere slightly cheaper!

One of the most frequent comments in my diary was "late start". Usually a result of over-ambitious planning and our ride out of Sofia fitted that norm. An proud local Bulgarian graffiti artist on his way over to London from our trendy "Art Hostel" recommended a traditional breakfast of Burek and Boza. Having not encountered any foodstuffs up that point we didn't like, when presented the option of a big bottle of Boza for 10pence more, we jumped at it. The fermented, wheat based drink had the consistency of gloopy medicine (calpol or gaviscon) and made us wretch! The same graffiti-ist reassured our will to go the "Boyana" or Bosnian  Church, what seemed like the 1,000th UNESCO world heritage site we had encountered. He mentioned that the Frescos were pioneering for their time, heralding a return to more figurative depiction with depth and perspective from the 2D times of Medieval period.

The journey onwards was a chore - perhaps we needed two days off the bikes. We reached our camping goal; a small lake in the mountains near Izvor. Between us and getting our tent on, was a yellow sign with red cyrillic writing. We guessed at the translation; "trespassers will be shot", "minefield, watch your step!" and in the end we concluded it probably wasn't going to be safe so decided to push on into the night to the next big town, Kjustendil. What a lucky strike; firstly we were treated to a sublime descent into a huge valley lit up like a Christmas tree and when we arrived at the only hostel we could find online, it was right next to the town's natural hot spring baths. This time hot meant hot, and we soaked until closing! 

Derelict factories just outside of Sofia. (Photo bottom courtesy of EA Gow)

The next day we crossed into Macedonia, from an exhilarating downhill to a gentle river valley incline after the border. 20 miles in and the landscape changed almost instantly - we went from the heavy grey scraggy rocks and dark greens of the tight Balkan mountains to a much more Greek feel with expansive ochre mountain ranges and rows of tall, harshly vertical and sparsely foliated trees. Foggy chill turned to late afternoon sunny warmth. 

Modern Monuments - taxpayers in Macedonia appear to be forking out to turn their capital into some sort of Alexander the Great theme park! (Photos courtesy of EA Gow)

Alex was confused. Was that a London "Routemaster" bus in Skopje? That must be where Boris offloaded 'em all to!
The hostel in Skopje was one of the best; another "Art Hostel" with a handy 25% discount for bikers, however, the city itself did not take us. Most of the centre is part of a vile building programme spending taxpayer money, which would be better spent improving welfare, education and healthcare, rather on Vegas style Greek temples, a ridiculously large statue of Alexander the Great and a football stadium the size of Wembley (for a nation that have a population less than 4% of England's and frankly aren't that good at the sport!). What was even more odd were the fake Routemaster buses, which just proliferated the Vegas feel. 

It was on our day off in Skopje where we noticed the motivation had seeped out of us. There was a feeling we "ought to" be out finding adventures and seeing the sights but we just wanted to relax. The tension between these emotions really started to grate on me and the anxiety extended to "what am I'm doing on this trip" and "have I achieved anything". I think I had hoped for some magic change where I would feel like a new, confident and fresh person with a solid roadmap for future life; a life challenge under my belt. Not so, I was very lost.

From our hostel we could see the Vardar river, whose powerful flow ran all the way down close to our first destination in Greece; Thessaloniki. We fantasised about being able to build a raft and let the river carry us! 

Our journey towards the coast was a struggle. What looked like decent highways on the map quickly descended into rarely driven stony tracks, which Scott was allergic to. After one pinch puncture I knew I had to push him, and push we did, for 5 miles until the tarmac returned. The last day in Macedonia we followed an old road built by the Nazis. The steep cliffs and narrow gorge made it a strategically beneficial position to hold. This was once again poorly surfaced, resulting in very slow progress. The real kick in the teeth was that after 15 miles of intense concentration riding gingerly, avoiding the big stones and walking where necessary we were 5 miles back on the tarmac and another puncture reared its ugly head. Considerably behind schedule we sat in the stirrups, with a grimace and ploughed on into the driving rain towards the border.

Giving up on the stony tracks gave us a stunning campsite location on our last night in Macedonia (near Demir Kapilja). Like camping on the balcony looking out over a massive natural Piazza. (Photo bottom courtesy of EA Gow)

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