The journey begins
Pudong International Airport
The journey begins
Pudong International Airport
Replacing a communist-era statue of Lenin
Replacing a communist-era statue of Lenin
Click on picture to enlarge
Sofia, Bulgaria – Skopje, North Macedonia:
The Balkans (Part I)
30 May – 2 June 2019 (Thu–Sun)
I don't really like travelling at night, as I want to see the land being crossed, but sometimes ... no other choice. One benefits, however, can be an early arrival. The Sofia morning sun welcomed me to a new city.
I had finally arrived in the European portion of my EurAsia adventure and now I wonder if it should be re-badged: AsiaEur?
Hotel Adria, my home in Sofia, was more up-market than most hotels I book. I don't know why, as it was not that expensive. It was a pleasant hotel although too far from Sofia Centro. I purchased a three day transport card that came with a Metro (subway) stop near my hotel.
Thursday, my first day, was spent aimlessly wondering around although I did make a point to visit the shopping district - a pleasant walking street - as I had a major purchase to undertake while in Sofia.
My adventure will be briefly interrupted in Milano Italy next week, as my research paper on intractable conflict in the Mediterranean has been accepted at a 2-day EU conferences sponsored by the Centre for European Studies at the University of Milano-Bicocca.
I am presenting my research on the Union for the Mediterranean - fieldwork that I conducted while a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research in Germany in 2017. I will also make a similar presentation in Brussels on 20 June - but more on that later.
Such events require a suit, a dress shirt and a tie - clothing that I have not carried across Asia but items I am prepared to buy in Sofia.
That exercise began in earnest on Friday morning. I visited five stores on the main walking street including an H&M, which is an internationally famous British-discount clothing store. All the other shops I visited seemed to be locally owned.
Must have tried on 5 or 6 suits and finally settled on a brilliantly dark blue suit (80 percent wool and the other 20 percent is made-up of a collection of fibres - there must be some kind of logic for the 80/20 split but it was lost in translation). The suit is made and sold by Teodor - an up-market Bulgarian men's clothing store. It was $A330 - an average price for a suit in Australia but expensive for Bulgaria - I think. It will work. And so, picked-up a beige shirt and a tie that is too red. Miwa and I agree that a new tie is on my Albania shopping list.
Buying a suit is a bit stressful and so to celebrate I found a Latin restaurant where I had a very tastiest ground beef and vegetable dish. I thought of returning on Saturday but other events transpired.
Within walking distance of my hotel, past Lion's Gate, is the Jazz Bar. The fellow running the place said he would have music on Friday and directed me across the street to the Delta Blues Bar. Not a big fan of blues but they had live music - the Wet Pebbles. Cute name but not sure what it means. The band included three women and a fellow - kind of rare to find a band that is primarily female. This band was really good and the Delta Blues Bar was so lively. Full of happy people enjoying themselves on a Thursday night.
The band had invited a guest clarinet player named Dadio Bulgario who I spoke with during the break. He had funky hair - the kind of hair that artists display - and was full of positive energy. I asked about his band and he said that he did not have a band but played regularly with many bands via invitation. He said he had been living out of his van for a couple of years now and played all over Bulgaria - all the time. It all came together in the second set, as he turned his clarinet into soft and powerful beauty. Dadio will dominate in any band that invites him to play.
I went to the Jazz Bar the following evening. When I arrived at 10.00pm the place was completely empty but it gradually filled to about 10 of us and by 11.30pm the band showed-up three older gentlemen able to play respectable jazz - nothing earth shattering for sure. But by the end of the first set, I was the only patron enjoying their music - it was a bit heart-breaking... I finished my beer and went across to the Delta Blues Bar and listened to the River of Blues. Now this band was so hot that I really regretted wasting time in the Jazz Bar (and I am not a big blues fans). The River of Blues converted me !
Saturday morning and my shopping is done so I am wondering around the Centro area taking pictures and decide that a cold drink would be nice so I pop into Costa Coffee, which has a full-house. I end-up seated next to Sofia. When she introduced herself it confused me, as her name and the name of the city were exactly the same. Yes, she was from Sofia and her parents named her Sofia. OK.
Sofia had been a nanny but had recently started a day-care in her basement apartment. Business was staring to pick-up but she had Saturday off because it was a national holiday. It was in fact Children’s Day in Bulgaria. How nice that a country honours their children. She said I should visit Oborishte Park where there would be a large cultural celebration. I thanked Sofia and off I went.
Yes, there were lots of parents and lots of children in the park and everywhere. They were set-up to let children paint large incoherent murals, they had games and they had young ladies dressed-up in traditional costumes dancing. Next door at the National Gallery they had street performers outside, while inside they had a small orchestra accompanied by the beautiful voices of two lovely woman. It was all too good (see pictures). How nice to be a part of a national celebration.
Had a Caesar Salad and a glass of local wine at a cafe on the walking street for dinner and enjoyed watching the world pass-by.
The Sofia to Skopje bus required five hours the next day. A long-distance bus attracts a rougher bunch compared to a 1st class train car. Not bringing much attention to myself is my goal in these setting. Fortunately, my "foreignness" is disappearing the further West I travel.
The bus out of Sofia had that overpowering fragrance of a budget motel (see picture of passengers about to board our bus to Skopje). It’s not smoke they are trying to hide, as those days are long gone. I think it is the smell of being human that is being disguised. The large buses in Georgia and Turkey are new and clean with the latest technology. The buses in Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Albania are old and dirty...
We did change buses at the Bulgaria - North Macedonia border; just like at the Georgia - Turkey border. There was not much difference between the buses this time - and no duty-free cigarette drop-off's followed. Perhaps the Bulgarians are not as entrepreneurial as the Turks.
As we depart Bulgaria (an EU member), an Immigration Officer entered the bus and took our passports away after carefully comparing our picture to our face. He must have had a stack of 20+ passports that were quickly processed as we waited on the bus. Surprisingly, a passenger at the front was handed all 20+ passports and apparently, asked to return each to their rightful owner.
A Volunteer-Immigration-Officer. Hard to believe that such an important task would be assigned in such an ad hoc manner. Seriously, with all the crime related to passport theft and identity fraud??? A government official from an EU country hands my passport to a passenger and hopes that I receive it. Farewell Bulgaria...
First order of business at the Skopje Central Bus Station is to find out when the next bus departs for Albanian. 9pm but I avoid night travel so 6am and 9am on Monday. Sold - seat 33 at 9am. But no one sits in their assigned seats on these buses - a fellow passenger previously explained.
A Latino from my Sofia bus and I connect shortly thereafter in the bus station. Filip is of Peruvian decent but had grown-up in America. Like myself, he is on an international mission. He has a computer job that allows him to work anywhere in the world and 7 months ago he decided he would spend one-month in a city and then fly or travel by land to another city. He started in Lima, as he has family there and then went on to Budapest and Athens and other cities. He had just finished a month in Sofia. Now he was starting his first day in Skopje.
What an interesting adventure although Filip said that he felt lonely often and wondered what he was doing sometimes. I asked how long he would live this life and he said he did not know - as long as he had a job that allowed him to work anywhere in the world. What an interesting opportunity he has created for himself but I wonder if he has the maturity to fully enjoy what he is doing right now.
Had not had lunch and so the Central Bus Station restaurant looked more attractive than the exit. As I was finishing lunch two small girls with heavy backpacks sat down at the table next to me - one groaned as she set down her bag and so I asked about its weight - 15 kg. Could be worse, as I pointed out the benefits of a backpack with wheels.
Matty and Lorean are French students who just finished studies in Romania and now seemed to be on holiday. Their bus to Greece would be departing in one hour - they were looking for the sun, Lorean said, and escaping a big storm that was about to befall Macedonia and Albania. Oh' no! I'm heading into a storm...
They enquired about my journey so I told them the story and Matty was particularly taken by my venture - this is what she wants to do also. Matty wanted to know how I came-up with the idea and I explained about Australian long-service leave (after ten years of service an employee receives at least three months of recreation leave) and how I thought I should do something magnificent with this gift. It started with the Silk Road but then I concluded that was not big enough - I had to do all of EurAsia.
Matty wanted to know the names of particular places that had impressed me. She really wants to go to Uzbekistan and so I showed my pictures of Samarkand and beyond. They were inspired !
It turned out that Matty was born and raised in Brest France and I told them that this is my destination, as it is that part of Europe that extends furthest into the Atlantic. Matty called-up a map of Brest and showed me the coastal areas that I must visit. Great to have some local knowledge.
I regret that we did not exchange contact details. Suddenly there was thunder and I did not yet have a hotel reservation and so I left them in haste, as I worried about searching for a hotel in a rainstorm.
The rain came but not before I secure a room in the Astera Apart Hotel - a 10 minute walk from my morning bus to Albania.
Had to get organised for Tirana, which gave time for the storm to pass - I figured. But dusk shifted towards twilight and the storm was still going strong. This is my only chance to see Skopje and I'm hiding in my hotel?
Reception offered an umbrella slightly larger than mine and I took it - the first umbrella required on my entire journey. My pants and shoes were soaking-wet within 10 minutes walking toward the old city. Ok these will dry but I don't want to get sick. Fortunately, Miwa made me pack zinc tablets and Iodine for gargling. I will be fine - I have my travel angel on my shoulder.
But jumped into the first cafe I found - I'd had enough - and appreciated that it was much warmer than the evening air. Eventually ordered dinner and was pleased to find that the storm passed when the bill arrived.
Dinner did give me an opportunity to secure one critical clarification. Is this Macedonia or North Macedonia? My waiter informed me that his country had changed its name from Macedonia to North Macedonia only that year. His country was seeking EU membership but Greece objected to their application, as Greece has a major city named Macedonia. To appease the Greeks and to strengthen their application the country is now officially known as North Macedonia - OK.
Continued towards the old city and took a lot of pictures as the sun was setting. Trvdina Kale Fortress, a random sample of the many statues on offer - the Europeans are really into statues - the Vardar River, and Stone Bridge Skopje, which was reconstructed in 1451. No reports on when it was first built, but the Romans took control of this community in 148 BC and it was captured by the Turks in 1392.
Continuing on and not far away I hear massive shouting. Apparently, I am drawn to noise to satisfy my curiosity. I could see a very large mob yelling and screaming. I wondered about a political rally but no - it was all about sports. There was a very large TV screen set up on the main square - known as Plostad Makedonija - and a thousand or more people were watching a game. I wondered what they were doing during the storm. No one was soaking-wet but all had umbrellas.
Curiously, I arrived two minutes before the game came to an end. Very apparently, the citizens of Skopje were overjoyed. I mean OVER-JOYED. I had never, ever seen such an outpouring of high-energy-mass-joy before. These people were overcome by the moment. Clearly, the game that had just concluded was not a typical weekend match. I took a 100+ pictures, as did many others. This was a moment to record but I had no idea what I was recording.
Young men took off their shirts - I don't know why - national flags appeared and were vigorously waved. People embraced each other and there was a lot of shouting all in a language I did not understand.
I did not feel this was the time and place to button-hole someone, as I did not wish to disturbed the excitement - bordering on hysteria - being displayed by many. Perhaps I would ask at my hotel. All of North Macedonia must know what all this means.
Along the Vardar River, on my way home, St. Patrick's Irish Bar appeared. Certainly, someone in this Bar will have the patience to explain what I had just witnessed.
It seems that the European Handball Federation, with 50 or more teams in the league, uses goals posts like soccer but the game does not allow feet - only hands. And the game is not played on a grass field but something like a basketball court. I had never heard of this game before.
Well the local team, the Macedonia Handball Club (Vardar), beat Barcelona in the quarter-finals several days earlier - which was a big surprise to all of Europe - to advance to the 2019 finalises to play the Hungarian Veszprem. The final score was 27 to 24. Christina, a 30-something year-old woman at the bar with her friend patiently explained all this to me – OK.
The celebration continues as I write. National flags are waving everywhere and car horns have been honking all night long. A national celebration for winning the 2019 championship. I am fortunately to have been in Skopje to watch the response from home-team fans. Given the energy, I wonder what would have happened if Skopje had lost. Grand to visit a city with a winning team.