The majority of Bulgaria was incorporated into ancient Thrace, but the area fell first to the Persians and then to the Romans followed by the Byzantines. The Byzantine dominion was invaded by first by peaceful hardworking Slavs and then belligerent proto Bulgarians who beat the Byzantines in battle (as the emperor went off to bathe in the springs to treat his gout and the soldiers thought unsurprisingly that he had run away). In 681, the first official Bulgarian state was created. This period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Bulgaria because it was a time of wealth, education, art, culture, and literature. The Proto Bulgarians under King Asperuh had signed a peace treaty. However, they studiously ignored it and were eventually reconquered by the Byzantines.
Three Bulgarian brothers led another successful revolution in 1185 and moved their capital to Veliko Tarnovo. There were multifarious plots against them, but the youngest Kaloyen, survived and punished all the traitors. The Ottomans were the next to invade and stayed in control until the Russian supported Liberation. The Treaty of San Stefano, signed at the end of the Balkan War, gave Bulgaria its independence from the Ottomans, as a separate monarchy.
The Bulgarians supported Germany during World War I, resulting in some loss of territory. After World War II, Bulgaria came under Communist rule and was a satellite of the Soviet Union (what is now Russia) until 1989. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Communists allowed the country to elect leaders of their own choosing. Bulgaria today. is governed by a president, prime minister, Parliament, and a Council of Ministers.
Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, the Council of Europe, and NATO.
Bulgaria has become much more stable in the years since communist rule. Its wealth is above average in terms of world rankings but it’s still one of Europe’s poorest countries and the poorest in the EU.
Read what I did here.
I’m revisiting Bulgaria as I came here once skiing a very long time ago and my photos haven't survived. I was going to travel on my own, but I saw this very cheap trip advertised - Landscapes and Traditions of Bulgaria. So here I am, with nine others. on a circular tour of western Bulgaria.
My hotel in Sofia is in the shopping precinct - very handy. The room is about as spartan as it gets - bare cotton sheets and a window you have to stand on a stool to look out of. And just to compound my grievances - others have a kettle. Still, I’m only here for one night. Things can only get better?
Out to explore Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, framed by Vitosha Mountain. It’s a whistle-stop tour, umbrellas at the ready and s there's a torrential downpour. Guide Ani marches ahead at pace, pauses for explanations and then is off again. Photos are taken on the fly.
Most of the sights of Sophia are historical remains, reflecting the city’s history. Sophia has Thracian heritage (associated with the poet Orpheus), but the area was named after the Celtic Serdi tribe, and became Serdica when it was a Roman city. It is replete with Roman remains, some only excavated a year ago. Sophia has been destroyed and rebuilt four times, but the city retains its sixth century Byzantine form. Two key Byzantine buildings remain - St Sophia’s Church on the highest point of city dates from the sixth century. The round Church of St. George is one of oldest churches in the world, dating from when Constantine and his mother Helen adopted Christianity in the 4th century. It was originally part of another imposing public building, perhaps baths or an imperial reception hall. It has five layers of frescoes.
There are few relics of the Ottoman empire and only one remaining mosque, the Banya Bashi. Most of them were destroyed by the Soviets. The Mosque of the Baths was designed by warriors conscripted from the villages by the Turks and designed to rival the mosques of Sinan. In the Central Square, close to the Banya Bashi Mosque are the thermal springs that give it its name. There’s a yellow and red Ottoman style building that housed the baths and was utilised during Soviet times. It since been restored as a museum.
Much is made in Bulgaria of the Russian Liberation from the Ottomans in 1878 and monuments abound. The most famous are the Russian Church and the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is extremely grand. The domes are covered in real gold and have recently been redone. There are copious amounts of marble and onyx and the walls are adorned with hosts of icons painted by the foremost artists, mainly on canvas. One especially popular with visitors is deemed to be miraculous. There are three naves, the patriarch's throne and the king’s throne, which is naturally much grander. The frescoes are murky due to candle smoke but there are no funds for restorations of these at the moment.
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian Saint from the 11th century a warrior, chosen to commemorate the travails of King Alexander in removing the Ottomans. A lady in her late 80s climbs 220 steps daily to ring the bells of the cathedral. She's has been performing this ritual for 30 years and is on You-tube.
Although Serdica was an important Roman city Sophia did not become capital of Bulgaria until this period. Opposite the historic covered Central Market Hall (closed) is the synagogue, a 1905 copy of the one that was destroyed in Vienna.
There are plenty of relics of the Soviet occupation. The main draw is the oddly Baroque and newly renovated Central Soviet Square with its Parliament, Presidency, ministries, Sheraton Hotel (only for Soviet dignitaries), underpasses and Louvre like glass domes. The buildings to one side shelter the St George Rotunda.
What else do I remember from my Route March? The National Theatre and a very noisy rock festival in the park behind the central Square - the police have even closed the road.
Last time I was in the second oldest city in Europe it was Christmas Eve. It was charming. It was snowing and there are small decorated stalls set up around the main square and gilt onion domes of the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. The locals were buying cards, baubles and Christmas trees, hoisting the latter onto their shoulders to carry home. Pleasingly atmospheric and delightfully uncommercial.
Today we’re off on our clockwise tour of Bulgaria. Our driver is called Angel. East and slightly north, through the oak and beech covered Balkans Mountains. Hayricks, cheese shops and stalls stacked with wooden implements. The vendors sit sour faced on their stools. It’s not encouraging.
First stop is the Troyan monastery, with its chalet style monks cells. It’s home to a miraculous three handed Madonna icon, a copy of an eighth century icon left here by a monk in the 14th century. His horse kept tripping as a signal that he should leave it behind. So the story goes. The additional hand commemorates St John of Damascus who wrote in defence of icons during the Islamic influence, when such representation was discouraged. Emperor Leo was not impressed. He forged documents implicating John in insurrection and the Caliph of Damascus decreed that his hand should be cut off. The deed was done, but John prayed, the hand was healed and in remembrance an additional silver hand was stuck to icons. This eventually became a third 'proper' hand on all copies.
The monastery only dates from the sixteenth century so I’m totally confused as to how the dates for the icon work and I can't find any information that clarifies things. But the building is delightful with its profusion of trailing red flowers over the timber balconies and the minuscule church. This is heavy with incense, replete with suspended candelabras glistening gold and every inch of wall covered in paintings. Visitors line up to touch the icon and at the altar the priest is conducting a baptism.
Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during its first empire when Asperuh became the first ruler of Bulgaria in 681. There’s a sprawling Tsaravets fortress topped by a Russian church. It’s all been heavily restored by the Soviets. They used mortar in the walls and decorated the inside of the church with dramatically disturbing monochrome murals depicting the history of Bulgaria. There’s a castle with great views across the modern city. The excavations stretch across to the adjacent hill. It was some capital. One of the towers in the lengthy walls was used as a prison for Baldwin of Flanders, who got permission to cross Bulgaria on his way to the crusades but then formed his own empire in North Greece and ungratefully attacked Bulgaria. He was captured and restrained for the rest of his life.
Arbanasi, just up the road was the chosen home for aristocracy of Greek heritage who built houses here in the seventeenth century under Ottoman rule. It was a lawless time and the uncultured Turks were not inclined to protect Christians from bands of robbers. The restored house museum of Konstantsalieva is heavily defended with thick walls, stout wooden doors and steep staircases. There’s even a panic style store room for food. Apparently brigands still got in and murdered the householder when she had been left on her own by her husband.
The rooms contain exhibits demonstrating what life was like in those times-apart from weird and terrifying. The kitchen has three ovens - one for making yogurt.
The hotel is over the road from the restored house museum. It’s got wooden chalet style rooms and a swimming pool. But all that glitters is not gold. The bedside lights don’t have any sockets to plug into.
Food in Bulgaria has a strong Greek and Turkish influence. It consists of a great deal of fresh bread rolls, flatbreads, salads like shopska (tomato and cucumber with cheese grated on top), bean soups, marinated meat, chips and fried cheese. Most of the meat is chicken. Pork features occasionally. Lamb is unusual - maybe in the spring - and beef doesn’t generally feature. Cattle is only reared for dairy products. The Bulgarians claim to have invented yogurt and that turns up with the salad, or as dessert at most meals. Other desserts are very sweet, pancakes with syrup and nuts or baklava like pastries.
Last time I was here, my hotel stuck to a bland (on good days) ‘international’ menu. On Christmas Day we were served something unappetisingly dry and very dark brown. I inquired what it was. ‘Turkey, of course,’ replied the waiter smiling.
The local firewater is rakia, often made from plums. There’s vodka also of course, due to the Soviet heritage. Whatever my first day’s eating doesn’t agree with me and I spend most of the night in the bathroom. I’m tempted to spend the day by the swimming pool, but I’m also terrified of missing out, so I sneak a pillow out to the bus and commandeer the back seat.
Today, another fortress Cherven, contemporary with the Tsaravets fort of yesterday. But this one is not restored. It's a puff of a hike climbing two hundred or so steps for an up close view of the ruins (mainly just one tower some walls and several ruined churches) along the magnificent gorge in the Rusenski Lom Nature Park.
Then two rock monasteries. Up more steep paths in the park, with more gorgeous views. The frescoes depicting Jesus’ life in the UNESCO protected rock churches of Ivanovo date from the fourteenth century and are semi restored. The monasteries were occupied by a hermit monk order who focussed on silence and the spirituality of light - Hesychasm. Another monastery, Basarbovo, closer to the city of Ruse, was founded by a shepherd, Dimitar Basarbovo and he was buried there. But when they tried to transfer his relics to Russia via Romania many people were cured of the plague en route and so they kept his bones in Bucharest instead.
Bulgaria’s third city of Ruse for lunch, in a rooftop restaurant with views over the Danube. Then a very quick wander round the main Svoboda (Liberty) Square and adjacent buildings of note. There’s the Baroque Profitability Building - as the name suggests it was intended to make some money. Then the Palace of Justice, Opera House and in the centre the Monument of Liberty, celebrating the Liberation from the Ottomans. Up the road the impressive gold domed Pantheon of National Heroes, an ossuary, with the bones of 453 war heroes from the uprising against the Ottomans.
The jury is out as to whether I would have had a better day by the swimming pool.
South west through the Central Balkans National Park and beech forests climbing sluggishly over a long pass. We stop for a view across to a monument to the Russian liberation, thus arousing the ire of (maybe) 500 dogs barking in unison. The other side of the pass we stop to admire the Russian Church at Shipka, also a monument to the battle that took place here. It has a very ornate carved spire and the usual gold onion domes. The Bulgarian crosses have Islamic crescents underneath the Russian double crossed I.
Through the Thracian Valley of the Kings (or roses), liberally scattered with tombs. The Thracians enjoyed wine and fighting each other. The tombs contained objects that are deemed to be useful in the afterlife. Wine, armour, even horses. According to Herodotus they also buried the favourite wife with the warrior. The ancient kingdom of Thrace spread across southern Bulgaria into Greece and the European finger of Turkey which is today known as Thrace.
In the centre of Kazenluk is a UNESCO recognised Thracian tomb accidentally discovered in 1944. But no one is allowed in that as exposure has damaged the frescoes. So there’s an exact copy just up the Funerary Hill with a dome and painted murals of chariots and music that you can pay to visit instead.
At Kazanluk there's also there's the Museum of Roses. Here we learn that they in the main grow the damascene pink roses here, which are best for oil. The petals must be picked before dawn, when there is the largest proportion of oil in the petals before they open.. Distillation vats on display. 3000 kg petals produce one kg of rose oil. Rose was first water brought to Europe during the Crusades, but rose oil devloped here as major export in in the nineteenth century.
There’s even a stop off at a Bulgarian country house at Tyzha with a dramatic mountain setting - Mount Bothev. We get a tour of the garden: vines, corn, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, other fruit and a very friendly dog. We are fed filo cheese pastries rakia aryan ( salt yogurt) figs and pears.
Then to Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria and an ancient Roman town, with narrow cobbled streets and medieval and eighteenth/nineteenth century houses. There’s a tower dating back to the third century AD, in the walls of ancient Philippopolis, as it was called (after Phillip of Macedon who founded the city). Under the Romans it became the capital of Thrace named Trimontium, as it was built on three hills. Marcus Aurelius built the wall round the city.
The old walled town is a gathering of pastel coloured jettied buildings stooping precariously to leave the prescribed street width – enough room for two donkeys to pass. The city has expanded like Rome to cover seven syenite hills. One disappeared, as they quarried all the stone, but the other six all propose great view points.
As you drop down from the old town into the new, passing the very well preserved ( with some help) first century roman theatre and there’s a beautifully multi domed mosque. The modern city intertwines with the old nicely. A Roman stadium semi revealed and accessed by plate glass staircases beneath the main shopping street. At the other end of this elegant promenade are the two sections of the plate glass enclosed Roman forum. The avenues are lined with pavement cafes and fountains.
I clamber up Danov Hill on the edge of the main shopping street in the new town, for views in all directions. There are so many different routes to the top I’m giddy trying them all out. The Balkan Mountains to the north, the Rhodope Mountains and the ski resorts to the south; two more hills, one of which has Soviet martyr monuments. The old city on its three crags and the modern sprawl below. There’s a clock tower on top that chimes and an ugly satellite tower.
My room in Plovdiv is noisy next to a seat on a park, so Angel is a real angel and swaps with me. He also takes me and Ani out to dinner. Though conversation doesn’t exactly flow. He doesn’t speak English.
South to the Rhodope Mountains through the city of Asenovgrad famous for its wedding dresses then stopping at a Byzantine Fortress restored by king Asen in the early fourteenth century and ultimately destroyed by the Turks. There’s not much of the Fortress left but there are gorgeous views of the mountains and down to the church built there after a very slippery climb up marble steps.
Beautifully framed by the mountains, another UNESCO monastery, Bachkovo, the second most important in the country. Originally founded in 1083, most of the current buildings date from the sixteenth to nineteenth century. Three churches and again in a an almost Buddhist style, wooden balconied terraces on the first floor for the monks cells. Incongruously, there are also satellite dishes.
One small St Nicholas Church has grotesque Doomsday frescoes of torture and richly clad (recognisable nobles it seems), being punished in hell, as they had refused to give the artist Zahari Zograf the money he had requested for a school for artists. There is the usual miraculous icon, the Virgin Mary Eleusa from the fourteenth century. It was hidden in a cave, but rediscovered as it emitted light in the forest. People thought it was a fire. They rescued the painting, but on three nights consecutively it returned itself to the cave. The monks eventually negotiated with the icon, who agreed to live in the monastery with them provided she was returned to the cave once a year. This is done in an annual procession.
The icon is hung prominently close to the doorway (according to her wishes) in one of the other two main churches, the Virgin Mary cathedral dedicated to the ‘Falling Asleep Mother Mary’. She is depicted on what I assume is her death bed. The decoration in here is extraordinary. It’s a cornucopia of icons, candelabra, frescoes and gilt. It’s so complex it ought to look completely overdone, but somehow it results in an incredibly spiritual experience. At least it does until someone begins a loud conversation, or a mobile phone trills out.
The mountain road up to the monastery is lined with stalls – refreshments, pottery, wooden utensils plenty of chopping boards and statues, amongst which garden gnomes are prominent.
The road now leads through larch and pine clad slopes and along snaking passes, to the ski resort of Pamporovo. Tall aparthotels and triangular prisms that are modern chalets. Last time I was in Bulgaria I was skiing at Borovets. It was cheap and I wanted to visit Bulgaria. A double whammy. As I’ve discovered before, cheap can be problematic. The slopes were hard packed snow and icy, not the most well-tended I’ve ever attempted to plummet down. And we were also a little dubious about the lift system. The story going round reported that ski lifts were built new in Switzerland. Then they were sold second hand to France and Italy. When they reached the end of their useful life there they were sent to Bulgaria. Ani says that the opposite is now true. Her friends go abroad, as it's cheaper to ski in the Alps than in Bulgaria.
The scenery is stunning, as the way winds on through stone built hamlets. We have lunch in a Rhodopian speciality restaurant in the village of Sharoko Loko, a virtual open air museum of timber and stone houses, churches and cute bridges. We are fed potato pancakes - patatniks - made with cheese and coriander.
Almost to the Greek border, through immense gorges, and uphill to the Devils Throat Cavern. There’s a great deal of climbing on wet steps with rusting rails that would absolutely not be allowed in England. Below us a gorge, with supposedly the largets underground waterfall in Europe. though I'm struggling to glimpse it. There's a small waterfall once we emerge.
The best surprise of the day is our hotel outside the village of Trigrad, still further up the mountain from the cave. Here the slopes are swathed in spruce, there are a whole herd of horses in the pasture and I have somehow ended up with a suite and balcony that overlooks the whole wonderful panorama. I’m celebrating with an extremely large gin and tonic. It helps to mitigate the bag pipe playing at dinner. The bag pipes are huge, made out of goatskin.
First thing in the morning it’s pretty chilly. Another cave, Yagodinska, up yet another pretty curving and nausea inducing climb. This cave has a three levels, with one concrete path of just over a kilometre open to tourists. There are a few flights of rusty stairs up and down bringing it back to almost the same height. It has railings most of the way and isn’t too skiddy. And here there are mineral infused speleothems (my new word for the day): stalactites, stalagmites, stalagnates (columns where both meet) and cave pearls (layers of calcium carbonate round grains of other materials in strange nest like clusters).
Thankfully, there is little in the way of gaudy lighting, though the custom has not been entirely eradicated.. The highlight is the New Year Cave where local speleologists gather to spend the festivities. There’s even a Christmas tree that stays carefully preserved with all its decorations. Alongside, is a platform for celebrating weddings. But no photos are allowed that’s why there aren’t any here !
The scenery just gets better and better as we navigate the pine clad slopes to Dospat for a stunning view of the artificial lake and Turkish style pot stew lunches with potato, cheese and a little beef, (no pork for the local Muslim population of course).
Now west, almost to the Serbian border and there’s a dramatic change of scenery. It’s still spectacular, but in the Pirin Mountains now, there are high sheer stone peaks, the valleys are flatter and the trees are deciduous again. And there are vines. Melnik is a wine making village (officially the smallest town in Bulgaria). It's impossibly picturesque. And extraordinary in that it is surrounded by 150 metre sandstone pillars or pyramids.
The hotel rooms in Bulgaria have been 'interesting'. Most very basic, foam mattresses, cotton sheets. Wi-Fi of various levels of acceptability. Sockets parting company with the wall. The room in Melnik is pretty with pine furniture and am iron bedframe. But this one still follows the pattern of light bulbs that don’t work. Half of the dozen bulbs here are dead. And that includes the main light in the bathroom. Perhaps it’s a Bulgarian tradition
We started our trip in the rain in Sophia and we've finished in the rain. At least that means there are no other visitors here at Rila, Bulgaria's' most famous monastery. St John , the most prominent Bulgarian saint, established a monastery here further up the mountain but it was repeatedly destroyed and the site was moved in fourteenth century. The only part of that monastery which survives is a defence tower. The rest was destroyed by fire. The remaining UNESCO monastery is the best example of revivalist (post Ottoman) architecture in the country (I'm told).
There are more frescoes by Zohari Zograf depicting scenes from the Bible. The interior is even richer than those we have already inspected. It’s bigger and wooden, much darker and there are a plethora of gold stands, candelabra and vivid paintings surrounded in gold filigree. But for me, although beautifu,l it does not have the same allure as the Bachkovo Monastery. The monks cells here are on terraces, with pretty painted stone arches and balustrades.
This is probably the earliest and freshest I ’ve ever eaten lunch real time. Trout from the fish farms that lie alongside the mountain streams beneath us in a Rila restaurant. We have to be at the airport at 12.20 for the return journey home. The plane is delayed, of course.
Read more about Bulgaria here.
We’re running late from Nis and Serbia. We were supposed to visit the even older, Hellenic ruins of Stobi, as well as the ruins of Mediana, in Serbia, but it isn’t to be. The traffic is slow, due to a proliferation of roadworks (mostly sponsored by the EU) even though we take an unscheduled diversion into Kosovo to avoid them.
North Macedonia (Macedonia until February 2019), gained independence in 1991. It was previously a constituent state of Yugoslavia. The majority of the residents are ethnic Macedonians, a South Slavic people, but Albanians form a significant minority, at around 25%. It’s described as an ‘upper middle income’ state.
North Macedonia is a landlocked country with mostly rugged terrain, framing a central valley formed by the Vardar river. The mountains are said to be scenic (this is promising), 34 peaks higher than 2,000 metres and more than 50 lakes, three of them large (in the south).
The region has had a turbulent history, having been ruled by the Paeonians, the Macedons, the Persian Achaemenid Empire. the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs and the Bulgarians before being established as a constituent state of communist Yugoslavia in 1945; so the historical sites are likely to be diverse.
North Macedonia, however, is perhaps most well known for arguments about its name. Ancient Macedonia included what is now Greek Macedonia and the Blagoevgrad Province in southwestern Bulgaria. However, the name disappeared over the years and was revived only in the mid nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. There was much dispute, about both name and territory over subsequent years (see below). Eventually, in 2018 (after my visit), Greece finally agreed that the state could be known as North Macedonia. (See below.)
Demir Kapija is famous for the long ravine, carved by the Vardar, some caves, and wine. The mountains in North Macedonia definitely count as scenic, and our hotel is nestled in a large vineyard at Demir Kapija. There is a very noisy, very touristy wine tasting dinner – and local dancing with audience participation – oh good.
Stobi and its amazingly preserved mosaics has to wait till the next day. It was an ancient town of Paeonia, later conquered by Macedon, and finally developed into the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia Salutaris. So several empires have left their mark - and it's a huge site to wander.
The main draw at Stobi, other than the mosaics, is a massive Roman amphitheatre, large enough to seat an audience of 7638 people (yes it’s an odd number, but that’s what they say), watching the gladiators face the lions. Much of the marble seating has been purloined. There are several basilicas, Little and Big Baths, vestiges of streets, plenty of houses, including the House of Psalms and the main town fountain.
Our itinerary says that our drive to Bitola will provide views of ‘extraordinary, wild and unique beauty’ in Mt. Galicica National Park, and across to Lake Prespa. I will have to take their word for it, as it’s too misty and rainy to see anything. Bitola is a good place to stop. It's another ancient city. It has a fine church with an imposing tower and several mosques, of course, and a mainly open air bazaar.
Our outdoor restaurant lunch is a great place to sample local delicacies. Ice cream is as much of a highlight in Macedonia as it was in Serbia. But here it’s fried in batter and breadcrumbs, as indeed is much of the food, including the olives. It’s quite good fun trying to guess what you’re going to bite into.
Ohrid is sunny and beautifully restored and not like its name at all. It is the cradle of the Slavic written language and literature, where the Cyrillic alphabet was created by the brothers Cyril and Methody. The epitome of continental holidays, there are cafes and restaurants, boat rides on the lake, a vibrant market, lots of ice cream, more ruins - and churches. Ohrid is known as the 'City of 365 Churches' and is the only UNESCO site in North Macedonia. Most of the churches are beautiful. From the obligatory fortress you get great views across the town and lake and down to the iconic ninth century St. Panteleimon Monastery and the tiny Jovan Kaneo Chapel. These demand to be photographed from every angle (and the water). Lake Ohrid is considered to be one of the oldest lakes and biotopes in the world.
Our little boutique hotel is foot access only, mainly because it’s up a very steep hill. The road is littered with shops. The most interesting bookshop is filled with propaganda about Macedonia’s ongoing tussle with Greece. Greece has refused to allow use of the name Macedonia and therefore UN recognition of the country, on the grounds that it’s Greek and at least in part, a Greek territory. The pamphlets make a very compelling case for the fact that it isn’t and that Greece as a name and, as a state, is a very recent construct. Fascinating reading.
Through the National Park of Mavrovo, the largest of the Country’s three national parks. It has mountains, deep canyons, lakes, dense forests, the highest waterfall in the Balkans (with a vertical fall of approximately 120 metres), alpine bogs and karst scenery with caves. (We can actually see some of the scenery today.) There's also another monastery to visit. The Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery, in the Radika river valley, has some amazing bright frecoes.
To Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia. The territory of Skopje has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC, so its famed for being ancient and for being the birthplace of Mother Teresa . Today, there is an old Turkish town, with bazaar and bridge to wander. But the talking point is the dramatic facelift being applied to the modern quarter. Somewhat surprisingly, this part of Skopje is very reminiscent of Vegas. There are grand marble buildings, huge museums and ornate bridges over the Vardar, and statues illuminated in bright colours abound. There are also bars that sell respectable cocktails. I love it.
Next stop, Kosovo.
This is a tour of old Yugoslavia - now a wholes series of countries and I’m visiting five of them in one hit on a group ‘adventure’ tour, starting in Serbia. We’re going to cover quite a lot of the Balkans and Balkans, it turns out, means ‘hilly’. It’s a reasonably civilised affair, though the guide for the most part acts as if he is still under communist directive and we are shepherded and controlled from pillar to post. He’s also over-keen on extremely long monologues.
We meet in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. It would be a good place for a stag weekend. It’s very much a pavement society and bars, nightclubs and cafes run the length of the main drag, Knez Mihajlova. Most of the women have a lot of make-up, died hair and boob jobs. The shops that are interspersed between the bars are not enticing, small and garish. The buildings are a juxtaposed mixture of old and new, as much has been bombed out.
The most interesting part of town is down towards the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Here there’s a park and the Fortress of Kalemegdan, the symbol of Belgrade, with ramparts and good views up the river. It’s an odd mix. There are some artillery structures dating from the 18th century, a medieval fortification, an acropolis with original or partly reconstructed ramparts, gateways, towers, the excavated ruins of a fifteenth century castle, some Turkish monuments, an elegant eighteenth century Baroque Clock Tower and a Roman Well.
Across the other side of the river, some older timbered buildings remain. There’s also the Rose Church of Our Lady, along with a panoramic view of the Lower fortress and its monuments - the Nebojsa Tower, the Baroque Gate of Karl VI and the remains of the medieval metropolitan palace.
The side trips from Belgrade feature Sremski Karlovci, a town dating back to Roman times. It is situated on the banks of the Danube and is traditionally known as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Key sites are the Patriarch’s Palace – and the mid-18th century cathedral of St Nicholas. A little distance away on the Fruška Gora mountain, the Krušedol Monastery with its very pink domed gatehouse, one of several enjoying the alpine views.
Five miles up the road, also on the Danube and the edge of the the Pannonian Plain is Serbia's second city, Novi Sad., the capital of once Hapsburg Vojvodina, The old quarter, Stari Grad, is the home of the Gothic Revival Name of Mary Church (exceptionally tall and skinny) and the neo-Renaissance City Hall, in the Svetozar Miletic Square. It's a splendid wander, down pedestrianised Dunavska Street, past the bishop's palace and the many cafes, restaurants and craft shops. There are also some thought provoking murals, if you dart away from the tour and up the side streets.
There’s also a huge Austrian fortress, Petrovaradin, once called 'Gibraltar on the Danube', on the river here, though it’s now more of a cultural centre with arty shops, cafes and great views.
Dinner is at the very touristy Skadarlija, with ‘typical Serbian food and music’. No street dancing tonight unfortunately. Most of the food is undistinguished, chips, kebabs, tomatoey things. There are a few menu items worth nothing however - catfish goulash anyone? There’s quite an assortment at breakfast too, including cheesecake and pizza. The best offering by far is the ice cream. There are tempting stalls all along Knez Mihajlova. So it’s delicious ice cream for lunch every day.
On our way south to Nis, around the station area in Belgrade, we glimpse the cramped tents of the refugees being held here on their way overland from Greece. There are plenty more churches and fortresses. We stop to admire some at Kruseva, in the hilly Šumadija region. St. George's Church at Oplenac, just outside of Topala, is relatively unassuming on the exterior - plain white with the common green domes. Inside are over 40 million tiles of jewel-toned Murano glass mosaic work, covering nearly every corner of the church's nave and underground crypt. Travelling on, there's also no shortage of road side stalls selling Serbian raspberries (Serbia supplies most of Europe with these) or rakija (plum brandy).
Mountains dominate the southern third of Serbia. Dinaric Alps stretch in the west and the southwest, following the flow of the rivers Drina and Ibar. The Carpathian Mountains and Balkan Mountains stretch in a north–south direction in eastern Serbia
We take a very long diversion to Đavolja Varoš (meaning "Devil's Town"), a peculiar rock formation. A mini Goreme, it features 202 exotic earth pyramids or "towers" This is located on Mount Radan near the village called Djake, (from the Albanian for blood). As if that isn't enough to chill you, there are two ravines known as Devil’s Ravine and Hell’s Ravine. Counteracting these are two springs with extremely acid water and well known (apparently) miraculous properties. A path leads uphill to the stone sculptures and viewpoints and a spectacular view.
The towers are formed by erosion and most have semi-obscene "caps" or "heads" of andesite, which protects them from further erosion. This explanation is far too prosaic however. According to one legend, these formations are actually petrified wedding guests who, on devil’s orders, wanted to marry a brother and sister. Then God punished them by turning them into stone to stand as a reminder that no sin goes unpunished.
A competing story says that there was a witch, who granted people’s wishes, as long as they promised to give her whatever she asked for. These 202 stone statues are those who didn’t fulfill their promise, or tried to trick the witch. Take your pick.
Nis is pronounced Niche (and of course there’s a niche market!). It’s the second city of Serbia and birthplace of Constantine the Great. So naturally, there are Roman ruins (at Mediana), a cathedral and a fortress (of course – Turkish this time). There’s also a very large protest march going on, though I can’t work out what the protest is about. We almost don’t get to see the Roman ruins, as they are closed, but an archaeologist takes pity and lets us in. Her talk is interesting but most of the remains are under cover, as they are being excavated and can’t be viewed.
Possibly, the most exciting sight is the Skull Tower. At the beginning of the 19th century, during the Second Serbian Uprising a Serbian General, Steven Sindelic, realising he was on the point of defeat, blew himself up alongside 3,000 Serbian soldiers and about 6,000 Turkish soldiers. The Turks built the grisly tower with four walls - each containing eleven rows of seven Serbian skulls - as a warning against further Serbian resistance.
Next up, Macedonia.
First, Zagreb the capital of Croatia, on the River Sava. It’s compact, the main draw being several climbs up different towers enabling views across the city’s Gornji Grad and Donji Grad (upper and lower towns). Most of Zagreb’s big-name sights and spires can be seen in the city’s fortified upper town. There’s the towering Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (the tallest building in Croatia) and the tiled roof (emblazoned with coats of arms) of St Mark’s Church. The key architecture is eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian. But the city has Roman roots and there have been two city centres since the eleventh century. This is a European capital, albeit a fairly recent one, so there are also the usual mix of restaurants, squares, statues and boulevards.
I'm on an 'adventure tour' of Croatia with friend Lynne. It is an odd shaped country with many islands (over 1200), across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It was inhabited by the Croats in the late sixth century. The country evolved from a duchy to a kingdom by 925. Union with with Hungary followed in 1102. In 1527, faced with Ottoman conquest, the Croatian Parliament elected Ferdinand I of Austria to the Croatian throne. In October 1918, the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, independent from Austria-Hungary, was proclaimed in Zagreb, and in December 1918, merged into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Following the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, most of Croatia was incorporated into a Nazi-installed puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia. After the war Croatia became a founding member and constituent of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. On 25 June 1991, Croatia declared independence, and the War of Independence was successfully fought over the subsequent four years.
Today, Croatia is a republic governed under a parliamentary system. It is a member of the European Union, NATO, the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization, and a founding member of the Union for the Mediterranean.
Croatia is called Hrvatska in Croatian.
The Croatian currency, the kuna, is named after a lime tree.
10% of Croatia is protected via 11 Nature Parks, 8 National Parks, and 2 Nature Reserves.
With a population of 21, the world’s smallest town -Hum- is situated in the centre of Istria in Croatia.
To Split, via the UNESCO World Heritage Plitvice Lakes National Park with its 16 turquoise lakes and (I lost count) waterfalls. The lakes are linked by subterranean karst rivers and separated by natural dams of travertine, which is deposited by the action of moss, algae, and bacteria. The water in the lakes varies ranging from azure to green, grey or blue.
It’s an extraordinarily pleasant way to spend a day wandering the boardwalks and trying to get the best angles on the falls. (Not easy as they are framed by dense woodland.)
Dalmatia (where the spotty dogs come from) is the region of Croatia that stretches south along the coast to Montenegro, with hundreds of islands. The biggest city here is Split, the second largest city in Croatia after Zagreb. It has a long history beginning as a Greek colony, Aspálathos. In 305 AD, it came to prominence as the site of the Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Split then found itself caught up in a struggle for territory between the Byzantines, the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Croatia, with the last two continuing the fight for the longest time.
Venice eventually prevailed, but then came the Ottomans (held off for the most part) and Napoleon. Split went from the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy to the Austrian Empire following the Congress of Vienna. The city remained a part of the Austrian Kingdom of Dalmatia until the fall of Austria-Hungary in 1918 and the formation of Yugoslavia.
Split has a typically Mediterranean vibe, with its colourful promenade and pavement cafes. The must see here is Diocletian’s Palace, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fortress like complex contains more than 200 buildings within its white stone walls, including a cathedral. There’s also an Egyptian sphinx that the Roman emperor Diocletian stole, to put in his tomb, and a statue of a guy with a huge nose. (I’ve noticed that the Croatian men are generally on the large side with bigger than average facial protuberances.) This is Gregory of Nin, a tenth century bishop. His statue is 25 feet tall. You just have to rub the big toe of the left foot to get good luck.
There are shops and bars, to distract when the statues and courtyards and endless stone walls become overwhelming. It’s drizzling, so it’s no hardship to stay indoors.
The weather doesn’t improve as we sail from Split Harbour, to the island of Brac. It’s very disappointing not to see the much vaunted emerald Dalmatian coastline of Croatia at its best. It’s one of those occasions when you just have to use your imagination. The small port of Bol is probably charming.
The famous beach Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape), isn’t quite as relaxing as I had anticipated. I lie on the white pebbles, huddled under my jacket, but I’m sure it is usually lovely. (Ironically, these islands are reported to have the most hours of sunshine in Europe – more than 2,800 hours a year.) The little port is pretty, when the sun peeps from behind the clouds.
Finally, some sun in Dubrovnik, the so-called 'Pearl of the Adriatic' at the very southern end of Dalmatia. This is one of the most well known tourist spots in the Mediterranean. It's not as old as Split, dating back to the 7th century. Then it was known as Ragusa and under the protection of the Byzantine Empire (followed of course by the Republic of Venice). However, between the 14th and 19th centuries, Dubrovnik ruled itself as a free state, the capital of the maritime Republic of Ragusa.
The city was almost entirely destroyed when a devastating earthquake hit in 1667. Dubrovnik followed the same path as Split during and after the Napoleonic Wars, In 1991, during the Croatian War of Independence, Dubrovnik was besieged by the Yugoslav People's Army for seven months, suffering significant damage from shelling. Today, it's heavily restoted and yet another UNESCO-listed site.
The red roofs and little bays are best admired during the long march round the city walls (there are numerous little flights of steps). For some reason the group has taken to doing meerkat impressions over all the many parapets.
Then a walking tour in the Old Town: palaces, cathedrals, monasteries and fountains (and more meerkat impressions). The most memorable sight is the Onofrio Fountain – a spectacular dome surrounded by 16 taps. (You would recognise it today as King’s Landing in Game of Thrones.) The streets are pristine – too pristine. A beautiful city recreated without a soul. The many restaurants lining the thoroughfares and squares all serve the same depressing tourist fare – overcooked and overpriced fish, kebabs and chips. Travelling companion Lynne says that the beer is fine. She drinks pints.
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