Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marvellous Macedonia, Oh-so-pretty Ohrid and Brilliant Berat

Berat, Albania, Nov. 20

I can't believe that it has taken me more than two weeks to make my first post from the road on this blog. Partly this has been due to the slow, interrupted start to my trip in Bulgaria after my derailleur-crunching incident, but mostly it has been the lack of excitement about the scenery and culture I was cycling through in Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo. Now that I have seen Macedonia, however, I am reinvigorated and ready to share my experiences with the blogosphere.

I started my ride 16 days ago, when I jumped, bleary-eyed and freezing cold, off a bus in Edirne, Turkey. It took about 18 hours of bus travel from Adana to Edirne, and it was long enough to inoculate me against long-distance bus travel for another few years. As I put my bike back together and repacked my luggage, it began to rain out of a misty, grey sky, setting the scene for the following week or so of the trip.

The first day, or half-day, of riding took me to the Bulgarian border and another twenty kilometres into the country. It rained steadily, and I really didn't see very much except passing trucks. I ended up splurging on a hotel room in Svilengrad and sleeping deeply, making up for the largely sleepless night on the bus. Svilengrad didn't have a lot of great architecture to look at, but it did have a good bike shop, where I bought new pedals (for the first time since Azerbaijan, I have matching pedals!) and a new saddle (the old one was killing my backside).

My second day of riding was a longer version of the first: grey, rainy and very dull. It continued to be quite flat for the first half of the day, and then a few hills interjected. I think there were mountains in the distance, but I couldn't see them. Eventually the rain stopped, and I camped in a decent spot in a meadow above the road a few kilometres past the town of Haskovo.

After a good night's sleep, the next day's riding lasted about a minute. I was still getting up to speed when my chain, which was dirty and grimy and sticky, stuck to my front chain ring as I tried to change front gears. I was still a bit sleepy, didn't notice what was happening and kept pedalling. This was A Bad Idea. I ended up pulling the back derailleur forward and bending it into the rear spokes, which resulted in a horrible crunching noise. I skidded to a stop and examined the damage, which was extensive: broken rear derailleur, broken chain, broken spoke, bent rear rim, bent derailleur hanger (the bit of the frame to which the derailleur attaches) and a slightly bent rear luggage rack.

This began a two-day bus odyssey in search of a new derailleur and a good bike mechanic. I walked the bike (it rolled, but pedalling was out of the question, as I had to remove the broken chain and derailleur) back to Haskovo, where there were no good bike shops. I decided to load my bike and luggage onto a bus and head to the bigger city of Plovdiv. I spent hours wandering around Plovdiv on a Friday afternoon, and by the time I finally found the one bike shop that sold Shimano parts, it had already closed for the weekend.

I spent the night in another pricey hotel, and then hopped onto another bus to Sofia, where I found a great bike shop that was actually open, and a brilliant bike mechanic who fixed all the damage (using a hammer on the bent derailleur hanger!) and adjusted my rear hub, all in under an hour. I found a cheap hostel (at last; the first 4 I tried had either closed or were impossible to find in the driving rain) and settled into Sofia for three nights, resting up and trying to get my Dutch passport information page translated into Arabic (for my upcoming Libya trip). Sofia was grey, concrete, very post-Communist and extremely rainy. The only highlight were the transcendent 13th-century frescoes adorning the walls of the tiny Boyana church in the hills above Sofia. There, 150 years before Masaccio set the Renaissance alight in Florence, an anonymous icon painter in Sofia had anticipated the realism, colour and feeling of the Italian Renaissance. My allotted ten minutes inside the church were over too soon, but I emerged revitalized. Cycling is all very well, but without feeding one's brain, it is just empty exercise.

Last Tuesday, I finally left Sofia on my repaired bike, headed for Serbia. It took 2 days of relatively easy riding to get to Nis. The last twenty kilometres of Bulgaria gave me the best scenery I saw in the country, a forested gorge leading downhill to the border. The fact that the sun came out may have played a large part in this aesthetic judgment. The rest of the ride to Nis was extremely flat, through densely-settled farmland. I liked Nis, with its Ottoman fortress and excellent hostel, but with the Roman ruins closed for the winter, there was nothing to detain me more than an evening. I did make the obligatory visit to the gruesome Tower of Skulls, erected by the Ottomans as an example of what happened to Serbs who dared revolt against their Turkish masters, and now held up as an example of "Serbian heroism and Turkish barbarism", to quote the information board.

The next day was the longest day of riding I had had for quite some time. I set off early and made it to Pristina, the capital of the self-declared country of Kosovo, after 127 kilometres. The ride through southern Serbia was very pleasant, with a bit of sunshine, little traffic (the first time I had been off the main Europe-Turkey truck route since Edirne) and poor but picturesque farmhouses dotting the landscape. The Kosovo border marked the end of this; traffic increased fivefold, and the countryside was absolutely full to bursting with new houses. Between the traffic, the new shoddy brick houses and the pollution from the coal-burning power station (the dirtiest in all of Europe, according to the EU), it reminded me unpleasantly of riding into Kathmandu years ago. Pristina was a bubble of prosperity inflated by foreign aid from the EU, the US and an alphabet soup of NGOs. I ate in a very swish little bistro and watched an election rally pass off peacefully outside.

The next day I headed south towards Macedonia, via the Serb-populated enclave of Gracanica. I had hoped to visit the Orthodox monastery there, but it was off-limits to tourists, wreathed in barbed wire and guarded by a contingent of Swedish KFOR troops to protect it from Albanian vandals who have managed to torch dozens of Serbian churches around Kosovo since 1999. It's funny how situations evolve; KFOR came in to protect the Albanians from Serb ethnic cleansing, and now they protect the remaining Serbs from Albanian ethnic cleansing. The town seemed calm, but the heavy presence of KFOR troops and foreign aid workers may have had a lot to do with this.

The rest of the ride to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, was uneventful, although it had a nice downhill through a river canyon, dotted with monasteries, near the border. Skopje was really quite pleasant, despite acrid air pollution (another coal-fired power plant), and I spent a day off there, exploring the old Turkish quarter, fortress, churches and archaeological museum. I could see myself living in Skopje, unlike Sofia or Pristina. The arts scene is very active and it has great cafe life, but it's also small enough not to have traffic issues and seems a very liveable, human city, with mountains right on the edge of town.

The ride to Stobi, a major Roman ruin south of Skopje, was easy and flat, down a river valley. Stobi is quite a big site, mostly early Byzantine, but its best floor mosaics were under a protective layer of sand for the wet winter weather and were thus not visible.
I camped a few kilometres away in an apple orchard, and then headed over the mountains to Bitola the next day. It was a day of pure pleasure: sunny warm weather, gorgeous fall colours, oak forests, sweeping views and my first pass over 1000 m elevation in weeks. One section of the climb really reminded me forcefully of the climb over the Zagros Mountains to get to Shiraz: same forest type, same limestone peaks, same feeling (except about 25 degrees cooler!) Bitola, when I got to it, was wonderful, an old Ottoman riverside town with a big neighbourhood of old houses and a main pedestrian street with wonderful 19th-century facades, some from the old consulates that various European countries had here in Ottoman days.

I visited the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, on the outskirts of Bitola, the next morning. It was like a compact version of Stobi: heavily Byzantine, but with its floor mosaics buried for the winter. Another wonderful ride took me over more mountains to the vicinity of ancient Ohrid. I climbed over an 1100-metre pass, sweating in the Indian summer heat, then dropped to the basin of Lake Prespa. I was delayed in climbing the second pass of the day when I ran into a couple of bicycle tourists and stopped for a natter with them. The second climb was shorter than the first, but I still barely made it over the top with light in the sky, so I camped about 15 kilometres short of Ohrid in a pleasant roadside meadow. There was supposed to be a meteor shower visible that evening, but although I sat outside cooking, eating and looking up at the sky, I saw only one meteor before I finally got cold and crawled into the tent. I was excited about the fact that from Bitola I had been following another ancient road, the Roman and Byzantine Via Egnatia. It's not as famous or as long or as evocative as the Silk Road, but it was the key road linking Rome to Constantinople for centuries.

I got up early and raced downhill into Ohrid, arriving by 9:30. I dropped off my bike and luggage at a small tourist apartment and set about exploring the city. The setting is magnificent, on the north shore of the big mountain-ringed Lake Ohrid, with snow-capped mountains in the distance and a Mediterranean blue colour to the water. A Bulgarian castle towers over the town, from the 11th century period when Ohrid was the capital of the Bulgarian kingdom. In the ninth century, St. Kliment of Ohrid is said (by the Macedonians) to have created the Cyrillic alphabet, modifying the Glagolitic alphabet created by St. Cyril and his brother St. Methodius. (It should be noted that Wikipedia, along with most non-Macedonians, attribute Cyrillic to St. Cyril.) There are Roman remains, too, an amphitheatre and a fourth-century basilica, but it is the collection of Byzantine churches that constitute Ohrid's greatest tourist attractions and most important cultural significance. I walked through the stone-paved streets with their overhanging Ottoman houses in a bit of daze, overwhelmed by the sense of history after so many days of hideous Communist concrete.

I liked the tiny Sveta Bogorodica Bolnica church for its architecture, but I absolutely loved the much bigger Sveta Sofia, the cathedral church for the entire Macedonian Orthodox church. I had the entire place to myself, and spent a long time looking at the ground-breaking frescoes on the walls, including what is claimed to be the first-ever painting of the Last Supper (the depiction is quite different from the usual version that arose soon afterwards). There was a lot of realism and feeling in the paintings, like the contemporary Boyana Church frescoes I had just seen in Sophia, probably connected with the Palaeologan Renaissance in classical learning that took place in the Byzantine Empire in the 13th century under Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus and his successors. It seems probable that this provided the spark for the 15th century Italian Renaissance, especially as artists and academics fled Constantinople for Italy in the dying days of Byzantium.

I mused over the ebb and flow of artistic trends as I walked to the beautifully situated Sveti Jovan in Kaleo church, perched atop a cliff overlooking the lake. It looked like a tiny slice of the Mediterranean transplanted north into the Balkan mountains. The reconstructed Byzantine basilica of Plaosnik didn't do much for me, but I did like the ruins of the much earlier basilica, displayed elegantly under a suspended roof. After peeking in at the castle and the amphitheatre, I wandered into the Sveti Bogorodica Perivlepta, another church covered with 13th-century frescoes. I liked these paintings even more than the ones in Sveti Sofia, partly because the caretaker, a woman who had written her PhD thesis on them, gave me a guided tour for a quarter of an hour. Again, the static, lifeless aesthetic of earlier Byzantine icons was thrown out in favour of greater realism and passion, and new subject matter was tried out for the first time in centuries. The two main painters even broke with the tradition of anonymity and signed their names to their works, starting a trend that would be continued by Giotto and his successors in Italy.

After a pizza break, I scuttled back to Sv. Jovan to sketch the church before the sun set (at 4:10 pm; these early sunsets are hard to take!), then went out for a frustrating session at the internet cafe, during which I lost large sections of this post in repeated crashes before giving up and going to watch World Cup qualifying soccer matches. I was tired, though, and left without seeing the much-talked-about "Hand of Frog" goal in which Thierry Henry flicked the ball back into play with his hand before setting up the French goal that eliminated Ireland.

I was sad to say goodbye to Macedonia the next morning, but after a stiff, steep climb over the mountains to the east of Lake Ohrid, it was downhill all the way to my campsite near the apocalyptic post-Communist industrial wreckage of Elbasan. Albania looked pretty from far away, especially its forested mountain peaks and steep canyons, but up close it was fairly hideous: garbage everywhere, concrete construction rubble everywhere, wrecked Communist-era factories, jerry-built half-finished brick houses lining the roads, and the trademarks of Enver Hoxha (the Kim Il Sung of Eastern Europe), tiny hemispherical bunkers partly buried in their thousands everywhere in the landscape, like crashed UFOs or Communist concrete toadstools. Bizarrely, given all the untidiness and garbage, I have never seen a country more obsessed with washing cars; there must have been several hundred car-washing spots, most in use, between the border and Elbasan. Finding a campsite was a frustrating experience, as after a day of riding past great campsites in the mountains, I couldn't find any unoccupied flat ground in the area of Elbasan. Long after dark, I finally found a path into an abandoned olive grove and wearily set up my tent.

Today, the riding was ridiculously easy, across flat lowlands with a brisk tailwind. I got here to UNESCO-listed Berat by 2:30, found a hotel, and walked around its old streets until it got dark. The castle district, with its whitewashed stone walls and crumbling stone houses, has as much atmosphere and charm as any place in the Balkans, and the more stately white-fronted Ottoman mansions lower down the hill are very pleasing to the eye. To the south and west rise inviting-looking mountains that, sadly, I don't have time to explore. Tomorrow, I will try to get up early to take photos in the morning light before riding out of town.

Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Svilengrad, Bulgaria


past Haskovo


before Pirot, Serbia




Pristina, Kosovo


Skopje, Macedonia


near Stobi




15 km from Ohrid




10 km past Elbasan, Albania



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