We’ve gone East…

On the 20th September we left England and flew into Sofia/Bulgaria to have a look around in East Europe before going to New Zealand and some other countries on the way.

Sofia didn’t strike us as such an amazing place but we managed to eat in a very fancy Bulgarian restaurant together with a Kiwi couple who happended to be the first other backpackers we met on our travels. From Sofia we took a bus straight to Skopje in Macedonia to add another stamp to Brendon’s passport. Skopje is both the capital and described as an up-coming town. We though it was a rather interesting mix of old Turkish mosques and a communist urban mass produced during Yugoslavian times. The contrasts here are worth having a better look at as they are most striking and caused by the country’s rather complicated past. There were so many fights for Macedonian territory between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece that I have lost it completely. What I do remember though are that things didn’t get less complicated for Macedonia during the communist era when Tito formed the socialist Yugoslavian state of which Macedonia was a part of and artificial states have been created such as Bosnia Herzegovina. Now that Macedonia has become an independant state after all, things have changed again and much to the dismay of the Macedonians who have lost their visa free travel that they enjoyed during Yugoslavian times. No wonder Macedonians long back to Yugoslavian times or the „golden times“ in which they could also build a house in a year while now that economy goes downhill in their small country it takes about 25 years to complete. Thats why so many unfinished properties can be found around the country. Appearantly why Yugoslavia has prospered was through a dodgy form of trade, or rather smuggling, between the East and West blocs and which at no big surprise has collapsed in the end. But everyone tells the story a bit different so its hard to tell. Another challenge for Macedonia is to get recognition for its name which the Greeks are very unhappy with. When Macedonians travel to Greece they have to take their licence plate with MK off the car to pass through carefree…crazy.

We met some incredibly proud Macedonian people in the Treskavec Monastery who gave us such good history lesson to understand all of that or at least the tip of the iceberg…The monastery to which we hiked up to is set in the most remote place in the country. We were in fact the only tourists staying over for that night. The monastry is set quite high, just 200 meters below the top of Mt Zlato (1400m) above the town of Prilep. With the help of our friendly hosts we even climed the top of the mountain to enjoy a breathtaking view over the bleak landscape. I should train up in rock climbing as this was in fact quite dangerous taking photos standing somewhere on a rock near the summit with nothing but a big drop. The monastery church of Treskavec is very important for the country and holds colourful fresco’s from the 14th century. Unfortunately the church has been left in a terrible state after 40 years of communism and not much restoration work has been done since. Even worse during the communist era some of the frescos were covered over with ugly blue paint and a super ugly kitchen floor was put into the otherwise beautiful orthodox church. Today the church is claimed UNESCO heritage and will hopefully be restored over the next years. I made good use of my bad Russian for the sake of having a chat with an old granny and the guys in the monastery who were such excellent hosts. Our donation to the church seemed small compared to the huge hospitality we have received.

Some impressions on the way…crazy outfits of the people and many crappy old cars everywhere. The place gives a real feel for the 80’s and literally takes me back to old GDR times. In fact yesterday I have seen my dad’s old orange Skoda . Guys wear track suits, women fancy leopard skins or leggins if not the latest bleeched jeans. Everybody we met was incredibly friendly and prices for service, food and accomodation are very much affordable. A dinner ranges between 2-4EUR which includes drinks. At the same time the scenery reminds of some parts in Switzerland or Italy. The streets are filled with merry locals now that most tourists are gone at the end of September.

We are also visting Ohrid near the boarder to Albania, the most touristy place in Macedonia with a fantastic lake and some more 365 churches to see. That makes one church for each day in the year, but surely we won’t stay that long, maybe a couple of days and than back to Bulgaria at some point.

Michaela Hanke