Splashin' it up in Skopje and Surfing Sofas in Sofya (Balkan peregrination, part 2)

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November 20th 2008
Published: November 20th 2008
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We arrived in Skopje, our third city of the day, without a solid plan.

Evening was setting in, but that was about the only thing we were sure of. We changed a little money and decided to try to contact Emrah's friend, Sotir. I sailed into a closet-sized shop, hoping to buy a card for the payphone, but the communication Titanic was destined to sink. I gave a English a shot and the middle-aged woman replied "your efforts are of no use, my child," in Macedonian, or it could've been just about anything else, for all I knew. Turkish yielded a similar response. Next came miming with sound effects. Judging by her face, she now simply seemed a bit concerned about my mental state. (Her customers were coming and going during this goofy episode).

Really now, how hard can it be to convey one's desire to use a telephone? "Do you speak Russian?" she asked, in Russian. Embarrassed at just how much my three semesters of the language have atrophied, I answered "a very little bit." Her Russian really wasn't much better than mine, so this was not of much help. She was holding up a calculator, showing me numbers, but not relating them to me in any meaningful way, and I was waving my hands in the air, making unintelligible noises peppered with the occasional Russian word, when somebody came in to the shop who new barely enough English to sort out something of a solution for us.

After many tries, we cracked the code of Sotir's phone number and were able to make contact. He was working late, and would meet us at the bus station in a few hours. It was dark now, and we set out into the rain, determined to make the most of Mother Theresa's birth city. My initial impressions explained why the slums of Calcutta seemed appealing to her...

Actually, 75% of the city was leveled by an earthquake long after she had changed addresses. Unfortunately, communist leaders were there to rebuild the city in such an incredible way that it probably actually looked uglier than it might have looked had they just left the piles of rubble laying around. Skopje was starting to give Priştina a run for its money.

Finally we came to a multi-level partially-enclosed shopping mall. We assumed that there might be a restaurant. What we found was just a large, ridiculous building seemingly designed to provide the maximum amount of exposure to the weather possible, while still somehow giving off the impression of indoorsiness. Our fifteen minutes or so there were not a total waste however - I chanced upon possibly the ugliest post card ever printed.

Matt, wisely suggest that we try a restaurant listed in the EOL. We knew where the river was, so navigating wasn't completely out of the question. In the pouring rain, we walked down a dark road next to the river. Everything was in black and white. For the first time, I think we were both questioning our chosen route.

When we reached the bridge we had been walking towards, we found a large square opening up to our left. Had it been sunny, with the square full of people and things to do, it would’ve been rather nice. And the stone bridge was quaint. Skopje wasn’t completely awful after all.

Onward we went and found ourselves in what appeared to be an old Turkish quarter. Winding alleys turned off in various directions. We failed to find the restaurant we were searching for, but we

every table in the pub had this set-up
were pleased to have stumbled upon a slice of urban space suitable for human beings. We dined at a simple, inexpensive, friendly, and wonderful restaurant, run by Turkish-speakers. We were visited during our meal by some local cats and a very strung-out teenager. The owner chased them all away, though we didn’t mind the cats.

Back at the bus station, after another game of let’s-make-a-phone-call, Sotir informed us that he was running later than expected and that we should meet him in Kumanovo, the city he lives in, about an hour east of Skopje. A crowded minibus eventually dropped us off there, on the side of the road, but at least in town. We needed to get to the actual bus station, wherever that was, to meet Sotir.

It was late; we were exhausted from a very long day, and were very much on the side of the road in Macedonia, unsure of what to do next. A weathered-looking middle-aged couple that had gotten off the bus with us offered some encouraging words (presumably), but we couldn’t understand a bit of it. The man was able to speak Turkish though, so we were given directions to the small,
Macedonian DenariMacedonian DenariMacedonian Denari

Skopje is a rather grim looking communist era city. Macedonia's money, however, looks nothing like communist money; no people farming, no hydroelectric plant, etc. It's aesthetically pleasing, colorful, and even expresses the presence of Orthodoxy in Macedonia.
grim, dark bus station, which wasn’t that far away. In retrospect, had he not been there, it could’ve turned into a much more adventure-filled night.

Sotir had already kindly sorted out the information about our onward bus to Sofya. We had time to visit a pub. He proved to be a very gracious and welcoming host during our brief visit with him. We talked about Macedonia’s political situation and its precarious landlocked position between colorful neighboring countries. Sotir is optimistic about the future and loves his country enough to not contribute to its brain-drain, nor does he seem to have any desire to. It was a great meeting, even if it was only a few short hours on a dark night in Kumanovo.

We boarded a Skopje-Sofya bus already mostly full of sleeping people. I was put next to a large, sleeping Bulgarian woman, and Matt placed further in the back of the bus. This meant that for the first border crossing of the trip, our passports weren’t stacked next to each other, sharing that terrible smell. There are two other people somewhere in the Balkans now wondering why their passports stink.

Dawn at Sofya’s main bus terminal: déjà vous. In 2004, this was the very first place I set foot in Europe, not counting İstanbul. We walked into the train station next door, a massive Soviet-looking structure, in search of an ATM and breakfast. A friendly woman at a small breakfast counter shook her head “yes” to indicate that she did have espresso (The nodding “no,” shaking your head “yes” practice is quirky body language that I believe is unique to Bulgaria. I don’t think I could ever get used to it). After a bit of laughter we were served espresso and greazzzy pastries that tasted like communism.

Fueled up, we set off for the center of Bulgaria’s pleasant and dignified capital. Well-used trams full of commuters on their way to work whizzed by.

We visited quite a few Orthodox churches as the morning wore on: incense, icons, and the occasional bearded man in long black robes. We worked our way up to Sofya’s impressive cathedral. We came upon a large crowd that from far off looked like a political demonstration. From up close, it seemed to just be a bunch of really happy people waving flags around. I’m not sure what all that was about.

Anyway, we then found ourselves at the cathedral. It was not the first beautiful site of the trip, by any means, but it was the first truly awe-inspiring one. Towering domes rise above the exquisite building. Matt stayed inside for so long taking it all in that I thought he might have been either sleeping or converting.

By this time, we decided that the hour was reasonable enough for trying to contact Angel and Zdravko, couchsurfing hosts and natives of Sofya, who had graciously offered to take us in. We would have to find the metro and take it to it's last station. Lunch would have to come first. We stopped at a restaurant named "Happy" that apparently was "Established on the Christmas Day 1994." How could we go wrong?

Angel kindly met us at the station and walked us down a few streets full of big, non-descript apartment buildings, leading us to his. He shares a modest and charming apartment with Zdravko, and the two of them set about making us feel utterly welcomed and comfortable. A shower and a few hours devoid of much activity helped me to feel like a human being again, after a few days of steady travel.

After heading off in different directions, we all met up in the center of town again for dinner. Zdravko and Angel led us down a little alley to what I believe might've been a completely unlabeled door. I think we could've spent a decade in Sofya and not come across it on our own. Downstairs we headed and before I knew it we were in a groovy little restaurant that could've been some new hip spot in one of Brooklyn's trendier neighborhoods. I don't remember what they helped me order, but it was excellent and amazingly inexpensive.

Busy with work, we parted with our hosts after dinner and a short walk around the city. We were given a few tips on places where we could likely find some decent live music. After hours of wandering about, our search ultimately proved unsuccessful. Still, it was a good night to explore Sofya. It was Halloween and many people were dressed up for the occasion.

The next day, we hung out with Zdravko and Angel until early afternoon and then headed back into town. We lunched at Happy again and slowly made our way back to the main bus terminal. We reached İstanbul quite late. Matt made his way across town, back to his apartment.

Just for the record, there are no buses from Ankara to İstanbul between 2:30-5:00 AM, even on the weekend. This meant that I got to spend some more quality time at the Esenler Otogar. As luck would have it, it turned out to be time well spent.

In the Metro office, I met an engaging Mr. Ali, in a well-cut suit, who, like me, was wrongly under the impression that buses left for Ankara at least every hour. After combing the station together, looking for an alternative solution, we found that there was nothing to do but wait. Mr. Ali insisted on buying me a tost (grilled cheese sandwich) and a Turkish coffee. He was in a talkative mood.

He is ethnically Turkish, but grew up in Kirkuk, Iraq, which has a substantial Turkish population. For two-and-a-half hours I listened to the story of his life. Mr. Ali came to Turkey in 1987, after seven rigorous days of walking through the mountains to get to Hakkari (deep in the southeast). When UN workers there asked him where he would be going to "Canada? Germany?," he replied "I'm staying here." And he has. He loves Turkey and finds it to be quite beautiful. Here, he doesn't have to work all the time, unlike his two brothers who later made the same crossing and went on to live in Canada.

His life as a textile importer/exporter has been filled with travel. I heard stories about discos in Bahrain's hotels, Moscow's stunning metro system, and losing the road in Algeria for eight hours. Some of Mr. Ali's favorite destinations include Warsaw, Iran, Amman, Egypt, and Budapest.

We talked a little bit about the terrible decades of Saddam and the current war. While in Kirkuk, in 2004, his young son fell down the stairs one night. It was already after 11:00PM, and a curfew was in effect. Getting to the hospital was difficult, but eventually the police were able to help him get there. He said that the hospital situation is improving in Iraq.

Most of all, he believes that once American soldiers are off the Iraqi streets, the situation there will improve dramatically. He believes that roadside bombings will no longer be an issue, if there are no longer soldiers to target on the roads.

We both did or best to doze off before the sun came up as we rolled down the road towards Ankara. My mind was filled with stories about Iraq, images from the past week, and excitement about the upcoming American election, just two days away. My country's choices of leaders are, of course, significant for the entire world. Kosovo and Iraq are dramatic reminders of that.

Now a few weeks have passed. Much of the world is still enjoying the high of the election outcome, though some rational skepticism is emerging about what President-elect Obama will actual be able to accomplish, considering the grave conditions he faces.

My spring semester Turkish professor joked with me about whether it's "Obama," "Şubama," or "Bubama”? This is a play on words, using the Turkish demonstratives "o, şu, & bu," and it's probably not funny unless you speak Turkish - even then, it might not be funny. Oh well. I'm back in Ankara now wishing I could trade midterm exams and a head cold for more adventures in the Balkans.

Was it a good trip?

"Da," I say, as back and forth I shake my head yes.

Additional photos below
Photos: 23, Displayed: 23



This man has no business playing a guitar in earshot of other living people, however, it's one of the more creative tip jars I've ever seen...

I still think the most poorly-named restaurant I've ever come across was the "Fish and Flesh." "Oops!" is a strong runner-up though. I didn't eat at either one...
Sinan mosque in SofyaSinan mosque in Sofya
Sinan mosque in Sofya

Mosques built by the Ottoman Empire's finest architect, Sinan, can be found all over the place. I blogged about his masterpiece in Edirne a few months back.
Skopje bus stationSkopje bus station
Skopje bus station

This was on the way into Kosovo. Matt's no worse for wear after the first night bus.
view from the Sofya bus stationview from the Sofya bus station
view from the Sofya bus station

This is rather cliche and unfair image of Eastern Europe. The very little bit of travel I've been lucky enough to do in Bulgaria allows me to say with total confidence that it is a very beautiful country. The same definitely goes for Poland, Bosnia, and probably many other places.

The lion is the symbol of Sofya. I don't think they have exclusive rights over that...

22nd November 2008

2 in one week??? Whatever have I done to deserve such happiness??
24th December 2008

K, so I know we talk online all the time which is awesome, but I do miss reading about your adventures and misadventures as well... I'm sure I'm not the only one!
1st February 2009

Hey, we ate at Oops! when we were in Sofia and my wife was starving as usual and had to have pizza. Well "Oops" it was because she was sick for a while after.
8th February 2009

I'm sorry to hear that she got sick! Hopefully enough time has passed that it is remembered as a rather funny story now...
5th January 2010

Been there! Done that!.
Nice! very well done!.. I too spend a few nights in Skopje from Pristina, Kosovo on my way back to the US and spending one Weekend in Greece, Thellasonica!..(Mt. Olympus!).. what a dreary town - besides all the Roma (Gipsie) children at every stop and red lights begging!.. it was a very dreary place - the hotel was old fashion - not quite comfortable - but when your weary - it doesn't matter!.. Pristina was by far more livelier -even when the killings where still going on!.. Serbs slowly being strangled out (kicked out!..burned, killed, ) and the Albanians slowly taking over (yes mother! we are supporting a muslim enclave full of Albanians!) (Mafia not withstanding!)..where every restaurant, club, places to eat is filled with smokers and your gagging for air while you eat!.. Interesting place the Balkans!.. I was there in 1999 as an IT Officer with OSCE.. Nice place to visit - wouldn't like to live there much!.. too cold (not the weather!) the people!.. See me on WDP (World Most Dangerous Places) along with RYP and Kurt!.. Later!.

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