Balkans and Beyond, Day 69:  Koblenz, Germany.  It's been a little more than a couple of weeks since our last blog post.  In the interim, we were fascinated and depressed by our visit to Kosovo, tracked back through Albania, enjoyed a spectacular visit with family members in Venice, and meandered into Western Europe.

At some point along the way, we sank into a morass of fatigue.  We can now say without equivocation—70 (or even late 60s) is not the new 40!

Our experiences in the so-called advanced countries of Western Europe have been enlightening and quite frustrating.  We're sitting tonight in a German city of significant size with no wifi in our four-star hotel, not because we didn't book a hotel with wifi.  We did.  And the tale that was spun by the hotel desk clerk to explain its absence was peerless in its cheekiness and absurdity.  Should she decide to job hunt in America, a certain government administration that traffics in blatant falsehoods might love to hire her.

Though we have loved the opportunities to eat fresh produce freely since returning to the west, that has been the primary advantage.  Our technology experience has been especially bad—excruciatingly slow Wifi and spotty cellular coverage, often as weak as a newborn kitten.

Tomorrow we travel to Utrecht in the Netherlands, just an hour train ride from the Amsterdam airport, which will be our setting off point to home on Wednesday.  After we return to Georgia we'll sort out all the craziness that has happened over the last couple of weeks and post the blog entries we've been working on.

From the Swamp, belated Memorial Day greetings and, a bit early, Happy Father's Day!


Balkans & Beyond, Days 50-52:  Bitola, Macedonia to Skopje, Macedonia.  Beginning in 2010, the prime minister of Macedonia initiated a massive building project, Skopje 2014.  Its object was to fill the streets of the Macedonian capital city with oversized statues and ornate neoclassical buildings in an effort to historicize a city all but destroyed by earthquake in 1963.  Perhaps, as some have suggested, it was all part of a plan for Macedonia to thumb its nose at its angry neighbor to the south.
Macedonia Square, dominated by 8-story tall statue of Alexander the Great Warrior on a Horse
In addition to the Greek objection to the small country's use of the name Macedonia, the powers that be in Athens (and much of the population of Greek Macedonia) have been offended by Skopje's claim to Alexander the Great and other leaders of the ancient Kingdom of Macedon.  And since the tiny country still needs the good will of its larger neighbor, they're willing to push things only so far.  Even though they erected a 75-ft statue with an obvious likeness of Alexander the Great in Skopje's main square, the official title of the work is "Warrior on a Horse."
Skopje's Central Post Office
But a little background is needed.  In July of 1963, a massive earthquake destroyed about 80 percent of the buildings of the city of Skopje.  Much of the recovery efforts employed the concrete brutalist architectural style, then in vogue.  The Skopje 2014 project camouflaged many of those modernist buildings with neoclassical facades highlighted by hollow columns and artificial sculptures.
Neoclassical facade disguises brutalist Telecommunications Center in Skopje.  (photo by Bojan Blazevski)
When first announced in 2010, the Skope 2014 project was to include construction of some 40 monuments, sculptures, renovated facades and new buildings.  By 2015, the number of structures and monuments had tripled and construction continues.

Though many, if not most, Macedonians objected to the massive spending project, the building pressed on with the installation of dozens and dozens of statues and the masking of many of the central city's buildings.  Most of the project was confined to an area near the main square and its environs.  And apparently no idea was too extreme.
One of several bridges covered with statues of Macedonian (and Bulgarian and Greek) historical figures
Park a fake boat in the river to serve as a hotel and restaurant?  Sure, let's make it three!
Plant some trees in the middle of the river?  No problem!
Macedonian government HQ building BEFORE Skopje 2014
Government HQ building AFTER with its new facade of hollow columns and plaster decorations
Clearly the Macedonian Arch borrowed some design inspiration from Paris.
It comes as no surprise that both the design aesthetics and the scope of Skopje 2014 provoked controversy from the outset.  The government that conceived the project (which was ousted last year) insisted that the makeover would instill national pride and restore the historical feel of a city whose roots date back more than 2,000 years.
Of course, colorful lights illuminate the new treasures by night.
Detractors complained about the ballooning cost—from the originally announced €80 million to more than €670 million and counting—and the lack of transparency in noncompetitive contracts awarded to friends and relatives of government officials.  Others accused the government of using the project to distract from the country's significant problems with high unemployment, poverty, and stalled progress toward membership in EU and NATO.

The government that came to power last year initially called a halt to all Skopje 2014 projects. There was even talk of reversing some of the transformations and removing of some of the excess.  Yet construction continues on new projects while unemployment hovers near 25% and, by most estimates, nearly a third of Macedonians live in poverty.  We have seen more beggars on the streets of Skopje than in all the other countries we've visited on this trip combined.  Many children are involved in panhandling, whether with parents or on their own with parents watching from nearby.

Perhaps in time, the new government will get a handle on the excess spending on frivolous and needless construction and begin to address the genuine needs of its people.  We asked a young Macedonian father what he thought about the Skopje 2014 project and he gave us an earful.  He traveled for 15 years working on cruise ships all over the world, so he has a broad and enlightened perspective.  In his estimation, his country needs to remove some of the extravagant results of the construction that went overboard.  He contended that Macedonia is making a mistake trying to ally itself with the EU and NATO because the people have more in common with the East than the West.  In his opinion, Turkey is a more natural ally for Macedonia than France or Germany.  But like most everyone else we met in the country, he was courteous and friendly and open to communicating with us.

And the Real Skopje

In contrast to the artificial carnival atmosphere around the central square, Skopje does have some genuine historical sites, particularly in the old city on the opposite shore of the Vardar River.  Perched on a hill on the city's highest point, overlooking the river, is Skopje Fortress.
Poppies dominated the landscape at the fortress.
In search of a letterbox, we climbed up to the fortress, only to find it alive with a profusion of wildflowers.  Though there was evidence that the compound had once been well maintained, it is currently overgrown with tall grass except along a few paths and the top of the wall.  Being the dedicated letterboxer that he is, Ken waded through knee-deep weeds to locate the letterbox, ejecting several hitchhiking ticks off his pants legs when he was done.

Another dose of Skopje reality occurred just after we arrived.  The agent for the apartment we had rented through had asked us to meet him in front of the large St. Clement church, except there was nowhere to pull over, let alone park there.  We found a parking place along a crowded side street nearby and met him on foot.
The ticket was encased in a clear plastic sleeve to preserve it in case of rain.
By the time we returned to our rental car—after rejecting the smelly apartment he offered us—our windshield had been decorated with a parking ticket.  We soon realized that the guy who was sitting in a chair next to the car was the stool pigeon who had notified authorities.  Our ignorance of local parking regulations was no defense, of course.  After moving the car to the garage at the Marriott where we had checked in, we decided to avoid the crazy city traffic and walk the mile to the office where we needed to pay our fine.  Much to our surprise, the $18 fine was reduced to $4 because we had shown up so promptly to settle our debt and repent for our misdeed.
Church of St. Clement of Ohrid
Though the three-dome church was not a great meeting place, we were intrigued with its design.  Construction on the rotunda style building, composed only of domes and arches, was begun in 1974, with the building consecrated in 1990.  It became the center of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which declared its independence from the Serbian Orthodox religion in 1965.
St. Clement interior
Skopje's best known religious figure was born in the city in 1910 and lived there until 1918, when she left Macedonia to serve the Roman Catholic Church.  In that role, she later became known around the world as Mother Teresa.  At the place where she was born, the Memorial House of Mother Teresa was opened in 2008.  Conceived as a modern transformation of the house where she lived her formative years, the building houses a museum about the life and work of this beloved native daughter. 
Memorial House of Mother Teresa
When she was a child, it's likely that Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu visited the shops of Skopje's Old Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest market places in the Balkans.  The city's center for trade and commerce since the 12th century, the bazaar today is home to hundreds of shops and stalls selling all manner of goods.

As we've often seen in such markets, most shops concentrate on one type of merchandise and are grouped with other stores selling the same products.  Scores of adjacent storefronts offer a dizzying array of shoes, with every possible style on prominent display.   Based on a cursory examination of the quality of the wares, the authenticity of their mainstream brand labels seemed questionable.  On a Tuesday morning, as we walked through, the market was jammed with customers of all ages.

And Beyond Skopje

On our last day in Skopje, we decided to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and its faux architecture and drove ten miles southwest of the city to Matka Canyon, one of Macedonia's most popular outdoor destinations.  The Treska River, which created and flows through the canyon, was dammed in the 1930s in the creation of the country's first hydroelectric plant.
A historical exhibit at the plant relates its history, as well as a brief history of humans' harnessing and use of electricity.  Quotes are featured by prominent scientists in the field, such as Faraday, Edison, Tesla and Morse.  What a delightful surprise to see Ray Charles (yes, the American R&B singer) amidst this group with his own quote:  "What is a soul?  It's like electricity—we don't really know what it is, but it's a force that can light a room."
Matka Canyon 'village'
A well-maintained stone path leads from the power plant, beyond the dam, along one of the canyon walls to a tiny 'village' along the shore of Matka Lake.  There are the expected boat and kayak rental services and restaurants serving the needs of those who wander further into the canyon as well as the day trippers whose venture stops there.
At the heart of the commercial area sits the Church of St. Andrew, a fixture in the canyon since 1389. Inside are frescoes dating from mid 1500s when the church served a monastery dedicated to the apostle Andrew.
Our day trip to the canyon was a welcome relief from Skopje's excesses.  We returned to the city to pack up and prepare for our drive tomorrow to Kosovo, the final country in the Balkan part of this adventure.

Three-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Bitola, Macedonia
    •  Ended in:  Skopje, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  170
    •  Miles walked: 19.13
    •  Weather:  47° to 75°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Mother Teresa signs in Skopje:  73
    •  Statues in Skopje:  135
    •  Oversized flags:  12
    •  Pedestrian bridges: 6
    •  Beggars on streets:  142
    •  Beggars carrying children:  39
    •  Solo Child Beggars:  14
    •  Quote of the Day:  (Ken on what he would do in an average-sized US car when meeting a tour bus on a narrow Macedonian road):  "I would get out of the car and run!"

Loved:  Before we learned of the story behind the Skopje 2014 "landmarks," we actually thought the kitschiness of the city was pretty fun.  A bit like Vegas in the Balkans.

Litter control.  The parts of Macedonia we visited have had the worst litter problem of any place we've seen on this trip.  From the main glorious square with all its statues and fountains and lights, a few steps around a corner leads to an area whose main feature is its excess of unmitigated litter.

Learned:  Without exception, in every Balkan country we have visited, we have heard from locals their grave concerns about the pervasiveness of fraud and corruption which seem to run rampant in each country's government.  

More Photos from Skopje
Stone Bridge and the Museum of Archaeology
Giant lions guard a bridge over the river.
With all this fake antiquity, a horse and carriage ride couldn't be far behind, though we saw only one. 
All aboard! cried the local ticks.
One of the few spots in the fortress not overgrown.
At the canyon village, I finally learned to use a squat toilet.  


Balkans & Beyond, Days 48-49:  Ohrid, Macedonia to Bitola, Macedonia.  Departing Ohrid on Saturday, we couldn't resist the opportunity to drive along the eastern shore of the lake to National Park Galicica, which straddles Mount Galicica (7,395 ft) between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa.  A well-maintained road takes visitors almost to the mountain's summit before descending down the other side to Lake Prespa.  Along the scenic drive, views of the lake and towns along its coast are spectacular.
Lake Ohrid from scenic overlook in Galicica Park
Our destination for the next couple of days was Bitola (pop. 75,000), Macedonia's second largest city and one of its oldest.  Founded by Philip II (AlexTheGreat's dad) in the fourth century BC as Heraclea Lyncestis, Bitola today sits ten miles north of Macedonia's border with Greece—that part of Greece that's also known as Macedonia.
Old Roman theater at Heraclea Lyncestis
Macedon was conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, which took over governance of the town.  To accommodate the Roman sport of gladiator fighting, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a theater built on a hill in Heraclea.  Its use was discontinued in the fourth century after Rome was Christianized, and it was buried and forgotten after an earthquake in the 6th century AD and Slavic invasions led to the abandonment of the city.

Small basilica at Heraclea
Many centuries later some ruins of the city were uncovered during a building project, and an archeological dig began in the 1930s.  The first indication that there had been a theater came with the discovery of a 14th row admission ticket carved on a small piece of bone.  With interruptions in the dig caused by the numerous conflicts in this war-torn area, it was 1968 before the 20-row theater was completely unearthed on a hill in what had been the center of the ancient town.  In addition to seating for hundreds, scientists uncovered a tunnel and cages for animals built below the rows for spectators.
Širok Sokak Street
When we arrived in Bitola around noon on Saturday and asked for a recommendation for lunch, the friendly reception agent at our small hotel warned us that the city is always bustling on Saturdays, especially Širok Sokak Street (Wide Street).  Lined with shops and restaurants, this pedestrian thoroughfare is obviously the place to see and be seen.  People crammed into the sidewalk cafes all had their chairs facing the street, so as not to miss any action on the promenade.
Philip II reigns (and reins?) over Magnolia Square.
After lunch, we strolled the mile-long avenue from the City Park on the south end to Magnolia Square on the north.  Wandering over to the nearby Yeni Cami (New Mosque), we sat at a bench outside pondering whether we should try to enter.  The doors were closed, and our limited understanding of the protocol and customs for non-Muslims visiting had us puzzled.  A gentleman walked past where we were sitting, and I smiled at him.  He walked past, and then—obviously reading the situation and our dilemma—he motioned for us to follow him.
Yeni Mosque
Though he spoke only a few words of English and we spoke neither of his languages—Macedonian and Italian—we were able to communicate enough for him to invite us into the mosque and tell us that it was built during the Ottoman period, completed in 1558.  In recent years, he indicated, the exquisite interior has been restored with the financial support of the Turkish government.
Funeral notices
As we wandered around Bitola, we couldn't help noticing light posts, building columns, trees and other surfaces plastered with signs bearing text and a photo of a person.  The format was almost similar to the old "Wanted" posters, except for the floral border decorated with a cross.  Our attempts to translate with Google's help were stymied by the script style font.
Later our helpful innkeeper explained that these are death notices posted in the neighborhood where the deceased had lived.  The wording is quite similar to what is published in newspaper obituaries in the U.S., including information about funeral arrangements.
Light up!  No stigma here.
As we have noted before, smoking in this region is much more widespread than in the U.S. and even in Western Europe.  Every table at sidewalk cafes is equipped with at least one ashtray, and often tables inside have them, too.  It's a bit like being back in the 1970s.

Even though we had decided to leave Greece for another trip, being so close to the border and having seen all we planned to in Bitola on Saturday convinced us to consider a day trip into northern Greece on Sunday.  With the ongoing dispute between Greece and Macedonia, we were a bit uncertain about what to expect at the border, so we did a little Googling—just enough to reveal a couple of nightmare tales about people being detained at the border by both Greek and Macedonian authorities for such infractions as calling a Greek city by its Macedonian name or carrying two cameras across the border.
Where are they now?
While conducting this research Saturday evening, the magic of a flight tracking app enabled us to follow the progress of our grandnieces (ages 21 and 19) on their first transatlantic flight.  They hopped the pond for a study abroad summer program in Florence, Italy.  We're looking forward to meeting them in Venice for a long weekend on our way back home.
The difference was evident at the border stations:  Macedonia (top), Greece (bottom)
Undeterred by the hyperbole we uncovered in our research, we pressed on with our plans to visit Greece, hoping for the best.  As it turned out, we had nothing to fear.  Border crossings for both countries were uneventful, coming and going.  What struck us most, however, was the immediate stark contrast between Greece, a thoroughly Western European country—despite its location on the Balkan peninsula—and Macedonia, which had suffered under Communist rule for 50 years, until 1991.
E-65 in Greece
We followed E-65, a European transnational highway, from Macedonia into Greece.  The difference in the quality of the road was stunning.  As soon as we entered Greece, the road suddenly became a limited access, dual carriageway with exceptional maintenance and meticulous signage.  We had not seen conditions like that in a long time.
On a secondary road to the lake shore 
Unrelated to the improved roads, we found that there was "something" indescribable in the quality of the light of northern Greece that made the scenery—for lack of a better word, just pop.  Whether it was atmospheric conditions or the influence of all those Greek gods, we cannot say, but the colors appeared more saturated, the light more glowing than most places, even those just across the border.

With no specific destination in mind, we meandered through the town of Florina and aimed our GPS at the shores of Lake Prespa, hoping to find something scenic.  As we approached the tiny village of Mikrolimni (pop. 72) on a narrow local road,  we chanced upon an interesting Greek character, Mr. Santos, hobbling along the road with the aid of his cane.

He waved us down, and when we stopped, he asked us in Greek if we could give him a ride into town.  We somehow understood what he needed and opened the door to the back seat.  He climbed in and off we went.  Later at a charming taverna on the lakeshore, we learned Mr. Santos' story from the restaurant owner's son-in-law.
He is currently 88 years old.  During the Greek Civil War in the 1940s, Mr. Santos allied himself with the Communist partisans.  While he was off in Yugoslavia for training, the Mikrolimni area was retaken by Greek government forces, making it unsafe for Mr. Santos to return to his village.  Subsequently, he lived for many years in Czechoslovakia and then the Soviet Union before finally being allowed to return to his home town in the 1980s.    
We enjoyed a lovely lunch of local dishes at the lakefront and wandered the area taking photos and enjoying the view before dragging ourselves away to return to Macedonia.

Tomorrow we'll drive to the Macedonian capital city, Skopje.  From all we've read, it should be a highlight of the trip.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Ohrid, Macedonia
    •  Ended in:  Bitola, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  186
    •  Miles walked: 12.23
    •  Weather:  49° to 73°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Swallow nests:  87
    •  Curves in the road:  324
    •  Incredible views of the lake:  217
    •  Ashtrays in sidewalk cafes:  4,839
    •  Letterboxes planted:  2

Loved:  The relief of four uneventful border crossings

More time to spend in Greece.  But we'll get back there soon.

Learned:  As if we needed it, we were reminded again–when seeing the direct contrast between Macedonia and Greece–of the struggles former Communist countries are still enduring in an attempt to catch up with the progress made elsewhere while they were oppressed.

More Photos
Swallows return to St. Naum on the lake because their mud nests attached to building eaves are tolerated at the monastery.
Our drive up to the summit of Mount Galicica in Macedonia's National Park Galicica
Remains of a courthouse at Heraclea
Floor mosaics set two thousand years ago retain their detail and color.
Greek scenery 
More Greek scenery