I left Crete fairly excited by the prospect of 8 days of free travel, which is opposed to having somewhere to be. I didn’t take long in Athens, though I did make one more digression to stop over at the best darn coffee place in Greece, yes, I’d go that far. I’m yet and I doubt I’ll find anything of similar caliber to what I found in Athens at the coffee dive. Another cool thing about coffee in Greece is that they will deliver. The one and only time I attempted to get on my scooter with a coffee my feet drank most of it, so big respect.
I got on my first train in Athens, and as already mentioned the Greek landscape is pretty darn nice. Mountainous, green with huge rock cliffs which is always a treat for a retired once upon a time rock climber.
I have already expressed my fondness of Thermopylae, so I can just leave that there. Apart from saying, that it was one of two historically charged places I have a deep interest in seeing. And no, the other wasn’t the Acropolis, though it was awesome. The other place is actually in Bosnia, but we’ll get there, God willing.
I’ve been having a good run of meeting helpful and friendly folks, one of the nicest was a delightful older woman named Evee, I didn’t get her name first time around, at the Trikala bus station, where she made sure I got onto my connecting bus to take me to my accomodation. But the next time I saw her I was walking down from the church of St George, where, that morning crazy buggers had climbed up the cliff face in order to tie a scarf to a cave. Things you do for faith… anyways she was visiting it just as I was leaving, so it was nice to let her know her wishes for my trip had come true.
I was visiting the mountains and monastery’s of Meteora, which was claimed by UNESCO as a world heritage cite a little while ago. They did so because the huge monolithic rocky things are pretty intense and there’s a whole stack of them making the area pretty darn amazing. What’s more is there were once over 20 monastic dwellings on top of them, now though there are only 4 still lived in. According to all the sources, including Herodotus, Meteora was once a massive lake, but after an earthquake or something of similar force, a leak occurred that emptied the lake of its water, which helped form the massive bouldery mountainous things. So I got plenty of walking in, and I even managed a run to the amusement/ befuddlement of the others visitors who were smart enough to bring a car or bus with them.
I have found speaking English with an accent, not helpful toward my cause of being understood. A few times now, people will have a puzzled look on their face and ask “where are you from?” I guess the way I speak doesn’t sound like the English dialect they learnt or are used to. But also their “neh”, which means “yes”, is awfully close in sound to my “nah”, which naturally means “oh yeah nah probably not ay”. So I’m sure there has been some confusion on my account.
I really liked Meteora, it was beautiful, the monastery’s were an amazement, but I couldn’t help but feel like I and the masses of other people shouldn’t be there. The point of the monastic life was a means of escaping the loudness of day to day living in order to dedicate ones life to quiet reflection, seeking God in the meditative and holy practices of a simple and constrained life.
And yet now, that the world has gotten much smaller, anyone and everyone can come to marvel at this unique and different way of life with a loud obnoxiousness. The very thing I thought the monastic life sought to flee. So it was with deep feelings of irony I joined the masses of people to scramble up the stairs to take selfies in the courtyards or make mock monastic posses for my next profile picture, and my personal favourite, when tired sit in the ornate chairs in the chapels… I didn’t do any of that.
It just seemed to me, that a once sacred and significantly ‘other’ place, is now almost the same, except with awesome views.
On a completely different note, I’ve been asked a few times what life is like in NZ? On the surface of it, I give typical responses, yeah we do alright, we’re small but produce things that people want so we’re good. But when I consider it, life in NZ is sooo much easier!
A stable government and economy is going to have a natural flow on effect for the ease and enjoyment of life. But the other thing I notice is that there are still parts of Greece that are still in the old world. Still, by choice, without electricity, plumbing, literacy, or wifi. But it doesn’t detract from their enjoyment of life, it just makes it different with an element of stoicism. And you’ll find those communities mixing with the fast pace of 21century life. Hampered by an government in so much debt, that each citizen is paying for it. Basic costs have gone up 25% in the past few years, electricity, fuel, any state controlled commodity. So any surplus money they did have is now gone.
I suppose they’ve had a long time without, that the daily grind is met with not a panic or fear, but a resolute knowledge they’ve gotten through worse. And when you look at the history of Greece, both ancient and recent they certainly have.
It’s just troubling for me coming from a country where if you’re are having a tough time, you can get support. By contrast, I met a old guy who has been trying for the past 7 years to get his pension from the Greek government. He’s even had to resort to getting a lawyer involved. So he continues to work to get by at the age of 72.
Often when people go travelling they are immune to the realities of life for the locals, I’m glad that though I’m in my own little bubble, I stray close enough to other bubbles to share what their air is like within, so to speak.
Thessaloniki is a nice city, though I was annoyed once again by the half of the touristy spots closing at 3pm. Banks close at 2pm, but to be fair, who could blame them, no ones got any money. Thessaloniki was a city established by one of Alexander the Greats generals, Cassander, as his base, essentially insisting all the nearby towns move into his. It’s quite a nice place, it’s on the coast, and the type of city where you can just walk around and stumble across parks that contain ruins of the ancient Agora, Palace, or the arch of triumph of some successful general. I haven’t often seen buskers in Greece but one of the squares I happened upon a quartet of very good traditional Greek musicians. This was also where I found the eclectic types, the many sub cultures and those on the fringes all hanging out with the neighbourhood dogs in the sun. I couldn’t blame them though, it was probably one of the sunniest spots, in a city with so many high but nice apartment buildings that cast a lot of shade.
Naturally I have been enjoying some of the local beverages of the hoppy variety. I’m trying my hardest to stay local, supporting the local brewers in what ever places I find myself.
Similar to Japan, a lot of people smoke, often right next to you in a bar which is always a treat. Heading into Macedonia I have tried to be informed about the place. Apparently the Greeks aren’t too happy about the choice of name for their northern neighbour. “Macedonia” has certain implications you see. The key one being that Macedonia is the region where Thessaloniki is. In the past Thessaloniki was the capital of Macedonia, but part of Greece… so yeah, if The Republic of Macedonia is ever going to gain entrance to the E.U, they’ll need to figure out a name for themselves that Greece are happy with.
Though in spending a bit of time in Skopje, I really like the city! The government has undertaken the goal of beautifying their capital, with natural skepticism for such a poor country. But, it’s the old adage; ‘you have to spend money to make money’. Ain’t nobody wants to visit a run down city with no uniqueness or cultural appeal. And that’s what Skopje has been able to turn around in spades!
I’m rather fond of their main square, which has a giant statue of Alexander the Great on his trusty steed Bucephalus, on top of a massive pillar, with hoplites and lions surrounding it. Oh and water shooting out of random places with corresponding lights of differing colour. All very nice. There are also plenty of ornate bridges, with classical music playing as you walk along the river side.
It’s interesting as I spent some time with some Macedonians at night. They are a very proud people, proud of their heritage and tradition. A tradition that they are adamant is not Greek. Which is true of their language too, which to my annoyance is also not Greek. Just a I was slowly getting a hold of saying “hello”, “how are you”, “thank you”, and “I don’t speak Greek”, I have to forget all that and start fresh.
Another thing worthy of note, Skopje has the largest outdoor bazaar outside of Turkey, and it’s pretty darn sensational. For one the size of it, is much larger than the map alludes, as a great number of additional areas are outside of the noted space. You can get everything at this place, well most things… I mean they have shoes galore, real jewellery and fake, real sunglasses and fake, real coffee and fake coffee. We’re talking many different kinds of beans, red, white and kidney, magical and secular, all your food needs are met and all your hardware needs, including where to get your kitchen sink. So yes, I was happy to walk around and just take in the chaos, as well as a couple of bargains, cos Macedonia is cheap as chips.
100 Denar equals about $2.50NZ. I could get a macchiato for 40 Denar, a craft beer for 100, a fairly substantial lunch or dinner for 300. So yes, happy days. Though often you’d get a spot of lung cancer for your troubles as well.
I’ve very much enjoyed Skopje. I went Latin dancing, went to my first student party in a long time, I picked up some sweet new knock off Ray Ban sunglasses and made a good amount of new friends. So yeah all and all, a great time.
I’ve got the night in Nis, Serbia, as my plan is to push on to where I’m actually expected from a halfway point tomorrow, breaking down a 7 hour bus trip into a couple of 3ish ones. I’m expected on a farm East of Belgrade towards the Romanian boarder, its another Workaway for around 10 days. So my 8 days of unchartered travel are almost at an end. It’s been pretty darn cool. I’m already considering what I’ll do for my next spell, which is in late May. I know ages away. But it’ll be on the coast in Croatia. The best outcome would have me utilising my tent for a few days on the beach somewhere. Hopefully, with nowhere else to be.