Myrte, Sofie and I were off on an adventure to the “second world”. We were excited to see what Eastern Europe was actually like, because, as had been discussed many times, people in Western Europe know hardly anything about Eastern Europe except, of course, that it was former communist and hence bad and backward.
I left London Victoria coach station on Saturday night to Utrecht where I was to meet up with Sofie and Myrte on campus. Here we would have a catch up, then travel to Breda with Linda, who would put us up for the night, ready for our 8.30am flight from Eindhoven to Sofia on Monday morning.
Mistakenly I thought no one would be travelling to the Netherlands on a Saturday during school term time. However at Victoria I was greeted with 3 coaches worth of people. To make matters worse our coach driver was incredibly bad-tempered as he yelled at passengers in Dutch, including making someone cry, as “this isn’t a moving company it’s a coach”. Essentially he was trying to make a family pay for their luggage even though the staff at the coach station said it was fine. I had my own annoyances with him as I was last in the queue and the baggage compartment was full. So I had to follow the driver endlessly round the coach until he opened a smaller space for me to put my things in. This also meant I was not getting a good seat for the overnight journey. I ended up in the front aisle seat, which had less leg room then the others. It was not the most luxurious journey ever, but we made it to Utrecht. Although this was two hours earlier than planned, at 7am, so who knows how irritating this would be if you had booked a train to catch.
Now I was to start my long journey back to campus. I had bought a 65 litre rucksack, a suitcase and a weekend bag with me. I had taken the coach over an airplane as you are given more baggage allowance, which meant I could bring English treats with me to show fellow UCUers. Among the items were Cadbury’s chocolate, penguins, crumpets, malt loaf, Bakewell tarts, Ribena and salt and vinegar crisps. Yet hauling all this back to campus did not seem such a fun idea now. I eventually made it with my back killing to my room and took a deserved nap.
Myrte and Sofie arrived after lunchtime and soon we were in Utrecht Centraal catching the train with Linda. Her Sister’s boyfriend kindly picked us up and I had my first glimpses of Breda. This essentially consisted of “look there’s our church – it’s called Grote Kerk” (ie. “Big Church”). We arrived at Linda’s amazing house complete with spa bath and a particularly entertaining ice machine. We set up our sleeping area in the living room and chatted into the night until we realised we had to be up in 4 hours for our flight and hence sleeping might be a good idea.
Eindhoven stayed true to form as it turned out to not be the most pleasant airport experience ever. Sofie had the biggest upset having to pay €120 to change her name from S.D.B Ros to Sofia Ros! Which, it is needless to say, is a ridiculous cost for such a minor detail as it takes two minutes to change on a computer. In security they were confused with a fold up fork I had left in my bag which meant they had to search through all my belongings. Finally in true Wizz Air-style the flight was late by 30 minutes so we had to stand squashed like sardines in the gate getting very hot until they allowed us to board the flight.
The climb was incredibly high with me and Sofie remarking that we couldn’t possibly go through that second set of clouds, but of course we did. The descent was equally as fascinating as a blanket of white was covering the whole of Bulgaria as we got out first sight of the beautiful mountainous terrain.
At passport control we were to be disappointed as we were expecting stamps in our passports, as due to EU open borders I have never had a stamp, but alas we didn’t get one. Perhaps it was because Bulgaria was in the EU. However two hours later at the Macedonian border we did not receive a stamp either and our hearts sank.
Half an hour across the border and we were in Kriva Planka, Klementina’s home town. It was beautiful with mountains on every side, also covered in snow. Though, we were later explicitly told that these were hills by Macedonian standards and not mountains at all. The house was very cozy and small. It was heated by a wood burning Aga/cooker which meant only one room was really warm, but this was not a problem. But, there was an actual problem as one of the water pumps in her town had broken and so there were water restrictions in place. This meant no showering and limited flushing of the toilet…
Klementina, having done much travelling herself, had set aside nothing for that afternoon and we were happy for this as we were very tired. We had some snacks and then slept for a couple of hours in the living room.
Feeling a little more refreshed we had a catch up of our holidays so far and learned some Macedonian. This was quite interesting and useful for the rest of the stay as we could at least attempt to read signs. Macedonian is written in Cyrillic which looks similar to Russian and Greek. There is about 30 characters and each one represents a different sound or phoneme. Linguistics came in useful here as learning IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is based on the same principle, one symbol = one sound. However IPA vaguely follows the English alphabet, however for Macedonian this isn’t the case. For instance H makes the ‘n’ sound and B the ‘v’ sound. We wrote our names and as before my name was annoying as I think when you break it down to phonetics its ‘n-i-k-l’, but the end part doesn’t have vowels and I don’t think you can hear them. This apparently causes a problem so we eventually settled for ‘n-i-k-o-l-a’ or Никоља.
We then explored the rest of the house. It reminded me a lot of my Grandma’s though in appearance they are different. It just had the same feel of being in the country and my Grandma’s house too has rooms that are colder upstairs and once also had no water because a pipe in the village had burst. We chose our rooms and sleeping partners, Sofie and Myrte in the sleeping rooms and Klementina and I in her room. Here we bedded down awaiting the week ahead.
First thing on the agenda was to sample some local delicacies. For breakfast we had a pasta type thing, which looked like pieces of lasagne without sauce that had been baked in the sun. It was OK but I thought it was an odd choice to have something similar to pasta for breakfast. We also had a corn flour based meal to sample but again I wasn’t hugely excited. However Ajvar ‘Iv’e-a/Ivor’, which is a red pepper-based spread you put on bread, which is apparently what Klementina grew up on as a child. It was very tasty.
Our stomachs full we headed into the snow where we were first to register with the police, which you have to do when you visit Macedonia. We got a taxi to town and were surprised when the driver happily waited for us and without charging us extra! Next was a real treat. We were dropped up part way up a hill, where we had a nice stroll until we reached the Monastery of the town. In the snow it was gorgeous. The building was painted all over with pictures of saints and stories and seemed much more colourful than those at home. Here we had a hot chocolate in a traditional café with traditional Macedonian dress hanging on the wall. It is a little disappointing that England does not have a national dress or dance, and the closest I could think of as fitting these descriptions were Morris Men, which I don’t think people would be happy to agree to be our national dance.
The walk down was even better, as this time we didn’t follow the road. We took many pictures and the scenery reminded me of Narnia in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was fantastic, and I don’t think my words can sum it up well so I hop the pictures do it better justice.
We sampled more national cuisine, a rice dish which can either be served rolled up in cabbage leaves, or in a pepper. We all decide the pepper was our favourite.
At four we got the bus to Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. We were to stay with Klementina’s fiends in a flat about 10 minutes from the city centre. This was to become a theme of the trip as we learn even more that Klementina is very well-connected in friends who live in useful places. This is a little annoying as if Klementina was to visit the UK I couldn’t make it so cheap in this way. My friends only really live in the same area as me, in Hertfordshire. This is good for Cambridge and London, which to be honest is where internationals want to go, but for anywhere else I don’t. I could perhaps stretch to the South West and Leicestershire as my grandparents live there, and of course Exeter. The point of cheapness is even more an important for if Klementina came to visit, as Macedonia isn’t in the EU, she would have to pay for a €90 visa before she even reach the British shore! So I’m sure cheapness is quite high in the list of wants. Sadly England isn’t cheap.
Three hours later, and for the cost of only €5, we were in Skopje. Another bus and a confused walk later we were at the flat. We knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Were we at the wrong flat? Klementina checks a few other floors. She concludes this is defiantly the right place. We knock again and there is still no answer. They defiantly know we are coming? We are about to leave when the door opens. It turns out the kittens were being hidden in case it was the landlord.
Sofie was extremely excited about the kittens. We already know she was to be the lady with nine cats in later life. Every time we saw a stray cat all trip it would be pointed out to us with a high-pitched ‘cat’ and a smile. Many pictures were taken of them especially when one had acquired lipstick on its white fur from a kiss.
Our plan was to go out to that evening except, as we were told every time someone new arrived, Tuesday was a dead night and not the day to go out in Skopje. “Why didn’t you come on Wednesday?”. We still tried but the ‘Penguin Pub’ was closed so keeping the animal theme, we tried the Green Kangaroo instead.
This was actually a shopping centre but there were bars open in there so we sat. Or at least tried to. Klementina asked if we could sit by the window, to which the waitress replied yes. However as we were about to sit we then got told by the same waitress that we couldn’t and why didn’t we just sit on these sofas. Klementina explained it was the Capital Mentality that existed here, as well as in Belgrade and Sofia. People who live in the capital think they are better than you and on hearing Klementina’s villager dialect had decided to act to us differently. I would hope this doesn’t happen at home but I’m sure it does.
We anyway enjoyed our Ckoпcko ‘Skopsko’ beer – ‘the taste of Macedonia’ – in a “hardcore” fashion as the waitress put it, i.e. from the bottle. Here we were taught what every visitor to Macedonia has to learn. “Sakom Ckoпcko” – I want Ckoпcko.
A beer down we returned to the flat to retire for the evening. There were three beds for the four of us so Myrte and Klementina were going to share. Klementina said she would join us soon as she was also tired but this was never to happen. Instead literally for the whole night she chatted with her friends and at 9.30am we awoke to a surprisingly happy Klementina who was ready for the day ahead. Very, very, impressive.
We went to explore the city by day and on the way had a pastry breakfast, which was similar to the one we’d had for dinner. It was very tasty and they all cost less than €1. There is a project called Skopje 2014 happening at the moment which involves creating statues in the city related to Macedonian history. One of these is the most enormous statue I have ever seen, of Alexander the Great or “The man on a horse” in order to not upset the Greeks who claim Alexander the Great is also theirs. Klementina had a lot to say about this.
She said that Alexander is fine but there are a lot of other statues of unrelated people around, a Greek temple and an arch that looks vaguely like the Arc de Triomphe. Together they look a bit out-of-place and they really do. Especially with their asymmetry and that they are different colours. I agree and it becomes even more silly when all the money used to build them could’ve been spent on the people of the country. To add to this Klementina also pointed out that it detracts from the important historical thing in the centre, the bridge. It’s strange what governments decide to do with their money.
Klementina wanted some boots and new jeans and of course these things are cheaper to buy here than in the Netherlands so we helped her look. In the shops I saw they had a Peacocks (a shop from back in the UK) however it was labelled as Peacocks London, and inside it looked more up market than the cheap clothes shop I am used to. I don’t even think the prices were cheaper. It was a little odd but I couldn’t compare notes with the others as Peacocks doesn’t exist in the Netherlands. It amused me at least.
At the end of the shopping trip Klementina had some new jeans and I had a new rucksack (which I bought after some persuasion from the others) and a Macedonian badge for my blanket. We were pleased with this as we didn’t think we’d be able to find one. There was no chance for a Skopje one though, at least I had something.
For lunch was my favourite meal of the trip, Tavce Gravce, which is a bean-based dish. It’s a bit like a casserole, as had a tomato-ey base with baked beans. This is apparently the most Macedonian dish and is also referred to as Macedonian meat, as when they couldn’t afford meat this is what they ate instead. Mine and Myrte’s did have meat placed on top like sausages with no skin. The meal is cooked in a pot like a tagine which gives it its flavour. We also had Greek salad on the side and some bake feta. It was delicious.
Now we were to meet Klementina’s friends and go on the cable cars (or ‘magic helicopters’ as they became known as I told Klementina that’s what I called them when I was little) to the 60ft cross that stood on top of the mountain overlooking the city. Unfortunately they weren’t able to come, so the four of us got in a taxi and attempted our assault of the hill. The taxi driver was a little odd when he dropped us off asking for an exchange of phone number with Klementina so he could pick us up when we are done. Then when we were on the cable cars calling to ask if he could wait for us – strange things our taxi drivers don’t do.
The cars went surprisingly fast and it was quite entertaining when we were going as Klementina exclaimed that she was scared of heights and gripped my hand crying, “This is the scariest thing ever”. Luckily I wasn’t scared and it was beautiful to see the whole city below us. However at the top it was foggy and so we couldn’t see the cross and photos of the city were not an option at this height. It was also freezing and the ticket seller was correct in saying we wouldn’t be up their more than five minutes.
At the bottom we met up with the taxi driver and asked to be taken to a lower car park to take some photos. He agreed. We let Sofie do the work as she had an SLR camera and I only had a compact. There was a tower on the hillside and Sofie decided to climb it and lucky for her there were three Macedonian guys who wanted to join her “I want to take pictures with Sofie”. After cries of “stop flirting”, Sofie returned having mementos of her new friends on her memory card.
We went to the bus stop where we found a warm empty waiting room where Klementina fell promptly asleep. It was over an hour till our bus so while Myrte was anti-social on her phone Sofie and I played “I went to the shop…” until the bus arrived.
The next day was Klementina’s birthday and we were off to go skiing in Bulgaria. We had a tiny issue in that we didn’t have any skiing gear with us and that we’d all hardly been skiing including me who hadn’t at all. We set off anyway in a mini bus with more of Klementina’s friends. We went through the border still with no stamps, and got to the mountain. However the minibus wasn’t quite able to get to the resort as the roads hadn’t been cleared of snow. So we had to wait for another to arrived that was better equipped.
Finally at the slope we had some hot chocolate to warm us up (at a cost of €0.50). Then we went to get kited out and this is where I learned ski boots are a complete nightmare, especially when you don’t know the European equivalent of your shoe size. After at least 6 pairs of shoes and pushing my foot into the boot for about ten minutes each I had them on. I was not a fan of skiing at this point, especially when no one was there to help me converse with the guy who was fitting my skis.
Next, to the mountain. I saw some smaller children part way down the slope and so assumed that was an easier place to ski. “Let’s just go”, suggested Myrte, to which I thought, I can’t do that not having one instruction on how to ski. In the end Myrte went and Sofie after her, going straight down the hill like a bullet. I attempted and failed spectacularly, going three metres before falling over. Now I realised going was OK but I didn’t know how to brake, or get up! So I sat in the snow until KiKi, Klementina’s friend, tried to help. She told me to do a “V” with my skis but this didn’t work as I still went just as fast. Sofie and Myrte then returned to try to help, but they were not good instructors. Somehow I got to the bottom and now for another challenge of the ski lift. I fell off it three times, including running over my ski poles. When I was on I then did not know how to get off or where, I guessed and it went OK with a bit of backwards sliding. Now it was Klementina and KiKi’s father’s go to teach me. This worked better as they explained the theory to me and told me how to fall correctly.
After an incredibly scary and frustrating second decent of the hill I was a little better though falling a lot whenever I picked up speed. This time I had the ski lift sorted as Klementina told me a better way to hold my poles. At the top, the start of the hill is the steepest so this was challenging but I was doing better, and when we got to the part where the children were I understood how to do it. Klementina should consider a career in ski instruction! We returned to the top and went in the hut for some more hot chocolate and lunch.
Back to the slope and I was getting better, after three more attempts I even managed to go down without falling over. Though when this did happen I decided that I don’t think skiing would be for me as when I got to the bottom, I didn’t get the feeling of ‘Yay I’m at the bottom’, but more ‘Oh I’m at the bottom. Is that it?’. Perhaps someone will enlighten me how it’s exciting in the future. After some more goes on the slope, including some more spectacular and amusing falls – including one into a deep bit of soft snow and getting stuck, and getting off the ski lift and ending up going backwards down the hill twice – I returned to the cabin. I was happy as I had leaned to actually ski in a day where as the other novice was only doing straight lines, I could do the turns.
More hot chocolate, photos and a complete change of clothes for me and we were on our way back. €20 for ski hire, ski lift and travel isn’t too bad, maybe people should seek out Bulgaria as a place to ski on the cheap. Especially when you get to also watch the junior Bulgaria team practice the slalom as well.
After a power nap we were ready for the birthday get together with Klementina’s friends at her house. We played charades to try to overcome the language barrier and it was really fun. Deep discussions were had and everyone clocked out at about 5am.
Friday was a do nothing day and we did exactly that, venturing out for a few moments to take some pictures overlooking the town. We watched the big bang theory and ate Macedonian pizza. This is a pizza base with an omelette on top instead of the cheese and I quite liked it considering I don’t really like omelette. Klementina’s friends returned in the evening, but there wasn’t as much atmosphere as the night before. We played some cards and watched Role Models.
Saturday we were going to be leaving Macedonia to visit Klementina’s old university, the American University in Bulgaria. We did this in style though, pushing ahead of all the cars in the taxi and finally acquiring Macedonian and Bulgarian stamps in our passports.
We arrived late afternoon to a surprisingly small University, to my eyes at least. I don’t know what I was expecting, but apparently in my mind American University means Big. It was actually smaller than UCU but had about double the people at 1200. There were three accommodation blocks. The one we stayed in had three beds, with a shower and toilet attached. There was one academic building, with the main one being more in town and a currently being built student centre.
We had a tour and I decided that I liked UCU more as I didn’t like the apparent cliquiness, with the Americans and Balkans hanging out separately. However within these groups I could see that the bonds were stronger between people and especially that Klementina enjoyed being back with her friends.
We had a tour of town and ate some delicious pasta. One thing that is nice is that Klementina said they would eat out every day at UBG which is something we don’t do as we hardly ever get off campus, but many plans have been made to try to prevent this next term so we’ll see how that goes.
We grabbed some beers, and I was surprised to see cider in the fridge, had a shower and ventured into the nightlife of Blargo. However we were there on a Saturday so the night wasn’t very student-y. We went to an underground club which turned out to be different from the places in the Netherlands and the UK, though it reminded me more of home. They played the widest range of music, from hip hop to Rammstein, in the same room. The main thing I thought was unlike home was the groups of friends kept their space. At home if there is a group of boys behind you and you are a group of girls, someone is going to try to integrate the two, but nothing like this happened. This is comforting as it means if you just want to go and have a night out then you can without worrying about drunken boys being a pain.
Downside though is that they smoke inside and this is why we decided to leave as it was starting to hurt my throat. We walked back and I had a little reminisce about how you don’t have The Walk Home at UC which is quite a fun part of going out.
The next day we awoke late and went to grab some food and chocolate soufflé from town. We went to the Irish pub – I would like to know why the Irish have such claim to all the pubs, I mean I think we do them pretty well too, but you never see an English pub about – who knows? We trawled the extensive menu to which I hadn’t decided what I wanted yet. The menu had pictures of the food, to which everyone else thought it was great, but to me they just put me off. I decided to ignore them in the end which was a good choice as when my chicken meal arrived the picture hadn’t done it justice at all.
Here we also learned the odd Bulgarian waitressing technique that as soon as the very last piece of meal had passed your lips they take the plate away from you which turns out to be quite annoying. They also don’t bring all the meals out at the same time which is also odd. We joked about how it’s because they only actually have 4 plates and so have to keep reusing the same ones – though this is obviously not true.
We all then got the bus to Sofia where our flight would be leaving from at 6.10am the next morning. It was freezing as we arrived late afternoon with a horrible chilly wind. We had a brisk tour of the sites, which in reality was asking the taxi driver what things were and ended with us in an Irish pub and unfortunately no Bulgaria badge for me.
We didn’t spend much time there, but there was an ale, Killkenny, part of the Guinness family that Klementina tried. I kept quiet about the fact she had tried ale before, Old Speckled Hen, in a beer bar in Utrecht and said she didn’t like it. This paid off as she liked this one and so when she does finally visit England we are defiantly going on a rail ale trail. This is where you follow a train line, usually a small one, and get off at different stations along the track which have pubs near them. They all serve real ales and cider and it’s awesome as you get to see the little village pubs and of course sample a lot of different drinks. There are quite a few in Devon and Cornwall which is handy.
Now for goodbyes. Klementina was to be dropped off at the bus station in order to get to a party with her old university friends and we were then to be taken to the airport by taxi. Up till now taxis were fine as Klementina did all the talking, which insured we didn’t get inflated tourist rates. However now we were on our own. We all had a little flutter in our stomachs as we watched the metre from the back seat, especially as Klementina had said even she had been ripped off by Sofia taxi drivers. Luckily this didn’t happen.
However we hadn’t eaten any dinner and expected to eat this at the airport and sleep on the sofas. Unfortunately neither of these existed at this terminal, so we sat on the metal benches and bought expensive Pringles from the newsagents. The 10 hour wait for the flight wasn’t looking so fun. I luck did change however and we went on a little adventure when the information desk lady told us there was a supermarket nearby. It turned out to be a petrol station, but at least it had more, and was cheaper than the little shop in the airport.
Now with our feast we laid around and awaited the flight. We decided we would have a new snack break every hour on the hour, which we kept to until 1am. It was also a momentous occasion when our flight was pit on the departures board at 12.30am. It could’ve been way worse and at the start it was actually quite fun, but the benches were not comfy.
At 4am we went through the boarding gates, with far less hassle this time, though they did question my fork again. Surprisingly on time, at 6.10am (which I didn’t mention is 5.10 Dutch time, and 4.10 English time) we were waving goodbye to Bulgaria as fell away beneath our feet.
So what’s our opinion on the second world and Eastern Europe? The scenery is breathtaking and would be the main reason to move, and of course it is crazy cheap. But more importantly the people are lovely even if they do look at you odd for being tourists, or because you’re tall and blonde. The men would do better with not speaking as the language sounds much better from a females mouth, and when they are selling things, they could learn to tone down the “sex bomb” talk.
The food is really warm and filling which suited the snow that lay outside. The buildings have a certain appeal as they are all a bit dilapidated and ugly but together they are actually quite charming. Unfortunately for Klementina I thought Sofia was nicer than Skopje and from this you can tell there is a bit of rivalry and heavy stereotypes for each country about the other. However in the end it’s just fun and they all identify themselves with the Balkans in the end. It is worth going to as it’s a little different and not your usual destination. Most importantly it is not the communist backward countries you have in your mind, when you hear Eastern Europe.