Monthly Archives: October 2015

Endearing Edirne

Bad news: on one of the first days during my stay in Edirne, I suffered from a sudden bout of lower back pain after bending over in the shower to pick up a bar of soap. The hazards of personal hygiene are not to be underestimated and studies have proven that an astonishing number of people succeed in killing themselves every year in the bathroom. At least I had averted that fate.

You think you have problems?

Photo taken at a butcher in Edirne

Recovery is slow and frustrating, but it gives me ample time to read and learn about the Turkish culture.

LANGUAGE

The Turkish language doesn’t recognise gender. There is only one word for he, she and it. This can explain why Turkish speakers frequently mix up he and she, or him and her, when conversing in English. This makes for surprising plot twists when the subject of a narrative suddenly becomes a man instead of a woman, as was previously envisioned, or vice versa.

The history of Turkish can explain many foreign influences from Ottoman times (even though it has gone through a period of purification since). Interesting examples I found:
Bulgaristan, Yunanistan (=Greece), where the -stan suffix is of Persian origin.
A word I frequently encountered and which I recognised from my past travels in the Middle East was tamam, which means OK and is a loan word from Arabic.

LANGUAGE AND FOOD

Döner, as used in the ubiquitous döner kebab, means to turn in English. The same mechanism of word invention is visible in the Greek gyros (cf. gyrating) which is prepared in a similar fashion as its Turkish counterpart.
Dolma
are stuffed vegetables, which I found out after I got some offered to me by the cleaning lady of the hostel. It has the same root verb as dolmuş which are the shared taxis or minibuses, where, in the past, people would be packed, or stuffed, like sardines.

TEA AND COFFEE

I learnt the Turkish way of making tea. Turkish tea is grown in Turkey, on the eastern Black Sea coast. This seems obvious, but till then I was under the impression that the adjective Turkish was referring to the unique process of preparing the brew, which is done in the peculiar double boiler tea pot, called çaydanlık in Turkish. It mainly involves pouring boiling water from one kettle in the other with an reassuring attitude suggesting that you know what you are doing. The result is a very tasty cup, but somehow, it is never quite like the tea served in a tea house.

Turkish teapot

Turkish teapot

Turkish coffee is simply made by throwing losts of coffee in boiling water. Turkish people will tell you that it’s much more complicated than that, but it isn’t. The result tastes always the same.

In the Health Museum, which is housed in the mosque complex of Sultan Bayezid II, there were several interesting displays of treatment of the mentally ill. Music therapy and aroma therapy were used to calm the deranged and urge them to hand over their battle axes. In the courtyard, a water fountain was installed in the hope that the sound of falling water had a therapeutical effect on the mentally ill. The effect it had on me is that I had to go and find a toilet.

Edirne roses

Edirne roses in the darüşşifa, hospital, used for aroma therapy

 

Turkey-bound

When it stopped raining, I left Plovdiv.
But not before I had arranged an e-visa online for Turkey, which required only marginally less patience than hacking the pentagon. Or so it seemed when I struggled to get my creditcard accepted..

In 2007, when Bulgaria entered the European Union, Cyrillic became the third official alphabet in the EU. This means that on new euro banknotes, one can find next to the Latin and Greek, the enigmatic  EBPO, which is EURO in Cyrillic. This design was to ensure that Bulgarians could understand the euro banknotes too.
Cyrillic was invented because early missionaries in Slavic countries, notably St. Cyril and St. Methodius, wanted to translate bibles into Slavic languages but lacked the proper letters in the Latin alphabet. Since they not only brought Orhtodox Christianity to the Slavs, but introduced the art of writing as well, they were free to choose or invent any alphabet they saw fit and so they cobbled together a new alphabet, or rather, a new azbuka, as it is  called after the first two letters. Unfortunately, for the users of the Latin script, there were quite a few so called false friends in the new set of characters, which made it all quite confusing.
For example: pectopaht looks like a medical term, but is the cyrillic tranliteration of restorant, where p = r, c = s and h = n.

At the border with Greece I drank excellent coffee with my last leva before cycling through customs. I hadn’t realised, but Bulgaria is not part of the Schengen zone and so there was a passport control. As any bureaucrat, the man who checked my passport wanted to know things not because it was relevant but because he was curious.
Where are you going?
Edirne.
And after that?
Istanbul.
For what reason?
I looked at my bicycle. Tourism.
And after Istanbul?
I don’t know.
You are going back to Netherland?
I don’t know.
Okay, he handed back my passport. Not knowing what you want is okay.

Exodus

Exodus

The road in Greece was a stretch of wide and smooth tarmac, but very few  people seemed to use it. The route itself was a bit longer than the one through Bulgaria, but I had heard that the new A1 motorway was not ready yet and a lot of traffic still used the old road. The Greek alternative  was quiet and a pleasure to ride on. To my surprise I saw cotton fields next to the road.

Cotton field in Greece

Cotton field in Greece

The border crossing from Greece to Turkey was a breeze. It was a small road through the tiny village of Kastanies and heavy traffic was therefore not allowed. After cycling through the no man’s land between the borders and after nodding to a soldier who stood motionless with a gun in his hand, a mad, loud barking dog started chasing me. The soldier looked surprised, but for some reason refused to shoot the animal.

At customs I showed the e-visa on my smartphone and that was fine. Welcome to Turkey.

Three countries in one  day…

More Balkans

When I cycled through the mountains of Northern Albania, I saw several places where drivers had unintentionally steered their vehicles off the cliffs and these men, and yes, they were all men, were commemorated by photos and flowers put there by their loved ones. Sometimes I read the birthdays and when they were younger than me, it gave me some strange feeling of satisfaction that I was stil alive and I then felt an urge to celebrate life.

Shopska salad in Macedonia: tomatoes and cucumbers topped with white cheese. It is widely believed to be a traditional dish, but it was actually invented as a tourist promotion.

When I was in Skopje, I read up on some history. One remarkable story was about an Austrian general, Piccolomini who fought against the Ottomans in the 17th century. He famously burned down the city in 1689 to try to get rid of a cholera epidemy. Sadly, this unconventional precaution didn’t  prevent the general from dying of cholera himself that very same year.

From Kriva Palanka in Macedonia I cycled to the Bulgarian border where I used my last denars to pay for coffee and some bread. The border crossing was straightforward and as the border was the high point of a pass, it was a long descent from there into Bulgaria. On the way down, I spotted a mad dog in the distance that jumped against a passing car and, not surprisingly,  bounced off it. By the time I got there I looked around carefully, because I was afraid of the dog leaping at my panniers. Suddenly it sprang from between some parked cars, but instead of coming towards me, it aimed for a car that was, at that moment, overtaking me. It had not seen me and I actually hit it with my front wheel, but it never even made a noise. Looking back I saw it walking away unharmed, looking puzzled at what hit it.

Bulgaria lies in the Eastern European Time Zone, which is my third time zone so far. The time difference left me jet lagged for a few days.

The next day I cycled a record 145 kilometres and reached Plovdiv. The distance is an estimate because my bicycle computer has stopped working in Skopje and I couldn’t be bothered to buy a new one.

In Plovdiv I drank my first Turkish tea in the Turkish cafe next to the Dzhumaya Mosque.

My first Turkish tea in Plovdiv

My first Turkish tea in Plovdiv

After that I set out to explore the city. In the hostel I had accidently grabbed a map of Sofia, so it caused me some head scratching when I tried to navigate with it in Plovdiv. Once in the Old City, I had difficulties to muster interest for the typical architecture. Like so many cities it was built on seven hills, and although at least one had been demolished to make way for a shopping mall, there was still a lot of tramping up and down cobbled streets.

That evening I had dinner in a restaurant and feeling adventurous, I ordered the tripe soup which is supposed to be a delicacy, but which I found rather bland. To improve on the dish I generously added chillies and garlic. When I was so indulging in chewing on the thick lining of cattle stomach, a large group of elderly American tourists entered the establishment. I couldn’t help eavesdropping on some conversations, but they were mainly about hospitals. I imagined it wouldn’t be difficult to strike up a conversation about arthritis of the knees, a subject in which I had become quite an expert after my misadventures in Portugal.

A few days later I joined a young Australian couple who had rented a car to visit the ‘UFO’ in Buzludzha. The ‘UFO’ is a surrealistic monument to the communist era in the shape of gigantic flying saucer. It could easily feature in an early James Bond movie if it wasn’t completely derelict and vandalised. The main entrance was closed to the pubic, but we found a small hole to the right side of the building through which we entered the monument. Because of the thick mist that even permeated the interior it was a spooky experience to explore the dark bowels of the concrete monstrosity. It had been a good idea to bring our flashlights.

Below are some photos from our road trip to Buzludzha, some 120 kilometres north of Plovdiv.

Buzludzha, the conference hall of the former Bulgarian Communist Party

Buzludzha, the conference hall of the former Bulgarian Communist Party

Marx mosaic in Buzludzha

Marx mosaic in Buzludzha

Lenin mosaic in Buzludzha

Lenin mosaic in Buzludzha

 

 

Macedonian delights

Leaving Prizren meant a long ascent to the Kaçanik Pass and from there a long descent to the Skopje Valley. Because it was beautiful weather I decided to wild camp along the way. At some point I steered my bicycle into a dirt track leading down to the river where I found a grassy spot under some trees which shielded my camp from the road. When I had put up my tent, I saw a small pile of wet clothes and my vivid imagination turned it into the contents of a rucksack of some backpacker who had gone missing years ago. On the other hand, so I reasoned, it seemed to be evidence of some recent human activitiy making it less likely that I had inadvertently made my camp in a forgotten minefield from the Kosovo conflict. During the night I heard many voices and everytime I had to tell myself it was only the mumbling of the nearby stream that played tricks on my ears.

The next morning I opened my tent and reached for one of my panniers only to grab into the slimy texture of a slug. To my horror I found out that my tent and bags were covered with these disgusting animals. After packing my tent I pushed my bike back to the road and drank coffee at a petrol station close to the border.

Skopje was a nice city and I decided to stay for a while. During one of these days I did a walking tour which took forever and was more exhausting than many a day on my bicycle.

On first arrival in Skopje, one cannot help to be amazed by the sheer number of statues and fountains that embellish the city. They are part of the megalomanic project Skopje 2014, which includes bridges and even entire ministries and is estimated to cost up to 500 million euro and has obviously drawn a lot of criticism. On the central square stands a huge statue of a warrior on a horse which I thought was Alexander the Great and which is often referred to as such, but is formally, and aptly, I must say, named Warrior on a Horse. Due to the strained relationship with neighbouring Greece, many allusions to ancient Macedonian history are highly controversial. The statue cost 7.5 million euro, but that includes some nice foutains that play music.

Church in Matko canyon

St. Andrew’s monastery in Matka canyon

Matko Canyon

Trail along Matka Canyon

The photos above were taken during a cycling trip to the nearby Matka Canyon.

Leaving Skopje I had to climb out of the valley  in which it lies and I was slowly making my way upwards as I was suddenly attacked by a pack of four big dogs. With surprise I saw them coming down the small hill on the left of the road. There must be some kind of fence, it ran through my head, but there was no fence and the dogs came straight through the imaginary fence. The dogs were dodging cars that had to slow down, but they were still after me. I shouted with all my might and for some reason, be it the cars or my shouting, they gave up the attack. Trembling with adrenaline I continued, but not a few kilometres further I cycled along heaps of smouldering garbage and there I saw more dogs. One of those mongrels was barking and I was about to turn around my bicycle and give up, but then it occurred to me that it was only one dog that barked and it was actually walking away from me, so I rode on trying to ignore the other mutts as best as I could.

After these misadventures I decided not to camp that day, but to find a hotel in Kriva Palanka. Unfortunately the only hotel in that village had ceased to exist. After asking around, I was told that I could find a bed at the Monastery of Sv. Joakim Osogovski, a few kilometres further away. It happened to be up a very steep little road and I toiled away, cursing myself and my bad luck, but when I finally arrived I was given a room with kitchen and bathroom and my own little terrace. The view was astonishing:

Sv. Joachim something

View from my room in the monastery

All this was mine for a mere 15 euro and to top things off, I discovered a bottle of beer in the fridge, presumably left by the last occupant of the room. When I stood there, taking in the view and with a cold beer in my hand, I decided to stay another day.

Bulgaria could wait.