Sunday, July 31, 2011
Thursday, July 21, 2011
I decided to go for my longest bike ride today, my initial plan was to cycle all the way to Rochester in Kent, however I decided that this was too ambitious for my unfit legs so decided to let the train take strain to Tilbury and jump on the ferry over to Gravesend. So dressed in shorts, t shirt and sunglasses I set off for Benfleet station, the weather was perfect for cycling. Overcast, but not warm and about 16c and not much wind.
There’s something I love about the Tilbury Gravesend ferry. Evidence exists to suggest that a ferry service has been in use between these two points since 1571 and it has been in almost constant use since the advent of the railways in this area in 1852. It’s a ramshackle tired looking old boat that has long since been superseded by bridges and tunnels over and under the Thames but thanks to local subsidies it continues and chugs back and forward on its 8 minute journey over this narrow part of the Thames, dodging huge tanker ships on its way.
First thing that strikes you as you get off the ferry is the comparison between the two sides of the water. On the Essex side is a desolate port area with container yards; as soon as you get off at Gravesend you are met by a lively vibrant town that I think it its own small way is quite nice.
I had pre planned a route to Rochester which used something I’d never heard of before today called Sustrans routes. These are a UK wide cycle network symbol with numbered routes. They have quite distinctive signs of blue backgrounds with a white number in a red circle. I began following Sustran route one when I realised I had my bike lock but no key. So I had to make an emergency dash to a local Halfords to buy a cheap lock.
Initially the route followed Gravesend riverside and was quite nice but shortly the route entered an ugly industrial estate. The printed itinerary I had wasn’t proving much use as the new directions seem to be every 100 yards or so and I was stopping every 5 minutes to check, and when I did they didn’t always seem to match up with what I was seeing. I just decided to follow the Sustran signs and not use the itinerary too much. I passed a sign which said Rochester 11 miles and joined a lovely purpose built cycle path through the gorgeous Kent countryside. I had views over the water to Essex to my left and rolling fields of corn to my right. Occasionally rabbits darted on the path in front of me.
I trying to pace myself, I had no need to rush although I did find some of the climbs approaching Strood a little tough. Although with every climb comes a lovely downhill part and on one I’m sure I must have come close to 30mph. I eventually got to Rochester after about an hour and a bit. I was quite tired but glad I had finished my modest but longest ever ride. Have to build up my range gradually!
I have been to Rochester quite a few times but I always enjoy it there. It really is a charming town, one of the most beautiful in England I would say. Its High Street is quite unique in the sense that aside from banks there are no chain shops that blight every other High Street in this country. Just quaint old shops such as antique shops, book shops and sweet shops. It’s like stepping back in time going there. The Roman castle is one of the best preserved in the country and has been there since 1127. Right next door is Rochester Cathedral, which is equally splendid. It’s even older than the castle and dates back to 676.
I had lunch in a pub and just walked along the high street. I had noticed a few clouds gathering earlier and now they were almost overhead. Within minutes the rain was absolutely torrential and I had no waterproofs. I checked in a few charity shops but no one had any. I took the disappointing decision to take a train back to Gravesend from Strood. I walked over to the castle to get a photo. I didn’t quite trust the guy sitting under a tree clutching a can of Tennants Super so I asked a lady in a snack kiosk to take a photo. Think she was quite bemused to see a man in a red t shirt and shorts and very wet asking for a photo. Disappointed I took a train back, paying a ridiculous £4.20 to go one stop.
I had a lovely day out; it really is quite liberating and rewarding to cycle to places instead of driving. You see places you’d never see otherwise and probably enjoy your destination more with the satisfaction of having gotten there under your own steam. I intend to extend my cycling ambitions further.
* Total milage for the day, a mere 19 miles. It felt like more. Wasn't gonna include it here as this constitutes a warm up for some of my advanced cycling friends...
Sunday, July 10, 2011
With nothing keeping me in Pristina I decided to leave on the first bus at 0630 back to Skopje and connect on to the first bus to Ohrid, the supposedly jewel of Macedonia and self styled Macedonian Riviera. I really was disappointed with Pristina but the sensible thing to do was to move on and make the most of the short time I had left.
The connection in Skopje went well and I arrived in Ohrid 3 hours later. Thanks to a good tip from a lady behind me on the bus I got off a stop earlier which was nearer the town and saved me a taxi ride from the out of town bus station. The heat was searing, I dodged the room touts and walked into town looking for the Sunny lake Hostel, a difficult task which proved very difficult and tiring.
After the drab concrete of Pristina and the disappointment of Skopje I was very impressed with Ohrid as I walked down the sun drenched streets of the Old Town. There was a vibrant laidback atmosphere that you would come to expect of a country’s premier holiday town. The views when I got to the banks of Lake Ohrid on which Ohrid sits took my break away. Crystal blue waters flanked by mountains on all sides with the sun glistening off the waves. Looking away from the water the red roofed houses clinging to the hillside added to the picturesque scene. It was easy to see why the town was made a UNESCO heritage site. I didn’t do much for the rest of the day, just walked around the town and along the lake enjoying the ambience and of being in somewhere that was aesthetically pleasing. I sent off a few postcards and committed the holiday error of buying a hat that I will never probably wear again back at home; it was a large wide brimmed thing, not too dissimilar to Indiana Jones! I wore it around town with surprisingly few odd looks. Personally I thought I pulled it off! I visited the St John Kaneo church which sits high on a cliff top overlooking the town and harbour where the views were spectacular. I actually found it by mistake as I was looking for the fortress but took a wrong turn.
After dinner I walked back through town to the hostel weaving my way through the hordes of tourists and avoided the very pushy restaurant reps lining the streets, loud music was pumping out of bars and clubs and it really wasn’t my scene so I went back to the hostel.
The following morning, my last few hours in Ohrid I was struck by a thought, my opinion of Ohrid had diminished drastically. From my initial impressions I now felt myself looking at a town that has given itself up to mass tourism and lost many of its old charms. Well not lost exactly but struggling to be noticed above the neon signs, countless restaurants and thousands of tourists. Its cheap bars, loud music and endless rows of tacky souvenir stands really detract from the beauty of the old town. It was impossible to walk along the harbour without being harassed for boat tours and I had quickly grown tired of the place. Last night the old town resembled Bar Street in Faliraki.
I decided to walk up to the fortress, the task I had failed the previous night. Except then it was a comfortable 20c at sunset, now it was midday and 32c. I made it, not without some discomfort and took some nice photos.
When I returned to the hostel I got chatting to some English guests who were booked on the same bus back to Skopje as me and also the same flight back to London that evening so we joined up to save taxi costs, both here and to the airport when back in Skopje.
To sum up Ohrid, yes I was disappointed that the town really is just a tourist Mecca and a pretty over stretched one at that, but you have to separate the stunning views from the negative aspects of the town. They are among the best views anywhere in Europe. But in all honestly, I can’t remember my opinion a of town changing so drastically in such a short period of time, I loved it on arrival but within twenty four hours I was tired of the place and glad to be leaving.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
I kind of knew that yesterday that my trip to Pristina in Kosovo was a bit of a box ticking exercise. I just held hopes that it would be worth a visit in its own right and would justify the effort. I have to be honest and say that aside from the fact I have added another country to my list it didn’t.
I left Skopje on the first bus at 0900, full of optimism and excitement of country number 41 on the horizon. After a hassle free ride I got to the bus station and having decided the guesthouse I had booked was out of walking distance I went over to a taxi company, avoiding the vicious guard dog that was foaming at the mouth and barking furiously in the car park.
I had pre booked the only guesthouse in Pristina, the Velhania which according to Lonely Planet was run by a jovial Professor of Engineering and “perfect for anyone missing the hostel atmosphere or their Granddad”. Intrigued by such a description I was looking forward to it. Even if this place was within walking distance I’d never have found it. I was checked in by two chain smoking middle aged women and shown to my room in another building. I had a triple room to myself in a building seemingly lacking other guests. I was let down on the hostel experience promised and time would prove me to be let down on LP’s other promise; I never did get to meet the Professor during my time there.
After walking into the city centre I soon realised there was very little here of interest, my quest to unearth some hidden gems would be a fruitless one. I went to the UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) building and watched with fleeting interest the UN emblazoned cars coming and going but the novelty soon wore thin so I went off in search of a nice Mosque, The Carshi. Honestly, I walked past it twice as with the dirt and smashed windows I assumed it was derelict. The only thing that drew me to explore closer was the National Library, a peculiarly designed building. It looks like a badly designed set from the original Star Trek or a building covered in large eggs encased in wire mesh. Would love to know what the architect was smoking when he thought that was a good idea. Picture is at the start.
There was nothing else in Pristina for me to look for. The Bazaar area mentioned in LP I’d already inadvertently walked through it, I was quite disappointed. I just reminded myself that the main attraction was being in Kosovo itself. In the evening I indulged in some people watched along the main street during the Passagiata along Bulevard Nene Tereze (Mother Therese) and just took in the sense of national pride from the world’s newest nation. Maybe this is just imagined but the Kosovans are a fiercely proud people and it seemed evident to me.
It’s just a shame Pristina isn’t more of a tourist town and during dinner I took the decision to take the first bus back to Skopje and move on to Ohrid. This means an 0630 bus but there was nothing keeping me there a minute longer. Was happy to be there, but definitely not one of Europe’s gems.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
My evening had an unexpected ending. A friend of mine on my nursing course, upon learning I planned to go to Macedonia, told me they had a friend here and would pass on my details to them. Having heard many “ I've got a friend there’ yarns I didn't think much of it. Anyway, shortly after posting the earlier entry I got a call from Beni, the ‘friend of a friend’. He said he’d be at my hostel in 10 minutes. I waited with intrigue outside when a brand spanking new Audi pulled up, sticking out like a sore thumb among all the 20 year old Yugos which seem to be the car of choice among people in this neighbourhood.
He asked if I’d eaten- I hadn’t- and so he took me to a expensive looking Italian restaurant, parking virtually on top of a busy intersection right outside the restaurant. I had a lovely pasta meal ( now wasn’t the time to be paying attention to my low carb diet) and had several beers. It was a nice evening and the conversation flowed nicely. I asked him about his work and he tentatively and vaguely said he worked for the government. When it was time to leave I said we should get the bill to which Beni said to me dismissively, “ Don’t worry about that...” and we returned to his Audi, parked conspicuously on this busy intersection with neither of us having paid a penny. On the way back he reiterated his desire to help me here in any way he can. I think that he, being of Kosovan parentage, was happy to hear of a foreigner making the effort to visit the country of his heritage. As we were sat in traffic he turned to me and asked, “Richard, have you ever held a gun?” I replied that I’d never even seen a gun in my life, let alone held one. (Those attached to the waists of policemen don’t count). He then opened up the glove box to reveal a loaded semi automatic hand gun, the real deal. He was careful to remove the magazine and then placed the gun in my hand. A weird surreal moment indeed. He said he carries it for ‘protection ‘when I asked if was something to do with his job. I gave him the gun back, he reloaded it and placed it carefully back in the glove box, at the same time pointing out a CB radio that he uses to listen in to police channels. I didn’t want to ask but I’m guessing there’s more to Beni than meets the eye.
I wasn’t expecting the capital of Macedonia to be stunning and to be honest it’s not. The research I did prior to coming here indicated that even Macedonians consider Ohrid in the south to be the jewel in the country’s crown. Keeping an open mind and determined to seek out the best of the city I left Shanti Hostel at 11 into the searing heat. Skopje’s lack of aesthetic charm isn’t entirely its own fault. It suffered a devastating earthquake in 1963, destroying virtually all the old buildings. If you consider that Marsal Tito, the then Communist leader of Yugoslavia replaced the former charms with ugly sprawling concrete masses with the aid of a Japanese architect then you’ll understand why a lot of the charm was lost. The Communists never were very much into pleasing architecture and their ugly influence is stamped all over this city.
Visually my first impressions were ruined by extensive renovations and bridge building works that are going on right in the centre of the city. The city’s focal point is the Stone Bridge which links the Orthodox south bank with the Muslim North and crosses the Vardar River right next to the National Theatre. I walked along the banks of the river toward the Stone Bridge but the eye sore that the building works have created have completely ruined the view and really have created an eyesore, with piles of gravel, tall cranes and scaffolding obliterating the view I had seen in travel sites at much as could be. The Stone Bridge is considered the symbol of Skopje and dates back to the 15th century.
Even the huge statue of Alexander the Great at a square at the beginning of the main Boulevard Plostadi Makedonija couldn’t escape the scaffolding curse. I couldn’t help but wonder how nice it would look once all the work is completed. After having my shoes shined by an old guy along Plostadi Makedonija I stopped off at Bar Roma to test Lonely Planet’s claim that it has the best espresso in Skopje- if there’s better I’d like to know- and went to the City Museum. It’s housed in the old Railway which was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake and whose clock on the front eerily displays the time 5:17, the time the devastated earthquake struck. The museum was disappointing, just a bizarre art gallery and an odd display of Communist era furniture.
There wasn’t much to keep me in the new part of town and even though I was hoping to save the old Ottoman Quarter until tomorrow I decided to go there today via a stop at Soboren Hram Sveti Klimenti Ohridski, Skopje’s main orthodox cathedral. On the way a few welcome spots of rain fell.
After crossing the Stone Bridge and I got my first glimpse of the Ottoman Quarter I had the impression that for me, this old atmospheric part of the city IS Skopje. The sights and smells were quite atmospheric and not surprisingly reminded me of Sarajevo, although not as charming of course. It was a world away from the new part of town and I spent most of the afternoon walking through the markets and ambling along the cobbled streets. I bought a little waist bag from a seller where a language problem worked in my favour. I assumed they were 200 Dinar and asked the seller, to demonstrate the price he punched 100 into his phone.
I walked into a Mosque, with permission of course, and was approached by a man who spoke good English. He was a bus driver who told me a lot about the history of the Mosque. It was called the Ahmed Mosque and was apparently the oldest and one of the most significant in the city. The mosque was criminally overlooked by my error strewn Lonely Planet book that didn’t even deem it worthy of a mention. I went to another Mosque, the Sultan Murat which was in my book, gave an old man 60 Dinar for the privilege of letting me inside and looked around, it was quite plain inside and I thought the unmentioned Ahmed one was nicer. I like Mosques, especially when I’m lost. Find a mosque; look at what direction the men are praying towards and you’ve instantly found east. Clever eh?
Wilting a little from the heat I decided to head back to Shanti for a rest. May go out for a drink later but may well end up staying here. Have to say Skopje has its charms but you have to work hard for them.
I arrived last night in the Macedonian capital Skopje. I flew over with the most unpunctual airline in the world, Wizzair, whose cabin crew's manners make Ryanair's look like Virgin Atlantic Upper Class...