Macedonia revisited, 1

Last May and June my wife and I took a trip across northwestern and north central Greece, from Corfu to Thessaloniki, with side trips into the neighboring republics of Albania and Macedonia. It was, except for the sometimes-too-warm weather, a most enjoyable trip, with visits to archaeological sites, historic monuments, old cities museums and magnificent scenery, including some beautiful lakes (Ioánnina, Kastoriá, Prespa and Ohrid).

We like to use public transport whenever possible, and only rent a car when it’s the only way to get to places that we want to see. Tanihis time we took a ferry from Corfu to Sarandë in Albania, a local bus to visit Butrint, a long-distance bus from Saranda to Gjirokastër and another one (one of two daily) from there to Ioánnina, the capital of Epirus in Greece.

But in planning the continuation of our trip into Greek Macedonia it turned out that bus service is deficient, unless one wants to go directly to Thessaloniki. There are four buses a week to Kastoriá and two to Flórina, but no direct ones between the latter two cities, or between Kastoriá and the Prespa lakes. All this places were on our route, and so renting a car became a necessity.

I inquired further whether one could take a rented car across the border into what the Greeks persist in calling the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Given the tense relations between this state and Greece, there are practically no public transport links between them. There is one, to be precise: the train that connects Greece to her old friend and ally Serbia (Thessaloniki–Belgrade) has to, by dint of geography, go through Macedonia. (I once took this train from Thessaloniki to Skopje, and the border crossing was not a pleasant experience.) But this is not the part of Macedonia that we wanted to visit: our focus was on Ohrid, in the country’s southwest.

It turned out that, of all the car-rental companies, only Avis allowed for a possible border crossing, and the booking could only be made through Avis Greece, not the international site. At the time I inquired they didn’t know as yet what the rate would be, so I waited. When I finally got the information, it was that the rate for a week’s rental would be over €1,100, as against some €400 for a rental within Greece. So, back to planning.

The plan that emerged was to leave the car parked in Flórina for the time that we would spend traveling to, staying in and returning from the Republic of Macedonia. To that end we booked a hotel in Flórina for the nights before and after the cross-border trip; the hotel’s management kindly agreed to let us park the car at their contract lot at no charge. And the only way to get from Flórina to Bitola is by taxi. We heard, however, that Greek taxi drivers don’t like to cross the border. By a stoke of luck, I got a lead on a driver based in Bitola who could take us across the border both ways at a very reasonable price. The driver turned out to be punctual and skilled at bypassing the lone line at passport control.

Once in Bitola there was no problem in catching a bus to Ohrid, after visiting the archaeological site of Heraclea Lyncestis and eating lunch washed down with good Macedonian wine. And Ohrid, which I had visited over 20 years ago, was enchanting, though drastically changed.

One of my memories of that visit (which I undertook by bus from Skopje) was stopping off in a gift shop and hearing a family tell the owner, in English, that they were Spanish, from Majorca. Being curious whether they would be speaking Spanish or Majorcan, I followed them out the store and eavesdropped. There were speaking… Greek!

They probably assumed, rightly or wrongly (probably wrongly, in my opinion) that Macedonians’ attitude to Greeks would not be too friendly, and so they hid behind the common trope that a Greek accent in English sounds like a Spanish one. (It doesn’t: Greeks have a hard time with the consonant represented in both English and Spanish by ch).

The tension that I am referring to has to do with the Macedonia name dispute, which I have been writing about for a dozen years (starting here), and which has lately come to the foreground again, so that I need to write about it again. More next time.

 

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