|The view from our apartment terrace. That haze along the center of the photo is smoke from wood burning fires across the city.|
|We walked by this shop selling traditional Bulgarian costumes and crafts.|
|A view of Ohrid's old town from the promenade. With a population of about 60,000, Ohrid is the 8th largest city in Macedonia. It has been called the "Jerusalem of the Balkans" having at one time 365 churches in the city, one for each day of the year.|
We took a 60 minute tour (1800 denar) with Dimitar, who spoke English quite well. We went out at a perfect time. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and no breeze at all. The lake was as smooth as glass. It was one of those truly idealic experiences.
|Paul quickly settled in and got comfortable.|
|Ohrid is a town that goes back to the time of King Phillip II of Macedon (359-336 BC; father of Alexander the Great and Phillip III).|
|Occasionally James would look up from his Kindle book and admire the view.|
|This is a photo of St Clement's Monastery Church. St Clement was buried at the church in 916 AD. The church fell into ruins during the medieval period and was replaced by a mosque during the Ottoman period.|
|Another view of Samuil Fortress.|
|On the way to St Jovan Kaneo, the kids befriended this dog. (Didn't they learn anything from my dog attack experience 48 hours ago?!) A few scratches behind the dog's ears and it wanted to join our pack.|
|Walking through the gate to St Jovan Kaneo: Archaeologists believe that the church was constructed some time before the rise of the Ottoman empire, very likely in the 13th century.|
|On the grounds of St Jovan Kaneo with Lake Ohrid in the background: Our new four-legged friend was still with us.|
|St Jovan Kaneo overlooking Lake Ohrid.|
|After leaving St Jovan Kaneo, we hiked up to the walls of the Samuil Fortress to find that it was closed. At this point, James was trying to discourage our dog friend from sticking with us but the pup continued to follow, now however at a distance.|
|In the end, the dog stalked us in the tall grass. This is a zoomed in shot of the dog watching us as we continued along the path. It was so cute but we knew the friendship had to end. Our dog, Molly, would have no part of another animal on the scene.|
On February 20th, we wanted to visit a couple key sites around the lake. We first headed out to Bay of Bones (Museum on Water) which shows two reconstructions from earlier periods. The first is a platform with about 20 houses on it representing a settlement from the Bronze and Iron ages, 1200 – 700 BC. The second consists of walls of a castrum (Roman military fortification) which were conserved and accentuated through restoration.
|The Roman site is called Gradishte, named after the nearby village. The walls of the original fortification that once protected the Roman Empire from its enemies may date back as far as the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 2nd century BC.|
|As with most Byzantine churches, St. Naum was chosen primarily for its location; it's on a high, rocky outcropping at the edge of the lake, above forests and the springs of the river Crn Drim.|
|We observed that money was left all over the iconostases.|
|This is the only photo I took en route to Skopje. Not great but it shows the improved housing construction, the lower mountains and the "okay" paved road on which we traveled.|
Our host was hands down the most enthusiastic, helpful lodging manager we'd ever met. He helped carry our luggage in, insisting on carrying most of it. When we asked about whether or not there was a washing machine in the apartment, he told us there wasn't but he'd have the laundry done for us. We asked about what he recommended we do and see, given the kids, and he had glowing suggestions for a number of things and then left us for about 15 minutes and returned with a handful of maps and tourist information pamphlets. When we drove into Skopje, Vincent and I were thinking maybe our 3 days here would be too much but after meeting our host, Peter, we began to think maybe it wouldn't be long enough.
After the unexpected thrill of finding and watching the US-Canada Olympic hockey game on Macedonian tv, we set out to find some dinner. Skopje's main city center square was just a few minutes walk from the apartment. I don't know if I've ever been blown away with seeing a new city for the first time like I was when I saw Skopje's center. After reading about Podgorica, Montenegro and seeing Tirana, Albania, I wasn't really expecting much with Skopje, Macedonia, particularly since the country's population is just over 2 million. But, wow, Skopje at night was grand and beautiful.
|At each end of the bridge section of the Boulevard Goce Delchev are a set of two grand lion statues. This more classical lions stand on the western side.|
|While more contemporary lions stand at the eastern end of the bridge.|
|We had just finished this delicious mix of salads, grilled peppers and bread...|
|When this platter of mixed grilled meat arrived. We hardly made a dent in it and took most of it with us for dinner the next night (to eat during the Canada-Sweden Olympic hockey game).|
|A typical street in the old bazaar: The old bazaar lies on the eastern bank of the Vardar River, stretching from the Stone Bridge to the Bit-Pazar and from the Skopje Fortress to the Serava river.|
|James getting his hair cut: The barber shop was heated by this stove on the right. Water was warmed in the kettle and was used when customers came in for a shave.|
|The barber (center) who cut Paul's hair was quite keen that I took a picture of Vince, Paul and him. James is still being worked on in the background. Two haircuts for 200 denar = about $4.00. Can't beat it.|
|This was the first mosque where I had noticed facilities to perform "wudu" (ablution) (washing parts of the body) before praying. "Wudu" is a sacred wash that symbolizes spiritual cleansing and purity in readiness for coming before God.|
|No one is safe from falling down a rabbit hole in Skopje (similar to Montenegro and Albania). I noticed a number of examples of uncovered holes in or near several pedestrian areas.|
|Whole animal carcasses available to serve a crowd.|
|There were several fancy dress shops. I know where to go for Sarah's prom dress. Skopje gals must have quite the social calendars.|
|Lots of fresh produce and beautiful flowers for sale.|
|Need a cradle or pizza pan? This was the section to visit.|
|Rice and beans sold by bulk.|
|Need a pinch of chili powder?|
|Probably should have bought Paul's new boots here instead of Kotor; bet they would have been half the price.|
|Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia: Located on Karpoš Rebellion Square, this is another structure which is part of the Skopje 2014 project.|
|Four Lions Statue.|
|In the entrance lobby sits the the original copy of the 1991 Declaration of Independence. Taking of photos was prohibited in the rest of the museum so I couldn't show anything of the well done interior.|
|The beautiful domed ceiling, that includes ~16,000 pieces of glass, located in the museum lobby.|
|A lone carousel was operating next to the Stone Bridge and the kids all wanted a ride. 90 denar for the 3 of them (~$1.80).|
|An evening view of the Museum of Archeology: The Stone Bridge is lit with a rotating rainbow of colors.|
|James taught Sarah how to hold and use chop sticks.|
|Monastery of the Holy Mother of God built in the 13th century.|
|Interior of the Holy Mother of God church.|
|The frescoes date from the end of the 15th century and feature characteristics of the fresco painting of the (Ottoman) Turks. Macedonia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for over 500 years, from 1392 to 1912.|
|Photo of the Treska River just as we came to the Matka dam.|
|The restaurant and boat house where one can hire someone to take them to the Vrelo Cave.|
|The journey took about an hour and cost 1600 denar (about $32) for the 4 of us. We traveled about 4 km down the river, landed and then had to hike part way up to the mouth of the cave.|
|Matka Lake (formed by the dam) is a exquisite turquoise color. It is so clean, one can see 15 or more feet below the surface.|
|We saw some creative river dwellings along the way.|
|Vrelo Cave has many stalactites and stalagmites which are lit up dramatically through the use of a generator power system.|
On February 24th, we decided to give the kids a break with historical sights and suggested we go to the zoo. I hadn't completed the word "zoo" yet and already Sarah exclaimed she wanted to go.
The zoo is in walking distance of the city center so we were able to make our way there on foot. Entrance to the zoo was only 250 denar (about $5.00 for the five of us) and, at first glance, I thought they should be charging a bit more and putting some investment into it. It looked like it could use a little TLC. Some animals seemed to have a lot of space to roam around while others appeared too caged in. Many of the signs were so faded, they were impossible to read (albeit very little was in English). The zoo had a surprising variety of animals and I don't think I've been to a zoo where many of the animals were so active. We had fun watching the bears wrestle with each other and the monkeys were a hoot.
|Vincent and Sarah at the entrance to the Skopje zoo with a map of the layout above them.|
|This ostrich kept stretching his neck to check out his buffalo neighbor.|
|"Eye of the Tiger": Makes one think of that 1982 Survivor song.|
|We walked by more statues. This is of Emperor Justinian I. The Stone Bridge can be seen in the background.|
|Sculpture of lovers in the new gazebo on the main square|
|Monument of Dame Gruev: Damyan Yovanov Gruev (1871-1906) was a Bulgarian and Macedonian revolutionary.|
|Thespian statues in front of the theatre.|
|Fortress Kale: The first fortress was built in 6th century AD on land that was inhabited during the Neolithic and Bronze ages (roughly 4000 BC onwards). Over the years, it had been destroyed through earthquakes and battles and then rebuilt.|
|View of the Boris Trajkovski Sports Center from the Fortress Kale. The center was opened in 2008 and was named after the former President, Boris Trajkovski who died in a plane crash in 2004.|
|View of Skopje's city center from Fortress Kale.|
|Sarah finally found some chic gals to hang out with.|
|Largo building: Seat of the unicameral Bulgarian Parliament (National Assembly of Bulgaria). Example of Socialist Classicism architecture.|
After looking at two different entrances to the metro, the third entrance was the charm and we found the tourist bureau. There were two women in there who were very enthusiastic and helpful; had we not encountered them, I would have been writing Sofia off in my mind by that point. They gave us a map, pointed out several landmarks and highlighted the Sofia Theatre and National Opera and Ballet House which were highlighted as places we should go.
After leaving the tourist office, we walked across the corridor to McDonald's which, as much as Vincent hated to go there, Sarah and the boys were thrilled to have some familiar fast food.
After lunch, we walked to the Stefan Makedonski Music Theatre where we knew "My Fair Lady" was playing. When we talked to the box office we found that the play was in Bulgarian (which really should have been a bit obvious) and so we didn't buy any tickets. We then proceeded on to the National Opera House. When Vincent and I were talking to the woman in the opera house ticket booth, Paul and James were sitting on the stairs about 12 feet away from us talking quietly. Along came an older man who motioned to Paul and James that they should get out of the building. With a quizzical look on their faces they left the building and then stood outside the theatre doors waiting for us. About 3 minutes later, the same older man walked by Vincent and me and exited the building proceeding to tell Paul and James (in Bulgarian) to leave the area. There's international body language for "scram", "beat it", "get lost kids". I went out and asked the man "what's the problem?" in English (of course) and then another man who was waiting in the ticket line came to assist us, telling the man the the two boys were with me. Paul and James weren't doing anything but chatting quietly with each other. I couldn't understand what the problem was. And I'd be the first to recognize any of my children being out of line. The lasting impression I had from this encounter was that Bulgarians have zero tolerance for kids that look a little out of place. (How's that for a massively unfair generalization?) Perhaps there's a significant problem with troubled youth in Sofia, that I hadn't yet read about or issues with vandalism at the opera house? There was something that the old man didn't like about Paul and James and the only thing I could come up with is that they were "teenagers".
|Sofia National Opera House: The building opened in 1953.|
With our plans for Bulgarian culture all set, we started walking about Sofia to see some of the main sights.
|The present building is a cross basilica with three altars.|
|Sarah loved this lion which can be found just next to the St Sofia Church.|
|The Monument to an Unknown Soldier is situated next to the church. The monument commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian soldiers who died in wars defending their homeland|
|There were a lot of street vendors out selling their wares. Religious icons anyone?|
|The Russian Church: Built in 1912, it is dedicated to St Nicholas, the miracle worker.|
|The Art Gallery gift shop was packed with Bulgarian crafts. When I took this photo, I was told "no photographs". Huh? It was okay to take photos in the gallery but not in the gift shop? That was a policy I'd never encountered anywhere else.|
|In the amphibians and reptiles hall, one can find all 52 species of the Bulgarian herpetofauna. Here one also finds a detailed crosss-section of a snake's head.|
|The insects exhibition on the fourth floor shows 728 boxes of insect species that have been painstakingly pinned to display boards and categorized. Want to learn more about wasps? This is the place.|
|It must have taken a real OCD individual to mount and categorize each of these insects.|
|On the drive to the cable car depot, we passed by this advertisement. James commented, "Hey look, it's a minaret for beer!"|
|The cable car ride each way was 6 kilometers, taking 30 minutes. It provided a spectacular view, but ugh that smog.|
|Sofia below: It may not be surprising that in 2009, Sofia was ranked the 29th of "30 Greenest Cities in Europe" in a survey conducted by Seimens.|
|Sarah and Vincent at the Sofia Zoo entrance.|
|"That bear's habitat looks like a US embassy," commented James.|
|The Sofia Zoo has a number of playgrounds and I think that is what the kids liked best.|
On February 28th, we were out early to see The Grumpy Goat. James asked to stay behind and work on homework so we consented. We only had 3 tickets as it was. Paul came with us as we wanted to give James the chance of some alone time. The Grumpy Goat was targeted as a children's opera and the dress circle of the Opera House was pretty full with 5-8 year olds, their teachers and parents, and us. It was not unlike a children's play we'd see in California on a school trip except that the music was opera, there was a full orchestra and it was in Bulgarian. For British readers, I'd categorize it as the Bulgarian version of the "panto" (with a fair bit of audience participation). The performance lasted about 45 minutes which seemed a long 45 minutes to me (given the Bulgarian language barrier) but Sarah still enjoyed it and got more out of it than I expected. Paul was okay with it too. It's not something we'd repeat, unless done in English, but it was interesting to see what Bulgarian kids are exposed to.
At the end of the show, we got in the car and returned to the apartment. We had lunch at a hole in a wall restaurant below our unit and then headed for the National Museum of Military History. The museum was founded in 1916 and was recently relocated and updated with new displays. The permanent collection traces the history of the Bulgarian military from the First Bulgarian Empire to the present day. There are displays of Bulgarian military uniforms during the Middle Ages, collections dedicated to the struggle for national independence, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1888, and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). There are also dioramas of Bulgarian military participation in the First and Second World Wars and in other military campaigns up to the present day.
If one is a military buff and well-versed in Bulgarian history, this is the museum for you. We thought the boys might like it because the military museum in Paris was such a hit. Many of the displays have English translations (although some signs are blocked by display items so maybe they really didn't expect English speakers to actually go to the museum). While there are a few sound effects, the design of the museum is old-school with hundreds of uniforms, medals, weapons, documents and other historical artifacts enclosed behind glass cases. If one isn't well informed on Bulgarian history, one quickly gets overwhelmed with all the details. The museum would be so much better if they offered audioguides or if one of the many staff gave tours. With the exception of about 5 others and a school trip, we were the only visitors in the 4-storey building. There were an inordinate number of museum overseers/room monitors and I felt we were practically matched 1:1. Sometimes there were 3 monitors hovering around watching us. While Bulgaria's unemployment rate hovers around 13%, the unemployment in Sofia is closer to 2-5% (depending on the source). I'm not surprised given how many "assistants" are hired in theaters and museums; that really helps keep the unemployment numbers down.
The outdoor exhibition area has more than 230 examples of military artillery, aviation equipment and marine equipment. Photography was not allowed in the museum so I've included a few shots of the equipment on display outside.
|23-mm ZU-23-2 Anti-aircraft Gun: It was produced in USSR and has been in service with the Bulgarian Army since 1961. What is it with boys and guns? They just have to try them out.|
|Tactile Ballistic Missile Complex 9K72 SS-1 "SCUD B": Minimum range, 50 km. Maximum range, 300 km. Striking area, 10,000 m2. Produced in USSR. In service with the Bulgarian Army 1965-2002.|
|A PMZ-4 Mine Layer for high-speed (5 km/hr) mine laying above or below ground. Produced in the USSR and in service with the Bulgarian Army since 1962.|
|At the entrance to the shopping center, we saw this sign indicating "no photos" in the mall. Seriously? What's the point of that? I can assure you there was nothing special about the interior of the mall that it had to be protected.|
|James demonstrating his bowling style: He's actually pretty good. With more frequent practice, he could be very good.|
Once we exited Sofia and got on Bulgaria's so-called highway, a traffic control officer motioned for us to pull over. We'd been pulled over a number of times, particularly in Albania where people were being checked that they had paid their registration and license fees; but as soon as the officer recognized that we were driving a US-registered car, they always waved us off. So we didn't think much of being pulled over this time. The officer asked for our insurance, then Vincent's driver's license and then he asked for our passports. The passport request seemed odd. He then walked off with our documents. After a minute or so, Vincent got out of the car and walked back to the officer. It turned out this was some kind of a "shake down". Because the officer only spoke Bulgarian, Vincent thought this was the gist of the message; he was going to write Vincent a ticket for not having a vignette and it would cost €150. (I've since researched that tickets for not driving with a vignette can be as much as €60.) Vincent would have to go back to Sofia to buy the vignette which would cost 10 lev. As soon as Vincent heard the €150 cost, he knew this was not on the up and up. Vincent repeatedly said, "Okay, please give me the ticket for the €150 and when do I get my documents back?" The officer started to write out a ticket but then tore it up. A second officer was getting frustrated with the officer who was trying to scam Vincent and finally grabbed our documents out of the first officer's hands and gave them to Vincent. The second officer then instructed Vincent to drive 2 km down the road to the next petrol station and buy the vignette there. As I looked in the car's side mirror, I saw Vincent shake the second officer's hand and at that point the officer said, "Good luck." We had read about the need for vignettes in other countries, such as Austria, but somehow Bulgaria didn't hit our radar. I would have thought we would have been instructed to buy one as soon as we crossed the Bulgarian border or had seen signage to do so. Vignettes are actually a pretty good system; they seem a lot more "driver friendly" as they are an alternative to toll booths.
We drove a couple kilometers and then pulled over to buy the vignette. There was a huge queue so we weren't the only ones in arrears. Then after driving another 40-50 kilometers, we saw signs for Burger King and McDonalds. The kids wanted McDonalds so that's where we went. You know Vincent has truly given up on a country when he willingly goes to a McDonalds.
|Another boost to Bulgarian employment is the use of manual railroad/level crossings. En route to Pampolova, we had to wait for a train to pass and watched this station man raise and then lower and the barrier.|
March 2nd was our first day of family skiing. We woke up to rain (with forecasts of rain for the next 3 days) and we thought that this could either be really good or really bad. There's no middle ground for precipitation. Our apartment host was very kind and offered to take us to Pamporovo, the place where Vincent had pre-ordered ski rental equipment and ski lessons. The Pamporovo ski resort is in the heart of the Rhodopi mountain and claims to be Bulgaria's sunniest ski resort; you'd never guess that given the day's weather. At 9:00am we set off and were at the rental shop by 9:25. Fortunately, the change in elevation turned that rain into snow. We were all outfitted with boots, skis, poles and lift passes in no time and instructed to join the beginners group. Both Vincent and I had skied before but it had been decades ago so we stuck with the beginners. Paul, James and Sarah had never skied and so we were all together. In hindsight, Vincent and I should have joined the intermediate group because by lunch time we were both bored but we had fun cheering on the kids when they each mastered a technique. I had a fun moment talking with a man from Bristol, England who asked me how we got to Pamporovo (wondering did we buy a charter package or organize our own flights). I responded, "We drove." The baffled expression on his face was priceless. I then had to explain, "Yes, we drove from California...and our car with California plates is in the resort parking lot."
|James, starting to get the hang of it.|
|Sarah getting the hang of it.|
|Paul, not quite.|
|A glimmer of sun! But it wasn't to last. By the time we left for our Pamporovo, it was snowing heavily.|
|Time to get the chains out. Brilliant Vincent thought to bring 2 sets of chains; as it turned out, one chain wasn't working properly so we could break out one from the reserve set.|
|James and Sarah continued on the beginner's hill for the rest of the morning.|
|Paul, Vincent and I moved the the next level of hill to work on our turns. This is Paul; he'd mastered turning left but turning right was still troublesome.|
|A view through the front windshield on the drive home. Glad we had the chains on. So many motorists didn't and it was chaos getting out of the ski resort to the main road.|
|Safely back at our house after a long day.|
|A view from our terrace.|
|Another view from our terrace as Paul takes aim at moi.|
|Riding the triple chair lift to the top: It was a snowy, foggy, cold 15+ minute ride.|
|At the summit, we broke through the clouds and were met with some brilliant sun.|
|Lovin' the skiing and looking forward to one more run.|
|A look back at the base camp as we start our ascent.|
|Our last trip up to the summit.|