Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Couchsurfing in Thessaloniki, Greece

At home with our Couchsurfing hosts, Pernille and Michalis

"People are not really divided by borders or according to their place of birth and origin. People are divided into three major categories: Good people, bad people and stupid people. Couchsurfing proves that the majority of people are good. Good people like to use couchsurfing. Bad people can't stand it and stupid people just don't get it!'' -- Words of wisdom from our Couchsurfing host Michalis Mathioulakis.

Scrolling though the thousands of profiles of people signed onto Couchsurfing.org, it's easy to get the impression that all the hosts are single 20-somethings and all the guests are backpackers looking for free places to stay. 

Michalis Mathioulakis and Pernille Busborg, both professionals in their 40s, don't fit the typical profile, and we long ago traded in our backpacks for rolling carry-ons. So much for stereotypes. Couchsurfing is for anyone.

We ended our three-week trip through Italy and the Balkans with a two-night stay at their apartment in Triadi, a village of about 2,000 a few miles from the airport in Thessaloniki, Greece where we planned to catch our flight back to the United States. 

We spent the first night in a downtown hotel, partly to explore Thessaloniki a bit before spending the weekend with Michalis and Pernille, and partly as a precaution for dealing with any problems we might have crossing the border into Florina, Greece by taxi from Bitola in Macedonia. 

These are two different countries, after all, with somewhat strained political relationships that surface in varied ways, most often over the use of  "Macedonia'' as the country's name. Macedonia is a region, part of which has historically been part of Greece, so in Greece, at least, it's politically incorrect to refer to what is officially named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)  as simply "Macedonia.'' 

The taxi driver drove across the border with no problems, save for a 5 euro payment one of the guards asked for to "expedite'' the process. Once in Florina, however,  where we were to catch a bus to Thessaloniki, he had a hard time finding the bus station. Reluctant to ask for directions in Macedonian, he asked in English, but his English was poor and he couldn't understand. None of us spoke Greek, so Tom ended up using his his iPhone GPS to find the station. 

Thessaloniki is a busy port city, with many high-rise buildings, a nice seafront walkway, lots of good cafes and restaurants and a few historical sites. We didn't spend much time there, mostly because we were anxious to meet our Couchsurfing hosts. Within minutes of arriving by city bus from our downtown hotel (actually two buses, with a transfer at a depot that doubles as the parking lot for an IKEA store), we were relaxing together on their porch, sharing stories and talking politics and economics as if we were old friends.

The spare bedroom (pull-out couch) in their roomy third-floor flat became "our room'' at no charge, as is the Couchsurfing way. Like a type of pay-it-forward blind date, the understanding is that Couchsurfers find ways down the line to repay the hospitality they receive, either by hosting travelers themselves, or arranging to get  together for coffee and conversation.

Anyone would be lucky to have Michalis and Pernille as guests, even luckier to have them as hosts. I can still smell a pasta, tomato and sausage dish Michalis made one evening when we returned "home'' from a day of sightseeing.

Pernille, who is Danish, who moved to Greece as a student, loved the sunny weather, met Michalis and decided to stay. She runs an online language school from home, and teaches English and Danish. Michalis is a financial advisor and the administrator of a small school in the area. They work hard during the week, and like to relax on weekends.

The afternoon we arrived called for getting in their car and driving to the beach where we snacked on calamari and fried sardines and drank Ouzo, the anise-flavored Greek liquor that turns milky when mixed with water or ice. We talked about everything from our families to the  

Ouzo on the beach

Greek financial crisis and their decision to stay in Greece even though they could live in more financially-stable Denmark. For Pernille, who speaks fluent Greek, it all comes down to the sun. She can't live without it.

The "Crisis'' as everyone calls Greece's financial collapse, has affected everyone, mainly in the form of higher taxes, new taxes and cuts in social benefits. But people still seem to enjoy life. Later that evening, Michalis and Pernille invited neighbors over to watch the Eurovision song contest finals on TV. This is something like the vocal equivalent of the Olympics with a little Dancing WIth the Stars thrown in. Singers representing every country in Europe compete with music, wild (read skimpy) costumes and over-the-top special effects. Judges from the various countries then award points to the competitors. You can't vote for your own country, but there didn't seem to be any rules about favoring geographic neighbors and friends. The votes are announced Academy Awards-style, with each country's presenter hemming and hawing to increase the suspense. The show didn't end until 1:30 a.m. No worries. We kept each other awake casting our own votes, drinking wine, eating Michalis' homemade nachos and cheering on the winner - Denmark!

Thessaloniki's castle walls

We spent part of the next day exploring a bit more of Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city next to Athens. Sunday was an interesting day to be there because of the many baptisms and weddings that take place in the Orthodox churches. Most families head to a local restaurant afterwards to celebrate, the reason for the Disney balloons in the photos below.

The late-night TV-watching and partying took its toll on Tom after we stopped for lunch. He told me to wake him up when the bill came. But, instead of bringing the bill, the waiter brought not one, but two FREE desserts.

Wake up call
Tom was a happy man once again. 

Well, folks, that's it for this trip. We stopped in more than a dozen cities in five countries in 22 days, met wonderful people, ate great food, learned a few words of Serbian, Macedonian and Greek, and came back with $11 worth of Macedonian currency because no one at the airport in Amstedam would exchange it for dollars or euros. If there's anyone out there who wants it, let me know!

The highlight of our 22-hour trip back home to Seattle was the special Hindu meal service offered by Delta Air Lines. We order it whenever we can.

In all fairness, this was just the snack (the same sandwich everyone else got, only with  tomatoes instead of turkey) The main meal, pictured below, was actually quite tasty and

 more nutritious than the usual pasta or chicken.

Click here to see Tom's Picasa picture gallery of our trip. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Macedonian village stay: What would you pay?

Petar, Renata and friends at Villa Dihovo


Ask Petar Cvetkovska any question, and chances are his reply will be "You decide." That includes how much to pay for an overnight stay, meals included, at Villa Dihovo an 88-year-old stone house in the village of Dihovo near Macdonia's Pelister National Park.

Petar, a former professional soccer player, and his wife, Renata, a pharmacist, leave it up to guests to decide how satisfied they are and what they want to pay. This sounds like a risky idea, but my guess is that it encourages most people to pay more rather than less.

"I'm still waiting for the person who pays nothing," Petar laughed when I asked him about this. After a dinner of grilled fish, sausages, stuffed peppers, salad from the garden, baklava and Petar's homemade beer and wine, I knew we would not be the first.


Villa Dihovo

Petar's parents live next door in a new house next to the original family home, now a guesthouse with three bedrooms decorated with rustic handmade beds and furniture, mostly made by Petar. We were lucky to score the best room, the only one of the three with a shower and toilet en-suite. Plumbing the old house must have been a challenge. The shower was literally a few inches away from the bed.

Bedroom with shower

Petar teaches physical education at the local middle school, and lives with his wife and two daughters in an apartment a few miles away in Bitola, but spends much of his time here at the house, serving the food cooked by Renata and his mother, and entertaining guests with entertaining bits of philosophical musings.

"Women,'' he says, "are like Google. They know everything.'' Hard to argue with that!

Bitola's main feature is a long pedestrian shopping street

Tom relaxing in the living room at Villa Dehovo

From Bitola, a mountain town in Central Macedonia where we arrived by bus from Lake Ohrid, it was a 10-minute taxi ride to Dihovo, a village of about 200, with a church, a swimming pool, one restaurant and not much else but rivers and wilderness hiking trails and ski runs.

It was "village day'' in Dehovo, Petar explained when we arrived. His outdoor table was filled with guests, and he invited us to join in for a drink. A televison crew would be arriving the next morning to film a segment on the national park, followed by some filming at Villa Dehovo. Apparently, his rustic digs and pay-what-you want policy are attracting some national attention.

Breakfast with mountain tea

Steve and our salad

Breakfast was herb tea "from the mountains," which Tom thought tasted like oregono; tomatoes, cheese, cucumbers, eggs, and one morning, a green tomato and fig jam for the toast. Dinner our second night, shared with Steve, a bike tour leader from Vermont, and a Macedonian couple on holiday, started with a huge salad, followed with cabbage rolls, beef baked with mushrooms, white beans, marinated peppers and a couple of homemade desserts.

Petar's official policy is to ask guests to pay only a set price for beer and wine. We could understand why after watching the Macedonian couple down one full bottle of his 40-proof homemade rakija, then uncork another before they finished their salad.

So, you're probably wondering, how to put a price on this experience? We compared notes with Steve, and asked the Macedonian couple for their advice. Then, taking into account a price of $50 for two, including breakfast, I saw posted on an Internet booking site; how much we paid for our lakeview room in Ohrid and Petar and Renata's fantastic meals (We're moderate drinkers so they threw in the beer and wine); and the overall good feeling of rounding out our trip by spending time with a local family, we handed Petar the equivalent of $130 for two nights.

He smiled and seemed pleased. It was less than the most anyone has ever paid. That was 100 euros ($130) for one night paid by a man from Latvia who arrived on a motorcycle. It was perhaps a little more than some others thought was right.

What do you think? Too much or too little? As Petar would say, "You decide.''

Next: Crossing the border into Greece, and meeting our Coachsurfing hosts in Thessaloniki.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Lake Ohrid: 50 cent ice cream and views of Albania

Ohrid and 13th century St. Jovan church


We can't see Russia from here (sorry, Sarah Palin), but we can see Albania from the balcony of our inn overlooking beautiful Lake Ohrid in Macedonia.


Balcony breakfast. Albania in backround



We left Skopje by mini-bus for a three-hour hop through the mountains to find out why nearly everyone who comes to Macedonia stops in Ohrid. This is one of Europe's oldest cities where stucco and stone houses and ancient churches built into hillsides look down on a three million year-old lake that stretches to the Albanian border. It won't be long before the little town will be flooded with tourists headed for the beaches, but it's quiet this time of the year, with restaurants and hotels just gearing up for the summer season. It poured down rain our first day, leaving us wondering how we would spend the next two. Then the sun came out, and we didn't want to leave.


Lake Ohrid and castle walls above the Old Town


Our B&B, the eight-room Vila Mal Sv. Kliment, owned by a local winemaker, may be the best value of the trip so far. We're paying $75 a night for a spacious lake view room. Each morning, the young manager, Elena Mitrevska, who grew up in Ohrid and lives up the street, fixes a breakfast composed of traditional dishes, some of which she remembers her grandmother making. This morning it was a creamy porridge, white cherries in syrup, glasses of a salty yogurt drink, fresh bread, Avjar, cheese, coffee and tea.


Reaching the inn involved pulling our suitcaes up this this steep street - one of the few original streets remaining in Ohrid. Notice the way the stairs are shaped to make walking uphill easier. The steps are slightly curved towards the inside so when it is raining the water runs down the middle.

Our neighborhood chapel, with B&B in back

Mal Sv. Klement translates to "Lessor (or little) St. Clement,'' the name of a 12the century chapel next door to our inn. The chapel is named for St. Clement, Ohrid's patron saint. The little church, named "lessor'' so as not to be confused with a much larger and important church at the top of the town, served as a hiding place for St. Clements' bones during the occupation of the Ottoman Turks. The church is kept locked, but if you ask, a local woman will come with the keys and open it.


Inside are beautifully restored frescos, icons and a little boom box loaded with a CD of religous chants. Walk past here late at night, hold your ear to the the little window and you'll hear the music.

Orhid was an important Greek city in 4th Century BC, the former Macedonian capital and a key cultural and trading center, the home of St. Klement, a scholar and writer associated with the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, still used here, along with Latin letters. Today, Ohrid is a resort destinaton, but also a working town with woodcarvers, paper makers and jewelry craftsmen working along side souvineer sellers. It's been fun just hanging out and meeting the locals, most of whom work in the tourist industry. Churches charge $1 or $2 to get in, but the money goes mostly to support the person hired to unlock the doors and provide information in English if needed. I loved this quote from the woman hired to be the keeper at the main St. Kliment's church:

"Pictures not allowed, lady. Everything is business. If they want to take pictures, they can talk to my boss and pay the money.''


Captain Risto

No problem. Everything costs less here. A coffee waterside at Nemo Pizza at the Hotel Aleksandrija is 50 cents. A small ice cream cone costs about the same. Beer is a dollar or two. A short taxi ride is no more than $2.

Instead of hiring a guide who offered his services for $50 for four fours, we decided to put together our own tour. We spread the $50 around to a couple of taxi drivers;, Captain Risto, above, who offers half-hour tours of the main harbor; and another young boatman who offers rowboat rides though Amazon-like wetlands on the other side of the lake, near the Sveit Naum monastery, now a luxury hotel near the Albanian border.

Boatman Alek says his favorite U.S. city is Miami

Sveti Naum Monastery near Albanian border

Resident peacocks showing off at Sveti Naum


Next: The ethnic melting pot of Bitola and a pay-whatever-you want village stay.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Paris, Vegas, Ancient Greece? No, It's Skopje

Disneyland Not, although it could be...or maybe the Bellagio in Las Vegas, a slice of Ancient Greece or Rome, even Paris. We're in the Macedonian city of Skopje, one of the quirkiest capital cities in Europe. Skopje is in the midst of a massive four-year makeover project called "Skopje 14, calling for reconstruction of the heart of the city, with new museums and government; new bridges; and dozens of huge statues dedicated to ancient kings, war heroes and religious leaders.

We walked into this scene after an eight-hour bus ride from Belgrade. The taxi driver dropped us off on Macedonia Square where a giant statue of war hero Alexander the Great sits in the middle of a large pedestrian plaza. Lions spit water every few seconds, and lights change the color of fountains raining down on soldiers brandishing shields and swords.

Officially the statue is called "Warrier on a Horse,'' so as not to offend Macedonia's Greek neighbors who also claim Alexander as their hero. Recorded classical music blares until the lights go off at 10:30 p.m. A giant TV screen alternates advertisements with videos of scenic Macedonian vacation spots. It's all a kitchy display of national pride that some say has gone too far, given the cost - $208 million euros of mostly government money so far - in a country with double-diget unemployment. Maybe, but when completed, it will certainly put Skopje on the map of cities worth a visit.

The building on the far right will be the new ministry of foreign affairs. Behind is the current opera house, older and more in keeping with the kind of architecture you'd expect to see in a former Communist capital. Statues of writers and poets and faux gas lamps decorate the new bridge built across the Vardar River dividing Skopje's old and new towns.

The Arc de Triomphe? No. It's the new entrance gate to Macedonia Square, a perfect backrop for this couple's wedding photo, and also the finish line for the recent Skopje Marathon.

A Paris cafe? No. This is the terrace of the Pelister Restaurant, filled night and day with hundreds of tourists and local families who love its huge menu of pizza and pasta dishes. Above the restaurant are apartments and a six-room boutique hotel where we booked a room for $100 a night, including an anything-you-want -to -order breakfast in the restaurant.

Macedonia is our fourth country so far on this trip, so it meant another change of currency, this time to the dener or "den,'' each worth about 47 cents U.S. Everything here seems cheaper than in Serbia or Montenegro. A taxi ride from the bus station was $2. A beer, coffee or Coke at one of the riverside cafes is around $1.50. Dinners for two at a nice restaurant runs around $20. Portions are so big, we order just one of everything and share. Our first night at the Pelister, for instance, we shared a platter of grilled veggies, a pizza, a chicken dish, water and two beers for a total of around $22.

An earthquake in 1963 destroyed many of Skope's historic buildings, leaving the city with a mix of whatever survived, mostly a lot of ugly Communist-era architecture or nothing at all. Yugoslavian President Tito hired a Japanese architect to redesign much of the city, but most of his plans never materialized- one impetus for Skopje 2014 which began in 2010. Much of the project calls for new buildings, but a few existing buildings will get new facades. The views are different, depending on which way you are facing.

These are the two different views of the city from the poets and writers bridge.

Across the river is a castle, more new statues and fountains, a few more new buildings and the Carsija, a (real) Ottoman-era neighborhood that feels like stepping into a small town in Turkey.

Skopje has a large Albanian Muslim population. Albania is next door, and Kosovo is nearby. From the bus window on the way to Macedonia from Serbia, we started seeing a large number of mosques and minarets.

This 13the century former Turkish bathhouse houses the City Art Gallery. Walking through this area, past shops selling nuts or gold jewelry or bread or wedding dresses, we noticed more women wearing head scarves and heard the call to prayer as well a church bells.

The Carsija is also the place to sample traditional Turkish foods such as bureks, pies made with a flaky dough and filled with meat or cheese and spinach; beans baked in clay pots and grilled sausages stuffed into giant circles of bread. We met Imir, below, as we were walking. He grew up here, but would like to leave and dreams of one day joining an aunt in New York and helping her run a fast food restaurant.

His take on the new Skopje:

"It's too much,'' he said. "Even Rome doesn't have this much.''

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Art, music, food and more in Belgrade


We've been surprised how much art and music we've found in Belgrade, mostly by wandering the streets and popping into free gallery exhibitions, churches and museums. Our innkeeper, Mira, told us she would come to this street, called Skadarska, every evening after her theater peformances. She and her fellow actors would unwind over drinks and dinner followed by singing and poetry readings.

Skadarska's bohemian-style restaurants seem to mostly cater to tourists, but it's a fun atmosphere that picks up as the evening goes on. These musicians drew us into a placed called "My Hat'' where we ate salad, grilled vegies, a whole trout, the ever-present Ajvar, wine and water for around $25, about what we've been spending each night in a nice restaurant, often with a free dessert thrown in.



We stopped after dinner to take a look at this man's art set up on the sidewalk. He creates designs by punching holes in thin sheets of copper, wraps them around beer bottles, then seals the edges to create lanterns lighted with tea lights. Each has a story, mostly religious or historical.


Serbia was occupied by the Ottoman Turks starting in the mid-16th century, but unlike some cities in the Balkans, such as Skopje in Macedonia where we're going next, only one mosque remains out of 160 that were built. Most people are Serbian Orthodox and attend services in churches decorated inside with elaborate icons. The priests, always bearded, are very photogenic.



One of Belgrade's most interesting museums is the Nikola Telsa Museum on Krunska Street near Belgrade's embassy row. Tesla is the father of the modern electrical grid, Serbia's favorite son and Tom's favorite inventor. Below is a "Tesla Coil,'' an experiment that generates high-voltage electricty. Tom built



a small version of one of these when he was in high school. The museum gives a nice tour in English, with lots of opportunities for hands-on experiments.


Belgrade has plenty of ugly Communist-style architecture, but also many well-preserved art-deco style buildings with beautiful interiors. The Hotel Moscow, above, was built in 1906 with Russian money. We liked the Zepter Museum, a modern art museum in a beautifully preserved former bank building decked out with lots of marble, wood and mosaics.



One of the things we love to do in a new city is take a guided bike tour. We've done these in Bangkok, Amsterdam, Prague, Beijing, Paris and other places, and always find them to be a relaxing and interesting way to learn about a new city. I Bike Belgrade offers four-hour group tours daily for $20, including bikes, a guide and a beer along the way. We joined eight Dutch tourists on an afternoon ride along paved bike


paths on the Danube and Sava rivers, and across one of the bridges to New Belgrade, a part of the city we probaly otherwise would not have seen. The Communist-era buildings built under the former Yugoslav government are huge and only partially used or totally vacant. Some will be left that way until the government sorts out who really owns or is entitled to the property. The massive former Hotel Yugoslavia, for instance, is just sitting there, abandoned, furniture still in place.


That's it from fun, hip, artsy Belgrade. Next stop: Ancient Greece, Paris, Vegas? Nope, it's Skopje, Macedonia



Friday, May 10, 2013

A warm welcome in Belgrade

"Welcome," I heard this woman call out as I paused to look at what she had for sale in Belgrade's Zeleni Venac market. I left with this photo and a bag of half-dollar sized waffle cookies flavored with lemon and honey. The market is a slice of traditional life in the Serbian capital, but frankly, the scenes bielow are more typical. Belgrade is an art-filled city, full of young people, many English-speaking, studying at the university by day and filling up the cafes and bars on every street corner in the evening.

The pedestrianized main shopping street, Kenz Mihailova, is the center of a vibrant street life and a model for how many American cities could create a sense of community in their downtowns. The usual chain stores are here -Zara, The Gap etc.- along with dozens of outdoor cafes and plazas for impromptu exhibitions such as this yoga demonstration.

Tom tries some of the exhibits put up to celebrate "Math' Week,'' sponsored by a local bank. Notice the bicycle has square wheels and he's riding on a rounded surface. They say a square wheel won't roll, but it will if the ground is curved.


We like Belgrade so much that we decided to stay an extra day. All of which lends some perspective to what it took to get here by train from Kotor in Montenegro.
Belgrade is another destination worth whatever journey, but hopefully never again via the Bar-Podgorica-Belgrade railway, at least not on an Easter Monday, the end of a six-day holiday in the region. In all fairness, we should have known better, but we didn't, so bottom-line, we, along with hundreds of others on their way

home after the holidays, spent 10 hours squeezed into this train car - no AC, one toilet, people standing two and three deep, with luggage, in corridor which also doubled as the smoking section. We were the lucky ones. A clerk at the hostel in Kotor called ahead and made seat reservations for us, so unlike these people, we had a place to sit. It's possible to make his journey by bus, but the train ride is an epic one, provided you can see out the windows.

Tracks laid over a period of 25 years traverse tunnels dug through the mountains. When we could see out, we looked down on rushing rivers, ski chalets, postcard villages, even snow-capped mountains. Sadly, the carriages don't live up to the type of ride the scenery deserves. The bench seats felt like upholstery laid on top of boards. Because the train was so crowded, we ended up with seven adults and a child in a cabin intended for six. The best I can say is that it was an opportunity to exchange smiles and a few words with the other passengers, a few of whom spoke a little English. They all passed the time working crossword puzzles and talking non-stop, mainly about politics from what I could gather from overhearing a few words such as "Obama'' and "America.'' All were very helpful in making gestures to explain when the border-crossing guards were coming on the train to check passports and when we crossed the border into Serbia.

All the discomfort melted away when we arrived at the B&B Art Home, owned by charming Mira Vukelic, a potter and recently retired actress for a local theater company and her husband, Milosh, a painter and former journalist.

If there is such a thing as a five-star B&B, this is it. The house is 130 years old, the former home of Serbian writer Jovan Skerlic. From the parquet floors, huge bed, desk, TV, new bathroom, mini-fridge stocked with free drinks to Mira's ample breakfasts, it lives up to all the good reviews it's earned on TripAdvisor. We're paying the equivalent of $100 a night in Serbian dinars, which meant a switch in currencies since Serbia is not on the euro.

Each dinar is worth about 12 cents, so we had to gather quite a stack of money to pay our hotel bill- 35,000 dinars or 35 1000 dinar bills! The ATMs seem well-stocked, so no real problems.
Our B&B is in a residential area in Old Belgrade filled with 19th century architecture, and mostly unaffected by NATO bombing in 1999. Most of the affected buildings were in New Belgrade, a modern area on the other side of the Danube and Sava rivers.

Lining the surrounding streets are dozens of little restaurants and cafes with quirky names such as "Mama's Biscuit House'' and "Insomnia.'' Most double as places to stop for coffee and set up a laptop during the day, changing into bars with music at night. Belgrade has a reputation as the party captal of Europe. Our neighborhood definitely has a late-night scene, but a relatively quiet one compared to the floating night clubs on the rivers.

We've especially enjoyed our breakfast chats with Mira who was born in another town in Serbia and moved to Belgrade to study theater. She lived here when the country was part of Communist Yugoslavia and Belgrade was the capital, and also during the Balkan wars, when Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo battled for independence, opposing Slobodan Milosevic's efforts to win control, and form a kind of Greater Serbia. Milosh, a Serb working as a journalist in Croatia at the time, fled to Belgrade.

This is a gas station called the Dayton petrol station after the Dayton Peace Accord, the agreement that ended the war in the early 1990s, and gasoline supplies once again flowed into Serbia. The peace accord was brokered by President Clinton and signed in Dayton, Ohio. The NATO bombing came later in 1999 after the peace talks failed to stop a Serbian military campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. 

Given Serbia's history, I was a little unsure of the people we would meet here. Even though Milosevic is gone, Serbia is still viewed by many as the "bad boy" of Eastern Europe, not yet part of the European Union, and still struggling to come to terms with an independent Kosovo.

"People need to understand us," Mira told us one morning at breakfast, "Yes, things were bad in the past, but now we are changed."

As a young guide at the Nikola Tesla museum put it: "People don't hate each other; politicians do."
Next: Art, music, food and more in Belgrade