Selkie Dancer has had her bottom painted and her chrome polished (with just a little left over for visitors to clean if they REALLY wish), Andy has been safely up and down the mast a couple of times and all that remains is to paint some little fishes and an eye under the water line and that’s it. We didn’t accomplish all on our list but these things can wait.
So we set off for Thessaloniki. I’ve wanted to visit Greece’s second city since reading Victoria Hislop’s ‘The Thread’ which fills in the history of this area from the first world war to the present day. Thessaloniki strikes you immediately as a very youthful city. There were masses of youngsters. The cafes and bars on the waterfront overflowing with a positive murmuration and the city lives busily into the night, at least until midnight when slightly older people, such as ourselves, find ourselves wending our weary way to bed.
Over this whole return trip we have unashamedly treated ourselves when it comes to hotels and here, DAIOS Luxury Living Hotel, we looked out over the water and imagined all that had happened in the bay in front of us. If you ever visit, the Archaeological Museum is a ‘must’. The treasure yielded by the graves of the Macedonian Kings (C200 BC) is out of this world. The intricacy of design, the finesse of execution in the pieces of gold and silver and the sophistication of the society are startling. We must have spent over two hours there which left us in awe but with little energy left for the Byzantine Museum which we rather rushed around. The restaurant was wonderful and we had a blissful meal in the garden and didn’t have to eat again until an evening ice cream!
The next day was a long drive to Beograd. Not helped by the fact that we were missing the power connection for the Sat Nav. We got completely lost on exit from Thessaloniki. Once on the road, however, it was fairly straightforward to Macedonia (Macedonia Former Republic of Yugoslavia, to give its correct name); the Greeks do not approve of the name ‘Macedonia’ and it is a bone of contention since their northern province is also called Macedonia and the Greeks suspect the Macedonians of expansionism. The roads in the north of Greece are not great and great groves have been worn deep into the tarmac where endless lorries have trundled north. So until we had to change tracks for coffee or a snack, that was us locked in to the groves!
Getting out of Greece was no problem but entering Macedonia we found we were not covered by our insurance and had to stop and buy a ‘Green Card’ for €50. We went through hills and then along a plain, we stopped for coffee in a completely empty place, welcomed warmly and were able to pay in euros.
Poppies and wild flowers bloomed along the very hot road side (27C). And so into Serbia which was very pretty and very green. We drove through a winding narrow mountain pass where we had a 30-40 minute wait while the surface in the tunnel ahead was being repaired. People got out of their cars to look and get some air as the temperature soared to 30C. Looking later at a relief map we were climbing a river gorge to a high plateau, passing houses that were alpine in style with steep roofs and overhanging eaves. It was an extremely attractive countryside, very empty and very run down, such a lot of potential. We passed many tumbledown houses and saw roofs that were falling in. Throughout Macedonia and Serbia the cultivated land was in small strips and none of it looked very organized.
We stopped for coffee and a snack where our windscreen was immediately washed by a gipsy family. We had good coffee but there was nothing in the chill cabinet except, miraculously, two tuna sandwiches which I rapidly purchased (again in euros) before anyone else could, not that there was much competition, a few lorry drivers and another couple.
Finding our hotel in Belgrade was literally the stuff of nightmares. The Sat Nav did not have a detailed map of this area, likewise our atlas. The Google instructions had been printed out in our hotel in Greek and the writing in the streets had changed to Cryllic – eek! Andy navigated with all the aids that he had including his computer where he had saved a map of the city. I drove around, crossed the Danube at least three times, did some dashing U turns, up ramps and down. For over an hour we persevered, petrol was running low, we were doggedly controlling rising feelings of panic and hysteria and trying not to bicker. It had got to the stage where I would have stopped and kidnapped someone to guide us to the hotel. When, suddenly, there it was! And where was it? Right at the blooming spot where I had been dashingly executing my swift turns across the traffic, had we but raised our eyes we would have seen the sign!!!
Belgrade looked so run down, like the buildings in the countryside. Burnt out buildings, I imagine left over from the conflict twenty years ago. The Zira Hotel however was modern and good and was within a shopping mall with rather smart expensive shops that nobody seemed to be in. It was a Sunday. I don’t know if that makes a difference here.
We left in the morning and continued to the border with Hungary. Into and out of Serbia there were no problems, no questions, nothing. Getting into Hungary and the EU on the other hand was a very slow process. A long queue had built and slowly, slowly we inched our way towards the booths. There were cars and lorries from so many places; Austria, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia. Most had their doors open, many cars had turned their engines off and were pushed along the queue to save petrol but everyone was patient and good humoured. One car tried to switch lanes and he was so loudly hooted at he didn’t attempt it again. We were through in a little over an hour.
Hungary, in contrast to Serbia, looked instantly more organized and prosperous. Its verges tended and in places planted, the fields large and cultivated, and the houses were in good repair in alpine style with steep roofs. By this time the land had flattened out and we were down in the Danube valley again. It was very pretty too. We stopped at a roadside cafe and wondered what the choice would be and how we would understand but we didn’t have to worry as they spoke English. We had an excellent meal and watched fascinated at the choices of the local diners. The menu had a wide variety of soups and this seemed to be the favoured choice. Groups of people or families received on their tables one large steaming bowl of soup, ladle at the ready, individual bowls and a huge basket of bread. An added accompaniment was what looked like a yoghurt dip and a bright red chili spread which was spread on the bread. Everybody tucked in heartily. It looked so healthy. The price of the meal was very reasonable.
As Slovakia is in the EU we didn’t have to stop at a border but we did take a back route to avoid having to buy a ‘vignette’ for the Slovakian toll roads. The border town was pretty; everything here in central Europe is attractive. Again looking at the relief map we could see that we were in the huge plain of the Danube which flows from Germany to the Black Sea. It is the river which bounds the northern territory of what we call the Balkans, which I now know is the name of the east to west mountain range in Bulgaria. We saw many people out enjoying the weather; walking, running, roller skating, bicycling and picnicking. Our stop here was Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and I wish we’d had longer. Our hotel, Tulip House Hotel, was magnificent. Originally built in 1903 in Art Nouveau style as an apartment block and now converted into a luxurious boutique hotel (whatever that really means!). It had all the lovely features of high ceilings, generous sized rooms and we had a suite, so could cook if we wanted to – no chance! We walked out at night through the pretty old town and up to the big white castle that overlooks a curve in the Danube. We watched as a lengthy barge motored up the Danube against the current which looked pretty strong. The blackbirds and blossom have been lovely, here and everywhere since Greece. Blackbird song is my very favourite, a full, throaty and generous song. Blackbirds and lilac blossom, lots of lilacs everywhere. TS Eliot writes in his wonderful poem The Waste Land, “April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land” It’s not like that, it has been perfectly wonderful, certainly no dead land, rich hopeful land.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast of salmon, kippery like something and scrambled egg and our car had been brought to the door – yes it was! We set off for Germany. The drive through The Slovak republic, Austria and Germany was very fast (Germany only has an advisory 130kph limit). We stopped for a coffee and a ridiculous cake, where all the waitresses were dressed up as jolly farm girls, in Gingham with white frilly aprons. They took our order and issued us with a credit like card which we then produced at the check out to pay our bill. It was all frighteningly clean, efficient and advanced.
The temperatures plummeted and it rained as we reached Germany - I felt our movie was running backwards. We had to stop and put on more clothes, socks, leggings and an extra layer. I had watched the season blossom and now it was retreating as we felt that spring had not quite sprung here. We were in Rothenburg ob der Tauber for two nights in an old guest house, Hotel Gotisches Haus, in the centre of the mediaeval walled town. Our room was right at the top ‘take the lift to the third floor and then one more’ so we got out at the third floor and hauled our bags up the steep staircase to our room which was dark under the eaves. We went to explore the old walls which seemed complete, we learned the next day that they had been rebuilt after stray WWII bombs destroyed a third of the town. Needless to say we walked all the way around. We set out in the mist to visit a nearby Schloss through green rolling country side, dipping down to the river steep below Rothenburg and up the other side along narrow roads with no hedges, all the fields open, nothing to interrupt the eye.
Our next stop was with my cousins in Luxembourg which gave us good chance to catch up. Although several hundred miles, two countries and a ferry away from home the adventure had lost its edge. I feel my writing has fizzled too so I’ll stop!
The journey was a great experience, it is lovely now to be able to visualise the countryside of faraway places and to feel more familiar when we fly over these lands.
We drove some 5,000 miles from Scotland to Greece and back and that is our usual annual mileage. So we’ll be making up for this and assuage our carbon guilt as we use the wind to drive us over the coming months!
13 May 2013