Jan 31, 2015

Jan 30 - 31: Ihtiman and Kostenets

I was up and packed by dawn (7:30) on Friday. It's not that I was in a hurry ‎to leave the wonderful people I had just met the evening before. I wanted to spend some time with them before I started walking again, and so I got myself pulled together and headed downstairs.  Unlike the evening before, there were no kids in sight. I don't know what time school starts in this part of the world, but I guess it's earlier than I realised. I chatted a bit with one of the mothers and left my Facebook info for the young woman who'd been translating for me the evening before. Somewhat sadly, I took my leave of Novi Han.

As I started walking, I noticed that the tops of the hills to my right were obscured by clouds, with the hint of some heavy weather. "Glad I'm not headed up there," I thought to myself. And then a few minutes later, the road bent south and started to climb. 

Once again, I was reminded what a difference a few hundred metres in altitude can make. I had started walking wearing my basic layers: merino t-shirt, lightweight longsleeved shirt, and my vest. I soon pulled my merino blend hoodie on, and by the time I reached an elevation of 800 m, I'd added my windproof shell. It wasn't all that cold, although there were small patches of snow in the woods where the shade was constant, but the wind was strong and I was walking through the cloud cover. There were very few cars on this stretch, but there was also nowhere for me to sit and take a break. 

Eventually I spotted a large building to my right, with a guardhouse and a set of gates. ‎I figured it was some sort of government installation, but the gates were open so I decided to try my luck and see if I could find a dry place to sit out of the wind. As I walked on to the property and approached the guardhouse, there was a sudden flurry of movement and a very large man burst out and said something to me very firmly in Bulgarian.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand Bulgarian." Then I switched to English, accompanied with some pantomime. "May I sit down inside for a few minutes?" There was a brief consultation through the open door of the guardhouse, and then I was ushered in. Warmth, a desk with a uniformed guard sitting behind it, a split-screen security camera monitor‎, a TV, and a couch with some coats and a very business-like rifle on it. A large map of Bulgaria on one wall completed the scene.

I rattled off my memorised introduction in Bulgarian, and was soon offered an energy drink‎ to quaff while I sat on the couch. The conversation was a little rough at first, but between Tony's broken English and my broken German, we could have kept talking for quite some time. (Tony had been a long-haul trucker for twenty years, and had snippets of every European language between here and Russia.)‎  The facility that they were guarding is the first (and still functional) radio transmitter capable of broadcasting to the entire country. It was built in 1938, and I guess this sort of infrastructure does need protection.  Tony was also able to reassure me that Ihtiman, my destination for the day, had both a hotel and a motel.  When I left, the blowing‎ wind and the enveloping dampness didn't seem nearly as cold as it had just a short while before.

The road began to descend shortly after I left the friendly armed guards behind, and I soon found myself below the cloud cover again. I'd been following the old Highway 8 for the past two days, and up until now it had remained fairly close to the new Autobahn 1. After the next village, all the (very inconsequential) traffic diverted on to the A1, leaving me with a road that was more pothole than pavement. That suited me just fine, especially since the A1 then veered north well out of earshot.

The rest of the day was quiet and peaceful. The only noteworthy event came in the late afternoon when, with Ihtiman in sight and a little more traffic on the road, I was flagged down and asked to help push a van out of the mud. It was only after two more guys, passing by on a horse-drawn cart, added their shoulders to the task that we were able to push it free. I was offered a ride to Ihtiman, which I declined with a nod of my head and a "Ne, blagodarya."

The folks at the first gas station on the edge of town told me the hotel is closed, but that the motel on the A1 was open. The last few kilometres were uphill, but the weather was quite warm by now (well, for Bulgaria in January) and the wind had died down. By the time it picked up again, and the rain started, I was already snug in my room finishing off the Novi Han post.

Because of this, it was rather late when I got to bed, and since breakfast wasn't available until 8:00, I decided to sleep in. I had spent some time during the evening going over possible destinations for Saturday, and searching for available accommodation. (I've noticed that people are generally really bad at estimating distances. At the gas station, they told me the motel was only 3 kms away, when actually it was five. And the motel clerk had suggested Pazardzhik as a possible destination, being only 35 kms. Except it's fifty-five. There are a few exceptions to this: professional drivers (like Tony), bicyclists, and other walkers.) 

I'd settled on Kostenets, even though it was only 16 kms distant. At the hostel in Sofia, I'd flagged this as a possibility. Even though it would be a short walk, I knew there'd be accommodations, and it would leave me within a long day's walk of Pazardzhik. Short day, early night, ba-da-boom-ba-da-bing.

And so here I am in Kostenets. I went shopping and bought supplies for breakfast, and as I was leaving the supermarket I heard the church bells pealing. It took me a few minutes to find my way across the river to the other part of town, but I made it to Vespers for the Publican and Pharisee. It was all in Bulgarian, of course, so I missed out on the great texts for this preparatory service, but Lent is coming!!! :-D

I'm tempted to stay another day and go to Liturgy‎ in the morning and then wait out the rain which has already started, but I am eager to keep walking and build on my  momentum. I passed the 1500 km mark yesterday, but I'm going to have to pick it up if I want to walk through Turkey. By all accounts, that will be long and challenging. I may end up flying from one of the regional airports to Haifa and missing out on Cyprus entirely, but I'll make that decision once I reach Istanbul.

Jan 30, 2015

At Home in Novi Han

I knew, with my two days in Edessa and four days in Thessaloniki and the recovery‎ from my illness in Sofia and the two train rides between these three cities, that it had been some time since I've actually walked from one town to another over the course of a day.  It was only when entering the specifics for my "Daily Stages" stats page that I realised I haven't walked into a town since January 16. I began walking again on the 29th. It's amazing how easy it is to lose track of time, although to be fair, I lost two days in Sofia to fever dreams and muscle aches as I lay in my bunk alternating between chills and sweats.

For Thursday, I set my alarm a little later than I normally do when I'll be walking, but I'd already packed almost everything the night before‎ and moved it down to reception. I had a larger than usual breakfast, chatted a bit with the three other guests at breakfast (two Lithuanian giants and an Irish schoolteacher), settled my account, checked Google Maps one last time on the hostel's computer terminal, and set out. 

(If ever you need a place to stay in Sofia while on a budget, Hostel Mostel is worth checking out. www.hostelmostel.com All the staff I interacted with were wonderful, the facilities were kept clean and in good repair, good food, free WiFi... it's just a really well run place. I am older than the demographic they seem to be targeting, but I was by no means the oldest guest there.)

Sofia is a very sprawling city, and most of the buildings were between four and eight storeys high. It was pleasant walking with the morning crowd on their way to work even though the day remained overcast and chilly.‎ As I made my way farther from the city centre, the wind picked up a bit since the buildings were no longer densely packed enough to block it. After an hour and a half of walking, I paused to put on another light layer of clothing. From this point on, I always had the southern range of hills in view to my right, with the northern range visible across the very wide valley to my left.

It was something like 14 kms from the hostel to the official city limits, although by the time I passed the exit board there hadn't been a café (or even a place to sit) for quite some time.‎ The one nice thing about following the highway was the full-width breakdown lane plus shoulder which separated me from the traffic. Once the highway veered to the south of the route I was taking, the road got narrower and much quieter. Still no place to stop and sit, and the wind was getting progressively stronger throughout the afternoon.

Finally I came across the Sofia Studios Complex beside the road. Of most immediate interest to me was the large sign out front, which had enough room for me to set down my pack and myself. It wasn't protected from the wind, but at that point I didn't care. I wolfed down an orange, some nuts, and some chocolate and pressed on. 

According to my GPS, I was less than an hour from Novi Han.‎ Before I left the hostel, I'd asked if they knew of any accommodations at my destination. The answer was vague but reassuring.  The folks at the first gas station at the edge of town were far more specific. "No hotel. Elin Pelin." Elin Pelin is only eight kilometres away, but that 8 kms is at right angles to my direction of travel, and I would have to walk back again in the morning. I do not like to detour or backtrack, so next I asked about a church in Novi Han. Everyone seemed to think that was an excellent idea. Encouraged, I pressed on. (Cultural note: I am used to nodding my head to say yes and shaking my head to say no. In Bulgaria, they do the opposite. These culturally ingrained habits are tough to overcome in the course of a day or two, but it's helped me become more aware of what I'm doing.)

Novi Han is not a large town, but it's big enough that I couldn't see the church. When I walked past the post office, I could see people staring at me through the window, so I decided to go in, ask for directions, and learn a few more words of Bulgarian. One postal worker drew a rough map for me, but it wasn't really necessary. Once I knew that the church was on a side street to the left, it was just a matter of checking for a cross and a dome.

I'd been looking for a church, but what I found was much more than that. The structure had formerly been a monastery, that much was clear. The sign over the large gate was good clue, as was the inner courtyard with a church‎ surrounded on all sides with connected buildings. Kitchen, living quarters, work area, check check check. The satellite dishes and toys I could see on the exterior balconies are not standard features of monasteries I've been to before, and the multiple pieces of large and brightly coloured playground equipment (not visible in this photo) were also surprising. In addition to several small children playing in the courtyard, there were three men patching a concrete sidewalk.

Once I made it clear that I was looking for a place to sleep, there was only one question they had for me: how long would I like to stay? Never mind about my nationality, religious affiliation, or even my name. (Introductions happened later, during a communal dinner.)‎ I was shown to the office and invited to sit down while someone fetched linens and got a key, and then I was shown to my room.

I was given a cell on the second floor of the west wing. The door from the main corridor opened into a small antechamber, about three metres wide and two metres deep. There was storage space and shelving to the left as I walked in, while immediately ahead was another well-sealed door, this one with a window. The next section of the cell had a small washroom sectioned off from the narrow corridor. That lead to another door, the third between the toasty warm bedroom and the unheated corridor. It was quite clear that there had been some redecorating since the monks moved out, as the walls were bright pink and there was a plastic tiara hanging on one of them. There was a single bed on one wall with shelving built in to the wall at the head, a small table, two chairs, and an old treadle sewing machine which had been converted into a desk. My guide left me to settle in, pausing only to point in the direction of the kitchen.

After unpacking, I headed downstairs for a look around. The church was locked, so I drifted into the dining area where  a few people were sitting. I introduced myself and apologised for not understanding Bulgarian, but several of the people spoke English. Kids started drifting in, and each of them practised their English greetings with me. (I'm afraid I've already forgotten most of their names.) One lad produced his grade 5 English textbook which I leafed through.

Dinner was simple, but tasty and filling. Afterwards, the singing started. I guess "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is on the school curriculum, since everyone knew it. Then I decided to entertain them and sing for my supper. "I Know an Old Lady" is always fun, and for this rendition I included actions and sound effects. One of the young ladies provided a running translation, but there's so much repetition in the song they caught on pretty quickly. The kids vanished soon afterwards, and following a little conversation with the adults, I headed back to my room and started composing this update. I fell asleep mid-sentence several times and finally just saved it and turned out the lights.

As I was approaching Novi Han in the afternoon, I had no idea where I'd be spending the night. I couldn't have found a better place in a town ten times the size! ‎ This was a most excellent adventure.

Jan 28, 2015

My Last Day in Sofia

This morning I was up early. I dressed quietly, crept out of the dorm room, and made my way to St Nedelya in the first few minutes of daylight.‎ I arrived a few minutes before 8:00, lit a few candles, and settled in to wait for Liturgy to begin.

As I waited, I noticed something I've never seen before. On entering, many believers paused directly below the central dome and stood stock still for more than just a few seconds before moving on to light their candles. (Pau had attended Liturgy at St Alexander Nevsky on Sunday and asked me about this while we were walking on Tuesday. At that point, I hadn't observed the behaviour myself, and could offer no explanation. Still can't.) 

There was a short peal of bells at 8:00 and I stood, expecting the service would commence shortly.  One woman went forward, and a priest heard her confession beside the relics of the Serbian king St Stephen Milutin (1253 - 1321) on the south side of the iconostasis. I heard someone reciting the Trisagion Prayers, but I couldn't tell if it was emanating from the altar or from the Sacrament being enacted at the front of the church. I sat down again and pulled out my prayer rope while I waited.

There are timeless moments in life, when nothing in particular‎ happens. With nowhere to rush off to, and some very appealing iconography and a beautiful iconostasis to contemplate, I was quite happy to be silent and watch the flickering of the candles and the steady prayerful movement of people in the church. Eventually the priest left the altar and walked to the back of the church, glancing in my direction as he passed. Finally I realised that either I had misunderstood the woman at the candle stand the evening before, or she had been mistaken about there being a Liturgy every morning at 8:00. I took my leave of the church and headed back to the hostel for breakfast.

Following an extended breakfast and conversation with the two Lithuanian giants I'd met the night before, I headed to the trolley bus stop nearest the hostel. (Public transportation in Sofia is pretty amazing. They have subways, streetcars of various vintages, and "trolley buses," which are powered by overhead electric power lines like streetcars, but have regular bus bodies and chassis. {What's the correct plural of "chassis"?} No tracks, so no problems for other traffic to use the lane.) Stan from the hostel had given me good directions to the National Historical Museum and the Bojana Church, and told me to buy a combined ticket to save a few Leva.

I spent a little over three hours at the museum, which had been recommended to me by a Bulgarian co-worker of my father's. From there, it was a half hour walk to the late 10th century UNESCO World Heritage Site at the Church of St Nicholas and St Panteleimon in the suburb of Boyana. (Another of Milko's suggestions. Благодаря!)

Visitors to the church are limited to groups of no more than eight people, for no more than ten minutes at a time. Since it's the low season, the guide had only two visitors to shepherd, and the other one left after looking around for a few minutes. I, on the other hand, gazed intently and deliberately at everything. I was particularly struck with the fresco of the Theotokos and Christ over the entrance to the original (late 10th or early 11th century) chapel. It was brilliant. I spent far longer than ten minutes inside, and struck up a conversation with the guide which went far beyond questions about "Who is this?" Snejana was beyond generous in sharing both her knowledge and her passion for the masterful iconography in the church.‎ She is an artist herself, trained in the same school which produced the iconographers whose work we were immersed in. (And perhaps she enjoyed interacting with a visitor who already had some iconographic literacy. She gave me her email address and promised to send me photos of two of the icons. {Yes, photography is prohibited inside.} Unless I have permission to share these images online, though, I'm afraid the only people to see them will be those who see me in person.)  There are a few ‎images from this amazing church embedded in the Wikipedia article about it:

After tearing myself away, I headed back downhill to the transit stop in time to see a trolley bus pulling away. To my surprise, it wasn't the one I needed to catch. My ride was sitting at the end-of-line layover, so I hopped on board and settled in for the evening rush hour ride across the southern expanse of Sofia. I wound up opening my GPS app to track our progress across town and ensure I didn't miss my stop. (Worked out well.)

When I got back to the hostel, the laundry I'd left at reception in the morning was ‎clean, dry, and folded. I packed it away and then headed out to top up my food supplies and buy dinner, which I ate in the common room of the hostel. After several hours of pleasant post-dinner conversation, I excused myself and packed up, leaving only the essentials in my room. Everything else is waiting for me to pick it up from the baggage storage at reception when I check out after breakfast. No matter how quietly someone tries to be, packing in the dark in a room full of sleepers tends to be a relatively noisy affair, but this should allow me to slip out without disturbing anyone.

And tomorrow I finally start walking again! It's been almost two weeks since I've walked from town to town, and it's high time I resume my nomadic ways. I'm not sure where I'll wind up tomorrow night‎, other than 20 or 30 (or 40) kms closer to Istanbul -- and ultimately, Jerusalem. 

Jan 27, 2015

Journeymen Apprentices


St George, Serdica (Sofia)

http://ift.tt/1Cw7Yo1 http://flic.kr/p/qXE9JC

Chains of Love


Σοφια. Ορθοι!

Last evening after dinner in the hostel, I had spent some time speaking with Pau, the Spanish artist and academic who was staying in the same dorm room at the hostel. I wound up heading to bed early, but it was with some regret, as I had really been enjoying the conversation.  (Here's the video he put together after the walking tour we both went on yesterday: vimeo.com/117892195 The background music is a street performer we passed along the way.)

This morning I woke up about half an hour before my alarm, feeling great. Then I drifted back into slumber‎ and woke up again with my alarm, feeling even better.‎  After breakfast, I asked about Pau's plans for the day. He was happy to have company and continue our conversation from the night before, so we spent a few hours walking and talking.  From Sofia, he's heading to Thessaloniki to meet some friends, and will then spend a week on Mount Athos. From there he'll be returning to Istanbul, where we hope to meet up.

After taking our leave from one another at the train station, I headed back towards the centre of town.‎ During the walking tour yesterday, I had flagged several places I wanted a closer look at, so this afternoon I returned to the Rotunda (Church of St George).  This is the oldest building in Sofia, dating to the early 4th century. Like its much (MUCH) larger namesake in Thessaloniki, it was originally a public building, only later in the century being converted to use as a church. There are several layers of frescoes which remain, dating between the 12th and 14th centuries. Photography is prohibited inside, but I'll be posting some shots of the exterior to Flickr. (For more information, please see https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St._George,_Sofia )

After doing some window shopping at a sporting goods store, I headed towards the Church of St Nedelya. I had spotted a small cliffside chapel of the same name between Ohrid and Resen‎, and was unfamiliar with the name. Contrary to what the tour guide had told us, the meaning of this name is not "Holy Sunday," although that is a possible translation, just as Agia Sofia can be either Holy Wisdom (an aspect of Christ) or St Sofia (an early martyr). The brief pamphlet I read in the church states it is dedicated to St Nedelya, which is the Slavic translation of the name of an early martyr, St Kyriaki.

The original church on the site was built in the 10th century, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The most recent destruction occurred in 1925, when Communists blew up the building and killed the hundred and fifty people inside in a failed attempt on the life of the king. The modern church was consecrated in 1933, with the gilt wooden iconostasis that had survived the bombing intact. I've found much of the iconography in Bulgarian churches to be uninspiring, but the work in St Nedelya is unique and beautiful. (And of course, photography is prohibited.) I arrived shortly after Vespers had begun, and it was good to be breathing incense and hearing Byzantine chant again. Tomorrow morning the Liturgy begins at 8:00, and I intend to be there on time.

So, what's with the Greek subject of this post? For those not familiar with the language, it says, "Sofia. Orthi!" This translates as, "Wisdom. Stand upright!" and is declared in the Liturgy immediately prior to the Gospel reading. 

Today was the first day since Friday that I spent the entire day upright and walking‎. I didn't walk very far, probably less than 10 km, but given that three days ago I was so weak I could barely stand, it's a dramatic improvement. Tomorrow I'm planning a full day of sightseeing, and then Thursday I hope to start walking again. It's been far too long!

Jan 26, 2015

Sojourning in Sofia

The train from Thessaloniki to Sofia pulled away from the platform right on schedule. I was grateful for the help I received at the platform because only the last two cars on the train were headed to Bulgaria, and my ticket hadn't indicated that.‎ (I'm all for unexpected adventures, but I'm just as glad to have avoided that one.) I had a six seat compartment all to myself, and once I discovered how far the seats recline I began to catch up on some of the sleep I'd lost the night before. It's 231 km between the two cities, but it's a six and a half hour journey by train.

I didn't sleep the whole way. In Greece, every stop was announced (always reassuring), so I got a series of mental snapshots of small Greek towns nestled in the mountains. These mountains got progressively higher and steeper as we moved north -- Bulgaria has the highest peaks in the Balkans.‎ The first stop just across the border saw two officers board the train: one Greek, and one Bulgarian. They conducted a brief interview, collected passports, and headed back to their respective offices to stamp them. (The passport stamps I've collected so far have been very boring, all following the same EU template.)

On arriving in Sofia, I was greeted on the platform by a smiling individual who offered to "help" me. I carefully did not tell him which hostel I was staying at and brushed away his suggestion of a taxi. As I hadn't changed any Euros, he paid the 50 cents for me to use the toilet in the train station. That business taken care of, I followed him up to the ground floor, where I bought some Bulgarian Lev. When I handed him the 50 cent piece and thanked him, he asked for money. "Information isn't free!" Well, actually... He vanished pretty quickly after I threatened to call the cops - I'd noticed several around the station.

Once I was outdoors, I fired up my GPS app and discovered the hostel is just a two kilometre walk from the station along a major boulevard‎. I was checked in soon after. Hostel Mostel is quite an impressive place. The rooms aren't quite as nice as the hostel in Thessaloniki, but the showers are better. I signed up for the day trip to Rila Monastery set for Friday and then began composing my Thessaloniki update.

‎The next day, three of us hopped into the car which had been arranged by the hostel and settled in for the two hour ride. We actually drove past the monastery, making our first stop further up the narrow valley. After parking, it was a short hike up a narrow path to the cave where the 10th century hermit John (or Ioan, or Ivan) lived for twelve years. There is now a small chapel just outside the cave, where he is buried. (It was locked.) We were able to climb up into the saint's cave from a small passage beside the chapel, and then up and out again through a very narrow opening in the roof. Pious tradition holds that people who do this leave their sins behind them in the cave - perhaps they're scraped off by the walls. I'd certainly have had difficulty fitting through at the start of my pilgrimage, but I'm much more svelte now.  

From there it was back to the monastery, this time for a visit. The first monastic settlement dates to the 10th century, and was established by the disciples who had gathered around St John. It has played a central role in the history of the Bulgarian people since that time, although most of what is now standing dates to the 19th century. Our driver told us that there are about twenty monks still living there, in a facility built for fifteen times that number plus guests. Each year the monastery receives nearly one million visitors, so in spite of the peaceful surroundings, it must be a madhouse during the tourist season. (There were at most a few dozen visitors while we were there.)

Back at the hostel, I pecked away a bit more at the Thessaloniki update, but over dinner got to talking to two American guys. After several hours of conversation, I finally excused myself and headed up to my room. I was surprised at how stiff I had become, but as the evening progressed I realised I was getting sick - the muscles aching, chills, fever, and headache kind of sick. I've been hit with this a very few times in my life, generally only after weeks of extreme physical ‎exertion. (Hmmm, what could have caused it this time?) Past experience has taught me that, while unpleasant, it's not serious, and recovery is a matter of a few days.

Saturday morning the aches were much worse - I felt as if someone had been beating me with a broom handle‎ all night. I had breakfast at the hostel, and crawled back into bed as soon as I could. That afternoon, the chills began, and for the next twelve hours I slept fitfully, alternating between shaking violently with the cold and sweating copiously. Eventually I remembered I had a packet of cold and flu medication (the type that is dissolved in hot water), and that helped ease the pain and the coughing. On Sunday I dragged myself out of the hostel to the pharmacy conveniently located next door. It was only when I saw it was shut that I realized what day of the week it was. The hostel staff phoned someone who would be passing a 24 hour pharmacy on her way in to work, and she picked up more of the magic drink mix for me. The fever finally broke Sunday afternoon, but I only left my room for breakfast and dinner, spending the rest of my time horizontal on my bunk. I did keep working on the (by now very long) update about Thessaloniki, but I was so tired and weak it took a loooong time to finish. I did get to know two of the guys in my dorm over dinner - Adrian had just finished a semester of studies in Istanbul and is making his way home to Berlin, while Pau is on his way to Thessaloniki to meet up with some friends and then visit Mount Athos.

By Monday (today, as I type this), I was feeling much better. Still weak, but the aches and fever were gone. After breakfast I went back to bed for a few hours and then, along with Adrian and Pau and several others, took a free walking tour of Sofia. It lasted about two hours, and we even saw the sun from time to time. After that, I visited the Basilica of Agia Sofia, a 6th century three-aisled cruciform church built on the site of a 4th century church. The archaeological display in the crypt was closed (it's Monday!) so next I walked to the nearby St Alexander Nevski Cathedral and lit a candle for a friend who is undergoing a mastectomy in Canada today.  Until very recently, this was the largest cathedral in the Balkans.  ‎It's big and impressive, and apparently can hold 10,000 people. The crypt houses a very large icon collection, which I intend to visit on a day that doesn't start with the letter M.

By this time, I had been on my feet for three hours, and I was starting to feel a little tired. On the way back to the hostel, I stopped at a restaurant and had a very tasty and filling lunch and headed back to bed for the rest of the afternoon.‎ I've booked an extra three nights in the hostel, so I can ease back into walking around gradually before taking up my backpack and striking out for Istanbul. 

St Alexander Nevski


Jan 25, 2015

Jan 18 - 21: Thessaloniki

My first visit to the city of Thessaloniki came in 2003 as the bookends to a stay on Mount Athos. I remember having a wonderful time, visiting churches and Roman and Byzantine ruins‎, but there were two events in particular which stand out. 

The first was inadvertently getting heat stroke and stumbling lost through the streets until the two Tims, who were sharing the hotel room with me, came upon me and led me back. (No fear of that happening in January!) The second, and far more profound, memorable moment came when, after admiring the church and the crypt and the iconography at the basilica, I finally found myself standing before the fragrant, myrrh-streaming relics of St Demetrios. If you've been there, you know how inadequate words are to describe this kind of encounter.

This time I arrived in the city by train, having skipped about 90 kms of walking because I knew my time ‎in the Schengen area was drawing to a close, and spending those three days in Thessaloniki was more important to me than stubbornly walking all the way. That decision did mean I missed visiting the extensive archaeological site at Pella, but it should still be there on a return visit. It also meant that instead of experiencing the Greek countryside, even from a speeding train, I slept most of the way.

When I arrived in the city, I paused a few moments to get my bearings and then set out. I'd found a highly-rated and inexpensive hostel online the evening before, about a four kilometre walk from the train station. Along the way, I stopped in at the hotel I'd stayed at twelve years ago and inquired about the price of a room. It wasn't unreasonable, but until the weather gets warm enough for me to start camping, I'm trying to find the cheapest options. ‎In this case, €13 per night for a bunk in a dorm room seemed about right, so on I went.

The other stop I made was to pay my respects to the patron and protector of Thessaloniki. After twelve years, I once again ‎found myself in front of the relics of St Demetrios, and I returned there every day I was in the city, save for the last morning when I sped by in a cab at 6:30.

After making my leisurely way across the city and uphill towards the Ano Poli (Old City) neighbourhood, I located my hostel on a steep, narrow‎, cobbled road. This part of Thessaloniki escaped damage during the great fire of 1917, so it was spared the subsequent rebuilding and modernisation that took place closer to the harbour. (That being said, some of the properties in the area look like they'd benefit from a large conflagration.)

The hostel is simply amazing. It's run by people who have travelled extensively, and understand what a backpacker (or other itinerant) needs. I suppose it's a given that staff in a place like this will be friendly, but the ladies at Little Big House were wonderfully helpful. I had several great conversations with my fellow sojourners‎, and discovered that I had a friend in common with one of them.

The next few days involved lots of walking, although without my backpack. I visited churches and museums, and walked along the extensive seafront boardwalk. The weather wasn't brilliant, but at least it didn't rain while I was there. 

Sunday evening, I got to know the two other guys sharing the dorm with me.‎ The guy from Winnipeg is a landscaper by trade, an economist by education. He works three seasons, and travels to warmer climes in the winter. The Greek is a Rhodes scholar, but not in the traditional understanding of the term. He lives in Rhodes, and is in Thessaloniki for his final chemistry exams at the university. (In Greece, postsecondary education is free, and you can write your exams at any time.) I was amused that I was rooming with Philip and Alexander.

Monday I slept in and had a leisurely breakfast at the hostel (buffet for €2) and then did my laundry (also €2). This is a fantastic place! The rest of the afternoon was spent heading generally west back towards the train station and downhill.‎ I stopped in again at St Demetrios, but several of the other churches were closed. Eventually I found myself walking through the major club district near the ferry terminal. (Pretty boring on a Monday afternoon.) Daylight was starting to fade rapidly, so I headed back to the hostel, stopping on the way to buy some food at a supermarket. My fellow Canadian and I shared a meal together in our room, and the scholar joined in the discussion. He had an exam the next day, but felt prepared enough to take a break from studying. It was a very pleasant evening.

After breakfast on Tuesday, I struck out on a large circuit of churches. On the way to Osios David, I spotted the church‎ dedicated to the Taxiarchi - the heavenly powers. It's a relatively new church, dating to the 14th century. Sadly, none of the original iconography has survived. The current array of saints lining the walls at eye level are all from Thessaloniki. It was a truly impressive display of the local talent. Maybe in another millennium or two, the faithful of Toronto will have some saints of our own to venerate.

My next stop was Osios David. The photo of the apse mosaic on Wikipedia doesn't do it justice. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Hosios_David‎) The most striking feature of this late 5th or early 6th century mosaic is that Christ is depicted without a beard. The mosaic had been plastered over, probably during the Turkokratia when the church was converted to a mosque, and was only rediscovered in the late 20th century when a section of the plaster fell away, revealing the long-hidden masterpiece. Photography is prohibited, so I spent quite a bit of time here, absorbing it all and recording my observations in my Moleskine. (Too lazy to transcribe that, sorry. Come visit Thessaloniki!)

From there I headed downhill along ‎Agia Sofia street to the 7th century church of the same name. (I passed the mid-5th century Church of the Acheiropoietos on by, since I'd visited it the previous day. Big, beautiful, peaceful, and about 4 m below the modern street level.) Agia Sofia was built on the site of a 5th century five aisled basilica, and was the city cathedral until the Turkish conquest of the city in 1460. St Gregory Palamas would've preached here, and this is where he was buried. {I'm not sure when his relics were transferred to the modern cathedral, also on Agia Sofia, very close to the waterfront.}

On Monday, I had noticed a Canadian‎ flag flying in a small park opposite the church of Agia Sofia. The street running south of the church is called Mackenzie King. These were very unexpected finds in the heart of a city which is well over two millenia old, so when I passed by again on Tuesday, I stopped in to the restaurant facing the park to see if they knew anything. Allegra, the server with whom I struck up a conversation, was a little fuzzy on the details, but she did give me the password for the restaurant's WiFi. Here's what I found out:

When I told her of the role Mackenzie King (and Canada) had played in her city during World War II, she was deeply moved.‎ With the lunch rush past, and no time pressure on my part, we were able to chat for quite some time before I finally decided to continue my wanderings.‎ She had told me about the catacombs just across from the southwest corner of Agia Sofia, but by the time I arrived, the church was closed for the afternoon. I had a good look at the 5th century baptistry in the courtyard, 5 m below the modern street level (the catacombs were a layer lower), and then made my way to the Archaeological Museum.

After walking slowly through the exhibits ranging from the Bronze Age to the late Byzantine period, I struck out for the Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodios. These brothers were monks who were born and raised in Thessaloniki, and their legacy includes the invention of an alphabet for the Slavic peoples (the modern version of which is known as Cyrillic) and the first conversions of the Slavic inhabitants of the Balkans. The Slavs had arrived there in force in the late 6th century, and after harassing the borders of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire which was much distracted by threats from the Persians and Arabs in the east, they established agricultural settlements, eventually paying tribute to the empire without being fully subjugated. (Imperial support for their evangelisation also had political motivations.)

I'd venerated the relics of St Cyril while in Rome, and I'd already selected Bulgaria as my next destination, so I was eager to visit. Sadly, the church was locked when I arrived, although there were several people setting up mattresses on the side porch under the extended eaves when I arrived in the late afternoon.‎ I took a few pictures and then headed back towards the heart of the city along the pedestrian boardwalk beside the shore. There was a surprising number of people out walking and cycling for such a cool overcast day, but it is a beautiful walk.

I walked back to the catacombs, and by this time they had reopened. After visiting Rome, I suppose my expectations were set too high. There were a few barrel vaulted corridors and two rooms, but it wasn't at all what I was expecting. Sadly, there was no printed information available, but judging from the distance below street level, they must have dated to the first few hundred years of Christianity.‎ (The apostle Paul preached in the city and wrote two epistles to the Christian community there, so it is a very ancient church.)

Heading towards the Rotunda, I stopped in at a perfectly beautiful little church, St Theodora. It's another 14th century church with elegant brick work, but sadly, the icons and frescoes with which it was once adorned did not survive the long centuries of Turkish occupation. The church custodian, Haralambos, told me that, like most of the many small churches and chapels in Thessaloniki, this was never intended for use as a centre for parish life. The parish churches are much larger, and also quite often 700 or 800 years older. The purpose of these tiny chapels was to serve as an outpost of monastic spirituality in the midst of the city. Before the days of motorised transport, it was not a simple matter for people in Thessaloniki to visit the great monastic centre of Mount Athos. The solution was for the tiny churches to have priest-monks sent to the city. (The Greek word describing this type of church is "metochion.")

Anyway‎, the sun had set by the time I walked the next block to the Rotunda. As it turns out, this Roman monument is closed to the public after 3:30, so I just headed back to the hostel where I cooked up the last of the pasta I'd been carrying since Italy. By this time, the Winterpegger had moved on, and there was a new person in the dorm, another student. It was a quiet evening in the room, as both were studying intently.

Wednesday I got packed up after breakfast, and began a "farewell tour" on my way to the bus station. I knew there's a 3:30 bus to Sofia, so I was in no rush. I headed back downhill to the Rotunda, a building erected in 306 under the reign of Galerius. The experts aren't sure of its original purpose, but it was converted to a church soon afterwards. The surviving mosaics are stunning, but unlike my last visit, we were not allowed up on the scaffolding to get a closer look. 

Continuing along the same path, I walked past the triumphal arch of Galerius, which depicts his triumphs in the Persian wars. I sat a bit in the sunshine, wondering how to spend my last few hours in the city. Eventually I stopped in to the church of Panagia Dexios at the edge of the square. I remembered visiting the church twelve years ago, but nothing more about it. This time I had more Greek phrases available to me, and struck up a conversation with an extremely short woman at the candle stand. With my flourescent-draped backpack and my walking stick, I am a rather conspicuous figure, and she asked all the usual questions. Then she told me about the side chapel in the church where there's a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos. "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!"

From there I walked over to the current cathedral, the Church of St Gregory Palamas. The church chandeliers were not lit and it was fairly dark inside. As I stepped over the threshold I could see the mist from my breath, which was very odd since it was warm and partly sunny outdoors. Thick walls on the church and no central heating, I suppose. The atmosphere was markedly different from the hustle and bustle of the street. I went to the side chapel and paid my respects, and then sat for a few minutes savoring the calm.

From there, I headed uphill again along Agia Sofia. When I arrived at Canada Park, I stopped in at the restaurant I'd visited the day before. This time I ordered lunch, and had another very good talk with my friend from the day before. 

Afterwards I continued on my way to ‎St Demetrios for one last visit, and then continued on to the international bus terminal. Along the way I spotted a sign pointing slightly off route to the Church of the Holy Apostles. According to one information pamphlet, this 14th century church has "magnificent mosaics" but it was locked.

On my arrival at the station, I found that churches aren't the only things that are closed in the city. The OSE bus service to Sofia runs three times a day every day except Wednesday, and the office was locked. Undaunted, I bought a train ticket for the next morning (6:55 departure) and took a cab back to the hostel I had checked out of just a few hours previously. The folks at reception were surprised to see me, and very apologetic when I told them about the office hours. They were happy to book me in for another night, and to arrange a taxi for the next morning. It's only 4 km, but I prefer to avoid walking before sunrise.

‎I was in a different room for my last night, and the first new dorm-mate I met was someone I'd been speaking with after breakfast for a bit. Cyril is doing an ultralight bicycle trip to Asia, and it was very interesting comparing gear with him. We continued our conversation in the sun on the terrace, where we were eventually joined by two others from the room. They had made dinner reservations at a nearby restaurant that features live folk music, and invited me and Cyril to join them. It was an incredible evening. We arrived at 8:00 and finally left at 12:30. And then we headed uphill to the tower overlooking that section of the city. 

It was 2:00 by the time I was settled in to bed, and my taxi was set to arrive at 6:15. It arrived promptly and we sped past St Demetrios in the dark, arriving at the station soon after.

My next update, from Sofia, will be both shorter and more prompt in arriving.

Jan 19, 2015

Nikolaos and Georgios

I wasn't lost, but I wasn't sure of where I was headed. Instead of giving me directions, these gentlemen shared their meal with me, and three hours of conversation in the warm afternoon sun. http://flic.kr/p/qPSJZQ

Agios Demetrios

This church, and this saint, are the reason I am in Greece. I could have taken another route, but the chance to venerate St Demetrios again is not one I was willing to pass up. http://flic.kr/p/qPS8cY

Jan 18, 2015


I'm sitting on the terrace of a fantastic hostel (www.littlebighouse.gr/) in Thessaloniki, feeling somewhat dislocated.‎ 

This morning I was up early, and arrived at Agia Skepi in Edessa shortly after Matins had begun. This large and beautiful church is not even a five minute walk from my hotel, and the proprietor is a parishioner there. I'd made it to Vespers there last evening and introduced myself to the priest afterwards, indicating my desire to receive Communion. (Not a problem, thanks in part to the letter of introduction from Fr. Iskander.) It was all in Greek, of course, but I'd gone over the ‎Scripture readings for the day, and the Liturgy is the same no matter which language it's celebrated in. (To date, I've been to services in English {of course!}, Arabic, French, Old Church Slavonic (Russian style), Greek, Albanian, Finnish, Spanish, Romanian, and Macedonian.)

My intestinal discomfort on Saturday didn't last long, so by noon I was out on the streets exploring the old city of Edessa. The only church I found that was open was full of school age children, and the priest at the front had just begun what I assume was a catechism class. He smiled warmly at me as I slipped in, but I thought it best to remove myself lest I prove too much of a distraction. 

I wandered through the narrow mediaeval streets for a bit, and then found a narrow set of stairs leading down the cliff towards a viewing area for the waterfalls. They were quite nice, although of course ‎Niagara Falls has set a standard that's hard to beat. Rather than head back up the long and steep set of stairs, I decided to follow the road that led in the direction of the train station in the hope that I'd find another way back up the cliff. The road went from paved to gravel, and from gravel to two dirt ruts in a grassy trail leading between small fenced-off gardens. I kept going, and when I saw a man getting out of a car that was pointed in my direction, I asked about a road up to the city. Instead of answering my question, he said, "Come with me."

I followed him into the last property at the end of the road and saw a small shelter set up over a table and chairs, with a brick oven. An older gentleman was bringing a large pot to the table, and I was told to sit down and join them. Georgios and Nickolaos shared the chickpea and homemade sausage stew that had been cooking overnight, and then brought out another,larger pan. This had more veggies, and the tongue and cheeks of a pig. Never having eaten either of these delicacies before, I was curious but slightly apprehensive. I needn't have been - it was delicious! The homemade wine Georgios was pouring may have helped my appreciation somewhat. We sat in the warm afternoon sun and ate and drank and talked for three hours, Nickolaos acting as interpreter.

Finally they announced they needed to head back, and offered me a ride back in to town. (It turns out that Nick is from the same village as Vasilis, the hotel owner.)‎ My belly was full of good hearty food, and my heart was warmed by the free and easy hospitality I had been shown. I was very grateful I'd spent the extra day in Edessa, instead of walking the 45 kms that I'd planned on. After stopping in at the hotel briefly, I headed to the train station to check the schedule, and was back in the neighbourhood in time for Vespers.

After Liturgy this morning, I was delighted to see Georgios. He had shaved, and was dressed like the retired banker he is, rather than the simple farmer I'd met the day before. He introduced me to his wife, but I declined their offer to join them for lunch. (Probably my loss!) As it was, I made it to the train station with minutes to spare. Within minutes of settling in to my seat, I was asleep. (Another reason I prefer self-propulsion.) When the train arrived in Thessaloniki, I pulled my pack on and started walking across the city to the hostel I'd located online the night before. I stopped in at the Basilica of St Demetrios, and once again I was overcome with awe as I stood before his fragrant relics.

And now here I am. The hostel is a lively place, with Americans, Greeks, and Bulgarians staying here. For €13 per night, I have a bunk in a six bed dorm room, which I'm sharing with two American guys. And yet, the lack of continuity between this morning in Edessa and this evening in Thessaloniki feels odd. I experienced a similar feeling on arriving in Durrës and encountering a new language and culture, but at least there I was expecting it.

I'm booked in for the next three nights, and then I'm planning to hop a bus to Sofia, Bulgaria. From there it should be about a three week walk to Istanbul, where I'll pause again to evaluate my options. At this point, I think I'll walk to the Mediterranean coast, catch a ferry to Cyprus, and then a flight from Larnaca to Haifa. From there, it's on to Jerusalem!

Jan 17, 2015

Why Walk?

A question I've been asked quite often on my pilgrimage is why I don't  just take a bus or drive. My usual response is that when I'm walking I can experience the world around me: the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural world, the sensation of the warm sun or cold wind on my face, even the textures of the path I'm walking. (A thick carpet of pine needles under foot feels very different from a gravel path or a snow covered road.) Most people in the West go to great lengths to insulate themselves from the outdoors, but walking gives me a deeper connection to creation.

This answer satisfies most people, but occasionally I'm told I could roll down the car window ‎and get most of the same with much more comfort. While that's true, it would also mean that we would not be having the conversation at all. Instead of speeding past the the village, I'd been free to stop in for a coffee in the café.

These human connections are what have given me the most joy in my pilgrimage so far. There have been moments of exultation as I survey the landscape from the heights or watch as the setting sun colours the surrounding peaks orange, red, and purple, but it's the spontaneous conversations that have meant the most to me. I've reported some of those, but there are many more which will likely stay in my notebook. I just don't have the time to write everything up when I'm walking for eight or more hours each day, and then have to find food and shelter for the night.

Another type of connection I've become aware of is with my own body. Walking is inescapably a physical activity. There are days when it is effortless, and walking feels more like flying, but even the assorted aches and weariness I experience serve to emphasise the fact that I am not simply an ambulatory computer. ‎My pace is affected by the slope, my weariness, the wind, and other factors. This in turn influences my breathing and pulse, which provides feedback for my pace. When faced with a steep slope, I automatically slow right down and begin moderating my breathing in order to maintain a steady, if slow, progress.

This post is itself proof of another type of connection I have been able to enjoy. Although I've met some pilgrims who choose to listen to music while they're walking, I prefer to use the hours of solitude to pursue stray thoughts. Sometimes they're pure whimsy, but occasionally I'm able to follow an idea through to its logical conclusion. One very wise man once told his students that in ancient Greece, philosophy was a pastime for the idle rich, since everyone else was too busy earning a living to have the time to think deeply. At the time I was working midnight shifts at a gas station, and I pointed out that people at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum also had that kind of time. Walking for a third or more of each day doesn't mean that I'm deep in thought the whole time, but it does create room for it.

Yet another type of connection my journey has allowed me to make is the historical and cultural. I was in the fifth grade when I first started reading about the Roman Empire, and while it never became a consuming passion, I was fascinated by the world they inhabited. Had I chosen to avoid Italy and instead walked through central Europe and then down into the Balkans, I'd have had more than enough time to enjoy northern Greece. Instead, I'll need to leave this part of the world within the week due to my visa situation, but it was worth it. (I could have spent my entire 90 days in Rome itself and still have left with regrets about what I didn't get to see.) Paris, Turin, Milan, Siena, Ohrid, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Istanbul, and of course Jerusalem -- all of these are world class cities with art, culture, history. The line between pilgrim and tourist can get blurry at times, but this update is about connections. 

It is ironic that, in order for me to make (or strengthen) these connections, I have disconnected myself from my home, my family, my parish, my culture, and my language. As a pilgrim, I usually sleep in a different city each night, and my meals are either shared with strangers or eaten alone.‎ I usually manage to get online each day, but it's very different from my hyperconnected cyberpresence at home. And the really funny thing is, it's not necessary to leave home in order to connect the way I have. (Except for the cultural - there are some things the internet just can't deliver. But there are museums and art galleries.) All it takes is mindfulness: an awareness of my surroundings and my body, and the recognition that every person I encounter offers a new world of wisdom and experience and perspective. The author Jim Forest, in summarising Dorothy Day's view of pilgrimage, wrote, "every day of one's life and all that happened along the way, planned or unexpected, were segments of a heavenward pilgrimage, so long as the guiding principle was to live the gospel and to discover Christ in those whom one encountered."

It is not necessary to travel in order to be a pilgrim, and it's quite possible to travel great distances and remain nothing but a tourist. I have spent years preparing for this journey, but anyone reading these words can become a pilgrim within their daily routines. Again quoting Jim Forest, in his book Roads to Emmaus. 

"If you give yourself the time and freedom, and allowing sea or air passage of any oceans in the way, you can walk to Santiago de Compostela or even to Jerusalem. But if such major stretches are out of reach because of other commitments, you can be on pilgrimage in your own small patch of the world. Part of the work of a pilgrim is to be surprised. As G. K. Chesterton wrote, "I am astonished at the people who are not astonished." While being in unfamiliar places may make it easier to be surprised, you can be surprised right where you are. No matter how many times you have walked around the same block, there is always something or someone new to see, some detail previously not noticed. To pay attention to passing faces is a school of meditation and prayer."

A few days ago, I spotted some (English) graffiti in a bus stop just outside a small Greek village. Don't be content with merely existing. Start living! And the best way to do this is to pay attention to the people and the world around you. 

And perhaps, while attending to the presence of others, you may become aware of the Other‎, that still small voice of God. I haven't had any major epiphanies, but there have been small moments of grace, too many to enumerate. My prayer for this pilgrimage of mine is that it will draw me closer to Christ. And that is also something that can occur without leaving home.

An extra day in Edessa

This morning, for the first time on my pilgrimage, I have had serious internal turmoil. (I'm trying to be circumspect.) Beginning a 40 km walk with gastrointestinal issues is not something I'm keen to do, so I think I'll stay in Edessa for an extra day and then hop a bus to Thessaloniki on Sunday after Liturgy. (My 90 day stay in the Schengen area is rapidly drawing to a close.) I think it'll be safe to make short exploratory forays into the old city, but I won't be going too far from civilisation today. I may also visit a pharmacy and buy a remedy for what's ailing me.

Jan 13 - 16: Northern Greece

Bitola to Florina:
After leaving Bitola, located at the northwest edge of a large plain, I headed south and a little east towards the Greek border. This plain is ringed with mountains on all sides, and at the start of my day, the peaks were all snowcapped. There was also a fair bit on the ground, left over from the snowfall on my first night ‎in Bitola. As usual, I'd consulted the Via Egnatia guidebook and decided against walking through the small villages in the foothills, opting instead to follow the lightly travelled road that led across the plain directly to the border. In spite of the snow, it was quite warm, and I soon had my sleeves rolled up. 

The border crossing was uneventful, and when I reached the first town across the border I decided it was time for lunch. The guidebook had mentioned that staying in Niki was possible, but that a traveller would have to ask about private rooms for the night in one of the cafés. Perhaps Niki is not a ghost town in the warmer months, but all three cafés I saw were shuttered, as were the two small shops. The snow covered playground of the tiny school didn't have any footprints , and this was a Tuesday! I seated myself at a table on the covered patio of one of the cafés, tweeted that I was in Greece, and tucked in to my supplies.

The VE guidebook indicated that next two towns listed ‎were also of the "ask around" nature, so rather than risk sleeping on the street, I decided to head south and a little west to the city of Florina. That did add a few hours of walking to this section, but I was also concerned about the section between Meliti (which I bypassed on Wednesday) and Kelli (which I walked through on Thursday). According to my GPS app, the road ends in Meliti, with an 1100 m peak between that town and the next. This was borne out by the directions in the guidebook. At this time of year in this part of the world, that kind of altitude guarantees there will be plenty of snow on the ground, and the last two times I followed the VE over mountain passes, it got quite challenging.

So, Florina it was! From Niki, there was a choice of three routes: the main road which curved east and then back west, the secondary road which turned immediately west and skirted the base of the mountain range ringing the plain, and a single lane farm track that led almost due south through two villages before connecting with a secondary road that led directly to Florina. 

The farm track hadn't been plowed, but there was a clear set of tire tracks the whole way. The first village I reached was virtually empty. Lots of large farm machinery parked on the street, ‎and even more abandoned homes, crumbling and overgrown. The next village was larger and more populated. When I saw a café, I realized I hadn't had any caffeine all day, so in I went. Heads turned, but soon enough I was sitting at a long table with several of the locals. One of the women had lived in Hamilton for twenty years, so she translated some of what was going on. I was offered some loukoumades (yummy!), and when I went to pay for my coffee, I was told that it was taken care of. I posted the photo of the group to Flickr a few days ago. My benefactor was the one who refused to face the camera. Who am I to complain?  I arrived in Florina after dark, but my GPS app led me directly to a hotel. Along the way, I discovered that the large and aggressive looking dogs which roam free in Greece are easily cowed. A loud and stern shout, accompanied by a stooping motion and then a throw of an imaginary rock will get them to turn tail.

Florina to Vevi:
‎Another day of warm sunshine after a sub-freezing night, and another few hours of walking with my sleeves up. I think I like Greece! My walk today led me east and south across the vast mountain-ringed plain. After several hours of walking, the southwestern range came into clearer focus, and I could see they were lower than the hills farther north, and also snow-free, probably because the peaks were exposed to the warm sun all day. The snow was also gradually melting away as I walked. Looking back across the plain, I could see a faint haze obscuring the mountains on the far side. My guess is it was from all the snow melting and evaporating. The last few hours as I approached my destination saw me enter gently sloping foothills. As the sun drew near the horizon, it did start to get rather chilly, so when I arrived in Vevi, I was quite happy to take refuge in the first café I saw. It's not a large village, and my GPS app didn't indicate any hotels in the area, so all I could do was follow the advice of my guidebook (given for a different town) and ask if there was anywhere in town I could spend the night. Nobody in the café spoke English, so this involved using my smartphone to display the "survival phrases" I'd compiled before I left. I was in luck! The guy who'd been talking at me in Greek in a very friendly and engaging manner took me outside and pointed the way. He also told me he'd pay for my coffee, but then he just got up and left without settling either of our tabs. Thinking I must have misunderstood him, I paid for my coffee and headed down the road.

The sun had set and a wind picked up while I was nursing my coffee and repeating the phrase "Then katalaveno." (I don't understand.)‎ The hotel was a few hundred metres away, and I was very glad to arrive. (Maybe I should have added an extra layer or two before leaving the café. Ya think?) Leonidas speaks English fluently, and after leaving my pack in my room, we were soon deep in a theological discussion. At one point, he apologised for keeping me talking, which made me laugh. Here was a man who actually thought about these matters, and cared enough to share his questions and observations with a total stranger! I was something of a curiosity to him, since I'd been raised in one faith tradition and after years of study had entered a different one. I was able to offer him perspectives on Orthodoxy that he hadn't encountered before, and I think he appreciated hearing about the faith he'd been born into from a convert's perspective. Eventually I excused myself and set out to find dinner. When I returned, the ground floor was full of people watching a football match (that's "soccer" to you North Americans), so I headed up to my room where I showered and posted a few catch-up messages. By the time I came back down, the place was empty except for one man sitting at the bar speaking with Leonidas, and my friend from earlier in the evening. This time there was no mistake, and he bought me a beer which I sipped as we looked at the computer monitor where Leonidas was browsing through my Flickr sets. (Interesting observation: in Italy when I told people of my plans, they were marvelled at the distance. In Greece, people immediately latch on to the destination. Finally, I don't have to explain why! Pascha in Jerusalem is a self-evident good here.) My other beer was courtesy of my host.

After everyone else had left, Leonidas and I chatted a bit longer, but I knew he finished work at midnight and I felt bad about keeping him from his home. Well, and I also felt tired. We added one another as friends on Facebook and said goodbye. When I arrive in Jerusalem (God willing!) I will light a candle for him. (My list of friends and benefactors continues to grow, and in addition to my prayers of gratitude along the way, I will specifically commemorate each one when I reach my destination.)

Vevi to Arnissa:
‎Vevi is in the foothills, and the walk out of town on the old road was very steep - just what's needed to combat the morning chill! As I walked uphill past the school, I glanced down and caught the eye of a student who was gazing out the window. I waved, and then waved again a few seconds later as the teacher and the rest of the students looked up at me. Booyeah! Leonidas had told me that this road would be practically deserted, and he was right. It was a steady climb up from Vevi to the town of Kelli, and when I saw a café there I was glad to sit down and have a (very large) Greek coffee. The café also had WiFi, so I replied to a few messages and checked the weather and Facebook. My elevation was now 400 m above Vevi - the road was clear but the snow on either side was fairly deep and the wind was quite cold. I was very glad I had not followed the Via Egnatia cross-country and over the higher pass to Kelli! 

Once I'd left the village behind, the wind died down and I soon shed my wind-proof jacket. As I continued to descend, the sleeves were rolled up, and I soon left the snow and ice behind me. (Except where the surrounding peaks cast a permanent shadow.) For hours, the only sound I heard were birds and my own footsteps. I might have seen a car every half hour, so the peace was virtually undisturbed.  I could hear vehicles approaching a minute or more before they finally passed me.

By 1:45, I had rounded ‎a turn in the mountains and saw my destination ahead of me in the distance. It was less than 8 kms away as the crow flies, but the road was hardly that direct. It took another three and a half hours before I finally arrived in Arnissa, and just as the night before, I had no idea where I would be spending the night. Barely 50 m to my left from the first intersection was a bar. Since it had worked so well the night before, I headed in and ordered a drink. By the time I got around to asking about a place to stay, a young woman had come in to get a coffee to go. Turns out she speaks English, and had the number of a hotel in town. She called the proprietor, relayed the pertinent information, a nd told me he'd be coming to pick me up in a few minutes. Then she took her coffee and headed out the door, accompanied by my thanks.

The hotel was just a few hundred metres away, but after checking me in and a brief conversation in Greek (I don't speak Greek!), Kyriakos headed off again. Our conversation consisted of me reading from my "survival phrases" cheat sheet to tell him I am an Orthodox Christian pilgrim who's walking to Jerusalem for Pascha. Turns out his mother had been there many years before, and he was himself planning a trip to Mount Athos ‎later this year. I picked up a few supplies from the supermarket around the corner, and then fell asleep shortly after listening to The World This Hour on the CBC. I woke up three hours later, and stayed awake until almost 4:00 am. Arggh! I changed my alarm to allow for a few extra hours of sleep and went back to bed. (I changed times zones when I entered Greece, jumping to GMT+2. I hadn't expected it to make a difference, but I've been starting my walking quite late ever since. The good news is, I'll be in this time zone until I head west again. {I think. Anyone know which time zone Bulgaria is in?})

Arnissa to Edessa:
Another late start (11:00 AM) and steep climb to begin my day, but it was a very short walk today - only 24 kms. More walking in the sun with my sleeves up, and the only snow I'd seen since descending from Kelli the day before was on the highest surrounding peaks.‎ Before leaving Arnissa, I stopped at a cafe for a Greek coffee, and shortly after she delivered that, the proprietor came to my table with a small dessert plate, on the house. (Yes, I think I like Greece!) Thanks to quite a few kilometres of extensive road work, I had a whole lane to myself for much of the walk, with either a crash barrier or traffic cones marking the extent of my demesne. It was a very gradual uphill climb most of the day, but the terrain shifted about an hour outside of Edessa, leading downhill on grades that were as steep as 10% at times. I had paused for a break on the wide shoulder of a hairpin turn overlooking the city a few kilometres away when a small pickup truck pulled off the road on the gravel and stopped in front of me. The passenger was none other than my helpful friend from Vevi. We were still faced with mutual incomprehension, but we had a short and friendly exchange before they headed on their way again. 

From the hills above, I had seen that Edessa is a small city. As I walked through it towards the old centre where the hotels were located, I realized I hadn't seen this many shops since leaving Florina. (If I'd hunted long enough, I probably would have found a laundromat. I didn't bother, having done my laundry in the bathtub {Yes, bathtub! A very rare find in a hotel in the Balkans!} the night before.) I checked in to the first hotel I came across, just on the edge of the old city. After unpacking and having a short rest, I went off to explore. It was dark by then, but wandering the mediaeval quarter was quite nice. The two 14th century churches I found were both closed, but I'll walk past them in the morning on the off chance I'll be able to glance inside.

The city is situated along the edge of a cliff which overlooks the plain leading to Thessaloniki and the Aegean Sea. For this reason, and also because of the two rivers which flow through town (and then over the cliff), Edessa has been continuously inhabited since the 6th century BC. The earliest settlement was at the foot of the cliff, and I'll be walking through the archaeological site as I make my way towards my next destination. 

After several short walking days, as dictated by the course of the road and location of towns, I face a much longer walk on Saturday. No 11:00 AM start for me! The sun rises at 7:55 and sets at 5:30, so I intend to take full advantage of the available daylight as I trek onwards to Giannitsa.

Jan 14, 2015

Coffee in Kato Klines

One advantage of walking through a country instead of driving is that I have met many wonderful and hospitable people. The gentleman facing away from the camera paid for my coffee. One of the women had lived in Hamilton for twenty years before returning to Greece, so she acted as a translator. http://flic.kr/p/qNJWnC

Village Church


Jan 11 - 12: Resen to Bitola

In the morning I hit snooze on my alarm several times in spite of my resolve to get an early start. After a breakfast cobbled together from the supplies I was carrying, I spent more time than I should have flipping through the channels looking for either a weather forecast or an English news report. It was 8:30 when I handed my room key to the proprietor and headed out.

According to my GPS, the main road between Resen and Bitola makes a wide loop in its approach to the pass in the next mountain range, while the secondary road takes a more direct approach. (Old roads, laid down for horse power instead of internal combustion, are quite often the better routes for walkers.) The Via Egnatia guidebook would have led me across several kilometres of snowy farm trails before connecting with the cobblestone road through the Pelestra National Park, so I followed the road out of Resen until it intersected with the older route. The road out of Resen led almost directly south, and with the warmth of the morning sun I'd soon rolled up my sleeves. I'm sure the passing motorists thought I was mad.

Once I reached it, I was a little apprehensive to see that the secondary road had not been plowed, but there was a good set of tire tracks with bare road showing, so I went ahead. At the next junction about 100 m higher, the lovely clear tracks veered back towards the main road, ‎but there were still two sets of tire tracks cut into the snow, which by this time was about 20 cms deep. (After gaining this much altitude and walking into the shadow cast by the surrounding peaks, my sleeves were buttoned down again and I'd added an extra layer.)

My earlier apprehension changed to dismay when, at around the 1200 m level, I saw where the last of the vehicles had done a three-point turn and headed back down the mountain. The snow was now closer to 30 cms deep than 20, and all I had to follow was a single file series of footprints which had been laid down by at least three people before me. None of these tracks were fresh, but it seemed as if the most recent set of footprints was leading upwards. My fear was that I would walk for another hour, only to find that the hikers or hunters had turned back, just as the vehicles had done.‎ At this point, I'd been following the trail for 90 minutes, so I didn't relish the idea of backtracking. Onwards!

The footprints continued, although the snow was so deep I had to change my gait from my normal forward stride into a side-to-side waddle as I carefully trod in the packed steps of those who had gone before me.‎ At one point, the prints I was following were crossed by animal tracks. LARGE animal tracks. Each paw print was about the length and width of my hand, although the heel was narrower. The bear had been walking up the wooded slope, but when it came across the trail I was following, it took the same path for a dozen metres or so before veering off the trail uphill again. I feel quite confident in my ability to fend off a wolf or two, but a bear is another matter entirely.‎ Thankfully, that was the only indication of four-footed wildlife I encountered, aside from a few wolf tracks that meandered along the unplowed road for a bit.

Finally, I cleared the top of a hill and saw ahead of me a collection of buildings, and a church set somewhat apart from them. Hallelujah! This was the Diavato Pass, at an altitude of 1280 m. (The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos.) The collection of buildings below had temporarily concealed the snowplow which is stationed there. I walked into the sunny lee of the main building‎, slung off my pack, and retrieved my food from my pack. At that point, a man came out and invited me inside with the offer of tea.

Aleksandr lives at the pass during the winter months, tasked with keeping the road between Resen and Bitola open. As was the case the day before, my knowledge of Macedonian proved to be greater than his knowledge of English, so our conversation was pretty basic. Still, he was most gracious, and interested to hear of my travels. 

After refreshing myself and warming up a bit, I took my leave and started walking downhill.‎ This time I took the main road, since it was very sparsely travelled and was clear of snow. Once the old road cut down below me, I could see that it was not at all clear, and was entirely free of tire tracks. The two roads ran more or less parallel to one another for the next 22 kms, and once we'd lost enough altitude for the snow on it to vanish, I crossed back to the old cobblestone road.

The late afternoon sun was deliciously warm, but with a high mountain range to the west of me, I was soon walking in shadow again. It was a very peaceful walk, broken only by birdsong and the occasional bout of aggressive barking from the gorgeous monsters left by their owners to guard the homestead. One especially magnificent and formidable looking dog followed my progress along the fenceline until it came to a hole in the fence and darted through to my side, barking and growling ferociously all the while. I wheeled around, shouted,  and leveled my walking stick towards the creature in a threatening manner. It dove back through the hole to the safety of its own territory, from whence it continued to serenade me. (I really don't want to hurt any of God's good creation, but I will defend myself if attacked.)

One drawback to these long isolated walks is that it's rare that I can replenish my water. When walking along the road in the lowlands, cafés are not hard to find, and a glass of water normally accompanies an order of coffee. By 2:30, I'd finished the last of my water, and by 3:30 I was becoming quite thirsty. (Pro tip: by the time a person experiences thirst, they are already slightly dehydrated.) 

Dusk was nearing when I saw a man walking towards his parked car beside his isolated farmstead. I turned off my headlamp, and mustering all the Macedonian I could recall, I asked him for some water. He called off the dogs and beckoned me to follow him inside. (I've been barked at for the past 1400 kms, but it's only in Greece that the big dogs are not necessarily tied up or fenced in.)‎ He produced a glass and a 1.5 litre bottle of water, and indicated I should help myself. As with Aleksandr, my host was monolingual, but his offers of food and a ride into town were very clear. I thanked him, and explained that I wanted to walk. He also asked where I'd be spending the night.

Ten minutes later, Vasil pulled up alongside me with his car and insisted that I get in.‎ I accepted the ride, which led to meeting his son-in-law and wife and having tea at his home, which led to the offer of dinner, which led to the offer of a room for the night. Vasil and Trianka's children are grown and out of the home, so they have rooms to spare. 

It snowed overnight in Bitola, but the morning dawned bright and clear. After breakfast, Vasil went out to brush the 5 cm deep blanket of snow off his car, and I tried to give his wife some financial compensation for their hospitality. As I expected, she refused, and I knew better than to even suggest such a thing to Vasil. From their home in the foothills overlooking Bitola, he drove me down to the foot of the main pedestrian thoroughfare. Conveniently, this is also where the museum is located - the museum my friend in Ohrid had identified as being the best in the country.

It was almost noon when I re-emerged. It was too late in the day to begin walking, ‎so I headed up Shirok Sokak (the main pedestrian street) looking for a hotel. There were several along the street between the museum and the river, and I settled on a very nice, modestly priced one near the museum. After unpacking, I set out to explore the centre of the old town. If I'd been more systematic, I'd have found the church of St Demetrija. Instead I just wandered, people watching and poking down laneways. I made a point of eating lunch before heading to the grocery store, so I limited my food purchases to the basics. I never did find the laundromat I'd been told about, so when I returned to the hotel I washed some clothes in the bathroom sink. I wasn't able to get online using the hotel WiFi, and rather than composing an update to send later, I spent the evening watching TV. It was a very pleasant surprise to find Kurusawa's "No Regrets For Our Youth" showing. No subtitles or dubbing, but since I'm familiar with the movie I was able to enjoy it anyway. I got to bed later than I'd planned, but I knew that the walk to Florina was a relatively short one.