Sunday, November 13, 2011

Women's Soccer and Alexander the Great

Since returning to Bulgaria I have done very little traveling compared with last year. And I think that's a great thing, because I am really enjoying myself here and exploring more of the city (and meeting new friends!). But I have managed to leave the country twice so far. A few weeks before I went to Poland I went on a road trip with Laura and three new friends to Macedonia. I had been to Skopje and Ohrid before, but this time we also stopped in Prilep, which is a few hours south of the capital, to watch a soccer game. Okay, so sports aren't really my thing, but I had a good time. We watched the women's national team play Italy for a European Championship League qualifying match. Much to my disappointment, Macedonia lost 0-9. It would have been nice for them to score at least one goal, but I think their players were a lot less experienced than the Italian team, who played excellently. Prilep is a small but charming town. There's a large covered market, lots of beautiful 19th-century buildings and a lovely clock tower in the center. Later we found out that it's also home to the only Thai restaurant in the country (and maybe even the region) so a return trip might be in order sometime soon.

After exploring the center we drove to Skopje where we had a very nice Italian dinner and went to a bar called Damar in the old town. It was probably the single best bar I've been to in Bulgaria or Macedonia. The interior was all exposed brick and rough wooden rafters, the drinks were cheap, there was NO SMOKING inside, and best of all, it was gay-friendly! I think it was the only bar like it in Skopje, and it's hard to think of a similar comparison in Sofia, it it exists. We chatted with some locals and stayed until closing (which was unfortunately quite early, because bars in Skopje don't stay open very late). There is also a law which restricts the sale of alcohol after 7PM in Macedonia, which is very weird. So maybe the nightlife scene in Skopje isn't all that exciting, but I think that this bar really is a unique one for this part of Europe, and I would definitely go back.

Skopje's newest tourist attraction is a giant statue of Alexander the Great, who is this small country's claim to fame (and one reason behind its problematic relationship with Greece). Macedonia wants to join the European Union, but Greece has vetoed its membership application over a name dispute. Macedonia is an historical term for a much larger region that includes parts of Albania, Greece, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Because some Greeks consider the name Macedonia to be central to their own identity, the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was proposed as a compromise, which the Republic Macedonia has rejected. I had read about the statue before, and how its erection was controversial within Macedonia because of the price tag (9 million euros!) and the potential for worsening relations with its southern neighbor. I'm not sure what will happen regarding the name dispute and EU accession, but the statue certainly is impressive. Surrounded by four lions and an army of soldiers, a bronze-cast Alexander the Great sits atop his horse above a large fountain. At night the statue is lit up with colored lights and music timed with the water from the fountain. It kind of reminded me of Las Vegas. There's even a fake Arc de Triomphe around the corner to add to the magnitude of the main square.

It was a short trip, but a lot of fun. It's not a very long drive to Skopje, so visiting for a day or two is relatively easy. And there is definitely a lot more to see in Macedonia, so I hope to return very soon.

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