Of Balkan Bikes and Civilised Cities

My short trip across Europe by train has already taken me through Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. Tomorrow will be Hungary then Austria, Germany and France and onto London. (For those with an interest in these things, I chose the convoluted third option suggested by that nice man in Seat 61).

I have been lucky with my timings – international train travel to and from Greece was not possible between 2011 and May 2014, another casualty of the EU requirement that Greece should demonstrate extreme austerity. Quite how cutting Greece off from Europe by train helps matters is unclear… but no matter: common sense has now prevailed, and train travel between Greece and Macedonia and Bulgaria was reinstated three months ago.

Given my chosen route, it was therefore a bit of a surprise when I received a text message somewhere between Thessaloniki and Sofia saying “Welcome to Macedonia, the cradle of civilization!” A brief look at the map showed that the Thessaloniki-Sofia route flirts outrageously with the Macedonian border (mobile phone signals clearly have no more respect for international borders than Mr Putin), but the message did set me thinking.

Bizarrely, this was the third time in a week that I’d heard a country claim to be the “cradle of civilization.”

First there was our enthusiastic Turkish guide in Ephesus, the ancient town in Anatolia that has claimed multiple nationalities over the centuries (Greek, Persian, Hittite and now Turkish). Turkey, our guide in Ephesus assured us, was where it all started.

Then there was our Greek guide in Athens. The Acropolis, surely, held the strongest claim to be civilisation’s starting point.

And now the Macedonian Tourism Information Service was telling me to visit three sites which would demonstrate without doubt that it was in their country that civilisation first took off.

While not wanting to start another conflict in this historically volatile region, I would just point out that the very act of staking such a claim might be considered, errr…. uncivilized. ‘Nuff said.

Civilised cities

Yesterday I found myself in Sofia, the capital city of one of the few countries in the region that seems comfortable enough in its own skin not to claim the origins of civilization for itself. Which is perhaps why I found it to be so enjoyable. A particular highlight was the cycle-repair-shop-cum-bar, Velo Dispanser (translation: Bike Hospital), run by three effortlessly cool boys who would not look out of place in Hoxton/Dalston (or wherever’s cool these days in London – I’m so out of touch). The bar was stuffed with Soviet-era Bulgarian artefacts such as the “Balkan” folding bike (logo surely a design classic), vinyl from the “Balkanation” record label, and superb posters; the adverts were also wonderfully avant-garde (see below). Good luck to them. There were plenty of other signs too that Sofia is discovering a sense of itself and what it might become.

SAM_6129 SAM_6132 SAM_6127

This is a whistlestop journey (and I’m taking daytime trains to see the scenery evolve) so no more than one evening in each city. Tonight was Bucharest, a city that, by contrast with Sofia, I could not claim to have enjoyed.

Bucharest is a city that just seems confused. The central Old Town area is a bizarre hotch-potch of “international” bars branded by the likes of Carlsberg, Heineken and Budweiser: on one street I saw the “Finnish Cocktail Club”, the “Samurai” Bar (complete with Romanian girl dressed in kimono), “La Bonita Tex Mex Restaurant and Club” (“Come in for a dance party fiesta!”), the “Trinity College Bar” (“Keep learning!”), the Bordello (I kid you not: “Sometimes love is worth paying for!”), and my favourite: the bar simply called Glasgow with the tagline “We proudly welcome Heavy drinkers.”

I’d like to get back to both cities to see a little more under the surface – it’s my first visit to Sofia, and my first to Bucharest since 1993. But on the impressions I’ve formed on this trip’s two ultra-short visits, I’d vote for Sofia every time.

Roll on Budapest! 05.45 start.

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