The Balkans in Cosmos style
Outside sun-baked Thessaloniki Airport, our attractive young tour escort apologized for the lack of air conditioning as she welcomed us on board the cream and red Balkantourist coach that would transport us some 1,000 miles during the next week. Bulgarian coaches, though spotlessly clean, are still rather Spartan compared with some mobile luxury lounges. Yet because Greece and Turkey are at diplomatic loggerheads with each other, only a Bulgarian coach may travel among the three countries without hindrance.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Almost inevitably during our eight-day visit to the Balkans, organized by Cosmos of London, there were other little challenges to be faced, such as regimentation and propaganda in Sofia and martial law, medieval drainage, and mosquitoes in Istanbul. Cosmos could be blamed for none of this, and most of it was met with humor and aplomb by the very composition and relatively seasoned group of which Tour No. 173 was made up. Cosmos, which recently moved into the American market, draws tourists from throughout the English-speaking world.
Although Cosmos, the largest motor-coach operator in Europe, has been arranging low-cost package tours since 1961 and has regularly included Greece on the bill of fare, Bulgaria and Turkey are new to the itinerary this year. With Istanbul the most-easterly port of call, Cosmos now ranges right to the fringes of Asia Minor. And it is perhaps this enterprise that accounted for travelers on Tour No. 173 from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United States, as well as from Great Britain.
Our tour began with a three-hour flight by Monarch Airlines from Luton, England, to Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, situated at the head of the Bay of Salonica at the northwestern tip of the Aegean Sea. Salonica is the Anglicized version, but the Greek name more firmly reminds one that it was here that St. Paul wrote his two epistles of the Thessalonians.
The Via Egnatia, ancient Rome's vital link with Constantinople and the East, is still Thessaloniki's main street, straddled by the 4th-century Arch of Galerius. Yet the present- day city, with a population of 1 million, impresses one more by the innumerable balconies of its buildings rather than by its historical remains.
A dusty, tawny landscape, green-polka-dotted with little copses of acacias and poplars, surrounded us the next day as we drove northward. Once over the wooded Macedonian mountains, however, and across the Bulgarian border, the Struma Valley presented a startling contrast, with its bright emerald rice paddies cultivated by slow-moving water buffaloes.
On the 120-mile journey to Sofia, the capital, Bulgaria introduced itself as a country of tremendous charm. Like dancers embarrassed to take the floor, little russet-tiled villages cling shyly to the foothills on either side of the plain of the Struma. Tobacco, tomatoes, and vines are the main cultivated crops. Yet, communism or not, women provide the main agricultural labor in the fields, and the donkey remains a beast of portage and burden.
After Blagoevgrad and an excellent lunch that included the traditional shopska salad with soft white cheese, the countryside unfurled itself in a continuous panorama of vista after vista. Scenically it very closely resembled the Vale of Clwyd in north Wales and its encircling mountains.
The piece de resistance, however, involved a detous of many miles and an ascent of almost 4,000 feet into the Rila Mountains. Although now popularized as a national museum of culture, the Rila Monastery, tucked away in a pine-clad valley, is a veritable European Shangri-La.
Inside its massive fortified walls, three-tiered, delicately arched cloisters with wooden balustrades overlook a cobbled courtyard. The monastery church, capped by double cupolas, is a study in pink, red, and white outside and a miracle of murals within. Hardly a square inch of the interior escaped the vigorous brushes of the iconographic artists of the Samokov and Bansko-Razlog schools when the monastery was rebuilt after a fire in 1838.
Sofia must surely be the cleanest and greenest large city in the world, with more than 130 public parks and every street tree-lined with one particular species. In the United States these would be named aptly "Chestnut Avenue," "Birch Boulevard," or "Acacia Drive." In Sofia they take the names of obscure (to the visitor) Bulgarian or Russian militarists or politicians.