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.

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.

From an architectural standpoint Sofia cannot compare with most other European capitals, but our Balkan tourist guide considered it equally important to extol the nonmeritorious headquarters of the People's Army and of the Communist Party as to show us the St. George Rotunda, dating from the 4th century, or the little medieval church of St. Petka, which is semisubterranean, having been discovered during excavations for a pedestrian subway. Only two mosques remain as tokens of 500 years of Turkish occupation, between 1382 and 1878.

This latter date explains in part the remarkable regard held by Bulgarians for the Soviet Union and things Russian. There are at least two monuments to the "Liberating Russian Army," and the Church of St. Nicholas, with its onion-shaped domes, and the Alexander Nevski Cathedral, both dating from the early part of this century, are also dedicated to Russian- Bulgarian friendship. The gold-domed cathedral, in which limited Eastern Orthodox services are still held, is a truly magnificent edifice -- airy and light inside, with four huge pastel- colored murals.

An occupational hazard of coach tours is the occasional need for a long and sometimes uninteresting journey between locations of specific attraction or overnight stops. And our route from Sofia to Istanbul -- a marathon of 375 miles at the outset -- was protracted by a ajoavoid the vehicular cavalcade of President Todor Zhikov, returning from a diplomatic visit to Turkey.

Any long trip, however, affords an opportunity to become better acquainted with one's fellow travelers and frequently, as evidence proves, to establish lasting friendships. Many of the members of Tour 173 had traveled with Cosmos previously. And all of them cited the wonderful value-for-money aspect of the tours.

Two English couples, Ken and Doreen Pilling from Burnley and Peter and Margaret Sawford from St. Ives, near Cambridge, are Cosmos regulars. It was the Pillings's fourth tour and the Sawfords' seventh -- with next year's Cosmos tour already planned!

"It's the sense of adventure that we like," Peter explained.

"You visit interesting places and meet interesting people. You usually stay at good hotels, sometimes at very good ones, and only very rarely at one that's not so good. And with three meals a day, how else could you do better at the price [$414 not including air fare]," he smiled.

On Tour 173 there could be no complaints about the food, which was excellent everywhere -- once the British had reconciled themselves to the limitations of a continental breakfast! Of the overnight stops, the hotel at Thessaloniki was adequate. But both the 19-story Park Moskva Hotel in Sofia and the Oceanis in the delightful Aegean seaport of Kavala, on our final night, were in the three- to four-star category.

In Istanbul, a sprawling city of 5 million, we faced one of the occasional problems of a Cosmos tour. Our hotel, though beautifully situated on the Sea of Marmara, was actually several miles out of the city across the Bosphorus Bridge (fourth-longest suspension bridge in the world) in Asia Minor. Obviously individual initiative on days of leisure must be restricted by such remoteness from the center of attraction. A word of warning must also be given that drainage systems in this part of the world may not always conform with acceptable Western norms!

But Istanbul, despite being under martial law currently like the rest of Turkey, offers sufficient fascinations to counteract minor inconveniences. Its 500 mosques make it a city of minarets, and no one can fail to be impressed by visits to St. Sophia, the first cathedral of Christendom, built in A.D. 537, and the Blue Mosque, built to the order of Sultan Ahmet in 1616 as its rival.

Other sightseeing musts include the medieval mosaics of the Kariye Museum, the lavish opulence of the Topkapi Palace, with its ceramic and jewelry exhibitions, and the fortress of Roumel Hisari, built in just four months in 1452 to prevent aid reaching besieged Constantinople. Add to these the unforgettable experience of haggling like a native in the Grand Bazaar with its 18 entrances, 65 streets, and 3,000 stores, and one felt considerable appreciation that Cosmos Tours had made such a far-flung visit more than mere imagination.

Every year hundreds of thousands of British tourists travel on Cosmos. Already, after just two seasons on the US market, Americans are the next-largest national users -- not least among the reasons because Cosmos opportunely appeared on the scene just as the automobile fuel crisis was beginning to bite into established American vacation routines.

Cosmos is offering 40 tours on the American market this year, varying from a 24-day grand tour of 11 countries (at around $750) to a six- day visit to Alpine Switzerland and Paris (at $215). Bookings can be made through Lontours, Inc., at: 69-15 Austin Street, Forest Hills, NY 11375.

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