TRAVEL

MONUMENTAL GAMES

Until recently Skopje, the capital of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (if we are to go by the name the United Nations uses to refer to it in offi cial correspondence), was worth a visit for a handful of reasons, but the list was not very long. It consisted of the juicy chevapi and tavche gravche, or baked beans, taken with zholta, or yellow, rakiya, in the small canteens in the charshia, or market place.

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SOFIA'S HIDDEN MUSEUM

It grows but does not age, as the motto of Sofia proudly boasts: judging by the city's history, it is easy to see why. Two Neolithic settlements existed here and, in the 1st Millennium BC, the Thracians created another, which later become the Roman Serdica, the beloved "My true Rome" of Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The city then became the Bulgarian stronghold of Sredets, the centre of an Ottoman province and, in 1879, the capital of Bulgaria. For centuries, Sofia was the place where kings and dictators ruled, and artists, composers, writers and architects created.

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DEMIR BABA TEKKE

If you are looking for a place in Bulgaria that combines nature, architecture and spirituality, Demir Baba's tekke will be among your top choices.

The saint's stone tekke, or shrine, lies at the foot of the cliffs of Kamenen Rid. Dense woods rustle around Demir Baba's tomb, an object so exquisite that from afar it looks like a toy that you could hold in your hand.

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QUIET CHARM OF ELENA

The town is small now, but it used to be a centre of the Bulgarian Revival period. It was called the "Bulgarian Bethlehem," as it boasted three churches at a time when most towns and villages had either one, or none. As you enter it through the winding roads of the Stara Planina, the trees and bushes all around are arrayed in spring green.

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BULGARIA'S REMARKABLE RAILWAY STATIONS

To a month-long strike, immense debts with little hope for refinancing, and 2,000 jobs axed add the obsolete rolling stock, frequent accidents, possible privatisation and talk of spending "optimisation": in the beginning of the 21st Century the future of the BDZh, or the Bulgarian State Railways, is looking very gloomy indeed.

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GOURMET ISRAEL

The terrible-food-and-such-small-portions jest from the Annie Hall movie was still at the back of my mind when I sat down to my very first dinner on Israeli soil, in the crowded and lemon grass scented Decks restaurant in Tiberias, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A week later, savouring my last dinner in the country, in the nouvelle cuisine Hachatzer in Jerusalem, I fully understood how unfair my initial prejudice had been and how much I wanted to prolong my stay, solely on account of my greed.

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TEMPLE WITH WATER WELL

The massive stone crosses that centuries ago used to be the graveyard of Garlo village, in the region of Pernik, poke out from the undergrowth, a poignant sight that we have covered several times in Vagabond.

This time we are in this picturesque, atmospheric and overlooked part of Bulgaria for another reason: to search for one of this country's most enigmatic archaeological finds.

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TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE

When the tide of expats flowed into Bulgaria about ten years ago, the newcomers discovered that they weren't the first foreigner to arrive, settle down and feel comfortable in the country following the collapse of Communism. At that time, Eastern Orthodox Bulgaria had already welcomed another vagabond; St Valentine, the Roman Catholic patron saint of romantic love. It was not a big deal, in fact, as all around the world, regardless of their religion, people celebrate their love with chocolates, red satin hearts and teddy bears.

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THE DAY OF THE COCK

The cock was carefully chosen in the autumn and put on a special fattening diet, and now the proud bird struts around the yard like a king surveying his domain. Its days are numbered, however, because on the second day of February it is going to play the lead role in an ancient ritual.

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BOYANA CHURCH

Shivering in the biting cold of the Boyana Church, you look at the 13th Century portrait of Desislava and you wonder if this image, painted 100 years before Giotto revolutionised medieval art, is truly the earliest Renaissance portrait in the world, or has Desislava (and the tourists around you) fallen victim of hype?

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