Friday, 22 November 2013

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales (Part 1)

world-map llangelynin


As promised, here’s the first part of my account of the pilgrimage that I made to St. David’s in Wales last year. It was a beautiful trip that ignited in me a passion for cliff walking which, as my later account of this year’s pilgrimage to Bardsey Island will show, I am still enjoying. In many ways, the trip that is talked about here has set the tone for 2013 for me, the year when I, along with my son, really began to discover Wales, an incredibly beautiful and fascinating little country less than fifty miles from my home. If you’ve never been there, please go, and if you want to know why, read on…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

England-Cities-Area-Map St Davids


The Sacred Heart of Wales

A lot of pilgrimages start with a book.

Few, if any, however, start with ‘On the Slow Train: Twelve Great British Railway Journeys’ by Michael Williams.

Mine however, was the exception. For Christmas 2011 I had been given two books by my mum, the aforementioned one about slow trains and ‘Tales from the Fast Trains’ by Tom Chesshyre. Neither of them were that good, but both left an impression. If you’re interested in what I thought about the fast trains tome, then read my ‘Poland 2012’ travelogue, but as for the slow trains, well this was a collection of accounts of journeys that the author had made on some of the slower trains in Britain. And one of those chapters reignited a spark in me: the 14:05 from Shrewsbury.

As a child I was obsessed by trains; old ones and new ones, fast ones and slow ones. I started my travelling by riding the rails of England and Wales, branching out further and further from my home town as I learnt how to be independent. It was a great playground upon which to practise and it served me well for today, over sixty countries later, I still insist on travelling by train whenever I can. Trains are far more civilised than cars or planes, they give you time to read, to watch, to talk to strangers and to contemplate. Only boats or your own two feet can compare.

And as a teenager all my favourite journeys had been Welsh ones: the spectacular North Wales Coast route, hugging the shore for much of the way and then over the Britannia Bridge to Anglesey and thence Holyhead; the rugged Cambrian Coast, perched high on the Friog Cliffs before trundling over the mile-long Barmouth Bridge into the seaside resort where I spent all my childhood holidays, or the best of the lot, the Conwy Valley, from Llandudno Junction deep into the heart of Snowdonia, following the waters of the River Conwy to the mountain resort of Betws-y-Coed and then the rushing torrent of the Lledr, past the solitary sentinel of Dolwyddelan Castle before plunging into the two-mile tunnel under Moel Dyrnogydd before emerging into the slate-strewn apocalyptic wasteland of Blaenau Ffestiniog from whence I would take the connecting narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway down to Porthmadog where the journey could be continued by the Cambrian Coast.

But there was one line that I always intended to travel upon and yet never took. The Heart of Wales Line runs from Shrewsbury to Craven Arms where it branches off the main Hereford route and then trundles through some of the richest and remotest countryside in Britain before meeting the south coast of Wales near Llanelli, the train then doubling back on itself and rolling into Swansea Station some four hours after it left Shrewsbury. That was the 14:05 from Shrewsbury that Michael Williams took and it was his account of the trip that reminded me that I had unfinished business to complete: a pilgrimage to my past, rails to ride.

But this was also a pilgrimage in the traditional, Christian, sense as well. My previous religious ramblings – Lindisfarne, Walsingham and Glastonbury – had all been about exploring the soul of my homeland, England. But like almost any resident of the Midlands or North West, whilst English you may undoubtedly be, that tiny country attached to the west of your own has also formed a major part of your character. I would never claim to be a Welshman, but every family holiday, countless day trips and the best of my teenage rail riding all involved the Principality. I knew the landscape, but now it was time to explore the soul of Wales, to see how God has worked in her coal-rich valleys and wild, slate-stocked mountains. And there is no doubt as to where the spiritual capital of Wales is located for it is her smallest and most ancient city, named after its founder and the nation’s patron saint: St. David’s.

There are few people in Britain who are unaware that St. David is the Patron Saint of Wales, but unlike his counterparts in England and Scotland – George of dragon-slaying fame and Andrew, one of the Apostles no less – far fewer could tell you anything about the man.

David was born sometime around 500 in Wales itself, making him the only one of Britain’s patron saints to be a native of the country he represents.[1] He grew up to become a great churchman, founding monasteries in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, and making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem along with Sts. Teilo and Padarn where he was feted by the Patriarch. In his time though, he became most famous for preaching at two synods against Pelagianism, a heresy popular at the time which promoted the idea that original sin did not taint human nature. At one of these, the Synod of Brefi, he performed his most famous miracle, when the ground upon which he stood rose into a small hill so that all present could hear him.[2] Whilst this may seem a rather unnecessary miracle – after all, Wales is hardly short on hills that he could have used instead – the act so impressed those present that one of them, St. Dubricius the then Bishop of Ergyng, immediately resigned his position and handed it over to David.

Another of the many legends associated with him which particularly appealed to me since it linked this pilgrimage with my one the year before to Glastonbury tells of David journeying to the cradle of British Christianity in order to found an abbey there, but en route Christ appeared to him in a vision telling him that he could not found an abbey at Glastonbury since the church had been dedicated long ago by Himself in honour of His Mother, and it was not seemly that it should be re-dedicated by human hands, therefore David only extended the abbey, the remains of that extension being visible to this day.

David eventually died an old man sometime around the year 590 surrounded by his community of monks at the spot where St. David’s Cathedral now stands and around which the little city grew.

So, that was a brief outline of David’s life, but the problem with brief outlines is that they fail to convey the feelings, emotions and reality of someone’s life. David’s main achievements were the establishment of monasteries; so what? Lots of people have established monasteries so why is he so special? Yet we forget just what those times were like: the country was largely Pagan, wild beasts and bands of robbers roamed the land, a land largely empty and still reeling from the retreat of the Romans but a couple of centuries before. Once out of the protection of your own tribe you were always in danger. Back in the 6th century you really had to place your trust in God because there was nothing else that you could place any trust in! And the monasteries that David founded were not the sumptuous mediaeval edifices that we find ruined remains of across Britain today; instead they were intimate, simple establishments, a cluster of huts around a rude church which David and his disciples would have built with their bare hands in a harsh and hostile environment, sleeping in the open until the humblest of shelters could be constructed, soaking in the frequent Welsh rain, freezing in the long winters, sustained only be prayer, gradually converting a cynical population to the Gospel through love and warmth. David was a pioneer just as much as the conquistadors who trekked through the Mexican jungles or those who rode their waggons west across the Great Plains. He was the vanguard who helped light the flame which still flickers today. And when we look at things in that light rather than simply reading ‘he established many monasteries’ then we can see clearly why David and his early Christian counterparts are so deserving of being remembered.

st_david St. David and the mountains of Wales

Every journey has a beginning, a middle and an end and I believe that, on pilgrimage, it is important to mark them all, so after parking my car at the prearranged spot[3] I called in at Shrewsbury Abbey to pray for a successful pilgrimage.

I’m familiar with the former abbey church in Shrewsbury for the same reasons that, I suspect, most people are. Not because of its spectacular early Mediaeval architecture, or its magnificent west window, but instead because Shrewsbury Abbey was the setting for Ellis Peters’ series of Mediaeval whodunits starring the fictional monk Brother Cadfael, later turned into a TV series starring Derek Jacobi. As well as working out which squire has murdered which thane, few books have brought alive the era of saints and chivalry when monasteries dotted the land and provided essential cogs in the machinery of society as vividly as Peters’ novels. Whatever their faults, no institution strengthened the Faith and spread the Gospel better than the monastery.

But once inside the church that once served the abbey, all thoughts of Cadfael and criminality dissipated and instead I was struck by the place itself. It was a vast space, plain and austere save for a glorious screen at the high altar and I would have loved to have stayed there longer, but that would have risked missing my train and with five hours to wait until the next one, that was not an eventuality that I wished to risk.

Shrewsbury_Abbey Shrewsbury Abbey

I have long been a believer that railway stations, the so-called Cathedrals of the Industrial Age, should match their purpose: glorious gateways to the wider world, temples to the ideal of freedom and exploration. And whilst there are many grander stations in Britain than Shrewsbury’s, there are few so quietly beautiful as its creamy stone Gothic buildings. It was a worthy place from which to board my one-coach train and head off on a journey to another place and, hopefully, another state of mind.

Shrewsbury_station A venerable Temple of Travel: Shrewsbury Railway Station

I’d brought Julian of Norwich’s ‘Reflections on the Nature of Divine Love’. After visiting her shrine back in 2009[4] I’d wanted to read the book, the earliest piece of English literature by a woman, and I thought that now was perhaps the time to do it. Following a debilitating illness, Julian had a series of “showings” in which Christ appeared to her and, amongst other things, assured her that “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” Powerful words indeed, especially when one considers that at the time Europe was in the grip of the Black Death which wiped out around a third of the population. It was to me as I read it, proof of the merciful and loving Christ that I so believe in.

But however moving and inspirational Julian’s showings were, they were somehow not soaking in during the journey. They were a very English revelation to a very English woman and yes, whilst the time in which they were revealed was harsh and relentless, they still contained the softness and femininity of my green and pleasant land. But we were no longer in England and her gentle, lush landscape had been swapped for something harsher and wilder, a reality emphasised by the fact that most of my fellow passengers were speaking to each other in the ancient and incomprehensible tongue of the Cymraeg. And besides, was not my purpose to see how the Lord has moved in their land, to seek the sacred heart of Wales? And so I put down Julian of Norwich and instead soaked in the scenes from behind a mottled pane of glass as we trundled through villages and fields towards the Welsh Jerusalem.

photo heart of wales map

As we neared the coast the landscape softened and the detritus of industrial civilisation encroached. We switched back on ourselves at Llanelli, a town famous for its rugby team and then finally ended our journey at Swansea. I was hungry after so many hours travelling but as I’d decided to abstain from eating meat during the pilgrimage[5] finding suitable sustenance was no easy matter. However, my guidebook recommended ‘Govinda’s’, a vegan restaurant in the city centre so I headed there to find that it was run by the Hare Krishnas and patronised by some very alternative types. Whilst I ate a quite reasonable meal I read up on a very different spiritual path to my own and wondered just what made it so attractive to so many of my compatriots for I must admit that it has never appealed to me, primarily because it seems so far culturally removed from the life and land which are mine. Who knows? Perhaps one of the reasons that it appeals to people is precisely that; these are people who wish to get away from where they currently are both geographically and mentally, although such motivations should be viewed with caution, for all the major religions and schools of psychology seem to unanimously agree that knowing thyself – and by extension, not running away from that self – is pretty fundamental to human spiritual fulfilment.

After eating I took a few hours out pilgrimage to re-enter the world for this, my first-ever visit to Wales’ second city which I wanted to get to know a little, so I wandered through the centre to the old docks where the award-winning Waterfront Museum is situated. I found Swansea to be a noticeably down-at-heel place but as pleasantly situated as any city in Britain and with much money and a little architectural vision it could become a quite magnificent place indeed.

Returning to the centre I prayed for the city and my journey at St. Mary’s, the main church, a huge Neo-Gothic pile next to the paltry remains of the castle. Whilst historically and architecturally mediocre, St. Mary’s had two very beautiful icons which I used to help focus my prayers, pleased that quality icons, for so long rarely seen in British churches, seem to be growing in popularity.

Leaving the church, I passed a veiled woman walking along the street and reflected that, as on my pilgrimage to Lindisfarne,[6] sadly the most overt signs of faith in Britain today are, like that lady and the clientele at ‘Govinda’s’, rarely Christian.

One can halt on a journey but sooner or later the travelling must recommence and so an hour or so later I was on the train again, this time heading west to Carmarthen, a journey with beautiful views over the Towy Estuary.

Carmarthen was another new Welsh town for me and a rather pleasant one too. It’s closely associated with Arthurian legend but there was nothing particularly mystical or spiritual that I experienced in the short time that I was there between trains, just some atmospheric twisting streets in the shadow of the ruined castle and some over-priced sandwiches in the station buffet. But I minded not for by now my mind was more able to concentrate on the ‘showings’ of Julian and so as I waited I wondered on the divine order about which she was shown:

‘See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?’

When I got to Fishguard I discovered that there was no connecting bus from the station to the town itself, so I embarked upon a stiff walk of around a mile or so past the site of the UK’s last seaborne invasion[7] and up a steep hill to the small and rather pretty town itself and, in particular, Hamilton Backpackers, my accommodation for the night.

Hamilton Backpackers is a hostel and, as I have said many times before, I don’t do hostels. But being out of season, this was the only place still open and it was also empty which meant that as well as having an entire room to myself, I also got to have a long chat with Steve, the proprietor.

In England, perhaps the most famous thing associated with pilgrimage is not religious at all, but instead Geoffrey Chaucer’s very secular ‘Canterbury Tales’, a set of stories more bawdy that beatific, recounted to Chaucer by his companions as they walked to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral some five centuries ago. On our modern pilgrimages, cooped up inside car, plane or train, journey times slashed to almost nothing, the opportunity for such interactions with total strangers are next to nothing, but when backpacking around the world for months on end – a rite of passage for many of today’s youth – situations and tales akin to those found in Chaucer are commonplace. I met many of my finest friends and had some of my most memorable times when I backpacked around Israel as a young man and that night with Steve – not religious but an avid backpacker himself – I was transported back to those times and, I hope, to a small flavour of the pilgrimages of Chaucer’s day. Needless to say, I loved every minute.


I woke early for the key day of my pilgrimage, the day when I reached the shrine of the patron saint of Wales. But I would not just go there, shrines need to be attained, not just visited. I would have loved to have walked all the way from Fishguard itself, but it was too much for a single day and there was nowhere to stay for the night midway, so instead I took the bus to the city of St. David’s itself and then straight through and onwards, to the very end of its route.

The bus disgorged me – along with a gaggle of schoolgirls and boys that it had gradually been acquiring on its way – just outside Ysgol Dewi Sant[8] just beyond the city itself. I retraced the route of the bus back a few hundred yards to the impressive new tourist information centre (shut) before then heading straight for the coast.

I hit the shore at a place called Caerfai Bay. It was a spectacular spot, high rocky cliffs, waves crashing below, fine views out across St. Bride’s Bay and not a soul in sight. There I began my walk and my reflections and half a mile – and several prayers – later, around the first headland I came to St. Non’s Chapel.

61458_10152342685865305_998095344_n Caerfai Bay

St. Non[9] was the mother of David, a Breton woman who’d sailed across the sea from the south and landed at this place during a fierce storm where she’d given birth to her child, a son who would grow up to become the spiritual father of this rugged land that she now found herself living in. A spring gushed forth at the spot of his birth and soon afterwards a chapel was built there. That chapel is today but a ruin, yet another sad victim of the Reformation, but in an adjacent field Passionist brothers have built a replacement.

155911_10152342686695305_322123356_n Our Lady and St. Non’s Chapel

That replacement, its door ajar, candles flickering, a haven against the rain and howling winds outside, dates only from thirty-four, but from its design and atmosphere you could easily mistake that to be 934 not 1934. Our Lady and St. Non’s Chapel truly is one of those precious places where one can confidently declare, “The Lord is in this place!” for His presence is all around. I knelt at the simple stone altar and prayed: prayed to the saint who had once given birth there, prayed to the saint who had once been born there but prayed mostly directly to He who had inspired and guided them both.[10]

59635_10152342686660305_878955792_n The interior of Our Lady and St. Non’s Chapel

And after prayer came reflection. Looking at the fine stained glass window depicting St. Non, I wondered at her and her tale, for it was important to do so; after all, if this was a pilgrimage in honour of St. David and Wales’ Christian story, then that humble lady marks the start of both.

St. Non, St. Non. Like so many of the early saints[11] we know virtually nothing about her beyond the name. She exists merely as a pious receptacle from which a far greater spiritual figure is born, a flawless vessel for the holiest of cargoes. The parallels with Mary are obvious: a young lady, carrying a child which holy men foretold would become a great preacher, away from home on a journey not of her choosing, (tradition says that she was raped and fleeing her rapist), forced to give birth in a lonely, unwelcoming spot, this windswept cliff top, the Welsh equivalent of the Judean stable, then to disappear from history as the fruit of her loins transforms the world.[12] Perhaps that is why the image of her in the stained glass window where she is clad in blue robes, looks positively Marian and why the Passionists dedicated the chapel jointly to those two holy females?

st non St. Non in the chapel window. The scene beneath her is of the boat in the storm whilst at her feet is the well which covers the spring which sprang forth at the spot where St. David was born

It’s an inspirational story indeed, but for the average citizen of the 21st century, it is also one which poses many problems. The historian in us asks just how much of it is genuine, are those Marian coincidences really that or are they manufactured in order to raise David’s prestige and made a bland tale great? And is it right that, according to some sources, she ended up having to marry her rapist who received no punishment from God? And is it correct also for women to be viewed as mere vessels for far greater men and in our era of social networking and reality TV, is it not natural to seek to know something more of the real Non – or Mary – of her life, loves, hopes and losses?

But then again perhaps we are wrong to seek answers for all these questions and a million more. For like all great spiritual stories, the value is in the meditation on them rather than the reality behind them and the answer at the end.

67885_10152342707815305_1378727011_n The ruins of the original St. Non’s Chapel

480580_10152342707770305_1375994794_n 526674_10152342687645305_1753544371_n

The holy well at the spot where David was born

I had plenty of opportunity for such meditation for, after drinking from the good saint’s well, I set off again, along the path that teetered close to the cliff edge and followed one of the most spectacular coastlines that I have ever seen. I prayed and I sang and I thought and, best of all, I was alone. As I rounded the next headland I was reminded of something that I’d heard once about members of the Iona Community in Scotland who, whenever one of the fierce Atlantic storms batters their island, go outside, stand on the cliff top and shout out their prayers, arms outstretched, into the raging gale and driving rain. I did the same here: the Lord’s Prayer and ‘How Great Thou Art!’[13] and my, it felt good! Thankfully, there was no one around the judge me and so I shouted some more and indeed, during the entire eight miles or so of cliff top walking that I did that day, I met not another soul.

It was around three miles or so around the headland till I came into the next notable inlet, Porth Claith, traditionally the place of David’s baptism and the spot where, once upon a time, the majority of pilgrim’s to St. David’s landed in their boats before walking inland, (although at the time I didn’t know any of that; to me it was just another picturesque bay).

Then it was onto the next stage, a mammoth stretch of around six miles around the most westerly piece of Wales. After resting I began and surged on for around three miles until I came to a small bay of exquisite beauty (Porth Lisci) where I rested again and drank the last of my water before filling up again from a clear stream that ran into the sea.

299912_10152342708405305_155347889_n Porth Lisci

Then I marched on around the most spectacular headland of them all, where Wales ends and with incredible views across to Ramsey Island (Ynys Dewi) which, legend tells us, St. Justinian, the Breton confessor of David’s, caused to become separated from the mainland because he was a severe ascetic who became disgusted by the laxity of the community that David founded, hacking off the rock with an axe. The literal truth of this is of course, somewhat debatable, although what is more likely to be accurate is the story of his death: his disciples, so appalled by his increasing asceticism, murdered him at the spot where the ruins of his chapel now stand.

Whilst I was walking my mind pondered over many things, things in my life, things in David’s life, events in the lives of family, friends, colleagues and students, over Wales, over her often stormy relationship with my homeland, England, and over her close relationships with both Cornwall and Brittany – symbolised fittingly by Sts. Non, Justinian and David – those other ancient Brythonic nations from whence the Faith was brought all those centuries before. Most of all though, I thought of God and the incredible glory of His Creation which I saw all around me and countless were the times when the words of that famous old hymn composed on a Swedish cliff top crashed about my head:

‘O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder

Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee;

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee:

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!’

75286_10152342708910305_1203452360_n How great Thou art! Stood on the very edge of Wales with Ramsey Island in the background

My cliff top rambling ended at St. Justinian’s, the place where that other saint had been killed and where I hoped to pray in the ruins of the church built upon the spot of his murder. That church however, is today fenced off within the bounds of someone’s garden and after feeling a tinge of the anger of the 17th century Diggers…

‘The sin of property

We do disdain

No one has any right to buy and sell

The earth for private gain

By theft and murder

They took the land

Now everywhere the walls

Rise up at their command’[14]

… I went on to the hamlet’s only public building today, its lifeboat station.

St. Justinian’s RNLI station is a remarkable place indeed. Down a steep flight of steps and perched on the cliff face, it is an awesome building both for its location and the peace within its walls; a secular church smelling of fresh paint and oil, not candles. I took shelter from the wind inside its corrugated confines and delved into its liturgy: panels mounted on the walls recording missions undertaken and lives saved… and lost. It was a sobering and humbling reminder of both the power of nature and the ultimate sacrifice that ordinary men are prepared to pay to help anonymous strangers in peril. It seems that the most desolate spots on earth – windswept cliff tops, mountain peaks and deserts to name but some – bring out the best in man. Forced into contact with nature at her deadliest, he resorts to God and his own most noble natures. On my entire walk through this bleak yet evocative no man’s land between the sea and the soil the only structures that I’d come across were churches and this place dedicated to the preservation of life.

rnli A Secular Church: The RNLI Station at St. Justinian’s

I walked inland from St. Justinian’s, a distance of a mile and a half or so through weather-beaten fields bordered by ancient drystone walls to St. David’s itself. I prayed an intense rosary as I walked and reflected once again how to me, I always meet God whilst walking along country lanes, just as I had at Walsingham and in the folk song ‘Bread and Fishes’ in which the narrator meets the Holy Family on a green English lane en route to Glastonbury. And on the map St. David’s is, of course, in the same country as Glastonbury or Walsingham, around 300 miles separate it from the latter and only around 150 from the former, yet true as that might be, it could have been a whole different world. This was Celtic and raw, more like Lindisfarne than anywhere else that I’d been, that other holy place where Christian men once braved the elements and man to spread the Gospel across the land.

There was another common denominator with Lindisfarne too. Throughout my walk, even though I was less than three miles distant at all times, the city and her magnificent cathedral had remained hidden throughout. Even as I approached only the tower peeked out above the landscape, for the church was deliberately built in a hollow so as to hide it from Viking marauders similar to those who despoiled the monastery at Lindisfarne countless times. God is great and He can transform the hearts of men but remember the words of the famous hadith:

‘Tie your camel first, then put your trust in God.’

In early times the site was referred to as the ‘monastic cell in the grove’; the community founded by the great saint himself. Over the years a church was built over the place where David’s grave was situated and this became a place of pilgrimage and miracles. The cathedral that stands today is mediaeval, the original church having burnt down in 645, which explains the high tower, the top of which I fixed my eyes upon as I approached: by the Middle Ages, Viking raids were no longer an issue.

228205_10152342710260305_773919269_n St. David’s Cathedral

I wandered into the great holy – and rather austere – building. Cathedrals are curious places; on the one hand, they’re all so similar, yet on the other, each is unique. St. David’s had its own feel to it, earthy and simple, perhaps like the man who inspired it, but beyond that it conveyed little to me. Tourists marvel at our great Gothic cathedrals with their overpowering aura of history, but in actual fact they speak of a different time to the saints who founded them and converted our lands. The saints lived in a humble, frugal and primitive world; the cathedrals are a product of the high Middle Ages, when Christendom, the realm of the triumphant Latin Church, stretched across the continent. I however, was not seeking that period, but instead a man who lived in the mist-shrouded earlier times, someone simpler and more native, and so I headed for the place where I would find him.

The Shrine of St. David was not what I had expected. I’d imagined a tomb-like structure behind the high altar like those of St. Werburgh or St. Alban. Instead this was built into the wall to the left of the altar. Nonetheless, it was an impressive sight – three golden icons – St. Patrick, St. David and St. Andrew – with three niches underneath containing relics, topped by a canopy portraying the heavens.[15] I knelt down and prayed, thinking of the man who was born near to the humble chapel on the cliffs where I’d prayed earlier and who had evangelised a whole nation; who’d visited Glastonbury, the scene of my last pilgrimage, and who is best known for the words of advice spoken to his disciples as he lay dying only feet from where I knelt in prayer:

‘Brothers and sisters, be cheerful and keep your faith and belief, and do the little things that you have heard and seen through me.’


restored shrine The Shrine of St. David

shrine rear shrine

The rear of the Shrine of St. David and me praying at the shrine

I ate at the cathedral refectory where the food was excellent but expensive. It was not a waste though, for in there I met Gabriel, a sculptor and monumental stone carver who was visiting the cathedral on business, his wife Polly and family in tow. As with many artists, he was of a spiritual bent and as with many spiritual people, he had a healthy distrust of hierarchies, order and authority. His father had been an Anglican vicar and this – coupled with numerous dealings with church officials through his work carving gravestones – had conspired to put him firmly off the Established Church and organised religion in general. However, at the same time he confessed to finding Christ to be a singularly powerful and beautiful figure, and so this left him in something of a spiritual quandary. I talked about my pilgrimage and my work done over the summer on my local saints and how I felt that both had led me to new ways of connecting with God. I told him how I believe that God meets us where we are most comfortable, culturally, socially and psychologically and he liked my concept of God in the landscape, the Christ who walks beside me along a country lane, as it tallied very much with his own feelings. I recommended that he might try finding out some more about his local saints, (which, since he currently lives in Llandeilo, there should be a few, including St. Teilo who gave the town its name), and let them and inspire and guide him. On his part, he presented me with a gorgeous handmade card with the first line of the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh printed on the front in beautiful letters. Gabriel works mostly with letters and this personal gift touched me. It still graces my living room to this day.

Distrustful of the Church Gabriel may have been, but he still had to put food on the table for his growing family, and he explained to me that he was at the cathedral that day to attend a meeting about an arts trail in local churches that he’d been invited to take part in. He implored me to go along with him and, having nothing better to do, I did, but then the meeting started late and Gabriel had to leave early to get back to Llandeilo and I realised that I’d made a mistake as I sat at a table with a number of clergy whilst a female vicar expounded enthusiastically on the St. David’s Arts Trail, appearing soon in churches throughout Carmarthenshire.

I made my excuses and left, returning to the cathedral proper where I read St. Julian of Norwich’s short text by David’s tomb before then venturing outside to have a quick look at the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, (one suspects that David would not have approved and certainly the ascetic Justinian would have been horrified!). These were shut however, as time was ticking on and indeed the light was beginning to fade, but with some time to go before my bus, I returned to the cathedral and spent some time at the tomb of St. Caradoc, St. David’s other saint. Little is known of this saint save that he was a Welsh nobleman from Brecknockshire. Legend tells us that he was very close with Rhys, the Prince of South Wales until one day two of the prince’s favourite dogs were lost and Caradoc was blamed, Rees falling into such a fury that he threatened his friend with death. Through this episode, Caradoc realised just how transitory worldly honours are and so he consecrated himself to God instead and retired to Llandaff where he became a bishop and then later moving to a variety of isolated locations around South Wales, his reputation for piety increasing annually. Unrestored, Caradoc’s Tomb gives us a feel for what David’s tomb would have been like before the recent restoration works and also of what it is like when a holy man is forgotten, or at least left in the shadow of his more illustrious spiritual brother just up the nave. It is true that St. Caradoc’s story is not as juicy or inspirational as that of the national patron, but it is still valid and, if meditated upon, moving, and I am glad that I had the time to do just that.

549616_10152342710650305_645615502_n The Shrine of St. Caradoc

Next part: Cardiff, the Valleys and Hereford


[1] Andrew and George came from Israel (Bethesda in Galilee and Lod respectively), whilst St. Patrick was from Britain, possibly Cumbria.

[2] The hill is still there at Llandewi Brefi, (lit. ‘The Church of St. David at Brefi’).

[3] Thanks Rob.

[4] See ‘Nazareth of Norfolk’.

[5] Partly because it was a pilgrimage but also partially to make up for fasting missed during Lent when I’d eaten a lot of meat in Poland, (see ‘Poland 2012’ travelogue).

[6] See ‘To the Holy Island’.

[7] The Battle of Fishguard in 1797. Revolutionary France landed 1,500 troops at Fishguard to act as a diversion from a major planned invasion of Ireland in support of Wolfe Tone. That larger invasion never took place and the Fishguard attempt ended in fiasco when the irregular troops began looting and the force was soundly beaten by the local British militia.

[8] St. David’s School

[9] Also known as St. Nonna, St. Nona and St. Nonnita

[10] There was only one thing that marred the humble beauty of that place and that was a hideous, enormous statue of the Madonna and Child which is, apparently, a copy of an even larger one in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris.

[11] I’m used to calling them the ‘Saxon Saints’ which, of course, in the Welsh context, they emphatically, are not!

[12] There are several variations to the story of St. Non. In some accounts she is Welsh, not Breton, but retires to Brittany; in others she was not fleeing her rapist but another local ruler who had heard the holy men talk about the unborn child’s destiny and wished to kill it, the storm being sent by God to prevent his soldiers from catching her and doing just that. The rapist, incidentally, is usually identified as a Prince of Ceredigion named Sanctus, the connotations of having a father named Sanctus (Holy) and a mother named Non (Nun) are obvious.

[13] Which seemed apt since it was written by the Swedish lay minister Carl Boberg who was returning home to Mönsterås from Kronobäck one day along the cliff tops when a violent storm with forks of lightning and thunderclouds suddenly erupted over the sea. It should be noted that of the hymn, the first two verses, (those that deal with nature), are his, the others were added later by an English missionary.

[14] Taken from the song ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ by Leon Rosselson, which I often sing at folk events.

[15] Actually, the shrine was so spectacular because it had just been restored, at a cost of £150,000 and reopened only on 1st March, 2012. The niches which now contain his relics and his handbell were originally used by pilgrims who put their heads into them to get physically nearer to the bones of the saint. The rear of the shrine is equally stunning. It boasts icons of St. Justinian and St. Non and the niches are empty so that the modern pilgrim may do as the ancients once did.

Friday, 15 November 2013


world-map nis


After months of Across Asia With A Lowlander, it’s now time for something a little different. You may remember me saying that I had been on two pilgrimages to St. David’s and then Bardsey Island in Wales. Next up I’ll be posting my travelogues of those two trips but before then, here is a one-off, my reflections on a short trip to Macedonia back in 2003 when i was living in Bulgaria. This talks about my feelings on this fascinating little country which I would love to revisit someday, but it should also be seen in the context of my wider Bulgarian experience, more of which can be learnt about in my lengthy travelogue Balkania and my one-off piece on drinking in Bulgaria.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt





I first heard of Macedonia when sitting on the veranda of a surgery of a Greek doctor whilst looking out across the Ionian Sea and the mountains of Albania. I was working in Corfu at the time and Dr. Hatsiastros was both my employer and my friend, and on top of both of those, my initiator into the complex world of Balkan politics.

“I was not a supporter of Papandreou really, but I can say that his actions over Makedonia were right.”

“What’s Makedonia?” (I was terribly ignorant back then you see, I had never even heard of the place).

“Makedonia? Makedonia! Makedonia is Greek! It always has been Greek! The biggest part of it is still in Greece!”

Makedonia, it turned out, is what we British mistakenly call ‘Macedonia’, the ancient Balkan kingdom that gave the world Alexander the Great, the mightiest of all the Hellenes. Thinking back to my childhood, I vaguely remembered reading about how Alexander had not come from Athens or Sparta or any of the normal Greek places, but somewhere to the north and that he had invaded all the Greek city states before absorbing their culture and then going onto conquer most of the known world. So, thinking about it strictly, that day on that Corfiot balcony was strictly not my first Macedonian encounter, but I digress…

But in fact it was not Alexander’s ancient realm that the good doctor was getting all worked up about that day. No, his mind was occupied with matters most recent. They did however, involve the ancient as well.

“Alexander the Great; he is Greek, nai?”

I assured my friend in the medical profession that Greek he most certainly was.

Nai, nai, of course he is Greek, he is the greatest of all Greeks really. So then, why these bloody Serbs go calling their country ‘Makedonia’? When Alexander the Great was around there was no Serbia, none of these bloody Slavs, instead they were all living somewhere in the middle of Asia!”

What my friend, his former prime minister and most of his compatriots were objecting to was in fact a new country just north of Greece, formed from the break-up of Yugoslavia, that had decided to call itself ‘Makedonija’. The Greeks saw this as a claim on their heritage and furthermore the symbol used on this new state’s flag was one associated with Alexander’s ancient kingdom, thus linking the new entity with the old.

“This bloody flag they use in Skopje!” Hatsiastros fumed, (Skopje incidentally, is the capital of the new country). “You know where they found this bloody symbol? In Veria! In Greece! So they steal our history really, bloody Serbs in Skopje!”

And that, essentially, was the Greek objection. A new country had been formed, calling itself after an ancient Greek kingdom, thereby stealing Greek history. People would forget that Alexander the Great was Greek and start thinking of him as a Slav. And would it stop there? Would they next be after Greek territory too? Greece’s largest province, whose capital is the prosperous port city of Thessaloniki[1], is also called Makedonia. Did the new state have designs on that too? The objections may seem a little trivial to us, but to a Greek, or at least, to Papandreou, they were a deadly serious matter. When the new country announced its name and flag, the Greek PM immediately ordered them to change both. They refused and so, (much to the consternation of their European partners), in February 1994, the Greeks blockaded the new Macedonia, a serious matter since the new country’s main gateway to the world is Thessaloniki. In the end the economics began to bite and the Macedonians, (or should we say ‘Skopjeans’?), relented, changed their flag to something very similarly but without the symbol found in Veria and agreed to temporarily refer to their country as FYROM which stands for the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’. It is the name still in official documentation and used only by the Greeks.

Alexander-the-Great-WC-9180468-1-402 Alexander the Great: disputed legacy

But if that is Macedonia from a Greek perspective, what about the rest of the Balkans and, in particular, Bulgaria, which is after all the subject of all these essays?[2] Do they have any feelings about the new nation next-door? Well, the answer to that question is an easy one that anyone who has spent more than five minutes talking to a Bulgarian can attest to: If the Greeks are a nation bothered about Macedonia, then the Bulgarians are a nation positively obsessed with it! And they have good reason to be as well. A short history lesson will explain why…

The ancient kingdom of Macedonia, (i.e. that of Alexander the Great), first emerged in the 7th century BC and grew steadily in strength and size until the 4th century BC by which time it covered a large chunk of the central Balkans and was producing leaders of the calibre of Alexander and Philip II. The former we know all about of course, but the latter, his father who ascended to the throne in 359BC perhaps did more to ensure the actual growth and continuity of the Macedonian entity itself, transforming the kingdom from a weak and unimportant entity into a Hellenic realm ready to challenge the mighty city states themselves. Alexander may never have become a ‘Great’ if it were not for the endeavours of his father.

Macedonia continued as a recognised entity until the Romans came along and invaded it in 168BC, splitting it up into four districts. After the Romans – or perhaps more accurately, as a continuum of the Romans – came the Byzantines who did not relinquish their complete hold on the area until the 13th century by which time their power was well on the wane and the Ottomans took over. In between this however, (and this is the bit that concerns us), Slavic peoples from Central Asia moved into the region and settled there, assimilating with the local peoples and dominating the local population. And here is where the confusion starts, with the emergence of several new and aggressive Slavic kingdoms, most notably that of the Bulgars, to the area north of that which was controlled by Byzantium.

The reign of King Samuil (976-1014) represents one of the greatest epochs in Bulgarian history. His Bulgarian kingdom (recognised by the Pope as such) stretched from the Black Sea to the Adriatic and had its capital in the (nowadays located in FYROM) city of Ohrid. Samuil and his Ohrid-centred Bulgarian kingdom was a Golden Era for Bulgarian language and culture.

Or at least… that’s what the Bulgarians say.

The Macedonians of FYROM however, maintain that Samuil’s kingdom was not Bulgarian at all, despite the say so of the (Latin) Pope (who was not only mistaken but also a heretic). No indeed, it was in fact a Macedonian kingdom, the first in around a thousand years and the direct heir to the glorious legacy of Alexander the Great.

Except, as the Greeks so forcibly point out, this kingdom was ruled by people of a completely different ethnicity to the old one (Slavs, not Hellenes), and in a different location (well, slightly) to that of Philip and Alexander’s realm. Thessaloniki and the ancient Macedonian capital of Veria were still very much in Byzantine (for that, read ‘Greek’) hands.

Thankfully, all parties do agree that this Golden Era ended in 1014 after a defeat of Samuil’s army by the Byzantines who, after their victory, proceeded to gouge out the eyes of nine out of every ten of the soldiers that they’d captured, and then sent the lot back to Ohrid. Samuil apparently died from the shock and shame.

Byzantine domination only lasted for a couple of centuries though. The Ottoman Turks swept across South-Eastern Europe like a wind from hell. Everywhere they met resistance, some so stiff that it lasted for decades, (such as Skanderbeg in Albania), but always they eventually prevailed. Macedonia was taken in 1389. They did not relinquish control of the region until 1912.

makedonija1 Kale Fortress, Skopje, which dates from Byzantine times

When the Ottomans first came to the area, they were a vibrant, dynamic, modern and murderous force. Over the years however, they stagnated until by the 19th century they’d lost all those qualities barring the last. As the new ideology of Nationalism swept across Europe, the Balkans too began to feel its effects. A Serbian state was established in between 1830 and 1867, a modern-day Greece was established in 1830 and Bulgaria had its uprising against the Ottomans in 1876. And then, in 1893, the IMRO (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation)[3] was formed.

The aim of this organisation was to free Macedonia from Turkish rule. On that all parties agree. First they wanted autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, then independence. After that however, it depends upon who you talk to: The FYROMians declare that independence was the final aim of IMRO; the Bulgarians on the other hand, believe that the IMRO revolutionaries considered themselves to be Bulgarian all along and that their eventual aim was for union with the Motherland.

Whatever the case may be, they failed. The Ilinden Uprising of 1903 led by the enigmatic Gotse Delchev managed only to liberate the town of Krushevo before it was put down. Delchev, who is now a national hero claimed by both the Bulgarians and the FYROMians alike, was killed in action on the 4th May, 1903. It seems strange to us to make a hero of someone who failed to achieve any of his objectives, but this is the Balkans where they love a glorious failure and, like Vasil Levski, the fact that he paid the ultimate price for starting the ball rolling means that he will long be enshrined in the hearts of the locals.

The Ilinden Uprising may have been a failure, but the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs and the First Balkan War of 1912 saw Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia put an end to Turkish rule over most of the peninsular, and the Treaty of London that followed (May 1913) awarded Northern Macedonia to Serbia and its southern regions to Greece. This angered the Bulgarians who remembered well the days of Tsar Samuil and the cooperation and closeness of their people with the IMRO partisans. The Second Balkan War (1914), First World War (1915-8) and Second World War (1941-5) all saw the Bulgarians attempt to reclaim what they saw as their territory. In all instances, save for two short periods during the wars, they failed and in 1945 Southern Macedonia emerged still as an integral part of Greece whilst the majority of Northern Macedonia was, as before the war, a republic of Yugoslavia, with the Bulgarians only controlling a small part of the ancient Macedonian territory, that around the town of Blagoevgrad and the Pirin Mountains.

gotse delchev Gotse Delchev: A great Macedonian… or Bulgarian…?

So now we are into the time of Tito and his Yugoslavia that was a communist state but not a member of the Warsaw Pact and certainly no close ally of the Soviet Union’s bed partner, Bulgaria. And whilst keeping his distance from the omnipotent USSR and her friends, Tito also had to mould his own diverse state into a strong and unified entity. So began the process of (according to the Bulgarians) creating a false Macedonian identity, distinct from that of Bulgaria, with the establishment of an independent Macedonian Church (1944-5), the appointment of an Ohrid Archbishopric (1958) and the promotion of the Macedonian language, (which according to the Bulgarians is merely a dialect of their own tongue). And why you may ask, were all these measures undertaken? To separate Macedonia culturally as well as politically from her Mother Country, before then welding her firmly to Serbia, (which perhaps explains why Dr. Hatsiastros referred to them as ‘Serbs’?

Unsurprisingly, the present, post-Yugoslavian government in Skopje look at things somewhat differently, stating that they truly are a separate nation, culturally as well as politically; that their language, whilst similar, is different to Bulgarian and that Macedonia does truly have its own distinctive culture. Is it all true though? Who knows, though the fact that 95% of the Macedonian electorate voted for independence when asked in a referendum on September 8th, 1991, suggests that either Macedonia truly is distinct culturally from Bulgaria, or that the Serbs were remarkably successful in their cunning plan.

I however, wanted to find out more about it all, and in my opinion, the best way to do that is to pay the place a visit. In 1999 I’d been to Blagoevgrad, the major town in the Bulgarian part of Macedonia and found it to be a pleasant enough city, though culturally indistinguishable from the rest of the country[4] and in the same year I’d seen a little of Greek Macedonia, and although the two regions had a lot in common architecturally (i.e. Ottoman), the cities that I visited (Thessaloniki and Veria) were undeniably Greek and the Slavic influence was nil. So, if Bulgarian Macedonia is very Bulgarian, and Greek Macedonia is very Greek, then what exactly is that entity that calls itself ‘Macedonia’ like? On a chilly February evening, I took the bus from Sofia to find out.

Macedonia, Makedonija, FYROM or whatever else you want to call it, turned out to be not quite how I expected. As I passed through the countryside and villages in the bus en route to Skopje, I found that it little resembled either Greece or Bulgaria. In fact, of all the countries that I have ever visited,[5] I found it to be most like Turkey. The roads to Skopje and thence Ohrid were good and the dwellings, though often apartments, were less uniform and drab than those of its neighbour. In fact, it seemed altogether less communist, with more individualism evident in the dwellings and layout. Gone too were the ubiquitous Ladas on the roads and in their place, the smart VW Golf-a-like Yugo Zastavas, and a profusion of Western European cars. The place looked prosperous, clean and altogether far more Western than its neighbour.

makedonija 001Skopje Panorama

Perhaps the main reason behind that is nothing to do with any ancient kingdoms, but instead the country’s far more modern history, namely its forty-six year inclusion in a communist Yugoslavia that followed a radically different economic path to that of the Warsaw Pact states. Whereas Bulgaria has only recently started to open up to the capitalist world, accepting huge numbers of Western European tourists, sending its citizens abroad for better work and encouraging private endeavour, the Yugoslavians have been at it for years, resulting in the 1980s in a country that was far more prosperous and westward looking that any other in Eastern Europe. In fact, so open and wealthy was she, that before the break-up, Yugoslavia was being considered for EU membership. As I entered the outskirts of futuristic Skopje, (the city was largely rebuilt in a modern style following the devastating earthquake in 1963), I felt more on the outskirts of Birmingham than Burgas. Superficially at least, Macedonia was not Bulgarian in the slightest. Dig deeper however, and perhaps the ties would become more evident?

If one wants to find Bulgaria in Macedonia though, there is of course, only one place to head, and that is Ohrid, the capital of Tsar Samuil’s great kingdom. I took the bus from Skopje through the mountains that Gotse Delchev and his comrades once fought in, before arriving at the lakeside town. The Bulgarian influences were immediately apparent.

“Do you speak Macedonian?” asked the proprietor of the room that I had rented for the night.

“Sorry, none at all,” I replied, “though I do speak Bulgarian.”

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “It’s the same really!”

And I was inclined to agree with her. Throughout my entire stay, I had no problems understanding this supposedly alien tongue. True, there were a few minor differences to the Bulgarian that I’d learnt. “Where are you from?” was “Kade li at?” instead of “Kude li ot?”; and they seemed to borrow different foreign words, so ‘chips’ were the French ‘pommes frites’ instead of the German ‘kartofi’, and they had no word for the little milk capsules that you get with coffee, but overall it was very much like a dialect of Bulgarian, as distinct from that spoken in Sofia as Scouse is to BBC English.

And Ohrid itself? I wandered through its beautiful streets lined with centuries old buildings, peered into dark churches and watched the boats bob on the water. It reminded me of Veliko Turnovo only with a lake. It is one of the finest sights in the Balkans.

makedonija3 Ohrid

But if Macedonia’s ancient capital is Veliko Turnovo, then her modern one is not Sofia. Skopje in fact, although a surprisingly pleasant place, did not remind me of any of Bulgaria’s cities, major or minor. Her modern, post-earthquake centre was decidedly communist, but it was a somehow different, smarter communism that bore little resemblance to dark, depressing Sofia.

Skopje however, is far, far more than its 1960s centre with its proud statue of Mother Teresa, (the city’s most famous daughter), and its shortage of reasonably priced hotels. Cross the little bridge over the River Vardar and you enter another city entirely. The bridge itself is the start, ancient, stone and Turkish, with eight elegantly-proportioned arches, it is straight out of an Ivo Andrič tale of the Ottoman Balkans.[6]

The city across the Vardar might not be truly Bulgarian, but it is truly Balkan. A fine Turkish fortress, ancient Orthodox churches and a sea of domes and minarets. I wandered through the streets of the bazaar with its headscarfed Albanian ladies and snappily-dressed Slavs and reflected that this is what the Balkans is famed for: a crossing point of cultures and faiths.

The tomb of Gotse Delchev is situated in a courtyard next to the tiny and exquisite church of Sveti Spas with its intricate iconostasis of 1824. Next to the church is a small museum detailing the National Hero’s life and it was ominously devoid of any Bulgarian references. I decided to question the curator about this and asked about Delchev’s relationship with Macedonia’s next-door neighbour.

makedonija2 By the tomb of Gotse Delchev

“He studied in Sofia,” she replied, and strangely that was all that I was going to get. I came out of the museum wondering and was confronted by the magnificent 1492 Mustapha Pasha mosque, one of the finest in the Balkans. And that perhaps, is where Macedonia differs from Bulgaria and Greece. Such scenes of cultural mixing are rare to the east and south. True, there are places where one gets a taste of it such as in Shumen or Razgrad, but by and large today’s Bulgaria is almost entirely Slavic and today’s Greece most definitely Hellenic.[7] In Macedonia however, the battle of the cultures rages strong. There Slavs contribute only 68% of the population whilst the Muslim Albanians and Turks make up 27%, and with those groups having a much higher birth-rate, the Slavs are getting jittery. The country is only twelve years old and it has already seen an insurgence by the Albanians in 2001 that had to be put down with the assistance of NATO troops. Approach Skopje by night and that conflict for cultural hegemony is all too evident: an enormous illuminated and controversial cross shines down on the city from a nearby hillside, proclaiming to the heathens that this is a Christian country.[8]

As I sat in the 24 hour café awaiting my bus back to Bulgaria, I mused upon this strange little country, its past, present and future. It didn’t seem like a country to me and Skopje not a capital but instead a provincial town that had inexplicably had great status bestowed upon it that it didn’t quite know what to do with. Macedonia’s ancient past she shares with Greece, whilst her more recent history, both Slavic and Ottoman domination, she shares with Bulgaria, as she does her language. But despite all this, one gets the feeling that she never truly was Bulgarian and most definitely she is not now. Like her troubled neighbours to the north – Bosnia, Kosova and Vojvodina – she is a crossroads, a confusing melting-pot, and like in Bosnia, the post-communist hierarchy are attempting to create a successful, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural state. Quite whether they will succeed or not is another matter; I for one am sceptical and without assistance from the EU, am sure that failure will result. But then I fail to see the Macedonian Slavs as a truly separate people from the Bulgarians, and their nationalism instead strikes me as regionalism gone mad, more akin to the lunacy of Yorkshire or Cornish nationalism in the UK rather than the legitimate self-determination of the Irish. But there again, that is just my opinion and perhaps I have been in Bulgaria for far too long and have always approached the Macedonian Question from a largely Bulgarian standpoint. Had I been a teacher in Veles or Bitola for a year and my opinions might have been radically different.

makedonija5 The ruins of the old railway station, Skopje. The clock stopped at the moment when the earthquake struck the city in 1963

And as for the future, who knows what will happen? Whilst prosperous in a united Yugoslavia, independent Macedonia is nowadays struggling economically, not helped of course by the Greek attitudes towards it and the Albanian minority continue to clamour for more autonomy or even separation. It is already an absurdly small country, with a population of only two million and a land area of but 25,333km² and if it ever were to lose its Albanians, would a rump Slavic state be able to survive? Yet on the other hand, can it ever be successful as a multi-ethnic entity? Sad as it might be to say this, but Balkan history suggests not. Would therefore, an eventual union with Bulgaria be perhaps desirable? Pavel Marinov, a colleague and fervent Bulgarian nationalist, perhaps assesses the situation most accurately:

“I used to worry a lot about the Macedonia situation when I was young, but then I realised that until Bulgaria is economically successful they would never wish to join us. The job now is to build a prosperous Bulgaria. Then the rest will come.”

He is right. At the end of the day, what people care about most of all is food on the table and money in the bank. Pride, passion and historical ties count for little beside these. Perhaps the main reason why 95% of the electorate declared themselves to be Macedonian in 1991 was because both Bulgaria and Albania were considerably poorer than they were. As capitalism matures in the region however, and with Bulgaria’s ascension to the EU in 2007, then the people of FYROM may well have a change of heart and this tiny yet fascinating country will disappear. Perhaps so or perhaps not? Whatever the case, only one thing is for sure: It will be interesting to view the developments.

Written on the Varna – Ruse train, 30th June, 2003

Copyright © 2003, Matthew E. Pointon

[1] Usually referred to as ‘Salonika’ in English.

[2] This piece was originally included in a series of essays about Bulgaria.

[3] In Macedonian ‘VMRO’.

[4] To be fair, when I returned in 2003 and explored the region a little further, I did notice more the strong Muslim presence but even so, it was still extremely Bulgarian.

[5] And notably, that does not include any of the other former republics of Yugoslavia.

[6] It’s named the ‘Kamen Most’, lit. Stone Bridge.

[7] Although this is far from always having been the case and is partially the result of ethnic-cleansing, most notably the removal of Dobruja’s Latin Romanians in 1940, the Golyamata Ekskursiya (Great Excursion) of 1989 when many of Bulgaria’s Turks left/ were forced out to Turkey, the Holocaust which decimated Jewish and Roma populations and, most crucially, the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1923, which transformed multi-ethnic areas into ones largely homogenous.

[8] The Millennium Cross was constructed in 2002 to celebrate two thousand years of Christianity in Macedonia and the world. Standing at 66m, it is the largest cross in the world.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: 3n: Konotop to Varna

world-map varna


And here we are, the final post of Across Asia With A Lowlander, (except that by this post, the Lowlander has disappeared…). Two months after starting the trip of a lifetime, I rolled into Varna for the very first time, ready to embark upon a new stage of my life there. For those interested in reading about that, check out some of the early parts of Balkania or my various postings on Bulgaria here:

Nazdravei! A Guide to Drinking in Bulgaria

However, for those who do read this, you will note that the original aim of crossing from Japan to Bulgaria entirely by land and sea failed and there’s a bit missing. Never one to leave a jigsaw with a few pieces still in the box, I rectified that in the summer of 2012 and you can read the updates of that trip that I wrote whilst journeying from Konotop to Bucharest. However, I have also written up a full-length travelogue of that journey which I shall begin posting in January. But for the meantime, I hope you enjoyed hearing of my journeyings with a Dutchman just as much as I enjoyed revisiting them whilst posting this and, as ever, comments are extremely welcome.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

european russia 2

1st September, 2002 – nr. Konotop, Ukraine


“I'll warn you now,” Yevgeny had said, “they'll probably try and intimidate you at the border. Just slip them some money and you'll be ok.”

“We don't need them.”

“Yes you do. Come out here!”


But we did. I decided to follow our travel agent's advice. Surprisingly however, it didn't work. And when we were in a small room with our train already left for Kiev, then we knew that this was not just a little problem.

“But we're legal!” said the Sibling.

“I know that, we've checked enough fucking times!” Tokyo, London and Moscow say we're legal!”

“But that is there, this is here,” replied the police officer when I later related these facts to him.

“And the rules here state that you must have a visa,” added he.

Was he telling the truth? Who knows? I think not however. I think that it was all a big money-making scam. And talking to the Russian officials at their consulate in Varna later on, they agreed with me. 'It happens all the time,' they said in despair. Ex-pat Ukrainians and Russians agreed too. 'I went back to the Ukraine last summer,' said one lady who has lived in Bulgaria for twenty-odd years, ' and I couldn't believe it. Just because I now have a Bulgarian accent when I speak Russian, they treated me as a foreigner, tried to take money off me at every corner, even the police. Especially the police. Do you know what, I was in tears when I left at how that country, which used to be my country, could have gone downhill so much. When my husband met me at the airport he couldn't believe it, there I was, tears streaming down my face!' But that's only one person's account, and ex-pats do often have a skewed vision of their homelands.

But if he was acting, to be fair, he was acting bloody well. And my experiences in Uzbekistan had taught me that these days in that part of the world, no one knows which set of rules are valid at any particular time.

God this was like Uzbekistan all over again! Bloody Uzbekistan with its corrupt police, stupid rules and general populace solely out on the take, had returned to haunt me in another country beginning with 'U'. Arrgh!!

“If only we had known,” said the Sibling. “We were prepared to buy a fucking visa and they said that we didn't need one. We had the money ready!”

Surprisingly it was Hazel, the travel novice, who stayed cool.

But annoyed and exasperated as we were, there was no way that we were giving up without a fight.

“You must give us fifty dollars and then we will put you on a train back to Moscow.”

“No, we're going to Bucharest.”

It soon became obvious however, that we were not.

“We are not going anywhere until you let us phone the Embassy.”

“No phone calls.”

“Fine!” And so we sat, played cards, laughed and joked and annoyed greatly all those trying to work. In the end, about four or five hours later, they gave in and I was hauled off to a phone box.

Ring! Ring!

'Hello, you have reached the Embassy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Republic of Ukraine. I am sorry, but we are closed at present. The Embassy is open from...'

Shut! Shit! I'd forgotten that it was Sunday.

I dived into the guidebook and picked out several EU embassies. The same. Then I tried to Americans.

“Hi, American Embassy, can I help you?” said a very welcome trans-Atlantic voice.

“Yes you can, sir!” And I explained the woeful state of affairs that we had got ourselves into at Konotop railway station. The answer however, was not what I wanted to hear.

“Listen, sir, I'm sorry, but this happens all the time. That border is renowned for it. There was even some of our Embassy staff with diplomatic passports held up there. I don't really know what to say to you, I'm only the caretaker you see. You could wait until tomorrow, phone your own embassy and see what happens, but to be honest, I doubt that they'd come down to Konotop to help you anyway. You are legal, they are wrong, but they're the ones holding all the cards right now. I know it's not very nice, but I'd advise you to just cut your losses and return to Moscow. I know that it's wrong, but...”

“I understand. Thanks.”

Oh God, why did they have to hit us on this day. If I had not been through Uzbekistan and was fresh and with Mr. 'I won't yield an inch' (or should that be 'centimetre'?) Lowlander, then I'd have fought. Or if it wasn't a Sunday I'd have got some action out of the embassy. But I was tired, sick of travelling, sick of the bloody police... just get me to Varna, to a life of settled routine once more where I can unpack my bags, even if it means going back to Moscow. Plus, was spending a night in a police cabin a good idea with a twenty-year old girl in our party? Yes, we were weak. Yes, we gave in.

“That's two hundred dollars each, not fifty, because you phoned the embassy,” said the policeman.

But we weren't that weak. Or stupid.

Sat there waiting for the seven o'clock train back to Moscow, we started to feel hungry. Then one of the men in our room brought us some food. We'd assumed him to be a policeman or friend of one too, but it transpired that he was a turned back traveller too.

“I'm from Azerbaijan,” he said, “but I've only got a Soviet Union passport.” He didn't look dejected about his rejection however. If anything he seemed to expect it as par for the course and looked a regular visitor to this police cabin. I later wondered if it was perhaps his job, and if he was expecting to be turned back, since when we arrived in Moscow, he had his car waiting in the station car park. Once travelling from Romania to Bulgaria, I'd seen loads of goods being thrown from the train as soon as we'd entered the country and before we'd hit the customs post, with locals waiting by the trackside to retrieve them. Konotop is deep inside the Ukraine. Was he involved in a similar operation? I guess that I'll never find out.

To pile on the misery, our train back only went as far as a place called Bryansk, and there we had to wait several hours for our steed onwards. Bryansk was a big and apparently famous railway junction with a huge mural in the station foyer depicting the places that one may get to from the station, (assuming you have the visas that are not required). I explored the building fully, brought some beers for our Azerbaijani friend who was by now going out of his way to help us, by telling us when and from which platform our train was to leave, and helping me buy the tickets at local prices. Although he looked decidedly dodgy, he was proving to be a real Knight in Shining Armour to us which proves that one never can tell.

Eventually, around one, our train arrived and we entered our carriage which was supervised by a large lady of unparalleled grumpiness whose name was 'Marina'. Even by post-Soviet standards, she took service without a smile to new heights and clearly resented having to do anything connected with her job whatsoever, let alone having to deal with foreigners who speak only halting Russian. It made us glad to be who we are again! Indeed, our moods had improved immensely, we were back in Russia, heading towards Moscow and hopefully a plane out to Bulgaria, and I fell asleep virtually as soon as my head touched the pillow of my gently-rocking bunk.

SAM_0030 Konotop Station

2nd September, 2002 – Moscow, Russia

“What are you doing here?!”

Yevgeny clearly was not used to having clients return so quickly from the Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians.”

“They didn't let you in?”


“You tried bribing them?”


“Well, that's a first.”

Once he'd got over his initial shock however, our travel agent proved to be an angel. “We've only got until tomorrow left on our Russian visas and we've got to get to Bulgaria!” I stressed. We were whisked off in his plush new Lada to 'travel agents for travel agents' as he put it, and after some intensive investigations, we were booked onto the next Aeroflot flight out to Sofia, departing Sheremetovo airport the following morning. And so, it was back to the Ismailovo fifteenth floor for us and our baggage.

Thus we had one final day to kill in Moscow. And it was a Moscow thick with smoke. “You know why?” said Hazel. “Last night, whilst you were sleeping, we passed through a massive forest that was on fire. It was quite exciting.” This fact was later confirmed on TV and for the following week or so, the Moscow air was apparently thick and unhealthy.

I decided the visit the Pushkin Gallery, but it was shut, so we mooched about, walked the famous Arbat, (Moscow's Covent Garden), bought furry KGB hats, browsed through the tomes in ANGLIYA and sipped tea by the Kremlin, grateful for this oasis of peace and order amidst the vast desert of customs men and police-infested, corrupt desert that is the post-Soviet world.

3rd September, 2002 – Sofia to Varna train, Bulgaria

So here I am, sat on a train thundering through the fields of Northern Bulgaria. I’m looking out of the window, but what I see doesn’t interest me. The spectacular scenery; the magnificent Iskar Gorge where the track coils itself around the steep slopes of the valley side, high above the fast-flowing river below, is long past now and these fields, unspectacular at best, I have seen many times before and shall doubtless gaze upon countless times again over the coming year.

I am tired. Physically tired. Little sleep last night, up early, a long metro ride, and then the bus to Sheremetovo. And after that, passport checks, waiting around and then boarding the plane that was to take a mere three hours to reach the Bulgarian capital. This was the modern travelling that I knew only too well. Fast, convenient, comfortable, and with the pleasure surgically removed. The Sibling, sat in front next to a Kazakh businessman was happily chatting away to this new-found friend. I however, could not be bothered any longer. I just sat and read.

And once in Sofia, and baggage retrieved, it was a car, (courtesy of the aforementioned Kazakh), into the city centre and then a taxi to the railway station. My two younger comrades’ eyes were wide open, drinking in the sights of this new city and country. But for me there was nothing new. This was my fourth time in Bulgaria and she held few surprises. She is the land, (excluding my own of course), which has maintained the greatest hold on my affections of all those on Earth that I have had the good fortune to be able to visit, and I suppose that I should have been overjoyed to greet her once more. But I was not. As I said before, I was tired, mentally as well as physically.

Booking tickets for the 13:30 departure for Varna, and ordering food at a station café, I discovered that my Bulgarian was rusty and spattered with Russian invasions. Oh well, that was only temporary, it would soon change. We boarded the train and settled down. Eight hours until arrival. Short compared with so many of my recent journeys, but oh how it is dragging!

I run through the trip in my mind. Japan, Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, the Ukraine and now Bulgaria. Nine countries and uncountable memories. That’s more travelling than most people do in their entire lives. It took me less than two months. So why do I feel so downcast? Is it because I failed? I’d aimed to travel from Toyama to Varna entirely by land and sea and I’d failed. At the last hurdle. And failure weighs heavily indeed.

Yet is it the failure? If anything, that failure is mixed with relief. I am mentally tired, too tired, unable to take it all in anymore. Nine countries in two months is far too much. I can’t take it. I wonder at how the likes of Brian Connellan can enjoy staying on the road for six months or more. That would drive me round the bend.

No, my travelling is over for now. I want to settle down in one place for a while. Do a job, get a routine, live in some sort of normality. Even the prospect of a day trip sounds horrific. Perhaps I’m glad that I failed in a way. If I hadn’t, I’d only be mid-Romania by now, with a lot more than five hours to go. A sobering thought indeed!

Yes, indeed. The Sibling and Hazel, card-playing and lively, still have half their trip ahead of them, but mine is now over, consigned to photographic images, the words on this paper and the memories in my head.

And so like at the beginning of this work, I realize that an era has just died and that a new one is about to be born. I rise from my seat and cross the compartment, sitting down once more in the direction of travel. A life in Bulgaria awaits.

It is time to look forward.