There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 29 June 2015

West Wycombe

I think I can claim to have done a bit of travelling. Recent journeys are detailed in this blog but there were many more in the decades before blogs - or the internet - existed.

But it was not always like this. I was born in 1950 and for many years holidays meant two weeks with my grandmother in Porthcawl on the South Wales coast. The drive from Iver in Buckinghamshire to Porthcawl, Google tells me, is 157 miles and takes 2½ hours. Back then, when there was no Severn Bridge (it opened 1966) and no motorways, the journey was 180 miles and took over five hours.

From (about) 1951 to 1958 my father owned a grey Standard Vanguard, very similar to this one
(Credit to Wikipedia and Redsimon for the picture) 
The first of several bottlenecks was High Wycombe. Just beyond the town on a bare hilltop above the village of West Wycombe was a church with a large golden ball perched on its tower. My mother would mutter something about the 'Hellfire Club' in an appropriately disapproving manner and then say, 'We must go there someday.'

We never did, but now, over half a century later, I have. The church is still there, though trees have grown up to partially hide it, the road through West Wycombe is still designated as the A40, though it is no longer a trunk road, and the child who bickered with his sister in the back of a Standard Vanguard went grey long ago.

St Lawrence's Church is now hidden by trees, but the golden ball is still there
The Hellfire Caves, lower down the hill, were built between 1748 and 1752. A run of bad harvests threatened starvation and Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet Dashwood, who owned pretty much all there was to own in West Wycombe, saved the day by personally paying the destitute to mine chalk and flint to rebuild the road from West Wycombe to High Wycombe.

Humanitarian as his motives may have been, it would have been cheaper and easier to use the hillside as a quarry than to laboriously scrape out 500m of tunnels linking some seven or eight chambers. And why finish it with a Gothic entrance?
Entrance to the Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe
Like many rich young men of his time Sir Francis Dashwood finished his education with a Grand Tour. Between 1726 and 1731 he visited Italy, Russia and the Ottoman Empire and earned a certain notoriety, not least by attempting to seduce the Tsarina Anne while in Russia. He developed an interest in the religious practices of classical time and a profound disrespect for the Catholic Church.

The Hellfire Caves
500m of tunnels laboriously hacked out by hand
In 1746 along with John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (and the man who first stuck a slice of meat between two pieces of bread) he founded the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, dedicated to the veneration of Bacchus and Venus. The knights met at Medmenham Abbey a little way along the Thames from West Wycombe, and seemed to enjoy dressing up, mock rituals and of course the more practical applications of the worship of gods of wine and love. Gentlemen were encouraged to bring lady guests who should be 'of cheerful, lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity '(i.e. prostitutes).

In time the club became known as the Hellfire Club. Stories of Black Masses and Satanic rituals began to circulate but they were probably just stories, the members merely had a healthy interest in sex and alcohol (drugs and rock 'n' roll not yet being available). With their understandable aversion to record keeping it is not known who participated in these meetings, but references in correspondence suggest John Wilkes, the radical journalist and politician, was associated with the club, as were engraver William Hogarth and American polymath and diplomat Benjamin Franklin.
To reach the club room guests had to cross an underground stream, the River Styx
Hellfire Caves, West Wycombe

The association of the Hellfire Club with the Hellfire Caves is problematic. It is believed that one or two meetings may have taken place there but much of the association with the caves was made later and probably to promote tourism. But the question remains: ‘Why build the tunnels and the entrance?

Deep in the caves the Hellfire Club is still in session - at least in effigy
I am far from averse to a boozy dinner, but walking through the caves on a warm summer's day was a decidedly chilly experience and I would hesitate to accept an invitation which came with the instruction 'wrap up warm'. A roaring fire might solve the problem, but I doubt the caves have sufficient ventilation. The alcoves off the dining hall were allegedly curtained off for amorous activities but although they could be made comfortable, if not spacious, they could not be made warm, a serious disincentive to activities requiring the removal of clothing. I suspect, though this is only my hunch, that Sir Francis Dashwood built the caves with his club in mind, but found they did not suit.

We left the caves and warmed up by climbing West Wycombe Hill.

Lynne climbing West Wycombe Hill
On the way we had a view down the dead straight road to High Wycombe built using the contents of the caves. I suspect it has been rebuilt several times since and the traffic lights are probably not really Georgian.

The long straight road to High Wycombe built by Sir Francis Dashwood

We could also see West Wycombe Park, the home of Sir Francis Dashwood.

West Wycombe Park
On the top of the hill is the Dashwood Mausoleum. Built in 1765 it was financed by a bequest from a friend and is a vanity project if ever there was one. The satirist Paul Whitehead, who had been Club Secretary, left his heart to Sir Francis Dashwood when he died in 1774. The incinerated remains were kept in an urn in the mausoleum, until they were stolen in 1829 – a gift for promoters of tourism who then claimed that his ghost haunted the caves.

The Dashwood Mausoleum, West Wycombe Hill
 St Lawrence's Church behind the mausoleum was built, also by Sir Francis Dashwood, in 1761 though there had been religious buildings on the site since the 7th century. Questions were asked at the time why he should build a church at the top of the hill for the benefit of a village at the bottom of the hill, but it still functions as an Anglican Church, even though a more convenient alternative was built in the village in 1875. The golden ball, 8ft in diameter, can seat six, though it is currently closed and I was disappointed to see it was in such poor condition.

St Lawrence's Church, West Wycombe
It was lunchtime, so we descended to the village in search of sustenance. Many of West Wycombe’s buildings, which were constructed between 200 and 400 years ago, are owned by the National Trust and have not been modernised, at least externally.
West Wycombe
The high street is busy and full of parked cars so my photographs do not do it justice. Inevitably it has been used as a film set, most notably in the Importance of Being Ernest in 2002 (Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon) and as Cranford in the television series.

West Wycombe
Lunch in the George and Dragon, an 18th century coaching inn, was a half of IPA from the Rebellion microbrewery in nearby Marlow and an omelette. It was pricey, as might have been expected, but my bacon and goat's cheese omelette was excellent, the softest and fluffiest I have eaten in ages.

The George and Dragon, West Wycombe

West Wycombe Park was donated to the National Trust by Sir John Dashwood, the 10th Baronet, in 1943, though the Dashwoods retained ownership of the contents and Sir Edward Dashwood, the 12th Baronet, still lives there.

The house is approached through parkland surrounding an artificial lake. In 1698 the estate was bought by Sir Francis Dashwood, the 1st Baronet and father of ‘Hellfire’ Francis Dashwood, who demolished the existing manor house and constructed the forerunner of the current house. The younger Sir Francis, inspired by his travels in Italy, rebuilt it. It took him 60 years and consequently ‘...encapsulates the entire progression of British 18th century architecture from early idiosyncratic Palladian to Neoclassical...’ (thanks, Wikipedia). It looks a bit of a dog's breakfast to me (noted architectural critic as I am not) with stands of trees cunningly concealing imperfections in symmetry.

The front of West Wycombe Park (which appears to be round the back)

I also have a feeling that houses should have a front and a back and the main entrance, whether you are important enough to use it or not, should be at the front. The entrance to West Wycombe Park feels like it is round the back, though which is back and which front is open to debate.

Lynne sits in the entrance, West Wycombe Park
The guided tour was conducted by a venerable lady who might have been patted on the head as a child by Sir Francis Dashwood himself and seemed to remember every member of the family since. It is a very liveable house; for its date many of the rooms are manageable in size and unusually well lit.

The ceilings, painted by Giuseppe Bornis, are direct copies from Italian palaces, mainly the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, while the entrance hall ceiling is a replica of a ceiling in Palmyra that had impressed Sir Francis when he visited Syria on the Grand Tour. It is a sad thought that, given the current situation in Palmyra, these copies may be all that survives.

There is some corner cutting: the marble walls of the entrance hall are marble effect wallpaper and, as at Stowe House, the ‘marble’ columns are scagliola.

Like the village, the house and grounds had often been used as a film set. Austenland was filmed here in 2012 as was the forthcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It has also featured in Downtown Abbey.

The house is surrounded by acres of well-tended greensward dotted with extravaganzas like the Temple of Music on an island in the lake….

Temple of Music, West Wycombe Park
 …. and the Temple of Venus. I can only speculate about what Sir Francis intended to do in the cavern beneath the Temple, but it is a dark and dank space, so I expect he did it somewhere else.

Temple of Venus, West Wycombe Park
West Wycombe Park is a less ambitious version of Stowe, with which it is contemporary. The house is much smaller, the gardens have fewer pseudo-classical monuments and the view of the house across the lake is barely Championship compared with Premier League Stowe

West Wycombe Park across the lake
(this is the back, which looks like a front, maybe?)
The Dashwoods, though wealthy, were paupers compared to the Temples of Stowe. The Temples, though, ran through their fabulous wealth and in three generations went from being richer than the king to the biggest debtors in the kingdom. They were also notoriously arrogant and unpleasant, and when they fell few mourned. The Dashwoods have had their ups and downs but they are still here.

I rather like Sir Francis Dashwood. He may have been a rake and a libertine, but he also found time for a serious political career. In 1747 he introduced a bill for poor relief by the commissioning of public works. The bill failed, but he put his money where his mouth was, tunnelling out the Hellfire Caves to save the people of West Wycombe from penury, and he was credited with other humanitarian acts. He was a disastrous Chancellor of the Exchequer for a year in the 1760s but was later a more successful Postmaster General.

For me to criticise a man who enjoyed a good dinner and a glass or three of wine would be immensely hypocritical – and at a time of stifling social conventions when marriage was a business deal, I would not want to judge his horizontal recreation too harshly.
Fun guy - Sir Francis Dashwood in Hellfire Cub Regalia
by Adrien Carpentiers
This post was supposed to be about West Wycombe, but it has almost entirely been about Sir Francis Dashwood, but then he was West Wycombe and to a certain extent he still is. He was a fun guy, but he had his caring side and I am sure he would be pleased, and probably amused, that the villagers he helped in their time of need, today live in a village notable for its affluence.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Walking the Upper Dove Valley

At 9 o’clock I met up with Brian near Barracks Farm where he found a suitable place to leave his car. Despite cloud cover it was a still and surprisingly warm morning. I drove us north towards Flash, reputedly the highest village in Britain. At 463m (1,519ft) Flash hardly compares with Ushguli, but its modest claim is well attested. We left my car in a pull-off beside the A53, several hundred metres from the village but at about the same height. In this more exposed position there was a breeze with a cutting edge.

The pull-off on the A53 near Flash
We did not have to go far to find ourselves looking down on the River Dove, and only a little further to make our first navigational error; coming out from the field onto the minor road a hundred metres below where we should have been. Our detour involved stepping over an electric fence; it was not, we found, live, always good news to those of us with short legs.
Brian looks down into the Dove Valley
He is moving to Devon at the end of the month, so is he thinking
a) This is my last chance to enjoy the Peak District countryside
b) Why doesn't that prat hurry up and take the bloody photograph
c) nothing at all?
For most of its 72km the Dove [now universally pronounced to rhyme with 'love', though traditionally it rhymed with 'rove'] forms the boundary between Staffordshire and Derbyshire. At the bottom of the valley we crossed the river into the barbarian lands of Derbyshire and turned upstream through the area marked on the map as 'Dove Head'. Our path dipped to run briefly alongside the stream; clearly we had not quite reached the source, but we shrugged our shoulders and turned right up the other side of the valley. If Burton and Speke had taken that attitude with the source of the Nile, the whole history of exploration would have been different.

The source of the Dove is down there, somewhere
Over the top of the ridge we descended slightly to pick up a path contouring along the top of a valley above the oddly named Cistern's Clough which meanders its way south into the Dove. Tracing the stream back on the map it appears to be a more remote source than the official source of the Dove – I do not know what Burton and Speke would have made of that.
Cistern's Clough
Cistern’s Clough wandered off to the east and after a couple of pauses to study the map we found our way to Howe Green, where they have some fine Highland cattle.
Howe Green stands on the base of a triangle of high ground between the Dove and Cistern’s Clough, now wandering back westwards . Our intended path was along the top of the narrow valley of the Dove, avoiding the track that drops into it, and meeting above the confluence with a path along the top of Cistern's Clough. We could not locate the right path, but while we paused, considered the map, walked on, paused again, reconsidered the map and walked on again (and repeat), we had time to notice that the meadow was carpeted with wildflowers.

Wildflowers, Howe Green
Eventually we stumbled upon a post with arrows pointing down the paths along the top of either valley, neither of which we had been on, and a third pointing down towards the confluence. It was a steep little descent to where Cistern’s Clough joined the Dove – though the tributary looked the larger of the two streams.

Starting down to the confluence
We turned south down the left bank of the combined stream. Having lost so much height so quickly, the path’s determined climb back up the valley side was a tad irritating.

Where Cistern's Clough (right) meets the River Dove
Eventually we reached an old road that runs down into the valley from Booth Farm, heading for the minor road to Hollinsclough. Well-made and of some antiquity, presumably a drovers' road, it descends to the river and crosses it on a fine old bridge. A modern road sign warns that the road is limited to vehicles less than 1.8 metres wide, so it is still in use, if only by quadbikes (in theory a Peugeot 208 would just fit - without its wing mirrors - but I have no intention of checking this out).

Looking back up the old road from Booth Farm
Now back in Staffordshire we followed the path along the valley side, or attempted to. It kept on petering out, and then reappearing twenty metres above or below us. When we set off I had thought that we might reach Hollinsclough too early for coffee but the village seemed to retreat down the road as we approached, and we finally arrived at midday. We had taken much longer than we expected, mainly because of the time we had spent standing in fields pondering which way to walk.
The old road crosses the Dove
I wrote about Hollinsclough on the Crowdecote walk, so all I will say here is that it once used to be a much larger village where people worked on silk weaving, sending their produce over the hill to Macclesfield. The village was also important in early Methodism; the Methodist church still functions and the church hall kindly provides a bench for wanderers to sit and drink their coffee. Down in the sheltered valley it was warm, and the sun even put in a brief appearance.

The Methodist Chapel, Hollinsclough (photographed March 2013) 
Crowdecote is 4km from Hollinsclough, and as we intended to have lunch in the Pack Horse at Crowdecote we did not linger over coffee. Fortunately our onward path was largely level and presented few navigational problems. As the Dove approaches Hollinsclough the valley widens considerably and we set off across it to re-find the river. Ahead of us was the jagged outline of Chrome hill and the strange triangle of Parkhouse Hill, the remains of a tropical reef formed before shifting tectonic plates put this piece of land at its current height and latitude.

Across the Dove Valley towards Parkhouse Hill
We again crossed the Dove – we chose the footbridge rather than the ford – and back in Derbyshire we followed the flat bottom of the valley all the way to Crowdecote. On Cowpat 6: Crowdecote we climbed Hitter Hill en route, but as we were late we carried straight on down the valley, completing the 4 km in an hour.
Alison faces the footbridge/ford decision in  Cowpat 6, March 2013
I like the Pack Horse Inn at Crowdecote, indeed I wrote a whole post on their pies. Today's pie was chicken and mushroom, but as Mick the landlord admitted, they are filling, so we settled for 'light bite 'gammon steaks and a couple of pints of the Cottage Brewing Company’s ‘Sunset’. The brewery (in Castle Cary, Somerset) calls it 'a golden summer ale...with cascade and nugget hops...a refreshing, easy drinking session ale.' I was thirsty, it had been a warm morning, particularly marching along the flat valley bottom, and the beer winked seductively at me through the condensation on the glass – the first pint disappeared quickly. I can thoroughly recommend CBC’s Sunset; it is a beer that hits a spot and keeps hitting it most pleasantly.

The Pack Horse Inn, Crowdecote (photographed Feb 2012)
In the afternoon we continued along the grassy valley to Pilsbury Castle, an earthwork sitting on a natural rocky promontory. A motte and two baileys were built in Norman times either to control the area after the 'Harrowing of the North' (1069-70), or during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda (1135-54). Either way, the function of the castle is obscure – why guard the upper section of a remote valley which goes nowhere? Despite its apparent uselessness, its doubly tautological name (pils being a Celtic word for fortified place, bury being Saxon for the same thing) suggests ‘Castlecastle Castle’ might have pre-Norman origins. The setting was pleasant on a summer’s day, but in winter it is the sort of place only a madman would care enough about to defend.
Pilsbury Castle and a look back down the Dove Valley
At the castle the path climbs up the valley side, giving good views of where we had been, before continuing along the flat(ish) top.

Along the rim of the Dove Valley
To the south the valley widens and the river wanders off to the west, leaving us deep inside Derbyshire – an experience not for the faint hearted. After a couple of kilometres along the valley’s grass rim we hit the minor road that descends into Hartington. With its village green, duck pond, ....

Hartington Village Green
There were too many parked cars around the green to get a proper photo, but this is what it looked when Francis (not on this walk) and Brian sat beside it in Feb 2012 (no tourists in Feb!)
 ....mellow grey stone buildings, hanging baskets and flower filled gardens, Hartington is the classic Peak District village and was appropriately full of tourists. Despite its apparent size - and its industry (cheese making) - Hartington has fewer than 400 permanent inhabitants. Brian headed straight for the ice cream shop, an idea so brilliant I would have liked to claim it as mine. Bradwell's ice cream has been made in the village of that name some 25 kilometres to the north for over a century, and a scoop of their cherry-bakewell flavoured ice cream was (almost) as good as a pint of Sunset ale.
Hartington in more summer-y mode
Continuing south from Hartington we descended gently across a limestone plateau....

South of Hartington
 and then entered an area of deciduous woodland; a sign said it was planted in the early 1990s, though it already looks splendidly mature. We re-met the river after its westward wander at the mouth of Beresford Dale where we crossed a bridge back into Staffordshire and civilisation. After flowing down an ever widening valley, the Dove changes character and dives into a series of narrow limestone canyons on its way to the prime tourist spot of Dovedale.  Beresford Dale, the darkest and narrowest of these defiles, is less than a kilometre long, and at its end, just before it transforms into Wolfscote Dale, we turned up the lane towards Barracks Farm and Brian’s car.
The River Dove in Beresford Dale
We finished about 5.30, later than intended, but a long morning had required careful navigation. Sunshine had been only an occasional visitor, but it had been a pleasant day and as warm as you want for walking. On our way back to Flash Brian regretted that we had ventured out on fewer such walks since retirement than he had hoped, and with his imminent removal to Devon there would now be even fewer opportunities. He was right, getting together during busy retirements has proved harder than expected, but I have photographic records over the last 7 years of 19 such walk (though previously only The Limestone Link has been on the blog), not to mention Cowpats, Chip Walks, the annual South West Odyssey, and several more outings of which there is no record.
This was a good walk to finish a chapter, but there will be more…..

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Debar and back to Skopje: Part 15 of The Balkans

On our last full day in Macedonia we had to return from Ohrid to Skopje, but with no time pressure we chose the scenic route, along the valley of the Crna Drin to Debar and then through the Mavrovo National Park.

This time we took the main road to Struga before turning north up the river valley. North of the lake the land is flat, mainly agricultural though we saw a couple of small factories and some heavier industry. The intense development along the roadside included many new houses and a large hotel, though the area had few obvious attractions.

Further north the valley narrowed and became much prettier. We followed the corridor of land between the river on our right and a range of hills on our left, their summits marking the Albanian border.

In this post we travel from Ohrid to Debar and then to Skopje
After 25km the valley widened where the town of Debar sits above a small lake. From a distance Debar looked more eastern than other Macedonian towns, reflecting its overwhelmingly Muslim population. Three quarters of its 14,000 citizens are ethnic Albanians, which is unsurprising given its location but in every other city in the country Macedonians are either the largest or second largest ethnic group; here they are outnumbered not just by Albanians, but also both Turks and Roma.

It was coffee time so, eschewing the by-pass, we drove into town. The centre was busy and traffic disrupted by the work of turning the main shopping street into a pedestrian precinct.

Central Debar
We managed to park and took a short stroll. The prominent statue is of Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero. In 1440 he was appointed the Ottoman Sanjakabey (military and administrative commander) of Debar district. Rebelling in 1443 he spent the next twenty-five years leading a largely itinerant army of 10,000 Albanians, Slavs and Greeks to a series of unlikely victories over the Ottomans. He never succeeded in setting up a viable Albanian state, but his actions seriously impeded Ottoman plans to expand into Europe.
Skanderbeg, Debar

We drank our coffee on a terrace overlooking, if not the town's main square, at least its largest traffic intersection. Lynne was not quite the only woman but, as usual in Muslim areas, the clientele was overwhelmingly male. They were, by and large, the sort of elderly men who have the time to sit drinking coffee on a working day – just like me. It was good coffee and very cheap (30denar - 35p), as is often the case away from tourist centres.
Lynne has coffee, Debar
We continued north through the Mavrovo National Park following the valley of the River Radika which flows southwards from Mavrovo Lake to Debar Lake and thence into the Crna Drin.
Village in the Mavrovo National Park
After a few kilometres we detoured up the valley side to the monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski (St John the Baptist).

From the higher ground on a hot sunny day we had a fine view across the valley where, despite the heat the mountain tops were still streaked with snow. We were about to enter a Christian monastery, but judging by the minarets the villages on the far side were mainly Muslim.
Village across the Radika Valley from Sv Jovan Bigorski
As we walked up the drive to the monastery we were accosted by the guardian who collected the entrance fee and ensured we were properly dressed. Apparently my shorts were acceptable, but Lynne’s long trousers were not, so he provided a wrap-around skirt.

The monastery was founded in 1020 by Ivan I Debranin (John of Debar) who had been a bishop under Car Samoil (see Ohrid post), but accepted the post of Archbishop of Ohrid after Samoil’s Bulgarian Empire fell to the Byzantines (no distinction between Bulgarian and Macedonian existed between the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century and the mid-20th century). The monastery was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century but restored two hundred years later and vastly expanded in the 19th century. Sadly many of the older buildings were lost in a fire in 2009, though much else survived. The monastery has a church, a traditional priest’s tower, exactly like the tower we had seen at the Popovo Kula (Priest's Tower!) Winery and monk’s dwellings.

Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
Outside the church is a cherrywood cannon. In the April Uprising of 1876 the Bulgarians attempted to throw off the Ottoman yoke and, being short of conventional materials, resorted to constructing cannons from cherrywood. Although the first to be fired (predictably) killed the gunner but no-one else, this did not deter the manufacture of many more though few were ever fired - and even fewer were fired twice. They became symbolic of the heroic but doomed uprising and were subsequently incorporated into several civic coats of arms and parked outside places of national importance like Sv Jovan Bigorski.

Cherrywood cannon, Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
There are impressive, though recent, frescoes in the church portico (where photography is permitted) and inside the church (where it isn’t). Various relics have also survived include fragments of the True Cross and body parts of John the Baptist, Lazarus and various other saints, some well-known, others deeply obscure. It is wondrous how these things have been neither lost nor damaged. Holy icons (including one with mystic healing powers) have also miraculously reappeared after being destroyed in fires or when the monastery was sacked.
Frescoes in the portico, Sveti Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
You may believe what you wish about these, but inside, behind the relics and the icons is a magnificent 19th rood screen carved by masters Makarie Frckovski and the brothers Petre and Marko Filipovski. Three of their fabulously ornate and detailed screens survive and we had seen another at Sveti Spas in Skopje. There is a photo of that in the Skopje post, though it is not mine, there as here I was too closely watched by those policing the no photos policy.

Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
Returning Lynne's borrowed skirt we continued up the valley pausing for a picnic lunch by Mavrovo Lake. Then we left the national park and found our way to the Mother Teresa Motorway (yes, really!) which took us back to Skopje. We re-entered the city by the same route as we had left it a week before, found our way back to the same hotel and parked the car roughly where the hire company rep had parked it in a ‘dead end’ beside the hotel.
I parked the car where the green Volkswagen is in this picture
It was a hot day, and after checking-in a cold beer seemed appropriate so we strolled back down the 'dead end' road to a café.

We had been sitting on the café’s deck behind a low hedge for some twenty minutes when I saw a white car moving down the road. ‘That’s a white Chevrolet like ours,’ I said to Lynne as I realised it was on the back of a truck. Even when I noticed it had a small dent on the passenger door 'just like ours' I did not immediately twig that it actually was ours and it was being taken away by the parking authorities.

Back at the hotel the receptionist suggested that we should have put it in the underground car park. ‘What underground car park?’ I asked. They had not told us about it as they had not known we had arrived by car, I had not asked about it as I could not see anything wrong with where I was parked - and the car had sat there for 24 hours a week ago without problem. It was, apparently, something to do with resident’s permits, and there was a sign on a lamppost, not an international No Parking sign, but a written notice in Macedonian. Ignorance, of course is no excuse, but in my defence I could point out that the sign over what I subsequently learned was the underground car park does not mention the hotel - the unlikely named 'Hotel Duvet Centre'.

The underground car park
Now where does it say anything about the Hotel Duvet Centre?
The reception team were helpful. They phoned the authorities, found out where the car was, did some special pleading so we only had to pay the £35 towing fee and not the fine and then called a cab.

The pound was not far away, under the railway arches by the station. As we arrived the clouds that had been gathering since we arrived in Skopje decided to spoil what had hitherto been a perfect summer day by unleashing a downpour. Retrieving the car was as painless as handing over that much money can be and we drove back to the hotel. This time I did put it in the car park. Behind those gates is a creaky lift which takes car and driver to a subterranean vault in which the hotel had half a dozen marked spaces. Well who knew that?

Later we went out (on foot) for out last Macedonian dinner and last bottle of Vranac - I should seek out a source when I get home.


We had an afternoon flight so in the morning we decided to visit the railway station. The clock stopped at the instant of the 1967 earthquake and the station has been left as a memorial to those who died.

Lynne said there was a sign to it by mother Teresa's house, which was not far away. I pointed out that we had been there the previous day to collect the car and could walk there relatively quickly as, unlike a taxi, we would not have to detour over the river and back to avoid the pedestrianised area. It was so simple I did not even bother to look at the guide book.

After a longish walk on a hot morning we found the bus station easily enough and could see the railway station sitting on top of the embankment but could find no entrance.

Skopje Railway station
This one is not a memorial to anything
Eventually we discovered a small passageway between two ticket booths in the bus station that led into the railway station. It was largely a building site, indeed I am not sure whether it was open or if we should have been there at all, but we had a look round anyway and walked up to the empty platforms. There was no memorial, indeed nothing remarkable, except for us being entirely alone in a capital city railway station.

Pausing en route for a riverside coffee we trailed back to the hotel. Only then did I look at the guide book and discover that Skopje's old station, the earthquake memorial, was somewhere else entirely; the railway does not even go there anymore. Lynne’s words were a little harsh – but justifiably so.
Riverside walk and the Archeological Museum, Skopje
After a light lunch we drove to the airport. Despite the poor sign-posting, driving in Macedonia had been easy, indeed a pleasure, as there was so little traffic. This does not apply to central Skopje, which is busy, though the quality of sign-posting is no better. Signs that did exist were often late and required last minute manoeuvring across several lanes of fast moving traffic.

By luck or skill we reached the airport without mishap and toured around looking for the car hire garages. With the aid of a friendly policeman we realised there were no garages, just offices inside the terminal. Lynne went in while I sat in the car - I had no intention of being towed away twice. Failing to find the relevant office she asked the nice man at the Sixt desk. Our company’s only office was in the city centre, he told her but kindly offered to phone them. ‘No problem,’ said the woman on the phone. ‘Leave the car unlocked in the main car park, and place the keys in the boot.’ And so we did. I presume we would have heard if it had been stolen.

Despite the minor problems at the end we really enjoyed our first trip to Macedonia and second to the Balkans. I finished the final Croatia post three years ago by saying it was a region we hoped to return to. I finish this post with the same feeling.