Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Accidental Pilgrims in the Balkans

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Accidental Pilgrims in the Balkans

Jingjing and I at the Chapel of the Mother Teresa House in Skopje, Macedonia
Sometimes we visit a place because we long to see it. Sometimes we go because of a whim. I went to the Balkans for practical reasons. Jingjing, the PR strategist who helped launch my book in the Philippines, was waiting to take me up on my promise of a break.  And this cheapskate found a promo that offered a week at the Balkan Jewel Resort for unbelievably few timeshare points.

There were pros and cons. October (2015) would be cold for women from the tropics. My husband could not go. And, Balkan countries are among the least visited in Europe. Still, Jingjing wanted to go; it'll add to her goal of 65 countries by the time she’s 65 in 2018. At 67, I needed catching up with just 45. And, it would be off the beaten path, curiosity at a low price.

the views from our windows
Jingjing arrived in Sofia from Manila an hour earlier and found the hotel driver who had a sign bearing my name. Her trademark smile warmly greeted my arrival from Phoenix. Midway on the two-hour drive to Razlog, we asked for a food stop. Our driver fidgeted, “No English.” Luckily, out of nowhere, the McDonalds’ arches appeared like a double rainbow with a pot of burgers more precious than gold.

We were pleasantly surprised that our studio was more like a suite. But it was in the morning when views from our windows completely blew us away. They were of the postcard-pretty Pirin Mountains bathed in the splendor of fall. The bountiful brunch buffet led us to where jovial locals boisterously babbled all morning. Then we splashed at the indoor pool and tried the exotic ceramic spa lounge chairs.
sheep on the road to Bansko

Razlog is a ski resort area and Bansko, only seven minutes away, is a cultural city. The duo is Bulgarians’ winter destination of choice. When a shuttle brought us to downtown Bansko, the only traffic we encountered was a large herd of cute sheep with round butts. With just animated gestures and without words, Driver#2 led us to the town’s pride, the Holy Trinity Church.

Holy Trinity Church in Bansko, Bulgaria
The Eastern Orthodox Church looked small from the outside. They built it sunken below the ground to deflect Turkish imperialist ambition. Inside, the smell of centuries-old white fir was distinctive. The wooden-framed church was a masterpiece, richly colored and decorated like no church I have ever seen before. It looked more like a festive Eastern Opera House just before its grand opening. There were brilliant frescoes, twelve radiant pillars (for the Apostles) and an altar-piece of glittering icons.

I didn’t expect Jingjing’s reaction, “I wonder where we can find a Catholic church.” In a week of rest, she yearned for a familiar place of worship. Alas, it would
not be in nearby Sofia or Plovdiv. We searched the Web that night and found that Mother Teresa, who would soon brightly a saint (11 months later), was an Albanian. She was born in Skopje (when it was still part of Yugoslavia) 3 ½ hours away! Always up for an adventure, Jingjing cried, “Taralets,” Tagalog colloquialism for “Let’s go!”

the countryside on the road to Macedonia
The Resort arranged an inexpensive taxi ride for us. Alas, Driver #3 also spoke no English, so we were left with admiring Bulgarian hillsides that turned into huge canvasses of fall’s palette. As we approached Macedonia, it became greener even if those black poplars, standing tall and elegant in rows, had shed their leaves.  Our driver breezed through the border. Balkan languages seem to have a lot in common.

When we checked in at Ibis Skopje, everyone spoke English! “Are you interested in a small church another 1 ½ hours away in Letnica, Kosovo?” the receptionist asked. Also part of Yugoslavia at the time, it was where Mother Teresa’s mother brought her when she was just 17. There she heard her calling to serve the poorest of the poor. Jingjing was like a kid just told she was going to Disney. Of course, there were another excited "Taralets!" Good thing the taxi ride was also inexpensive.

new identical homes and vestiges of war in Kosovo
We had an hour to spare and hurried to the Mother Teresa Memorial House some blocks away. They built it on the grounds of the church of her baptism, the day she recognizes as her birthday, a day after she was born. At the Chapel, her photo was at the center of floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall glass windows laced with intricate ironworks. Natural light streamed through, enveloping us in delicate shadows. We were in awe, and silent prayer became our only conversation. At the House, we posed by her childhood bed and imagined her veined wrinkled hand writing those loving letters from Calcutta. What an enormous contribution the Balkans gave to the world!

Back at the hotel, a muscular middle-aged man was waiting for us. We were dumbfounded when he asked, “My name is Draghi. May I ask why are you going to Letnica?” Driver #4 spoke incredibly good English! He deftly handled the strict scrutiny at the border checkpoint. Kosovo remains a disputed territory even after her declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 upon the dissolution of Yugoslavia. A sad Draghi told us the horrific story as we made our way through war-torn villages: “Look at what the war did. There’s another skeleton of a house. See those writings on the walls.” The Kosovo War left over ten thousand dead and over a million displaced.

Then he slowed down to show us a large embankment perpendicular to the road, painted with a map. “Kosovo is Little Albania; ninety percent Albanian,” he said. “But they are Kosovar Albanians who wanted to be a separate country.” With a Muslim majority, there were many mosques. But it was the identical houses, in pairs, trios, even fives, that caught our interest. “It is a tradition of regular familial reunions. Brothers live side by side, in exact looking homes," he explained.

Jingjing and I ar the Church of the Black Madonna in Letnica, Kosovo

Millenium Cross at night in Skopje, Macedonia
In no time, we reached Letnica, a semi-deserted hamlet of a handful of households. Every August, it comes alive as thousands of people, including Croats returning to homes they had abandoned, come to celebrate the Feast of the Black Madonna. Inside the simple white church sitting atop a hill, Mother Teresa’s unadorned photo hangs near the uncomplicated altar. Then we thought we saw her ghost and got goose bumps as an old woman, wrinkled and bent like her, hobbled her way into the church. Draghi patiently took all our photos.

By nightfall, as we were we were approaching Skopje, a cross shining brightly high up in the evening sky caused Jingjing and me to look at each other, transfixed and entranced. Draghi noticed this and excitedly drove us to a place from where we can take better pictures. My Nikon just couldn’t capture the magic. “It’s the 217-foot tall Millenium Cross,” he was proud to say, “built on top of Vodno Mountain to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity. It is the sign that unites all our faiths.”  He was right. Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, Christianity is one and the same.

Over an authentic Macedonian dinner, a fusion of Turkish and Greek tastes, Draghi suggested we continue to Nis, Serbia. "It would probably add just five hours to your trip back to Razlog, but that’s where Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, was born!” he said. We followed his suggestion, but borders between Kosovo and Serbia remain closed, so we had to go around east and north of Skopje. With Driver #3, the three-hour trip was quiet. We sorely missed Draghi's stories.

Jingjing at the Church of Constantine and Helena in Nis, Serbia
We learned that Constantine’s father was a Roman Emperor who had to marry another woman to legitimize his rule. Helena, his mother, was a consort sent away to Nis. But by the time his father died, Constantine had become a legendary warrior and was acclaimed Emperor. He converted to Christianity; History credits Helena with the guidance that led to Constantine’s great reign. For this and her acts of piety and kindness, all of Christendom later also revered her as a saint. It was good for Jingjing to know. Her real name is Elena, a single parent who raised not one son but three plus a daughter. At the newly built Church of Constantine and Helena in Nis, she found comfort.

All the way back to Razlog, we saw more glistening crosses atop hills. By week’s end, we realized we had experienced more than we had ever planned. Jingjing added four new countries to her list. I loved Balkan affordability. And Draghi is a name we will never forget.  But our final takeaway was more precious than all these. The Balkans gave new meaning to the cliche “It’s not about the destination; it’s the journey.” Our trip turned into a search for something sacred and deeply personal. We became more than tourists in the Balkans. We were accidental pilgrims. 

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