People like different places for unique and often indefinable reasons. Most essentially, the places we like are places that make us feel good in some way.
Places Where I Can Write.
This is obvious. A writer wants to be in a place where he feels concentrated and inspired to write.
Everyone has their own preferences. I don’t like being in big cities or in ‘regular’ houses. Places by the water are ideal. I did some of the best writing of my life in Southern Crete, where the wind blasts out of jagged gorges and out over the sea. This wind also chases away the mosquitoes and sparkles the olive leaves silver, but if you position the candle to a providential angle it won’t be extinguished and you can work.
Read an article by Chris Deliso on Southern Crete here, or read up on the 2012 Lonely Planet guide to Crete here
Another good place for writing, which has a similarly wild aspect but an altogether different climate, is the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Barren and open to a great spreading sky, it is elemental and the stars at night do not fail. Here you can write on a bluff and wrap up in a cozy pub with dependable wood decor and haunting live music in the background.
Finally, although I start to feel sick when reading on a bus, writing on bus trips is effortless. You can’t get off or move around and the road moves and hums with you. Other people sleep or have their devices to play with or mutter in foreign languages. But it seems very few people anymore carry paper, except for the ticket, which makes opening a small notebook and black pen almost like discovering a wonderful secret.
I like all kinds of restaurants, but places specializing in seafood are especially intriguing. No other kind of restaurant is so associated with deception or potential deception: will they tell you, honestly, if it’s frozen or fresh? Is the listed menu price per kilo or portion, and should you fear not accompanying the waiter to the scale? What was the name of that fish in English again? Finally (as those old enough to remember John Candy comically arguing over his lobster in Summer Rental), there’s an almost aristocratic association with seafood spots. Special slender knives and swiveling cracking implements, de-boning techniques and cautionary wet-naps like they hand out on an airplane. Yes, there’s no restaurant requiring as much skill or causing as much anxiety as a fish joint.
I have been to so many excellent seafood restaurants that it seems unfair to list just a few. Nevertheless, that’s what I’ll do. For atmosphere it’s hard to beat Terzi Mustafa in Gündoğan, a village set around a gentle bay on Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula. The restaurant’s few tables are set in near-darkness on the sand, with the only sound coming from the lapping waves. In the somewhat busier Sarti village, near the eastern end of Greece’s Sithonian Peninsula, another waterfront establishment, Kivotos, is remarkable for its very kind service and excellent fresh fish. Proving that even inland tavernas can remain in contention, the family-run Taverna Georgios Hapsos in the backstreets of Florina, in northern Greece, serves both local lake fish and seafood brought in regularly from the port cities.
Tip: the Fournoi Archipelago has Greece’s best lobster, while the protected island of Alonnisos in the Sporades has an excellent range of fresh fish- try the little tavernas of the more remote hamlets, like Steni Vala.
B-List Historical Sites
The most-visited historic and archaeological sites are usually popular for good reason- but do you ever feel like they’re not only too busy, but also too shiny and too desperate to inform, too?
That’s why I naturally gravitate towards the lesser-visited sites, enjoying the historic vibe minus the crowds. These days you would have to be very lucky to stumble across a completely unknown site, but there are plenty of places that while not completely off the radar, still see relatively few guests. Some of these places, like stark ancient Sagalassos in Turkey, are harder to get to, up a winding mountain road but still with some signs of activity and placards. Others, like the ruined Byzantine fortress of 6th-century Emperor Justinian, near the village of Konjuh in Macedonia, are still known only to a few.
Read an article by Chris Deliso about the lost fortress of Justinian here
Tip: at historic sites and places, beware of frauds- outside one of Turkey’s most famous ancient sites, Ephesus, you may be offered ‘ancient coins’ for a great price- except they’re fakes. The same cases have been reported in antiques shops in Skopje, Macedonia and elsewhere in the region. In any case, buying such antiquities is illegal so don’t get involved!
There’s nothing like a good watering hole to elevate your enthusiasm for life.
For me, the best ones are the most eclectic- either for their decor, personalities, service or music. In a part of the world where so many are fairly identical, it’s good that there are some special places out there.
Although I generally only want to hear music that has been played by real people, sometimes I will put up with this modern electronic junk if the rest of the scene is interesting.
There are many places the names, even locations of which are now forgotten. The most mysterious one I have seen was across the boulevard out in the avenues of San Francisco many years ago late at night; there was just the dark silhouette of an old man hunched over the bar, no one else in there. That image has stuck.
Among the places I have visited fairly recently which are good fun you can try the eccentrically-decorated Scârţ loc lejer bar in Timisoara, Romania, or bare-bones, rock-friendly Naylona in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Around Valaoritou Street (the ever-popular student hotspot of Thessaloniki, Greece), there are many bars the most popular currently being La Doze, which has a staggering range of cocktails and a truly varied crowd.
In Turkey, the venerable Cafe Del Mundo is a truly international place with travel decor that has recently spread from its base in Eskisehir to open locations in other Turkish cities.
Macedonia’s southern central border area with Greece, under the looming Mt Kajmakcalan, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and rugged parts of the country. Once it had prosperous villages but the turbulence of wars a century ago and modernization have largely depopulated them.
Along with the wild nature, crystal-clear rivers and animal life, the sprawling region has untapped riches, in its unique oral histories and many legends associated with it (the beloved Macedonian fictional folk-humor character ‘Itar Pejo’ comes from here).
I once met a shepherd in the remote places who remembered having drunk one such bottle “twenty years ago.” He added that “it was great,” happily unaware of what some would pay for it.
The stories from Mariovo constitute its greatest treasure. You can hear everything, like tales of villages where an occasional black child was born (from African colonial soldiers in the French ranks), of a place where everyone caught syphilis and went mad. It had started from the foreign troops, said the only living survivor.
Mariovo sprawls, and is bordered by Mt Kozuf and its wilds in the Gevgelija region to the east, and to the west and north are the large towns of Bitola and Prilep, respectively. That is why there are two main entrances to the area and why it is distinguished as Bitolsko and Prilepsko Mariovo.
“Weird cratered hills rise like gravestones out of the mists, studded with pink quartz, granite and shale”
-excerpt from Chris Deliso’s ‘Magical Mariovo’ text, in the 2009 Lonely Planet Western Balkans guide.
Irregular Peninsulas and Bays
I enjoyed tracing them, or inventing the ones existing on as-yet-unknown continents. The coast of Norway, with its elliptical fjords, was a particular favorite amongst the known ones, and with it there are of course similarities with the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, with its own fjords, pictured here on the right side.
A lengthy afterthought of Anatolia, the Daça Peninsula in Turkey has spots for lazing and ancient ruins at its tip. Probably the most famous peninsula in Greece is Halkidiki, with its three distinct fingers reaching into the sea. But there is a certain relativity to peninsulas that make all of them seem irregular: the Balkan itself, after all, is considered a peninsula, while much of it is fatally landlocked, though its Black Sea countries are not considered peninsulas, though they clearly offer slivers of detachment and small promontories in places, such as Pomorie in Bulgaria or Sinop in Turkey, though the latter is technically Asiatic; nevertheless, dead north of it on the opposite shore, the undeniable and historic peninsula of Crimea in Ukraine is European.
Everything has already been said to exalt it. Everyone has always been amazed by it. And every day it is changing. Istanbul, perhaps, is suffering a fatigue brought on by too much ekphrasis. At least I get fatigued thinking about describing it. Yet Istanbul is always Istanbul, whether or not the earthquake should come.
Istanbul is a city where you can see absolutely every human drama played out every day, a place where people come for seminal experiences but not always in the Bangkok way. The hard maritime breezes and seagulls’ cawing keeps it from getting truly desperate, though there is the obligatory squalor.
And it is true, there is purposeful industriousness everywhere all the time, from the public transport to the lads selling mussels or corn or carrying huge packages. Istanbul is a city where business always seems left unfinished and where you expect to come back to someday.
Read Chris Deliso’s ‘Memories of Istanbul’ here.
If you do not come from Europe, its squares immediately stand out, though people often do not grasp the concepts behind their existence. This is an issue of civilization and preferences and ideas of what public space should be good at.
Squares are where you can see those things most connected with a city and those that are temporary, all in one place. There are military parades and political rallies and vendors or jugglers or musicians from a world away. There are always tasty aromas from the cafes and bakeshops and sometimes from restaurants.
When Bob Dylan sings ‘I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry, and live my life on the square,’ he is intimating a more distant exodus to a timeless place, or at least one that obscures temporality and the narrative dimension of life from which emotional pain derives.
In other words, it’s soothing, even therapeutic to savor an espresso or sip a beer while watching the panoply of passing life and quotidian pleasures pass. The immortal grandeur of the old-world square is only enhanced by the presence of accordions and extended flowers that no one wants to buy.
Read Chris Deliso’s “Hip To Be Square” (.PDF), published in the official magazine of Malaysian Airlines, Going Places.
For me, there is nothing better than swimming and that is where beaches come in. I am not one of those ‘umbrella snobs’ who considers as inferior those who want or need to stay out of the sun. I do the same when it is possible, more often under a tree or the shade of a cavern as I don’t like to take money to the beach.
There are far too many excellent beaches to list in this short space so I will just cite a few.
More important than the actual beach for me, therefore, is the entry and underwater architecture around it. No need to hurt your feet or get caught up in anything there. This is why beaches like the white-stone one at Trpejca village on Lake Ohrid, Macedonia are so attractive: the water is very clear and deep after a sort time and you have definite coves and corners to aim for downstream. Locals might warn you that you will die of the currents but that’s not true.
Similarly adorned with some pebbles. the famous Seychelles beach on Ikaria in Greece features tranquil aquamarine seas in a small cove. The fine sands of Elafonnisi and Balos in Crete are complemented by extraordinary waters. On the southern part of the island, the lengthy beach at Plakias has more development but I know its corners and undersea layout very well.
If you cross the goat paths and keep walking through the scrub to the end on the islet of Arki, near Patmos, there is a cove with waters so translucent that the deep bottom seems deceptively close. You will probably have it to yourself.
As we have seen in various countries, death is more certain on trains that go fast. That is not the only reason I prefer the old and unimproved ones. The latter also go on less visited routes but even n the most isolated of hamlets where there is a stop there is also a solitary conductor in a red cap, doing his part to make sure that all is well in the world.
The low screech of brakes, the metallic smell of the windows people fear to open, the smoky compartments seating six, drowsy villagers with coats and nylon sacks, the trucks’ sustained rumble and long empty stretches of farmland, vineyards, rivers – and yes, even stops in the middle of nowhere where the fishermen in military surplus gear dismount and disappear towards the water – all of these make it so sad for me to hear the occasional announcements about government pledges for the trains’ improvement.
Read a (now, historic) article by Chris Deliso about the Skopje-Thessaloniki train here.
Tip: keep an eye out for lingering brick Nazi-occupation pillboxes along the train line in south Serbia and near Demir Kapija in Macedonia– they’re marked by unexpected swastikas.
Tip: In Bulgaria, try the narrow-gauge train from Bansko to Septemvri. It is a relaxing and in some parts stunning trip up through the mountains in a lovingly preserved classic train. From Septemvri, you can connect with Sofia to the west or Plovdiv to the east.
This is an old city and it has been very important to me. That’s bound to happen to anyone who visits a certain place over one hundred times. As such it is impossible to be objective about it but it is still easy for me to get lost there. People laugh when they hear that because after all, I’m the one who is supposed to be making the maps!
It is not all my fault, though. Thessaloniki gives you that false sense of security because it runs parallel with the warm gulf and so you often don’t account for the small winding streets. But you always get to where you are going in the end. Somehow, now matter how hard I try not to, I always end up walking for too much here, even when I’m not lost.
Thessaloniki is prevented from being a typical Balkan city only by its refreshing sea breeze and the brutal 20th century’s ethnic deportations. Still, it seems to be a place where people always come back to, and from where great journeys commence.
The restaurants and bar scene is still on the rise and there is a palpable sense of something happening, though the lack of sheer volume compared to a larger city like Istanbul will prevent it from reaching a point of global notoriety, which is just as well. Still, you can hear rock bands practicing up above, in dingy old office buildings at night, and see cats fed by anarchists and tourists clutter the historic sites.
Some things have changed but many stay the same and even on Tsimiski, where the economic crisis has forced many fancy shopspaces to go up for rent, the city has out of dignity obscured their windows with long black-and-white shots of old Salonica, unlike the great stretches of graffiti on the metal barricaded closed enterprises elsewhere.
Read a 2006 article by Chris Deliso on Thessaloniki here.
Tip: I have prepared a lot of new and useful information on Thessaloniki’s eating, drinking and nightlife scene- it will be available when Lonely Planet’s new guide to Greece comes out in spring 2014.
Monks are always popular because they practice their religion without ramming it down the throats of other people. Even better, then, that they inhabit monasteries- organized places kept away from society. They do set a certain example. If you have any doubt about this contention just consider how the Western world perceives Buddhism compared to certain other world faiths.
I have been to enough monasteries over the years to understand something about the life and I greatly admire the discipline that goes into it. I myself have discipline, but for limited times and practices. They have to have it all the time. I have often heard people scoff and say, ‘it’s easy for them, they don’t have to worry about money or work,’ but I have never seen one of these people try to life the monastic lifestyle. In the Balkans in recent years, monks have gotten a bad rap for alleged corruption and financial dealings but even if some of these are true, there is still an essential concept that many of them still stick to. You can go for yourself and decide.
With so much to see, it is hard to make any definitive list. But don’t miss the Bucovina Painted Monasteries in northern Romania. Five centuries old, they are heavily painted on outside and in; there is a remarkable difference in fresco preservation between the sides that take the brunt of the wind and the snow and the sides that are more sheltered. The only thing more vivid than the frescoes is the occasional graffiti carved into them. One in particular was frightening in its immediacy; that inscribed by a Germanic occupying soldier carving his name in the wall in 1914. It looked identical to other ones scrawled in more recent years.
Less visited monasteries are often worth the extra effort to get to. That goes for Zrze Monastery, up a mountain between Prilep and Makedonski Brod in Macedonia. This ancient place is known for a wonder-working icon (most places have at least one) and has fantastic views over the long Pelagonian Plain. When there are heavy clouds below it is like a marble sea.
People flock to Meteora in Greece, making it now a bit precious. For all of its current problems, though, Mt Athos is still the best place to go for the tranquility of its nature, severity of its services and inspired ascetics (if you know where to find them).
I have been thinking about the concept of obscurity and it seems to harmonize well with the existence of settlements that are indistinct. They remain in that state either because you haven’t been to them or because nobody knows them or talks about them. This does not mean simply places that are small; I know many small towns or villages that are not obscure, but are actually disproportionately known because of some infamy that took place there or some possession they have.
Does the very act of going to obscure settlements eliminate their obscurity (at least for the viewer)? Maybe, but this is not clear. It is more likely to become the case if you talk about them. So I will stop here.