While under most circumstances it is traditional to greet the Black Sea for the first time with a hearty cry of “thalassa!”, it is difficult to muster the requisite enthusiasm when you first glimpse it at 4 in the morning when your bus has been delayed at the Turkish border owing to the presence in the luggage compartment of rather more cigarettes than might reasonably be regarded as acceptable for private use even by Georgians. The rain drizzled gently and persistently, my fellow passengers gloomily smoked their way through their remaining unconfiscated cigarettes, and the mist rolled down from the mountains and obliterated any view of the sea. It was all rather a long way from Xenophon.
Macedonia had a lot of hype to live up to, but I knew things were going to be all right when I heard about the miracle. Inside the church of St Demtrius in the old town of Skopje, the frescoes of the saints and martyrs, darkened by decades of candle-smoke, had suddenly brightened over the weekend of Palm Sunday, the haloes of the saints shining as brightly as the day they were painted. Squeezed into the back of the church behind hundreds of the devout and the curious, I can attest that the haloes were certainly very shiny, although not having any basis for comparison I couldn’t really say as to whether they were any brighter than usual. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help approving of the thoroughly practical nature of this miracle, so much less messy than statues weeping blood and more useful than pictures in your toast, which is the kind of thing my church tends to turn up. If even the unpreposessing building site of central Skopje could muster up a bona fide miracle, then surely Ohrid would be able to provide something spectacular for Easter.
The thing I regretted most about my work in Ethiopia (give or take a bacterium or two) was that I didn’t have any time to properly explore the massive amount of architectural and arcahelogical goodies that are so thick on the ground in the north of the country. Sadly, in spite of my initial enthusiastic planning, fieldwork did not turn out to be a synonym for “six week holiday” and my architectural investigations were generally limited to attempts to determine the precise location of the leak in the ceiling of my hotel room. In desperation, I did manage to sneak away from a climate change conference in Bahir Dar to see what might be offered by the “Ethiopian Riviera” and neighbouring Lake Tana, and managed to be a tourist for a couple of days.
Almaty is not the most picturesque of towns, but the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Panfilov Park is pretty impressive. Apparently it’s entirely buit of wood, right down to the nails.