We left the once malarial infested Struma Valley and took the long road west to Lake Doiran and Macedonia. 100 years ago this part of present day Macedonia was in Serbia and we crossed the Greek border at6.00pm to find it was only 5.00pm. Although Doiran is on the same longitude as Thessaloniki, Macedonia has to be different from Greece and is therefore one hour behind Greece time. We are now one hour in front of GMT. Our hotel is the Romantique, a lovely modern hotel on the lake shore. Lake Doiran is oval shaped on a north south axis about ten miles long and three miles wide and about 30 foot deep with an abundant supply of seven species of edible fish which the men of the district fish by line keep what they need and sell the rest to local restaurants.
Our hotel is superb I have not stayed in better with very attentive staff, my room overlooks the Lake with scowling Greece, three miles away. My euro gives me 6o dinar, 500cl bottle of beer is 100 dinar, a bottle of very good local wine is 200 dinar. I was two days trying to spend €5. All our food and drink at meals is included in our tour price.
The first night dinner is in the hotel, starting with glasses of the customary Raki, then a vegetable soup followed by chicken chasseur or its Macedonian equivalent washed down with a remarkable Pinot Noir. This grape is notoriously difficult to make properly but the locals have got it off to a fine art. By now our party had gelled completely, not one person out of kilter, except for myself possibly. It is so easy to be nice and relaxed unlike the wicked witch from Turkey. A cool night in my room with a mild breeze drifting across the lake and thank the lord no mosquitoes. We are here in the mountains of southern Macedonia and they only bite in the lowlands of northern Greece.
On the morning of Day 5 the group set out for a trek through the hills and battlefields. I, who is sensitive to hill walking and even more sensitive to the idea of turning battlefields into places of celebration, stay back at the hotel to write this missive. I really enjoy sitting in the sun at the waterside, doing nothing but throw words onto paper. I am totally safe, the security forces of Macedonia, the police and the army are holding a conference in the hotel and the place is full of armed six footers, who all seem very pleasant but I keep my distance and wait for the returning walkers.
They arrive about 5.00pm, hot and thirsty but in good health, relating their experiences of the day and saying how tough the going was which confirms my original decision not to bother. Our evening meal is in the local hot spot, a fish restaurant where we sample the seven varieties of fish from the lake, its name in Macedonian is Φυκ Τακ which reads in English Fuk Tak, which is what the local fishermen must say to the management of the restaurant when offered peanuts for hard caught fish. However the courses of fish were excellent, especially the carp. Bottles of a local white wine washed the food down well.
On the far side of the lake lies Greece and the border which disects the lake is marked off by a series of buoys, men of either country cannot cross this line without fear of punishment, but with the different living standards in the two countries I am sure a little honest skulduggery goes on.
Day 6 was the same as day 5, the group went off to do harm to their bodies whilst I sat by the lake and wrote. It is now 2.30pm and my words have caught up with my experiences. I await the groups return and might just have a spot of shut-eye for an hour, It is funny when people take an interest in the Great War, some look at battles, some at campaigns, some at individual generals, some at armaments, some at aircraft. My only interest now is the Connaught Rangers. So if you draw a circle representing the war and put a dot in the circle somewhere, my concentration is the centre of that dot. I cannot get interested in campaigns and this one in Salonika has me beat. A league of nations sent possibly 750,000 men to Salonika for what I wonder. Bulgaria eventually declared war on Serbia, the powers that be decided Serbia had to be protected but in 37 months of the campaign, they just kept up a holding role keeping the Bulgarians in check. I suppose if I read more I will understand it better. I just pity poor Paddy from Connaught in the West of Ireland who enlisted in the hope of Home Rule after the war or possibly to help poor little Catholic Belgium and sitting on a bleak snow covered hillside on a December morning at Kosturino suffering from frost bite in both hands as five or six battalions of Bulgarians came rushing at him, whilst he wondered to himself “What the fucking hell am I doing here” having already said to himself 13 weeks earlier on Hill 60 in Gallipoli exactly the same thing. It would make you think.
That evening of Day 6 became interesting when Romeo, our Macedonian policeman took us to Ghevaglija, or some such town, 45 minutes drive away. It is a main line station for the north/south railway to Serbia. The newspapers and television have been telling the world that the refugees are coming out of Turkey making for this rail hub for trains heading north for Serbia and northern Europe. The town is beseiged with impoverished poor from Syria. In fact the town was like Boyle on a Tuesday night, not a soul to be seen. We had dinner in a pizza restaurant and saw more pizzas than refugees. They are now the disparu.
The pizzas were only middling, the wine so so and nowhere near as good as the night before. I was glad to be back at the hotel and early to bed and a good night’s sleep. This refugee situation although I do agree is sad for those on that trail as been blown out of all proportion by the hacks and photographers looking for a story
Today the party have gone to Kosturino, a hillside where the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers took an awful pasting on 7th December 1915. 900 men against 5000 Bugarians equipped with modern German artillery pieces. OF my travelling companion will lay a plaque at the hut which was 10th Irish Division HQ in 1915 and which they are turning into a museum The Higgins family in Boyle have given him a set of rosary beads to lay at the spot where there uncle Corporal Patrick Higgins 4354 was killed. Patrick and his brotjher Joseph were in the 4th Battalion Special Reserve before the war and came out in a draft in September 1915 after Gallipoli. They were two sons of Martin and Bridget Higgins of Carrick Road, Boyle, Co Roscommon and their modern day families populate the town of Boyle today as well as parts of Lancashire and America.
It is a lovely morning here sitting on the terrace of the hotel looking out over the lake, the sun spilling its 22C on everything. The only cloud is over in Greece on the mountains surrounding that side of the lake. We have been here four days now and I have not seen the top of those hills once, the clouds providing a permanent cover. Possibly the Lord’s intervention on a stricken country.
Doiran really is a marvellous town if all you want to do is nothing, write and stroll. I have been told to look at an ancient crusade church up the road, so I am off to take a look. I will be back later to relate.
The church is a definite 12/13th century construct with modern day working replacing the roof and the corbelled domes caused by British Artillery in 1915 putting a few shells through the roof. It is built on a low bluff overlooking the lake with 75 steps taking you up from the road to the entrance to the nave, an adjacent but more modern campanile is built adjacent, possibly 14th century. It is complete with ancient bell but no rope. On top of each aisle are three small corbelled brick domes and in the nave three large corbelled domes. The original roof or what was left of it has been replaced with timber spars and purlins and topped with modern tiles. A very impressive structure which really needs to be finished but I suppose is waiting for funds.
Back at the hotel I have decided to have lunch in the restaurant. It was delicious. I ordered lightly because the evening meals in this neck of woods are enormous. The young waiter who speaks perfect English brought me chicken noodle soup, pork chop, french fries and an onion, carrot and lettuce salad and a large glass of lovely local white wine. Total price 370 dinar or €6. I would recommend everybody if they can get their arses to Macedonia, to come to Doiran and stay at the Hotel Romantique, it surely is the finest and without doubt the cheapest place I have ever stayed. The staff are excellent and nothing is too much trouble.
It is now 1,10pm on our last day, time to relax, have a snooze and await my battle weary companions. Having climbed the heights of Kosturino, they will be hungry and thirsty. Doiran is so quiet I am beginning to miss the stentorian decibels of Apostolos, or am I.
We return home with an early start and an easy route through border clearance and back into Greece only to be balked after getting on our return flight because of bad weather at Gatwick causing a ninety minute delay which put our connecting flight to Dublin in some jeopardy. However all flights into Gatwick were delayed so there was Mr O’Leary’s plane waiting for us with open wings as we rushed across the Southern Terminal and back through security. I eventually walked through the door of my house two hours late but in need of the lovely chilli con carne my daughter had left.
My heartfelt adieus to my very decent companions especially to Romeo and Alan for making this trip one to remember.