Relaxing in Bitola – what is the EU thing anyway?

(written by Dave)

Wow, no alarm today, what a treat.  It was great to have a day off.  We slept late-ish and had brekkie at the hotel.  We ordered pancakes with honey and bananas.  Though we didn’t ask for it, they also topped them whipped cream and chocolate sauce – it’s not often you get a sugar headache from brekkie.  We’ll have cereal in the room tomorrow.

After brekkie, we wandered town and looked at the sites noted in our Lonely Planet guide.  This includes one church, three mosques and a coffee on the walking street.  The church was interesting – being Sunday morning there was a service going on, complete with lots of chanting and singing.  It is an Orthodox church, not that we would really know the difference other than the obvious one that they don’t have any pews in the Orthodox churches, everyone just stands in the open area.  They had several “no photo” signs but lots of folks were taking photos.  I snuck in one discretely.  The mosques were all completely shut; we could only look at them from the outside.  We later learned from our hotel’s staff that today only 5% of the population is Muslim.  It would seem that there is not much need for the mosques any more.  We heard a call to payers today but this is nothing like Turkey.  Ever since the Ottomans left Orthodox has been the primary religion in Macedonia.

As we’ve mentioned a couple times the Balkan countries have been invaded and re-invaded so many times that it hard to keep track of who did what when, and what religion is in flavor.  Because we’ve mentioned using currency other than Euros in recent posts, one of our readers asked if we were in Europe or Asia.  Given the all the invasions and re-invasions, this is a good question.

The first answer is geography based.  We have been travelling on the continent of Asia for most of the time since we left France.  We only had a short time in France, Italy and Greece, before we headed to Turkey.  Turkey’s landmass is mostly on the continent of Asia.  Only the little part northwest of Istanbul is on the European continent. So, for most of our two months in Turkey we were in Asia.  Bulgaria and the Balkans are entirely on the European continent, so we are now on the European continent.

We might be on continental Europe but as of a few days ago, we are not in the EU.  The EU is a political and economic union of 27 countries, most of them from the European continent, including Bulgaria.  Not all countries in the European continent, however, are in the EU – for example, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, plus most of the western Balkans are not EU members (though some are currently candidates for admission to the EU).  We are currently in Macedonia, which is also on continental Europe and not part of the EU.

The European Union is not identical to the eurozone that is much in the news these days.  Only 17 of the 27 countries in the European Union use the euro as their official currency.  The most obvious example of the difference between these two concepts is the UK, which is in the EU but is not in the eurozone.  Other examples include Sweden and Denmark.  To make matters slightly more confusing, there are a couple of countries that are not in the EU (and therefore not part of the official eurozone) that use the Euro as their official currency – Montenegro and Kosovo in the Balkans, for example.  So, travelling within the EU means you’ll possibly end up with all kinds of different currency in your wallet, wondering how to deal with it when you cross borders.

Just in case this is all starting to make sense, then consider that Turkey is currently a candidate for admission to the EU.  How a country whose land mass resides mostly in Asia can join the E-anything is a pretty good question.  But then again, Turkey is part of NATO – and we all know that NA stands for North Atlantic.  Turkey is about as far from the North Atlantic as Brazil.

And then there is the EEA.  We see EEA signs at every border.  EEA stands for the European Economic Area.  This is a bit like NAFTA in the Americas.  Our new friends in the western Balkans here again miss out on EEA.  EEA is all about creating open markets for trade.

Finally, there is our old friend Schengen.  The Schengen agreement covers 25 countries, some in the EU, some not, all of them on the European continent.  Schengen is all about the movement of people across borders.

Ok, enough of the “E stuff”.  It will probably all change soon anyway.

While we were cleaning the bikes today, Nancy spotted a cycle tourist.  He was gone by the time she went out to the street to say hi.  Later I wandered a bit and found him.  His name is Roland and he is from Switzerland.  We met him for dinner and had a great time telling stories and exchanging tales.  It was fun to chat with a fellow traveler for more than normal 15 minutes that we get when we meet on the side of the road.  And for the record, Switzerland is on continental Europe, not in the EU, does not use the euro, is in the EEA and is party to Schengen.  In case you were wondering.

Tomorrow we are off to Ohrid, Macedonia’s most popular destination, about 70k or so away with two passes between here and there.  It sits right on Lake Ohrid, which spans the border between Albania and Macedonia.  There is a lot to see in the area, including a couple of national parks so we will probably stay there a day or two to explore the area.

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3 thoughts on “Relaxing in Bitola – what is the EU thing anyway?

  1. Thanks for the clarification on all the E-stuff. Pretty interesting! Great sneaking in that picture! Where’s the picture of you and Roland?

  2. That was a nice lesson but if i ever was asked I’m sure I wouldn’t have any of it straight! Thank goodness I just purchased an IPhone and I can ask Suri. The pictures are wonderful as always. Good Luck on the passes…

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