Skopje Alexander, the Great Airport, or Skopje, Alexander the Great Airport? What a difference a comma makes.
Tuesday 10th September 2013; chaos at Luton airport very early in the morning, as one check-in desk attempted to deal with people for three different flights, all leaving within a few minutes of each other. Eventually, we were airborne, and three hours later landed at Skopje. Our Ramblers Worldwide Holidays trip to Macedonia had begun.
Macedonia is a landlocked, mountainous republic, with an area of 25,000 sq km and a population of just over 2,000,000, sandwiched between Albania in the west, Greece in the south, Bulgaria in the east and Kosovo and Serbia in the north. It used to be part of Yugoslavia, but obtained its independence in 1991. The Greeks are still very iffy about the name and it is officially called FYROM – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Balkan history is complex and confusing, but apparently Greece is concerned that the Macedonian minority in parts of Greece might want to secede and join the new state.
At the airport we met up with our leader, Nigel, and Macedonian guide, Jelena, who was in fact Serbian! She explained that Serbian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian and Macedonian are mutually intelligible languages, although we didn’t understand any of them and it’s all written in Cyrillic characters anyway.
Not to be deterred, we changed some money into Macedonian denars (£1 = 70 denars) and set off in a somewhat cramped bus for Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest (290m) and oldest lakes in Europe, which is shared between Macedonia and Albania. We stopped on the way for our first taste of the local food – flaky pastry filled with spinach or cheese. We gradually picked up more information about the country; the population is 75% Macedonian and 25% Albanian, with a few Turks and Roma in there somewhere. The Albanians tend to be Muslims and the rest (mostly Orthodox) Christians. The last time there was serious trouble between the two communities was a few years ago when a local Albanian mayor flew the Albanian flag over the town hall and fired at the police when they removed it.
Our first morning in Ohrid was spent exploring the town, visiting Czar Samuel’s fortress (10/11th century), the Roman amphitheatre and St John’s church (13th century). We had the extra excitement of seeing the presidents of Poland and Macedonia being whisked around in expensive 4WDs. While shopping for a picnic we nearly bought tinned baby food in a local supermarket, but settled instead for a nice vegetarian cheese. In the afternoon, our boat trip on the lake had to be postponed for an hour or more due to very heavy rain. We could see the storm coming over from Albania and were told that the lake could be quite dangerous in such conditions.
By Thursday 12th we were in walking mode. We waited until the thunder and rain had passed and set out for the Galicia National Park, whose symbol is the wild cat (I think they mean lynx). We covered 8-9 miles and climbed over 300m, visiting the site of a 6th century monastery (with mosaics) and the monastery of St Athanasius, where we picnicked. The local custodian would not open up the church for us, so we had to peer through the door. Afterwards we walked down to the monastery of St Petka (female), spotting a wild tortoise and lots of colchicums on the way.
On the road back to the hotel we saw a couple with a still in their back yard making raki. We stopped and looked over the wall and were rewarded with sips of the liquor from a baby food bottle. Apparently it is legal to distil the stuff for your own use.
It was off again on Friday 13th to our next hotel at Trnovo outside Bitola, the second city of Macedonia. Our first stop was at the bay (gulf) of bones further south on Lake Ohrid. About 20 years ago, archaeologists noticed poles sticking out of the lake and found the remains of a palafitte or stilt settlement (1500 – 600BC) on the lake bed. The village has been reconstructed (above the water level!) and there are now about ten huts, each containing a cradle, bed, loom and a few furs. The idea of building on stilts over water was to provide the inhabitants with protection against wild animals and humans and give easy access to a plentiful supply of fish. Nowadays, fishing is banned on the Macedonian side of the lake because of overfishing (but is allowed in Albanian waters).
Very close to the site there are the remains of a Roman auxiliary camp. As we were about to leave, Jelena confided to us that she had left her passport in our previous hotel; thank goodness that it wasn’t one of us!
We continued over the mountains, stopping for an hour’s walk, and then driving on to our picnic spot on the shore of Lake Prespa, another tectonic lake shared among Macedonia, Greece and Albania. Before we reached our hotel we visited the village of Maloviste and the huge church of St Petka. The main street is a steep cobbled track impregnated with cattle dung. Eventually, as we stood around in the rain, the woman with the key to the church appeared and we were able to see inside. Unfortunately the icons were off limits as many had been stolen and the remainder were locked away. When leaving I noticed a green wheelie bin in the church grounds, a sure sign that civilization has arrived! A lot of money had been spent on restoring the village, in an attempt to persuade people to remain, but the population has now fallen to twenty families – if you were not a subsistence farmer or bee keeper there was really nothing to do there.
On Saturday we visited the Roman ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, a few kilometres outside Bitola, where the Macedonian guide laid great emphasis on the site being Macedonian, not Greek. Only about 15% of the area has been excavated, but this included a marvellous mosaic floor with Biblical scenes.
Afterwards we were dropped off in Bitola, where we had a brief tour and visited the old Turkish quarter and the museum. This was divided into a display about Ataturk and the history of the area, particularly in WW2. Bitola itself was largely destroyed in WW1 and captured by the Germans and Bulgarians in WW2. The whole Jewish population was deported before the partisans liberated the area in 1944.
Our final visit on Saturday was to Prelip. We drove past fields of tobacco plants and drying tobacco leaves, before arriving at the Monastery of the Archangel Michael which is today looked after by five nuns. The setting, half way up a steep hillside, is magnificent with huge boulders above (erratics, according to one of our party) seemingly waiting to crash down on the buildings. Back in the town of Prelip, we wandered through the very extensive market and bought ice creams. The Macedonians are great consumers of ice cream; the product is excellent and very cheap, and does not appear to make the locals fat.
I asked the way to the toilets in the café where we had a coffee before boarding our bus, and was directed upstairs, past a notice which said ‘In God We Trust’, into a communal loo complete with three giggling girls. I did a double take, but they pointed to one side of the room and went on applying makeup and giggling.
…Sunday and Monday were days for walking in the Pelister National Park, another extensive wooded and mountainous region, which is home to the rare, five needled, Molika pine. (Macedonia has 35% forest cover). Before we set off, Jelena appeared at breakfast with a large cabbage leaf. She explained that this was to keep moist the leaf tobacco that she had bought for her brother the previous day. (A lot of the Macedonians smoke, and tobacco products are very cheap).
We covered 7.6 miles on Sunday, climbed 205m and descended 600m along cool forest paths, with an exciting scramble down a muddy bank and across a stream at the end, because the proper path had been cut away to widen the road. We recalled the notice forbidding damming of streams as we tried to make the final steps over the water easier, but didn’t feel bad about this as the road had been widened without any thought for walkers.
The WW1 Salonika front ran through this area, and at one stage we passed trenches and reconstructed bunkers. The Germans and Bulgarians were to the north of Bitola and the French, Serbs and British to the south. Many of the pine trees were cleared to give the artillery a clear view of Bitola. It is amazing how the trees have re-grown. I presume that the area has been totally cleared of unexploded ordnance as there are no notices forbidding access.
On the way back down to the hotel we passed a sign which said ‘Welcome to’ plus the name of the hotel (?) in Cyrillic script. We often noted the use of both Roman and Cyrillic letters in towns. Jelena said that both were now taught in schools though all official documents had to be in the Cyrillic script.
On Monday we started higher up, in the rain, and covered 7 miles and climbed 300m. Some would say that the highlight of this walk was seeing brown bear poo and two lots of lynx poo, one deposit of which received the full photographic treatment! For myself I thought this was just beaten by our local forestry guide producing Turkish coffee and 52% proof home made raki as we sheltered from heavy rain at the red rocks, a spectacular cliff area overlooking Bitola. Sadly the same area saw 6000 men lose their lives in WW1. Later, we passed more bunkers, including a reinforced concrete one and another that had been bombed. On a more pleasant note, we saw several fire salamanders and spectacular rock rivers, similar to screes but made of huge boulders. The local blackberries were very tasty too.
We were back early because of the rain and attempted to watch the local TV. All we could get, however, was an Indian soap opera dubbed in Macedonian. Fortunately we had found that the hotel served a very pleasant and not too strong Macedonian red wine. I think that they keep this for themselves and don’t export. Pity!
It was time to move on again, this time north, to the capital Skopje, where a third of the population live. The road through the mountains was good and we also passed many vineyards. The centre of the city is overshadowed by huge statues of Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander as a baby with his mother and, on the other side of the river Vardar, of Alexander the Great astride a horse. There are more statues of Justinian 1 (6th century) and Czar Samuel (10/11th century) and many other lesser politicians and soldiers. We ate lunch in the old quarter and visited the Turkish market, an old church with marvellous carvings and the fortress, which is being restored. The local guide thought that the government spent too much money on statues and prestigious buildings and pointed out that there were three times as many cars as the road system could handle, resulting in a lot of pollution.
An intermission on Macedonian history: we have all heard of Philip and Alexander who represented the height of Macedonian power a few hundred years BC. Next the Romans appeared, Justinian 1, Czar Samuel, and afterwards the Ottomans, from the 15th to 20th centuries. There were periodic uprisings against their rule which were bloodily suppressed until the 1890s, when the Macedonians began to get the upper hand, culminating in the withdrawal of the Ottomans in 1913/14. The Bulgarians and Germans fought against the British, Serbians and French in WW1, and the Yugoslav communists were briefly in power (in Skopje) in 1920 until a more conservative Serbian regime took power everywhere. The Germans and Bulgarians invaded again in the early 1940s and remained until defeated by the partisans in 1944. Tito then united all of the Balkan states, whether they liked it or not, imprisoning and killing those who opposed the move, until Yugoslavia split up in the 1990s. He moved people from the villages into the towns and cities and attempted to set up heavy industry in a bureaucratic way (it reminded me of what the Russians did in Armenia and Georgia). Now the people do not want to move back to the country, but there are insufficient jobs for them in the towns and unemployment is 30% plus.
Our final day started with a visit to Matka cave and gorge, a dammed valley with cliffs 500–1000 feet high on either side. We took a boat trip to a cave and were told about another cave, some 400m into the cliff side, with a depth of at least 250m – that was strictly for the professionals. Instead, we disembarked at the bottom of a muddy slope and walked 2 miles back to the village along a narrow path, the majority of it cut into the cliff side. Fortunately there were either hand rails or a wire attached to the cliff wall to hold on to. There were lots of cyclamen at the start of the walk, where there was a good covering of trees and brush.
After lunch, we were driven back to Skopje, where we visited Mother Teresa’s house. The original was knocked down in 1963 to make way for a shopping arcade, and this was a museum, rather than a house, with lots of photos and a small chapel. Finally, we went to the earthquake museum, where we read about the event that destroyed much of Skopje in 1963, killing over 1000 people.
Later we walked back to the hotel, rather than taking a taxi. That evening, the whole group ate out at a restaurant in the centre of the city. The food was OK – a huge salad of chopped vegetables and tomatoes and a lamb burger, the red wine really excellent, though expensive for Macedonia, and it was all accompanied by music from a deafening and inexhaustible mariachi duo.
The alarm sounded at 3.00am, yes 0300 hours, for the start of our trip home. Another enjoyable and memorable Ramblers Worldwide Holidays trip was under our belts.