Country number: 129 – North Macedonia was known as Macedonia when I visited
Territory number: 149
When? September 2015 Don’t Baulk at the Balkans. Coming from Serbia. going on to Kosovo.
Who? Group Tour
‘I know of two tragic histories in the world – that of Ireland, and that of Macedonia. Both of them have been deprived and tormented.’
We’re running late from Nis as we were supposed to visit the even older, Hellenic ruins of Stobi as well as the ruins of Mediana but it isn’t to be. The traffic was slow, due to a proliferation of roadworks (mostly sponsored by the EU) even though we take an unscheduled diversion into Kosovo to avoid them. The mountains here are more scenic and our hotel is nestled in a large vineyard at Demir Kapija. There is a very noisy, very touristy wine tasting dinner –and local dancing with audience participation –oh good. Stobi and its amazingly preserved mosaics has to wait tilt the next day.
Our itinerary says that our drive to Bitola will provide views of ‘extraordinary, wild and unique beauty’ in Mt. Galicica National Park, and across to Lake Prespa. I will have to take their word for it, as it’s too misty and rainy to see anything. Bitola is a good place to stop. It has a fine church, of course and a mainly outdoor, bazaar. Our outdoor restaurant lunch is a great place to sample local delicacies. Ice cream is as much of a highlight in Macedonia as it was in Serbia, but here it’s fried in batter and breadcrumbs, as indeed is much of the food, including the olives. It’s quite good fun trying to guess what you’re going to bite into.
Ohrid itself, is sunny and beautifully restored and not like its name at all. It is the cradle of the Slavic written language and literature, where the Cyrillic alphabet was created by the brothers Cyril and Methody. The epitome of continental holidays, there are cafes and restaurants, boat rides on the lake, a vibrant market, lots of ice cream, more ruins – and churches. Ohrid is known as the ‘City of 365 churches’. Most are beautiful. From the obligatory fortress you get great views across the town and lake and down to the iconic ninth century St. Panteleimon monastery and the tiny Jovan Kaneo chapel, which demand to be photographed from every angle (and the water). Our little boutique hotel is foot access only, mainly because it’s up a very steep hill. The road is littered with shops. The most interesting bookshop is filled with propaganda about Macedonia’s ongoing tussle with Greece. Greece refuses to allow use of the name Macedonia and therefore UN recognition of the country, on the grounds that it’s Greek and at least in part, a Greek territory. The pamphlets make a very compelling case for the fact that it isn’t and that Greece as a name and, as a state, is a very recent construct. Fascinating reading.
Through the National Park of Mavrovo, famous for its lake, river, gorges and waterfalls (we can actually see some of them) to Skopje, the capital city of Macedonia. Here, there is an old Turkish town, bazaar and bridge but the talking point is the dramatic facelift being applied to the modern quarter. Somewhat surprisingly, this part of Skopje is very reminiscent of Vegas. There are grand marble buildings and ornate bridges, and statues illuminated in bright colours abound. There are also bars that sell respectable cocktails. I love it.