Another border crossing that took a surprising amount of time but we now have another (unidentifiable) stamp in our passports for Macedonia. I guess it’s all about these countries establishing themselves as distinct identities and accounting for numbers and nationalities of people moving across their borders. For them this is relatively new information gathering. Anyway an armed guard gets on to the bus to collect a passport from each individual and they are eventually returned. What happens inside that office..who knows.
As we drove alongside the lake it looked a bit sad with various tatty ‘resort’ attempts in parts and lots of rubbish. They do have a problem with rubbish but perhaps we can’t be too judge mental- ours is gathered and stored but in the end to actually get rid of it is the same problem for all of us worldwide. Half an hour on we stopped at a small resort at a very pretty location with an old monastery of Saint Naum and a 9th century Orthodox Church. Saint Naum an important historical figure in this country . It is written below in Cyrillic .
We had a short tour and a very quick 3 course lunch , a short black (with sugar) and then we were on a boat for a lake run to Ohrid. Our guide here doesn’t have the best command of English grammar and pronunciation but we have gleaned a few facts. Just for example she was talking about YoHun - took us a couple of minutes to work out it was John.
There is so much history in these parts! Bronze Age settlements have been found in Lake Ohrid, built in wood so that the stumps have survived, preserved in the water for a few thousand years. The village as it might have looked has been recreated.
Back on the bus and on to our hotel was located outside Ohrid and is quite new. It was smart and modern and had a lovely pool. The pool was cool but quite a few of our jumped in anyway and warmed up with a glass of wine afterwards. Perhaps there were a few cracks (not literally) in the hotel with leaky showers, smelly air conditioning and other inferior workmanship type issues but generally it was ok. I did have trouble going to sleep. There was a lovely large door to open onto a balcony but it couldn’t be open and run the air conditioning which is fair enough. Some gentle guitar music continued a little late and I closed the door at midnight. The air conditioning came on but it had a musty smell and I couldn’t sleep because of the smell. So opened the door again......
We set off at 9am for a tour of Ohrid which sits on the banks of Lake Ohrid , the fourth largest fresh water lake in the world - a stunning lake protected by UNESCO and is used primarily for aquatic activities - no hydro power or commercial fishing and it looks lovely and clean. Ohrid is also an old town but most of the ‘inner city’ is more like 16th century, so not quite so old by European standards. There is an old stage and seating from the time of Alexander the Great later converted into a Roman amphitheater. Now 1500 lucky people can sit on the hard concrete in the hot sun to watch something! They make pearls here - sort of a cultured pearl using fish scales for the nacre and then a repetitive coating and drying on top of beads made from mother of pearl shell. So not plastic replicas but not made by the oyster either. Still, worth a small purchase! They also make filigree silver and have a paper making tradition. We visited an old Orthodox Church built in 900 with many frescoes and although it was impressive, in the way of tourists we all agreed that we’d just about seen enough churches!
Our three course lunch was in a cafe literally over the water of Lake Ohrid and as there was a reasonable swell generated by the pleasant breeze, (fresh) water splashed up around the tables. Last year a storm over the lake destroyed the cafe overhanging the water.
Macedonia was under the rule of the Turks for 500 years until the 19th century. So I am expecting the Turkish influence to be significant. There certainly is Turkish delight! Shopping time has been minimal but it did improve after our Ohrid lunch when we ventured into (every) pearl shops.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia. Now called North Macedonia. Or not. Our guide Tatiana said “what is this north Macedonia?! Macedonia is Macedonia”. It’s political, not cultural. Macedonia has 2 million people half of whom live in the capital. The other 2 million Macedonians live in Australia! Skopje is fabulously strange. It has possibly the most bronze sculptures in any city anywhere, certainly more than we’ve ever seen in one place. The rebuilding program is phenomenal and so are the buildings. The Macedonians like grand designs, ginormous pillars, some modernity but mostly a traditional style but of what architectural style I’m not sure. One day it might look amazing when they clean away the litter, fix the pavements in places and do some regular maintenance. You don’t realise the value of well maintained local public places until they’re not maintained. Then it’s glaringly obvious. Removing weeds, mowing lawns and tending gardens makes a big difference too.
The statues are mind blowingly large- it’s almost comical really. Surely this is a hangover from communist times when statements were made with large statues, particularly of their leaders (probably ordered by those leaders). But actually this city has a really good vibe. Some pretty smartly dressed women, groovy cafes and restaurants, people walking about with a sense of purpose. Still lots of smoking of course. Before our departure on Tuesday midday we revisited the town after a 2 hour tour the night before. We saw a statue of Mother Theresa whom they also claim along with Albania. They also have a small museum dedicated to her. I think she was born in Macedonia. They have a very large sculpture of Alexander the Great on a horse but they officially call it Warrior on a Horse because otherwise they will upset the Greeks who claim Alexander for themselves! In the short time we had we quickly toured the holocaust museum, not having been to one before. We have some Jewish people on the tour who have been seeking out synagogues and museums learning more about the fate of the Jews in this part of the world and paying their respects. It was fantastic and we wished we’d had enough time to explore it properly. There are synagogues tucked into towns all through this region although there are no longer large numbers of Jews, most having been moved on or exterminated in times of WWII.
Our hotel, older style but renovated and looking over their river was great. Biggest rooms ever! No small poky spaces in Balkan hotels. There’s something to be said for hotels being checked out by the tour operators in advance. The older buildings here are communist style and many are left to go to ruin. I suppose in the future they will be demolished but for now they are an unhappy reminder. Although our guide did refer to ‘the great leader,Tito’.
Macedonia is attractive with lots of mountains some still with snow and at least a couple of ski resorts. The hills are covered in mostly deciduous trees and in late spring are very green.
A word about food: all through this trip we have been enjoying big bowls of fresh cherries and strawberries at breakfast and the last 10 days they’ve included stone fruit as well. The tomatoes taste better here too. Much of their fruit and vegetables is grown locally and are obviously picked late and not transported too far so they are great! Salad is eaten as in the US - served first and in Macedonia, in plentiful quantities. Some people are ‘over’ the salads but not me. I could live on them. The trick is not to eat it all before the entree, main course and dessert! The bureks are appealing but mostly they are sold either lukewarm or cold. I only like them hot so we gave up on them. Cevappici - small skinless sausages are worth a try but there’s no need to try them often. I’m sure there are some good restaurants around (certainly Michelin starred ones in Dubrovnik) but we were generally so well fed that when we had free nights for dinner we mostly opted for small, simple meals. The wine is freely available, very palatable and not particularly expensive (or cheap). It’s all pretty good grape growing country. I’m not sure if the gelato is as good as in Italy but it’s pretty good and available everywhere. Have not tried the RedBull flavour though!