We’re running late, on our group tour of old Yugoslavia, from Nis and Serbia, into Macedonia. We were supposed to visit the even older, Hellenic ruins of Stobi, as well as the ruins of Mediana, in Serbia, but it isn’t to be. The traffic is slow, due to a proliferation of roadworks (mostly sponsored by the EU), even though we take an unscheduled diversion into Kosovo,to avoid them.
Demir Kapija is famous for the long ravine, carved by the Vardar, some caves, and wine. The mountains in North Macedonia definitely count as 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 till the next day. It was an ancient town of Paeonia, later conquered by Macedon, and finally developed into the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia Salutaris. So several empires have left their mark - and it's a huge site to wander.
The main draw at Stobi, other than the mosaics, is a massive Roman amphitheatre, large enough to seat an audience of 7638 people (yes it’s an odd number, but that’s what they say), watching the gladiators face the lions. Much of the marble seating has been purloined. There are several basilicas, Little and Big Baths, vestiges of streets, plenty of houses, including the House of Psalms and the main town fountain.
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's another ancient city. It has a fine church with an imposing tower and several mosques, of course, and a mainly open air 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 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' (or the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans' and is the only UNESCO site in North Macedonia. Most of the churches 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. These demand to be photographed from every angle (and the water).
Lake Ohrid is considered to be one of the oldest lakes and biotopes in the world (estimated to be around 4 million years). It's one of the deepest lakes in Europe (maximum depth of 288 metres).
Our little boutique hotel is foot access only, mainly because it’s up a very steep hill and involves many (picturesque) staircases . The road is littered with shops. The most interesting bookshop is filled with propaganda about Macedonia’s ongoing tussle with Greece. Greece has refused 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, the largest of the Country’s three national parks. It has mountains, deep canyons, lakes, dense forests, the highest waterfall in the Balkans (with a vertical fall of approximately 120 metres), alpine bogs and karst scenery with caves. (We can actually see some of the scenery today.) There's also another monastery to visit. The Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery, in the Radika river valley, has some amazing bright frecoes.
To Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia. The territory of Skopje has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC, so it's famed for being ancient and for being the birthplace of Mother Teresa. Today, there is an old Turkish town, with bazaar and bridge to wander. 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, huge museums and ornate bridges over the Vardar, and statues illuminated in bright colours abound. In the centre an illuminated statue of a warrior on a horse who looks remarkably like Alexander the Great. Of Macedonia of course. But he hasn't been officially named. There are also bars that sell respectable cocktails. I love it.
Next stop, Kosovo.
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