We’re coming back here…

The highlights of last night were the talk of breakfast. We suffered a couple of small earth tremors – one around midnight and one around 2am. We were awake for the first one, our sun cream and water bottles fell on the floor, it was over in seconds. We slept through the second one.

Okay breakfast in the hotel this morning. We weren’t allowed into the dining room a minute before 8:30. We left for our transport for the day at 9:00 – a boat on Lake Ohrid.

Lake Ohrid was formed about 5m years ago. About 2/3 of it belongs to Macedonia and the rest to Albania; the maximum depth is about 290m.

We started our voyage heading south along the shore, there are lots of hotels and resorts along the lake shore. We’re only 3 hours drive from the capital and it gets very busy at the weekends and in the summer.

After about an hour the boat stopped. This was out first swimming stop of the day. The water’s cool and very clear, very refreshing as the sun started to warm us up.

Next stop is the Museum on the Water; this is a reconstruction of a Bronze Age village of stilt houses. These people appear to have invented the overwater bungalows we enjoyed in French Polynesia. The village has about 20 houses made of mud and reeds; the interiors have typical layouts of the time with looms, ovens and simple cooking and sleeping areas.

Back on the lake, we had another swimming stop. This time at the deepest point of the lake – it’s a strange feeling knowing how much water there is below you.

Next stop was at the Monastery of Saint Naum; the saint was responsible for a number of local miracles. The monastery was constructed by the Bulgarians in 905. The small church in the centre of the complex has three small rooms inside, these are all covered with beautiful frescoes. The iconostasis has a painting of the devil; very unusual in any churches anywhere.

After the Monastery we had lunch in a nearby restaurant – even the touristy places here are good quality and good value. We had a few salads and shared a spinach and feta pie.

There were water snakes swimming and basking around the rocks on edge of the lake, fortunately they only like shallow water.

We had one more swimming stop on the way back to Ohrid. The water was cooler there but the sun was warmer so it was still very refreshing. We were about a mile from the lakeshore; the sound of music from a hotel was loud even there.

I finished my book as we sailed back towards Ohrid – The Successor by Ismail Kadare; The book is a political thriller about the death of the nominated successor to the Communist Party of Albania; the leader is assumed to be Enver Hoxha but never named. Was the successor murdered or did he commit suicide? I highly recommend the book.

We had a quick stop to shower and change before heading out for the evening. We walked into the Old Town again, the history of the town is everywhere. The amphitheatre constructed by the Romans is currently being used as the main venue for the Ohrid festival. I visited the church of Saint Sofia, this large church was constructed almost 1100 years ago. Inside it has three aisles with columns in-between, much more open than the layouts at the monasteries we’ve been to.

We’d arranged to meet a couple of our travelling companions in a bar overlooking the lake for a pre-dinner drink, this quickly turned into three drinks. Florence and I had dinner on our own tonight, we found a nice place right by the water, and we were lucky to get a table with a view of St Jovan Kaneo church. Very nice food a Macedonian Pinot Noir to wash it down.

Tomorrow we return to Albania; we chose this trip primarily for Albania and Kosovo but Macedonia has been a revelation – highly recommended, come here soon!

It’s Orhid here

One of the major differences between this trip and Big Trip is the amount of socialising that happens. Lingering for a few drinks after an early dinner means that we end up having late nights – by the time we’ve written about the day and selected the photos to post, it’s really late.

We’re both tired today.

We left Skopje at 9:00am aboard a public bus to Ohrid.

Small towns and villages are scattered about; some buildings in the bigger towns reflecting that awesome Soviet brutalism style. Villages are nestled at the bottom of the mountain range.

Some of us drifted off to sleep (probably dreaming of the swimming opportunity ahead), but the vast majority chatted all the way. The only noise on board.

The journey took approximately 3.5 hours.

We saw storks nesting; storks on the ground, storks flying.

A village we passed through had a stork nest; and an Orthodox Church and a mosque in the background. I wasn’t sitting by the window today, so sadly I was unable to take photos.

A quick ‘technical’ stop saw the whole bus tracking down the facilities, and coffee and water for us.

Upon boarding the bus, I grabbed the window seat.

We travelled through a wooded area, the hills in the distance covered in trees. Huge infrastructure projects are underway – a new road; a new bridge and upgrading the road we’re travelling on (small delays incurring as a result).

We pulled in at a major bus station. I watched people buying tickets, chatting, saying goodbye to loved ones… a small window into other people’s lives.

We arrived in Ohrid (pronounced something like ‘oh-ready) around 12:30pm. We got a taxi to the hotel. Well, we got in and then the taxi couldn’t start so Andy was asked to push start the car. In the heat. A hot car. Ah. Welcome to Ohrid!

Ohrid. We’d both wanted to come here for a long long time. It’s all in the name!

And also, it’s supposed to be pretty here. All Macedonians we’ve spoken to told us to come here. It’s a place they are proud of.

There used to be 365 churches here (one for each day of the year). I think we had one of these towns in Central America. A prize to the person who comes up with the name.

We dropped our bags into our room – beyond any kind of interior designer’s imagination… as in, almost kitsch but bad – and left for lunch.

With the heat we’ve had throughout the trip, we’ve all been looking forward to the lake. We went to the coolest bar by the shore; scored great seats and dived in. The water was cool at first, but oh so pleasant. We had cocktails, Andy read his book, we chatted. Most relaxing.

At 6pm, we were ready for our city tour. Orhid has a look and feel of a Mediterranean town. Cobbled streets, many churches; terraced bars. It’s busy but not crazy busy. Everyone here is having a nice time.

Our tour lasted two hours and it took us though all the major sites in town. As well as being an extremely popular summer destination, Ohrid has many claims to fame: a superb music festival yearly (tonight’s the opening night and the President of Macedonia’s in town); an Easter procession; the lake (as a summer destination) and of course (oh the things you learn!) Saint Clement of Ohrid who invented Cyrillic – now used by 250 million people.

It’s so pretty here – every corner is an opportunity to explore and photograph. Andy and I both got left behind by the tour. We have no idea what is what or why, but we had a great time and have cool photos! I’m seriously thinking we should come back for a week; there are so many back streets we’d love to explore further.

We did all end up at St Jovan Kaneo just in time for sunset. The church is picture pretty, and the sunset was vibrant. Its supposedly the most photographed building in Macedonia, it’s easy to see why.

A short walk back to town for dinner. Traditional food (which was delightful) and a break away from the wine drinking group tonight for me. I ordered a small bottle of red wine. It was divine. I let people try it and soon enough bottles of the stuff were ordered.

We walked back to our hotel (we’re about 15 minutes from the centre) along the busy promenade.

The place has a great vibe. We like it.

Ohrid is nice.

Feeling Hot Hot Hot!

Leisurely start this morning. The dining room is next to our room, nice buffet breakfast – terrible coffee. 9:00 we took some taxis for the twenty-minute ride to Matka Gorge. There is a bus but it runs every two hours, takes an hour and costs half the taxi fare so not an attractive prospect.

There are some churches and monasteries in the gorge. The oldest was built in 1389. They were once high above the river but the gorge was flooded by the construction of the Matka dam in 1938.

We took a small boat about 20 minutes up the valley to Vrelo caves. There is a huge difference in temperature between the heat of the sun outside and the damp cool air just a few steps inside the cave. The whole system carries on a long way underground; the full extent isn’t yet known but we saw two small lakes within the 70m or so that are accessible. There is a constant background noise of water dripping and the calls and flapping of a colony of bats on the roof. The caves have been used for classical music concerts recently; it must be quite an experience.

The boat trip back was into the breeze and a bit more pleasant. After the boat we had a look in the tiny St Andrew’s Monastery, the interior is only about 15 feet long but at least twice as high as that, it feels like a miniaturized version of the three large monasteries we‘ve seen before. The walls and ceilings are covered with biblical scenes, saints and the builder of the church, Andrijaš, son of a Serbian King. No photography allowed inside.

We stopped for a leisurely coffee, drink, cake etc, before taking taxis back to town. Four of us went straight to the Museum of Contemporary Art which was closed yesterday – we had better luck today. The collection was started in 1963 following a large earthquake in the city which destroyed a lot of older works. A number of galleries around the world lent or donated works to the gallery including Picasso, Jasper Johns and Barbra Hepworth. Today however none of these works were on show, the whole gallery was taken over by an exhibition of works by Petar Hadzi Boshkov, a Macedonian sculpture and painter who died in 2015. His work is often simple but very graphic and it feels like there are layers below the surface.

After the gallery, we walked back to the restaurant on the central square where we had lunch yesterday. We had another combination of salads which were very good and tried some of their beers too – between four of us we had sour cherry, strawberry and mint pilsners, all very refreshing.

Our lunchtime break prepared us for an afternoon of museums, starting with the Holocaust. The first thing you see is a sculpture consisting of electronic photo frames repeating pictures of Jewish families from Macedonia who were killed. The museum is on three floors, the central space across all floors has an art work consisting of 7,141 threads of beads – one for each Jewish person killed. They are all different but combine into a much greater whole. The exhibition tells the story of the migration of Jews across Europe following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. They found it hard to settle in Central Europe but were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire who valued their craftsmanship and commerce skills. One reason for the persecution of Jews in Western Europe postulated by the exhibition was that there was only Christian majority and any outsiders were always suspect. The Ottomans had always been an empire of many races and were therefore naturally more tolerant. After the migration, the upper floor concentrates on the events of World War 2. Macedonia had German forces to the south in Greece, Bulgarians to the east who at the time were sympathetic to the Nazis, and Italians fascists to the west in Albania. The Italians refused to join in the transporting of Jews to death camps in Poland thereby saving many lives.

After the history on the upper floors the ground floor has a number of paintings reacting to the Holocaust and a single Cattle Truck with its doors open, no explanation is given and none is needed, just looking inside to imagine how many people might have been crushed inside on the six day journey to Treblinka was enough.

Across the square is the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence. Lonely Planet had warned us that there was a string degree of propaganda in the museum but we weren’t prepared for quite how much. You can only visit the museum with a guide. A tour had just started but we were allowed to join anyway. The museum couldn’t be better designed to disconcert you – all the rooms were very dark, walls and ceilings were predominately black, everywhere there were waxworks of significant figures from Macedonian history and large scale propaganda paintings. The Greeks, particularly the Clergy, the Bulgarians and the rest of Yugoslavia were all singled out for criticism. We had very little knowledge of the individuals or events being described, this left me feeling a bit underwhelmed by the museum. In a final surreal flourish the balcony above main entrance was filled with recognisable but fairly random figures – we could pick out Lenin, Stalin, Churchill, Eisenhower and Ataturk among many others. Unfortunately neither museum allowed photography inside.

We left the museum and headed for the nearby bazaar. The heat was now unbelievable; we thought it was one building reflecting the sun but it continued. We checked out a restaurant for dinner and had a short walk around the bazaar, retracing our steps from yesterday to the donut stall.

On the way back to the hotel we plotted a route to see a few mores sites – there’s a surprising amount to see here.

Mother Teresa was born in Skopje, her birthplace is marked by a simple stone plaque in a small garden, the house is no longer there. Skopje has its own Arc de Triomphe. Beyond that is the Monument to Fallen Heroes for Macedonia, this follows the ‘more is more’ style of the rest of the new city centre. North of the central square is a museum about Mother Teresa’s life – we didn’t have time to visit, nor did we have time for the Museum of Skopje, housed in the old railway station that was severely damaged in the 1963 earthquake. Our final stop was a statue of Tito, the man who somehow managed to unify Yugoslavia.

After a short break to cool down five of us headed out for dinner in the Old Bazaar. The restaurant is housed in a 15th Century Caravanserai – the food was traditional Macedonian, the wine was all local, very nice atmosphere, a very pleasant evening.

Skopje is a strange mixture of old and new, it has been fascinating, surprising and absorbing. A few more days here would be worthwhile but tomorrow we must move on.

Wonderfully weird Skopje

We left the hotel at 6:30am; we just had time for a quick breakfast – boiled egg, bread, and a good coffee.

We got into taxis and headed to the railway station. One of the taxi drivers was puzzled when we told him we were getting the train to Skopje and said he could drive us there in an hour.

Ah. The romance of rail travel.

Ivan had told us that the station was something special. It was.

The decrepitude was an indication of the state of the railway and the many trains we would take today.

We boarded the train, the engine switched round and we were off. Two stations later – at Fushe Kosovo – we got off and boarded a smaller train. This one was more crowded.

Very quickly, the scenery became more rural but even then, houses scattered the landscape and you do feel that you’re never far from people.

Past Kacanik, a series of tunnels and bridges took us further into the hills. The train emptied, and there were only a handful of us left on board.

We followed streams. There are signs of progress in the distance – a new road, a new bridge.

The train was constantly blowing its whistle.

We stopped at Hani i Elezit and were told to get off the train. So we did. We used this opportunity to stretch our legs and use the bathroom.

A new Macedonian engine arrived after about 20 minutes. We boarded and departed.

Andy and I had our own cabin. We looked out of the window – very green – and read our books.

The only reason we knew we’d crossed the border is when the train stopped outside abandoned buildings which – a sign told us – were the border police. After 10 to 15 minutes, a police car arrived. The officer got on board, asked for our passports, got off the train and drove away. We all stayed on the train apart from two men who went into one of the buildings, got up on a desk and took two fluorescent tubes down and boarded the train again.

The officer came back after another 15 minutes or so. He handed all the passports and identity cards to a passenger who was having a cigarette and left.

That was all a bit funny.

At each station, I made sure to wave to the station masters – most waved back; one winked… and one was obviously too cool to acknowledge my wave.

We continued on to Skopje. As we got nearer, we could see the Millennium Cross on top of the hill. And a driving school where all the cars go round a course – a beginner’s off road driving course. Another funny thing.

As we got further into Macedonia, we really began to appreciate how poor Kosovo is. Everything is just a touch smarter in Macedonia.

When we got to the station, it felt like it was only us in what must have been at one time a huge busy intersection. Either that or the dream never realised. The platforms were all overgrown with weeds.

A quick taxi ride took us to our hotel. We checked in, handed the laundry in and left for lunch.

It’s about 15 minutes walk to the ‘centre’ of town. The first thing you see – and you cannot not see it – is a statue of Alexander the Great on Macedonia Square. It dominates the landscape, and we later found out it cost €35 millions. Crazy. Most Macedonians hate it. We also found out that the two lions at the end of one of the bridges cost €1 million each.

We had lunch on the square. We picked a branch of the first craft beer brewery in Macedonia – Temov. The food was excellent. We had tasty salads, and a traditional platter of cheese, garlic paste, bread, red pepper tapenade and olives. I tried a pilsner, and a smoked beer (my sample was almost as big as my beer!).

Getting going was tough. The temperature was well over 40c today, and shade was tricky to come by. But we knew we had to make the most of our day here so we soldiered on.

We walked along the river bank and crossed the Vardar river. The buildings on the other side of the river are insane. A modern ancient Rome is maybe the best description we can come up with. Andy’s going for ‘neo-classicism gone mad’. Ostentatious.

The other thing that struck us was the amount of statues and sculptures everywhere. Classical, historical, fun, tragic, arty. They’re everywhere. And as we crossed the bridge, I heard a noise. I turned to a local woman who was standing next to me and asked ‘music’. She replied ‘yes’. Classical music was playing in the street. When we passed by later on, it was Christmas music.

Three of us struggled up the hill. The heat was relentless. We made for the Contemporary Art Gallery but it’s Monday so it was shut. To the security guard’s dismay, we still went through the door and refilled our water bottles at the water cooler. Not wanting to waste a trip up the hill, we went to the fortress.

The fortress is the city’s highest point. It dates back to the 6th century AD, and underwent many changes throughout the years. It afforded us great views of the city, and in particular the national stadium.

Our travel companion started chatting to two young Turkish guys who were travelling. I noticed that they were carrying a musical instrument – a cumbus – and I asked them about it. One of them took it out, tuned it and started to play… and sing. It was a special moment.

We made our way to Čaršija (the Ottoman bazaar). A series of narrow streets – initially filled with tourist shops, and then further in with bars and cafés and then further on with local shops. We stopped for cold drinks and drank those quickly. We chatted some more, trying to gather the courage to stand up again. The local cafés furthest away were busy with men drinking coffee and playing dominos. We visited the big mosque on top of the hill. An older man inside delighted to see us waved us in. Back in the narrow street, I bought a syrup donut from a local woman, and it tasted heavenly. I tried to work out in my head how many more times I could ‘walk past’.

As the local mosques started the call to prayer, we made for a tea shop and had cold handmade lemonades.

Back on the main square, we met the rest of the group for a small orientation tour.

Dinner at Pelister was both fun (the company) and a little disappointing. It is the best restaurant in town, but the salads were not a success at our end of the table. We tried three different Macedonian white wines (taking our research seriously) and they were okay. I have a feeling that the reds would be better… but this is not red wine weather.

We had no expectations of Skopje. It turned out to be a fascinating, richly varied, historical and crazy place.