A hop skip and a road side watermelon from the border we entered the Macedonian capital Skopje. An infectiously ludicrous city which has seen literally hundreds of statues erected over the last three years by the right wing government. When added to the ample number of soviet monuments already extant and the result is more Madame Tussaud's than Roman grandeur.

Part ideological desire to create and celebrate Macedonian nationalist heroes (leading to fun discoveries like a 15 foot statue of an obscure lexicographer) and part attempt to woo tourists to a capital formally described as frumpy - the result is a schizophrenic collision of styles with modernist concrete swoops vying with fake baroque pretense all against an Ottoman backdrop.

While the execution may be lacking, and the renovation of the central square has left it feeling like Disneyland meets Las Vegas as the governing classes seek to manufacture a picture postcard view, it is hard not to be charmed by the city.

At the hostel Fred and I stayed in a local girl, Mariana, raged against the mess that was being made of her city claiming she could hardly recognize it. Following the earthquake here in 1963 an international effort was made to assist with reconstruction; overseen by the great Japenese architect Kenzo Tange. There can be little doubt that his vision has been sullied by the current spate of reckless revisionism but the vigour and vitality of the city shines through with bustling bazaars and a cool riverside bar scene. We amused ourselves playing spot the statue and trying to keep tally. (Impossible)

A snapshot of Skopje and it's many littered statues.

Feeling distinctly worse for wear having been up until 01:00 the previous night we finally set out at about 10:00. At the same time a Dutch and Australian travelling pair we had met the night before were also leaving, wandering off to hitch hike to Ohrid. The ease and freedom of bicycle touring was thoroughly reinforced as we left them sitting in the baking heat with forlorn thumbs out.

Following the River Vardar we headed west reaching Tevotle for lunch where we were treated to a display of the most reckless driving imaginable. Cars raced onto dual carriageways only to stop without warning and throw open their car doors. When, brakes screeching, you came to a stop centimeters from their door the look given would make it seem like you had just stepped uninvited into their front room.

Sufficiently chastened we made a hasty retreat south through dotted villages stopping occasionally for water. Drawing large crowds each time.

All the young guys spoke great English mainly learnt from music and films.

Come 17:00 we had reached the foot of a long climb which would take us up to the Maloviste national park and it's lake of the same name. We were still climbing long after dark but the cool of the evening and occasional hoots of encouragement from passing motorists saw us successfully drop into the high lake basin at 20:30 under the light of a waning gibbous moon.

Unfortunately none of the three campsites marked on my otherwise excellent Frey and Berndsend map actually existed putting us in a bit of a quandary as Fred had developed something of a dicky stomach. We decided to stop at a small Orthodox church on the lakeside.

 Said church the next morning

 And the view over the lake

On investigation I found a covered area underneath the chapel. Through the gloom I could make out rubble, chairs, dried flowers, easels and all manner of other oddments.

A little perturbed by the prospect that someone else may be staying there I sent Fred down to get a second opinion. While I waited at the church smoking Fred stumbled through a door and discovered Angelo, a 71 year old Macedonian church keeper and artist, in his tiny one bedroom flat. Not being there I can't say who was more shocked but as they both emerged upstairs the language barrier was proving difficult although it was clear Angelo was determined to be hospitable.

After declining the apparent offer to sleep in the church (it was much too nice for the likes of us) and balking at the prospect of crowding Angelo in his tiny flat we settled on sleeping in the covered area.

After showing Angelo my 'magic letter' containing an explanation for our arrival in Macedonian we all rubbed along well as Angelo's impressive English emerged while he bustled around moving chairs and wiping down surfaces much to my and Fred's embarrassment. We ate well: Spaghetti, Kosovan sausage, onions, garlic and a spicy Montenegrin sauce. The chill from the high lake necessitated a sleeping bag making for a refreshing change as we fell asleep.

Sharing a morning mug of Angelo's home made herbal tea

Angelo had taken on the job of renovating the church when his friend and fellow artists had passed away three years past. With his sons unemployed despite glowing academic credentials (An archaeologist and physicist respectively) the work was welcome but the strictures and forms of Orthodox painting requiring strict adherence which were clearly a frustration for Angelo.

Nonetheless to my uneducated eye Angelo's labours were creating something wonderful.

The patience and skill required were quite beyond my comprehension but the endurance needed to paint the ceiling icons was only too apparent.

Eventually we tore ourselves away from Angelo's excellent company and embarked on a blissfully carefree downhill canter through Macedonia's lush forested mountains.

Flanked by our constant companion, the Black Drin river.

Even a heavy sudden downfall couldn't dampen our spirits as we went our way towards Debar heading for Ohrid, the cultural and spiritual capital of Macedonia.

A quick wild camp on the outskirts meant we avoided paying for a room and allowed us to enter Ohrid early the next morning.

Before too long we had reached the lake and could glimpse Ohrid in the distance on the flanks of imposing hills.

In Skopje everyone we had met appeared to be heading for Ohrid and as the most visited city in Macedonia we were excited to arrive.

Once upon a time Ohrid boasted 365 churches. That number is now considerably lower but like that claim the whole city appeared to suffer from overly grand touristy boasts - sagging under the weight of unfulfilled expectations.

Perhaps I was just feeling jaded having seen so many awe inspiring Balkan cities or maybe the clutter of shops and obviously tourist centered economy tarnished the surroundings for me. The truth is Ohrid was a disappointment.

We climbed the hills to gain a better perspective from the Ottoman fortress above the city but the castle was as much a fabrication as the rest of the city felt - faked battlements and poorly integrated concrete extensions robbed it of whatever integrity it once had. Even the churches were for the most part brick and squat lost among the other buildings.

The views were however good and the small amphitheater was an unexpected treat. We lunched on goulash but were glad away in the early afternoon.

As we left we bumped into a group of French cycle tourists on their way to Athens and Duko a dutch cyclists on his way back from China. 

Duko's tales were inspiring, cycling with the quicker French cyclists was less so, as I made heavy work of the hills a long way behind them.

Still the friendly locals continued to be a source of succor. They would accept no money for the nectarines they showered us with.

Leaving the French to their southward dash me and Fred headed for the monastery of St Anna near the tiny Vlach village of Maloviste.

The climb up the twisty road had a vicious gradient and you are more likely to meet a recalcitrant horse, cow, goat or chicken than a car. On arrival we inquired about the possibility of staying at the monastery. Alas we were told that St Anna was to far to reach that night and the monastery in the village was closed to visitors after a traveler had slept there and stolen many things when he left.

That didn't stop the cluster of men who were sitting out in the center of the village from being friendly and selling us the last of our beer. We decided, after seeking advice, to head back 300m to the small church we had passed. There we met four Polish girls hiking in Macedonia who were a little concerned about their safety. A theft by some shepherds that day A combied with scare stories about Albanians and snakes seemed to be the cause. I quickly assured them that we could all camp together and no harm would come.

A fun evening spent learning silly Polish card games followed. Unfortunately my obvious charms and terrible chat up lines were singularly ineffective.

Our last night in Macedonia was also the first time I had seen Fred's hammock and what a beauty she was.

Before heading over the border the next day we had time to stop off in Bitola which was much more my speed than Ohrid. A spacious city with a self-confident demeanor which was very appealing after the covetous predations of Ohrid. 

Next stop Greece.

1 comment:

  1. Fabulous blog. I was especially moved by Angelo's story, his life and artistry. Looking forward to reading of your journeyings through Greece! Juliet x