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Sunday, June 13, 2010

European Vacation Part I: More of Macedonia

Let me just say this outright at the start — our trip to Macedonia wouldn't have been possible without the help and coordination of our daughter, Rene. She planned all of our activities, from the restaurants and sites visited to the folks who would guide us when she wasn't available. Not only did she do most of the talking for us — after all, we can't speak a lick of Macedonian — but she corrected us on some very important cultural nuances as well. She was absolutely stunning as a tour guide, trip coordinator, and translator. If not for the career path she's already chosen, I would suggest she get into the travel coordinator business!

But, on with our Macedonian adventure. After the night at the Irish Pub, I was pretty worn out. We took a leisurely drive through Skopje to meet the folks at the Peace Corp headquarters, picked up one of Rene's PCV coworkers, and struck out for the southwestern part of the country. We were headed for Lake Ohrid, home of some of Macedonia's most beautiful scenery and resorts.
Our PCV guest was great company, and told us a little about his work in the town of Struga, his exploits around the lake, and his home in Texas. I was beginning to learn that the young people who go to work in the Peace Corp truly are the créme de la créme of our American exports — this nice young man was no exception. Every one of Rene's friends was generous, smart, respectful and witty. I loved hearing how they had adapted to their temporary homes. Though they seemed a bit starved for the attentions of fellow Americans, they also seemed well adjusted to their new surroundings, and had definite plans and goals. Steve and I were continuously impressed by this new generation of leaders. Make no mistake, I fully expect that these youngun's will be doing much more remarkable work in the years to come, no matter where they end up.

Upon reaching Lake Ohrid and dropping our friend near his home in the lakeside town of Struga, we checked in at our new hotel, Villa Sv. Jovan in Ohrid. This lovely, tudor-style hotel is a renovated building in the heart of the old town center, decorated in the traditional manner of wealthy old Macedonian lake homes. The rooms were well equipped, their was a lovely dining room downstairs and we even had a bathroom to ourselves! Rene even got a little "mother-in-law's" room of her own. The generous proprietors were Jovan and Lidia from Kumanovo. Jovan himself, who immediately became a close friend, escorted us to the restaurant on the water's edge and suggested we try the town's favorite dish: lake trout.

And we did! It was a lovely dinner, with fresh salads, local Macedonian wine and the promised fresh-caught trout. Another one of Rene's friends from Struga joined us, and upon finding out that we were having the trout, mentioned that perhaps we might not want to order it again the next day. Why? Apparently, this species is considered endangered in Macedonia! Well, no wonder the price was nearly that of an American entré. We'll never know for sure, though, as later we were told by another helpful native guide that this might not have been the trout species we were told it was. Or, perhaps the same species, but caught on the Albanian part of the lake, where evidently there's no such endangered designation for this treasure. Oh, how complicated things can get in these small countries!!?
The next day, we learned firsthand why Rene had told us to be ready to be flexible. After a short coffee break with more of her PCV friends, she announced that because of storms and the resulting "slight chop" on the lake, we'd be skipping the boat tour she had planned. Instead, she took us on a walking tour of the town of Ohrid. It was actually great fun visiting the fortress on top of the hill, a few more old Orthodox churches, an archeological ruin, and shopping the tourist stores. We ran into the most interesting "experts" along the way.

Lake Ohrid has been a sort of spiritual center for a very long time. I read somewhere that it was sometimes known as the Slavic Jeruselum. This is a well deserved name: there are at least 365 spiritual sites or churches situated around the lake. One sharp lady, whom Rene had met on a previous trip, had written a book about the history of the Macedonian Orthodox churches at Ohrid. She was a Ph.D, and took us on a wonderful tour of one of the newly preserved churches, explaining the allegorical histories and stories in the frescoes, and how the different regimes over time had squelched, but never taken away, the soul of the people and their religious beliefs. She was at once professorial and eccentric, spiritual and earthly, and yet her narrative was extremely interesting. I don't think I've ever had a tour of a church like that one.

We ran into another man, (who later became known as "crazy freethinking guy"), who offered to explain a little about the ruins at the base of the hill. His theories were quite a bit "looser" than those of the Ph.D., and we soon wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into. At the end of his short "tour" we gave him a small donation, as he answered a call on his smart phone, and gave me his website address! My only regret is that out of respect, I didn't take a picture of him. He was the most interesting looking character study I've seen in a long time — a real Ichabod Crane type, with the hunched over, monk-like look that would be at home in the peasant folk paintings of the 19th century. I kept wanting to ask him if he was really a character actor, pretending to be a crazy scholar! I'll soon forget exactly what he taught us, but I'll never forget his appearance.

The day was a mix of sun and storm, made even more nuts by the fact that every time we walked out of a building it started to rain; while we were indoors the sun would come out. Didn't matter though, we had some potent home-made hooch to keep us warm! No one could resist giving us a bottle of their personal favorite. I think we were given three liters of the stuff until we finally said, "no more!"

Ohrid is famous not only for endangered trout and free-thinkers, but for a type of freshwater pearl made from the lake. These pearls are not made by oysters, but rather from the scales of a local fish called the Plasica. It's a bit of a mystery to me how the scales become pearls, but there were many jewelry stores selling creatively set and designed pieces made from them. Here's a site with more about the Ohrid pearl. I know Rene's planning to go back to get herself a little booty from the lake.

Our next day was another day of travel, but since the country is small and there is lots to see, Rene had arranged a private tour guide to drive us to our next destination in his car, with historical oratory along the way. Now, really, who could afford this anywhere else in the world? But in Macedonia it was a very reasonable way to go from point A to point B, and I can say that by the end of the day our guide Daniel had become yet another close friend of ours. He even knew "crazy free-thinking guy!"

Daniel first took us to a historical/archeological site known as the "Bay of Bones," a prehistoric pile dwelling settlement on the lake. Apparently, prehistoric Macedonians found that building over the lake made it easier to defend themselves against the bad guys: namely big prehistoric bears! These folks lived in the Bronze and Iron Ages — 1200 BC to 700 BC, so bear repellent probably hadn't been discovered yet. As expected, Steve's pulse quickened when he saw clay pottery in the museum, but I was glad to see it wasn't for sale.

Daniel then took us to a small river that fed into the lake. This river had unique geological features that he was able to point out with considerable scientific knowledge, such as bubbling spring-fed sands, and quicksand. After a boat ride, and lunch at the riverside restaurant, we headed over the top of Mt. Pelister to Lake Prespa and beyond, ending at the small town of Demir Kapija.
Daniel gave us a running historical and geographical commentary along the way which kept things interesting. We found ourselves commenting at how well the roads were holding up at one point, only to hear that the roads built by Tito's political prisoners (aka: volunteers!?) were the best! Certainly, you won't get that kind of in-depth background info from your iPhone touring app.
After a stop at the resort town of Bitola, we headed on to Demir Kapija, our final destination in Macedonia. This small town is home of the famous Popova Kula Winery. We were very pleasantly surprised to see this beautiful Napa Valley style winery out in the countryside. The setting is gorgeous; set near the top of a low rise of hills, vineyards all around, a view of a small river and the startling vista of the "Iron Gate," or Demir Kapija in the near distance. The story of how this winery got it's start is no less dramatic than the scenery around it. It has even been reported in a great background story on CNN, in much better terms than I can say here.

Rene had made reservations in the finest of the winery's hotel rooms, and arranged for the perfect-sized group wine tasting experience in the Priest's Tower at the top. She invited three of her friends to join us so that we had the entire room to ourselves: an invitation to act slap-happy if I ever saw one.

One of these intrepid tasters actually has taken on the daunting role of English tutor to the employees and staff of the winery — daunting I tell ya! Imagine hanging out all day in a beautiful priest's tower, teaching a difficult language to poor unsuspecting students while having to occasionally partake a sip or two of the latest crush — just to be polite of course. Oh the horror. This is just my personal observation, but service in the Peace Corp isn't for the faint of heart!

Our sommelier is knowledgeable and patient with us!
The winery is in full production, with the latest equipment and quality wines produced from 11 varieties of grapes.


Though the evening started out on a sophisticated and upscale note, after 5 bottles things had gotten decidedly low-brow! 

With the help of Rene's friends I learned some interesting new dance moves, which they call "noodle-arms." (Not to be confused with "catfisting," a form of noodling that results in a 20 lb. catfish attached to the end of your arm.)

My takeaway from this trip to Macedonia is that the country is young. This is not to say that it's history isn't absolutely ancient! But as a country with it's own identity, it is just beginning to find it's voice. The people we met have found a very strong sense of nationalistic pride, and they are happy to share it with great pleasure and assurance. From having the red-ist poppies and best little apples in all of Europe, to being the only place in the world where you can get a certain variety of wine, and having the most churches in one small setting, this love of all things Macedonian is present everywhere. Even though they are experiencing some hiccups with their startup as a country, I am hopeful that this great pride can be channeled in positive directions. I believe this is one of the reasons that Rene's organization is there, and she is learning so much more than she's aware. Her experiences will stay with her for the rest of her life, and she will be richer for it.

Next post: We leave Macedonia for Northern Greece. Green hills, olive trees, great gyros, Ouzo, octopus salad and monasteries everywhere — on mountaintops, on cliff faces, and precariously perched on massive towers of stone. Mamma mia!

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  • Sounds like an amazing trip. I can tell you were moved by many things including the "Crazy free-thinking guy". Can't wait to read more!

    By Anonymous Lynn Swanson, at 6/25/2010 3:37 AM  

  • NEWS FLASH: Just a few months after our return home, we heard that the Irish Pub in Kumanovo, "The Harp," had been forced to close down. I'm so sorry to hear this! We wish the luck o' the Irish to Mark, our host and a true gentleman. "May good fortune be yours, may
    your joys never end." The Harp's legacy lives on: if you look up Kumanovo on Wikipedia, it's the first listing under "where to eat and drink." Way to go, Mark!

    By Blogger Terry R, at 8/08/2010 7:20 PM  

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