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Sunday, June 06, 2010

European Vacation Part I: Macedonia

My husband and I don't travel a lot, but that's for situational reasons and not because we don't like to. On the contrary, we love going to new places, exploring regions we've never been to, meeting new people, and discovering out-of-the-way spots.

So, by way of catch-up on this blog, I promised to post photos from our recent big trip to Europe and the Balkan country of Macedonia. Why Macedonia? Where is Macedonia? Easy: it's a southern-most former republic of Yugoslavia, now it's own country with it's own struggles and aspirations of joining the EU. Our daughter is there with the Peace Corp, and we promised we would visit her when she joined up. So, consider "promise kept." But, also, our hearts and minds may have been expanded just a bit (ala the Grinch at Christmastime), by the wonderful hospitality of the people we met along the way.

This first post, then, will be about Macedonia, though in reality this was the third country we explored on our trip.

Rene met us at the Skopje airport. We were so excited to see her after more than a year of absence that we could barely contain ourselves! Luckily for us, she speaks the language really well by now, and found our errant rental car agent for us. The airport was shutting down for the evening, and he had gone back to town!

Driving to Kumanovo, the town Rene works and lives in, wasn't far or difficult, as long as we had Rene with us to read the signs. That night we had our first experience with the local food: she took us to a small traditional restaurant called "Cobra." The menu offered a favorite of the locals and the Peace Corps Volunteers--they called it the "meat snake," not really a snake at all but lots of thinly sliced meat wrapped and grilled around a cheesy filling that resembles a long log or "snake." We had the chicken, along with a large shopska salad of fresh cucumbers, tomatoes and lots and lots of grated sheep cheese on top. I quickly fell in love with that salad! The feta cheese was so light it melted in your mouth!!

Next day, Rene had an opportunity to introduce us to her coworkers in the nonprofit organization she is working with--a lovely bunch of very dedicated and passionate young people who really seem to care about the goals they are working toward. I'm posting a link to their website here so that you can read for yourself why Rene chose to work with them. http://www.cid.mk/ Steve and I came away from meeting these energetic young ladies with a better understanding of just why she wanted to help them: they seem to feel genuinely responsible for helping to move their country onto a progressive, global stage--one youth at a time. We were very impressed!
Our next order of business in-country, was to get registered at the police station. We're so glad one of Rene's friends had lead the way on this one. He learned the hard way that you must employ the appropriate introductions to Macedonian bureaucracy. Rene introduced us to the police, helped fill out the paperwork, and we were given our official visitors' papers so we could stay a spell. I'm sure that in time this will be streamlined into a simplified border-crossing event. In the meantime, they don't post this info anywhere at the airport, so it's easy to miss it. Heed this warning travelers: Just getting your passport stamped on entry into the country isn't good enough! Visit the Police, they will be happy to accommodate.

The following day in Macedonia was time to meet the host parents. Rene directed us to Sveti Nikole, a small town to the south of Kumanovo, and home of Toshe and Bilijana. These folks provided the "home-away-from-home" that was so valuable to Rene as she was getting used to living in a new culture and country.

We were welcomed with open arms, generous gifts and a great home cooked banquet for lunch, full of traditional dishes and local produce. Toshe's parents joined us and we had the most amazing time sharing stories about Rene and finding out more about the people and town where Rene lived and learned for three months before formally starting her 24-month gig with the Peace Corp.

After lunch, Toshe and Bilijana took us on a short drive to the countryside, where we parked at an archeological dig site -- I've since learned that it's called Bylazora, and part of an acropolis on the hill. We climbed the hill for a perfect view of herds of sheep, wandering cows, farmland and the town below.
Toshe loved showing us the local plants and herbs, some of which he brings home to make teas. He knows the medicinal uses for many, like the chamomile, the wild plums, rosehips and thistles.

Then, Toshe took us to the first of the many Macedonian Orthodox churches we would visit on this trip. He explained many of the church customs and and showed us the old church preserved below the new one. Sveti Nikole means Saint Nicholas, so this is whom the town is named for, much like the patron saints of the Catholic towns of western Europe. Many of these sites were destroyed or neglected before the break up of the Yugoslav republics, so it is with great pride that they can show us churches that either still maintain their old iconographic art and frescoes or are in various stages of restoration.

After our wonderful day in Sveti Nikole, it was hard to leave, but we had big plans in Skopje for the next day. Saying goodbye was not easy; we had to promise that Rene would be back to visit many, many times before she finally leaves the Peace Corp. Their hospitality was unbelievably generous! We found this to be true everywhere we visited in Macedonia, but Bilijana and Toshe really seemed to care a lot about Rene. I realized that she had been in very protective hands all the while that I had been worried about her well-being so far from home. They took very good care of her -- like a beloved Aunt and Uncle in a far away place, I know she'll always hold them close in her heart and memories.

Our next day was packed even more with great friends and amazing places! We toured the capitol city of Skopje with Rene's host-brother Ane, who is attending school there. We were joined by Marija, Rene's language teacher and friend. Both friends were very knowledgeable about the town's sites and points of interest and made great tour guides.

Ane showed an artistic flair for photography, so I handed him my camera and let him do the shooting in the old Turkish Bazaar area downtown. We visited the national museum, with many items that dated back to 5,000 BC. As a lover of Native American pottery and ceramics, Steve was duly impressed that some of these clay pots could be that old! We look at museum pieces here that date back to 1200 AD and think they're old, but that's nothing compared to the antiquities in this museum. 
After Ane went back to class in the afternoon, we dropped by the Peace Corp office to meet some more friends, then headed out to a beautifully scenic spot very near town, Matka Canyon. We took a boat tour on the lake of Matka Canyon and picked up a little local history with our guide/oarsman. This area is close to town, yet so beautiful with a restaurant and chapel right on the lake. The exceptional geologic beauty was doubly enhanced with a glass of wine from local wineries, lakeside!

Our Skopje tour ended that night with dinner at one of the nicest, and most traditional, restaurants in town: Makedonska Kuka. Ane joined us again, and we had a delicious meal chosen for us by our waiter.

Oh, but the day wasn't over yet! Back in Kumanovo, Rene took us to the Irish Pub, where her fellow PC volunteer and friend Paul was headliner for the night. We were out way past our bedtimes, singing along to our favorite pop-rock tunes long into the night with Paul, Rene, and friends Anna and Jessica.
With our dry throats whetted by a free round or two from the Pub owner, we slept like the dead 'til the next mornin'.

Next post: Our Macedonian tour continues, with a drive to a lake resort, endangered species, fortresses, ruins, flowers and a Bay of Bones!

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