Destination: Skopje, Ohrid (plus St. Naum and Struga)
- Mission 1: Attempt to unravel and understand the current state of affairs with this contested little Balkan state (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Make my impressions of the controversial “Skopje 2014” new look city project (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Slow my usual pace and spend some relaxing days in one of the most scenic destinations in the Balkans; Lake Ohrid (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: See at least a few splendid examples of the 365 churches in Ohrid (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Go to the highest town, Kruševo to visit the UFO-like Makedonium monument (DEFERRED).
Highlight: The view overlooking the Church of St. John at Kaneo in Ohrid was truly picture-perfect (main picture).
Lowlight: Earthquakes. Fortunately I didn’t experience them personally, but after the devastating quake that destroyed Skopje in 1963, these frequent tremors between 4-5 in magnitude can still cause a bit of anxiety.
Feat of Architecture: The Ilinden Monument (a.k.a. Makedonium) in Kruševo with its UFO-like appearance.
Recce Fact: At least one-quarter (minimum estimated) of Macedonia’s population are ethnic Albanian, predominantly living in the north-west regions.
Can I say that Macedonia is my very favourite mission so far? I think I can, as I went twice in six months and am already anticipating the next trip. For an alleged “artificial” sovereign state with a “fictitious cultural identity” [so say its neighbours], (the Republic of) Macedonia has breathtaking views, some of the most hospitable people, the very best traditional folk music and is a little landlocked gem among the Balkans…so there you have it.
The struggles of the Republic of Macedonia are far from over, as a region of historically disputed borders and mixed (and controversial) identities. Some pessimistic projections even reckon it won’t survive to exist as a country in the next 10-20 years. Who knows what fate lies ahead? But the government has certainly been making a valiant attempt to shake things up and gain recognition, most notably by giving the capital (Skopje), not only a dramatic face-lift but, well…a complete ethereal transformation.
My first trip (in Oct. 2016) was exclusively to Skopje, in order to admire the contrast of the otherworldly new showcase city against the backdrop of the typical former Yugoslavian urban landscape, as well as some very peculiar and delightfully ugly buildings. I was so impressed with it that I absolutely had to go back six months later, but this time to another region; Ohrid – with truly outstanding beauty (don’t take my word for it, just wait ’til we reach the pictures- seeing is believing). But being in the capital really offers the best insight into the real situation and politics at play. Sure, it wouldn’t be the Balkans if it wasn’t intrinsically complicated!
Having read so much negative press about the “fake” new Skopje, I was really expecting a “plastic city” of low-quality constructions and facades. On the contrary, it was enchanting.
Sure, ongoing construction was a bit of an eyesore, with diggers and scaffolds scattered around the centre, but walking along the river banks listening to the water rhythmically spurting from the fountains and the soft classical music over the loudspeakers was very tranquil. Naturally, when you turn a corner and are confronted with the grey, dilapidated socialist housing in direct line-of-sight, it does bring you quickly back to the ex-Yugoslavian reality; but fortunately that is exactly my cup of tea.
I found the most charming part of the city to be on the other side of the landmark Stone Bridge; the Old Bazaar. The bridge itself hasn’t changed much since the 15th century Ottoman era, although it has been reconstructed several times, with a lucky escape from being blown to smithereens by the Nazis at one point. Once upon a time executions would have been staged here, and today it still serves as a busy artery crossing the River Vardar. Whichever time of the day I passed through, sitting in the same spot were always two endearing little Romani urchins banging on a makeshift drum. They were making a right racket, and also a pretty penny no doubt.
Admittedly, I hadn’t read up on what to expect in the Old Bazaar, assuming it would be a prime tourist trap, but it wasn’t excessively. It became evident that the further one ventures into the bazaar, the more Albanian it begins to feel. How did I work that out? The famous Albanian hospitality of course! A number of strangers stopped to ask if I needed help, guided me where to find the best burek (almost impossible to source after breakfast time from Macedonian vendors) and served me some fine Turkish coffee (the thick consistency I like). Well… that and the souvenir stall (pictured left) sort of gave it away.
It was also in the Old Bazaar that I discovered a new favourite pastime; waiting eagerly outside mosques at prayer times hear the adhan (call to prayer) resonating from the loudspeakers. There’s something very compelling about it and the atmosphere it creates, whether you are Muslim or not. Eventually, I’ve come to recognise the pattern even though I don’t understand a word of Arabic. Here are the call to prayer video clips from the Old Bazaars in Skopje and Ohrid.
Macedonia is home to a mixed population of Macedonians, Albanians, Turks and Romani (see Šuto Orizari) communities who thrive (largely) amicably today. But with this diversity and some bitter history comes friction that still hangs in the air. As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, Macedonia is subject to constant finger-pointing and outrage from its neighbours in Bulgaria and Greece in particular, who object to its historical and cultural claims. We’re not merely talking about tit-for-tat over mutual usurping of a few notable figures, but pretty much the undermining of everything that Macedonia classes as its roots and heritage; from songs and battles to the very land itself.
The Contested Macedonian Identity – Chapter I: What’s in a Name?
Of all the proverbial bones to pick with Macedonia, Greece appear to have the biggest one. At least they make the most noise about it that echoes through the rest of Europe and the world, who have attempted to mediate the naming dispute at UN level. To cut a long story short, since gaining independence upon the breakup of Yugoslavia, Macedonia have tried on many names for size that have upset their Hellenic brethren in neighbouring Greece. The crux of it is that Greece do not recognise (and reject) the nation’s claim over the use of the term, “Macedonia”, that they claim as fundamentally Greek (as in the ancient kingdom of Macedon). But it’s not just about the name, as it goes hand-in-hand with the associated history and culture, and that includes Alexander the Great, who has featured heavily as a prominent figure of the Skopje 2014 project. The bold statements made by Skopje’s new “Alexander the Great Airport“, “Equestrian Warrior” statue in the main square, monumental tributes to Philip II and Hellenic-looking warriors built into the fountains caused major controversy when they were unveiled and added salt to the open wounds; and we shan’t even delve into the national flag /Vergina Sun symbolism debate. Greece fiercely dispute any position other than Alexander and his father Philip II were anything but Greece’s own, yet Macedonians maintain that they are their direct descendants and that the Greek influence came later. It doesn’t help that the historic borders of Macedonia shifted many times, and original maps are far from reliable sources to determine true demarcation.
Regardless of absolute truths, Greece have taken a hard line on the matter for quite some time and have been absolutely unwilling to compromise. The result of this has been a tedious ongoing game of hat-draw-like naming processes with every possible string combination of loosely associated nouns having been considered; on which nobody could reach a consensus. Hence, it has been known as the tongue-twister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since 1993, although initially that was only ever meant to be a temporary arrangement until a suitable alternative was found. Although Athens have shown increased willingness to negotiate as time has progressed, it is still believed that until they are satisfied with the name, they would block any attempt of Macedonia’s accession into NATO or the EU. The Macedonian population have been branded simply (and to them, offensively) as Bulgarians or else “Bulgarised-Serbs” who came to inhabit a minor portion of historic Macedonia and have illegitimately adopted a false identity, sharing nothing in common with the original Macedonians, and their sovereign state was simply Tito’s artificial communist creation of stitched-together territories to prevent any Bulgarian expansionist agenda. One can imagine how inflammatory this accusation of having a completely artificial identity must be to the FYROM Macedonians who strongly feel otherwise.
I have encountered Macedonians who self-identify as Slavs, and others who completely reject it and even find it offensive or racist. This site provides a clear and interesting summary of why modern-day Macedonians are the “true descendants” of ancient Macedonians, right down to presenting genetic evidence. Neutral historians have argued that, in fact, neither modern day Greeks nor Macedonians are related to ancient Macedonians, but Greeks share a few more similarities on the whole. The rest of the world, by and large, tends to empathise with Greece on the matter because let’s face it, nobody really wants to risk upsetting the more formidable and globally influential party with questions that could be seen to undermine any aspect of the revered Greek civilization. Either way, fallacies are rampant among parties on both sides (you don’t have to look too far on the internet to see evidence of it) that the truth may never be truly unraveled and declared absolute. The sole opinion that I’ve managed to form is that, to claim that any nation is somehow pure or homogeneous these days and not a progressive genetic mix of this-or-that is a concept that is going to be a hard-sell.
I recall informing my Greek housemate at the time of my travel plans to Macedonia and she swiftly corrected me, “You mean you are visiting ΠΓΔΜ/FYROM. Macedonia is in Greece.“; and so the debate continues. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be too much bad blood between ordinary FYROM-Macedonians and their ethnic Greek-Macedonian counterparts, provided that politics doesn’t crop-up in conversation. Macedonians are frequently holidaying in “the other Macedonia”, i.e. the port city of Thessaloniki and other resorts and vice-versa.
So let us not be surprised if the country changes its name again very soon. Hopefully it’ll be less of a mouthful.
The Contested Macedonian Identity – Chapter II: Bulgarian vs. Macedonian Achievements
Modern-day FYROM Macedonians and Bulgarians have a shared history (apart perhaps from a WWII blip which saw Bulgarian occupation under Nazi influence), and the languages are quite similar. But drawing a line of separation to distinguish one from the other along a historic timeline is challenging and hazy at best. A Bulgarian standpoint is a “shared language” + “common Slavic blood” + “shared history” = “same nation of people”, or at least “long lost mountain cousins”, as I’ve heard them describe. Hence, their refusal to recognise much of what is distinctly Macedonian and their self-determination.
A Bulgarian is liable to take a stroll across the Art Bridge in Skopje, for example, and be greeted by several familiar “Bulgarian” faces (the full lineup is listed here); from poets to folk song-writers. Why? Because at the time, present-day Republic of Macedonia as we know it did not exist and many of these individuals were self-proclaimed Bulgarians. They’re also likely to protest at the showcasing of a monument dedicated to the saintly brothers Cyril and Methodius, founders of the Glagolitic alphabet, from which Cyrillic was later derived. Even Mister Putin, this year, referenced the Cyrillic alphabet as originating from Macedonian soil that got Bulgarians hopping mad.
Despite the souring of relations, it appears that Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is attempting to make amends with all neighbours; Bulgaria in particular through signing a friendship treaty. While improved relations will surely be beneficial for the economy and break down some of the barriers towards EU and NATO accession, there is a anxiety among the people of Macedonia that too many concessions will be made in the process. It may start with sharing public holidays, resolving language disputes or making revisions to Macedonian history books, but ultimately, a betting-man’s prediction is that the endgame in mind will be the merging of the two states and the eventual dissolution of the forged and upheld Macedonian identity. Meanwhile, many Macedonians have chosen to take advantage of entitlement to Bulgarian passports, with Bulgaria offering not only a gateway to the EU, but also a stable financial crutch whilst its other neighbours have suffered from crippling embargoes. However, this newly proposed friendship treaty between the nations includes non-interference clauses, so we’ll see how that pans out.
The Contested Macedonian Identity – Chapter III: Albanians- Not Merely a Minority
It is estimated (unofficially) that Macedonia could comprise a 35% Albanian population. Official figures from the last census state at least 25%; hardly a negligible minority. Apart from religious and ethnic differences between Macedonians and Albanians in FYROM, relations continue to be tested after the conflict in 2001. From an Albanian nationalist and separatist standpoint, Skopje (Shkupi) was the historic capital of Dardania and the land was divided erroneously following the Balkan Wars, cutting off large populations of Albanians from Albania itself along “unnatural borders”. Being the Balkans, ethnic cleansing is always a mutual concern and aspirations of a Greater Albania with expanded borders engulfing Western Macedonia generates a degree of paranoia.
In truth, all that ordinary Albanian people proclaim to want at this moment in time is full rights and equality. For a long time, they have felt somewhat marginalised within Macedonia. The 2001 conflict ended with the signing of the Ohrid Agreement that outlined the mutual end of armed conflict between the National Liberation Army and the Macedonian security forces and steps for improving the rights of ethnic Albanians. Further to this, it included provisions for making Albanian a second official language, provided that it meets the criteria of being “spoken by at least 20% of the population”. Although it technically qualifies, no such changes have been implemented.
There was very nearly a coup earlier this year (2017) as Macedonian protesters stormed the parliament in Skopje in outrage at the election of an Albanian parliamentary speaker. The violence and resulting injuries were widely condemned, and it is suspected that former prime minister Nikola Gruevski‘s supporters were the culprits. Clearly there are existing fears over the Albanian population obtaining real powers and risking an eventual breakup of the country. Some Macedonian nationalists believe that Albanians later migrated to Macedonia after their own descendants (counter-claimed by Albanians) and that many more entered after the conflict in Kosovo, thus they should not be entitled to implement the same preferences as they would in Albania. There’s also a feeling that Albanians are seeking excessive entitlement and exaggerate the disparity, playing the victim of second class citizens in order to secure additional privileges and that ultimately, the end goal is still the expansion of Albanian borders and the expulsion of Macedonians.
Having said all that, both populations seem to reside peacefully together and attacks on individuals or communities are generally unheard of. They just keep themselves to themselves and thrive in their separate cultures. Nonetheless, Macedonia embraces the ethnically Albanian Mother Teresa as one of Skopje’s own, and commemorates her birthplace with a plaque and a statue beside the new gold-domed Orthodox church under construction. One will also find notable tributes to Mother Teresa in Tirana and Pristina, so at least that’s something they can all agree to share in (maybe?).
All That Glitters is Not Gold
Asking around, the public opinion about Skopje’s new image was mixed. After the initial hype, things have calmed down and local Skopjans are now well-accustomed to the city’s new face. However, multicoloured paint stains remain on the white buildings as a reminder of the Colourful Revolution vandalism of 2016. In these series of protests, masses took to the streets armed with paintguns intent on defacing Gruevski’s Skopje 2014 manifestation. Individuals protested for a number of different reasons; the pardoning of the government’s crimes of corruption, the excessive expenditure on Skopje 2014 (estimated at anything up to €600 million, when the budget was originally €80 million), marginalisation of various minority groups, unemployment, poverty and the whole regime in general.
In 2017, Macedonia’s unemployment rate dropped by 2% to 22.9% from the previous year. There has been a massive push for encouraging international investment, e.g. from the Invest in Macedonia initiative, outlining attractive corporate tax rates among other perks. Time will tell if all these efforts will pay off for a more sustainable economy, without the Balkan’s national sports of ethnic conflict and corruption derailing it completely.
In and Around Skopje
Oh I’m sorry. Did you just come to see the pretty pictures of Ohrid without getting knee-deep in more Balkan turmoil? My sincere apologies. I promise that the views won’t disappoint.
But first, a brief swing by Skopje’s more relaxing locations; Matka Canyon, Mount Vodno and the new Macedonian Village resort, complete with replica houses representing architectural styles typical of the various regions of the country. It does feel artificial, but very picturesque nonetheless and a perfect spot to stop for a cuppa while visiting Mount Vodno.
A cable car brings visitors to the top of the mountain overlooking the entire city. The large cross on top (not the only one of its kind) lights up like Las Vegas at night time. Prominent, but tacky, and less reassuring than gazing up to a Cristo Redentor type figure à la Rio de Janeiro – but a fat lot of good he’s doing at overseeing things anyhow.
Last, but not not least, the nearby Matka Canyon is a must-see, although there wasn’t a sinner about on the cloudy October day on which I paid it a visit (suited me just fine). Mark my words; definitely-do-not take pictures of the dam as it’s forbidden because those with ill-will may be incapable of Google-Imaging it and could formulate plots from your holiday snaps. I, too, definitely-did-not take pictures of the dam when the watchguard was lingering around the corner of the rock face, lest my camera be hijacked by would-be saboteurs, unskilled in the dark arts of search engine image queries.
Before moving on from Skopje altogether, it wouldn’t be Reconnaissance Europe if there was no homage paid to its fascinatingly ugly buildings. The most peculiar is probably the main post office building. Watch it go up in flames like a giant torch during an accidental fire in 2013.
Escape to Paradise (Ohrid)
Second time around, I decided to forget about all about politics and conflict and see if the greatly-acclaimed UNESCO location of Lake Ohrid was all it’s cracked up to be. It was. No one back home would believe me that Macedonia was so picturesque unless I had something to show for it.
In the peak summer months, tourism is thriving, from elderly Dutch visitors to an emerging young-partyseeking crowd. Breakfast by the lake, shopping in the old bazaar, great restaurants, breathtaking scenery and churches, boat trips, lively modern and traditional nightlife; what’s not to enjoy?
Lake Ohrid boasts hundreds of species of wildlife and from the evening I arrived, I was determined to spot whichever type of bird was making a very distinct noise that could be heard from all around. Picturing some type of lanky-legged waterbird, I felt a bit sheepish when a knowledgeable local corrected me that it was actually the chattering of frogs that I was hearing. And low and behold, there they were, nested among the reeds and lounging in the sunshine.
The Holy Lands and Some Extremely Noisy Birds (Ohrid & St. Naum)
Ohrid is famous for having 365 churches; one for every day of the year (Orthodox of course). Mosques are numerous as well, but much lesser so. Although it sounds like a high density, I didn’t notice that many, but did go out of my way to see the most spectacular churches and monasteries (Monastery of St. Clement and St. Panteleimon, Church of St. Sophia and the Monastery of St. Naum close to the Albanian border).
By far, the most impressive was the Church of St. John at Kaneo (feature picture) after a bit of a hill hike. After the climb, I descended down to the lakeside restaurants below for a glass of Macedonian wine and a slice of Ohrid Cake (see Food of Macedonia below).
St. Naum was where I spent my final night before crossing the Albanian border. That was a whole other adventure that I’ll get to in just a moment. But first, PEACOCKS!
Blasted things, so they are. At first, it was all very tranquil; the monastery overlooking the lake with the birds roaming around freely, the restaurant on a little island over a wooden bridge, a relaxing boat trip over the natural springs with some mastika-in hand… but as it turns out, in their attempts to constantly impress the white female birds (who seemed thoroughly unimpressed), the shrieking goes on all through the night, long after the tourists have gone home in coaches. I reckon there were two hours during the night when they didn’t make a racket; approximately equal to how many hours’ kip I got. But oh-the-views during breakfast the next morning (scroll down to Food of Macedonia). It was worth staying awake for.
Sometimes we think we are so well prepared for our travels so nothing could possibly go wrong with Contingency Plans A-to-D in place, but somehow things don’t always pan out as pre-empted. Basically, there are no taxis, the bus is only for staff and the only feasible option is a 10 minute walk. Sounded just fine, except Google Maps failed to mention that the short walk involved trespassing through a military camp with a locked gate. After a bit of help from extremely helpful locals, the extremely tall on-duty soldier agreed to let me pass through the next morning. Well, I must have more natural charm than I thought, because not only did he open the gate for me, but he also carried my heavy little suitcase all the way up the hill.
Zastava – I’ll save the tribute for Serbia, but there are oodles of these still zipping around in Macedonia and other ex-Yugoslavia states; many of which are very well kept, may I add (and many not so much). What’s most surprising is how well they have maintained their vibrant paint colours.
Last stops, Struga and the Bay of Bones, both very close to Ohrid but in opposite directions. Struga is a town with a significant Albanian population and a pleasant promenade walk alongside the Black Drin river, that crosses the Albanian border to merge with the White Drin. The best find was the unexpected spomenik (war memorial) for WWII which also makes draws an analogy with a river in its memorial plaque that reads, “The revolution is like a river. It flows uninterrupted from the springs of the past to the delta of the infinite future, and while flowing, it empowers life with life.”
Bay of Bones – an all-artificial but impressive-nonetheless village reconstruction known as a museum on water.
Food of Macedonia
Macedonia (like Albania) has no McDonald’s franchises. Well, it did for 16 years, but after the license was revoked in 2013 they were all shut-down for good. Maybe it’s in bad taste, but I can’t resist citing a hilarious comment that I read on the news article thread: “The government will probably take them [McDonald’s] over, nationalize and antiquate them into MkDonski, as they fed Alexander’s armies in their march east. Giant statue of Ronaldev McDonski coming soon to Skopje 2014!”. Ho-ho-ho; Macedonians must really tire of these cheap digs, but I’ll admit I did have a right old giggle at that one. Anyway it matters not, they have superior barbecued meats and McD’s is not missed one bit.
I hate to sound like a typical British lager-lout and measure a country by the price of its beer, but a bottle of beer is still 1 Euro or less. The boozy holidaymakers are catching onto this gradually, as Ohrid becomes increasingly frequented by them in the summer months. Whilst I am personally pleased that they are giving the economy a boost in doing so, I selfishly hope that it can remain somewhat secret and untouched by rowdies. This brings me to a bit of an epiphany – in Macedonia (and other Balkan countries), the bars, restaurants and kafanas appear to be packed on any night of the week. In the UK, we like to deprive ourselves from any form of mid-week enjoyment and fall into this “living for the weekend” pattern. Why? Because we somewhat enjoy misery. No, seriously, it is comforting. In our lingering post-war attitude, it’s taboo to enjoy oneself on a work night and if someone dares to, we have every right to hate their guts for it. The Balkan culture is totally different. The money may not be rolling in, but as my Bosnian friend says, “It’s the small things that make life”, and if that means indulging in a platter of grilled meats, having a drink with friends and re-telling the same story three or four times, laughing, weeping, dancing and singing your heart about a pretty mountain girl out on a Wednesday night, then why-the-heck not.
Oh yes…food. When I personally think of Macedonia, aside from other Balkan states, I think of tavče gravče (baked beans), Ohrid Cake (probably the best cake I’ve ever had), pastrmajlija (a sort of boat-shaped pizza with its very own festival), great wines and some heartattack-inducing “bread pie” called simit pogacha (that I probably will never try to spare my arteries). Most other things that spring to my mind can be found elsewhere too; burek, ajvar, malidzano-by-other-names, shopska salad and kebabs/cevapi.
But above all, I shall never forget those breakfasts looking out over Lake Ohrid. Somehow it made everything taste better.
Sounds of Macedonia
Macedonian music is adored throughout the Balkans, and not only the music itself but the dancing as well (I saw a particularly interesting one where the women bring in coffee trays and the men start dancing on top of them). You might be lucky enough to catch a street display, as I was in Ohrid.
The pride of Macedonia is Toše Proeski who tragically died in a car accident at age only 26. He’s been immortalised as the “Elvis of the Balkans” because the people loved him so. What a great surprise to find out that I had actually arrived on his birthday, and so I had the pleasure of being part of the celebrations and tributes in the main square, with his music videos playing on the big screen behind the colourful fountain light show.
I would also rate Lozano’s performance in “If I could change the world” from Eurovision 2013 as one of the best male vocals of all time, be it in the Macedonian or the English version. Esma (who he sings with) was a legend all over the Balkans, as a humanitarian as well as a talented Romani folk singer. She fostered nearly 50 children, and sadly passed away in 2016.
One of my favourite songs ever-ever-ever is a version of a famous folk song (Ја излези Ѓурѓо) by a band called Next Time. Most Macedonian folk songs fit into one of the themes of komitski (rebel), patriotic, jocular and most of all, love songs that are played in the kafanas. This one refers to the Ilinden events of 1903, but when I hear it, it just takes me back to Macedonia every single time.
See the Reconnaissance Euro Jukebox for the full list of musical highlights.
Mission Macedonia Summary
Macedonia has raised many interesting questions in my mind; for instance; are multi-ethnic states with such significant minority populations sustainable? Should majority ethnic population boundaries define a natural state, or is that a gross oversimplification? Has foreign intrusion and interference been the greatest source of all problems? Does EU membership for Macedonia and the strengthening of the economy mean letting go of so many things it holds sacred? Come what may, Macedonians are absolutely right to be proud of their magnificent land and that can never be taken away. I’ll see you again soon Macedonia- you know I cannot stay away for too long.