Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)
September 2008

 
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It's not "Macedonia" -- it's the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). That's its official name, since most of historical Macedonia is in Greece, and the Greeks get really testy about another country using "its" name.

I was feeling trepidatious about leaving Bulgaria; could Macedonia measure up? Nope. Immediately after the border at Novo Selo, we encountered much more trash, untidy, sad-looking homes, frowning people and a general feeling of unwelcomeness.

There were LOTS of carts being pulled by donkeys (most that we had seen in other countrie had been pulled by horses), and most carts were laden with peppers. I've never seen so many peppers! They all looked really good too. Many houses had peppers hanging across their balconies, along with laundry.

We wanted to push as far into Macedonia as possible, in order to make Lake Ohrid as early the next day as possible, but we were getting nervous, as we had seen nothing at all that looked like a hotel. We headed into to Strumitca (or Strumitsa), the largest town on our way that we could make that day, and found ourselves in the middle of a very unwelcoming city. The only hotel we saw was boarded up. We drove around for a long while, through all sorts of streets, and saw no hotels at all. We stopped at a gas station, where no one wanted to help us, so we pressed on to another gas station. The first person we met was particularly unhelpful, obviously wanting us to just go away. But his friend, a customer, was more than happy to help - he worked in Germany for some years and his German was still quite good. And as happened so often on our trip, he told us to follow him in his car (actually, a friend's car) to get where we wanted to go. The hotel wasn't far at all, and we thought it would do for the evening. Unfortunately, our friend walked away before we could offer to buy him a beer, which I very much wanted to do. The young guy checking us in was excited to practice his English and gave us a room just one floor up, so we wouldn't have far to schlep our things. Stefan parked his motorcycle in the fenced (but not locked-in) back parking lot. We had really wanted to camp, and were bummed to be in a hotel again. We walked through the neighborhood a bit in a search for an ATM that would accept our German ATM card, and to find food. We were successful on both counts -- the food was from a small but very popular local bakery where we each got variations of some kind of meat-filled pastry (mine also had a pickle) that were awesome. We tried to buy milk, but ended up with small cartons of yogurt and butter milk. We went back to our room to settle in for the evening, ready to get up early to make it to Lake Orhid before nightfall the next day.

Around 1 in the morning, the singing began. At first, it was a single, somewhat drunken voice, accompanied by a guitar. Not a bad way to be woken up, but I was hoping it would end soon, because I was sleepy. I thought it was an end-of-the-evening song. It was followed by another song where more people joined in. And another where even more joined in. It wasn't ending -- it was just getting started. I am not a good person when awakened in the middle of the night. In fact, I'm a monster. I was getting angrier and angrier. No amount of earplugs were going to block out the massive chorus. We went down to the front desk and I had to be a raging bitch in order to get another room. I hate having to be a raving bitch. It's exhausting. But there was no way we were going to get moved if I didn't throw a fit.

The next day, we went down for our breakfast, which was included in the price of the room. And, surprisingly, it was one of the best breakfasts we had -- it was a great big omlette, and it was very good. I was trying to shake off the bad night, and Stefan said, "It's a beautiful day. Let's see what we can make of it." Stefan doesn't say much, but when he does, it's either really funny, or really insightful. It's a beautiful day. Let's see what we can make of it. That's a philosophy for every day. Well, every beautiful day.

Stefan also said that he wouldn't have minded the singing if the singers had invited him to drink with them and listen to the singing. Which is probably true -- but I wouldn't have been invited, because it was clearly a man-only thing. Plus, Stefan wouldn't sing no matter how much they gave him to drink.

As we drove out of Strumitca, we passed several Romani houses, which gave us pause -- we hadn't seen a big neighborhood of Romani before. Then we saw, just out of town, a hotel that would probably have been much better suited for us for the previous evening, but how could we have known it was there? And it was the last hotel we saw for hours that day -- if it had been full and we had pushed on, then what would have happened? We certainly couldn't have camped rough in Macedonia -- like Romania, there was just too much trash everywhere. That's how it is when you travel -- you gamble a lot when it comes to choices. But usually, whatever choice you make is the best you could have at the time, or you make the most of the choice you make.

The drive was beautiful in that there were lots of lovely mountains and climbs and turns, but it was awful because of all the trash and dogs and puppies everywhere. Two puppies in particular, cowering amid the trash, had me in tears yet again. I was missing Bulgaria.

We hit the autobahn, so we could get to Lake Ohrid that day but still have time for some stops. We decided to skip lunch, per our hearty breakfast, and just after lunch time, saw excavations and ruins on our right, next to the highway. It was Stobi, which is not in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, but should be: the site is OUTSTANDING!! Not only is there a Roman theater and various Roman-era ruins, not only are there mosaics from the late ancient and early Christian period that give you an idea of how the Romans influenced early Christian art and architecture, not only are there remains of a Roman prison -- something I've never encountered in all my years of rummaging through Roman ruins -- but there are ruins of an ancient Jewish synagogue dating from the 3rd or 4th century BCE. There was also an extensive archeological dig going on nearby. We sat at the very new visitor's center near the Stobi entrance, drinking Cokes and marveling at what we'd found. There was a large bus in the lot as well from the Netherlands -- the Dutch are everywhere! One of the bus tourists took several photos of Stefan's bike. Stefan's bike was quite a celebrity on this trip!

We pushed on, and stopped at a gas station for a snack. I befriended an adorable little dog, feeding her potato chips. She was terrified of Stefan and any man walking by, but loved me, posing for me in the grass and thrilled that I rubbed her belly. She is either someone's dog, or was someone's dog. I just don't understand how people can dump their dogs. I could have found her a home in Germany in about one hour.

We got into Prilep and tried to find the path up to Treskavec Monestery, which is raved about in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe, but there were no signs anywhere. We got frustrated and decided to press on to Bitola, to the Heraclea Lyncestis ruins, which were just as outstanding as Stobi. The Roman emperor Hadrian (the guy that the wall in Northern England is named after) built the theater there. But it's the incredible early-Christian mosaics that are the real draw. They are beautiful. These mosaics, which I will refer to frequently, use flora and fauna to represent Christian principles from the Bible, rather than depictions of people. The Roman influence in such mosaics is obvious -- in fact, if there's no sign saying what era it's from, it's impossible for me to tell if it's from the pre-Christian or early Christian period. There are excavations going on here as well (paid for by Italy), and next to some of the freshly dug holes were Roman statues just standing out in the field -- no where to display them yet! Underneath the main basilica ruins and massive mosaics, there are further pagen ruins, and some attempts are being made to preserve the top ruins while still digging out underneath. It looks like precarious work. In a couple of years, there's going to be even more to see at Heraclea Lyncestis, just like at Stobi. Halfway through our tour of the site, the Dutch from Stobi showed up, along with another bus load from somewhere, but somehow, Stefan managed to take photos that make it look like we were the only ones there.

Driving out of town, we saw a motorized buggy saw. Or is it that we saw a saw on a motorized buggy? I don't know, but Stefan couldn't whip out the camera quick enough to take a photo.

We pressed on to Ohrid. A tout pulled up on a bicycle while we were stopped at a stoplight and said, in English, "I think you need a hotel." We wanted to find the Gradiste camp site further South on the Lake that was talked about in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe instead, and told him so. He gave us a card and said the camp site might be closed for the season, and to follow the directions on the card to the "zimmer frei" or call him if that turned out to be the case. The price quoted on the card was a good one. We ended up not using his suggestion, however, we ran into him the next day, and he helped us bypass having to pay for parking, and because he was so nice, I told him I was going to mention the place he touts. And here it is: Antonio Guesthouse Hostel, Dejan Vojvoda str. No. 94. Email antonio_risteski@yahoo.com for reservations.

Hotel touts are usually nothing to be feared in developing countries. You follow the tout to the site he wants to show you, and if you don't like it, or if the price changes from what you were originally quoted, you simply walk away. This guy was a pro, and had we not already had something in mind, I would have suggested we go with him.

Autocamp Gradiste camp site does NOT exist. We had passed lots of signs for two star and three star rooms, as well as many large hotels, but if we couldn't camp, then I wanted to stay in a "zimmer frei", for reasons I've stated earlier in this travelogue. There was one in particular that stood out to me -- I don't know why. Vila Klia is on the left hand side of the road as you drive along the Lake towards Sveti Naum, about 14 km South of Ohrid. It has a large sign out front right on the street -- if you are looking for it, you can't miss it. Vila Klia turned out to be the perfect choice for our two nights in Ohrid. The owners had lived in German and the husband's German was still quite good. Their yard was fenced, and Lake Ohrid was right across the road. Stefan parked under the kiwi vines in their yard. As it was off-season, we paid as much per night as we had for camping in Krakow! We even had a TV with lots of channels in English. The only downside was that the rooms had no heating, and it was COLD outside. Vila Klia has a nice little restaurant downstairs and the owners seemed thrilled to cook for us (their pizza ROCKS). I did NOT have the Ohrid Lake trout ever, which Lonely Planet says is endangered; sadly, it was offered at every restaurant we went to.

A side note: why does every bar abroad serve yucky Jack Daniel's, rather than a quality Kentucky bourbon?

There was a Honda Africa Twin parked two doors down, and Stefan went to put his card somewhere on it, in hopes of selling something from his online shop, but the house was dark and the fence locked; I think most places in the area had closed up for the season that very day, in fact, because the weather had suddenly turned cold.

I slept all through the night -- which I really needed after the previous night we'd had -- but ofcourse had a Classic Weird Jayne Dream: I gained tons more weight and had trouble walking as a result. I was also advising two really snobby people on their really bad grant proposal to help their spoiled brat get funded rehearsal space and piano lessons. They wouldn't listen to me, no matter how I tried to convince them how bad the proposal was and how they would never find a foundation or corporation who would give them money for that. Then they drove me over a crazy steep bridge in a convertable, with me trying frantically hold on to all the paperwork. The End.

We got up early, had glasses of cold milk with our breakfast (yum!) plus fresh tomato juice (double yum!) which the owner was very proud of, then drove the luggage-free bike up to Ohrid old town, daring to wear our jeans rather than bike pants, since it was less than 20 kilometers to the old town and we would be spending most of the day walking around. We parked at the 11th-century Church of Sveta Sofija, and made that the first stop. Someone had printed out explanations of the frescoes and church history in English, probably from the Internet, and posted them on a church column (why don't more sites do that?!?). We also visited the Roman Amphitheatre (those things are everywhere! And like so many others, I think this is still in use), and the walls of the old Citadel, which have been beautifully restored, and inside, there was, yet again, fresh archeological digs taking place. One of the workers having his lunch down in a dark tunnel seemed startled when I greeted him as we passed the entrance. But I say hello to everybody! It's rude not to!

We walked on through a small wooded area to Sveti Jovan at Kaneo, a 13th century church over-looking the lake and surrounded by spectacular mosaics and, what else? - archeological digs! I'm so impressed with whomever is funding all these digs. It will pay off in the long-term, benefitting all the local businesses as more people come -- and return -- to Ohrid.

We ate at the Bovin wine restaurant. Part of the restaurant has only a partial wall, looking out onto Sveta Sofija, and there was a young cat walking around, looking for dropped bits of food. But then I noticed a small all-white kitten, wet and shivering near my chair. It was the kitten of the young cat, and she was trying to nurse, but I think the cat had nothing to offer. It was very cool outside, and the kitten continued to shiver and beg to nurse. I couldn't stand it. I went to the bathroom and loaded up on paper towels, came back to our table, picked up the kitten and wrapped her in the towels to dry her off, and laid her on my arm, holding her as close to me as possible, rocking back and forth. She shivered for a while, and then fell asleep, her head deep inside the crook of my arm. I was trying not to cry through the whole meal. Who dropped this cat in a bucket, to make her so wet? I dropped portions of my food on the floor for the mother cat, who never left my feet, watching me with her kitten. I hated leaving them both. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I have nothing for contempt for people that abuse and neglect animals. All night, I wondered if the kitten was warm. I still wonder.

It took several tries, but we finally found an ATM that worked with Stefan's card. Then we went looking for the local history museum, which took some doing -- it's not well-marked. It's in a house, and it will take you less than an hour to tour it, but it's worth it. They stayed open an extra 15 minutes for us, which I don't think any museum we have ever been to would do.

It was early afternoon when we found ourselves finished with Ohrid, so we headed South, long past Vila Klia, along the Lake, to Sveti Naum monastery, dodging yet more cows in the road. The original, tiny church in the middle of the monastery was built in 900 CE, and it was my favorite of all we'd seen -- it felt so medieval, so very, very old. It looks like most of the monestery has been converted into a hotel. Sveti Naum is well worth a visit, but beware: the road to the monastery is lined with ugly, bunker-styled shacks selling kitsch (crap), and lots of trash -- don't let the ugly early scenary put you off. They should have tent camping there instead. In fact, I've decided all monestaries in Bulgaria and Macedonia should offer tent camping. We never saw any auto camps or tent camping anywhere on Lake Ohrid, contrary to what's noted in Lonely Planet Eastern Europe -- I guess a lot has changed since it was published in 2004 when it was written. But there are a LOT of great places for excellent rough camping just off the road along Lake Ohrid.

There was a huge bunker on the side of the road along the way to Sveti Naum, overlooking the lake. We asked the landlord Vila Klia about it, but he had no idea what we were talking about.

I had hoped it would be warm enough to sit out on the rocky beach and look at the water, if only for a little while, but it was cold as soon as the sun went down, so we ate dinner at Vila Klia, with me rising every few minutes to close the door that the owner's grandsons kept leaving open, then went back up to the room and drank more wine from Melnik (yum!) and watched three guys bicycle across Alaska on TV.

I thought of the kitten all night...

The next day was lovely -- sunny and warm -- and we were headed to Albania. It was September 21, and we had been on the road for 22 days. I hoped that we would have at least one more warm day on this trip, and that we would be able to camp a lot more, but I wasn't hopeful on either count. I was really in need of that one more huge oh-my-goodness-I'm-so-glad-we've-done-this-trip moment.

(see the fantastic official site for Macedonia tourism)

And so we crossed into Albania.

Pictures of this part of the adventure.

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