Arrival in Skopje from Stockholm (three hours), with budget East European-focused airline Wizzair, is unfortunately rather late (00.40), making it impossible to have any visual first impressions of the landscape. Travel-weary we were, but warmly welcomed by Majé at Skopje’s new Alexander the Great International Airport, and whisked to the nearby Hunter´s Lodge at the Chateau Kamnik Winery. I don’t remember much of our all too brief stay in this unusual place, which also offers hunting expeditions, apart from an efficient midnight reception, a comfortable room and good breakfast. More memorable is the décor of the Lodge: hunting paraphernalia and trophies ranging from bear and wolf skins to the heads of various local deer, and a wild boar with fearsome tusks. The Kamnik Restaurant at the Hunter’s Lodge provides guests with “fine wine and dining”.
Our action-packed day began with a guided tour through the small boutique Chateau Kamnik winery, in which the cultivation, wine-making, and bottling processes were explained, followed by the tasting of several excellent wines from the estate.
My favourite, the Temjanika 2013, with its “hay-yellow colour tinged with a fresh green hue”, presents “a fruity aroma of dry apricots and orange peel, followed by discrete spicy sub-tones of basil and elder. The taste is medium to full-bodied, with harmonic freshness and a well-balanced long fruity and spicy aftertaste.”
The wine is left to mature in new barrels of American and French oak (both from France):
Also delicious are the Ten Barrels Syrah 2010 with an “aroma of berries, chocolate, liquorice and violet”, and the Merlot Single Vineyard Reserva 2010 “with a fruity character revealing black cherries, blackberry jam and figs, complemented by the spicy notes of vanilla, smoke and roasted coffee”. Temjanika Late Harvest 2008, presented in elegant slender bottles, is “a perfect match with apple pie, fruit cake or crème brûlée.” Mmmm, delicious!
Cubes of baguette and cheese aided in the differentiation – and absorption – of all these fruity flavours, which, in addition to a sandwich from the Lodge, served as a delicious on-the-road lunch after the tour.
The view from the Chateau terrace is magnificent: far-off, snow-capped mountains that form the border with Kosovo and Serbia, and neat vineyards scattered with crimson poppies and bordered with roses. The latter serve as an “alarm” in the event of an insect infestation or disease; the roses are the first to manifest any ailments, allowing the vintners time to protect the vines.
Wine production in Macedonia is a major industry, and no visit to the country would be complete without a guided tour and tasting at several of the fine wine estates. Spring and autumn are the best months to go, when the weather is cooler and the scenery at its most magnificent.
Back at the Lodge, our driver-guide Sašo was ready to take us through a beautiful landscape of vineyards, peach and cherry orchards and new-green wheat, the start of our circular route around Macedonia, and our first archaeological site. It is one of over 4,000 sites in this timeless land – another typical feature, apart from the vineyards. As Macedonian film director Milcho Manchevski stated: The centuries do not follow one another in our country, but exist simultaneously.
Indeed, it would be impossible to relate all the archaeological and historical marvels of this small young country (25,713 square kms, population 2.1 million in 2013) in one article; highlights will have to suffice.
Stobi – named Stobis, vetere urbe by the Roman historian Livy, was founded at the confluence of the rivers Crna and Vardar, and at the crossing point of the three major Roman roads that traversed Macedonia: the Via Egnatia, the Via Axia and the Via Diagonale. The road that runs along the valleys of the Vardar and Morava rivers is one of the oldest communication routes, dating from prehistoric times, that connected Thessalonica to the south, on the northern Greek Aegean cost, and Singidunum (modern Belgrade, Serbia) to the north.
This fascinating place in the heart of Macedonia therefore lies historically and culturally at the crossroads between the Aegean and the Central Balkan worlds. The first settlements which date from c.1900 BC are thought to date from the Bronze Age, and there is visible evidence of much ongoing excavation at the site.
The later Hellenistic city of Stobi was established in the 4th century BC. Once the largest city in the northern part of the Roman province of Macedonia Secunda, it was the important urban, military, administrative, trade (particularly of salt) and religious centre of two significant Empires – Roman and early Byzantine.
Our young guide, an economics graduate with a passion for archaeology, walked us through the bright sunshine, poppy-strewn ruins, and history of this once-significant metropolis.
Stobi is the only town in Macedonia that minted its own coins, during the period 73-217 AD. Soon after the Emperor Constantine proclaimed Christianity as an official state religion, the city became a significant Episcopal seat, the bishops of which were among the officials that participated in Ecumenical Councils.
Roman rule in Macedonia lasted from 168 BC to 395 AD, followed, until 1204, by the Byzantine period. The Goths destroyed Stobi when they invaded Macedonia in the 5th century, and, although rebuilt, the earthquake of AD 518 damaged it still further. Rebuilt again, but followed by more earthquakes, by the 13th century the city was completely abandoned in favour of other towns further along the Vardar River. It lay hidden for centuries beneath layers of sand and silt from the nearby overflowing river, until rediscovered and unearthed by the French archaeologist Leon Heuzy in 1861. Today visitors can admire the ruins of many significant buildings: the theatre, defensive walls, water supply system, synagogue, “Casa Romana”, Basilica, a public building with almost-intact arches known as the “Roman Forum”, and the remains of several streets.
Many beautiful mosaics, some protected from the weather by a layer of soft sand, can be seen and enjoyed by enthusiasts of these ancient times.
Each summer plays are performed in the theatre, and since 2001 the international festival of ancient drama has taken place there. How exciting it must be to witness the revival of the texts of these ancient thespians: Aristotle, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Aristophanes, listening to the utterance of the oldest human thoughts ever expressed! Opera can be enjoyed during the May Opera Evenings in Skopje during the warm spring evenings.
Our journey continued along a winding road through plateaux with apple orchards, some sheltering clusters of blue beehives, red-roofed settlements and strawberry fields. To our left stood a large power station, and beyond that, the hills of Greece. Occasionally a small shrine stands at the side of the road.
The route through these fertile plains is narrow and bumpy, and bedeviled by maniacal drivers in fumey old cars who seem to enjoy risky overtakes with on-coming trucks. But Sašo regaled us with interesting information about his country and the terrain through which we were passing, and delivered us safely to our next lodging, Hotel Tino on the shores of one of the most beautiful natural marvels, and the most popular tourist destination in the country, Lake Ohrid.
Known as the jewel in the Macedonian crown, this crystal-clear lake of tectonic origin, which along with Ohrid town is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the oldest in the world – three to five million years. It is also one of the largest reservoirs of fresh drinking water in Europe.
A stroll at sundown along the promenade is a delight enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. It is the Macedonians’ “seaside”, and there are many fine waterfront hotels, restaurants and cafés.
The promenade is flanked on one side by the placid waters of this vast lake, and on the other by beautifully-kept gardens filled with roses and birdsong.
The promenade leads to the town centre and a pedestrianised avenue with boutiques and jewelry shops, especially those with glittering displays of the iconic local product: Ohrid “pearls”.
The creation of these beads from the scales of the tiny plasica fish is a secret family tradition passed down from one generation to the next.
The other stores which made for great shopping are the shoe shops, with wares principally from Turkey, Brazil and Italy. Some fine bargains can be made, especially for those with Euros, Pounds or Dollars to spend.
There are several bakeries displaying and serving sweet and savoury muffins, including proja (corn muffins with spinach), and mouth-watering pastries. Traditional to Ohrid is the signature Ohrid cake, about which we would never have known without Sašo’s advice (recipe below).
Tired from our short night the night before and the day’s exciting touring, we opted for dinner at the Hotel Tino Restaurant. This turned out to be a wise decision, as we enjoyed a delicious meal which included grilled mushrooms, and “Macedonian salad” – chopped tomatoes, roasted green peppers, cucumber, onions and grated white goat’s or sheep’s cheese, dressed with olive oil, fresh lemon juice and herbs.
Macedonian cuisine reflects the gastronomic influences of the various cultures and civilizations that have conquered and visited the country, and thus range from Middle Eastern to Mediterranean: the latter with centuries of Ottoman influence. Breakfast begins with strong coffee and bread with cheese or jam, and on weekends juvki or tarama – a cereal-based baked dish.
Fish, such as rud, carp, perch and especially Ohrid trout from the lake, is grilled or baked with tomatoes, white wine, garlic, parsley or carrots. Lamb, roasted with garlic and rosemary, is also traditional, or skewered meat cubes, served with potatoes, pumpkin, and onions, amongst other vegetables. Domašni, or home-style dishes, are the ones to ask for, especially ajvar, a delicious starter consisting of stewed red pepper and herbs.
For a sweet ending there is slatko, fruit preserves made from strawberries, raspberries, apricots or wild figs, pancakes or sutljaš (rice pudding cake). Molasses, produced from grapes, is a traditional dessert, and is used to flavour sweets and cakes; it is said to have healing qualities. Poppy-seed cakes and pumpkin pie are also popular, and I particularly enjoyed the baklava sold at a Turkish stall in the Old Bazaar in Skopje.
A snack might be a gevrek or kifla – a sesame bread ring – or ajran – plain drinking yoghurt.
Rakija is produced in the neighbouring countries from a variety of fruits: white or yellow grapes (loza), plums (slivovice), pears (viljemovka) or herbs (travarica). In Macedonia it is only made from grapes – a throat-burning 60% ABV – and traditionally served to welcome guests into the home. In moderation it is a “natural remedy” – Macedonia’s national drink and elixir of life; in excess it could probably fell an ox. An alternative offering is mastika – an aniseed liqueur best bought at the monasteries, such as Sv Jovan Bigorski.
Each evening live traditional music was played in the hotel restaurant by a quartet of violin, double bass, guitar and drum, and I fell asleep to the strains of Que sera sera, doubtless played for the pleasure of the audibly increasing numbers of partying patrons.
Once the party had dispersed, and the still of night had descended on the town, I could hear the gentle lapping of the lake outside our window.
Musical instruments are among the local crafts or souvenirs to purchase in Macedonia. These interesting items have Middle Eastern origins, as do those in the Western symphony orchestra, although the latter are directly linked to the Crusades. Like Macedonian cuisine, the instruments were brought to the country by the various invaders passing through.
The kaval, which resembles a flute, is traditionally a shepherd’s instrument, and is made from ash wood and ornately decorated. It is played not parallel to the player’s mouth like the duduk (a block-ended flute), but at an angle out of the right-hand corner of the mouth. The gadja are the local bagpipes, complete with chanter, drone, and a bag made from tanned sheep- or goatskin – further proof that the bagpipes are native not to Scotland alone, but also much of Europe and the Middle East. The zurla resembles a clarinet, with a conical bore but with a wider bell, and has a piercing sound. The other native wind instrument is the supelka, which looks and sounds like a recorder. The tambura, with its strings and pear-shaped body, resembles the lute, and the kemane is a small stringed instrument bowed upon the player’s knee. Of the traditional percussion instruments there are the tapan, a large drum, and the daire – a tambourine.
Traditional Macedonian music has a distinct Middle Eastern flavour. The sacred music originated during the 11th century in and near Ohrid; manuscripts dating from the 11th -14th centuries are in the Ohrid Museum. The more secular variety is linked to the numerous annual Macedonian festivals and carnivals, such as the wine harvest, beer festivals, Vodici (the Baptism of Christ), the Strumica Carnival, and the Twelfthtide Carnival. There are also the celebrations such as the colourful weddings – especially the Galičnik wedding festival, a tradition which goes back centuries and takes place in the village of Galičnik, nestled on the cliff-side in Mavrovo National Park.
Ohrid, like Stobi, dates from the Bronze Age, around 12,000-7,000 BC. The town of Lychnidos was founded and named on this spot by Cadmus the Phoenician, after he had founded Thebes during the 14th century BC. During the 4th century BC the town was conquered by the Macedonians lead by Philip II, and then the Romans in the late 2nd century BC. Travelers along the Via Egnatia through Lychnidos brought Christianity to the town, and by the 5th century AD the first basilicas were being built, possibly twelve altogether, although only six have thus far been found.
Nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Europe”, Ohrid has 365 churches, more than 50 of which are still in use today.
Sightseeing in Ohrid includes many interesting sights, of which the favoured “Top Ten” include Sv Sophia’s church, the old Roman theatre, the Upper Gate of Samoil’s fortress, the Robevci house-museum, Sv Jovan Kaneo and Sv Kliment at Plaosnik. [Saint in Macedonian is Svetec – hence Sv.]
Our day began with an early rendez-vous with Sašo under the 800-900-year-old plane tree which dominates the small cobbled square. Supported by a massive truss, this remarkable old tree stands near the market in the centre of the town.
From there he took us on a steep walk up through the winding streets of the Old Town to Tsar Samoil’s Fortress. This ruined structure, of which much of the 3 km fortified wall still remains, dates from the end of the 10th century.
Excavations reveal an earlier fortification on this hilltop, from at least the 3rd century BC. Until the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in 1395, the town was completely enclosed within these walls, with only the Upper Gate and the Lower Gate as entry points. This remained a Christian centre, while the Ottoman Turkish population expanded outside the walls.
Equally fascinating is the story of the old Roman Theatre, which, although 2,000 years old, lay buried beneath layers of earth until its discovery during the early 20th century.
Sašo told us that he and his friends had played soccer on the surface of this spot when they were boys, blissfully unaware of the presence of the magnificent theatre which had begun emerging beneath their feet. The two World Wars halted excavation, but work was resumed in the 1960’s, and by the 1990’s the amphitheatre was fully uncovered, and used once more for summer entertainments – though this time for concerts and theatre performances rather than gory gladiatorial games. The guide books suggest that if you attend a performance there, take a close look at your seat to see if you can decipher the name of the season ticket holder who owned that seat thousands of years ago!
The Macedonian brothers Kiril and Metodi invented the Glagolitic script, principally for the purpose of spreading the Christian Word. Their disciples, Kliment (Clement, AD 840-916) and Naum (AD 835-910), travelled with them to Moravia and Hungary to teach the Slavs their own language. Kliment arrived in Ohrid in 886 to teach the Scriptures, and in 893 he was appointed Bishop of Velika. He founded the Monastery of Sv Kliment the same year, and was joined by fellow Evangelist, Naum, to teach their ever-increasing numbers of students – eventually over 3,500.
The church was built on the foundation of an earlier Christian basilica and dedicated to Svs Kliment and Pantaleimon. During the ensuing five centuries of Ottoman domination, the church was converted into a mosque, of which only a small enclosure now remains. Kliment and Naum taught principally in the Glagolitic script, which, by the 12th century, was eventually replaced by the dominant Cyrillic script. (The Slavic languages of the Balkan peninsular share many similarities in much the same way as the Scandinavian languages (excluding Finnish), and are also related to Russian in that they can understand one another.) Plaošnik, the archaeological complex of this Slavic Literary and Cultural School, constitutes the first Slavic University to be founded in Europe. St. Clement is the patron saint of Ohrid, and of all Macedonia.
Apart from the many reconstructions of the monastery during the five centuries of Ottoman occupation (1392-1912), the site has undergone extensive excavation. A five-aisle basilica has been uncovered, now protected under a red-tiled awning, and a baptistery, decorated with mosaic floors which date from the 4th and 6th centuries, and which feature several hooked crosses (swastikas.)
It is thought that the basilica was dedicated to St. Paul, the Apostle who preached Christianity in Lychnidos (Ohrid) during the 1st century AD. The discovery of over 2,000 Venetian coins at the site in 2007 indicate that the city was commercially linked to Venice.
The picturesque church of Sv Jovan Kaneo (St. John the Theologian), which dates from the late 13th century, stands in an isolated spot on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid. The architecture and frescoes within indicate both Byzantine and Armenian influences.
Another steep track up the opposite hill from Samoil’s Fortress lead to a late 13th century church with a rather long name: Sv Bogorodica Peribleptos (Sv Kliment’s Church of the Holy Mother of God). Sv Kliment’s relics were transferred there during Ottoman occupation. At the same time the church, small though it is, became the cathedral of the archbishop when the original cathedral at Sv Sofia was converted into a mosque.
During the 1950’s, centuries of smoke and soot from candles and incense were carefully cleaned form the frescoes, revealing some interesting examples of late medieval painting, including a Last Supper which is depicted taking place out of doors.
Nearby is the Icon Gallery in which some remarkable and valuable icons are kept under strictly protective conditions. They represent the highest achievement in Byzantine and Slavic icon painting, And are notable for their “extraordinary colouristic refinement and beauty of artistic treatment”. Many were created in the medieval workshops of Ohrid, while others were brought from Salonica and Constantinople as gifts for the churches in Ohrid.
Back down in the town Sašo lead us to Sv Sophia’s Church, which was built during the early 11th C upon the remains of a former basilica as a cathedral church for Archbishop Leo. When it the Ottomans converted it into a mosque in 1466, many of the original frescoes were destroyed, and the rest whitewashed over. During the Second Balkan War of 1913, the mosque was used as a warehouse, and after the War converted back into a church. Extensive work during the second half of the 20th century has brought to light the well-preserved 11th century frescoes beneath the whitewash.
As the number of students increased, Naum established a monastery in 900 further along the Lake shore and now known as the Monastery of Sv Naum. Unfortunately rain prevented our planned boat trip across the Lake from Sv Jovan Kaneo to Sv Naum, but a delicious grilled trout in the restaurant near the monastery fortified us for our tour.
Sv Naum is set in the Galičica National Park, a magnificent green paradise that surrounds the lake, with the springs (source) of the Crn (Black) Drim River, which is inhabited by wild ducks and other water birds.
The Sv Naum Monastery has stood in this beautiful setting on the shore of Lake Ohrid, near the border with Albania, for just over eleven centuries. A flock of peacocks, which includes an albino, inhabit the well-kept grounds, and every so often they let out a piercing mew that startles the visitors.
Sv Naum’s 10th century Church of the Holy Archangels, which had been destroyed by the Ottomans, actually lies beneath the 16th century church that we see in the centre of the monastery courtyards today. Its location was only discovered during excavations in 1955, and its floor plan is now visible in the black-and-white marble floor of the present church. The tomb and relics of Sv Naum were removed from the excavations and reinterred beneath the floor of the new church. It is said that if you listen carefully you will hear the Saint’s heart beating, and touching the stone above the tomb is said to make a wish come true!
The monastery complex and the view over Lake Ohrid make it one of the most attractive tourist destinations in the country, and was definitely a highlight of our trip. In spite of the dreary weather and rain-drenched tourists – and peacocks, the peace of the place is palpable, making one long for a time of monasteries and quiet contemplation without the constant clamour of modern technology.
There is always a serendipitous moment to be had on the dullest of days, in this case a stall near the carpark selling delicious natural, pure Macedonian honey: dark red forest honey, and light honey made from the pollen of wild flowers. The decision as to which to purchase was soon solved by buying a jar of each!
Continue with PART 2 here