Early the next morning we set out again with Sašo for Skopje, stopping at two significant monasteries en route: Rajcica and Saint Jovan Bigorski. On the way we stopped at the town of Struga, where an impressive spillway leading from Lake Ohrid serves as the start of the River Crm Drim.
Rajcica Monastery, located in the village Rajcica just north of Debar, is an all-female institution founded during the 11th century. The church, which was opened especially for us by a beautiful, softly-spoken young nun, is dedicated to St. George the Victorious.
With a small key, and great reverence, she opened an ornate silver casket in which a part of the hand of St. George is kept, embedded in a gold-plated silver container in the shape of a hand which dates from the 4th century. This, and a fragment of the Holy Cross, are very precious relics housed in this beautiful little church.
The rest of the monastery was recently rebuilt. It is famous for the beautiful handwork of the nuns, done in silence whilst praying, specifically the Orthodox priest’s crowns, or mitres. Our gracious hostess proudly showed us a flip file containing photographs of the mitres they had crafted, one of which was made for the current Pope Francis.
Our next stop en route to Skopje was the Monastery of Sv Jovan Bigorsky (St. John the Baptist), reached via high and narrow winding mountain roads through the magnificent Mavrovo National Park.
To our left were the Dešat Korab Mountains that form the border with Albania. The little town of Mavrovo is a popular ski resort in winter, and hiking takes place here during the warmer months, including to the alluring peak of Mount Korab (2,756 m), the highest peak in Macedonia and Albania.
Sv Jovan is a fully working monastery. It was established in 1020 when the miraculous icon of St. John the Baptist first appeared where the church now stands. Destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century, the church and buildings seen there today date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Inside the church we were lucky to see one of the only four iconostases carved by the famous woodcarver Makarije Frčkovski from Galičnik and the Filipovski brothers from Gari. This iconostasis depicts scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and over 500 people, wearing traditional 19th century Macedonian costumes, and over 200 animals, are carved into it, as well as images of the woodcarvers themselves. The other claim to fame of this monastery is the relic of a fragment of bone said to come from St. John’s right humerus. (The remainder of the Saint’s arm lies in the Cetinje Monastery in Montenegro.)
The brotherhood of John Bigorsky are proud of their revival of the old Eastern Orthodox liturgy, which is sung according to the old Byzantine tradition as opposed to the Serbian tradition which was introduced after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Some of this beautiful legendary chant, which is sung a cappella (unaccompanied by instruments) and is very melodic, was being played in the church, creating a beautiful aural and visual experience.
As we were about to leave, a wedding procession appeared up the steep pathway; we had already seen the preparations in the church, complete with the special wedding bread:
We arrived in Skopje in disappointing drizzle, checked into the utilitarian but centrally located Hotel Ibis, and, as time was short, set out immediately for our sightseeing of the capital.
People have settled in the Vardar River valley since Neolithic times, though the first significant settlement dates from c. 500 BC. As the Roman Empire extended eastwards, this settlement became known as Skupi, but after the Emperor Constantine split the Roman Empire into the Western Christian and Eastern Orthodox divisions in 313, renaming the Greek port of Byzantium “Constantinople” after himself, the city came under Byzantine rule. From the 5th century there followed invasions by Slavs, Greeks, Bulgarians, Austro-Hungarians and Serbs, and from 1392-1912 five centuries of Ottoman rule. Towards the end of the WW II, in 1944, it was incorporated into Federal Yugoslavia, and from 1991 it has been the capital of the independent Republic of Macedonia.
First on the recommended list of places to see is the City Museum of Skopje, housed in the old railway station which was built in 1940-41. Only the lower floor, containing items from Roman times, was illuminated and functional. We were surprised to find the other three floors in total darkness and obviously under extensive renovation. Watch this space! The old station clock within has been left fixed at 5.17, the time at which the terrible earthquake destroyed most of the city on 26th July 1963.
On the way back to the central square we passed the Memorial House of Mother Theresa, the compassionate Nobel Peace Prize Winner (1979) who was born in Skopje in 1910. Sadly it was already closed when we arrived (13.00 on Saturdays.)
Nearby is Makedonija Square (actually a circle) which features a gargantuan rampant equestrian monument Warrior on a Horse – Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) on Bucephalus, but in deference to the ongoing dispute with the Greeks, who claim him for their own.
As part of an urban renewal programme to beautify the city centre, many other monolithic statuary adorns the area, at least eighteen, most reminiscent of the monolithic Soviet style, revering revolutionary and ideological Macedonian heroes: Gjorgjija Pulevski, (1817-93, the first to express the notion of a Macedonian nation distinct from Bulgarians, as well as a separate Macedonian language), the Monument to the Liberators of Skopje (1941-1944), Krste Petrov Misirkov, Dame Gruev and Goce Delcev.
Formerly a place of public execution, the old Stone Bridge leading from the Square across the Vardar River was first built during the late 15th century under the orders of Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror. The object was to facilitate expansion and trade on both sides of this rapidly burgeoning metropolis.
On the south side lies the predominantly Orthodox Christian part of the city, while to the north, which includes the “Old Town” and Old Skopje Bazaar, the population is predominantly Muslim. Exploration of this area necessitates investigating beyond the main avenues which feature mainly boutiques selling fabrics, evening and wedding gowns with accessories, and gold jewelry.
Beautifully wrought silver jewelry and ornaments is the craft to admire and buy, as well as pottery, leather, woven and embroidered goods, and beautifully colourful carpets.
The bustle and colour of this market place has changed little for nine centuries, and is today enriched with museums such as the Academy of Fine Arts, the Lapidarium, and Museum of Macedonia, and a concert venue, housed in what were once “hans” (inns or caravanserai) accommodating the merchants of yesteryear and their caravans. The Art Gallery has taken over the space that once served as the Civte Hamam (bath), and dates from the 15th century. The area adheres to the old Turkish principles of mosque, inn and bath.
A short climb up the cobbled streets through Gradište, past all the bars and across a green park, leads to the Kale Fortress.
This hilltop location has been the site of a working fortress since the 6th century AD, although excavations reveal occupation here as long ago as 4,000 BC. The Turkish army stationed their barracks here during Ottoman rule, followed by the Jugoslav National Army. The earthquake destroyed most of the fortress in 1963. Excavations have revealed artefacts from the Thracian era of 200 BC, when the Dardanians fought to defend the hilltop area from the invading Romans. There is a fine view over the south side of the city from the walkway along the fortress walls. By this time the drizzle had cleared, and a glorious sunset greeted us, promising fine weather for the following day.The fortress walls look magnificent when illuminated at night, and across the city, on the hill opposite, the Millennium Cross lights up at night.
Across the park from the entrance to the Kale Fortress stands the Mustapha Pasha Mosque, another item on our tour must-see list: the largest and most decorative mosque in Skopje. It was built in 1492 on the orders of Mustapha Pasha, who is buried there, when he was Vizier of Skopje under Sultan Selim I. The mosque is a quiet and peaceful place, and beautifully embellished inside, especially the blue pattern-work on the walls. The building survived the earthquake quite well, and major restoration has taken place under the auspices of the Turkish government.
That Saturday was a day for weddings; we saw at least four that afternoon:
The Monastery of Sv Spas (Holy Saviour), is the only remaining monastery in the centre of Skopje and includes one of the most beautiful churches in the city. Although the church we see today was built during the 18th century, some of the foundations date back to the 14th century, before Ottoman rule commenced. Because it became illegal for a church to be higher than a mosque, most of the church was built from below ground to accommodate the original bell tower. Inside is a magnificent iconostasis carved in walnut (1819-1924).
Dinner that evening was at a hotel brasserie on Makedonija Square. To our right we could see the magnificent Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch completed in 2012 commemorating 20 years of Macedonian independence. The surface is covered with carved reliefs depicting scenes from Macedonian history, and is unfortunately defaced with brightly-coloured graffiti which may prove difficult to remove.
Here we enjoyed grilled lamb kebabs and an enormous mixed salad.
On our last morning, a Sunday, we were again met by Majé, who drove us up a narrow winding road above the city to the village of Gorni Nerezi and the famous St. Pantelejmon Monastery. On either side of the road there are settlements with small vineyards and peach orchards, and in the distance we could see the snow-capped mountains that form the borders with Kosovo and Serbia to the north. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and a wonderful adventure to be seeing more of the countryside.
The ancient church in the centre of the monastery is dedicated to Sv Pantelejmon, the patron saint of physicians.
It was built in 1164 on a Roman cult site by Aleksij (Angelus) Komnen, the grandson of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios Komenos I. The surviving frescoes are remarkable for their lifelike images of the human form, even though the anatomy seems a little strange to us today, and realism.
They represent the body of Byzantine art that influenced and led to the Renaissance.
There is a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside from the monastery terrace, high above and looking over the city of Skopje. Nearby are tall deodars, through which the minarets of a nearby mosque can be seen: Christianity and Islam now living peacefully side-by-side in this ancient land.
Always mindful of the necessity of a balance between cultural history and nature when travelling, our next and last destination of the 4-day tour was a boat trip through the magnificent River Treska Canyon and Lake Matka, about 10 km from Skopje. The lake, or rather dam, was created with a massive dam wall from which a great gout of water was gushing as a consequence of the previous day’s rain.
There is much to do in this area, apart from the boat trips up the river: hiking, mountain climbing, dining in the restaurants or hotel, and visiting the little 14th century Sv Andreja Church near the small, rather crowded dock. The old mountain hut there has been converted into a café and restaurant, and there is a craft stall at the entrance to the complex.
It was as well that we had arrived early, as crowds of tourists, not only from Skopje, but, according to Majé, from neighbouring Kosovo and Serbia as well, began pouring into the area. He skilfully negotiated with our able “Charon”, and in no time we were herded onto a small motorboat with several other young couples, and our life jackets, and ferried up the canyon. The steep-sided ravine is an awe-inspiring sight.
Our destination, after about half an hour, was the Cave Vrelo, the deepest underwater cave in Europe, possibly in the world, and one of several caves which are still being explored by expert teams from Belgium and Italy. Vrelo has an impressively cavernous interior, hung about with magical stalactites and clusters of slumbering bats. Archaeological finds indicate evidence of habitation in Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) times, nearly 10,000 years ago.
A pathway running along the lake edge is visible from the boat, sometimes carved into the rock face, passing through man-made “archways”, and protected with a railing. It leads to several more churches and monasteries, some still working, others now abandoned.
The day was gloriously warm and sunny, the air filled with birdsong and a myriad protected butterflies and moths – over 50 species.
Back on terra firma, we made our way to the Canyon Matkan Hotel Restaurant where we enjoyed delicious grilled trout from Lake Treska itself, served by a handsome young waiter with wicked blue eyes and a saucy air.
Our progress back along a narrow, hopelessly clogged track to the main road was slow, hampered by hundreds of day-trippers eager to spend this sunny Sunday on or near the lake. This popular area desperately needs attention, preferably park-and-ride facilities, for the route, bordered by the cliffs on one side and the river on the other, is far too narrow for so many cars and tourists. Nor are the staff at the dock able to cope with the press of weekend visitors – a valuable source of income, which this beautiful, but small fledgling country desperately needs, as it visibly tries to make its mark on the European and international scene.
I would definitely recommend further patient exploration of Macedonia. Beleaguered by the recent Third Bosnian War and birth pains of independence (1991), and corruption, it is an ancient land that has a great deal to offer: the fascinating archaeological sites bearing evidence of early human habitation and numerous invasions, the topographical variety and scenic beauty, the excellent vineyards for touring, tasting and purchasing, and above all the incomparable sacred art works in the numerous resuscitated medieval monasteries and churches. There are outdoor activities and lakeside beaches, sybaritic spas, wild nature, history and archaeology, colourful festivals, and places for quiet contemplation, all facilitated by delightful, friendly people.
Principle source of historical information: the Bradt Travel Guide: Macedonia, by Thammy Evans, updated by Rudolf Abraham; Fifth edition published April 2015.
Our driver-guide Sašo Pavlovski offers accommodation at his Luccia Apartments in Ohrid For more information click here: http://www.lucciaapartments.com/ .
6 eggs, 6 Tbs white sugar, 6 Tbs white flour, 1/3 cup prepared caramel
Syrup: ½ tsp sugar, 1 cup water, 2 Tbs brandy
Caramel: 400 g sugar, 400 g walnuts
First filling: 250 g butter, 250 g icing sugar, 4 egg yolks
Second filling: 250 g butter, 250 g icing sugar, 5 eggs, 2 tsps vanilla sugar, 200 g chocolate
- Place the sugar in a saucepan and melt it until caramelised but not burned. Add the walnuts and allow to cool.
- When cool, crush with a rolling pin or in a mortar with a pestle. Take a third of this mixture and divide it in half.
- Biscuit layer: separate the 6 eggs and beat the whites together with the sugar. Once this is well mixed, add the yolks one at a time, stirring continuously. Then add the flour and half of the one third of the caramel previously separated. (The other half goes into the second layer.)
- Bake 2 layers of this mixture in pans lined with baking paper at 200˚ C until a skewer comes out clean.
- Cut these layer in half to obtain 4 layers altogether.
- First filling: beat the butter and sugar well together. Add 4 yolks and mix well. Add the remaining caramel.
- Take one of the crusts and spread it with the previously prepared syrup and brandy. Add the above filling.
- Add the second crust.
- Second filling: Beat the sugar as for the first filling. Add 5 egg yolks, and when well blended, add 5 egg whites, and, as previously, mixed to a firm texture. Add the cooled melted chocolate (still liquid). This filling will be used to coat the second and fourth layers, and on the sides.
- Once the second filling has been added, decorate the cake with melted chocolate.
Allow to harden for at least a day before serving.