Published: September 15th 2005September 15th 2005
Yellow is the colour... Heavily populated too!
“Its like Iraq; no war,…but war….”
Yes, that’s right, we are in the Republic of Makedonija (the ‘Former Yugoslav’ one, though officially that title doesn’t exist inside the country…) - to the west of Bulgaria and therefore nowhere near Turkey or Istanbul! Home of the second best flag in Europe. Provocatively Bulgarians regard this place as ‘Western Bulgaria’ so no tour of Bulgaria would have seemed complete without coming here, also we had to get a package sent somewhere and Poste Restante doesn’t seem to exist in Bulgaria so Skopje seemed like a good bet. Confounded by a lack of roads and armed Albanian rebels we have finally made it to Ohrid, on the shores of the lake by the same name, a beautiful city and former capital of the old Bulgarian kingdom, though also the cultural heart of Makedonia. More on all this later though…
After checking out of ‘Hotel Bulgaria’ and seeing Kjustendil in the daylight we could appreciate what a dump the place really is - one big sprawl of the usual concrete blocks, but this time without any nice areas or redeeming features at all. The centre tries to create and impression of niceness -
Stone Bridge, Skopje
Thankfully no buses here.....
some fancy shop fronts and well stocked but I still can’t understand why the place can demand so much money from tourists - maybe its ‘cos they don’t get many, they have to fleece them for as much as possible when some are foolish enough to stop by…. One thing I did notice was the crumbling mosque in the centre of town on the main street, complete with decent sized trees growing up through the domed roof and all boarded up. Couldn’t help thinking that it might have been a nicer place to travellers if there was still a decent Muslim population…..
We quickly left the place anyway and set off on the main road towards the Makedonian border - this is the main road from Sofia to Skopje and so we expected it to be pretty nasty with lots of trucks and traffic but not so, we had a quiet but hot ride uphill to the border post. Now some Bulgarians had warned us off going to Makedonia - there had been 2 wars/conflicts there recently, the border checks might be harsh etc. Well this border was one of the easiest and quickest we have crossed since leaving
Typical house in the village of Nova Breznica.
the EU and no funny business from the Bulgarian exit post about ‘registrations’ either. They were all smiles at both sides. On getting our Makedonian stamps we were told to ‘clear customs’ and then we were free to go. The customs post was deserted - we hung around for a minute or two in case somebody wanted to appear and ask us anything, then got bored and pushed our way around the barrier and cycled off into Makedonia for a long, fast downhill ride along a beautiful forested valley.
The countryside had started to change and become a bit more arid on the Bulgarian side, as we rode further into Makedonia it got much drier and in places looked more like African savanna than somewhere in Europe - very reminiscent of southern Spain. The lush green of Bulgaria and everyhwere before had faded to a pale colour almost like yellow, and with an unremmtring sun shining down it was even more yellowy. We began to appreciate how the Macedonians had come up wioth their flag.
We had stocked up on food before leaving Bulgaria in case we could not find a cash machine that quickly in side Makedonia,
this was just as well as the first town we arrived in did not have one, and a friendly local thought the nearest one was in the capital, Skopje! We rode on toward Kumanovo and Skopje, glad we had enough food for the night. The road crossed many dried up riverbeds and so when we found one with some water in it, albeit a snails pace of a flow, we decided to stop and camp here. As we were pulling off the road something glinting on the tarmac caught my eye - a 1 dinar coin! I did a little dance thinking we could now afford the cold beer I had been dreaming of all day, but Erika quickly reminded me there are 88 of these things to a pound so probably one dinar is not going to buy much at all, let alone a beer. Thus deflated we had to make to do with a dip in the river instead, though very pleasant it was too.
We caught up with a cash machine on our way through Kumanovo the next morning, before having to consult several locals as to the best route into Skopje. For some reason, given
The Makedonian sky does its best to reproduce the country's national flag.
the lack of traffic everywhere, all the main roads into and out of Skopje are motorways (except notably the one to Pristina, Kosovo). We managed to find a back road - the old road - and follow this into the city, although we did have to ride a nasty dual carriageway for the last part. Skopje is not exactly attractive in any way - the skyline is dominated by ugly concrete blocks with the odd, even uglier, modern glass and steel building thrown in. The first two things you notice are the domes and minarets of mosques everywhere, and conversely, the enormous steel Christian cross on the hillside overlooking the city. On the streets are a lively mix of Slavic looking peoples along with darker skinned gypsies and ethnic Turks. Muslim prayer caps are as common as crucifix necklaces. The central part of town is quite nice, a big arcade beside the Vardar river with the riverside lined with street cafes and bars leading into ‘place Makedonija’ and an old stone bridge across the river -imaginatively called ‘stone bridge’ - which leads to the bustling old bazaar and the Turkish/Arab style Kale hill fort. In this sense it has more
to offer than Bucharest but I would not recommend a visit just to see Skopje! Cycling in the city is definitely not recommended as this the only part of the counrty with bad traffic and the bus drivers seem to be in competition to see who can kill you first. We got our package and discovered in the process that the country is 1 hour behind Bulgaria - we had been here for 24 hours by this time without any clue as to the time difference! An extra hour in the day is always a nice thing to get though, and we spent it riding out to the pleasant city park on the banks of the Vardar for our picnic lunch.
Now our plan had been to tour Makedonia in an anticlockwise direction down to Ohrid and then returning across the south of the country to the south-east corner of Bulgaria. The main road out of Skopje towards Tetovo is a motorway however, and our map didn’t show any other route this way. Also the UK FCO (Fear Crime Overseas) had warned about ‘political violence’ in the Tetovo and the northwest region. Though we figured this was probably a
Room with a View
The view from our tent in our private camp on the shores of Lake Ohrid.
bit alarmist we studied the map hard to find a better route and spotted a tiny road snaking up through the central mountains that would actually be a shortcut to Ohrid, and no doubt be more scenic. Thus we set off uphill out of the city in the hot afternoon sun for 2 hours of unpleasantly steep and hot hill climbing. We were surprised to emerge onto a very good quality road that did not fit our map - a new road to a new hydro-electric dam somebody explained. Great, we thought - a good road and a big lake for a swim later on. We plodded on higher into the hills and arrived at a tiny village called Novo Breznica as it was starting to get dark, no lake in sight. The village looked like the spit of all those tiny mountain villages you have seen on telly when wars were raging in the Balkans - houses built from stone and wood that blend into the hillside they sit on, only distinctive by the terracotta roof tiles; no cars; headscarved women and old guys seeming to be the only population. We stopped by the village tap (yes the only water in the place) to fill up for the night and were immediately engaged in conversation about where we had come form, where we were going etc. This is when it became apparent our shortcut might not be so - one old guy indicated there was no road through the mountains. I got the map out to show him the road we planned to take - he then showed me where the new dam and lake are - on top of our road. In fact the village we had planned to pass through and get supplies at is now underwater! They told us to go back to Skopje and round through Tetovo if we wanted to get to Ohrid. We went off to find the shop (grateful there was one!) and to double check this information with everyone we could find. It was unanimous - the road is flooded and unless we wanted a long swim there is no way through the mountains! The shopkeeper asked where we would stay the night, we explained we would camp in the hills somewhere - “ah yes, very quiet there - no war now, no partisan in the hills anymore”! Obviously intended to re-assure us it was safe but as the thought had not crossed our minds it was not quite the effect it had. Everyone here was really friendly though, if not a bit bemused (and amused) as to why the hell we had cycled all the way up the hill to a dead end. We were understandably a bit miffed by this too, but pedalled out of the village to find a flat place to camp.
We were woken by distant gunshots in the morning - farmers or hunters rather than partisan though! We returned our beer bottles to the shop and decided to consult once more on the lack of a road through the mountains. One guy seemed to suggest if we cycled up to the lake we could row, or be rowed, across to the road on the other side. Our hopes were raised but as we double checked we had understood he turned the group of men behind to check with them - from there jeers and laughter it was clear this guy was not quite the full shilling so we decided to ignore this suggestion and head off back down the road to Skopje. A stop for water on the way lead to another amusing exchange - the shop owner couldn’t speak to us in English or German, and our Makedonian is not up to much, so he yells at some passing young boys - one of whom spoke really good English. After all the usual stuff about where we are from, how many km we have cycled etc. it turns to our intended route - we explain about our mistake with the dam and that our map is obviously out of date. The boy says this is because it is a Bulgarian made map and suggests where we might get a better one in Skopje. We ask him about an alternative road to Tetovo avoiding the motorway and his eyes widen in horror - ‘don’t go to Tetovo!’ He explains how it is not safe, that even Makedonians don’t go there if they can avoid it, and they try hard to avoid it. We quiz him on this a bit - is it really that bad? This is the area where there was an armed uprising in 2001 by ethnic Albanians - the region borders both Albania and Kosovo - and it seems the Makedonian government still does not have much control here. Erika asks him, “but there is no war there now?” to which he replies giving the quote of the trip so far - “Its like Iraq; no war,…but war….”
I’m sure its nothing like Iraq but we got his meaning - officially there is no war but its not exactly peaceful either. As we don’t really want any run-ins with gangs of armed Albanian militants we heed his advice and plan an alternative route south from Skopje. This means taking the roads to Ohrid we had planned to take back towards Bulgaria though, so potentially we may have several days riding doubling back on the same roads - something we had wanted to avoid.
The same kid also explained a bit about Makedonia’s troubled history - the country was split after WW1 and part given to Bulgaria, part to Greece, part to Albania and part to Serbia. After WW2 all was assimilated into Yugoslavia. In 1990 when Yugoslavia started to crumble an armed revolution took place with guerilla war and’ partisan in the hills’ - this resulted in the formation of the current Republic. Things are not so simple though - Bulgaria regards the language as a dialect of Bulgarian and the whole place as ‘west Bulgaria’ (though there are some similar words the language is about as distinctive as any Slavic language is from another to our ears…), the Serbian powers never wanted to loose the place, and some Albanians want to claim the eastern parts, especially where there are majority ethnic Albanian populations - eg. Tetovo. He explained “Serbia wants the church; Bulgaria the people, language and culture; Greece wants everything; and Albania wants the east”. Greece in particular was pissed off at them calling the new state Macedonia and it was on their insistence that it had to call itself FYROM - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I had a Greek friend at Uni who could be easily pushed into lengthy rants on this subject - how they are ‘not Macedonians but a bunch of Slavs, Bulgarians, Gypsies, Albanians and Turks’! As the name Bulgaria comes from the ancient Greek ‘Vulgar’ you can get some idea how the ancient Greeks regarded their northern neighbours….
Given all this and the mixture of Christianity and Islam thrown in too boot, it is not so surprising that there was conflict here, but rather more surprising that the place is on the surface very peaceful. The population is a mix of Slavs - some Makedonain and others who regard themselves as more Serbian; Gypsys, Vlachs, Turks, Greeks, Albanians and Bulgarians. Some or all of these grouops regard or indentifty themselves as Makedonian, others do not. I guess this is what sociologists refer to scientifically as a 'melting pot'.
Our search for a better map in Skopje was a futile waste of time but everyone we spoke to here echoed the comments about Tetovo - especially when they learned we were on bicycles and camping. Our second trip into Skopje was as life-threatening as the first, making a point of giving all buses a wide berth I was nearly flattened by one of the tiny mini-beetle like Zastava’s that ply the city’s roads when it decided to not simply cut me up but to turn right through the very space I was currently occupying on the road. I’m still not sure how I managed to swerve out of his way, never mind raise an arm to give the appropriate range of internationally recognized hand signals, without coming off the bike. I can only imagine he was pissed off by the fact that, sat on my bike, I am larger than him in his tiny car and can also accelerate away from the lights faster than him, as I know he had seen me!
We came up with another non-motorway route out of the city, this time towards Veles. It followed a good road down the Vardar on the opposite side to the motorway, before turning up into the hills and becoming a ‘minor road’ and then a ‘mountain road’ according to the legend on our map. We had hoped to find some link road not shown on our map along the river but the map was strangely accurate here, as no such thing existed. Up into the hills again then, past fields of tobacco and tiny villages consisting of a collection of houses and a mosque and seemingly populated by Muslims only - women with covered heads out picking tobacco leaves in the fields. Stopping to ask directions our Makedonian phrasebook was useless - perhaps Albanian or Turkish would have worked better. Fortunately we met a German speaking man riding a donkey who informed us the road went nowhere - the rough track we were struggling to cycle got even worse in 3-4km and then ended. We showed him our map and the ‘road’ it showed - yes there is a track but it is for foot only and takes 6 hours to walk! He motioned that even his donkey has trouble on it! Thus for the second time we were forced to turn around and cycle back down the hill we had just spent 2 hours struggling up. Next day we decide to bite the bullet and go on the motorway - everyone said it would be safe as there is not much traffic (makes you wonder why the need the thing then?) - but we risk a ticket and fine from the police if caught. But as a cartoon gorrilla once sang - "there's no other way". On the way there though a stop to ask directions (we had lost all faith in the map by now) suggested there was an old road not shown on the map that follows the motorway. First we had to get there and this involved cycling along a ‘road’ more like a tractor trail down the side of a load of fields for several km. We found the old road and it was actually quite good except for about 5km in the middle where it turned into something more a like a mountain bike track, but we did arrive in Veles only a day and a half later than originally planned! From Veles the route to Ohrid was thankfully along good quality main roads that reassuringly had signs on them indicating distances to places so at least we had some faith they actually lead somewhere… (though the distances are most misleading….).
Apart form a big pass between Veles and Prilep the cycling was generally flat and fast and so we made up some of the lost time of the previous few days. This area is fertile and we were passing orchards of trees loaded with ripe apples and peaches, and mile after mile of vineyards. Grape picking was going on everywhere and the fields were full of lots of very happy looking people. Erika wanted to stop and pinch some grapes to try, but as we stopped a local emerged with a free bunch of both red and white grapes for us. This was to be repeated daily - since then we have been given more free grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, more grapes, peppers, walnuts, more grapes and lots of apples.
We skirted past the city of Bitola on the bypass which bisects the hillside gypsy slum - a shanty town of huts made from scrap wood, cardboard and sacking, and waterproofed with plastic carrier bags taped together. The slum was steadily spreading further up the hillside, with the newest and worse looking houses at the top. The road here also doubled as a landfill waste site and was littered with the rubbish spilling over from the slum, which had pleasantly been set on fire in many places. The locals were all very friendly though and smiled, waved and shouted hello as we sped past. From here it was uphill over another high pass and down to Resen where we bought food from a guy who spoke the most bizarre Australian English phrases. We left to shouts of “see ya later, no worries mate” ringing in our ears, and loaded down with free fruit and veg from another old guy who was passing by on one of the most knackered old bikes I have seen on this trip (and we have seen a few believe me…).
Ohrid is beautiful - sitting on the azure blue waters of the lake, it looks and feels almost like the sea and is very relaxing to be by such still, blue calm water. The UNESCO recognised town is a mix of mosques and orthodox churches all vying for space amid the narrow cobbled streets that weave around the hill of the old city. The lakeshore is full of deserted bars and cafes as it is now ‘closed season’. Our favorite street is close to the market and is lined with turkish style coffee-shops full of men only, with male barber shops wedged in between. With a mosque at either end of the street it feels like we are in the middle east already.
Our camp site is empty except for us though the staff are very friendly - we were treated to free Rekia (see G - it really is a different language) on arrival and have since been given free apples, beer and coffee. Swimming in the lake, relaxing in the sun and wandering around the old city have been the order of the day since our arrival, though we now have to plan our route back towards Istanbul. Currently it loks like a tour of the donkey tracks of Albania and Greece before returning to Bulgaria - a glance at an Albanian map the other day revelaed only two grades of road - main roads and 'practicable roads'. The fact that around 80% of the villages marked were nowhere near either type should mean we are in for a fun ride.....