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Published: August 2nd 2013
Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery
Detail of the slate roof. Mavrovo National Park.
From Blato border near Debar, Macedonia to Skopje via Ohrid.
Ah to be in Macedonia again. A homecoming of sorts and for me a place where wonderful childhood memories were made – learning to blow bubbles, donkey rides, long grass, catching fire flies, sunshine. The reality of returning to Macedonia was not quite like that. In fact, not at all. Yes there was sunshine (a little too strong), yes there was long grass and I may have even seen a horse and cart. But that is where the comparisons end. Debar, the first town I got to after the border is a small, bustling, down-at-heel place and, to my eyes at least, in need of some government intervention of the monetary kind. Then again, my childhood memories were not made in this place and to be fair, it is not a little village either so really I can’t expect Debar to rise to the occasion.
It did make for interesting people watching though. The water fountain in particular got a work out. It was rather warm and everyone, it seemed, who walked by stopped to take a schluck of water. And the moneychanger too seemed to be working overtime
Simple and filling and very delicious.
although when I went in to ask to change some money he preferred to serve the guy who came in after me. No worries, I got better things to do with my time too. I don’t hang around for really bad service. Bad service yes (this is Eastern Europe after all) really bad service no. I stayed in Debar long enough to have some lunch, get money, say hello to bicycle hustler boy from the previous day (was he stalking me?) and shop for provisions. The ‘plan’ was to go to Mavrovo National Park. Jose had told me that it was very beautiful but involved a lot of climbing – 33km uphill from Debar to Mavrovo. Nothing like climbing when the weather’s hot but it fitted in with my other plan of visiting my Mum’s village before heading to Ohrid.
So, just out of Debar, with about 500m of climbing under my belt I stopped (ofcourse!) to drink some water and generally put off the inevitable which we all know never works. Unless ofcourse you are offered a lift by someone with a Range Rover and the promise of experiencing a unique Macedonian tradition which was being celebrated that
Pretty sure it's a weed but still... it is pretty.
very weekend in the village of Galichnik. Hmmmm. Ride 35km uphill in warm weather and get even hotter vs accept lift to a place to experience unique Macedonian tradition. Gee, that’s a tough one. Really. No really.
OK, so you probably know how the story goes. I do sometimes opt for the easy option (!!). But, to be fair I was thinking about how else I could get to this place whilst being bombarded with this information – there is only one road in and the same road out and really, who wants to ride all day UPHILL so they can downhill the same road. Maybe some people but not me (although I have done it on this trip). OK, so in to the car Dragana went (she wasn’t complaining either!) plus the mountains of bags.
Along the way we stopped for a coffee before heading to Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery. This is a large imposing monastery, and as with a lot of monasteries, beautifully positioned on a hilltop overlooking the valley below. The location of the monastery dates back over 1,000 years – hard to imagine. The buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. The
last time was when a fire swept through the monastery in 2008, miraculously sparing the church. Thank goodness because it houses the most exquisitely carved wooden iconostasis for which it is famous. No photos allowed, you will just have to trust me on that one. Or google it.
Further on, and a rain shower later, another stop. This time to chow down on some kachamak. I’ve never had it before. It’s made of cornmeal and is eaten with yoghurt. It’s delicious – and filling! (Why haven’t you ever made this Mum?)
The drive through the landscape was exquisite. The mountains looked slightly softer than in the other parts of the Balkans I thought – possibly helped by the fact that I was experiencing this from a moving vehicle going faster than my usual 5km/h uphill. And it was all greener. It did feel rather like I was cheating all this but I figured I’d done some hard yards in the past. Listen to me, even now I’ve still got the guilts and am justifying my reasons!
That evening I went to what turned out to be something of a buck’s night and a pre-empting of what the
Best musicians ever
Drummer and clarinet player waiting for the festivities to begin on Saturday night at Galichnik.
next two days would be like – musically at least. OMG. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. Imagine a fluoro lit bar, dulled by a blanket of smoke that permeated its space, filled to capacity with men, food and alcohol and 6 Roma musicians working their magic to ensure that everyone was having a good time. Singing, dancing and the beat of 3 tapans (drums) and the screeching (?) of three clarinets. The music (you may also call it sound) was deafening. No need for an amplifier - those drums and clarinets reverberated throughout the place. I was mesmerized from that moment on and couldn’t take my eyes off them, in particular one Roma tapan player, whose stamina and energy was spellbinding. I think I was channeling my inner Macedonian. Either that or my inner groupie.
They played well into the night which was wonderful at the time but it meant that I paid the price for that pleasure for the rest of the weekend, walking around as I did in a hard of hearing fug for most of it. Obviously I peaked too soon because the actual Galichnik wedding celebrations start in the evening of the Saturday
Getting ready for the Galichnik wedding.
night and go well into Sunday. I’ll know for next time. May I suggest you do a google of YouTube videos for Galichnik wedding (and make sure you turn your volume down if you’re in the office. If you’re not, CRANK IT UP : ).
And on that note, I will extend a very heartfelt thank you to Cikle for giving me the best (re)introduction into Macedonia anyone could ever hope or wish for. Honestly didn’t think I would be experiencing anything quite like this, especially on my first day but I guess it’s to be expected when your path crosses with one of Macedonia’s greatest (and Galichnik’s proudest) hosts.
So, after that FULL ON weekend it was almost a welcome relief to have some down time. The Sunday night I spent in a lovely little place right on Lake Mavrova and then the following day it was the ride to my Mum’s village. A little bit of uphill but mainly down. I am very grateful that I ran into, or rather was stopped by, Sveto who was being guide to two Dutch people we’d spent time with in Galichnik. He told me exactly where to turn to
reach Slatino as there were no signs (apparently stealing signs for scrap metal is a bit of a business over here – not great if you’re not from these parts). Even so, when the time came, I flagged down a car and asked. Just to be sure, you know.
That was an interesting 6km ride. It’s like time’s stood still in these villages. A lot of farm work is still done by hand, it’s quite the norm to see horses and headscarfed babas are the rule rather than the exception. Didn’t quite recognise my uncle, even though we both acknowledged each other as he drove by in the tractor. As for my auntie… It was like she was waiting for me. All I was thinking was, how could she have known? Guten Tag she said as I approached her on the street. Guten Tag! I replied. Where are you from she asked, Hollandia, Germania? Um, Tante, it’s me, Bernadette. Oooooh, Bernadette! I do love just rocking up unannounced…
I spent the next few days travelling back and forth between the village and Ohrid staying with relatives before catching the bus to Skopje for the weekend to spend time
First it's the ladies' turn to dance.
with new and old friends. It’s a hard life all this fraternizing.
What to say about Skopje? Hmmmm. There’s been a lot of building work going on. There’s a lot of monuments to show for it too. And at this point in time, to my eyes at least, the centre looks a bit like Vegas - all bright lights, fountains and bridges. But it does bring the people out and you will always have something or someone to look at. The old bazaar, Stara Čaršija,
on the other hand is beautifully preserved and is the largest of its kind in the Balkans, larger even than Sarajevo’s much lauded bazaar. I didn’t visit the area during the day but can say that at night it definitely comes alive with its many bars and restaurants. Next time though…
And one last thing about Macedonia – privacy is still a concept in Macedonia and not yet reality. As a personal example…there was some misunderstanding about the purchase (or not, as was the case with me) of a return bus ticket to Ohrid which resulted in some confusion amongst security and later the bus driver and was fuelled by my (extremely!) limited
Then it's the mens'
Macedonian. In the end, a woman who was also waiting for the bus understood enough of my lame attempts to explain my Macedonian heritage to twig why. You are the daughter of V? Da, da. Your mother is the cousin of my husband’s! Oh yes, it had to happen. Relatives are E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. And so that is how a minibus full of strangers came to know my life’s history, my mother’s life history and my entire Macedonian genealogy - all without me uttering another word and understanding just enough to know that I was being talked about. It was a weird bus trip. Privacy is a Macedonian great unknown, as is being enigmatic. Welcome to Macedonia!
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