Traveling Macedonia?

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July 12th 2011
Published: August 13th 2011
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Had I reached Macedonia yet? I wasn’t sure. I knew very little of the place before I arrived but the little information I had I played dumb. I knew Greece and Macedonia had some problems, but what? As a person with a Greek background could it be possible to fall in love with a place, which I should say doesn’t exist but does depending on whom you talk to and what name you call it.

All I knew was that Macedonia there are two – one in northern Greece, the other a country from the Former Yugoslavia. The other thing was that Macedonia claims Alexander the Great as their own. With that little knowledge I set off to get an understanding of a place 7 years ago I heard as ‘boring, don’t bother.’

When I left Africa I could have sulked about the difficulties of my failed Visa’s which didn’t allow me to complete Africa on a full circle. But how can you when there is so much to see in the world! Macedonia became a great destination to travel to and easily eased the thoughts of not completing Africa.

7 years ago I was thinking of coming here but Skopje the capital I heard such boring things I went down Albania instead. So this part of the trip was to do the alternative route I didn’t do in 2004. I’m not sure how it would have looked years ago but now it seems to be setting itself up for something special… or an overload.

This ‘special overload’ is part of a government initiative called Skopje 2014 where they plan to have 15 buildings including the foreign Ministry and constitutional court. When it was unveiled the government suggested it would cost an overall total of 80 million euro but opposition say it has already exceeded 200 million euro.

Construction is one of the main words you choose to describe the city at the moment. Grand Greco-roman style buildings are being set up along the river Vadrar. With a Ferris wheel scheduled and a palm beach which is hard to recognise and was the scene of an ordinary reggae night with no reggae music. (Tip - Just a symbol of Bobby boy doesn’t give you the right to say it’s a reggae party.) The other way to describe the place is “very statue happy”.

I don’t know what came over the government to pass this but Skopje is easily the… the most statue happy place I have ever travelled to. There’s the shoe cleaner statue, some old guys on horses, more contemporary ones. And most of them align the stretch off from the Stone Bridge to Plostadi Makedonija and beyond. There are a few which don’t seem to have any connection with the country like the big black bull down a side street with gigantic bullocks.

I asked multiple locals in Skopje and elsewhere what they thought of the statues and most were not receptive. The country has poor hospitals, education needs improving, the basics. One third of the population live under the poverty line and the unemployment rate is around 30%. The economy was projected by the International Monetary fund to increase by 3% in 2010 but only increased by 1% and the government okayed a 9 million euro statue of Alexander the Great, which I was able to see the last stages of construction.

For Greece it’s as if Macedonia is trying to steal their identity and culture. But for Macedonia it is an attempt to gain an identity. (The President said that the project will reflect Macedonia’s ancient glory.) It is hard for some of these countries from the Eastern bloc to feel like a strong culture because they were repressed in a way to follow the Yugoslav way or Soviet way in other areas. In less than 2 decades it’s hard but is it necessary to pay that much for a statue that will create controversy with your neighbours?

Okay Greece has complained about nearly everything Macedonia has tried to do but they are not the only ones who have a problem with them. Known in some parts as Bulgarian gypsies the most beautiful part of the country is trying to be claimed by Albania.

I travelled there to go on horseback through the lush green mountainside of Galicica. Tourism is in its infancy at the moment and what would have been good was to do an overnight trip here but I found out too late so I did a 4 hour trip instead. Distances are not that much so it was an easy day trip.

Because of the mountains the horses are slightly stocky to normal horses so they are able to climb the mountains. The tour for me was to see a bit of the countryside and than at the end, at some point go for a gallop. Most seem to have been wild horses caught and taught to be tour horses. On the day most horses were getting nails in their hooves. Whilst another was caught that day and tied to a tree. Our tour leader was teaching his horse the ropes, as it was its first tour. It was interesting watching the horse and master do battle for supremacy.

I wouldn’t say the trek was the most exciting horse ride I have done. Mainly because its follow the leader mostly. No matter how much you try to be authoritarian with the horses generally they don’t budge. But once you start turning back through the trees at the old wooden church the horses get a bit more excited. There is not much flat land in the place and it takes nearly the full 4 hours to find some.

That flat land once reached is wild grass that is sometimes hip height or higher. The guide doesn’t force people to do it and only half of my group went for a gallop. The horses weren’t in the mood at first and went for a trot or a canter and my word is that the most painful motion a horse can do to a males genitals. It bashes them up in double time.

Eventually with a kick and a yell out of “Heyah!” and they were off lighting up my adrenalin. As we went back and forth the horses started to challenge each other without command so there were some scary moments. Especially when the wild grass was thick and the horse just went either way he chose to get around it.

The tour finishes with a slow descend to the stables. High up in the mountain two horses greeted us half way down by calling out to us multiple times as it continued to echo through the valley. The excitement of the horses was an incredible experience as you look down at the valley and the 2 horses galloping towards you at the beginning of the ascend. I have never received such a welcoming – A truly special moment that no other horse ride has provided.

The mountains are not the only part of Macedonia that are memorable for a tourist. The Lakeside town of Ohrid is the most commonly known city for tourists outside the capital. Again 2 days earlier I didn’t know this place existed. I saw it on the hostel booking website that there was a hostel there so why not.

What was unexpected was a slice of the Mediterranean - a blue normally only reserved for the European Sea has found itself inland and in the Balkans. The beach is only a small patch of pebble but the hills above is thick with lush greens and historic buildings generally of Orthodox significance.

I met up there with some Australians that I met in Skopje a few days earlier. I realised after, that these 2 guys were the first Australians I had met for more than a couple of hours in 4 months. I was meant to go out one night in Skopje and ended up getting drunk at the hostel and went to bed hammered at about 330am. When you quote the 12th man and get a response you know you are on a winner.

Walking around Ohrid we ended up meeting, bumping into other Australians who were either born in Macedonia or are 1st generation Australians. There English as well as the natives when speaking English speak with the same accent as the Greeks. It’s too hard to explain by text.

It was back to Skopje and in Skopje I ended up staying at a new hostel called Shanti Hostel. It is more old school than the modern crap that hostels are now. Hostels especially in Europe have this money making feel whereas the old school hostels were more about providing a homely feel. At Shanti the TV is not the main feature of the common room and that means interaction with other travellers is encouraged. It is also about a 10-15 minute easy walk from the bars along the river, which is a great distance to really get your monies worth stumbling home. All hostels in drinking places should be no less than 10 minutes walking distance from the closest bar - better stories to tell the next day.

Like the unfortunate public urinating along the stone bridge or the English guy losing the group whilst he vomited half way round Alexander the Great statue. I found him stumbling with still $1.50 bottle of beer in his right hand. I tapped him on the shoulder; he turns around with vomit all over his mouth.
“Oh shit thanks mate. Oh its all over my face.”
I pick up a dirty napkin from the ground. “Do you want to wipe some of it off?” “It’s been on the ground.”
“Well its cleaner than your face!”

I had a couple of visits to Skopje and at first the Alexander statue was being assembled. On my last day it was erected and the final touches underneath the statue yet to be complete. It’s an 11m bronze statue where Alexander is straddling his horse Bucephalus in a triumphant way facing north to the area he didn’t conquer. This is the centrepiece of Skopje 2014. I don’t know if it was worth it but it may enhance tourism to the area. It may also change people’s perceptions of Greek culture in time but that is the least of Greece’s concerns at the moment.

I always stated I was half Greek when I spoke to people to see what sort of reaction I’d get. And in a tongue and check way they would say. “Which part of Greece, Thessaloniki?” I then said no an island just off the Peloponnese. “Ah so you are a real Greek than.” Whilst Greeks call Macedonians “Skopje” Even the Greek world maps only state the capital and not the country.

Possible territorial aspirations and historic associations is the major concerns/excuses for Greece. It all started once Independence happened and in 11 August 1992 the new nation replaced the old Communist red star with the Vergina Star/Sun. The star was an ancient Greek symbol discovered in excavations in a Greek Macedonian city of Aigai.

Greece saw it as the connection between ancient Macedonia and Modern Greek culture. So with the name, the flag and the constitution not to Greece’s liking they put economic sanctions and tried to gain copyrights to the Vergina Star. Greece was so adamant that the UN didn’t fly Macedonia’s flag in New York.

In 1995 Macedonia agreed to change their flag to a striking red and yellow flag, which has been voted highly in various flagpoles for best flags in the world. The naming of the country is yet to be resolved. Some Macedonians said that no-one should claim ownership of ancient things like Alexander the Great others don’t get why the country wants to be associated with a warmonger.

There has been negotiation tables, court cases, and protests from human rights organisations letting off steam saying no more negotiations. Greece not agreeing and then suggesting to call themselves Republic of North Macedonia. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as its officially called is generally only used now when Greece is involved.

But seriously what is it with this area of the world? Always bickering about the minute details and antagonising each other. I can understand Greece’s concerns early on but surely this could have been resolved by now. I just think the region doesn’t know how to live without a dispute of some description. The normal people would prefer the politicians to do more constructive things than worrying about a name or finance a statue or statues in this case.

Like doing something about the police not being accountable for their actions. At the hostel two Senegal Frenchmen were beaten up by Albanians and the police came to the hostel and investigated the guy and the hostel and treated them like criminals. That reeks of Kyrgyzstan’s bullshit and that old school Eastern bloc police.

I know I have crapped on about the naming issue on this blog but its important to note. Basically the issue won’t be resolved for a while especially now that they’ve built a statue on top of naming their airport after Alexander the Great. They will both hold out until something has to give. Either Macedonia will change the name slightly to help them move towards membership in the EU and NATO or Greece will give in because over time the world will get use to calling it Macedonia and will say its been too long Greece we can’t be bothered to care about this issue. You’re on your own or get over it.

This is a beautiful country with friendly people, some great scenery that impressed me. I would love to come back in the winter and do the horse riding in the snow near the mountains of Skopje. Macedonia whatever you want to call it has the tools to be a great alternative European destination.

**** For those Skopje enthusiasts who are saying, “What you didn’t go to Canyon Matka!” Well I tried but the bus didn’t show up and I had elsewhere to go which you’ll find out on the next blog.

**** It also should be noted that Greek Macedonia, which includes Thessaloniki, was part of the Ottoman Empire until the first Balkan war, which was Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece against the Ottomans in 1912. Than in 1913 in its second instalment it was Serbia and Greece up against Bulgaria where both sides basically split the Macedonia’s up amongst each other.

Additional photos below
Photos: 47, Displayed: 31


13th August 2011
1 - my horse in Macedonian mountains.

What a great photo!
This is Mell(one of the moderators).
14th August 2011
1 - my horse in Macedonian mountains.

Best Photo!
ha ha what did you feed him, peanut butter? Great blog and I love your horse.
19th August 2011

You seem to have walked the same path that I did when I was in Ohrid in 2009. I remembered the amphitheatre, the beautiful churches along the way, and the flag in the fortress. I would definitely go back for the mountains, missed out on that. You're right on the conflict with Greece, I think it's downright petty and childish how both sides behave. You get similar issues all over Europe, e.g. Hungary and its neighbours, Serbia/Kosovo, Turkey/Greece, Ukraine/Poland, Poland/Germany, Italy/Austria, Germany/France, etc., but none (except Serbia) make such a big deal out of it. Macedonia will eventually join the EU, so Greece has to deal with it in any case.
16th August 2012

Visit Mavrovo and go for a horse ride in Galichnik
Next time you come to Macedonia go for a horse ride in Galichnik, one of the most beautiful places in Macedonia.

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