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Published: September 6th 2014
In the twilight of early morning the cliff-side swallows trill us awake. They are the first creatures to pierce the canyon quiet. Too late to sleep and too early to head off to feed they kill the time in between, preening and gossiping alongside their cliff-mates high above the water. The lake is more viscous for the night chill. Cohesive as quicksilver and icy-still, the mirror-like surface is a panorama of inverted Karsks and singing birds. It is 6 AM. I'm hanging out the window and breathing it all in with a shiver. We are in Macedonia. The place is called Matka; 'The Womb'.
We found it by accident. We had planned a short stay in Skopje; Macedonia's capitol before moving north to Belgrade. The Tripadvisor map showed us the locations of Skopje's hotels. I noticed an outlier next to a narrow lake about 15-klicks southwest of the city.. There was only one hotel there. I pulled up its picture and was immediately sucked in. The lake is a six kilometer long reservoir wedged between two walls of limestone towers that stand shoulder to shoulder. The 800-foot rock faces dive straight down into a turquoise-blue lake hitting bottom at a
Dejan and Mike
Dejan manages the restaurant operations at the hotel. Karen and I will never forget his kindness nor the time he took to talk with us about Macedonia, his family and his people. Good guy.
depth of eighty feet. Parts of the lake are barely 50-yards across. There is a narrow path that runs the length of the reservoir. It was cut into into the canyon walls by older, stronger hands. In places they tunneled completely through the Karsks. The serrated openings look like the gaping jaws of famished Great Whites.
The hotel sits on the site of an old Orthodox monastery known as St. Andrew's. The tiny, fresco-ed church is all that remains of the religious structures. The chapel interior is covered from ceiling to floor with 14th century religious frescoes telling the stories of Christ, the Apostles and the Prophets. Their colors are as true today as when they were first painted upon the walls. As good in their Byzantine quality as Giotto's more revolutionary offerings are in Padua. A well groomed, white-haired gentleman tends to the small chapel gift shop and enforces the 'no photographs' rule with varying degrees of success.
Before the dam was built in 1935 the canyon was a major roadway for people traveling through Macedonia via what was called 'The Road of Strength'. A number of monasteries were built along the path to take advantage of
One of the paths we used for quiet morning walks.
the spiritually starved and deep-pocketed merchants who were delivering goods to Skopje. You can still see a few of these inactive churches, perched hundreds of feet above the lake. They can be visited by those motivated few who are both physically fit and impervious to vertigo. I thought of the devout Petro girls back in D.C. giving these aeries a go and smiled to myself.
The hotel sits next to the church. A two-story stone structure with barely a dozen rooms. Downstairs is taken up by a restaurant and a large cafe to handle the local crowds who swarm over the lake on weekends seeking to escape Skopje's heat.
Karen and I are not what you could classify as 'Resort' people. We're more like free range chickens who may sleep in the same coop every night but tend to spend our days pecking here and there for sustenance. In Matka we had little choice. A taxi will deliver you to a small parking lot near the dam. From there you have to schlepp your bags up a cobble-stoned hill. Your luggage wheels loudly clickety-clacking the entire way. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon when the place was jammed
with Macedonian bodies all jockeying around each other in search of that perfect Kodak moment. We passed through a small tunnel and emerged on the other side looking straight down the axis of the lake. A real stunner of a view. One of those landscapes that pulls you out of yourself and sends you flying down range with a hitch in your breath.
We found the hotel wedged between two peaks. I left Karen with the luggage while I squeezed my way through a gaggle of honking waiters to the tiny reception desk. There I was greeted by big Alex, the manager with the watermelon-smile. He wore the reception desk like a brown-wooden apron. He had Karen and I in our 2nd floor room in less than 5-minutes and oh boy; What a room. Big comfy bed, double windows opening out over the lake, refrigerator, Jacuzzi in the bath and wonder of wonders; An LG plasma-screen TV just like the ones we have at home. Things were looking quite promising at Matka Canyon. And at only 39 Euros a night.
From our window we watched young men dive recklessly from high craggy rocks into the numbing water. The
KJ and I rise pretty early and we have the lake to ourselves. Macedonians don't get up and running till 9 AM.
water temperature here is a constant 44-degrees Fahrenheit. Major shrivel factors. The lake is fed by mountain springs and rare rains. Small boats loaded with fluorescent-orange life vested tourists ply the length of the lake at $7 a pop. Ambitious amateur Kayakers short stroke their way around the lake in curlicue courses that often have them arriving at the far end of the reservoir too pooped to paddle home. Those unfortunates are towed back to the pier tethered behind a tour boat. Their heads hang low as they slowly coast past head-wagging crowds in the 'wake of shame'.
Breakfast is included in the price of the room. The restaurant is managed by a fellow by the name of Dejan. We took to each other immediately. The guys a dead ringer for my Grandfather Sebastian. Macedonian breakfasts consist of massive amounts of fresh cheeses, breads, honey, preserves, cucumbers, tomatoes, ham and some of the best coffee we have ever drunk. Sitting on the cafe terrace, over the water with the sun streaming down was a dining delight. Add a few kittens tumbling around under the tables and what could be better?
As crowded as the weekends are with visitors,
Karen With The Morning Restaurant Staff
Huge breakfast included in room price. Beautiful terrace overlooking lake and mountains.
after sundown they all head back to their homes. At an average monthly salary of $250 few natives can swing the cost of a stay here. Karen and I came to Matka planning on a two day visit and ended up hanging out for nine. During most of that time we were the only people in the hotel which means that we had the canyon to ourselves in the mornings. We would head out at 6 AM and walk the length of the trail. Barely a foot wide in places you would peer over the edge to see a 300-foot drop with nothing to impede your descent. By the time we'd finish the 8-mile round trip we were ready for breakfast. Matka Canyon is a one of a kind spot for naturalists. Twenty-percent of Macedonian flora and fauna can only be found along this short stretch of rock and water. We were constantly amazed at the profusion of wildflowers and birds we saw here.
The restaurant was a joy which is good because it's not as if we had any other dining choices. The closest village is about 5-miles away. The menu was extensive offering everything from lake Trout
The Matka Dam
Built in 1935. Looks like a Hoover Dam miniature.
to Filet Mignon. Monster-sized salads and wonderful fish soup. We finally got smart and just had Dejan make our decisions for us. We were never disappointed. Service was as good as it gets. Ana took care of us in the evenings while young Stefan 'The Wonder Waiter' kept KJ's morning coffee coming until she could hold no more. Hotel guests receive a complimentary bottle of vino every day and the wine list is extensive. Macedonian wines are surprisingly good.
The dam is a miniature version of Nevada's 'Hoover Dam'. Built in 1935 it is a two-minute walk from the hotel's lobby. The Nazis, fearing an Allied landing in the Adriatic, tried to blow the dam up with a Panzer battalion in 1944 but Macedonian partisans beat them off. The dam has a 'Force Ten From Navarone' vibe going for it.
On our last morning we took a final hike down 'our' trail. In the crook of a wooded bend a young couple had holed up for the night in a small blue tent. We rested further up the ledge near a crooked chimney rock and warmed ourselves on a broad flat stone. The sun was sending bright, slanting
rays over the Karsk-tops and down upon the lake like bright morning beams pouring through Chartre's rose windows. Insects, warmed by the light, floated mindlessly over the water and the exuberant morning swallows dove down from the cliffs to feed. A cyclonic feathered swarm twisting along the lakeside, birds skid across the lake marking the water with a chain of expanding circles. Their wet wings sounded like floppy-eared hounds shaking themselves dry as they flew past our heads. The young couple climbed past us on our way down to breakfast but the show was over and we went on.
We'd come back to Matka in a heartbeat.
Imagine a young man who plays 'Myst' on his 1990's era computer. Plays it during every waking moment. Remember Myst? It was all the rage for a year or so. Known more for its stunning graphics than for its play it was chock full of beautiful pictures of an idyllic island loaded with rotundas and Greek styled buildings. Now imagine that this same lad is now a city planner who has been commissioned with the redesign of the capitol city of Macedonia; Skopje. Near as I can tell, this
One of the many bizarre new structures being built along the riverside.
is what happened to Skopje.
Take Disney's Pleasure Island, add Caesar's Palace plus Bellagio's fountains and a Myst mindset and Voila! You have Skopje. One of the most bizarre cities we have ever seen.
Eighty percent of the city was destroyed by a quake in 1963. Since then, its rebuilding has been started and stopped in fits. Architects come and go with no end in sight. Bloated looking Greek revival buildings, Venetian bridges lined with statues of composers, authors, warriors and politicians. Concrete cast Galleon-Restaurants. Giant statues of men on horses, men on thrones, men on men. Huge fountains spurting water into artistic pulsing designs wrapped around even more statues. Skopje is one very odd place. Old city walls perched on a hill overlook it all. The ancient market place has been converted into an open-door bar district where techno-rock music is played at ear splitting levels all night long. Some of the highest hotel rates we have seen thus far in the Balkans. Parched atmosphere, tropical sun and temps in the upper 90's. What's not to like?
Give Skopje a day and get out of town.
We are in Slovenia now after a ride
Karen's New Cat
She picks one up everywhere we go. We call this one 'Simba' and stuff it with processed meats.
through Serbia and Croatia. More on that later. Shouts to Mel and the baby and Chris Smith and the Petros and Reed and Stace and the brood and John M. From here we go to Vienna and Slovakia then Poland to see Noah then Berlin and back to Africa. How are you doing Dina?
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