Macedonia – a magnificent country that will surprise you.

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With our plans changing in Greece due to the stormy weather, we decided to head north to a country Miz and I had heard nothing but good things about…Macedonia. The journey would take us from Thessaloniki to Florina, then onwards by taxi to Bitola, a small city in southern Macedonia. I have to say, the train journey between Thessaloniki and Macedonia was one of the most scenic we have ever witnessed. Endless mountains, lakes and pretty villages captivated us for the entire journey. As we pulled into Florina’s run down station, we were sad to be hopping off the train. Still in Greece, a Macedonian guy picked us up to drive us across the border and into Macedonia. He explained to us how the border crossing is pretty strict with the past troubles between the two countries as we waited patiently at the border. Northern Greece, right the way down to Thessaloniki belonged to Macedonia but Greece has since claimed the land to itself, much to the annoyance of Macedonia and many of the northern Greek people. So tensions can run extremely high between the two countries. As we entered the beautiful lands of Macedonia to head towards Bitola, the driver relaxed and gave us all of the information we needed to explore Bitola. It’s an attractive city, surrounded by mountain ranges with the imposing Baba mountain looking down over the city at two thousand, six hundred metres. The Pelister National Park is within easy reach of the city and offers great hiking opportunities. Its beautiful landscape is enhanced by the diverse wildlife including bears, roe deer, wolves, wild boars, several species of eagles and the endemic Macedonian Pelagonia Trout. It really is a nature lovers paradise. Goldy Hostel was in a great location, it was a great little find, spotlessly clean and it had a little lounge to relax in along with a kitchen. Our room was small, actually really, really tiny. In fact not much bigger than Miz and I, but it was fine for a good night’s sleep. The owner, a young Macedonian rocker was good company and he wrote down a list of heavy metal bands he said I had to listen to and would change my life forever. He also informed us we had to try Bitola’s most famous dish of baked sheep’s cheese served with poppy seed bread. We set out to explore Bitola’s ottoman influenced streets, the city has several mosques, an old bazaar and a kilometre long pedestrianised street full of cafes, al fresco dining and art galleries. It’s an attractive city, especially with the surrounding mountain scenery and the crisp air. We went to bed in hope that the weather would clear by morning as we wanted to explore Pelister National Park.

We woke early and headed out in a taxi the short fifteen kilometres to the park entrance. The hiking trails started from Hotel Molika. As we had no clue which trail to take, we asked a friendly guy at the hotel reception what would be a good route considering the weather conditions. We decided on a three and a half hour trail which offered panoramic views across this magical country. The fragrance of pine trees, woodpeckers pecking and deafening silence made for a pleasurable hike. The clouds had broken as the sunshine glistened against the forested mountains. We actually came prepared and had a picnic with us which was a first during our adventures. We lay in the sun and enjoyed our sheep cheese pastries.

As we headed back towards Bitola, the heavens opened. It was time for tea so we walked to a pub which apparently served up the tastiest baked cheese with pork and had a great selection of local beers. It was unbelievable, in fact, I could have eaten another portion, I’m not sure my heart would’ve agreed! On the way back, we walked through the city park to the bus station to purchase our bus tickets to Lake Ohrid. We also took a look at the train station. Chatting to a local, he told us the route between Bitola and Thessaloniki had been cancelled due to the tension between the countries. The next day we took the ten thirty am bus to Lake Ohrid, the jewel in Macedonia’s crown. Twenty minutes into the journey, the gear box popped and the bus was stranded on the side of the highway. This was the overnight bus between Belgrade and Ohrid so the other passengers were pretty tired and annoyed! A replacement bus arrived thirty minutes later and we, along with a bus full of angry Serbians were on our way to Ohrid. An hour and a half later, we had arrived at the bus station and walked a kilometre to our guesthouse. The owners welcomed us with friendly smiles and showed us to our excellent room. For twelve euros per night, we had a spacious room complete with sky tv, a fridge, huge sofa, a bathroom and a small balcony with stunning mountain views. It was by far one of the best rooms we had stayed in so far on the European leg of our journey. Now we had high expectations of Lake Ohrid after reading several blogs online describing it as one of Europe’s most beautiful sights. But nothing could prepare us for its immense beauty as we caught our first sight of this vast, glistening lake. Looking across at the panoramic mountain views, turquoise waters and endless blue sky, it really takes your breath away.

Lake Ohrid straddles the mountainous border between Macedonia and Albania. It’s one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes and has more than two hundred endemic species. Its old town hugs the lakeside and is a cobbled maze of beautifully preserved churches and houses overlooked by the majestic fourth century Samuel’s Fortress. We walked through the old town and up to the fortress which offered sweeping views of the lake. Ohrid has a road which runs around its perimeter which is served by a local bus giving travellers the chance to explore some of the lakes, sleepy villages and tiny beaches. We took the bus to the bay of bones which is actually a museum and was home to a settlement of pile dwellers who lived on top of the water on a platform supported by up to ten thousand wooden piles anchored to the lake bed. The remains of the settlement were discovered at this spot between 1997 and 2005, they were gradually excavated by an underwater team who have reconstructed it as they feel it would have looked between 1700 and 600BC. We enjoyed our walk around the museum but our next mission was to find a shady beach as the sun was so hot! We walked a couple of kilometres back along the road avoiding some crazy drivers until we came to some steps leading to a secluded cove. As we headed down the stairs, we could hear some pretty good house music, the party was in full flow on this beach. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the sun loungers, jumping from the pier into the cool lake and enjoying the tunes. It was a perfect spot.

The bus service around the lake was rather sketchy and no information was available. We decided to start walking to the nearest town which was around three kilometres from the beach. The walk along the road was pretty hairy as cars raced by taking hairpin bends like they were competing in a grand prix. We finally reached a small town at dusk and found a minibus willing to take us back to Ohrid. We went to a traditional grill restaurant for a feast. Grilled meats, shopska salad, baked cheese and meat stews are top of the menu in Macedonia. We had half a grilled chicken each, complete with a huge salad and fried potatoes, it was delicious. The next few days we spent walking the scenic old town of Ohrid. It’s castle walls perched on a cliff edge offered superb panoramic views across the lake and out onto the rugged lands of Albania in the distance. The pretty cobbled streets had been filled with flowers by locals and steep steps led in all directions to several isolated coves and beaches, Ohrid really is a fairy tale land. We had booked for three nights and decided to extend for a further four nights! It was perfectly relaxed and the thought of leaving this beautiful spot behind too soon was too much to take…haha!

We took the bus to the Monastery of Saint Naum, an Eastern Orthodox Monastery, named after the medieval Saint Naum. St Naum is also buried in the church. We jumped off the bus and couldn’t believe how busy it was, honestly it was like the whole of Ohrid had descended on the monastery. After chatting with a couple of locals we soon learnt that it was a national holiday, the day of Saint Naum. It could only happen to us! The place was rammed full of gift shops, food stalls and souvenirs. The queue to actually take a look inside the old monastery twisted back along the cobbled streets and out towards the main road. We made our way up to a view point and relaxed in the shade. The monastery itself was picturesque apart from a group of peacocks who became pretty aggressive! Down the track away from the crowds, we found a dirt road which led into the countryside passing some of clearest springs we had ever witnessed, the water was crystal clear and the surrounding greenery was full of wildlife. Huge translucent dragonflies, butterflies, bees, small colourful birds and frogs added to the natural landscape. We passed several small churches, some of the prettiest I’ve seen and really enjoyed the hour long walk away from the crowds. During the afternoon, the crowds died down and we enjoyed a refreshing dip in the lake before a local offered us a lift back to Ohrid with a couple of Australians who actually had a house in Bitola. We chatted away about England’s chances against Columbia later that evening. After watching the game which we won on penalties, Miz and I fell into a deep sleep.

Our last couple of days in Ohrid, we spent enjoying the sun and refreshing fresh waters at a couple of the beaches. Again, we even came prepared with a picnic one day! Lake Ohrid and Macedonia as a whole has been a highlight of our entire trip. This small country really packs a punch and we urge anyone with a love of nature and a sense of adventure to head to Macedonia. Its an excellent travel destination! Next stop…Albania!