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Thread: Macedonia Trip Report

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2012

    Default Macedonia Trip Report

    One hundred years ago, September 1918 marked the end of the hostilities in the Balkans, which contributed to the end of WW1 in November.

    My father was a signaller in the British Army and stationed for a year or so in Salonika, mostly in the Greek hills near the lake of Doiran. He mentioned in his memoir notes about ‘the little ruined town of Doiran’ by the lake, and most probably, frequently gazed across the lake at the ruins. I thought how it might be nice, in his memory, to sit in this little town 100 years later and gaze across the lake at the hills where he was in 1918.

    I have made a number of trips to Greece over recent years, and retraced my father’s footsteps in the places that he was. I had never been into Macedonia, which once was part of Yugoslavia, as I had always thought my Dad stayed on the Greek side until the war finished.

    But recent research shows that during the final battle, his brigade crossed into Macedonia, to ‘chase’ the retreating Bulgarians over the mountains. This new information gave me an added incentive for my trip, so that I could retrace his steps during those final couple of weeks of battle. And of course, while there, why not explore the whole country !

    Crossing the border from Greece is a possibility, but until very recently not allowed with a rental car. Even now, it can be difficult. So I had really to go to Skopje and rent a car from there. Getting to Skopje on a zed ticket is possible but with many full flights, overnight connections involved, and multiple UK and European taxes payable, it is cheaper and quicker to go on the one direct flight on the ‘no frills’ airline, Wizzair.

    I had never flown on Wizzair before but booked the ‘priority upgrade’ as it provides up to 20kg checked in baggage and one carry on of up to 10kg which is guaranteed to be permitted in the cabin. The cost of the upgrade is not much more than the cost of the check-in bag alone, but also allows you to choose your seat, and puts you ahead of others in the boarding line, so in my view, is certainly worthwhile. The flights were on time and in general, I found Wizzair to be very well organised. You just have to be careful to check in online and stay within the baggage limits; otherwise the additional charges at the airport can be quite high.

    Hotels in Macedonia are not plentiful, except in Skopje and one or two resort areas. Apartments are available to rent in many towns, but if you don’t stay in a hotel, you may have to go to a police station to register when you arrive in a place. Hotels register their foreign guests with the police as a routine matter. The police registration requirement is a law left over from Soviet days, although in practice, they seldom ask to see your registration certificate(s). However it remains very much a police state. Traffic police especially, are very much in evidence, wearing plain black sweat shirts, as opposed to any identifiable uniform, and looking out for infringements such as driving without dipped headlights (required 24/7) in addition to any excess speed.

    Roads in Macedonia can be categorised as follows : firstly motorways and many prime routes are new or well maintained, secondly other major roads and many smaller roads are tarmac or concrete but not well maintained, with many large and deep potholes, and thirdly some smaller roads are often only suitable for off road vehicles, as they can range from rutted dirt tracks with big holes, to dirt tracks with boulders, lumps of concrete etc.

    There are still places where you are not allowed to take photographs, so you have to be careful especially near any border or building connected to the military. And it is forbidden to take photos of or around dams, but this seems now to be a semi-obsolete law, although I was asked to cease once by an official from a dam control office. Most churches also forbid any photography inside which is a pity because some of them are really spectacular inside.

    I got off the plane in 35 degrees heat (95 F), drew some cash from an ATM (you can’t get Macedonian Denars outside of Macedonia), and collected the car without any hiccups, and immediately drove to Kumanovo where I stayed overnight in a winery/hotel. There is not much at Kumanovo, but I had selected it as a convenient first night, accessible if the flight was delayed or if I was still tired from my early (3am) start. As it happened the flight was on time and I was not tired, so I spent the late afternoon exploring some nearby villages and the sights of Zebrnjak and the Kokino Megalithic Observatory. Dinner on the first evening was a small challenge as the restaurant I chose, only had a menu in Macedonian (Cyrillic alphabet), but I managed and enjoyed an excellent meal.

    Over the next few days, I drove around the east side of the country, ending up near Lake Doiran in the south. During this first part of the trip, and indeed during the whole trip, I visited numerous monasteries, (Orthodox Christian) many lovely villages and some very high mountains, and in general some absolutely beautiful scenery. I saw very few other tourists, and those I did see were mostly Macedonians from one of the cities. There is a lot of Turkish influence in Macedonia, dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, and mosques are abundantl. As with other countries in this part of Europe, there are a lot of wild dogs, but luckily for me, the heat was such that they mostly just wanted to lay down in the shade. Throughout the trip, the weather remained very warm or hot, except in the very high areas of the mountains.

    I started off from Kumanovo and headed east towards the Bulgarian border, to visit the charming mountain town of Kriva Palanka and the nearby beautiful serene monastery of Saint Joachim Osogovski. Then south to Kuklica to see the valley of the Stone Dolls, an area of naturally formed pillars, some of which appear to have a head and torso, before stopping later in the small mountain town of Kratovo, famous for its towers built in the 13th/14th century to defend the town. From Kratovo I carried on to Stip, stopping for a short while to explore the caves and monastery at Lesnovo.

    My hotel in Stip turned out to be the headquarters of Kanal 77, a Macedonian radio station, set high on a hill overlooking the town. Next morning I visited the deserted roman ruins at Bargala before continuing through some very picturesque countryside, with high mountains and lakes, and small towns and villages to Delchevo, and then on to Pehchevo where I stopped for the night. This is another lovely small town and is somewhat exceptional in that it has a modern hotel in the centre.

    The next day I drove firstly to the regional large town of Strumica, and explored Strumica by car, as parking was, like most large towns, difficult. In many towns, you have to register your car by mobile phone, quoting your licence plate number and the location of the parking bay, in Macedonian – something I was not quite up to attempting. Occasionally there is a proper car park where you can pay, but they are few and far between, seldom convenient, and often full. So I then explored some of the small villages in the surrounding area, before heading to Koleshino, in the foothills of the Belasica mountains, where I made a couple of small hikes to see some nice waterfalls before staying overnight.

    On the following morning I visited the old town of Star Doiran that my Dad had remembered from 100 years ago. Star means ‘old’ and differentiates this town from Nov (new) Doiran a few miles north. My visit this time was brief as I planned to return towards the end of the trip. On this visit I just wanted to do a ‘rekky’ of condition of the roads in the area that I wanted to explore. I then proceeded to drive from the south to Skopje in the north of the country, stopping for one night on the way at Negotino. Before Negotino, I left the motorway and spent some time exploring the area around Demir Kapija. I was interested to see the road tunnel (on the old road), which was hewn out of the rock and, probably uniquely, has a break in the middle with a small car park. This break in the mountain here is popular with rock climbers, hence the need for a small car park, essentially in the middle of a tunnel.

    After Negotino, I stopped at more roman ruins at Stobi. This site was more commercialised than the others that I had seen, with an entrance fee and map, and with tracks in the grass from which visitors were not supposed to stray. Then on to the town of Veles, where I found a place to park the car (it was a Sunday, so the parking restrictions were relaxed) and stroll around. Veles was quite lovely with the river Vardar running through the middle. Continuing to Skopje, I arrived at my hotel in the late afternoon.

    I then stayed three days in Skopje, and broadly spent the first day on foot, exploring the city. I was very much taken with the beauty of Skopje which is still being rebuilt after the 1963 earthquake. Much of the centre of the city looks brand new, and is very clean. The city is in two distinct parts, divided by the river Vardar. The centre is marked by the Stone Bridge which is an old, now pedestrians only, bridge which links the modern Macedonia Square with its large statue of Alexander the Great, with the eastern side which is predominantly of Turkish origins, with its old bazaar, and fort, but which now also has many new buildings and statues. I don’t think I have seen a city with so many statues.

    On one of my days in Skopje, I made the trip up the local mountain, Mt Vodno, where there is a huge cross at the top, called the millennium cross, which is lit up at night and can be seen from all of Skopje and beyond. Access is by cable car, from a station about half way up. The views from the top across the city of Skopje, are quite spectacular. On the third day, I visited the Matka canyon which now holds a lake dammed at one end. It is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Skopje and a visit would not be complete without a boat trip on the lake, through the gorge, to visit some interesting caves inside a hillside by the lake.

    After Skopje, I headed for the Mavrovo National Park, visiting a few towns and several villages on the way. This included a side trip up a high mountain to a popular ski resort (not in the summer of course) at Popova, to see the views over Tetovo and the valley below, which were marvellous.

    I spent a couple of nights in the hotel in Trnica, a remote place (just a small shop, farm, hotel and restaurant) in the Mavrovo National Park, from which I explored the surroundings. I enjoyed a good hike to see the Duf waterfall near Rostusche, saw the ‘sunken church’ in the lake at Mavrovo, and found the narrow road to the village of Galichnik which lies high in the mountains between Mavrovo and Debar. The views from the village are absolutely awesome.

    Leaving the Mavrovo National Park, I drove down to Lake Ohrid, where I spent a couple of nights. As well as enjoying the beautiful scenery en route, with many stops by the rivers and lakes to take photos, I turned off at Vevchani which is famous for its springs. I expected to see a few bubbling springs, but at the back of the village I saw where the springs gush out from the mountainside through cracks and gaps in the rocks. In fact at one place there was a 200+ year old watermill, still in full use, milling grain, using the force of the spring to turn the wheel.

    I spent a whole day exploring the old town of Ohrid on foot. Ohrid, with its cobbled streets, fort, roman amphitheatre and old monasteries, is classed as a tourist destination for Macedonians and some foreigners, and is the nearest they have to a seaside resort in their landlocked country. The border with Albania actually passes through Lake Ohrid, so the Macdonian shoreline only goes around about half the lake.

    The next day, I drove to Bitola, but started by visiting the beautiful monastery of St Naum by the lake at the end of the Macedonian shoreline. Unfortunately this monastery has been commercialised, due to the volume of tourists visiting Ohrid and the place now being a place of pilgrimage at certain times of the year. I then took the road over the high mountain pass in the Galichica National Park which lies between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. Again, there were unbelievably breath-taking views over Lake Ohrid on the ascent and over Lake Prespa on the descent. Lake Prespa sits at the border with both Albania and Greece and is several hundred feet higher in the mountains than Lake Ohrid, and not a popular tourist destination.

    In Bitola, I stayed on the edge of the Pelister National Park, again for a couple of nights so as to explore the area. I spent a day in the Bitola area, with few hours walking around Bitola, and exploring more roman ruins at Heraklea, as well as finding some lovely old villages off the beaten track in the nearby mountains of the National Park.

    The next overnight stop was Prilep, and on the way from Bitola, there were more fascinating villages and monasteries. The small town of Krushevo was really lovely, built on a mountainside and with most of the roads too small or steep for cars; I got my fair share of exercise walking around. And the monastery at Zrze was well worth the visit, being built on cliffs on a mountainside where monks used to live in caves just below the church.

    After Prilep, more old villages and picturesque scenery as I made my way back to Star Doiran, where I stayed for three nights next to the lake. The large patio doors of my room in the hotel looked out to the hills in Greece across the Lake where my Dad had been 100 years ago, so I got my wish of returning his ‘100 year old gaze’. Over the following couple of days, I hiked in the hills and mountains where my Dad’s brigade had been in September 1918. I located several places mentioned in the war dairies of his brigade and retraced the routes taken, walking in my father’s footsteps.

    After Doiran, I spent a day travelling back to Skopje airport, where I spent a couple of nights at a nearby hotel before an early (3am) start for my flight back to the UK. While there, I managed to visit one last place of interest called the Kozle Gorge. The motorway that runs north-south in Macedonia splits into two for about 15 miles, with the southbound section following the gorge, while the northbound section cuts through the mountains about 3 miles to the east. So the Kozle gorge can only be seen when travelling south. On the other side of the gorge is a small monastery, which can be accessed by a small path and a rope bridge over the gorge, and I was keen to visit this place. With no other people around, the rope bridge with its old wooden planks (and gaps), was slightly un-nerving, but I hung on to both sides as I walked across, and live to tell the tale.

    The flight back to the UK was uneventful, and I was soon home and relaxing after my hectic but exhilarating and enjoyable 3 weeks travel.

    For anyone who is interested, I have uploaded a selection of photos from this trip onto Flickr in four albums. Best viewed on a desktop or laptop, you may peruse them if you wish, using the following links / access codes :






  • This post by T3Lee liked by 2 users:

    Lemlem (31-Oct-2018), Migflanker (30-Oct-2018)

  • #2
    Administrator Migflanker's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2002
    LA, the city of angels & freeways
    Enjoyed the trip report, loved the photos, and I did have to take a second look at that "Divers" photo*wink*. So "Indiana", a rope bridge with old wooden planks over a river - any chance there were crocs in that river??? *laughing*
    Keep'em Flying

    Migflanker - Senior NonRev Correspondent - Los Angeles

  • #3
    Join Date
    Jan 2012
    93 chance of course. Glad you enjoyed the write up and pics.

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