Friday, April 8, 2011

Zdravo, Makedonija!

I was very impressed and surprised by Macedonia. The language was really similar to Bulgarian- enough to get by and understand most interactions we needed to but not enough to know everything. As our hotel manager in Ohrid explained, Macedonians and Bulgarians can understand one another up to a certain point, but the fact is that there are some words in both languages which are entirely different. This is because despite all the discussion and nationalistic arguments to the contrary, Macedonia has its own history and its language reflects the nuances of its culture. For example, being a former Yugoslav republic, Macedonians use the same word for “thanks” as in Serbo-Croatian. Some of the signs we read in Skopje and even the travel map we were given were all written in Albanian, no doubt because of the capital’s close proximity to Kosovo. The food was nearly the same as what we would normally find in Bulgaria, but this is true of most countries throughout the region. Burek, yogurt, cevapi and ajvar were all familiar and available everywhere.

We took a bus from Sofia to Skopje, spent a couple of days there before heading out to Ohrid, about three hours away, and then had a stopover in Bitola before getting on a night bus back over the Bulgarian border. You can see the most important sights in Macedonia in a few days, but I’m glad we had the extra time to relax and enjoy the break. There weren’t really many tourists and the weather wasn’t bad- mostly overcast with a few light showers. But it was a lot warmer than it has been recently and there were plenty of sidewalk cafes to sit down in on the wide pedestrian streets.

The center of Skopje is under a lot of construction at the moment but you can tell that when it’s all finished it will be a very charming and attractive city. Most of the sights are close to the main square and medieval stone bridge that spans the river. On one side is the carsija, or old Ottoman district, with its bazaars, Turkish baths and mosques. The other side is the new town, with lots of malls, cafes and churches. There is a gigantic neon cross perched atop one of the hills, something that reminded me of Boise, Idaho. Because it’s so close to the Kosovo border, accommodation and food in Skopje are much higher than other parts of the country. But we managed to find a decent hostel offering private rooms not far from the bus station. My favorite part of Skopje was definitely the old town because it was such a contrast visually to what I’m used to here. I know that when I visit Turkey it will be more of the same but I really love just wandering around and admiring the architecture (especially at one of the old baths which had been turned into an art gallery).
Ohrid is a small town on a lake nestled between the mountains near the Albanian border. There’s a beautiful lakefront path, a small harbor and a medieval fortress looming over the old town. I read from one website that Ohrid is home to 365 churches- one for every day of the year. While I didn’t count so many, there were a few breathtaking ones we visited, like the one overlooking a cliff on the path up to the fortress. Another church was situated amongst the ruins of Ohrid’s medieval university and may have housed the remains of St. Clement, a well-known and loved Orthodox saint. The walls and towers of Csar Samoil’s fortress provided an unbeatable view of the town and the lake. Not far away was the less-than-impressive ancient theater and archaeological museum. Most buildings in the old town were in a similar style to the Bulgarian revival period houses I’ve seen here. There was also a bazaar area with a few mosques and a thousand year-old tree still standing in one square. The best part about Ohrid was the lake itself. The first evening we arrived we had dinner in a terrace restaurant above a hotel overlooking a gorgeous sunset. It was a perfect getaway, and not too far from home. I loved it and would definitely go back.

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