Category Archives: North Macedonia

North Macedonia (final post) – a day trip to Ohrid and a personal history from my guide.

Everyone said I should visit Ohrid if I could while in Macedonia and it is certainly very different to Skopje – but then most places are:).

I had an excellent private driver/guide so learned a lot more about Macedonian and in particular his family’s history along the way (it’s a 3 hour drive each way).

Both his parents were 2 of about 28000 children who were forcibly exiled from Greece during the civil war in 1948 – ostensibly to keep them safe. They were sent to communist countries to live in orphanages – his mum was 7 and his dad was 12 at the time. They never came back to Greece nor heard from their parents. 12 years later through the Red Cross they both found out their parents were alive and living in Poland and so they went there to meet them again after all that time. The two “kids” met in Poland while finding their respective parents and married soon after. Eventually the families moved to Romania and then back to Macedonia BUT these children had had their citizenship revoked by the Greek authorities and it wasn’t given back so they had no rights to enter Greece or make claims on the properties that had been left behind. My driver, having been born in Macedonia, was able to visit his mother’s family home in Greece but only one wall was left standing and the ownership had passed to others long ago. It seems there are no reparations for loss of citizenship or property for these exiled children or their descendants. I always find personal stories the best way to remember stuff.

Anyway, back to Ohrid. Of course there is a fortress (via a Roman amphitheater) – in this case it is Samuel’s Fortress and the steep climb up is worth it for great views of the surrounding countryside. Having flown Wizzair from Tel Aviv to Sofia recently it was fun to see their plane at Ohrid airport. As Macedonia doesn’t have its own domestic airline they have kind of adopted this one. I thought they were pretty good.

Roman Amphitheater and airport in Ohrid

En route to and at Samuel’s Fort Ohrid

Then a stroll through a small dappled forest, past the almost complete orthodox seminary (the church are the only people with money in this country) and then the gorgeous and much photographed Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo.

Forest and the soon to be opened seminary with great views

The very picturesque Church of Sveti Jovan

A further stroll down the hill took us into Ohrid’s downtown – far too infested with tourists due to cheap flights from other parts of Europe – the high up part was way emptier and prettier. I tried to edit out the people but the building is worth noting. Three storeys means the original owners were very wealthy and as it cost more to build at ground level they tended to expand outwards as they built upwards – so they end up with upside down houses which has become a symbol of the town.

Traditional house in Ohrid

Also on the way downtown is the Sveta Sofija Cathedral with frescos.

Sveta Sofija Cathedral, Ohrid

We then drove further around the massive lake in Ohrid for lunch (dodging some cows crossing the road) – it is their equivalent to the seaside and the water is crystal clear.

Along the lake in Ohrid

A brave swimmer – the water is chilly.

Finally we took a boat ride in the protected waters within the Galicia National Park. The white sandy bits are where the natural springs are bubbling up to form the lake.

On the lake at Ohrid in Galicia National Park.

Abstract beauty of the pristine water in Galicia National Park, Ohrid

And so it is goodbye to North Macedonia. Someone summed up the current political corruption as follows. “The only difference between “then” and “now” is that now we can complain and grumble about the government without being arrested for speaking out”……

North Macedonia – more in and around Skopje

As Mother Teresa was born here it is no surprise to find a memorial to her plus lots of quotes of hers all around town. Some of her quotes are quite interesting others are not to my taste at all eg. Those that are anti abortion – so I had mixed views. Anyway interesting to learn about her life.

Mother Teresa statue and church nearby plus one of her quotes on the wall

On the other hand I really had my expectations exceeded when I visited the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia museum. The first half was of particular interest to me as it was all about the Sephardic Jews who migrated to this region at the time of the Spanish Inquisition – while I have Sephardic cousins who have connections to Salonika I hadn’t appreciated that all the Jews who resettled here came from Spain also – so found it very interesting. The holocaust section was also well done. There were about 7000 Jews living in Macedonia during WW2 and during a very short period of time they were nearly all deported to Treblinka and killed. Only those who had other nationalities were able to leave before deportation but of those who were deported – about 90% of the population not a single person came back. It is very well done because it shows people talking about the experiences at the camps – some survived in places like Auschwitz – and I ended up staying there for two hours. Even better was that I had the museum almost completely to myself – a typical situation in this part of the world. Well worth a visit if you find yourself in Skopje.

The Memorial Centre for the Jews of Macedonia. Sculpture represents photos of those who never came back.

When you cross over the Stone Bridge you are instantly transported from the modern satues and everything oversized to the old town of Skopje. At the highest point the Tvrdina Kale Fortress was used to ensure that there was good visibility in all directions and obviously as defence against those pesky Ottomans. The space age building is the sports stadium. Being up high also gives a good feeling visual of the mountains that surround this city.

Tvrdina Kale Fortress

The Carsija (Old Turkish Bazaar) is also on this side of the River Varda and this is clearly an area dominated by the local muslims and has plenty of mosques plus colourful alleys to get lost in as you wander around the stalls and shops – a mix of food, fake handbags and lots of silver and gold.

The Carsija or Old Turkish Bazaar

I decided it would be nice to have a wander around the streets of Skopje at night – easy to do as I was right next to the central square. They make a nice job of the lighting and there is tons going on at every corner to keep you amused -think Covent Garden, London.

Skopje at night

In my wandering I also found the new theatre which aside from being a splendidly large building with lots of statues on the top of it also had even larger statues depicting the different art forms – I kind of like these:)

Skopje Theatre

Depiction of the Arts outside Skopje Theatre

I also really enjoyed the Museum of Macedonian Struggle for Statehood. For about 5 dollars I received a one hour private tour and learned a lot about Macedonian history and the struggle for independence over the past 200 years up to and including the Balkan war. In particular the Balkan wars were very tough on everyone involved and of course depending who you speak to everyone has a different story but for sure a lot of people were killed and often quite gruesomely. I definitely want to find out more as I was particularly shocked to find that British bombers were the first to use napalm at Mount Gromos during the Greek civil war in 1948 – not something they ever taught us in history class! Unfortunately no pictures allowed inside the exhibits – which are all very lifelike waxworks (but don’t let that put you off!)

The sun (which is also part of the North Macedonian flag) in stained glass plus again in the floor with the exhibit that houses their constitution.

A short drive out of town took me to the delightful 12th Century Byzantine church of Saint Pantelejmon – unfortunately no pictures allowed inside which is a shame as it has an interesting history. The original frescos were painted over in the 1800s and then revealed again in 1923 when it was realised they were over much older paintings. The original frescos inside, like the ones I saw in Boyana in Bulgaria from the same period, were the first ones to use humanistic expressions for the saints’ faces rather than the usual bland image approach. It is theorised therefore that Giotto may have got his inspiration for his subsequent work in seeing these frescos which were painted much earlier than originally thought. Who knows???

Saint Pantelejmon Church, Vrodno

We then headed to a favourite local spot for R and R, Matka Canyon where we took a scenic boat ride and visited Cave Vrelo. We were also meant to take the cable car up to the giant (of course!) Millenium Cross but an incoming thunderstorm put a stop to that plan! A nice day out.

The Millenial Cross in the distance at the top of the mountain. Next door they are building a tower with a revolving restaurant!

Canyon Matka and Cave Vrelo

North Macedonia, Skopje (my 108th country) – they like to build big stuff here (and I mean big)

Well my guide book described Skopje as “bonkers” which I thought was a bit tough until I got here. It is indeed bonkers but in a kind of Disney meets Soviet meets Europe meets “Honey I shrunk the kids”.

As you walk around Skopje – which is quite small – you come across statues and massive buildings at every turn – really at every turn. Most were built in the past 10 years and don’t serve much purpose except, as I understand it, as a form of building national pride in what is still a very new country, although a very old civilisation (this is where Alexander the Great hails from, allegedly). At first you don’t know what to make of it and then it becomes quite entertaining to see if you can walk for more than a minute without spotting a new fountain or statue or massive building or funky bridge- you can’t. I’m beginning to quite like it!

Here’s what I mean and check out the people in some of the photos (actually there are not that many people around in this city) to get an idea of scale

The central square fountain – almost competes with Bellagio in Vegas

That’s my Marriott Hotel at the top – they are not usually quite so fancy. Also, is that the Arc de Triomphe?

Not sure who these folk are but I wouldn’t mess with them.

The stone bridge, the mother and child fountain and another bridge with lots of famous North Macedonian writers leading to the Archaealogical Museum – whose inside is much tinier than its outside!

Behind the stone bridge is the old citadel of Skopje. And another bridge with famous Macedonians

Sometimes you come across some smaller pieces along the street that are quite sweet. The singers outside the Bank – maybe singing “buddy can you spare me a dime”? And the so-called “glitzy girl”

Some of my favourite smaller sculptures in Skopje

And they are still building like crazy – see below