9-11 September 2016Driving through beautiful countryside, I arrive at the spectacular shores of Lake Ohrid. Lake Ohrid is one of Europe’s oldest lakes, preserving an aquatic ecosystem of more than 200 endemic species. Along its eastern shore is Ohrid, a lively resort with wonderful shopping bazaars and cafes. Ohrid is a perfect spot for visiting local sites of interest.
Lake Ohrid is the deepest lake of the Balkans with an average depth of 508 ft. but a maximum of 940 ft. It covers an area of 138 sq miles; 19 miles long and 9 miles wide the lake has over 54 miles of shoreline that is shared between Macedonia and Albania. The lake was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979 and, in 2010, NASA named one of Titan’s lakes after Lake Ohrid.
Sturga is just a few miles around the lake. As I stand on Poets Bridge I appreciate the amazingly clear, unpolluted water. I understand why two poetically inclined locals, brothers, said they wished to “fly like an eagle over Sturga” before they were executed in 1862. Many rivers flow into Lake Ohrid while just one rushes out – the Drini. It is fast, clear and cold and along its banks men fish for carp, a popular fish here, Koran fish or Lake Ohrid brown trout being the other.
Along the Drini, hydroelectric power predominates as there are lots of rivers and lots of water shooting though the mountain canyons. Rain and water does is not an in short supply. In fact, Macedonia has so much hydroelectricity they sell it to Albania. And from our location, we are less than 5 miles from the border with Albania.We stop at the Kalista Cave Monastery. Here is the small but attractive Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother displaying the usual painted icons. But the real draw is the rock where I climb a narrow passageway to see the old monk cells and chapel carved into the rock. The other draw is the monastery’s efforts at bottling wine. I bought some and, after comparing it to Mogan David and coming away with “chow tongue,” would not think it would win any awards.
We continue along the beautiful Drini. The mountainous drive, peaks upon peaks as far as I can see, green terrain and red soil, and the small villages and tall minnerets paint a scenic picture. If only litter laws could be passed and enforced. Plastic and trash are everywhere.We drive north to Vevchani Springs for a short, pleasant walk around the forest and its springs. The springs, like all water here, are pure and clear. The snails are much bigger than my garden variety but that probably means they eat more and faster. After our walk, we have a wonderful farmer’s lunch of cheese, ham and bread. After, we stroll the narrow streets of this “Republic of Vevchani.” Following a disagreement with the government over the redirection of their water supply, the women took to the streets in protest, something not done in communist times. As a result, Vevchani declared independence and published their own passport and money. Not much benefit in the real world. But their carved stone with the saying “May God kill all the enemies of Vevchani” probably gets their point across.
Back to Ohrid, there is plenty to do. High above town is Tsar Samolie’s Fortress, or Samuel’s Castle. Climbing its walls or tower grants wonderful views of Lake Ohrid and the lakeside promenade. We stroll a path down to the Plaosnik archeological ruins and mosaics. Also here is the Church Pantelejmon where patron Saint Clement is entombed. Nearby are ruins of an early Christian basilica with some well preserved mosaics, including the ancient Christian symbol of a swastika.
A short distance below is the ancient Amphitheater of Ohrid, built in 200 BC and still being used for community concerts. The houses along the cobbled streets are charming with countless displays of flowers, drying red peppers, and decorative balconies.
The charm continues throughout this small resort. The pedestrian promenade is lined with kiosks and cafes. Jewelry, ranging from very ornate to very simple, abounds. Necklaces, bracelets, or rings are well priced at five euros. And everyone will take euros even though it is not the currency of Macedonia.
In the square overlooking Lake Ohrid are the statues of brothers Methodius and Cyril who are credited with combining the alphabets of Latin, Hebrew and Greek to create the Cyrllic alphabet. It is as good a place as any to begin a walking tour of the lower city. Around the eastern gate of the old city will be found the unique architecture of Ohrid which the city wisely protects as a national treasure.The family homes of Robevi and Kanevce are excellent traditional Ottoman Turkish architecture of Ohrid. This style of family home was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries and is a beautiful symmetry of windows and wood beams. The first Robevi house was finished on the 15th of April 1827, as witnessed by the inscription on the marbled flagstone. Built on three levels, the Robev’s first level is smaller than the second, the third is smaller and rests under charming bell roofs. The iconic Kanevce house is replicated for all the street lamps in Ohrid. Interspersed along the cobbled streets are the craftsmen and family trades, along with a church or two, small or large, like Holy Mother of the Hospital or St. Nicholas. The Church of St Sophia rests on green lawns amid stray dogs and passionate turtles. Its frescoes are stunning, using the very expensive lapis lazuli pigment to create the blue of its biblical allegories.
From Ohrid, we drive southeast into the mountains and the Galichica National Park. Lake Ohrid is calm and beautiful, surrounded by mountains shrouded in cloud while a slight breeze cools the air. Around the Bay of Bones is a 6-7th century Bronze Age reconstructed settlement, evidence of which was found under the waters of the lake. These people were fishermen and hunter-gathers who built their reed homes on platforms at the edge of the bay. Piles of pottery and bones were found, thus the name for the bay. Near here is the deepest part of the lake.
Our winding road takes us over the mountain to the second largest lake in Macedonia, Lake Prespa. From the summit, I see the mountains of Greece, Albania and Macedonia. All three countries have made the lake and surrounding mountains a national park, though each have their own names. Storm clouds, lightening and thunder rumbles over the peaks but it is sunny in the valley where we lunch on Lake Prespa among American and Macedonian flags. The owner is from New Jersey.
Though roads are two-lane, winding, most times rough, driving in Macedonia is a pleasure. The mountain scenery is gorgeous, forests are thick and green, and streams are rushing and clear. We head north to the National Park of Movrovo and towards the border with Kosova. I begin to realize everything is about mountains and streams in this part of the Balkans. The roads must follow the very same passes followed by the great armies of Philip, Alexander and the Ottomans, the Serbs, the Axis and the Allies, the Communists and the freedom fighters.
We again follow the River Drini (Black River), passing through Struga again and the old town of Debar whose inhabitants chose to convert to Islam as a way to survive the Ottoman invasion of the 14th century. This area of Macedonia practices a “good neighbor” policy with fairly open borders where workers and tourists pass easily from one country to the next. Good idea as usually a border is only a few miles in any direction. Orchards of walnuts and chestnuts line the road. The mountains are mined for marble and granite. This scenery would be perfection if only litter laws were observed as piles of plastic bottles and trash mar every roadside.
Our first stop is in Mavrovo National Park and the Monastery of Jovan Bigorski, or St. John the Forerunner. It is a steep drive uphill and police tell us to park and walk up, but our driver Tomas lets no one prevent him from reaching the top. Unfortunately, today is the saint’s day of beheading and the church and monastery are packed. Squeezed inside with hundreds of others, all blessed by a priest as we enter, the continuous chanting of monks amid real candles in swaying chandeliers is mystical. The interior frescos are beautiful and I wish I could see more but it is impossible to move. Outside, every inch of the monastery is crowded with believers and tourists and the surrounding mountains are dotted by villages and minarets.Continuing north through the national park, we pass Gostivar and arrive at our next destination, the village of Tetova, near Marshall Tito Blvd, and the Motley Mosque (Sarena Xhamija). The unique exterior is covered with gorgeous 36×36 ceramic tiles. We are invited inside to appreciate the equally beautiful interior design. The painting and architecture are superb, colorful and inspiring. We are always welcome to enter a mosque and even our cameras are allowed. Interiors range from very simple to the sublime, like Motley. Just never step on the carpets with shoes!
Arabati Baba Teke is a nearby Dervish Monastery. The Arabati Baba Tekḱe was originally built in 1538 around Sersem Ali Baba, an Ottoman dervish. In 1799, the current grounds of the tekḱe were established and seen as the finest surviving Bektashi monastery in Europe. The large complex features lawns, prayer rooms, dining halls, lodgings and a great marble fountain inside a wooden pavilion where we met our friendly guide.
Sersem Ali Baba was the brother-in-law of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and had been a high-ranking Baba in the important Dimetoka Teḱe when his sister (who was one of the sultan’s wives) fell into disfavor with her husband. As a result, Ali Baba was banished to Tetovo at the outer fringes of the Ottoman Empire where he started his own Teḱe. There is a second version of this story but the Turks favor this one. So shall I.
One of its faithful invites us to sit while he tells us the history of this complex where “people of the four books are welcome.” He explains the complex was built in 1780 by an Ottoman soldier honoring this mystical school of Islam (not sure if he is speaking of Ali Baba). He explains that Tito and the communist regime tore down the mosque and converted the buildings to casinos and hotels. But in 2001 he and six other believers fought to recapture and liberate the monastery. It took three minutes for 7 men to defeat 100 soldiers. “Peace, pray for peace, war solves nothing.”
From his lips to God’s ears as a small 5.3 earthquake sways the little pavilion where we sit.
Perhaps the quaking was trying to tell us something is a little shaky here.
Walking the grounds, we are approached by what seems to be a grounds keeper. “Do you want to hear the real story?” Evidently, there is an Arabati Baba controversy.
In 2002, a group of armed members of the Islamic Community of Macedonia (ICM), which claims to represent all Muslims in Macedonia, invaded the Arabati Baba Tekke with the purpose to reclaim the tekke as a mosque, although the tekḱe facility had never functioned as a mosque. Subsequently the Bektashi community of Macedonia has sued the government for failing to restore the tekḱe to the Bektashi community, pursuant to a law passed in the early 1990s returning property previously nationalized under the Yugoslav government. The law, however, deals with restitution to private citizens, rather than religious communities. The ICM claim to the tekḱe is based upon their contention to represent all Muslims in Macedonia; and indeed, they are one of two Muslim organizations recognized by the government, both Sunni. The (Shi’i) Bektashi community filed for recognition as a separate religious community with the Macedonian government in 1993, but the Macedonian government has refused to recognize them.
In March 2008, there were reports that the ICM members squatting on the facility grounds have taken control of additional buildings, have been intimidating visitors to the tekke, and have discharged their weapons on the grounds. I wonder what our friendly guide would have done if we had stopped to listen to the other version of the story?
We spend time crossing the border into Kosova, amid scrutiny and beaurocracy. But eventually, we are allowed to enter the newly established, mysterious and contentious Republic of Kosava.