The Macedonian Tendency: Macedonia Gets the Times Seal of Approval

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Macedonia Gets the Times Seal of Approval

Make time for Macedonia -
Times Online:
The Times, London, January 28, 2006

Dramatic mountain and lake scenery, historic monastries and churches and great food. What's not to like, says Tony Kelly

Crowds poured into the arena, many of them ordinary Macedonians who had paid £35 for a ticket, the equivalent of a week’s wages. As the President finished his speech and took his seat, the audience hushed for the entry of the Spanish tenor José Carreras.

A performance from an internationally famous opera singer is not what you expect in the Balkans, but then Macedonia has a habit of defying expectations. In many ways, it is the forgotten country of the former Yugoslavia and the locals are hoping that events such as the Carreras concert will put their homeland on the map.

Most people would be hardpressed even to tell you where Macedonia is. Under Alexander the Great, it ruled an empire stretching from India to Egypt and Iraq, but these days its ambitions are rather more limited. After its peaceful break from Yugoslavia in 1991, it has been officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — a clumsy name designed to appease Greek sensibilities and distinguish it from the Greek province of Macedonia.

Until the 1990s, the country received half a million foreign visitors a year, but tourism dried up during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia and has yet to recover. This is a pity, since it means that people are missing out on magnificent mountains and lakes, historic monasteries and churches and some of the best food I have eaten anywhere.

The Spanish call a fruit salad a macedonia de frutas in a reference to the country’s ethnic mix, but the description could equally be applied to the cuisine. A typical Macedonian meal begins with a spread of mezes such as tarator (cucumber, garlic, yogurt and walnuts), pindzur (roasted aubergine and pepper relish) and sopska salata (cucumber, tomatoes and sheep’s cheese), accompanied by heaps of crusty white bread. Follow this with a grilled kebab or a mixed-meat casserole served in an earthenware pot, throw in a bottle of Skopsko beer or organic Macedonian wine, and you have the perfect lunch.

I have to admit that my first impressions were not that promising. The capital, Skopje, was razed by an earthquake in 1963 and the city centre is scarred by the concrete brutalism of 1960s communist town planners. One of the houses destroyed was Mother Teresa’s birthplace, now marked by a plaque at the entrance to a shopping mall. But as soon as I crossed the elegant stone-arched bridge over the river Vardar to enter the old town, I found myself in a labyrinthine souk of mosques, caravanserais and baths.

For 500 years, Macedonia was part of the Ottoman empire and the Turkish legacy is evident everywhere, from veiled women shopping for jewellery to skullcapped men answering the call to prayer from the Mustafa Pasha mosque. In the Bit Pazar, Skopje’s sprawling outdoor bazaar, stallholders sell olives, almonds, raisins, spices, melons, cigarettes, silk dresses, car parts, mobile phones and second-hand TVs. Wailing Arabic music drifts from cafes and barbers’ shops, and the scent of grilled meat and Turkish coffee hangs in the air.

During the warmer months, anyone who can afford to heads for the beach. Not the sea — the nearest coastlines are Albania and Montenegro — but the shores of Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s summer capital. “All of Skopje’s high society moves down to Ohrid in summer,” one diplomat told me.

Ohrid is a strange mix of historic pilgrimage town and modern holiday resort. Europe’s first university was founded here by St Clement in the 9th century; it was the birthplace of the Cyrillic alphabet and remains one of the holiest sites of the Orthodox Church.

Chapels and monasteries line the lakeshore, none prettier or more spectacularly sited than the small 13th- century church of St John at Kaneo, on the cliffs overlooking the lake. But when you have had enough of churches and museums, have climbed to the 10th-century fortress and have visited the lovely Icon Gallery at the Church of the Holy Mother of God, it is time to chill out. I spent an enjoyable day here swimming in the lake, taking a boat trip across the water and dining on fresh Ohrid trout at a waterfront restaurant.

Tourism in Macedonia has a long way to go. Hotels in the main towns are comfortable but largely lacking in character. There are Roman remains which are not clearly signposted and ski slopes and hiking trails known only to locals. All this will change, but for now Macedonia is one of the least-known and least-visited countries in Europe — which in a strange way is all part of its appeal.

Top tips
# Best Western Hotel Turist, Skopje (00 389 2328 9111) is a convenient choice in the centre of town. Double rooms are £85.

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