Macedonia: Polite cheese and a mountain called Steve, but beware the peacocks!

‘Macedonia? Where’s that?’ Even now this is still the most common response we receive when asked where we’re going on our holidays. It’s the southern-most former Yugoslav republic, bordering Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, in case you’re still wondering. We’ve been visiting Macedonia for many years Mrs. C and I, largely due to the fact that I’m half Macedonian and we accidentally bought a flat out there some years ago. (I think of it as our penthouse apartment, but Mrs. C. reminds me that it’s a top floor flat. There’s a difference apparently).

For lovers of the outdoors, this little Balkans republic is the perfect destination. Endless mountains offer mile upon mile of walking and mountain biking in pristine countryside, where you’re unlikely to encounter anyone else apart from the odd shepherd. Two ancient tectonic lakes rank among the oldest in the world and serve up all manner of interesting (and tasty) endemic flora and fauna, as well as swimming and boating opportunities in crystal clear waters. Then there’s the paragliding, rock climbing, caving, ancient churches, archeological sites etc… Pretty much something for everyone.

Over the last few years we’ve been pootling around the country, exploring some of Macedonia’s many 2000m+ peaks. This year we decided to revisit a couple of our favourite haunts: Galičica National Park, which is literally on our doorstep in the town of Ohrid (on the shore of the lake of the same name) and Pelister National Park, home of the 2601m peak of Pelister, lynx, wolves and bears. Lots of bears.

Galičica National Park

Galičica (‘Galichitsa’) National Park encompasses a range of mountains dividing the tectonic lakes of Ohrid and Prespa. In the south of the park, the 2255m limestone hump of Magaro dominates the view for miles around and provides an easy, half-day walk from a high starting point at the only pass over the range, the ‘Galičica Saddle’. The short, steep route takes the walker through cool beech woods, up a rocky runnel into an impressive cirque, surrounded on three sides by towering limestone cliffs. The circular route to and from the summit follows the rim of these cliffs, up via grassy slopes and down via a dry, rocky gully (or vice versa). On the way, several trenches dating from WW1 are passed, along with an impressive, if slightly bonkers radio reflector – this throwback to communist Yugoslavia looks like a huge, blank, steel advertising hoarding plonked half way up the side of a mountain. It was designed to reflect radio signals into the depths of Macedonia from a transmitter on a neighbouring peak. From Magaro’s summit, a slighty illicit excursion a kilometre or two south along the ridge top leads to ‘Kota F10’, a concrete pillar denoting the Albanian border (a fine spot for lunch).

The northern part of the Galičica range ambles along at just over the 1600m contour, its grass and limestone spine only just breaking through the thick, beech-dominant mantle. Dozens of ancient donkey tracks lead through the dense woods, through old villages, past hidden springs and up on to the tops. This is not the place for off-piste exploration, the terrain is unforgiving and the maps are little more use than a fishnet welly. Not that this has stopped us trying of course – found a great short cut down a ne’er before trod gully this year!

Lower on Galičica’s slopes are numerous old churches and monasteries, the most famous of which is the monastery of St. Naum, situated on the edge of Lake Ohrid a short drive or (preferably) long boat ride away from Ohrid town. The monastery, complete with resident crazed peacocks, sits next to an area of springs, where water from the higher Lake Prespa finds its way through the porous limestone of Magaro to bubble up into a crystal clear pool, the outflow of which feeds lake Ohrid. An idyllic place to while away a sunny afternoon…

Pelister National Park

Pelister National Park is Macedonia’s oldest, formed in 1948. It encompasses the huge granite mass of Baba mountain on the southern border with Greece and is a stronghold for the brown bear (didn’t see any) and endemic molika pine tree (saw lots). The highest point on Baba mountain is the 2601m summit of Pelister. Its ascent by the appropriately named Rocky Trail is one of our favourites. It’s a fairly big day, taking in some 1300m of ascent over a round trip of at least 21km (depending on chosen descent), usually in sweltering heat. Starting at Hotel Molika at just over the 1400m contour, the Rocky Trail rises steadily through cool, molika pine forests before breaking out on to a rocky ridge at a spectacular viewpoint. A rustic wooden viewing platform was constructed a few years ago and provides a great spot for a break before tackling the main event: what follows is a straightforward but very entertaining scramble/clamber up huge granite boulders and blocks to a compact, rocky summit. This summit, at 2468m is called Stiv. Which translates as ‘Steve’. I don’t know why. I should find out. Pelister summit, crowned with a huge TV transmitter, looks tantalisingly close but is still an hour away. Between Stiv and Pelister, a long ridge curls round and up, taking in another summit, Ilinden. The whole ridge is rocky, reminiscent of Snowdonia’s Glyderau on steroids and littered with the remains of WW2 gun placements and ruined buildings.

As you’d expect from one of Europe’s ‘ultra-prominents‘, Pelister’s summit views are stunning; from Greece in the south, west to Lake Prespa and Galičica, east over the city of Bitola to the vast Pelagonian plain and north into the depths of Macedonia. There can be few better spots in Macedonia for a chicken sandwich and bottle of Fanta Shokata (a Balkan speciality, elderflower flavoured fizzy pop! It’s awesome.)

Our descent took us back to a shallow col between Ilinden and Pelister to follow a rough path down a huge scree field into a hanging valley at 2200m. Here were the remains of a WW2 field hospital and a very welcome, ice cold spring. A good marked donkey trail continued down, back into the dense molika forests where eternal zig-zags eventually led us to a dirt road and the way back to the start.

So long and thanks for all the cheese…

20170908_085242Over the years, we’ve noticed Macedonia become more and more westernised, even to the point that the cheese in supermarkets is developing manners (not that this is a particularly accurate measure of a country’s point along the road to westernisation. I just wanted to shoe-horn the photo in because it makes me smile). This year, when undertaking some mundane, bureaucratic nonsense at the local council offices (oh, the joys of owning property overseas), one surly official asked us where we were from.
‘Where in England?’
‘In the centre, near Birmingham’
‘Ah, Peaky Blinders!’ came the unexpected reply, accompanied by a thumbs up and big smile.

Still, despite the apparent influence of early 20th Century Brummie gangsters, Macedonia remains largely unspoilt, a place where tradition and modernity seem to rub along quite happily. It is, however, getting harder and harder to find a decent Turkish coffee in bars and cafés these days. What the hell is a macchiato anyway?

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