Macedonia’s Enchanted East

By Chris Deliso for Travel Intelligence (2004)

“You guys are sitting on a gold mine here,” rasped the jovial American, clad in a Dallas Cowboys football shirt and marked by his unmistakable New England accent. “This country is incredible.”

A bit past middle age and just returned from the Athens Olympics, the New Hampshire man was on his way back home to, of all places, Switzerland and had stopped off in the hottest part of the land – Gevgelija, just over the Greek border – for the night. What was most unusual, all things considered, was that he had said not a word about Greece or the Games – the biggest event in years for this part of the world. Instead, he just kept raving about Macedonia, the kindness of the people and the beauty of the nature.

Most incredibly, he had only been here twice, and had never strayed too far from the highway that runs from the southern border to the northern one, from Gevgelija near Greece to Tabanovce before Serbia. This accidental tourist had never seen the country’s more famous getaways, such as Lake Ohrid and the ski resort of Mavrovo. In fact, he had never even spent much time in Skopje. But the capital city is a place where his international peers – inevitably, aid workers and political apparatchiks – congregate in bland restaurants with faulty Italian food and ‘Irish’ pubs with 2-centimeter thick hamburgers, not removing their suits even at night when in the bars drinking, and abstaining from the hinterland as much as possible.

When it comes to weekend or holiday trips places like Ohrid and Mavrovo, both in the west, are most often visited. Affluent internationals also head further south, to Thessaloniki, Greece for their own getaways. Yet there’s much more to Macedonia than its western resorts. Forgotten by outsiders and Macedonians alike, the enchanted east of the country is brimming over with natural beauty, historical attractions and sheer life. It is indeed a gold mine for tourism just waiting to be tapped. For now, however, this vast undeveloped expanse of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and fertile plains still represents a return to not just one, but several overlapping bygone eras.

Ideally, to see the entirety of the east one should have a durable car and about a week for idling about. The first because many of the best sites are far-flung and located down unpaved, rock-prone routes, the second because proper appreciation of all this beauty requires the slow meditative approach. ‘Poleka, poleka’ (‘slowly, slowly’) say the Macedonians; this approach to life helps explain a sluggish economy, but is also highly instructive for the way one should approach traveling in their country. A good time to go to the southeast is the second week of September, when it’s still hot but not oppressively so, and the red peppers are drying in every doorframe, and the leaves are just starting to turn in the highest isolated peaks.

And a good place to start out is on the southern border at Gevgelija (where we left our ebullient New Englander). It is hot and dusty here and the open-air vegetable market is full of enormous watermelons, fragrant village teas, ripe tomatoes and melons. A casino catering to neighboring Greeks has brought with it a marbly air-conditioned hotel, though friendly and inexpensive private accommodation can also easily be arranged. Just outside the town is the hill of Vardarski Rid, where numerous ancient artifacts have been found, as well as the impressive forested wilds of Mt. Kozuf, with its rare endemic violets, eagles and endangered trees. Along the roads, telephone polls have been expropriated by storks and their giant disheveled nests.

Crossing the River Vardar along the southern B-road takes you east to the village of Stojakovo, renowned, we are told, as far away as Amsterdam for the purity of certain of its more illicit agricultural products. The whole area is one of dense forests buzzing with both the air and ground troops of the insect kingdom. And, as with all of Macedonia’s small rural enclaves, the village is a repository of many remarkable stories from earlier times.

For instance, there is boisterous Antonio, a World War II veteran inhabiting an unkempt lot of land in Stojakovo’s impenetrable woodlands, the sign next to his front wood fence warning of beehives and dogs. And indeed he has many of both. Antonio’s self-enclosed little farm is protected by fierce but friendly canines and punctuated with low rows of boxes, white, blue or yellow, swarming with bees. Fastened to thin stakes are rows of tomatoes and the overflowing bramble and trees yield up strawberries, Japanese apples, pears, plums, onions, pomegranates, walnuts, hazelnuts, figs and flowers. Adorable wide-eyed kittens jump in and out of giant flowerpots, and the peppers hang in thick red clumps above leaning dirt-encrusted shovels and picks and hoes in the doorframe.

In the midst of it all, Antonio holds court at a long picnic table in front of his outdoor kitchen, black flies buzzing incessantly in the shade of fruit trees. When you taste the dizzyingly strong honey he urges all guests to try, you realize why he needs to grow so many flowers- including 38 kinds of roses alone.

“Even they come from Greece to buy it,” boasts the 79 year-old, who actually looks about 65; he credits the unique natural honey with giving him energy to work all day, from four in the morning until nightfall. Indeed, forget about the Stojakovo Gold (as the local marijuana is known); the buzz one gets from this viscous amber elixir is real and immediate.

After a spoonfuls of honey and a liter and a half of beer, one of the few remaining members of the Macedonian Communist Party has started on about Tito. Having fought under him more than 60 years ago, Antonio remains a firm devotee of the legendary Yugoslav leader; enormous portraits of the young Josip Broz, all spruced up in his blue military uniform and cap, hang on his walls and the veteran is proud to show off his war medals. While he was once the commander of a few hundred Partisan soldiers, the old farmer now heads up a million-strong battalion, comprised mostly of his bees, but with additional contributions from the cats, dogs, snails, livestock and who knows what else.

No question, the inhabitants of Macedonia’s agricultural southeast are hardworking, earthy people. Navigating the roads is complicated by the prevalence of slow-moving tractors and horse-drawn carts laden down with timber, tobacco or hay. Continuing past Stojakovo, one comes to little Lake Dojran, shared with Greece and famed for its mineral-rich waters. Although it is extremely shallow and overlush with flora, the warm lake is considered to have restorative powers and to be especially good for children and the elderly. It is also one of the only places where traditional fishing methods using cormorants and little stilt houses built over the water can still be found (in winter). In fact, Herodotus in the 5th century BC noted about Dojran that one had simply to put a basket in the water at night and by morning it would be flopping with fish. While it was in mortal danger a few years ago because of drought and Greek diverting of the water for agriculture, the lake is being replenished with help from the government.

Dojran was also once the heavily fortified front separating Bulgarian and German occupation from the British, who held the eastern areas of south Macedonia and suffered several miserable, malarial years in stalemate with the dug-in Bulgarians until other fronts were softened up. But the old town suffered greatly due to the bombardments, resulting in the destruction of some of its older landmarks and the displacement of the population to Novi (New) Dojran a little further up the lake.

Continuing for about 30 minutes around various twists and turns one arrives at the de facto capital of the sunny southeast, Strumica, a city of almost 50,000 known for the brutality of its sun, the beauty of its women, and the boon its agricultural production brings. Although farmers always complain about the low prices that their goods fetch (in summer 2003 they launched a watermelon-stacking protest in front of the parliament in Skopje), in Strumica the economy is better than in many other parts of the country and sufficient time is reserved for relaxation; the cafés are always full. Nearby is the lovely 11th century Byzantine church of Veljusa, where the modest nuns hand out little chocolate treats to visitors. On the eastern edge of town are the ruins of ancient Roman baths, which made use of the same thermal springs that are currently in use in the Bansko Spa adjacent.

A little further to the east, before the village of Novo Selo on the Bulgarian border, lies the waterfall of Smolare. This little oasis nestled deep in the lush forests of Belasica Mountain, which forms the natural border with Greece, makes a welcome respite from the searing heat of summer. The water is freezing cold and comes tumbling straight down a smooth black rock face, filling the air with a satisfying mist and forming a deep depression, deeper than you can stand, at the very center of the rocks. It’s best to visit the waterfall in the latter half of the afternoon, so that while returning to Strumica you can watch the shadows of sunset as they send ripples down Mt. Belasica’s tawny back.

In all of the little villages around Strumica signs of an earlier time can be witnessed, from the men pitching huge pyramids of golden hay in the sun to the ramshackle doorframes where women piece together tobacco leaves on string. Tractors or splintery wagons towed by slow horses make their way up the roads, laden down with fruits and vegetables for market.

Afterwards, there are two options for heading up from Strumica and the southeastern corner. The more western one takes you up through Radovis and Stip and back to the highway at Veles, while the eastern one takes you through almost unpopulated terrain up to Berovo and the Bregalnica River, by way of the Malesevski Mountains. The latter is more breathtaking and serene and brings you in touch with an enormous area thick with trees that turn to pine as you go higher up along the snaking road, where the air thins out and grows cooler. After an hour or so you drop down towards Berovo, the hillsides dotted with pines and unusual little slant-roofed vacation homes reminiscent of Switzerland.

In Berovo, time comes to a standstill. It is economically depressed but nevertheless endearing, with its leafy streets, paint-peeling old façades, barbershops with a million yellowing old photos and bric-a-brac, restaurants offering tasty pastramajlija (a veritable boat of golden-baked dough filled with savory pieces of pork and cheese) and lager.

But most visitors come for Berovo’s sublime lake, a couple of miles further along to the east. It is always placid and its corners disappear, interspersed around forests of pine, their reflection unerringly reproduced on the still surface of the lake. Above it, there is a small hotel and restaurant from which one can contemplate the view, and hiking (as well as cross-country skiing in winter) is much enjoyed here. The villages around Berovo flourish with time-honored tales of bleak nature and the hardy folk who’ve tamed it. In Vladimirovo, a few miles to the west, locals speak reverentially of the man who wrestled a wolf with his bare hands until the beast was dead; no one can remember another case where such a thing was heard of.

Just to the east of Berovo begins the remarkable Bregalnica, a river with more twists and turns than a spy thriller, running along the whole course of eastern Macedonia like a deer in fighting season trapped in a house. While the river departs from the road due north for some time, the two are reconciled after the little town of Pehcevo, beyond the Bejaz Tepe mountain, near the village of Trabotiviste. From here the road and river curve to the left to enter Delcevo, the biggest town of the area, named after the turn-of-the-century revolutionary hero Goce Delcev, but better known today as the ancestral home of the erstwhile prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski.

Delcevo is plain and blunt, and some fear the people there have much in common with the Bulgars. In summer, there is a surprisingly festive atmosphere at night with the blinking neon lights of a carnival and carousel rides and carousing teens in packed bars. Continuing slightly northwest, one comes to the stunningly beautiful (though polluted) man-made lake of Kalimanci, built for industrial purposes below the sparsely populated former mining town of Makedonska Kamenica, where sad memorials to former Yugoslav purposefulness linger in closed Communist-era restaurants and grandly rusting old facilities that haunt the streets. But the lake and surrounding cliffs make an amazing counterpoint to the journey, and the people who peek out of a little shop with colorful ribbons running down the doorframe as if in a harem are friendly, if shy.

Gently descending from the mountains and still following the river you come to Kocani, another agricultural town in the flat plains, but more northerly and noticeably cooler than those of the southeast. Kocani is famous for two things: its rice and its frogs, the former of which can be seen growing in the sodden fields to either side of the town, the latter of which can be heard croaking until just before they end up on your plate. As towns go, Kocani is pleasing enough, with relaxing cafés and fountains, though without much bite, save perhaps the frenetic, circular communist-era mosaic situated high above the town with its wild-eyed primeval figurines and jagged rings of color.

Then there is sleepy Probistip, where not much happens but which does have the benefit of having been settled near the remarkable 11th century Gavril Lesnovski Monastery in the village of Lesnovo. The monastery is located, like so many others, up a long and imposing mountain road. From Probistip, it requires about 45 minutes each way to get there. But the effort is well rewarded; with its graceful domes and flowered walks, Lesnovski is one the most visually stunning and culturally significant monasteries in Macedonia, vividly decorated with frescoes (including, oddly enough, one depicting the twelve signs of the zodiac) and once famous as a center of production of important medieval manuscripts in Old Church Slavonic.

The town of Kratovo stands spread-eagled over the Tabacka and Kratovska Rivers, connected by its ancient bridges and commanding magnificent views of the plain below from its cliff top houses. It is even said that a vast network of underground tunnels runs between the different parts of town. The gently rising volcanic town is like a sort of refuge protected from the outside world; laughing children dart out of old wooden doorways and toss a ball into the dust where chickens peck in the brush for grain.

Yet there is nothing of third-world squalor to Kratovo- it’s just a singular mountain town with cool, fresh air, where the music playlist in a local café might bear all the hallmarks of three decades or so past, and a place where kids still seem to be quite happy to run after balls and play hide-and-seek instead of the modern world’s soporific video games. From the top extremity of the town, dusk is met with spellbinding sunsets that fill the western sky with huge illuminated clouds over the plain.

A few miles northwest of Kratovo, where the River Kriva meets the road, a dirt turnoff brings you down a bumpy washed-out route leading to one of the Macedonia’s most striking landmarks: the bizarre rock formations of Kuklica. Named after the Macedonian word for ‘doll,’ this isolated valley of wondrous crumbling giant stone figures having the contours of humans has a stillness and energy all its own. It has to it something of the Black Hills of South Dakota (though on a smaller scale and without all those spirits of the dead lurking around), and the changing light of day presents the giant wrinkled rock surfaces in a thousand changing shapes and poses.

Back on the main road, you head northward until you reach the east-west highway connecting Macedonia and Bulgaria. Turn left to go to Kumanovo (and then Skopje), or right to reach the east. The latter route brings you to Kriva Palanka, a small town in the northeastern corner of Macedonia which represents the northern corner of the silver-struck mountain range already encountered in Kratovo, and where stands the extremely photogenic Monastery of Sveti Joakim Osogovski.

Only a few miles from the Bulgarian border, where high mountain passes retain their snow well into the springtime, Palanka is unremarkable, with the exception that like all other mountainside highway border towns, it has the potential to surprise with its falling rock zones and inevitable indiscretions of love and customs.