There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Matka Canyon and Stobi: Part 9 of The Balkans

A study of Google maps suggested it should not be too complicated leaving Skopje in the direction of the Matka Canyon, a scenic area west of the city. With no satnav we wrote our own instructions, followed them without difficulty to the edge of the city and correctly guessed the left turn to the small town of Saraj, though it was unsigned. This was a warning of things to come.

Beyond Saraj the turning to the road that ascends the canyon was well marked, but only to those approaching from the west. As we were coming from the east we had to go far enough past it to realise we were wrong, turn and then find out on the way back.
We passed through the village of Glumovo. Pencil thin minarets are a feature of Balkan mosques, Glumovo mosque has a pair of them.

Glumovo Mosque
Intuition took us up the right road as the walls of rock closed about us. We parked where a couple of buses had disgorged a school party and followed them on foot. The road ran beside the River Treska, here channelled into a flume for canoe slalom races, though the water was, for the moment, low and smooth flowing.  A couple of hundred metres later we could see the tall, narrow dam that filled the gap between the rock walls – a source of white water whenever it is required.
The Matka Dam
The road wound up to a car park where we could have parked if we had known about it. A footpath took us to the top of the dam where an information board in English and Macedonian informed us that it had been built in 1937 and that a fascist plot to blow it up during the Second World War was foiled by the Partisans. It has also survived several major storms and the 1963 earthquake. Above the dam we followed a footpath burrowed into the rock face, eventually reaching a small hotel and a landing stage for boat trips up the lake.
Lake Matka
The teachers were valiantly holding their charges back, allowing them into the hotel in ones and twos to use the toilet as they waited, presumably for a boat trip. They moved aside to let us through as we headed for our morning espresso.
The small church beside the hotel turned out to be Sveti Andreja, our intended destination for the morning. We were pleased with ourselves for finding it – and a little surprised by our success.

Sveti Andreja, Matka Canyon
When it was built in 1389 it must have been a remarkable sight, tucked on a rocky ledge in a steep canyon above a rushing river. Today it is at water level, a small building beside a larger hotel. The inside, though, remains magnificent, the walls covered in frescoes. A vigilant guardian made photography impossible, though, to be fair, he was helpful and friendly and gave us the brochure from which I have scanned what I think is the Birth of Christ. Its a lovely picture, whatever it is. Its so wrong it is not just right but nearly perfect. Sometimes I wonder if the invention/discovery of perspective actually spoiled painting.
Fresco of the Birth of Christ, Sveti Andreja, Matka Canyon
Leaving Sveti Andreja we walked to the car, drove back through Saraj and found our way to the motorway which circles northern Skopje before turning south. Motorway driving in Macedonia is very easy, providing you keep awake. There is little traffic on most Macedonian roads but the motorways are largely empty, maybe the modest tolls put drivers off; it cost us a total of 180 denars ( £1.10) at four toll booths on the 100 kilometre journey between Saraj and the small town of Gradsko where we exited.
We had not intended visiting Gradsko, which is north of the turn off, as we were headed south to the remains of the Roman city of Stobi. The confusing signs, however, meant that we took an unintended trip down Gradsko’s one main street, lined with a few shops and cafés, and briefly out the other side to the huge Stobi Winery – very modern and definitely not a Roman ruin - before finding somewhere to turn round.

Skopje to Demir Kapija via the Matka Canyon and Stobi
We drove down the old road running parallel to the motorway. After a while we saw a large Macedonian flag flying over what looked like an earthwork away to our right. Then we passed the derelict Stobi Restaurant and crossed the Crna River. ‘It should be by the river,’ Lynne told me. A mile our so later I turned round and we returned to the derelict restaurant and parked in its forecourt. A fence ran across the back with an open gate and a small sign staying ‘Stobi’. In the field behind a group of men were busy removing some felled trees. A man in uniform wandered over to have a look at us. ‘Stobi?’ we asked in our fluent Macedonian. He pointed across the field into the distance. 'Tickets,' he said, his English ever so slightly better than our Macedonian.
Theatre, Stobi
Following a tough track across a meadow full of wild flowers, we reached the Roman site, walked through it and on the far side found a car park and a souvenir shop selling tickets. We walked in. 'Have you come from the other side?' the girl asked as though we were apparitions at a séance. Only now could we see that the new entrance was beside a dedicated Stobi motorway exit not shown on our road map (the latest Freytag and Berndt edition that Amazon could sell). This new entrance had presumably killed off the old Stobi Restaurant. Our enquiry about a replacement café elicited a shake of the head, which was a shame as we had been relying on the Stobi café – praised in all the guidebooks - for lunch.
Episcopal Basilica, Stobi
Stobi turned out to be a well-organized and well-presented site. The city was probably founded in the 7th century BC by the Paeonian people, Paeonia being a kingdom that occupied the Vardar valley from the mountains north of Skopje to where the Greek border is now. In 217BC Philip V of Macedonia annexed Paeonia and from then until the Romans arrived in 168BC it was a Macedonian Greek city. Sitting astride the main Roman road from the Danube to the Aegean, at the confluence of the Crna and Vardar rivers and in the midst of a fertile plain, Stobi could not but prosper. By 69BC was a ‘municipium’ and had its own mint. It became the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia Salutaris and its inhabitants had the status of Roman citizens.
Baptistry, Episcopal Basilica, Stobi
In 479 Theodoric the Ostrogoth paid a visit, which did the city no good at all. Stobi recovered but was severely damaged in the earthquake of 518. Next came Slavic tribes migrating from the north – the ancestors of the modern Republic of Macedonia’s citizens – and they were not interested in sophisticated city living. It was all over for Stobi until Serbian archaeologists arrived in the 1920s.

The House of Peristeria, Stobi
During its millennium of growth the same land was inevitably built on over and over again. Unsurprisingly most of the buildings excavated have been from Stobi's later period as part of the Eastern Roman Empire. We started at the impressive amphitheatre and moved on to the episcopal basilica, obviously an important church with impressive mosaic floors and a baptistery. Streets, houses, baths and the city's central fountain could still be seen as well as the central basilica built over an earlier synagogue.
Lynne by the city fountain, Stobi
Leaving Stobi we rejoined the motorway and continued south to Demir Kapija, a small town where we were to stay at the Popova Kula Winery. Fortunately the winery, 800m from town along a road with occasional outbreaks of tarmac, was unusually well sign-posted. A Popova Kula (Priest's Tower) once overlooked Demir Kapija, and the winery has borrowed the name and built a new tower as their tasting room.
Popovo Kula Winery, Demir Kapija
The expanding modern winery is in the heart of the Tikveš wine region, which is the only region that really counts in Macedonia. A comfortable hotel has been attached to the winery and obviously a great deal of money has been invested. It was a shame only three rooms seemed to be occupied and the 70 seat restaurant fed five people while we were there, though a party of six arrived as we left. This was early season, so I hope trade picks up later.
Vineyard, Popova Kula Winery, Demir Kapija
We had a tour of the winery with its stainless steel fermentation vats and modern equipment. Building started in October 2004 and the winery was ready for its first harvest in 2005. They vinify eleven different grape varieties, some like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are well known, others like Vranec, Prokupec, Zilavka and Temjanika are unknown outside the Balkans, while Stanušina is unique to Macedonia. The best of the Vranec (the main red grape of the Balkans and a favourite of mine for its dark, smoky, richness), Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are aged in new oak barrels.
Popova Kula Winry, Demir Kapija
Having missed lunch we were ready for dinner and for once had a starter. After a glass of mastika, a local variation on ouzo, Lynne chose vine leaves wrapped around rice flavoured with herbs while I had a plate of cheese. Starting a meal with cheese may be a little at odds with our standard practice, but is not unusual in the Balkans. Slices of four local cheeses, all very different were tasted and enjoyed by both of us. Lynne had a chicken steak while I enjoyed pork steaks stuffed with prunes. We chose a bottle of Stanušina to go with it, partly because it is uniquely local and the winery takes particular pride in it, and partly because a light red was appropriate. Served chilled it was actually too light for my taste, though clean and supple. They also make Stanušina rosé and white. I thought it might make a perfect rosé, and we took some home to find out.

The reserve wines, Popova Kula Winery
Given the investment of time, care and money that goes into these wines, they are remarkably cheap, starting at around £3 and not rising much beyond, except for the reserve wines which were over £10. The mark up policy for the restaurant was pleasingly realistic making dining as easy on the wallet as it was on the palate.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)
Part 3 Mostar
Croatia (May 2012)
Part 5 Korčula
Macedonia (May 2015)
Part 8 Skopje

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