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…..

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Mariovo and Lake Prespa: Part 11 of The Balkans

Our destination for the day was the city of Ohrid, but as it was only 70km from Bitola we first took a short trip in the opposite direction into the Mariovo district, described by Lonely Planet as the badlands of the border country where the sound of exploding World War One armament caches can still be heard during summer wildfires.

Macedonia had the misfortune of being the main battlefield in the First Balkan War (Oct 1912 - May 1913) in which the Balkan League ganged up on Turkey to drive the Ottoman empire almost entirely out of Europe and in the Second Balkan War (June to August 1913) in which Bulgaria, unhappy about how little of Macedonia it had been given at the end of the first war, fought its erstwhile allies. The Bulgarians were defeated but the war allowed the Turks to regain part of the territory previously lost. Then came the First World War; Bulgaria joined up with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire against the Kingdom of a Serbia and pushed south through Macedonia, then part of Serbia. They were stopped in the Mariovo region by a combined allied force and by 1916 there was a static front where half a million Bulgarians faced an army of 700,000 French, British, Serbians, Italians, Russians and Greeks.

Todays journey in purple

Finding our way out of Bitola and down the road towards the Mariovo was not easy; not only was it was unsigned, but the police were diverting traffic away from the correct turning around a busy street market.

French Military Cemetery, Bitola
On the outskirts of Bitola we came across a huge French military cemetery. The French bore the brunt of the fighting on the Macedonian Front (also known as the Salonika front) and although it was described as 'stable' from 1916 until the collapse of the Central Powers in 1918 that does not mean it was a safe or comfortable place to be. There are the graves of 6,128 known dead and an ossuary containing the remains of 7,000 more who could not be identified. The killing machine that was the First World War stretched into places I had never thought about. The British dead, I later discovered, were mainly buried in cemeteries on the Greek side of the border, which at this point is less than ten miles away.

Ossuary, French Military Cemetery, Bitola
After crossing the Pellagonian plain the road started to rise into the Mariovo. This region of rolling uplands was once wealthy, its prosperity based on sheep, but two world wars and the collectivisation policies of the Tito government did not help Mariovo. There are still sheep there - we saw several flocks each marshalled by their own shepherd - but there are far fewer than there used to be, much of the land is deserted and the villages filled with empty and crumbling houses.
The Mariovo countryside

The village of Makovo had 71 inhabitants in the 2002 census and probably fewer now, though there are houses for several hundred. Rapeš, a further five kilometres through largely deserted upland sheep pastures, is smaller, but here we saw houses being repaired, vegetable plots being weeded and a man in a blue boiler suit tending to as many beehives as I have ever seen in one place. Despite the activity there were more empty houses than occupied ones. We went on a few kilometres, the road becoming narrower and rougher. Gradešnica, 18 km beyond Rapeš, was the next and final village. It is, I read, now the biggest settlement in the Mariovo with 80 inhabitants. We did not get there - the countryside is beautiful, but we felt we had the idea and did not need to drive to the bitter end of the road. Like the Cotswolds this area became rich on sheep, but being the battleground of two world wars and then part of a failed experiment in agricultural economics led to poverty and depopulation. The countryside is more rugged than the Cotswolds, but if fate had been different the Mariovo could have been speckled with cute villages and the weekend homes of the rich and famous.

Rapeš and some of its beehives
We made our way back towards Bitola, pausing briefly above the edge of the plain. The city was hidden from view (unfortunately the same could not be said of the local power station) but the mountains beyond still had streaks of snow in sheltered gullies.

Looking across the Pellagonian Plain to the mountains beyond
From Bitola we continued westward through the mountains on the M5 (a road that will take you to the Cotswolds in the UK) towards Resen. Five kilometres before the town we left the main road, turning south towards Lake Prespa, 180km² of serene blue water largely in Macedonia but with smaller parts belonging to Greece and Albania,

Blue, serene Lake Prespa
We were heading for the not quite lakeside village of Kurbinovo and the church of Sveti Gorgi in the hills behind but paused for a picnic lunch by the turning onto the lane to Kurbinovo. For the first time on this trip, the sun was shining strongly and the afternoon was heating up.

The turning to Kurbinovo and Sveti Gorgi - for once well signed
Lake Prespa is a tectonic lake – at 850m the highest in the Balkans – and like all tectonic lakes (the biggest and best known being Lake Baikal in Russia and Lake Tanganyika) it is very old and very deep. At its nearest the much bigger Lake Ohrid, also a tectonic lake, is only 10km away and is 150m lower. Seismic activity has opened fissures in the karst geology that are quietly emptying Lake Prespa into Lake Ohrid - a cause of some concern to the locals. The village of Asamati on the lake shore a kilometre away in the opposite direction from Kurbinovo used to have a popular swimming beach but the receding lake has left it with a patch of mud it can do without.

Unlike the villages of the Mariovo, Kurbinovo was alive and growing with several new, well-built houses and more were under construction, though around the edges of the village the older houses look to be falling down and abandoned. Beyond, the road up to Sveti Gorgi was narrow but was mostly in good repair. We had to stop for Lynne to remove a tortoise which had spent the last five minutes sprinting across the road but had spotted the car at the last moment and withdrawn into its shell right where I wanted to drive.

Tortoise road block near Kurbanovo
According to the Lonely Planet the church would probably be locked and the key holder would be unfindable, so we were not that disappointed at being unable to get in, but the building would have looked better without the scaffolding.

Lynne, Sveti Gorgi and some scaffolding
The frescoes are the church’s main attraction, but there are some outside, and an example of those inside can be seen on the 50 Denar bank note.

External frescoes, Sveti Gorgi, Kurbanovo
Leaving Kurbanovo we drove north to Resen, the region's main town. Resen grew up on the Roman Via Ignatia and not a lot has happened since. We stopped for petrol, the first time on this journey. The nationally fixed price is less than 90 pence a litre making it a relatively painless experience.
50 (60p) Denar note with frescoes from Sveti Gorgi

Ohrid is 25 km from Resen as the crow flies, but there is a range of mountains in between and the road takes 40km to get there.

The old town of Ohrid sits on a hill beside the lake of the same name. The modern town straggles along the shore and spreads back round the hill. It is both the spiritual centre of Slavic Macedonia and the foremost holiday resort in this landlocked country.

Me, Lake Ohrid and the old town
We checked into our hotel beside the lake, where we encountered a reminder that this is an earthquake area – and that English is not widely understood.
I hope there won't be an earthquakeake
In the evening we walked a short distance to a restaurant reputed to serve the best scara in Ohrid. Scara, meat beaten flat and grilled is the most typical of Macedonian dishes and Lynne had a butterflied and grilled chicken breast while I, perversely, chose veal tagliatelle. We enjoyed a glass of mastika before our food, which was pleasingly accompanied by a bottle of Tickveš rosé. We finished with pancakes, honey and hazelnuts.

Well fed, we retired to our room and next day set off to explore Ohrid on foot.

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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