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, 4 June 2015

Debar and back to Skopje: Part 15 of The Balkans

On our last full day in Macedonia we had to return from Ohrid to Skopje, but with no time pressure we chose the scenic route, along the valley of the Crna Drin to Debar and then through the Mavrovo National Park.

This time we took the main road to Struga before turning north up the river valley. North of the lake the land is flat, mainly agricultural though we saw a couple of small factories and some heavier industry. The intense development along the roadside included many new houses and a large hotel, though the area had few obvious attractions.

Further north the valley narrowed and became much prettier. We followed the corridor of land between the river on our right and a range of hills on our left, their summits marking the Albanian border.

In this post we travel from Ohrid to Debar and then to Skopje
After 25km the valley widened where the town of Debar sits above a small lake. From a distance Debar looked more eastern than other Macedonian towns, reflecting its overwhelmingly Muslim population. Three quarters of its 14,000 citizens are ethnic Albanians, which is unsurprising given its location but in every other city in the country Macedonians are either the largest or second largest ethnic group; here they are outnumbered not just by Albanians, but also both Turks and Roma.

It was coffee time so, eschewing the by-pass, we drove into town. The centre was busy and traffic disrupted by the work of turning the main shopping street into a pedestrian precinct.

Central Debar
We managed to park and took a short stroll. The prominent statue is of Skanderbeg, the Albanian national hero. In 1440 he was appointed the Ottoman Sanjakabey (military and administrative commander) of Debar district. Rebelling in 1443 he spent the next twenty-five years leading a largely itinerant army of 10,000 Albanians, Slavs and Greeks to a series of unlikely victories over the Ottomans. He never succeeded in setting up a viable Albanian state, but his actions seriously impeded Ottoman plans to expand into Europe.
Skanderbeg, Debar

We drank our coffee on a terrace overlooking, if not the town's main square, at least its largest traffic intersection. Lynne was not quite the only woman but, as usual in Muslim areas, the clientele was overwhelmingly male. They were, by and large, the sort of elderly men who have the time to sit drinking coffee on a working day – just like me. It was good coffee and very cheap (30denar - 35p), as is often the case away from tourist centres.
Lynne has coffee, Debar
We continued north through the Mavrovo National Park following the valley of the River Radika which flows southwards from Mavrovo Lake to Debar Lake and thence into the Crna Drin.
Village in the Mavrovo National Park
After a few kilometres we detoured up the valley side to the monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski (St John the Baptist).

From the higher ground on a hot sunny day we had a fine view across the valley where, despite the heat the mountain tops were still streaked with snow. We were about to enter a Christian monastery, but judging by the minarets the villages on the far side were mainly Muslim.
Village across the Radika Valley from Sv Jovan Bigorski
As we walked up the drive to the monastery we were accosted by the guardian who collected the entrance fee and ensured we were properly dressed. Apparently my shorts were acceptable, but Lynne’s long trousers were not, so he provided a wrap-around skirt.

The monastery was founded in 1020 by Ivan I Debranin (John of Debar) who had been a bishop under Car Samoil (see Ohrid post), but accepted the post of Archbishop of Ohrid after Samoil’s Bulgarian Empire fell to the Byzantines (no distinction between Bulgarian and Macedonian existed between the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century and the mid-20th century). The monastery was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 16th century but restored two hundred years later and vastly expanded in the 19th century. Sadly many of the older buildings were lost in a fire in 2009, though much else survived. The monastery has a church, a traditional priest’s tower, exactly like the tower we had seen at the Popovo Kula (Priest's Tower!) Winery and monk’s dwellings.

Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
Outside the church is a cherrywood cannon. In the April Uprising of 1876 the Bulgarians attempted to throw off the Ottoman yoke and, being short of conventional materials, resorted to constructing cannons from cherrywood. Although the first to be fired (predictably) killed the gunner but no-one else, this did not deter the manufacture of many more though few were ever fired - and even fewer were fired twice. They became symbolic of the heroic but doomed uprising and were subsequently incorporated into several civic coats of arms and parked outside places of national importance like Sv Jovan Bigorski.

Cherrywood cannon, Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
There are impressive, though recent, frescoes in the church portico (where photography is permitted) and inside the church (where it isn’t). Various relics have also survived include fragments of the True Cross and body parts of John the Baptist, Lazarus and various other saints, some well-known, others deeply obscure. It is wondrous how these things have been neither lost nor damaged. Holy icons (including one with mystic healing powers) have also miraculously reappeared after being destroyed in fires or when the monastery was sacked.
Frescoes in the portico, Sveti Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
You may believe what you wish about these, but inside, behind the relics and the icons is a magnificent 19th rood screen carved by masters Makarie Frckovski and the brothers Petre and Marko Filipovski. Three of their fabulously ornate and detailed screens survive and we had seen another at Sveti Spas in Skopje. There is a photo of that in the Skopje post, though it is not mine, there as here I was too closely watched by those policing the no photos policy.

Sv Jovan Bigorski, Mavrovo
Returning Lynne's borrowed skirt we continued up the valley pausing for a picnic lunch by Mavrovo Lake. Then we left the national park and found our way to the Mother Teresa Motorway (yes, really!) which took us back to Skopje. We re-entered the city by the same route as we had left it a week before, found our way back to the same hotel and parked the car roughly where the hire company rep had parked it in a ‘dead end’ beside the hotel.
I parked the car where the green Volkswagen is in this picture
It was a hot day, and after checking-in a cold beer seemed appropriate so we strolled back down the 'dead end' road to a café.

We had been sitting on the café’s deck behind a low hedge for some twenty minutes when I saw a white car moving down the road. ‘That’s a white Chevrolet like ours,’ I said to Lynne as I realised it was on the back of a truck. Even when I noticed it had a small dent on the passenger door 'just like ours' I did not immediately twig that it actually was ours and it was being taken away by the parking authorities.

Back at the hotel the receptionist suggested that we should have put it in the underground car park. ‘What underground car park?’ I asked. They had not told us about it as they had not known we had arrived by car, I had not asked about it as I could not see anything wrong with where I was parked - and the car had sat there for 24 hours a week ago without problem. It was, apparently, something to do with resident’s permits, and there was a sign on a lamppost, not an international No Parking sign, but a written notice in Macedonian. Ignorance, of course is no excuse, but in my defence I could point out that the sign over what I subsequently learned was the underground car park does not mention the hotel - the unlikely named 'Hotel Duvet Centre'.

The underground car park
Now where does it say anything about the Hotel Duvet Centre?
The reception team were helpful. They phoned the authorities, found out where the car was, did some special pleading so we only had to pay the £35 towing fee and not the fine and then called a cab.

The pound was not far away, under the railway arches by the station. As we arrived the clouds that had been gathering since we arrived in Skopje decided to spoil what had hitherto been a perfect summer day by unleashing a downpour. Retrieving the car was as painless as handing over that much money can be and we drove back to the hotel. This time I did put it in the car park. Behind those gates is a creaky lift which takes car and driver to a subterranean vault in which the hotel had half a dozen marked spaces. Well who knew that?

Later we went out (on foot) for out last Macedonian dinner and last bottle of Vranac - I should seek out a source when I get home.


We had an afternoon flight so in the morning we decided to visit the railway station. The clock stopped at the instant of the 1967 earthquake and the station has been left as a memorial to those who died.

Lynne said there was a sign to it by mother Teresa's house, which was not far away. I pointed out that we had been there the previous day to collect the car and could walk there relatively quickly as, unlike a taxi, we would not have to detour over the river and back to avoid the pedestrianised area. It was so simple I did not even bother to look at the guide book.

After a longish walk on a hot morning we found the bus station easily enough and could see the railway station sitting on top of the embankment but could find no entrance.

Skopje Railway station
This one is not a memorial to anything
Eventually we discovered a small passageway between two ticket booths in the bus station that led into the railway station. It was largely a building site, indeed I am not sure whether it was open or if we should have been there at all, but we had a look round anyway and walked up to the empty platforms. There was no memorial, indeed nothing remarkable, except for us being entirely alone in a capital city railway station.

Pausing en route for a riverside coffee we trailed back to the hotel. Only then did I look at the guide book and discover that Skopje's old station, the earthquake memorial, was somewhere else entirely; the railway does not even go there anymore. Lynne’s words were a little harsh – but justifiably so.
Riverside walk and the Archeological Museum, Skopje
After a light lunch we drove to the airport. Despite the poor sign-posting, driving in Macedonia had been easy, indeed a pleasure, as there was so little traffic. This does not apply to central Skopje, which is busy, though the quality of sign-posting is no better. Signs that did exist were often late and required last minute manoeuvring across several lanes of fast moving traffic.

By luck or skill we reached the airport without mishap and toured around looking for the car hire garages. With the aid of a friendly policeman we realised there were no garages, just offices inside the terminal. Lynne went in while I sat in the car - I had no intention of being towed away twice. Failing to find the relevant office she asked the nice man at the Sixt desk. Our company’s only office was in the city centre, he told her but kindly offered to phone them. ‘No problem,’ said the woman on the phone. ‘Leave the car unlocked in the main car park, and place the keys in the boot.’ And so we did. I presume we would have heard if it had been stolen.

Despite the minor problems at the end we really enjoyed our first trip to Macedonia and second to the Balkans. I finished the final Croatia post three years ago by saying it was a region we hoped to return to. I finish this post with the same feeling.

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