Paradise lost – biketouring in macedonia

Every time I visit the Balkans, it’s like coming back. Although, I’ve never lived there, I feel this Yugonostalgia, missing something I never knew. Maybe in my previous incarnation, I was driving a Yugo or Zastava for a state-planned vacation? The South is paradise lost, wrote Kapka Kassabova in “By the lake”. Her story about Lakes Prespa and Ohrid gave me an impulse to visit North Macedonia. 

Soggy air and leaden clouds were hanging above statues of Skopje. Ancient philosophers, warriors, bulls, breastfeeding mothers and beggars were overlooked by an enormous Alexander the Great on the horse, dominating on the main square. 

All these monuments were new. Before 2010, Skopje was rather plain and modernist. The nationalist government wanted to give it a more classical look to highlight the ancient roots of Macedoni). In a total makeover, called Skopje 2014, new facades with ornaments and neo-classic columns covered the brutalist buildings and monuments of historical figures from the region filled every empty corner. 

I spent a good while admiring what Kassabova described as the gangster baroque before I moved on to the Old Bazaar, breathing in the eclectic, oriental vibe. Minarets overlooked the busy plaza where traders sold mottled carpets, shiny coffee pots and a lot of random stuff, like Yugoslavian army clothing. They smiled at me, always asking where I was from and tried to interest me with their products..

I climbed the steep street towards Skopsko Kale. During some restorations within the fortress, the workers discovered a 13th-century church. They started to renovate it but never finished. 

Why? The conservative government (led by Nikola Gruevskit, the same who was responsible for Skopje 2014) wanted to build a church-shaped museum on its foundations. The Albanian Muslims, a majority in that part of town, were not very fond of this idea. Some people threw stones, some people got injured, and the project got suspended.

On a stormy morning, I packed my panniers and left my hostel. I was surprised by how many bike lanes Skopje has, even if their curbs were so high that I had to get off my bike nearly every time I crossed a street. Having escaped the city, I looked at all the mountains surrounding me. Hazy, they seemed mysterious and appealing. 

I took a small road parallel to the Friendship Highway. The government renamed the former Highway of Alexander the Great in 2018, to build a more friendly relationship with Greece (along with changing the country’s name to „North Macedonia”, because the name “Macedonia” was a thorn in Greeks’ flesh).

The moderate climb was a good warm-up before the real challenges awaiting me in the coming days. I was considering camping by Lake Mladost on the other side of the mountain, but it looked way too touristy. People from the nearby Veles were playing there with kids or enjoying their romantic getaway in hotel Romantik.

As Lake Mladost wasn’t a perfect quiet spot for the night, I carried on to Veles. It used to be called Titov Veles, after Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito. This small town made it to the world news as headquarters of teenage fake news producers during the presidential election in the US in 2016. 150 American fake news sites were traced in Veles, and the main sponsor of extra income for the young online entrepreneurs was Donald Trump.

I stopped to get some water from the source by the Monastery of St. Dimitrij and started looking for a place for the night. An overgrown dirt road by the river was protected by a strident dog, so I pushed my bike through the narrow path leading steeply up a rocky hill. 

“Sv Nedela” – Saint Sunday – said the inscription on a gate with a cross and a bell. A tiny church looked more like a hut of a hermit. In the yard, a vigorous turtle was taking a stroll, nimbly walking on the rugged ground. 

I knocked at the door and the window. After a few seconds, I repeated, louder. There was no one I could ask for permission, but I hoped that nobody would mind me putting my tent on the holy ground. 

I was alone, on this craggy hill, surrounded by the burbling on the river in the valley and Turkish dance music coming from the houses on the hill to the right. Sun was setting, making the mountains glow. Even after dusk, it was warm enough to sit outside and stare at the stars, so I didn’t took my time before hiding in the tent and wrapping myself in my sleeping bag.

Around 10 o’clock, it suddenly became very bright. Although I didn’t hear any steps, I could have sworn that someone was standing next to my tent with a gigantic headlight. Slightly spooked, I unzipped my tent. It’s always better to know your enemy. I looked around.

Gigantic moon just leaned out from behind the mountains, casting light on my campsite. The tension in my muscles suddenly released. I took a few deep breaths and fell asleep.

The buzzing alarm jolted me awake at 6 am. Expecting some worshipers to visit the church on a Sunday, I forced myself to get out of my cosy bed and started packing my stuff. 

It turned out, I underestimated the devotion of Macedonian people. Already at 6:30, the old gate made a squeaky sound. Two men and three women in their late 50s came in, while I was brushing my hair. Embarrassed, I tried to explain that I was already leaving, and I apologise if I shouldn’t have camped there. They just laughed and one of the women asked if I slept well.

“Very well”, I answered.

“It’s because you slept close to God”, was her theory.

They opened the church, swept the floor with a broomstick, and watered the plants. 

The long-haired brunette waved at me, inviting me to the church. Most of the icons inside didn’t resemble the orthodox icons I was used to. The lines were more clumsy, and the people looked like painted by children, with eyes too big and the hands too boxy.

“Saint Nedela”, she pointed to a portrait of a woman with a crown on her head. “You have to pray to her so that you are safe and healthy.” She crossed herself three times and watched if I did the same. 

I stayed in the 13th-century church, admiring the old fading frescoes on the wall and the offerings that people left by the pictures of the saints. Some of them were usual, like money, some rather unexpected, like socks or candies.

“Turkish coffee?” Asked my new friend.

I couldn’t say no to this generous invitation. It turned out that when Macedonians say coffee, they mean coffee, cookies of three kinds, a cake, bread, jam and fresh homemade ajvar. They showed me pictures of their kids, and when I was ready to hit the road, they handed me a plastic box filled with sweet grapes and figs. 

“Next time you come to Macedonia, you need to come here as well. Just make sure you come here on the weekend so we can meet you on a Sunday morning.” 

They waved and smiled, the women joyfully and the two men a little awkwardly. 

The road to Prilep was nearly empty. More often than the sound of an engine, I heard bells hanging on the necks of sheep that grazed on the fields. For kilometres, there were nearly no civilisation- just a perfect tarmac, in the middle of vineyards and mountains. 

“Deutsch?” Asked an old man standing with his friend by the spring in the village Izvor.

I admitted that I speak German, and he got excited about the opportunity to practice this language.

“I worked there thirty years ago, but now I forgot a lot of words”, he apologised, although his German was good. His name was Boris. He shared with me not only his life story but also some tomatoes, apples and green peppers from his garden.

“My son works as a truck driver all around the country, but he only makes 300 euros a month. Life is difficult in this country. Are you married? No? Why? You should come to Macedonia again. You can stay at my house, but only if you are married and you bring your husband with you.”

He couldn’t believe that I was cycling in Macedonia on my own. His companion was even more astonished.

“Why don’t you just ride a motorbike? On a bicycle, it is too difficult!”

When I mentioned I was going to Prilep, Boris warned me: “The road will be good for 3 kilometres, and after it will be really bad. No asphalt! Just sand!”

I said it was fine, I had a mountain bike in the end, and on my map, the road was a bold, yellow ribbon. I wasn’t expecting a highway, but at least a decent dirt road. As Boris warned, at some point the asphalt disappeared. First, sand replaced it, to later make place for square marble rocks. They made it nearly impossible to cycle, especially uphill, on a loaded bike. 

On the bright side, the only traffic consisted of cows, horses and turtles. I had the desolate road to myself. I enjoyed the freedom, the solitude and the thrill of the challenge: I was there on my own, and no one was gonna come to rescue me. No chance I could hitch a ride or find a house to ask for water if I run out of my supplies.

A fluffy shepherd dog was so exhausted by the heat that he didn’t even move or bark when I stopped on the top. I received more attention from tiny, obtrusive flies. They surrounded me and tried to distract me from admiring the surreal landscape around me: vast, raw and only spoiled by a white marble quarry, shining from afar. The road on the other side was far better, and cycling downhill brought me into a state of absolute flow and happiness. 

There is one thing I love about bike touring. Moving slowly through the land, you experience the good, the bad and the ugly of a country. You can rarely plan the route to only see the beautiful landscapes and exciting tourist sights. After the highs on Sunday, Monday brought me some lows. 

DThe road from the Macedonian capital of tobacco, Prilep, to Bitola was anything but charming. Plastic bottles, plastic bags, old sofa beds, teddy bears – endless piles of trash decorated both sides of the road.

My throat started to scratch, my eyes were itchy. 

In the distance, I noticed the cause for this condition – a dark grey smoke trail coming from the fields. All that plastic was burning. I couldn’t decide if I should use my right hand to cover my face or nose or rather to whisk away the omnipresent flies. In the end, I decided simply to speed up and just get to Bitola as soon as possible, eat some lunch there and escape again to the mountains.

With my stomach stuffed with cheesy pizza, I sweated on the climb to the oldest national park in Macedonia – Pelister, with mountains rising to more than 2600 m above sea level. Breathing in the aroma of pine trees, I passed through numerous small villages consisting of a handful of houses and a church. A bumpy dirt road led me to Rokito settlement, above which I was hoping to camp by a lake. I couldn’t wait to be there already and enjoy the evening in the mountains.

Ping! I heard a quiet metallic sound followed by the pannier rubbing against the luggage rack. I stopped for damage control. One of the screws fastening the hooks of the panniers broke and part of it got stuck in the thread. 

I searched through my pannier for duct tape and zip ties – the most essential elements of every biker’s toolkit, famous for their ability to fix (temporarily) absolutely everything. Five minutes later, I was back on track, slightly more carefully riding over numerous bumps. 

By the lake, a man was enjoying a walk with his two granddaughters and two dogs. 

“Where are you from? Are you alone? Aren’t you scared?” He asked.

To be honest, I was sick of people asking if I wasn’t afraid. The more I hear it, the more anxious I become because people expect me to be scared. The guy asked me what I was planning to see in Macedonia. When I mentioned Galicica National Park, he took out his phone, proudly showing me pictures from Magaro Peak, from which you can see both famous lakes – Prespa and Ohrid – at the same time.

“Where are you going to sleep?”

I hesitated a bit to answer, but he looked like a trustworthy person.

“Somewhere around here.” I pointed at the lake and the forest.

“That’s not a good idea.” He said. “A couple of days ago a bear was seen right here. It’s better if you set up a camp by the monastery”, he advised.

“Lovely”, I thought. “If I keep camping on the holy ground, I’ll return home a saint.” 

The monastery was just 150 meters away, but it looked safer. Even if the fence was broken, at least it was a more open area, while bears prefer to stay in the dense forest. There was even a camp-bed in the backyard, but I preferred to stick to my mat. 

“Meow”, I heard a thin voice from behind a tree. And then again, from the other side. And again. I was surrounded by a gang of 5 white-ginger kittens. They accompanied me every step and looked with their hungry eyes at my dinner.

“All right, guys, let’s see what I can find for you.”

There was some old bread, so I shared it with them. They purred vehemently while munching, and before the night, one of them made a bed for himself in the vestibule of the tent. Feeling his warmth and listening to his soft humming, I drifted away. 

“Whichever way you approach them, they don’t feel close to anything, not even to each other. Forbidding ranges must be traversed and lonely roads travelled”, wrote Kapka Kassabova about Europe’s oldest lakes, Prespa and Ohrid. Both lakes are connected with underground streams flowing through the mountain of Galicica and are more than a million years old (most lakes only last a hundred thousand years before sediments fill them up).

People living around Prespa speak the same language (a Macedonian/Slavic dialect with Turkish and Greek influence), but since the beginning of the 20th Century, the lake has been divided between three countries. For years, when Albania was under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha, Macedonia was part of Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia, and Greece was a capitalist country, the borders were closed.  Although the borders are open now, it is still impossible to cross them by boat or do a whole loop around the lake. I was very tempted to pay a short visit to Greece when I saw I was just 5 minutes away. Unfortunately, the border in Markova Noga was still closed, and I would have to go back to Bitola and cross on the main road to Florina. As Kassabova wrote, everything was close but seemed so far.

The water was warm and quiet, and only a few people were relaxing on the sandy beach. After taking a refreshing swim, I found a private spot where I put my tent. There was a campsite nearby, already closed after the season. 

At first, I felt a little uneasy, afraid it was too close to the nearby restaurants and the road and paranoid if someone saw me heading here alone. For a split second, I even wished I had company to feel safer. But having a companion would devoid me of this unity with the landscape and this serenity. 

In front of me, there was a magnificent lake, behind me the peaks of Pelister. I was astonished by the space and tranquillity of this place. I stopped worrying and enjoyed the stars above me and the void around me. It felt like nothing else existed. My apartment in Brussels seemed like a different world, and I could almost imagine never coming back.

As the crow flies, it is only 10 kilometres between the lakes Prespa and Ohrid, but a cyclist has to face a 30 kilometres long road with 800 elevation meters through Galicica National Park. I was looking forward to it since I saw some pictures from that hairpin road. I couldn’t wait to finally be really up in the mountains, 1600 m above the sea. But before I even reached the start of the climb, I felt a stabbing pain in my knee.

I stopped, stretched, massaged the tense muscles. It still hurt a lot. A little less on the flats, atrociously on the hills. There was no way I could cycle up to Galicica. 

I had to push the bike. I was angry at myself for spending the last year being an awful couch potato. Instead of enjoying the epic climb from the saddle, I had to do The Walk of Shame. 

It didn’t stop me from enjoying the ambience. There were barely any cars, and the trees cast refreshing shadows. Further up, when the forest became less dense and was replaced by busks, the mighty Prespa showed up. Its blue waters glistened in the distance, surrounded by the mountains of Pelister.

On the top, I had to put a sweater on, as the wind was cold. The view at Lake Ohrid from above reminded me about cycling the mountains along the Croatian coast. The same azure water and yellow grass, growing on the hills. 

At times, Ohrid, the oldest lake of Europe, resembled the sea a lot. Especially on a stormy evening on the beach in a tiny village Trpejca. The boats wiggling on the waves, the smell of water and fish, and the ominous sky above the cliff reminded me of Gdynia on a windy autumn evening.

I decided to spend two days in Ohrid. Known as Jerusalem of the Balkans, this town once had 365 churches. It is probably the highest churches per capita ratio in the world, if someone bothered by keeping statistics like that. Ohrid gets quite crowded in the summer, but luckily the end of September was quiet here.

I strolled through the steep streets with the house-shaped lamps hanging from the posts, breathing in the intense smell of smoked peppers wafting from balconies and backyards. I was lucky to have a local guide – Nicola, a young guy I met a few days earlier at Lake Prespa. He showed me the most scenic route on the cliffs and invited me to his parents for a very Balkan lunch: bean stew, fresh ajvar, tasty homegrown tomatoes and a shot of rakia (“my dad just made it last week, you need to taste it!”). 

Nicola also helped me with my knee problem. The family friend, orthopedist Zlate, examined my leg by checking the range of motion. Verdict: my muscles were just too tired and too tense.

“How old are you?” He asked.

“30.”

“You need to be more careful now, you are not so young anymore! Every day before the ride, warm-up”, he mimicked a run, gave me Kinesio tape to protect my knee and ordered a little rest before I would start biking again.

Zlate was not just any orthopedist. Everyone in Ohrid knew him as a sun gazer, which explained why his face was dusky and the skin around his eyes puckered. Every day, around the sunrise and the sunset, he stared directly at the sun. And sunsets in Ohrid – they are exceptional! Especially by the church of st. John at Kaneo, one of the most instagrammable places in the Balkans. 

The next morning, I felt restless and instead of giving my knee a day off, I walked around Ohrid. I started chronologically, from the amphitheatre, the only one in Macedonia from the Hellenic period. 

“Are you interested in history?” Asked an eccentric-looking man when I was walking towards the 9th century Saints Clement and Panteleimon church. His eyes hid behind round photochromic glasses, and he was wearing an unusual combination of a formal dark blue blazer and timeworn shorts. 

He introduced himself as Slavko, a philosopher. 

“Light, world, swastika. In the Slavic languages: svetlina, svet, svastika – they all represent the same.” His lilting voice was making me sleepy. I tried to focus, following the directions of the stick in his hand. He drew a swastika in the sand. 

“In Plaosnik, the early Christian basilica from the 4th century, the archaeologists discovered swastikas on the floors of the baptistery. The swastika represents the light reflections on the lake, which was originally called Lacus Lychritis – the Lake of Light.”

In the obscure dusk of the National Workshop for Handmade Paper, an elderly man put a sieve into a water container with cloudy water. He looked like an alchemist or magician. His moves were smooth but firm. Fascinated, I watched how the tiny particles of cotton connect, creating a sheet of paper. 

I enjoyed the touristy vibe of Ohrid. Especially wandering around the bazaar, where every stall had something unique to offer. Silver brooches and necklaces in all possible shapes; roses, dragonflies, ribbons, owls, mice, and white shiny pearls from the Lake were shining, trying to catch the eye of the passers-by. Even the boat-taxi drivers shouting “Last ride of the day! Only five euro!” didn’t bother me. 

Before the end of the day, I managed to catch a breath on a quiet beach on the western city edge. The smoothened pebbles were massaging my muscles. For the next day, I planned a nearly 90 km long route to Mavrovo National Park. I was hoping that despite walking all day long, my knee managed to recover. 

Moving away from the shore of Lake Ohrid, I entered another, more Albanian and thereby more oriental Macedonia. While every fourth citizen in North Macedonia is Albanian, most of them live in the west of the country. 

“Hey! Where are you headed?” A girl on a yellow gravel bike caught me in the middle of the humiliating activity of pushing my bike up the hill. Her skin was bronzed, and it was clear that she did not spend a single minute stuck in the office this summer. 

Introducing herself as Sonja from Switzerland, she told me about her bike tour she started 3 months earlier. She was 38 but shared her stories with the energy of a student on a gap year: hiking the highest mountain in Bosnia, paragliding in Galicica, sailing in Greece. I felt a tiny sting in my heart that I did not spend the whole summer on a bike. My 2 weeks holiday suddenly seemed so short.

We talked for the next 40 or 50 kilometres. Before I even noticed, we passed the entrance to Mavrovo National Park, one of the most pristine and best-preserved mountain areas in South-Eastern Europe. I forgot how much good company makes the ride easier. It completely distracted me from any discomfort I felt in my legs. 

The landscape was a good distraction too. After passing the Debar Lake, we entered a stunning valley with steep marble slopes hanging above the azure Radika river. Later the rough, rigid landscape became greener, and a cold whiff from the water surrounded us. We climbed a steep route to the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski (it is the only medieval monastery I know, that has over 11 thousand followers on Instagram). We stayed at a new church-owned hostel, where the standard of the rooms highly exceeded what you’d expect for 10 euro a night. 

On Sunday morning, the monks in black cassocks rushed to their prayer, casting minatory looks when I walked around with my camera. Allured by the byzantine chants, I peeped into the church. The low, vibrating voices in perfect harmony gave me chills. Under a golden chandelier, a crowd of people gathered, immersed in the contemplation.  

Closer to Mavrovo, Macedonia’s biggest ski resort, the atmosphere was more profane. Plenty of cars were parked on the side of the road by families enjoying the sunny morning by the lake, one of the most famous places in the whole country. The Mavrovo Lake surrounded by multiple 2000 meters and higher tops owes its prominence to a church that was underwater. The artificial lake was created in the 40s when a dam on the Mavrovo River was built and the valley was filled with water. When I visited, it was so dry that the church was on dry land.

Dams and hydropower plants in Mavrovo National Park were causing a hot debate, as a threat for one of the last free-flowing rivers in Europe. Ecologists also pointed out that it would harm Balkan lynx, which is already critically endangered (only about 120 are still alive). 

Building dams is quite an issue in the Balkans: according to the Save the Blue Heart of Europe group, more than 2700 dam projects are planned on wild rivers in the whole Balkan Peninsula, 113 of them inside national parks, endangering the wildlife and the intact landscape that is rare to find in other parts of Europe.

Finding a place to camp was quite a challenge, although the shore of the lake was wide and welcoming. There were still too many people. I had to wait until twilight when the mountains became tranquil, and only a song of birds and distant barking of dogs interrupted the silence.

My last destination, Matka Canyon, was my only disappointment. Not that it was not beautiful. No, the emerald water and the vertical walls created breathtaking scenery. But the tawdry music coming from the restaurant’s speakers, countless taxi drivers shouting “Skopje! Skopje!” and a crowd worthy of Venice or Paris. Located half an hour drive from Skopje, Matka Canyon became a touristy hotspot where it was impossible to find silence and contemplate the beauty of this place.

Cycling back to the capital, I looked back at the 10 days behind me. It was hard to believe that such a short time was so rich in adventures (even though I took it easy, cycling only 50-60 kilometres a day). I met the most generous people (and some weirdos), experienced true wilderness, slept in scenic places and  received a good lesson in history. All of that in a tiny country, overlooked by most travellers. The land of the sun enchanted me and leaving I was sure it is not a „goodbye” but „see you soon”.

If I managed to inspire you to travel North Macedonia by bike and need some practical advice before visiting, you can find them here.

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