So the day began like it ended the night before … more food. Jane seemed intent on ensuring that I try every type of Macedonian food, which meant eschewing the breakfast in my hotel for more “local” options. Because we were heading to Ohrid, about a three hour drive from Scopje and hitting sights along the way, Jane suggested a breakfast place just outside the city center. That was fine by me, but the breakfast selection gave me a little (OK a lot) of pause. Apparently the second most popular breakfast in Macedonia (after the pastry thing) is tripe soup. Yea that’s right, the lining of a cow or sheep’s stomach made into a soup for breakfast. Jane insisted it was really good and if I didn’t like it, there were a couple other soup options (fish and beef). Uhhhh …. OK.
So I checked out of my hotel and we left for the restaurant around 9:00 a.m. Once at the restaurant, Jane took the liberty of ordering both the fish soup and the trip soup for me and it was a good thing he did. The tripe soup suuuuuuuucked. The fish soup, however, was rather tasty. And thankfully they brought tea for my honey so I could put a bit on my bread for a proper breakfast.
Anyway, after the rather “interesting” breakfast, we headed to our first stop of the day, the Matka Canyon. The Matka Canyon is about a half hour outside Scopje. The canyon consists of a dammed lake surrounded by limestone mountains. The lake is a popular destination for tourists where boats take people on a twenty minute trip up the lake to a limestone cavern filled with stalactites. There is also an underwater cave that can be accessed nearby, but you really need to be an expert diver since no one has apparently ever located the bottom of the cave.
So the route out of Scopje took us through some little villages and past numerous mosques and churches peacefully coexisting along with their residents. Once we reached the canyon, Jane and I had to hike about a mile into the site since parking was limited. And while Jane had already booked a private boat for me, we ended up waiting a bit while the boat was brought around. So while I waited, I checked out the petite, but pretty Church of Sveti Andrej (Church of St. Andrew) built in 1389. The little church was made of beautiful stone walls and backed up against the towering canyon. Unfortunately, the church was locked so I was not able to see what I was told were beautiful frescoes inside.
I commented to Jane that I thought it was odd that a church would be here in the middle of nowhere, but apparently Matka Canyon is filled with churches dating to the 14th century because Christians fleeing the Ottomans took to the canyon hills and set up churches all over the area.
So with a bit of history behind me, Jane and I climbed aboard a pontoon boat being skippered by … an 11 year old boy. The young fella’s family owns the boat business and when he’s not in school he is learning the trade. The kid was really cute and turned out to be a heck of a driver.
As we pushed off, the cloudy day took a turn and it started to rain so as we puttered along, the warm rain on the cold water caused a mist to rise all around us creating a really cool effect. By the time we reached the cave, though, it had stopped raining and was now just cloudy and humid.
Once at the cave site, Jane and I climbed up the three flights of stairs to the entrance to the cave and were greeted by a large Romanian tour group so rather than fight the group, we opted to wait a couple minutes for some of them to leave. As it turned out, our timing was perfect because by the time we reached the bottom of the staircase to take a look at the stalactites the group was leaving. That just left me, Jane and … fruit bats. Yep those little fellas were everywhere and chirping up a storm. Thankfully, they were only high overhead and never came close to where we stood.
Now the stalactites were pretty cool with a lot of long white “teeth” hanging from the limestone everywhere you looked. And the site had been lit up so it made the viewing pretty easy.
After ten or so minutes inside the cave, we climbed back up the stairs into the fresh air and made our way back down the stone stair case to our waiting boat. The trip turned out to be really enjoyable despite the myriad of boats in the water. We seemed to luck out as most of the boats had started far ahead of us so the trip down the lake and back was quite peaceful surrounded by towering limestone mountains, lots of greenery and crystal clear water.
Once we reached the dock, Jane and I ended up stopping at the little café on site for a glass of wine before hiking back to the van where Dean was waiting. By now it was close to 12:30 so it was apparently time for lunch despite the fact I felt like I had just finished breakfast. Nevertheless, Jane insisted that this place we were going to was the best and simply could not be missed.
It turned out the little restaurant was all Jane hyped it to be. The restaurant was in the middle of nowhere (and once again down a seemingly deserted road) and run by a fellow named Borche who Jane met through some other tourists. The guy grows all his own vegetables, outsources the bread, but makes his own cheese, sausage and bacon. He also keeps chickens on the site. Jane and I took a quick tour of the garden area where I saw more peppers and tomatoes than I could count. Yowza. This guy means business.
By the time we went back into the restaurant, drinks were being served. Now to date I have avoided rakija, a form of potent (and in many cases homemade) brandy, but my luck had run out. Borche poured the three of us (none for Dean who was driving) shotglasses full of his homemade rakija. After a toast and “cheers” I took a sip and almost gagged. I am pretty sure this stuff is still sitting somewhere in my body burning a hole through some organ. I didn’t want to be rude and not finish the glass so for the rest of the lunch, I took little sips and chased it with water. ACK!
Now the lunch, however, was another story. More meze than I could possibly consume with bread, peppers, cucumbers, the best tomatoes ever, cheese and two kinds of pepper and tomato spreads. And that was just the starters. Borche then brought out homemade sausage (delish) and a large meat patty stuffed with vegetables and cheese. And if that wasn’t enough, there was another shot of rakija (from Serbia) along with some local melons. I could hardly move by the time lunch was over. I really just needed a nap.
Unfortunately for me, there was no time to nap. We were off to the town of Tetovo to see the Šarena Džamija aka the Painted Mosque. The mosque was originally built in 1438, later rebuilt in 1833 and then repainted in 2010.
The drive from the restaurant to Tetovo was quick taking us through a handful of villages and even more mosques. Apparently this area is dominated by ethnic Albanians most of whom are Muslim so the mosques were everywhere.
By the time we reached Tetovo it had started to rain again so Jane and I grabbed our rain coats and made a dash for a covered area in front of the mosque. And true to its name, the “Painted Mosque” was indeed painted in beautiful colourful designs. And while the colourful designs were lovely, I was equally impressed with the beautiful gardens surrounding the building. The interior was also painted, but the highlight inside was actually the gorgeous yellow and blue dome with pictures of various sites painted around the dome.
When Jane and I left the building we could not find Dean. We searched everywhere, but no Dean in site. Unfortunately, in the hurry to get out of the car and undercover, Jane forgot his phone so he ended up having to borrow a phone from some guy on the street to call Dean to come and get us. Turns out Dean was parked right across the street from the mosque in plain site, but neither Jane nor I saw him. Gesh.
Anyway, once in the van it was on to Gostivar and for what else … food. Yep. That’s right. Only two hours after lunch we were going to Gostivar to a place called Rekord that has been making the best baklava in Macedonia since 1951. Excellent. Just what I need.
The drive to Gostivar continued on the standard two lane backroad and while there are intermittent freeways throughout Macedonia, this area is nothing but two lane roads.
When we finally reached Gostivar, the challenge was to find a parking space. Everyone has cars in Macedonia, but I have yet to see anything even closely resembling a parking lot or a parkade. The attitude seems to be why do we need something like that when we have sidewalks!
Anyway, once parked (yes we found a spot), we walked a couple blocks to the iconic baklava shop. And I am here to say no matter how full you may think you are, you will make room for these tiny little pillows of goodness. We tried three different types: walnut phyllo dough, hazelnut phyllo dough and pistachio phyllo dough. The rest of the ingredients were syrup and pistachios on top. And all I can say is OH. MY. GOD. These little nuggets were heaven. (Baklava is already one of my all time favourite desserts, but these creations took the bar to another level.).
Jane wanted to buy some for me to take along for the ride, but I told him I had zero willpower and regardless of how full I was, I would simply start eating them if they were anywhere near me. So while I had no willpower to resist the baklava if it was sitting in a box with me in the back seat, I at least had the willpower to say no to a “to go” box.
Our last stop of the day took us through the Mavrovo National Park, with its ski hills and beautiful towering trees, to the Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery. The Byzantine monastery dates to 1020 and was located high up a hillside accessed by a series of switchbacks off the main road.
The big attraction of the monastery (apart from its amazing locations and spectacular views), was the icon inside the church at the monastery. The story goes that the silver icon of St. John the Baptist miraculously appeared floating in the air before being placed inside the monastery church. And while the icon was indeed very silver and included a hard to see face, I am afraid I did not understand the fuss.
Now the grounds of the monastery were another story. Absolutely beautiful gardens and views that went forever. The other interesting thing is that the monks were easily accessible, walking around and saying hello to visitors. (Most monks I have come across keep their heads down and ignore visitors.)
After the monastery visit, we commenced the final hour and half drive to Ohrid. (Yep, our three hour drive had stretched all day long.). The drive to Ohrid took us out of the Mavrovo National Park and along a series of lakes surrounded by little villages. Unfortunately, the two lane road continued and a large truck slowed our progress. We finally reach Ohrid at just after 7:00 p.m. where I promptly checked in for a massage. The bed in the hotel in Scopje was brutal (despite the fact that the hotel and my room were lovely) and I really needed someone to work on my very sore back. The massage turned out to be wonderful and by 8:30, I was checking into my little boutique hotel in old town overlooking Lake Ohrid. Turns out I had arrived on the eve of Macedonia’s Independence Day and the bars were full and noisy so it looked like a lot of fun. However, all I really wanted was some sleep. I told Jane no dinner tonight as I really just wanted to go to bed early (thankfully I had earplugs). Tomorrow we will check out the town.