Where is Egnatia taking us in the Balkans? From Albania, we have crossed Macedonia – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, that is. Struga and Ohrid to Resen, Bitola and then to Florina – Macedonia – Greece.
In Greece we have slowed down! A great day being shown round the area by Christos Orovas and the Hellenic Mountaineering Club of Florina, then a short day to Vevi and a second to Arnissa.
Leaving Albania for ‘Macedonia’ – with a little sadness.
The heights of Albania at Qafe Thanes dominate lake Ohrid and western Macedonia. A short steep climb and extra couple of kilometers to the almost derelict border crossing between the two former communist states. It’s one of those backcountry border crossing which most people never see. An Albanian car is turned back for obscure reasons…
It’s fair to say that we had not done much homework about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M.). In fact, we didn’t even know the name of the currency. Our efforts to change the remaining Albanian Lekke produced only five Euros from a Macedonian taxi driver who realized a spectacular percentage profit.
We then set off towards Struga and then Ohrid.
Shortly before Struga we came across a fellow long distance traveller: Didier (http://www.alez.fr/ddddd/) – a tough French cycle tourist loaded with four panniers and a huge stuff sack. He had already travelled from France through Germany and down the Danube and was now returning home. He had wise words about Macedonian driving – which was in his estimation faster and more dangerous than elsewhere in the region. Correct! Just give us more space!
It must be the case that some Macedonian do not work in Switzerland, Germany, Austria or even the US. It must also be the case that some Macedonians buy cars in Macedonia, but neither case is obvious. So many vehicles driven by young male Macedonians are prestige foreign registered ones, that we had difficulty inventing an explanation. That these imported Mercedes, BMW’s, Land Rovers and Jeeps had all come home with their owners dawned only slowly – so great were the numbers. The prestige is the point for the returning sons of FYROM! (The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia)
From beach-side Struga we find placid and beautiful Lake Ohrid. The lake is timeless – but the straggling beach resort shows the ravages of time, and excess nutrition on the human body as well if not better than a British Summer!
Ohrid! So unpromising from the walk in with the full range of incomplete concrete frames and concrete mosques. But Ohrid has an UNESCO World Heritage site, which includes a much repaired Hellenistic theatre, a massive castle curtain wall of many periods, a range of great Byzantine Churches – and so much that could be. The site itself is poorly managed, and post-earthquake (?)rebuilding inappropriate and poor quality in such an important site.
The commercial centre is nonetheless bustling, welcoming and European. The high street leads to the Lake. If only we could eat without “house music”” in the background – but again, how can we fault the friendliness and welcome of the people?
At the amphitheatre there is mixed group of Eastern Europeans, declaiming to each other from the stage in their respective Slavic languages – and not Greek! They have the Lonely Planet guide which is quoted freely… but the Ancient Greek Origin of this heritage, is a little obscure to their version of national origin! That of course remains Slavic, with the inconvenient ancient “Greekness” of the theatre, ignored. More about the struggle for Macedonian identity later!
Into the mountains of Macedonia, we spend time looking for the Egnatia, without enough success and settle for the parallel roads. The complete lack of maps means that local opinion about the route couldn’t really help. (A note to Balkans and Asian countries – anyone who really wants to invade will have their own maps – keeping them secret really is just silly.)
Resen! The Khidkat Hotel, must be one of the worst in the world! Communist era, closed reception, staff who could ignore the roof falling off, but rooms open for inspection! Let’s just say times have moved on! We stay elsewhere. Resen is nonetheless a friendly comfortable town with a small old quarter and some very nice people indeed. Everyone has lived somewhere else or is going to…
From Resen to Bitola gave us a chance to see the Pelister National Park. It is genuinely unspoiled – with forest smoothing the contours of hills and mountains. Only higher, could one see 2,500m ridges which towered over Macedonia, or Makedonia on the Greek side of the border. Bitola has history – once the great powers queued to have embassies and trade missions here. The wealth of the late 19th century is still on show. It was a prized part of Communist Yugoslavia.
We have had three 35km plus days, and by Bitola we are very tired indeed, but by 7 we are off and heading to the Greek border to meet Christos and the worthies of the Hellenic Mountaineering Club of Florina! It is a strange morning. The Bitola Hotel owners tries a very unsubtle rip-off – apparently the price is per-person he sais! The argument delays us, but we move quickly out of Bitola and find a short-legged and apparently lonely dog. She follows us for 5km along the busy border road. This may sound a petty distraction – but run-over animals have been a feature of the Southern walk. Eventually, she has to be chased off, with some mean intent. We end up late for our rendezvous at the border.
Clearing the very minimal formalities, it is only the considerable “no-mans-land” which delays. We meet Christos, our packs are taken on to Florina and we are walking back roads in Makedonia – Greece.