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Sonntag, 1. Oktober 2017

Why you should visit Ohrid in winter

On Oktober 01, 2017

The Ottoman houses on the shore of the lake are veiled in the morning mist, as if they were white ghosts against a blanket of white. This enveloping whiteness hovers over the wooden boats scattered around the lake and swallows the crown of houses ranged around it. Nevertheless, I know how beautiful the view is, having seen countless postcard-perfect pictures of this UNESCO-listed lake, which is one of the oldest in the world.

Ohrid in winter
When tourists are gone and winter is in the air, Ohrid becomes again the picturesque lakeside town that has enchanted visitors since the Byzantine Empire.

The pale light of the sun reflects on deserted cobbled streets, and this glowing fog melts in time with the footfalls of the few people wandering around.

The ancient stones drenched with rain emanate a wet, winterish smell, which –here and there- is abruptly interrupted by the warm smell of oven-baked bureks. The churches are scented with incense. Ohrid is well-known for its churches, which were 365 originally –one for each day of the year- a feature which won it the epithet of ‘the Jerusalem of the Balkans‘.

Ohrid’s churches, as well as its architecture, span more than two millennia, but this is just one of the reasons why this enchanting city is recognized by UNESCO. Actually, it is one of the 28 UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are on both the Cultural and the Natural lists.

I didn’t stumble upon any celebrations inside Ohrid’s churches. Rather, I always found a profound silence only occasionally interrupted by footsteps tiptoeing on the marble floorings: a solemn atmosphere I bet you can only find during this time of the year, when the town becomes quiet and idyllic again.

Unlike with my usual ‘travel-style’, I visited a lot of churches when in Ohrid, starting off with an ambitious plan in the early morning, but then slowly adopting a more Balkan approach as the day passed by. This implied Turkish coffees, Skopsko beers, some meaty snacks and the ubiquitous Ohrid trout, which is the protagonist of the traditional cuisine of the area and the only thing that the Macedonian shore has in common with the Albanian side across the lake.

The area is also well-known for its centuries-old tradition of wine making. Macedonians love to drink, and Ohrid’s porches overlooking the lake are the perfect place to do it. During the summer, all these lakeside cafés are bustling, but now the paved promenade is empty and everything looks more authentic.

Even the accordion player at a fancy restaurant goes for Tose Proeski’s very Macedonian songs rather than the international repertoire of the summer. When the music stops, the only sound I can hear is the rhythmic percussion of waves on sand.

As I watch them coming and going, I can’t help thinking about the time when I was on the other side of the lake, on the Albanian shore. The two experiences could not be more different: the touristy, postcard-perfect Macedonian outline of the Ottoman houses and the rough, neglected jumble of concrete on the Albanian side.

Anyone who has visited both sides of Ohrid Lake knows that these two landscapes are not a just lake, but a whole world apart.

Freitag, 22. September 2017

The Week: Exploring forgotten Macedonia

On September 22, 2017
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Macedonia.

Macedonia is one of Europe's best-kept secrets, said Margo Pfeiff at the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-five years after it gained independence from Yugoslavia, the landlocked Balkan state remains a developing nation, its roads still plied by Soviet-era cars. But it's a safe, inexpensive place to visit, and "best of all," with tourism in its infancy, the country is still "charmingly unpretentious and warmly welcoming." Earlier this year, I spent a week in this Vermont-size nation, hiking, kayaking, and biking across its "wildly mountainous" landscape. The journey afforded me a chance along the way to peer inside Macedonia's "exotic melting pot" of Eastern and Western cultures.

The capital city, Skopje, proved to be "a fascinating jumble of cultural experiences." Because a long history of invasions and occupations has littered the 2,500-year-old city with Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Yugoslav architecture, "it was easy to stroll through the centuries." A new complex of government-backed neoclassical buildings is remaking a section of the city in faux grandeur, but on the outskirts of town, I found real history in a 2nd-century Roman ruin that stands in a field of red poppies. Later, after scaling Skopje Fortress' 6th-century walls, I browsed the Old Bazaar — instantly my favorite neighborhood. Lured on by the aromas of kebabs and sautéed leeks, I wandered happily past carpet shops and teahouses where locals had gathered to chat.

Later, joining a Macedonia Experience group tour, I hiked into nearby Matka Canyon. We stopped at an exquisite monastery filled with frescoes before venturing into Vrelo, one of the canyon's 10 caves. In Ohrid, a small lakeside city that's one of Europe's oldest settlements, I poked around the maze-like Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, I came upon a Roman amphitheater that now features summer concerts instead of gladiator fights. When the sun set, I walked to Ohrid Lake, where purple jacaranda trees line the turquoise shore. At a family restaurant built out over the lake, I savored a dinner of grilled trout as the water "splashed gently beneath the planks under my feet" and music drifted from another café. "No crowds, no pressure to leave — Europe just doesn't get any better than this."

Sonntag, 10. September 2017

Today Online: Wandering amidst ancient giants in Skopje

On September 10, 2017
The Macedonia capital celebrates the heritage of Alexander the Great, and the world is invited.

Holidaymakers seeking new adventures in Europe, take note: In Skopje, an up-and-coming Balkan destination, all roads lead to the mighty Alexander the Great.

The national capital of the Republic of Macedonia has an international airport and a major highway named after the legendary warrior-king.  

Then, there is the unnamed eight-storey colossus that bears more than a passing resemblance to the conqueror and his beloved steed. Cast in bronze, it dominates the city’s main square alongside other supersized statues that keep watch over Skopje.

These giants are part of Skopje 2014, an ambitious four-year construction project that has placed this former Yugoslav republic high on travellers’ wish lists. Completed in 2014, the neo-classical facelift has transformed the 2,500-year-old city into one the country deemed worthy of Alexander the Great.

A stroll along Skopje’s squares and streets takes you past new statues, bridges, grand monuments, civic buildings and museums that show off the city’s burgeoning cultural hub status. Also not to be missed: Ancient attractions that let you take in Skopje’s richly layered Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman past.

Thanks to Qatar Airways, visitors looking to explore the legacy of Macedonia’s spiritual father need not ride into the city on a war horse. Skopje is now part of the much-lauded airline’s network of more than 150 cities worldwide. Four weekly flights are available between Singapore Changi Airport and Alexander the Great International Airport via the carrier’s hub in Doha.

Qatar Airways was a big winner at the 2017 Skytrax World Airline Awards in June, picking up these accolades: Airline of the Year, Best Airline in the Middle East, World’s Best Business Class and World’s Best First Class Airline Lounge.

Here’s what to do after getting to Skopje in style.

Take in a slice of Macedonian history at the medieval Tvrdina Kale Fortress.

Pay tribute to a soaring architectural treasure that has been protecting the city since the sixth century — the unmissable Tvrdina Kale Fortress (free entry). The majestic Game of Thrones-style ramparts at Carsija, a short walk from the city centre, sit at the city’s highest point and dominate its skyline. A stroll on this medieval structure that has outlasted empires lets you take in fantastic views and a slice of Macedonian history.

The graceful 15th-century Stone Bridge is a symbol of Skopje. 
In this city of contrasts, a striking medieval symbol connects the lures of the Ottoman-era old bazaar to the city’s newly manufactured grandeur at Macedonia Square: The Stone Bridge that spans the River Vardar. Built on Roman foundations and constructed from solid stone blocks, this graceful, 15th-century icon is an Instagrammer’s dream — stunning by day and breathtaking at night when it is lit.

The enduring charm of Stone Bridge and crowds of people navigating the wide crossing make it easy to forget that the structure has a darker side: The leader of the anti-Ottoman Karposh uprising of 1689 was believed to have been executed here.

Whichever part of town you end up in after crossing Stone Bridge, you will see a side of Skopje that will make your trip unforgettable.

The Ottoman-era Daut Pasha hamam now functions as the National Gallery of Macedonia. 

On the eastern bank of the Vardar lies the old bazaar that was the heart of the city in Byzantine and Ottoman days. Said to be the largest of its kind in the Balkans, this colourful tangle of streets is worth exploring for picture-perfect attractions such as medieval mosques, cafes serving authentic local eats, and shops selling everything from traditional crafts to fresh produce.

Cultural treasures close by include the 15th-century Daut Pasha hamam (or bathhouse), a gem of Ottoman architecture that now functions as the National Gallery of Macedonia as well as the Sveti Spas Church. The main draws at this 14th-century Byzantine wonder are its exquisite 6m hand-carved iconostasis — a large panel of Christian icons separating the sanctuary from worshippers — and well-preserved frescos.  

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (482 to 565) was born in Dardania (Republic of Macedonia today), and is now immortalised near Stone Bridge.

On the opposite bank of the river, new landmarks for future generations dominate Plostad Makedonija (or Macedonia Square). Dwarfing visitors to the main square and its main streets are mammoth tributes to national heroes, including the gleaming Warrior on a Horse. Also promising to boost national pride while dazzling foreign visitors is Porta Macedonia — the city’s triumphal arch, illuminated fountains, and a host of cultural and government buildings.

Millennium Cross on Mount Vodno to the southwest of Skopje is a towering icon of faith. 

Here is another goliath begging to be explored during your getaway: The 1,066m Mount Vodno. Located to the southwest of the city, it is home to the most spectacular views in Skopje and the sky-piercing Millennium Cross. A three-hour hike — or quicker, less strenuous bus-and-cable-car ride — takes you to the 66m cross at the summit of the mountain. This towering icon of faith was completed in 2002 to celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity. 

Take advantage of Qatar Airway's promotional fares now. Prices start at S$1,109 for flights to Skopje and from S$869 to other European cities. Terms and conditions apply.

For details, visit Qatarairways

Created by Brand Studio Productions


Freitag, 1. September 2017

The Times - Bears, boars and ancient sites on a Balkan adventure

On September 01, 2017
Sara Wheeler explores the mountains and little-visited towns of Macedonia

The ranger stooped to pick a black, conical mushroom from the forest floor. “It’s an aphrodisiac,” he said, as he slipped it in his pocket. The scent of wild thyme hung in the air and a pair of wild ducks hovered overhead, wings whirring.We were bear-watching in Mavrovo, a mountainous national park in west Macedonia. The small expedition began at 5am, when mist lingered low, threaded beneath spiky peaks. Mountains faded into violet heights and a golden eagle circled.Following the Adzina, a stream close to the border with Albania, my ranger, Hamlet, picked up traces of bears. He estimated the park population of the European brown bear to be 150 and, having worked there for 15 years, could recognise many individually. Wild lilies sprouted among the beech trees, and in the meadows Shar mountain dogs roamed with flocks of up to 2,000 long-legged sheep. The dog is so strong that it can deal with a wolf; three can bring down a bear.

We had already seen two bear cubs close to the road (they like to lick the salt that is put down to clear ice). At about 10am, 200m off among a stand of oak trees, we saw an adult female that Hamlet estimated to weigh about 300kg (660lb). She was pawing the ground, grubbing up ants. A pair of two-year-old cubs truffled in a desultory way near by.

That night we slept in a hide above the apple orchards of Brajcino. An infrared night-vision camera, hooked up to a battery-powered screen, and a removable window meant that we could lie on bunks, swaddled in blankets, watching a procession of roe deer, wild boar, hares and a bear. The proprietress of our guesthouse had prepared a picnic dinner. As with every meal in Macedonia it included four types of red and green pepper. “How does a Macedonian who doesn’t like pepper cope?” I whispered to Hamlet (he insisted on silence in the hide). “There is no such person,” he whispered back.

The next day I did more bear-watching in the 170 sq km Pelister National Park, in the Baba mountains, spreading from the Pelagonia and Prespa valleys, dividing the Aegean and Adriatic basins. We observed paw prints, grass-clogged spoor and roots that bears had torn up. At one point I heard a low growl, seemingly close by. I raised my binoculars, my heart pounding. The ranger, Pavel, had an admission to make: “It’s my tummy rumbling.”

We didn’t see a bear that day, but we did follow the high-pitched bark of a male roe deer. As we crunched as quietly as we could up the slope, he appeared, antlers proud against the blue sky, watching us. The Pelister landscape differed sharply from that of Mavrovo. Two glacial lakes, known as Pelister’s Eyes, glittered at an altitude of 2,000m, and moraines, called stone rivers in Macedonia, streamed down, especially on the north flank of Mount Pelister above Red Rock (Crveni Steni), named — so it is said — after blood shed by 6,000 French and Bulgarian soldiers who perished there during the First World War.

The star of Pelister, however, is not the bear, but the molika pine (Pinus peuce Grisebach), indigenous to the central Balkans but almost nowhere else, and as tall in Pelister as 40m. The ancients recognised its unique characteristic compared with other pines — it is the only species with five needles. We know this from the mosaics at Heraclea Lyncestis, a site close to Pelister founded by Philip II, the king of Macedon and father of Alexander the Great, in the 4th century BC. The archaeological site is remarkably well excavated and preserved — think Pompeii without the crowds — and includes an amphitheatre (not discovered until 1968) where prisoners faced death by wild beast. The largest of the Roman and early Byzantine mosaics displaying the five-needled molika appears on the 5,000 denar note.

Tourism is in its infancy in Macedonia. It is about twice the size of Northern Ireland with a population of just over two million, a quarter of whom are ethnic Albanian. It sits on a crossroads in the Balkan peninsula, buffeted by the swirling chaos of that region: for 400 years under Ottoman rule; during the first Balkan war; in two world wars; and post-1991, when the collapse of Yugoslavia ushered in independence. Bulgaria and Greece still believe that Macedonia is part of their territory, and it is unsurprising that nationalism and national identity feature prominently in the consciousness of the country.

Bitola, Macedonia’s second city, 15km west of Pelister, was once an important post on the Via Egnatia Roman trade route, and later the diplomatic and cultural centre of the Ottoman empire in the Balkans. After the Turks the city prospered — in 1900 more than 1,000 private houses had a piano. Unlike the capital, Skopje, Bitola has remained largely immune to modern development. A curious government spending spree between 2009 and 2013 plonked wedding-cake buildings in Skopje on a scale of Soviet gigantism, even in the old quarter, obliterating greenery and annoying residents.

To complete the trip I travelled through driving rain to Ohrid, a resort on the shores of its eponymous lake, a third of which belongs to Albania. The streets are so narrow that the upper floors of the houses protrude over the ground floors. In the new town behind the lake, shops displayed frocks reminiscent of the Yugoslavian past and plastic shoes. On the lakeshore, former fishing boats touted cruises and souvenir stalls flogged the fabled Ohrid pearls. These don’t come from oysters — Ohridians fashion them, using a secret method handed down within two families, from the scales of the plasica fish.
It was May and teachers were marching hordes of children around the historical sites. At the amphitheatre (2nd century AD) two boys sat picking nits out of one another’s hair. In the nearby Saint Sophia church 11th-century frescoes depicted haloed figures and angelic hosts, as clear and as moving as they must have been to the first churchgoers.

The Ottomans, who turned the church into a mosque, did Macedonia a favour by plastering the ceiling and walls with mortar, preserving the frescoes. However, the Turks had desecrated the saints’ faces with sharp stones. Is there a more powerful visual image of the clash between Islam and Christianity than a row of saints staring blindly from gouged-out eyes?

SOURCE: The Times

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