Sunday, 28 August 2011

Journey south-eastwards

Ohrid old town street & Zastava Fiça
So it's time to collect my thoughts after a few days in Ohrid, a beautiful small lakeside resort in the South East of Macedonia. Lake Ohrid is a gigantic expanse of water, surrounded by mountains; 2/3 of it belongs to Macedonia, and 1/3 to Albania, whose mountainous shores stand out clearly on the distant horizon.

It's about 700 miles from Rijeka, where I was last Sunday, and I took it in leisurely style, via overnight stops in steaming hot Zagreb (and some very nice fried Calamari in an old haunt there) and in a beautiful woodland hotel outside Kragujevac, which was filled, of all things, with an Irish television company making a series about the building of the Titanic. Er, Serbia was clearly an obvious choice to make that, then. Apparently it's boom time in the movies in the former Communist countries; the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia are all vying hard to attract film makers via a series of cashback and tax free incentives. there was also a large party of elderly Italian men making the pilgrimage to Kragujevac from Italy, in their little Zastava Fiça cars- they made a very noisy and slow moving, if entertaining, convoy.

Whilst the EU may have been celebrating the fall of borders since the end of Marxism-Leninism, in this part of the world they've been going up in the last twenty years. Had I done this journey in 1989, I could have driven from the Austrian border to here, without once being asked to show a passport. I've had to produce it four times in the last week, with the Serb and Macedonian borders being particularly niggly affairs, owing to the need to buy car insurance. No UK insurer will cover this part of the world (presumably there isn't enough money in it, and the accident rate is high) so I had to part with cash in order to receive a dubious piece of slippy telex paper in Cyrillic writing, in both countries.

A stone-faced insurance agent girned, huffed and puffed over my card for half an hour on entry into Serbia; in Macedonia, I had to leave the car at the border, and take a taxi into the dusty border town of Kumanovo, in order to withdraw cash and go back to the border to get my bit of paper. The facility to pay by card does not exist at the Macedonian border, nor can you get Macedonian denar anywhere but Macedonia, so it was either take the cab or go back into Serbia. The ride was very Butlins; an amiable, animated and genuinely psychotic unlicensed taxi driver got to Kumanovo in 15 minutes, largely by driving his ailing Fiat Uno at 120km/h on the wrong side of the road. There was a rather uncomfortable "chicken" moment, as we overtook a slow moving convoy and found ourselves head on with a big Polish articulated lorry; we abhorted that with about 15 seconds to spare, amidst a feline screech of balding tyres and an elephantine trumpet on the horn of the juggernaut.

A quick photo stop, 20 miles north of Ohrid
 These alarms aside, the roads outside of the towns are much quieter than I'd expected. There was quite a bit of roadkill in Serbia; a dead sheep stinking and rotting in the mid-day sun; various cats and Alsatians, guts everywhere, having met their end at night-time. It was intensely hot, and dusty; two Serb women, in headscarves, had to turn their back at the side of the road as they were enevloped in a huge cloud of dust by a passing lorry. On two occasions I saw horse-and-carts being driven over motorway bridges (presumably a good way of cutting out the seemingly endless motorway tolls in this part of the world). The Serb landscape, dotted with red-roofed white farmhouses and small towns, was baking; yellow, green, and parched.

Through Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia
From Skopje, the Macedonian capital, the road skirts the base of the Sar Planina mountains, and down through Mavrovo National Park. The road down to Ohrid is easily the most beautiful and captivating scenery I've seen yet. After Skopje, the landscape is lush, green, sweltering; the road to Ohrid is like a B-road in Highland Perthshire; narrow, steep inclines, very tight corners, then dizzying descents; deep valleys, steep inclines, long cool shadows cast by thick deciduous woods, also the feeling of being very remote and cut off, save for the occasional hamlet. In bleaker moments in my last job, I'd toyed with the idea of sneaking off down here, with nothing more than a Lada Niva 4 x 4, a big Sarplaninac dog, and a rifle for company. I'm sure my art books would have made a good winter soup, or could at least be sold for glue.

If you ever see me rolling in one of these, with a dog the size of a small bear in the passenger seat, you'll know I've tired of life

Ohrid itself is a very lively town. The streets are packed with folk eighteen hours a day; the many small supermarkets, pubs and souvenir shops never seem to close; the main Boulevar Turisticka is car-choked mayhem at peak times, with elderly Yugos honking irritably at pedestrians and scooters, and accelerating off with a trademark asthmatic rasp from the exhaust. The main pedestrianised shopping street, Bul Makedonski Prosvetiteli, is also the artery to the lake, where everyone goes at night, and to the winding Car Samuel, which leads to all the pubs and nightclubs. My hostel is just off Turisticka and everything is a ten minute walk away.

However, I'm going to go and see some more first, before writing down my impressions of four days here, later tonight.

Mavrovo shines emerald-like in the late afternoon sun

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