Shine On Liberty Sun

The Road to Mavrovo
16th Septemer 2018

The church bells rang out, the most gentle alarm, gradually waking us up from a deep sleep. My waking thought was "I hope I'm feeling better" quickly followed by "I'm hungry". When I eventually got up I was relived to feel much better this morning.

After breakfast on the balcony of aijvar on toast we packed an overnight bag for a big day out.  Our plans for today was to drive up North to the Mavrovo National Park where we had booked ourselves a hotel for the evening, stopping along the way to visit a monastery and a sunken church.

It was the first time we had moved the car since arriving. I had even forgotten it was an automatic transmission. I only realised when my left foot lunged forward in search of a clutch that wasn't there. 

With a town called Gostivar entered into the SatNav we followed the directions through the Upper Gates. About halfway down the hill the well spoken English accent told us to turn left into the narrow alleyways. "You can piss off" was my uneloquent reply.

It was where we almost got stuck on the day we arrived so we choose to ignore him and stayed on the wider main road. By the time we reached a roundabout at the bottome of the hill it had recalculated a route out of Ohrid along lovely wide avenues and boulevards.

A few miles later, as we approached the airport I ignored the SatNav directions yet again. This time it was wanting to send us up the main A2 highway, which to be fair was the best route to Gostivar, but I wanted to go via the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski along a completely different road. (R1201)

We turned for Struga, ignoring its increasingly desperate pleas to "turn around where possible" until we pulled over into a supermarket car park where we had a closer look at a map.  It made more sense to find a town en route to the monastery, so I entered Debar.

"Are you sure ?" asked a worried Julie. "It's not going to send us up a  mountain track is it?" Memories of a similar journey last year to another remote monastery in Monenegro came flooding back where we drove down some very unstuitable roads.

The R1201 was a thick yellow line on the map, so I was fairly confident it was a main road. I also knew if we stayed on the main road, we would eventually find sign for the monastery.

So, finally, we set off on the road to Mavrovo. 

We drove North out of Struga, a totally unremarkable place, but after a few minutes we were deep in lush hills. Until now the Black Drin river had flowed almost unoticed from Lake Ohrid, but when we reached this valley flooded by its dark green water, the scenery was so beautiful I had to stop the car to take a closer look.

On the opposite bank was a quaint little village of Globochica, with a pretty little church (St. Ilija) set right on the river. It was surprisingly tranquil. The road wasn't at all busy.

Back in the car we followed the river out of the valley as it narrowed and meandered it's way between the hills. A few miles from the Albanian border it flooded another valley, creating Lake Debar. It was here we crossed the river as it carried on its way, joining the White Drin in Albania and eventually out into the Adriatic.

From the town of Debar the road continued to follow a river, this time the Radika, flowing down to Lake Debar as we were heading up into the Bistra mountains of the Mavrovo National Park.

We drove for about half an hour, eyes peeled for a sign.  We didn't really know where it was.

It was Julie who spotted it first, although for ten minutes before she was saying "Is that it?" at every opportunity, so she was bound to get it right sooner or later.

The sign for tje Monastery of Jovan Bigorski came just after a large restaurant with several coaches parked outside.  We turned off and immediately started snaking up hair pin bends. It wasn't too daunting as the road was wide enough, just about, for two cars.  However, when the road straightened out and the incline was more gradual cars had started to park along the side making it only passable for one car at a time.

We waited for a few cars to come down, then I pulled out, praying that we didn't meet anyone. It was a long way to the top, and I was trying not to speed whilst at the same time getting to the end as quickly as possible. What made it more challenging were the perdestrians who seemed oblivious to the fact they were walking in the middle of the road.  I'm sure a few were here to find a cure for deafness as they didn't hear me coming.

It was with some relief we reached the car park by the entrance gate just as a vehicle was leaving.  But our stresses had only begun. It should have meant a space had been vacated but we couldn't see one. There were cars parked all over the place, a chaotic free-for-all. It wasn't your regular tarmac with white lines type of a car park, just an open ground. 

We drove towards the end, without any luck, then followed the ever decreasing gap between the cars. "There's a space over there" said eagle-eyed Julie. Getting over excited I rushed my turn until I couldn't turn anymore. "Bugger... we're stuck".  I literally got the car wedged in between several cars.

I tried reversing out but my rear bumber touched a car parked behind us. For what felt like an age I rolled the car forwards then backwards, in a thousand point turn, getting hot and red faced with each movement. The automatic gearbox wasn't making it any easier. Julie got out, to keep an eye on my blind side, and I had my head hanging out the window watching the near side. The multiple manouvres was slowly paying off as I edged forward with the car less than a centimetre away from another.

In the end we broke clear. Three seconds later I was parked up, sat in the seat, waiting for my heart rate to calm down.

We walked through the gates, and the short distance up to the monastery. It was a large complex built in the same style as all the old traditional houses in Ohrid. The entrance was through a portico, a small dome supported by two columns.

The inside of the dome was a brightly painted fresco with an image of Jesus with angel's wings or was it John the Baptist? Anyway, it was some bearded bloke with wings. We stood there for the briefest of moments, not wanting to block the entrance.

We were both appropriately dressed for a monastery, by that I mean we were reasonably covered, not that I was wearing a monk's schmock or Julie a nun's habit. At the entrance they had pieces of long black cloth to wrap around if you had forgotten your manners.  

Inside we entered a beautiful paved courtyard. At its heart was the church dedicated to St. John the Baptist built of stone. Its name "Bigorski" referes to the tuff stone used in its construction and not as I thought as old Macedonian for Baptist.

The monastery was originally built in 1020 by a monk called Jovan. The story goes that whilst he was working nearby he was drawn by a light from the skies deep into the dense forest. There he found an icon, an image of John the Baptist. A few years later, after rising to the position of Archibishop of Ohrid he returned to the spot where he found the icon and built a grand monastery.

It was ramsacked by the Ottomans in the 16th century, and often rebuilt over the centuries. The latest being 2009 when it suffered a catstrophic fire that destroyed much of the complex. It has now been painstakingly restored to its original glory.

We reached the monks' accomodation with its fabulous woodwork, with great thick roof joints and tree trunk thick posts supporting a balcony.  In addition to the twenty monks who live at the monastery they also had rooms for rent.

I always thought how fascintating it would be to stay overnight at a monastery, but it would be utterly impractical for us as they would all be single rooms! I'm not even sure if female visitors were allowed to stay.

There was a "No Smoking" sign at the bottom of the staircase. It went on to say "Smoking is a sin against God and the fellow human".  I wondered if that had something to do with the fire in 2009? That said there were naked flames aplenty from the prayer candles in the loggia outside the church. (I later read the source of the fire was an electrical fault.)

The colonaded porch was beautifully decorated with frescoes covering the entire back wall. We stood there a while admiring the openair artwork (or the al fresco frescoes as I liked to call them!) before entering the church.

We first entered a modestly decorated reception room where a partition wall seperated us from the magnificent treasure chest of the inner sanctuary. We stepped inside and stood beneath a glorious canopy of golden chandeliers glistening above our heads. In here were many important religious relics, including the original icon of St. John the Baptist, now clad in silver, apparently a fragment of the Holy Cross and even a piece of St. John's forearm.

Our attention was drawn to an impressive iconostasis, a wall of icons, an intricately carved wooden frame holding two rows of nine images of saints, angels and other religious scenes.

We left the church and explored the rest of the monastery. The first thing we came across was a huge bell. It was easily accessible up some stone steps so I couldn't resist going to have a closer look.

As bells go, it was a stunner. It was beautifully cast with an intricate engraved belt across its midrift,  above it was a statement in cyrillic, and then topped by another elaborate pattern. I had a quick check of the time. I didn't want to be standing this close when the bell was rang!

We moved on, walking around the back of the church, returning to the courtyard near the entrance. There was a small gift shop beneath the loggia. We went in search of some postcards, especially ones showing images of the inner sanctuary but we walked out with a bottle of cherry liquer, we assumed made here by the monks.

Another strange souvenir was a snow globe of the monastery!  We chose not to buy one.

It was time to leave, so we made our way back to the car. When we got to the car park we saw someone open the boot of their car and lift out a sheep. The animal did not struggle as they dropped it into a wheelbarrow. It had its legs tied together, front to back and seemed resigned to its fate, whatever that may be. We couldn't work out if they had brought it here to be saved or sacrificed?  Did the monks offer a vetinerary service or was it to be supper tonight.

Back in the car we reset the SatNav, took a deep breath and drove down the hill. Three times we met a car coming up. Fortunately on each occassion there was a gap in the parked cars where we or they could tuck in.

Back on the main road to Mavrovo we followed the directions through some stunning scenery.  The road twisted and turned constantly climbing uphill. The automatic gearbox was struggling with the everchanging incline dropping down to a low gear when we least expected it. On the odd occasion there was a section downhill it would decide to slip down into effectively second gear, the revs would go thrpugh the roof. It sounded like my grandmother was driving!

After half an hour we reached the junction we needed for Mavrovo only to drive straight past it. There wasn't any road signs, or none that I saw at least. "Oh, FFS" I ranted. We were now driving towards Gostivar without any chance of turning around.

Then, as if it was put there especially for people who miss the turning we came across a layby, the first we'd seen on the road since leaving the monastery. There was just enough room to do a three point turn and head back to the junction.

We turned for Mavrovo, crossing over what turned out to be a dam. It was only a short distance across, but it was a great height. There was a hydroelectric power station here somewhere. 

Driving along the shores of Lake Mavrovo, created by the flooding of the valley during the 1950s, we couldn't help noticing the houses here were markedly different, more Alpine in style. You could definitely be forgiven for thinking you were in Switzerland. They do get heavy snow here in winter and Mavrovo even has a popular ski resort.

As we came to the village we pulled over to see one of the more unique views in Macedonia, the flooded church of Saint Nicholas, a casualty of creating Lake Mavrovo. The abandoned church still stands, but only just. Its roof has caved in, and trees grow from within. The bell tower is still in one piece but surely it will only be a matter of time before it becomes tumbling down.

There was something quite romantic about its crumbling beauty.

Back in the car we continued to the very end of the lake in search of a restaurant called Glamour which Julie had found online. We turned down a road that ran alongside the river flowing into the lake and parked on the grass verge.

People were sat outside eating in the garden so we followed their lead. It was a lovely sunny day and would have been a crime to have sat inside. The owner/chef/waitress came over. We knew her name was Suzana after reading the rave reviews on Tripadvisor. She was quite a character.

"Here is the menu" she said in a wonderful Slavic drawl "but we do not have everything."

"I will be back to let you know what we have" she added on her way back to the kitchen. I had my eye on her pie. The spinach and feta borek had a lot of recommendations online.

Service was slow but she seemed to be on her own. Although she did have some help when someone ordered the local fish. It couldn't have been any more local as whoever it was scooped out a trout in his net from a small caged pond, and then clobbered it to death on the lawn.

Eventually she returned with food for another table before coming over to take our order. I was out of luck as the pie had sold out. "only in the morning" she said.

So instead I went for the local mushrooms, known as Vrgan (a boletus or similar to porcini). They tasted amazing, absolutely amazing. I also had a bowl a very fresh and tasty Macedonian salad of griddled green peppers, large chunks of ripe tomatoes, onion and large sprigs of parsely.

Julie enjoyed her pork cutlet, and although the french fries were a bit basic, there was plenty of them.

We paid the bill, but before we left we went inside to "use the facilities". It was just an excuse really to have a look at their decor! We had seen (with some disbelief) photos online of these hideous animal skins up on the wall. One was a cowhide but the other looked like some giant rodent roadkill. Most peculiar!

It had now gone 3pm and we could check into our hotel so we returned to the road and continued on our way, seeing the submerged church from the other side of the lake. 

The road soon pulled away from the lake as we drove into a forest along a narrow single track road. It felt like it went on forever, getting narrower and narrower around each corner. 

"Have we missed it?" asked Julie "Are you even sure this is the right road?" I honestly didn't have a clue but it was the only road. Of course we eventually came to a clearing where on the left was this massive hotel. It wasn't a high rise building, it only had a few floors but looked almost industrial in size.

Welcome to the Radika Mountain Resort.

We pulled up into a near empty car park. Spoilt for choice we came indecisive about where to park! Eventually we came to a cluster of cars, very expensive looking cars, right in front of the front entrance. We joined the pack with our little Opel. 

The foyer was very grand and looked every bit a five star hotel. 

We checked-in and were given the key to room 113. It was a very spacious suite, with a whopping big bed, a 50 inch television, and a fabulous view from the balcony.

A second area, almost as large as the bedroom was entirely filled by a hot tub! We have stayed in rooms with a bath in the bedroom before, it's quite a nice idea but never one with a massive pine clad hot tub.

It looked so odd just placed in the middle of a hotel room. 

We spent some time out on the balcony, enjoying the tranquility before deciding to explore the empty resort.  

There were other guests but they were all gathered together near the bar. The rest of the resort was eerily empty. We walked towards the outdoor swimming pool with its vacant sun loungers. A little further along there was a ski lift down to the lake. It wasn't running, I guess because it was only a winter facility.

At the far end we reached the hotel spa, also devoid of guests. We decided to quickly return to our room to get our swimming costumes and spend some time around the pool. Julie dipped her toe into the water and yelped "No, that's not happening!" It was far too cold!

I sat in the sauna for half an hour whilst she shivered on a lounger. A young couple came into the the sauna, he worked for the UN. I remarked how empty the hotel was and he explained that it was very popular at the weekends with visitors from Skopje, Macedonia's capital. Fridays and Saturdays are reasonably busy but with today being a Sunday everyone would have left for home this afternoon.

We didn't stay long in the spa. We did think about having a treatment but decided against it in the end.

We relocated to the loungers outside, which being in the sun, were actually warmer than inside.  The air was stll fresh and clear. You could almost feel it doing good as you breathed it in. We sat here for the remainder of the day, watching the sun set behind the Mavrovian hills.

Once the sun dropped from sight it quickly became much colder so we headed back to our room where curiosity got the better us and we filled the hot tub.  It took forever. Eventually we turned on the jets and it whirred to life. I have to admit I'm not the biggest fan of hot tubs. I just don't see the fun of sitting in a luke warm festering bath of bubbling bacteria.

It's like in the old days where a family could only heat enough water for one bath so the father would wash first, then the mother, then the oldest child, then the next in line. In the end, for the youngest I'm sure they came out dirtier than they went in!

At least here I knew the water was fresh. But even then, it wasn't at all relaxing. You couldn't hear yourself think the jets were so loud. After only a few minutes we shut them off and just had a wash. It was a big improvement, I do find a hot bath quite relaxing.

Squeaky clean we got dressed for supper.

The restaurant and bar was a vast space and if we thought the hotel felt empty this afternoon then it was nothing compared to the Mary Celeste we walked into this evening. For quite a while we were literally the only people down there.  Absolutely no one else was there, not even staff.

Eventually a barman arrived and we ordered a drink, then sat on some comfy sofas. "The sooner we eat and get back to our room the better" said Julie who wasn't enjoying having the place to herself.

Walking through to the restaruant we were greeted enthusiastically by a waiter with a really strange faux-french accent. "Please follow me" I think he said, as he tilted his head to one side, clasped his hands together, clicked his heels and hurried off in rapid short steps, weaving past empty tables.

It was so surreal and comical at the same time. He must have learned how to be waiter by watching Monty Python and had English lessons from Frank off Father of the Bride.

He reached a table at the far corner, near to the kitchen door, and stood bolt upright, before swooning into a bow with a dramatic wave of the arm indicating our table. He even said "Voila". 

We browsed the menu and ordered food. For a starter to share we ordered some dips, which he repied with a "But of course". He really was a full blown charicature of a French waiter.

 Julie chose the saltimbocca and I went for the mushroom risotto. "That is my favourite" he said "the mushroom ... it is better than meat"

He then continued by saying "I like your accent. I like it a lot." I'm sure he meant it quite sincerely but it just made my skin crawl.

He was right about one thing, the risotto, made with local Boletus mushrooms was sensational. Julie said I had smelt like a mushroom all afternoon. (I must have wiped my lunch all over my face!) Now I was surely going to be smelling like a funghi for the rest of the week! 

Julie's saltimbocca looked a picture on the plate with slices of dark veal on top pieces of chicken, on some braised potatoes. "It tastes as good as it looks" she enthused. 

Dessert followed, a selection of baklava for me and a cheesecake for Julie. I wolfed down the honey dripping sweets but the cheesecake was a bit odd, in that it was very solid. Julie struggled with it and in the end gave up.

All of a sudden we got very tired and just when we wanted to leave our waiter disappeared from sight. After some ten minutes of waiting our waiter eventually scurried over with our bill for 2550 MKD. It felt a lot but it did include an expensive bottle of wine and two beers we had this afternoon by the pool which we thought we got away with!

Back in our room, were out like a light, in a flash. It was only 9pm.

  Next Day >>>  

ęCopyright 2018 Colin Owen