Saturday, July 27, 2013

MACEDONIA, Taxi Excursion Out of Skopje

Some young Germans staying at the same hotel as we were in Skopje suggested that we abandon the Vegas-like city center for a drive up the canyon to Lake Matka.  Bob also wanted to visit the St. Panteleimon Church, which overlooks the city from the top of Mount Vodno, so we figured we could combine the two excursions. However, our time was limited, and without a working GPS we were worried about getting everywhere we needed to go in a timely fashion. To be as efficient as possible, we decided to hire a cab for the morning. We covered quite a bit of ground over about a four-hour period and paid the driver $40. All things considered, it was a good investment.

We started by driving up the twisting, gut-sloshing road to St. Panteleimon Church, only to find that the church was closed until afternoon. One drive up that road could have been enough for me, but Bob decided we would return after making our trip to Lake Matka. (Ironically, St. Panteleimon is the Protector of Health.)

Supposedly, Lake Matka, a 30-minute drive from Skopje, is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in Macedonia, but it was a ghost town (ghost natural wonder?) when we arrived on Tuesday, May 28th.

The dam on the Treska River at the front of the Matka Canyon . . .
 . . . forms a beautiful turquoise-colored lake bordered on both sides by towering cliffs. Note the low water line.

"Matka" is the Macedonian word for "womb." The still, enclosed water, humid air, and fecund hillsides do create a womb-like atmosphere.

A stone sidewalk carved into the side of the cliffs winds from the parking lot to a flat area just big enough for a church and some concessions.

St. Andrew's Monastery was built in 1389--over 100 years before Columbus made his journey to the Americas. There are intact medieval frescoes inside that you can see on Bob's blog.

We paid a small fee to have a boat take us across the lake to a trail on the other side.
To find St. Nicholas Church, another monastery high above the lake, we followed the directions on this sign (not):
It was a rather steep, tiring, sweaty climb, but the trail was generally clear and there were periods of shade:
After 20 or 30 minutes of what felt like going straight up, we arrived at a ledge with a church that looked very much like the one we had just visited on the other side of the lake. Unfortunately, the church was locked, and although there were a couple of caretakers there, no one was willing to unlock it for us.

The beautiful Macedonian flag was flying nearby.
 and was even painted on the side of the barn next to the monastery.
Another building on the ledge bore the very important initials "WC," but it didn't exactly look inviting to me.
After failing to gain entrance to the monastery, we retreated back down the trail. At the bottom, Bob gave the high tech signalling device a hearty bang . . .
 . . . and our private yacht returned to pick us up.
From the center of the lake on our return trip, we could see that the water snakes back through the canyon. Apparently there is at least one more monastery and a spectacular cave somewhere back there. It's too bad we didn't have a little more time, especially  because we missed our opportunity to interact with what appears to be a large colony of bats in the cave.  *Oh, darn.*

When we commented to the man who seemed to be in charge of the first side of the lake that St. Nicholas Monastery had been locked and the caretaker would not let us in (It would have been nice to know that before going over there), he told us that it was because they (those men on the other side) were Macedonians, and that's just how Macedonians are. He then launched into a fairly long spiel in very, very hard-to-understand broken English, the gist of which I think was that 1) he loves America, and 2) he is Albanian and Albanians live in many countries--including America--but they are always Albanians. They don't become Serbs, Macedonians, Americans, or anything else. They are just Albanians.

It was an interesting prelude to our trip to Kosovo the following day, as many of the problems between Serbia and Kosovo seem to have occurred because of exactly what this man was telling us--Albanians don't assimilate.

We found our taxi driver (Now I wondered, was he Albanian? Macedonian? Not sure.) waiting patiently for us, and he was willing to make another assault on that undulating road to St. Panteleimon Church. In fact, I think he was more willing than I was.

We did hit a bit of a traffic jam on our way out of the canyon:

However, the road eventually cleared and we were on our way.
The Church of St. Panteleimon looked almost identical to the two monasteries we had just visited at Lake Matka, but it is a little larger, better preserved, and 200 years OLDER than St. Andrew's. It fact, it is the only existing monument from the 12th century in all of Macedonia.

The church is part of a monastery complex surrounded by stone walls.

The other-worldliness of this ancient place was complemented by the appearance of this enormous mythical beast that appeared to be one-third dog, one-third grizzly bear, and one-third human. (Note those ears that look like hair framing his expression-filled face.)

As we enjoyed the panoramic view from the top of Mount Vodno, the murky air blanketing the valley seemed to blur the eight centuries that separate Panteleimon from the buildings below. Even on a hazy day, the view from the top is impressive, and includes another Byzantine-style monastery that looks to be of more recent vintage:

St. Panteleimon Monastery shares the mountain with the Millennium Cross, a 217-foot-tall structure erected in 2002 to commemorate 2,000 years of Christianity in Macedonia. Apparently there is a trail that leads from Macedonia Square all the way to the cross.  We saved that for another trip.
Hmmm. What are the chances we will get back to Skopje?


  1. I do love your yacht. What beautiful, green, lush countryside.

    It's interesting to think about the age of St. Andrew's Monastery in relationship to Columbus. Wow!

  2. I loved Lake Matka and St. Panteilemon. Take them over Alex and Phil on their pedestals anyday.

  3. I can't believe Bob didn't say--sure, we can hike up to that cross! I love it when you find unusual and out-of-the-way things to see while traveling. Beautiful countryside, lots of history and interesting places to see.