Discovering Macedonia

Spring meadow near the Šar Mountains

Spring meadow near the Šar Mountains

Like its oft-disputed name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia defies simple definition but its rich diversity extends from the dinner table to the welcoming locals, writes Richard Cooke.

"Macedonia isn't a horse," says Pavle, "but it is not a donkey, either." This cryptic saying is uttered at the end of a long lunch in a mountain village - rabbit stew, from a rabbit hunted by our host, home-made sheep's cheese, rakija - and I keep thinking about it over the next few days, expecting it to crystallise into some hard truth picked up from the scenery and people and food in this country. But after a week in Macedonia, absorbing all these things, I still have absolutely no idea what it meant.

Things are confusing here, in the best possible way, especially the nomenclature. My host, Jane, turns out to be a large man with a shaved head. The more beautiful the scenery − and there's a lot of beautiful scenery in Macedonia − the more sinister its titling. "What's that called?" someone would ask about a stretch of serene lakeside shoreline. "The Bay of Bones." They keep coming, names like heavy-metal album titles: "The Evil Valley", "The Accursed Mountains". They might have once been called that because of bandits, but now the chief hazard is mountain goats that kick stones down the slopes.

Warrior statue of Philip II of Macedon in Karpoš's Rebellion Square, Skopje.

Of course the name "Macedonia" is itself subject to confusion and divide. The Wikipedia article on the "Macedonia naming dispute" runs to 20,000 words, and comes with a warning that it may be "too long to read and navigate comfortably". The short-short version is that part of Greece is called Macedonia, and the ancient kingdom of Macedon was mainly in modern-day Greece. The Greeks are mad that this one-time piece of Yugoslavia and the Ottoman Empire is claiming the naming rights to this history. Nations wanting to stay out of the mess call it "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", which feels like it needs a Prince-style symbol to go with it.

Everything monumental in FYROM, like the airport or the freeway on the way to the capital Skopje, is named after Alexander the Great. The exception is the huge golden statue of Alexander the Great in the capital's central square, which is called The Warrior on the Horse to placate the Greeks. (But there are huge statues of Alexander's mother and father next to it, to make sure they're still annoyed.) There are statues of everyone else, too - kings, shoppers, political agitators, even the Vardar river running through the city has a sculpture of a red-capped swimmer breaking its flow. Macedonia was the only state in the former Yugoslavia to break away without a war, slipping off with an independence referendum in 1991; it has opted for an army of figurines instead.

The Church of Saint John the Theologian at Kaneo, overlooking Lake Ohrid.

The old Skopje wasn't a pretty capital - a 1963 earthquake left behind nothing but Soviet apartment blocks and concrete cancer − but many locals find all this Neoclassical kitsch ridiculous, the equivalent of a giant kangaroo wearing a corked hat being erected in the middle of Martin Place. It's like a permanent version of one of those phoney culture shows put on for tourists, except here it's on show for the citizens. It's so spectacularly strange, though, it becomes almost beautiful, like a revue of monuments borrowed from other European capitals. (It's even lashed by a coloured lightshow at night.) In a thousand years, the remnants of all this kitsch will probably look as noble as Trajan's Column.

This creative anachronism is fun but seems redundant: Macedonia already has a real cultural show. It has noble Roman ruins, along with Ottoman mosques and Byzantine monasteries - hundreds of them. It feels a bit like Morocco, one of those places always on the border of a different empire, brokering between them with a cynical sense of humour, and borrowing the best stuff for the dinner table. Italians and others still call fruit salad "Macedonia", not because the area was the food bowl of the Roman Empire, but as a byword for a pleasing diversity.

A fresco at Treskavec moastery, near Prilep.

So in the little western city of Tetovo is the Šarena Džamija, "the painted mosque", where the delicately detailed interior was glazed with 30,000 eggs. It's one of the few mosques in the world painted with flowers, and there are also intricate pictures of landscapes and Mecca. It's stunning, and almost devoid of tourists; the men praying here don't treat visitors as interlopers but as welcomed guests. The ancient ruins are also unencumbered by crowds, the most famous of them the city of Heraclea, which was first Greek, then Roman, then overrun by Slavic tribes, who reputedly used the boxes of the Hadrianic theatre to house their pigs.

This is why prevailing attitudes about how inwards and backwards the Balkans are don't check out. While still insulated from the rest of Europe in some ways, this is a surprisingly cosmopolitan place even in its most insular incarnations. Even when it was behind the Iron Curtain, citizens could still leave Macedonia and return. Folk songs sung over dinner are full of lamentations about people off to work in foreign lands (that, and adultery, and sometimes adultery in foreign lands).

Pavle serving rakija, Galičnik.

Everyone here seems to have an aunt in Melbourne. On the dawn shores of Lake Ohrid I meet an old man wearing a worn souvenir "Australia" cap; it turns out he worked on the Snowy Mountains scheme as a young man. Farmers in remote areas have done tours of duty in Mercedes factories in Germany, or in Iraq building dams. The indigenous hospitality comes with a wry interest in other places, and sometimes memories of them as well.

This might be a by-product of the huge emphasis placed on sociability. It's said that a Macedonian running out of money will stop eating before she stops going out. In Bitola, a 2000-year-old former Ottoman capital near the Greek border, the cafés are so crowded they have to operate in semi-official shifts. The morning between 6am and 8am is for market merchants, 8am to 10am for students on the way to school, 10am to midday for the young people, perhaps a siesta at 2pm if it's hot. And then the whole routine starts again, so everyone can have their afternoon coffee. On Saturdays people dress in their best and walk through the town greeting each other. It's the outsider who feels unsophisticated next to people who still promenade on a boulevard.

Turli tava stew, capsicum relish, stuffed vine leaves and rakija, the local brandy.

The naming dispute and the obsession with Alexander give Macedonia's reputation a faintly Mediterranean feel, even though it's landlocked. It's really only true of the food. A meal that isn't a feast doesn't seem to exist. It starts with rakija, the excellent local grappa equivalent (it has all the nonsense placebo powers of good moonshine: breakfast tonic, cure for hangovers, colds and heartache). Then salads and mezze, some bread and cheese from surrounding villages, sour yoghurt, pickles, then meat, smoked sausages, something foraged, perhaps some snails or nettle salad, some game delivered by a hunter, local wine, a bit more rakija, a pot of stew, a skillet of baked beans - ah, now the mains have arrived.

But the rest of the place is Balkan. Really properly Balkan, with roads still full of minuscule Fiats and Yugos, and farm labourers riding around standing on the trays of tractors (a "fashion" imported from Albania), and Russian-made jeeps that are very reliable but so loud you can't talk to your passengers. Balkan enough that in mountain villages there are all-male, alcohol-free Albanian nightclubs where they drink Red Bull and listen to turbo-folk all night - "At least you can look at the lake," says Jane.

Zara store in the Old Bazaar, Bitola.

All this means Macedonia has resisted homogeneity, that there is something irreducible here. The town square doesn't have a schnitzel restaurant and United Colors of Benetton; it has an old Turkish market and Zara, except it's spelled "ЗАРА" and strictly unauthorised (McDonald's opened in Skopje and mysteriously disappeared not long after). The man serving you dinner one night might play the guitar, but also catches eels with his bare hands and shot a boar that weighed a quarter of a tonne. The sole monk in the monastery used to work in finance before finding out where he really belonged. In a place with this quality of ironic mystery and history and richness, or whatever you want to call it.


GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways flies to Skopje with two stops (Abu Dhabi and Belgrade) from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, with codeshare partner Air Serbia. etihad.com

GETTING AROUND

Intrepid Travel's 10-day "Real Food Adventure - Macedonia to Montenegro" begins in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and takes in Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. It includes market tours, wine tasting, cooking classes, home-cooked meals and producer visits. It costs from $2,895 per person twin share, including all accommodation, transport, activities and select meals. Departures from June 2017. intrepidtravel.com

GETTING THERE

Etihad Airways flies to Skopje with two stops (Abu Dhabi and Belgrade) from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, with codeshare partner Air Serbia. etihad.com

GETTING AROUND

Intrepid Travel's 10-day "Real Food Adventure - Macedonia to Montenegro" begins in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, and takes in Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. It includes market tours, wine tasting, cooking classes, home-cooked meals and producer visits. It costs from $2,895 per person twin share, including all accommodation, transport, activities and select meals. Departures from June 2017. intrepidtravel.com

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