After my best friend’s big, fat, Balkan wedding and a few days wandering around Skopje, the time arrived to explore the rest of the country. So I rented a car, swore for a good 20 minutes imagining a whole week on the (Balkan) roads without an automatic drive and finally took to the ‘Mother Teresa’ highway. Next stop: Mavrovo National Park.
You should know by now that I pick my destinations in very unusual ways, from going to a place because I fancy its name to browsing the Google maps app randomly. This time, I wanted to go to Mavrovo Lake to find the abandoned Church of St. Nikolas, which is half submerged during the winter season giving the impression of floating atop the waves.
Apparently, all the rain of the previous days wasn’t enough so, once in Mavrovo Park, what I found was just an abandoned church stuck in the mud. Pretty striking, anyway.
Moreover, as the church wasn’t already submerged, I had the chance to enter it and have a look at its decaying interior.
Mavrovo Park > Sv. Jovan Bigorski Monastery
After that, I drove to another church, Sv. Jovan Bigorski (St. John the Baptist Monastery).
This place was built in the 11th century but recent renovation works made it look all new and shiny.
I arrived there a few minutes before evening mass, stumbling upon dozens of black cassocks hurrying through the cobbled yard at the sound of the bell.
Once the long-bearded priests were all gone, the monastery was suddenly quiet and there was just me wandering around its steep alleys and admiring the beautiful view over the valley, while the sun was disappearing behind the forested mountains of Mavrovo Park.
Mavrovo Park > Lazaropole
It was time to set off again, heading towards the little village of Lazaropole, where I had booked a night in a traditional Ottoman guesthouse. It would be the first place in almost one week where I would have hot water and a private bathroom, so I was really looking forward to it. (I guess hot water was the motivation that pushed me -despite all my reasonable hesitations- forward along the tortuous and arduous mountain road leading to the village of Lazaropole). Lazaropole is a picturesque, fairy-talish mountain village well-known for the freshness of its air, which locals claim to be the heathiest in the Balkans.
It is a popular mountain destination but, when I was there, there was just me and the hotel owner and, later that evening, a friend of the owner who stopped by the hotel to celebrate his birthday and who was so kind as to invite me to join their table for a glass of red Macedonian wine.
Mavrovo Park > Gari
Gari is a Mijak village just a few minutes drive from Lazaropole, on the other side of the main road. It is almost a ghost town. I met nobody all morning, although I did spot some chimneys at work in the upper part of the village.
Here, a lot of houses are decaying, charmingly. All around the village you can hear the river murmuring by. The day was pretty foggy, enhancing the feeling of a place forgotten by modern society.
Mavrovo Park > Vevcani
a.k.a. the place where I finally got my Balkan passport
I’m sure you know at least one traveller who constantly brags about the various stamps on their passport. Me, instead, I’m always bragging about that Slovenian stamp I got when I renewed my passport while I was living in Slovenia. It kind of spices up my Italian passport adding a hint of the Balkans, which always makes things more intriguing.
This was until I got my very first Balkan passport from the Independent Republic of Vevcani (and yes, I drove under a storm as far as Vevcani only to get a fake passport; you can add this to the list of unusual methods by which I pick my destinations ;-) ).
Vevcani, a micro-country established in 2002, is located just outside the Mavrovo Park, one hour’s drive from Ohrid. The flag has the same red and yellow as the Macedonian flag, but -instead of just sunbeams- on the flag of the Vevcani Republic there is the whole shape of the sun.
The village itself is very nice, well-known for the water spring on the mountain and –it goes without saying- the patriotism of its inhabitants. I didn’t hike up the mountain as far as the springs as it was raining very hard, but I visited the St. Nikola Church, which is all frescoed and very beautiful.
Mavrovo Park > Tetovo
If you are heading north instead, in other words driving from Mavrovo Park to Skopje, you can have a pit stop in Tetovo. I stopped in Tetovo because I wanted to see the painted Mosque, which is as beautiful as I had imagined.
There is also an old hammam right in front of the Mosque, but I couldn’t visit it as it was closed for renovation.
I especially liked the market in Tetovo: here, for the very first time, I saw animals on sale.
The whole market was very rough and authentic: I bet I was the only foreigner wandering around the area.
But the thing I liked most about Tetovo is the Balkan vibe that burstles through the city. Not-daubed houses, more tractors than cars, veiled women and that lawless traffic I love so much, even if it made me leave the car in a parking lot pratically at the exit of the highway, guessing reasonably that Tetovo was not the kind of city where I could see myself driving around.
Without automatic drive, to boot.
PEEK THROUGH: Check out my travel video “10 days in Macedonia…in 100 seconds”
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