We had heard such nice things about Macedonia -- and in particular a guest house outside the southern town of Bitola -- from our friend Chip that we had to go see it for ourselves. We had no idea what to expect in Macedonia; perhaps our only faint reference point besides Chip's endorsement was the Macedonian Salad, a mixed fruit salad that we've often eaten in Italy whose name supposedly refers to the mish-mash of people and cultures in Macedonia. That's as good an introduction as any to Macedonia: it packs a lot of variety into a small area.
We headed straight for Villa Dihovo, which is a guest house run by a family in the foothills of Mt Pelister. The guest house is run by a former professional soccer player, and the approach is simple: you pay for the homemade wine, beer, and rakiya (a strong schnapps-like firewater) at set prices. They feed you two delicious home-cooked meals per day, you sleep in their traditionally-decorated guest rooms, and pay what you think is fair. We loved this approach, and looked forward to every meal; our only complaint is that we wished Petar had been around more often for us to talk to about the area (his parents did not speak a word of English). We used this as our base to explore Heraclea Lyncestis, the nearby Roman archaeological site on the famous Via Egnatia, where we found some beautiful mosaics, and the laid back town of Bitola itself, which-- like many other cities in this part of the world-- felt half Mediterranean and half Balkan, with its open air cafes, churches, mosques, and bazaar selling everything under the sun.
We knew that we might regret leaving visiting Macedonia without visiting their pride and joy: Lake Ohrid, one of Europe's oldest and deepest lakes. Petar organized a "guide" to take us there (we were decidedly sick of sitting on buses) who turned out to be a journalist and expert on Freemasons in Macedonia (apparently there are a lot of them). Ohrid sits along the Via Egnatia and connected Constantinople with the Adriatic, making it a popular trade center. These days it is full of tourists, so we added ourselves to the mix and explored the many famous churches and the city's fort, stopping to lunch overlooking a Roman amphitheater.
On our last full day in Macedonia, we decided to do a "short, easy hike" in Pelister National Park. Because we are generally incapable of taking it easy when it comes to day hikes, we ended up on a beautiful ascent through tall pines, over streams and waterfalls, and up a boulder-strewn face to an expansive overlook, where we met a friendly Macedonian-Canadian family (who happened to be friends with Petar) and took photos. Almost immediately after we bid them a safe descent, the skies turned black and a crazy thunderstorm erupted, making our descent somewhat miserable in pouring rain and dropping temps. We were soaked to the bone when we got back to the starting point, but thankfully, the friendly family we had met at the top had just gotten to their car (they took a different route down), and gave us a ride back to Villa Dihovo.
Our final country of this Eastern European jaunt was tiny, unlucky Kosovo, Europe's newest country. Kosovo went through years of struggle and war regarding its autonomy, which Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević fiercely rejected. Ethnic cleansing and war horrors lead to to US-backed NATO intervention in 1999. Ethnically, Kosovo is mostly Albanian, and there are still clashes between the majority and the Serbs. Like in most postwar cities we visited on this trip, the scars still felt fresh, but the people themselves were looking forward. We found Kosovans to be incredibly friendly, and their eyes lit up when they found out we live in the land of Bill Clinton, who enjoys somewhat of a celebrity status in Kosovo, for his part in their liberation.
We spent most of our time in Pristina, the capital. After visiting the very well-tfkept and insightful Ethnographic Museum, we checked out several of the many post-Soviet, concrete, brutalist buildings and monuments dotted around the city. We found these to be incredibly interesting, especially the ones that had since been left to their own devices-- monuments of a distant time that present-day Pristina no longer pays attention to.
Not to be forgotten was Pristina's delicious food. Similar to Albania, we dined on fresh white cheese, warm bread, cured meats, fresh vegetables, and olives. We were so pleasantly surprised at how much we liked Kosovo, and we hope more people make an effort to come here: you will be welcomed with huge smiles, an enthusiastic hope for the future, and no shortage of cultural heritage to soak in.