Sunday, 19 May 2013

Yours to conquer: Macedonia is in the midst of an Alexander The Great rebranding

Come for the adventure travel, stay for Mother Teresa. Or Alexander the Great. Or the ajvar.
Ryan MeriglianoCome for the adventure travel, stay for Mother Teresa. Or Alexander the Great. Or the ajvar.
It’s taken an hour’s hike to get here. I’m standing at the top of one of the highest mountains around. I notice a cairn of sorts off to the side, put up by someone to mark their trek up here. I put a Canadian penny on it to mark mine. It’s beautiful up here, and solitary. These aren’t like the Rockies or the Alps. They’re more like very big snow drifts, gentle, long, graceful. In front of me, a four million-year-old lake called Ohrid. To the left, a town enveloped in a Pig-Pen-esque cloud of smog in the middle of an otherwise pristine horizon. That’s Albania; Pogradec, I think.

A week ago, I had no idea any of this existed. And if you’d pressed me on it, I probably would have mixed up Albania and Armenia.
Travel can be many things to many people, but there should always be discovery. My own tastes run to places my friends would never think of going; I give myself bonus points if they’re not entirely sure where it is.
This admittedly idiosyncratic approach to travel has taken me to Bulgaria, a ski resort in North Africa, Easter Island, Ethiopia and Haiti, and I hope to make it to St. Helena and Cape Dorset before long. (Had to look them up? Excellent; more points for me.)
But I had to set up a new system for tallying my points when I came to Macedonia. Not only did people not know where it was, they thought it was a different country than it is.
And that’s the first thing you need to know about Macedonia: It’s not Macedonia.
The Macedonia that most of us grew up with a vague awareness of — the one with Alexander the Great, the one that briefly ruled the world’s most extensive empire, the one that conquered Persia — that Macedonia is in Greece, a couple of hundred kilometres south of the border of what is now officially and painstakingly known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of its official recognition on April 8.
Nevertheless, when you land in the capital city of Skopje, you land at Alexander the Great International Airport, where you can take an Alexander cab into the centre of the city to admire a new eight-storey-high statue that is officially known as “Soldier on a Horse” as a form of appeasement to the Greeks, but whose true identity is given away by the friendly wave he’s giving to another, equally massive statue a few hundred metres away of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father, who made this landlocked bit of turf part of his empire in 356 B.C.E.
It’s called antiquisation and it’s one of the most entertaining aspects of this particular Balkan state. Based on the claim that ancient Macedonians were not Greek, and despite the fact that whether they were or not, they didn’t live here, the current nationalist government is looking to build popular support, and a tourism market, on the backs of Philip & Son, putting up statues of them all over the country, and making them the centre of what they’re calling Skopje 2014 (it’s got its own Wikipedia page), which is nothing less than a rebuilding of the city’s core (much of which was destroyed in a Yugoslav-era earthquake).
It’s an overt effort to make themselves more attractive to tourists and prompt them to take advantage of the second thing you should know about Macedonia: It’s cheap. From activities to cabs to hotels to food and drink, the only real expense for a trip to Macedonia is the airfare.
But it’s the free things that will stay with me. Like the woodcarving at the Bigorski Monastery near the border with Albania and Kosovo. Carved from single pieces of wood, these reliefs are carved deeply and intricately enough to have foregrounds and backgrounds, scene after biblical scene rendered in extraordinary detail across an iconostasis that’s at least three metres high and 10 across. The monastery mostly burnt down in 2009, but this big piece of wood fantastically survived.
Then there was Skopje’s Memorial House of Mother Teresa. She was born and raised here, it turns out. The museum is built on the site of the church in which she was baptized in 1910, destroyed by that earthquake. It’s big and capriciously designed, but also empty. My boyfriend and I are the only ones here. As it happens, I visited her tomb in Calcutta about a year earlier. It was packed. This museum is a pilgrimage stop waiting to happen. With apologies to Christopher Hitchens’ blessed memory, there’s someone to name your airport after.
But the big tourism ministry push now is for adventure travel. They have 16 mountains higher than 2,000 metres, 50 lakes and, thanks to that wonderful Eastern European cheapness, you can hurl yourself off one of them with the questionable support of a paraglider for $50. We visited a ski resort, Popova Shapka, near the Kosovan border, and pic-nicked with our guide, Ljupco, who brought some mild homemade avjar, a red pepper and garlic spread each mother-led Macedonian household seems to be exceedingly proud of, to spread on our bread while we admired the 35 square kilometres of slopes.
Which brings us to the third thing you have to know about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: Its identity is still up for grabs. The current government likes the Alexander approach. The next one may prefer Mother Teresa, or its history as part of the Ottoman Empire or, who knows, the role it played in Yugoslavia. But for the moment, it’s left to every visitor to make up their own Macedonia to bring home in stories for friends and family. And for the world traveller, that’s a rare thing indeed.

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