Our short tour around Macedonia almost over, we headed south from Tetovo towards Lake Ohrid, to cross back to Albania. The route took us through the Mavrovo National Park, meaning that, whilst we’d not spent much time in the country, we’d managed to “tick off” every single one of their National Parks. Mavrovo is centred around a long thin artificial lake created by damming a river for Hydro-Electric power, before the river then dropped gently through narrow steep gorges, but not a patch on the natural beauty of Ohrid or Prespa.
The monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski is reputed to be the most beautiful, and amidst the most dramatic scenery, in the country – and it’s certainly impressive, with sharp peaks rising from it in all directions.
It felt a bit too freshly restored and polished for us, though, with the church the most remarkable thing about it. As well as a wonderful Iconostasis carved by the same three as the one in Skopje’s Sveti Spas, there’s a shimmering silver and gold reliquary more akin to a Victorian steamer trunk, containing what’s claimed to be bits of various saints, including a section of John the Baptist’s forearm as well as a splinter of wood from the cross. Outside the church, there’s a cannon with a difference. During the battles for independence from the Ottoman Empire, the monks of Sveti Jovan Bigorski developed a secret super-weapon which was easily and stealthily manufactured by peasants in any mountain village, due to the barrel being made of… wood.
Apparently it was effective – although short lived, as the barrel split after only a few shots. The real value of the cannon, though, was as a surprise ambush weapon and as a boost to national morale.
The village of Vevčani had a different solution to the question of national morale, during the time when Yugoslavia was melting into a seething mess of nationalism and ethnic fighting – they held a village referendum and after a 99% “Yes” vote declared independence, letting it be known that they’d stockpiled weapons ready for anybody who said otherwise. As a result, everybody shrugged and left them well alone. They’d already had other problems, with the government threatening to come and divert their springs, piping the water down to the town of Struga. Barricading the road to the village worked just fine for that, too. Their springs were certainly worth all the hassle – absolutely glorious, with water gushing out of rock from umpteen points, forming a raging torrent through trees and waterfalls.
We had a quick stop to make in Struga before we hit the border – we needed to get shot of our last few Denars, and we had a space on the dashboard in need of a Macedonian flag fridge magnet… When we’d come through Struga on the way in, we were unimpressed. But a second look – on a sunny Sunday late afternoon – somehow made all the difference. It’s not one of the world’s great destinations, sure – but it’s actually quite pleasant. The canal from Lake Ohrid has broad walkways either side, with everybody strolling past the various cafes and bars.
So back to Albania, and straight to our friendly fish farm campsite, but we were greeted by a total contrast to the previous week… Instead of an empty field, we had to squeeze in to the last available waterfront pitch amongst a horde of Slovenian fridge-freezers. Still, the grilled trout was excellent again, as were the views across the lake towards the mountain where we’d got stuck in the snow less than a week earlier, although now with much less of a white cap.
It was time to start to bimble towards the northern half of the country, but not before stopping at one of the many roadside tyre-fitting workshops, to have the tyre swapped off the wheel that had been damaged in Pogradec when the nuts came loose, and onto a wheel we bought at a scrappy just before Struga on our way out of Macedonia. Repeatedly in Alabania, we’ve been lightly confused by people quoting us prices which turn out to be in “Old Lek”. The Lek was devalued by a zero in the 1970s, but it doesn’t really seem to have sunk in yet. They’re all quite happy about what they REALLY mean, and won’t try to take ten times the amount you owe, though. So when the tyre guy told us 200 Lek, we wondered if we were somehow misconverting – but no, he really meant two hundred Lek. Just over a quid. To swap a tyre from one wheel to another, including fitting a new valve, and then to fit it onto the van – AND check all the tyre pressures for us, too. Bargain.
Before we hit Tirana, though, there were a couple of places south of the city that we wanted to see. Our first stop was Elbasan, with the old town centre surrounded by the original city walls. The city was definitely enjoying Mayday, with banners across the wide modern boulevards and music pumping forth from bars as everybody just milled around. The old town was quietly pleasant, with a lovely old mosque and church. We’d seen the priest wandering the other way while we were approaching the church, and sure enough the gates were firmly locked. As we peered over the gate, an old boy on a bike arrived, rattled the lock and rolled his eyes. Out came his mobile, and we distinctly heard him say “two tourists”. Nope, not good enough – the priest was, he mimed, having a siesta and was not going to stir for anything or anybody. Hiho. Out we headed, in search of the hot springs and spas we’d heard were nearby. Eventually, after a bit of confusion, we found them – and wondered why we’d bothered. The spas seemed to be very medically orientated, and – to be honest – it was difficult to imagine anybody putting up with the sulphuric stench voluntarily…
Berat next, one of the oldest cities in the country – and definitely one of the most beautiful, with old houses spreading out gently both sides of the river. On one side, a steep hill rose behind them, topped by a formidable looking castle.
We planned to meander through the old town then drive up to the castle, but somehow the wander that started by the lovely painted Bachelor’s Mosque found ourselves half way up before we knew it, so continued. At the top, sweating and panting in the hot sun, we were glad to find a little shop with frozen bottles of mineral water. The castle only contains eight of the forty-two churches which used to be here, and seven are locked all year apart from their saint’s day. The eighth, though, is not only open but contains a museum dedicated to probably the best Albanian medieval icon painter, Onufri. There’s also an art gallery at the bottom of the hill dedicated to an English painter who spent some time in these parts in the 19th century – Edward Lear. Yep, the same Edward Lear, the man who wrote the Owl and the Pussycat, as well as innumerable other nonsense poems.
Our trip started to look a little lacking in ambition when we met a couple of Germans, Katja and Tommes – who’ve been on the road since December in an old Mercedes van, returning from India overland… They’d had relatively few problems, the most major being visa woes for Iran meaning that they’d had to be escorted across the country in short order. Could they have sowed the seeds for the next leg of our trip…?
Byllis next, a ruined city dating back to the Illyrians before being used by the Romans. High in the mountains, it occupied a strategic point with commanding views across the main river route to the coast – and, as the sun set, we could see the ribbon of the river leading all the way to the glint of the sea many miles away.
We’d headed in to the site in late afternoon, thinking we’d have a quick look around then find somewhere handy to camp. However, it turned out that it was not a problem to camp in the ruins of the city itself, scant metres away from the remains of the cathedral and fortifications. Another amazing view for our night’s sleep.
The ruins themselves are interesting, with our wander around the evocative theatre and various other buildings accompanied by large colourful butterflies, but it really was the location that made Byllis truly special for us.
After a night at a campsite on the beach, base to a German couple – Gunther & Martina – who run a business operating 4×4 tours of the Albanian backwoods, it was time to head towards the capital, Tirana, via the main port of Durres – itself nothing very fascinating, except for the old amphitheatre and some dramatic Socialist Realist statues around the remains of the old city walls.