The roads after the first 100 Km greatly improved in Albania. So much so that we made it to the capital, Tirane, in no time the next day. Tirane is large, busy and business-like. We first thought of spending some time in this town but then decided to just head for the border town of Pogradee on Lake Ohrit instead.
Now that we had entered the mountains and were riding east, Albania became more idyllic. I like the genuine towns, the old ways we saw on the side of the road. Men were cutting grass using a scythe, women helped stacking hay. The ancient implements used are handcrafted, wooden and work well even today. Grass was also being cut using motorized sickle movers of various models and with even greater variety of configurations. Fifty years ago, when I worked on a farm in the Black Forest in Germany, we used similar equipment. Am I getting old? The fields in Albania are well tended, however, and food grows in abundance.
Just after we passed the town of Perrenjas we ran into road construction. I asked the workers how long the construction site was and they told me about 30 Km or all the way to Pogradee, our target town. What to do? We would have loved to stay one more day in Albania, since a one night stay is nothing and no indication of a county. But given the conditions of the predicament we were in, riding on loose sand and gravel for 30 Km plus the threat of imminent rain, we decided to take the lesser evil and enter Macedonia at Radezha, especially since going back to Perrenjas was no option and we didn’t know if there was a hotel there.
There is no exchange booth to exchange the Albanian Leke to Macedonian Dinar at the border. The bike insurance needed to enter Macedonia costs 50 Euro per bike. Ouch! While the personal at the border tried to help, the language and the Cyrillic added to the difficulties in communication. I managed to get most of my Albanian money changed into Euros at a local store on the Macedonian side. Carol tried, too but did not like the way she was treated by the 4 – 5 young men in the store. She left the store without getting her money exchanged.
We were in Macedonia, the country - no, not the part of Greece or Bulgaria that was once called Macedonia. The conflicts with Greece about the name, about the territory and the language are ancient. No love is lost between the two countries. Macedonia is a very old land, the birth place of Alexander the Great. Naturally, Pella, the actual Birthplace of Alexander is in today’s Greece. But when Alexander was born, this was part of the Macedonian Empire and therefore he was Macedonian. Confusing? No matter, we are just riding and visiting, we do not have to solve any of the animosity between the two countries.
Not far from the border, the first larger town we come to, Struga, is our stop for the night. Positioned directly on Lake Ohrid it serves as tourist destination for many Balkan Nations. The lake is unique in the world and Wikipedia spells out:
Lake Ohrid (Macedonian: Охридско Езеро, Ohridsko Ezero; Albanian: Liqeni i Ohrit) straddles the mountainous border between the southwestern Republic of Macedonia and eastern Albania. It is one of Europe's deepest and oldest lakes, preserving a unique aquatic ecosystem with more than 200 endemic species that is of worldwide importance. The importance of the lake was further emphasized when it was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979. However, human activity on the lake shores and in its catchment area is resulting in the ecosystem coming under stress
Similar to Lake Baikal in Siberia, Lake Ohrid has a unique ecosystem. Although the beaches are fragile and endangered I wanted to see them and the uniqueness of it all. We later passed on the beaches when it turned cold and stormy. We walked around town, enjoyed the many shops in the pedestrian only zone, took a picture of the Poet Bridge, where once or twice a year international poets read their latest creations in their own language to onlookers along the river’s edge. We made the best of the town before the thunderstorm drove us for cover. Timing is everything and we enjoyed a wonderful, local meal while the rain drummed in buckets on the roof.
We were in Macedonia, a land locked country with a history so old, so long, so complicated it boggles my mind. We are in Macedonia, with a future that boggles the minds of many people. What will this country look like in years to come? The language is ancient, complicated. The writing is Cyrillic and again, complicated to the modern Western World. Most of the land is mountainous. Half the land is too rugged to farm. Split into Muslim and Christian faiths Macedonia struggles along. Yes, it has applied to join the EU. In better condition than Albania, it too, has Mercedes Benz cars in the streets. Again it is said that Russians buy the nicest, best parts of Macedonia for their vacation homes. Techno music sounds from coffee bars in bigger cities. Men wear horizontally stripped T-shirts and Gym trousers with a stripe running vertically along the outside of the pant legs. All men I saw smoked cigarettes. Many men had ultra short hair cuts. Women are made up, dressed well but in colors and styles quite different than my eyes are used to. All the signs I describe are signs of heavy Russian influence, if not of Russia itself. There is money in Macedonia but I would say it is Russian tourist money, not money from the GNP of Macedonia. I have seen no factories; I cannot say what Macedonia produces that is needed worldwide. While the past of Macedonia can be studied, the future cannot be predicted.
Carol will write the rest of the Macedonian story as it was a more personal journey for her.