Perhaps, you have visited many of these places or you might visit them for various reasons because they are recommended as a must-see in Macedonia, but everything takes on a different meaning once you put them in another story – say a geological one. We had an opportunity to witness and experience the first specialized geological tour round Macedonia.
We have all heard and smelled the malodorous sulphur evaporations from the volcano near the village of Kosel, Ohrid. “Politikin Zabavnik”, a very popular magazine in formerYugoslavia, wrote that it is the only active volcano on the Balkans. Also, I believe we have seen the mysterious “volcanic hats” on the right side of the road from Kumanovo towards Kriva Palanka, or the “petrified wedding party” near Kuklica, Kratovo, a town built on the dome of an ancient volcano. Surely you know about the “Crystal Cave” near Debar which is entirely made up of crystals and is therefore a priceless national treasure of Macedonia. But, have we ever stopped to think that all these places, no matter how unrelated they seem to an unobservant eye, are actually connected with each other.
We had the privilege to be invited to a tour that unraveled this mystery. The invitation came from Ljupco Juzmeski, a tour guide from Ohrid, who was given The Best Promoter of Macedonia Award for 2011. “I have something exclusive – Macedonian volcanoes, a special four-day tour for geologists from Poland” – he said. There was a challenge before us.
Day one. A few hours’ delay at the border crossings from Montenegro to Macedonia calls for plan B. It is late in the afternoon and we just passed Struga so we’ll only see the landmarks and feel the ambiance of Ohrid.
We have been driving for fifteen minutes and we already heard several things from Ljupco’s presentation: origin of Ohrid Lake, meaning of some toponyms, military checkpoint on Via Egnatia which is the same road that we are driving on towards Ohrid. We are heading to Gorna Porta (Upper Gate) that is the upper entrance of the city, a logical beginning of the tour.
We curiously follow our guide, listening attentively so as not to miss a word. We follow a standard tour but with a unique opportunity to upgrade our knowledge of the facts about each place. The ancient theatre has lent the stage to a great number of world-renowned artists, so many that we could name three or four of Polish descent.
Samuil’s Fortress takes us on a journey through the history of Ohrid and Macedonia and has the best position for taking panoramic photos. Plaosnik is a holy place – Sts Cyril and Methodius, Mission to Pannonia, Great Moravia, St Clement of Ohrid – people and things that bring us close to our Polish visitors. We stop for a while to watch the sunset and take a few photos of the panoramic view over the city and the lake.
Our visitors are exhausted. We give up on the idea to see the city from a boat and sail to our hotel in Sveti Stefan.
Instead we go down to St. Sophia church and Saraiste, to the House of Robevci and St. Naum square near the port. There at the end of the promenade by the lake there is a bus waiting for us.
Day two. 9.00 am and the toponym everybody uses to arrange a meeting place in Ohrid is “minimarket”. Ljupco is there already, Jordan Kocevski, university assistant at the Faculty of Tourism and Hospitality in Ohrid, is on his way. Jordan will present the volcano in Kosel. Everybody arrives.
“Dzien dobry”! We set off on a twenty minute ride to Kosel. There is plenty of time to ask our guests about the accommodation, go over the plan again and notice that everybody is feeling fresh, rested and curious. The smell of rotten eggs i.e. of sulphur is a sign that we are getting very close. There is a five minute walk from the road to the volcano and the first surprise of the day. We are approached by a man we saw the previous day and said that he would like to give a present to the journalist accompanying them. It was a friendly gesture- promotional material from the Polish Geological Institute including a calendar of the annual “International Fair of Stone and Stone Machinery” in Kielce and a few colourful stones, a kind of stone very common in Poland. There is a lot said and written about Kosel but this visit gave us an opportunity to feel a unique joy: to hear questions from professionals in the field and see them take little stones as souvenirs.
A small present from the geologists for Ljupco and we are off to the Bay of Bones and its Museum on Water, the Roman Castrum and St. Naum Monastery, where Lake Ohrid springs out from the underwater “geysers”.
Our Polish visitors were enchanted by the Museum on Water – Ljupco’s role-play of the way our ancient ancestors lived took us on a journey through time.
In St. Naum Monastery the cameras kept clicking and rolling memorizing the monastery and the wonderful view of the springs. Until tomorrow: “Czas wolny.” A free afternoon for Poland–Greece football match.
Day three. A heatwave hits us in the morning. The football match was a draw but the beer was a winner. Excitement grows by the minute ahead of our trip to Debar because today we are visiting the Crystal Cave. Ljupco begins with a warm-up story of Struga and just as we leave town he throws a brilliant story of the valley of Crn Drim river and its eel – something in Macedonian, a few words in Polish – intertwined with a tale of “pecalbari” (migrant workers). Struga’s old name is Enhalon which means eel, and quote:” I’ve heard that he is very good at his job but this is top notch storytelling”. Polish vodka helped open the chakras and he has just become my new hero!
10:45hrs. Ljupco’s phone rings. It’s Refik, our guide to the cave, whose job at the German company “Knauf” taught him discipline, so he calls to see if we are arriving on time. We get to the meeting place at 11:00 sharp as agreed. Refik Imami, a mining engineer in charge of theCrystalCave, waits for us right after Rajcica. Everybody gets excited as we put on the helmets knowing what we are about to see. “Good luck!” The guide’s headlight shows the way.
“It is 99,99% pure crystal…because of thermal waters in Debar region…this kind of pure crystal can only be found in Mexico…no need for support beams or walls…crystals are so interwoven…they don’t mine from the crystal palace any more…Knauf have an interesting vision of this place… they would like to turn it into an exclusive concert hall.”
Group photo, smiling faces and some stones for our drivers Andrzej and Darek. We head off to Debar Spa – thermal waters have excellent healing powers so they are first in Europe and third in the world. We continue to St. Jovan Bigorski and its captivating iconostasis.
Terrible heat followed us to Skopje where I decide to take a few hours’ break and join them at dinner. The tables at Makedonska Kuka restaurant are filled with Macedonian dishes but the star of the night is the Macedonian ruby and we have a chance to meet Dean Skartov Deko, the man who found and first carved this precious stone.
Pleasure at the tables, curiosity round the showcase with rubies and merry Poles dancing Macedonian folk dances! We pass the test successfully!
Day four, last day. We are going to visit Kostoperska Karpa, one of the volcanic rocks on the road from Kumanovo to Kratovo and Kriva Palanka. Stevce Donevski will be waiting at Mlado Nagoricane. He is founder of Macedonian Rock Art Research Center, collector and presenter of cultural and historical facts about Kratovo and its surroundings. There is a magnificent view from the rock but the geologists are more interested in the rock itself. Next stop is Kuklica to see the petrified wedding party and then Kratovo, a town built on an ancient volcano that still lets out gases in three places. Questions, questions, questions. Everything we see is a challenge and mystery to geologists.
The end is spectacular. We are greeted with bagpipe music (gajda), a presentation about Kratovo under 650-year-old pine trees and the finale is reserved for domestic rakija and wine in Stevce’s cellar.
This is our last chance to talk and ask about their impressions. We ask Jan Kowalski, a geologist specialized in mining, about his impressions.
“Macedonia is a very beautiful country. There is so much to see but I think you need better infrastructure in order to attract more tourists and to improve traffic signalization of tourist attractions. I think it will be a good thing to organize a seminar or a symposium and the Institute innKielcenwould gladly help. All these places are worth seeing and I will recommend them to other geologists.” Said Kowalski.
While we are driving to Kumanovo we asked Andrzej Siekierski, owner of the tourist agency that organized this tour, to tell us about his impressions.
“Most of the people in this tour have been travelling with our agency for 30 years now. I know what they are interested in and decided to offer them a geological tour of the Balkan countries. I contacted one of my associates in Montenegro, he organized the tour round Croatia and Montenegro, and put me in contact with Ljupco. According to their reactions I can see that they are pleased with what we saw in Macedonia so I intend to offer this tour to other geological societies in Poland. I hope I’ll see you again soon.”
We stop at the bus station in Kumanovo. As they are leaving we hear a loud singing coming from the bus – a happy Polish song. Words are not all comprehensible but the message is clear: “Goodbye friends!” Darek offers us a can of Tyskie, a brand of Polish beer, as a farewell gift. What a wonderful world!
Article and photos by Vasko Markovski