A glimpse at Macedonia and Kosovo

This item appears on page 14 of the March 2012 issue.

I took a fascinating trip to Macedonia and Kosovo, March 10-20, 2011. These countries were the two components of the former Yugoslavia that I had never visited, and I explored them with Dzengis Patel, an outstanding guide and driver.

Dzengis works for DEA Tours (Kej Marshal Tito 40, Ohrid, Macedonia; phone/fax 00 389 [0] 46 26 52 51), which I found by sending letters of inquiry to travel companies that “do” Macedonia; Ohrid Travel in the UK responded and recommended DEA.

Dzengis drove me in a comfortable Alfa Romeo sedan, and the cost for his services was $1,278. Additional expenses — for meals, hotels and site admission fees — didn’t amount to much. I spent two days and one night in Kosovo, three nights in Skopje, Macedonia, and six nights in Ohrid, Macedonia. The skies were sunny and the weather was crisp (usually in the 50s).

In Pristina, Hotel Afa (Ali Kelmendi No. 15, 10000 Prishtina, Rep. of Kosovo; phone +381 38 225-226) offered good value for the money at €45 (near $60), including breakfast, though the hotel was decorated in the style I associate with Intourist hotels in the former Soviet Union (dark rooms and a color scheme ranging from light brown to dark brown).

Pec, in Kosovo, was the only place where we encountered soldiers (members of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, KFOR). They were at the entrance to the monastery in Pec that houses the Patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox faith. They were friendly and phoned a nun in the monastery to get permission for us to enter.

The main church in the Patriarchate, built in stages over the centuries, is replete with magnificent frescoes and icons that a young nun was happy to show us.

Back over the border in Tetovo, Macedonia, we visited the unusual S˘arena Dz˘amija mosque, with geometric and floral paintings on its outside walls.

Then it was on to Ohrid, the gem of Macedonia, on the shores of Lake Ohrid. I stayed on the third floor of the DEA Tours building, which is right on the lakeshore (the owner and his brother’s families live on the first and second floors).

At €35 per night, this “villa” didn’t have all the amenities of a hotel (no fitness center, for example), but I could use the office’s Internet, and DEA arranged for me to have access to the breakfast buffet at a hotel across the street for €5 a day.

Around there, we visited the towns, churches and museums of Struga, Bitola and Vevc˘ani as well as the jewel-like monastery of Sveti Naum, near the Albanian border. We explored Galicica National Park and Lake Prespa, though a main road through the park was still blocked by snow at its highest points.

I was told that Ohrid becomes quite busy during the peak tourist months of July and August, but if there were any other non-Balkans enjoying Ohrid while I was there, I didn’t encounter them.

It’s a good bet that in 10 years Ohrid will be a hot tourist destination, with new hotels and with many of its shops and restaurants catering more to visitors than to local residents.

In Skopje I visited the Ottoman quarter, where several old bathhouses (hamams) have been converted into museums of Macedonian painting and sculpture.

At the foot of the stone bridge was a shop selling colorful flat-weave textiles, but don’t expect to find more than a handful of other shops marketing to tourists — at least, not yet.

I enjoyed several meals at the Tourist Restaurant in the heart of the Ottoman quarter. In good weather, it’s an excellent spot to sit outside and watch Skopje pass by.

In Skopje, I used Hotel Mramar (Klenoec St. 11A, Area Vlae II, 1000 Skopje, Rep. of Macedonia; phone/fax [+389 2] 20 44 528), which was about a three-dollar taxi ride from the center of town. At €36 ($48), including breakfast, it cost between a third and a quarter of what a larger and centrally located hotel would have cost.

My room was plain, but the staff was very helpful, having no problem arranging a taxi at 1 in the morning. (Flights leave and arrive in Skopje at inconvenient hours.)

Because there were only two of us, Dzengis and I could eat wherever and whenever we wanted, and we generally chose tiny, hole-in-the-wall places that served shashlik (in Pec) or burek (cheese, spinach or meat in filo pastry). I noticed more lamb and pork on offer than either beef or chicken.

A personal favorite was shopska salad, with tomatoes, cucumber and onion (but no lettuce) topped with a tangy white cheese.

I drank only bottled water, although I was assured that the tap water would do me no harm.

It would be possible to make a trip like this on one’s own in a rental car, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Generally, the streets and roads are in good condition, but they are not well marked. Furthermore, although most young people seem to speak at least a little English, getting accurate directions and finding anyone to explain what you were looking at would be a challenge.

Finally, there are political sensitivities that would not occur to most American visitors. For example, although my guide said that most Kosovars in the predominantly ethnic-Albanian regions, including Pristina, speak fluent Serbian, he often asked questions of them in English because he didn’t want to imply that he assumed they were ethnic Serbs.

Although he said that such sensitivities have diminished, visitors could too easily offend someone unintentionally. That said, I saw no visible evidence of national ethnic tensions, nor did I see a single tour bus.

Washington, DC