Travels in Europe

Parks and Recreation – by car through Southern Macedonia (2)

The first part of our trip was focused on old architecture and the foundations of Macedonian culture in the town of Ohrid, but now we begin our adventurous trip through the stunning nature of Southern Macedonia to spots where public transportation barely goes (except for a taxi). It is time for nature, for (national) parks and much-needed recreation. Off we go, into the mountain, towards the morning sun.

Today we have two national parks on the agenda: first we will follow the only asphalted street across the Galicica National Park. The park is part of the Galicica mountain which stretches with an area of almost 230 km² over the Macedonian -Albanian border. We will drive around the Lake Prespa and continue to the Pelister National Park.

Galicica mountain very close

Galicica National Park

The entrance into the mountain (signposted is the village Oteshevo) is easy to find and up we go on good, but rather narrow streets, lined by battered and rusty crash barriers (who seem to have experienced quite a few crashes already…). Dangerously many rocks have fallen onto the street and we keep hoping that nothing breaks down on us as we steer our rented car through the bending roads. We also hope that nobody will come towards us, especially not a local speed-driver. Our silent prayers are being heard – during the 2 hours on the road we do not meet even a single person. After the first 30 minutes into the park we decide to take a break and sit down at the edge of the mountain, legs dangling in the air.

In Schlangelinien nach oben

From this spot we have a clear view of the Lake Ohrid which shines in the morning sun and of small, quiet villages being built around the lake. Even at the street lining the lake we barely see any car and we do not talk for a moment to not disrupt the silence. Again the sun is beaming from the blue sky, the temperatures are very comfortable and because I smell like sunscreen it feels like summer already.

Ist das noch See? Oder schon Himmel?

The closer we reach to the peak of the mountain (the highest is peak Magaro with 2.254m),  the more we take small breaks to enjoy and cherish the view. The colours are so marvellous in their original colours that I have to take my sunglasses off. I want to enjoy the natural beauty unfiltered. At 1600m we reach the pass leading above the mountain range. Downhill the road is not as well-maintained as it was uphill and the vegetation changes, suddenly we are driving through a naked forest. Between the trunks we snatch a first glimpse at the Lake Prespa. If you would decide to park your car at the pass and hike up to Magaro, you would be able to see both lakes at the same time which must be a breathtaking view.

Around Lake Prespa

In the villages around Lake Prespa the agriculture is focused on fruit cultivation. At both sides of the road are fruit plantations, some of them in full blossom. Cherry and plum trees also decorate the landscape all over. It is nice to have them brighten up the landscape, giving a touch of spring to it, because the fresh green leaves of the trees are nowwhere to be seen yet and the monotonous brown of the mountain would not be too pretty otherwise. We follow the street to Bitola. Just as yesterday it is quite easy to follow the course of the road, when in doubt it is never wrong to go straight. All our goals are visibly sign-posted. Other than the area around lake Ohrid this area is not very touristy, I see only one house offering guest rooms. The lakeside is overgrown by reed and the way to the water leads through meadows or plantations. I do see some light beaches shining a bit further down the lake, they seem like a perfect summer hide-out.

Pelister crocus in the national park

Pelister National Park 

Three hours later we arrive at today’s main destination. For less than 1 Euro we can enter the Pelister National Park which lies at the end of a curvey street leading through – of course – small villages.

Die Wanderung beginnt auf einem angenehm festen Boden in der Sonne

Pelister, located in the Baba mountain range which are the most Southern mountain with alpine character, is the oldest and the second largest national park (headed by Mavrovo in Western Macedonia) of the country. The forests of the national park are home for several animals and plants, for example the 5-needle pine “molica”. Because this pine grows everywhere in the park we enjoy – even though we are pretty early visitors and pass snow fields and icey tracks – a view on green tree tips from above. The pine which can be found only at few other places around the Balkans was the main reason to annoucne Pelister a national park.

Since we are here in March and since we also only hike for about 4 hours we do not meet too much extraordinary flora or fauna. But the ways are lined by early flowers like the Pelister crocus and butterflies flutter happily around.

Remarkable are the so-called “stone rivers”. Over the years, rocks have build kilometer-long structures looking like wide, edgy rivers. These stone rivers were created in the higher parts of the mountain through harsh winters, ices and snow avalanches.

Thanks to those springs it’s easy to taste the fresh water

But not only rocky rivers flow through the mountain. Besides bird tweeting we are accompanied at our route by a continous flow of a mountain river and water coming from springs with water very good to drink. At first I am reluctant to drink the water from the well, but my hesitation was not necessary. The fresh water is a true fountain of youth. I try one sip and suddenly jump like a young deer through the forest, my boyfriend has difficulties to catch up. We decide to fill our water bottles with the fantastic and remarkably tasty water.

Some more adventurous paths

Neither of us is experienced at hiking, but the way up through the mountain does not feel too difficult. Even more because all routes are marked very well. In 90 minutes we hike up roughly 300m. That might not sound too much, but for us as Northern Germans it’s quite a success and we notice how far we’ve actually come when we begin to descent. From the (burnt) hut “Kopanki” right by the ski lift (1610m altitude) the way goes steeply back down to the information center (1350m ). We are definitely no fans of down-hill walking. The last part of the trail, known as the Historical Trail, is well-maintained and the road is lined by information charts about the consequences of the First World War for the region. During the war the Thessaloniki front was right by the food of the mountain and the woods were used by troops to  retrieve. Several villages were destroyed entirely and the city of Bitola, back then capital of Macedonia, was from 1916 to 1918  under almost daily bombardment.

Eco Tourism in Pelagonia 

The region around the city Bitola and the national park is growing area for tabaco and fruit. Especially at the foot of the mountain more and more villages, in cooperation with NGOs, find interest in so-called “eco tourism”. This should allow tourist to have authentic experiences with the Macedonian culture and anchor sustainable concepts of tourism in the region. We decide to jump on the bandwagon and follow the recommendations of our travel guide. Since we stood in front of closed doors at a guest house yesterday already we learn from the experience and call. That is a good decision, because the owners are spending the off-season time in Bitola. We hence decide to also go to Bitola for the night – but on our way to the car I receive a phone call. We forgot my washback at the Robinson Sunset House in Lagadin where we stayed the night before. We need a new plan.

Back to Ohrid 

We finally decide to drive back for the night to Lagadin near Ohrid and to stay a second night in the wonderful Robinson Sunset House. At least we know that we’ll get a good night sleep there. We have to rush now though, because we don’t want to be on the unknown road at darkness. Instead of driving across the Galicica mountain we choose the highway between Bitola and Ohrid which is bypassing the mountain in the North. Construction is going on as well so that we have to go by a pretty bad, cobble-stoned road for a while, but altogether it doesn’t take too much effort to return to Lagadin. After 2 hours we arrive at the Robihouse nson sunset with the last light of the day awaited by the lovely owners of the guesthouse and my washbag.

The route around the mountain is obviously not as breathtaking as the route through the mountain, but still the landscape is quite marvellous and I can’t take my eyes off it. The mountains to our sides are being dipped in the sunset light which makes it right more romantic.

We prepare our own dinner in the Robinson-kitchen before we hit the hay early. After all that fresh mountain air and hiking and the combination of exercise and recreation both of us are completely shattered.

For tomorrow we have again cities on our agenda. We are especially excited about Prilep which is apparently one of the less pretty cities in Macedonia. But we will have a friend welcoming us in the town to show us around her birthplace. Besides, we will visit Bitola where a lot of Macedonian history has happened. We hope to find more authentic Macedonian culture and architecture there.

Tomorrow’s first stop: the former capital Bitola

a few tips: 

Fill your tank before you enter the national parks. The last opportunity by the Lake Ohrid is at the exit of Ohrid. You don’t have to do it by yourself though, a petrol attendant will be at your service.

In the information centre of the national park Pelister you can get good maps for the park (2€). There’s also personal advice for a good route. Besides, you can enter a mall exhibition about flora and fauna of the park.

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  1. […] (if you want to know why (and when) Macedonia makes a great travel destination read this or this post). The city carries many obscure titles: The capital of Kitsch, bizarre and corrupted, covered […]

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