Balkans & Beyond, Days 48-49:  Ohrid, Macedonia to Bitola, Macedonia.  Departing Ohrid on Saturday, we couldn't resist the opportunity to drive along the eastern shore of the lake to National Park Galicica, which straddles Mount Galicica (7,395 ft) between Lakes Ohrid and Prespa.  A well-maintained road takes visitors almost to the mountain's summit before descending down the other side to Lake Prespa.  Along the scenic drive, views of the lake and towns along its coast are spectacular.
Lake Ohrid from scenic overlook in Galicica Park
Our destination for the next couple of days was Bitola (pop. 75,000), Macedonia's second largest city and one of its oldest.  Founded by Philip II (AlexTheGreat's dad) in the fourth century BC as Heraclea Lyncestis, Bitola today sits ten miles north of Macedonia's border with Greece—that part of Greece that's also known as Macedonia.
Old Roman theater at Heraclea Lyncestis
Macedon was conquered by Rome in the 2nd century BC, which took over governance of the town.  To accommodate the Roman sport of gladiator fighting, the Roman emperor Hadrian had a theater built on a hill in Heraclea.  Its use was discontinued in the fourth century after Rome was Christianized, and it was buried and forgotten after an earthquake in the 6th century AD and Slavic invasions led to the abandonment of the city.

Small basilica at Heraclea
Many centuries later some ruins of the city were uncovered during a building project, and an archeological dig began in the 1930s.  The first indication that there had been a theater came with the discovery of a 14th row admission ticket carved on a small piece of bone.  With interruptions in the dig caused by the numerous conflicts in this war-torn area, it was 1968 before the 20-row theater was completely unearthed on a hill in what had been the center of the ancient town.  In addition to seating for hundreds, scientists uncovered a tunnel and cages for animals built below the rows for spectators.
Širok Sokak Street
When we arrived in Bitola around noon on Saturday and asked for a recommendation for lunch, the friendly reception agent at our small hotel warned us that the city is always bustling on Saturdays, especially ┼áirok Sokak Street (Wide Street).  Lined with shops and restaurants, this pedestrian thoroughfare is obviously the place to see and be seen.  People crammed into the sidewalk cafes all had their chairs facing the street, so as not to miss any action on the promenade.
Philip II reigns (and reins?) over Magnolia Square.
After lunch, we strolled the mile-long avenue from the City Park on the south end to Magnolia Square on the north.  Wandering over to the nearby Yeni Cami (New Mosque), we sat at a bench outside pondering whether we should try to enter.  The doors were closed, and our limited understanding of the protocol and customs for non-Muslims visiting had us puzzled.  A gentleman walked past where we were sitting, and I smiled at him.  He walked past, and then—obviously reading the situation and our dilemma—he motioned for us to follow him.
Yeni Mosque
Though he spoke only a few words of English and we spoke neither of his languages—Macedonian and Italian—we were able to communicate enough for him to invite us into the mosque and tell us that it was built during the Ottoman period, completed in 1558.  In recent years, he indicated, the exquisite interior has been restored with the financial support of the Turkish government.
Funeral notices
As we wandered around Bitola, we couldn't help noticing light posts, building columns, trees and other surfaces plastered with signs bearing text and a photo of a person.  The format was almost similar to the old "Wanted" posters, except for the floral border decorated with a cross.  Our attempts to translate with Google's help were stymied by the script style font.
Later our helpful innkeeper explained that these are death notices posted in the neighborhood where the deceased had lived.  The wording is quite similar to what is published in newspaper obituaries in the U.S., including information about funeral arrangements.
Light up!  No stigma here.
As we have noted before, smoking in this region is much more widespread than in the U.S. and even in Western Europe.  Every table at sidewalk cafes is equipped with at least one ashtray, and often tables inside have them, too.  It's a bit like being back in the 1970s.

Even though we had decided to leave Greece for another trip, being so close to the border and having seen all we planned to in Bitola on Saturday convinced us to consider a day trip into northern Greece on Sunday.  With the ongoing dispute between Greece and Macedonia, we were a bit uncertain about what to expect at the border, so we did a little Googling—just enough to reveal a couple of nightmare tales about people being detained at the border by both Greek and Macedonian authorities for such infractions as calling a Greek city by its Macedonian name or carrying two cameras across the border.
Where are they now?
While conducting this research Saturday evening, the magic of a flight tracking app enabled us to follow the progress of our grandnieces (ages 21 and 19) on their first transatlantic flight.  They hopped the pond for a study abroad summer program in Florence, Italy.  We're looking forward to meeting them in Venice for a long weekend on our way back home.
The difference was evident at the border stations:  Macedonia (top), Greece (bottom)
Undeterred by the hyperbole we uncovered in our research, we pressed on with our plans to visit Greece, hoping for the best.  As it turned out, we had nothing to fear.  Border crossings for both countries were uneventful, coming and going.  What struck us most, however, was the immediate stark contrast between Greece, a thoroughly Western European country—despite its location on the Balkan peninsula—and Macedonia, which had suffered under Communist rule for 50 years, until 1991.
E-65 in Greece
We followed E-65, a European transnational highway, from Macedonia into Greece.  The difference in the quality of the road was stunning.  As soon as we entered Greece, the road suddenly became a limited access, dual carriageway with exceptional maintenance and meticulous signage.  We had not seen conditions like that in a long time.
On a secondary road to the lake shore 
Unrelated to the improved roads, we found that there was "something" indescribable in the quality of the light of northern Greece that made the scenery—for lack of a better word, just pop.  Whether it was atmospheric conditions or the influence of all those Greek gods, we cannot say, but the colors appeared more saturated, the light more glowing than most places, even those just across the border.

With no specific destination in mind, we meandered through the town of Florina and aimed our GPS at the shores of Lake Prespa, hoping to find something scenic.  As we approached the tiny village of Mikrolimni (pop. 72) on a narrow local road,  we chanced upon an interesting Greek character, Mr. Santos, hobbling along the road with the aid of his cane.

He waved us down, and when we stopped, he asked us in Greek if we could give him a ride into town.  We somehow understood what he needed and opened the door to the back seat.  He climbed in and off we went.  Later at a charming taverna on the lakeshore, we learned Mr. Santos' story from the restaurant owner's son-in-law.
He is currently 88 years old.  During the Greek Civil War in the 1940s, Mr. Santos allied himself with the Communist partisans.  While he was off in Yugoslavia for training, the Mikrolimni area was retaken by Greek government forces, making it unsafe for Mr. Santos to return to his village.  Subsequently, he lived for many years in Czechoslovakia and then the Soviet Union before finally being allowed to return to his home town in the 1980s.    
We enjoyed a lovely lunch of local dishes at the lakefront and wandered the area taking photos and enjoying the view before dragging ourselves away to return to Macedonia.

Tomorrow we'll drive to the Macedonian capital city, Skopje.  From all we've read, it should be a highlight of the trip.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Ohrid, Macedonia
    •  Ended in:  Bitola, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  186
    •  Miles walked: 12.23
    •  Weather:  49° to 73°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Swallow nests:  87
    •  Curves in the road:  324
    •  Incredible views of the lake:  217
    •  Ashtrays in sidewalk cafes:  4,839
    •  Letterboxes planted:  2

Loved:  The relief of four uneventful border crossings

More time to spend in Greece.  But we'll get back there soon.

Learned:  As if we needed it, we were reminded again–when seeing the direct contrast between Macedonia and Greece–of the struggles former Communist countries are still enduring in an attempt to catch up with the progress made elsewhere while they were oppressed.

More Photos
Swallows return to St. Naum on the lake because their mud nests attached to building eaves are tolerated at the monastery.
Our drive up to the summit of Mount Galicica in Macedonia's National Park Galicica
Remains of a courthouse at Heraclea
Floor mosaics set two thousand years ago retain their detail and color.
Greek scenery 
More Greek scenery


Balkans & Beyond, Days 46-47:  Berat, Albania to Ohrid, Macedonia.  The first two things we learned about Macedonia were:  1) that we didn't know how to pronounce it correctly (it's mah-kay-DOAN-yuh); and 2) that its name isn't really Macedonia.  Or it is.  Except it isn't.  Well, it all depends on who's talking.

In 1991, when the old Yugoslavian federation disintegrated, Macedonia, which had been one of its republics, declared its independence under the logical name Republic of Macedonia.  "Hold on just a minute!" Greece objected.  "You can't call yourself Macedonia.  Macedonia is the northern part of Greece, and you're stealing our name and identity."  This dispute has continued brewing since 1991, and feelings still run high.  As recently as February of this year, more than 100,000 Greeks rallied in Athens to protest the use of the word Macedonia in the name of the independent country on their northern border.
Greeks protest Republic of Macedonia's name  (photo by Reuters)
For almost three decades, Greek antipathy toward their neighbor's name has pushed the much larger nation to stand in the way of attempts by the Republic of Macedonia to join the UN, NATO, and the European Union.  The official Greek position has been to insist that the country be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), though many who live in the Macedonian region of Greece object to any use of the name whatsoever.

And that's just the last 30 years.  Macedonian history goes back another 2,800 years.  (No, that is not a typo.)  The kingdom of Macedonia was established in 808 BC.  That's well after ancient Egypt and China but some time before Greece and Rome.  By 330 BC, Macedonia had become the greatest European power under Philip II, setting the stage for his son Alexander to expand on his father's accomplishments when he ascended to the throne at age 20.
Under the ruler renowned as Alexander the Great, Macedonia conquered the Persians and expanded its borders from Europe to India to north Africa, making it the world's largest empire.  It was quite a run but it didn't last long.  By 300 BC, Alexander was dead at age 32, leaving no apparent heir.  The kingdom fell into civil war and Alexander's great empire was carved up.  Pieces of the once glorious Macedonia subsequently fell under Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Slav, and Turkish rule.

After gaining their independence from the Ottomans in 1878, three countries—Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia—competed for dominance over Macedonia.  None was successful, and when the Balkan Wars finally ended five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1913, the three countries split up Macedonia like they were sharing a pizza for lunch.  What is today the Republic of Macedonia was Serbia's piece.  Bulgaria and Greece have kept grips on their shares.

So there you have it—almost three thousand years of history in three paragraphs.  (That should put all the drama in today's American politics in perspective.)  Since we're in their country for a week, we're calling it what they do, the Republic of Macedonia.  We may try to drive into Greece for a day trip while here.  Then what?

Before dealing with that question, we must tell you about Ohrid (OAK-rid), the lovely Macedonian city by the lake.  We drove to Ohrid from Albania yesterday, arriving in a pouring rain.  Our Airbnb host met us in front of the apartment building, and showed us to the underground parking garage, a terrific piece of luck we weren't expecting.  After unpacking the car, we unfurled our umbrellas and set out to see some of this historic city.
Once a religious center reputed to have 365 churches—one for each day of the year—Ohrid (pop. 42,000) today is better known as a vacation spot than an ecclesiastical destination.  Descending downhill from the 10th century Samuil's Fortress, Ohrid's old town ends at the shore of the large lake of the same name.
Old town is still filled with historic churches and other ancient sites, including a Greek amphitheater built in 200 BC.  During Roman times, the theater was used for gladiator fights and executions of Christians.  Later the locals covered the theater to bury the memory of those tortures.  Not until the 1980s, during renovations to some houses in the old city, was the theater rediscovered and uncovered.  So thoroughly had early residents buried the hated institution, archaeologists found it quite well preserved.  After some restoration and the installation of a modern bandshell, the theater is once again in use—for concerts and other performances, no impalements permitted.
Many of the city's surviving churches—primarily Eastern Orthodox—have been restored to their original Byzantine design.  Frescoes from as early as the 11th century have undergone painstaking restoration with dazzling results.  The local Orthodox churches prohibit photographs inside, so we are unable to share the transformation.
St. Sophia Church, returned to its original purpose after serving as a mosque during the Ottoman period
Without question, Ohrid's most photographed church (exterior only) is the Church of St. John at Kaneo.  Perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking Kaneo Beach and the blue waters of Lake Ohrid, the church was built in the early 1400s.
Church of St. John
Yesterday was our 45th wedding anniversary and we celebrated with dinner at a small cafe near St. Sophia Church, near which we had just planted a letterbox.  Ken made the mistake of mentioning our marital benchmark to our waiter, who proudly returned with a gift from the restaurant manager—tiny goblets filled to the brim with the fire water known in the Balkans as rakia.
The deceptively innocuous looking beverage is synonymous with hospitality and celebration here, so refusing it was not an option.  We smiled, gritted our teeth, and downed as much as we were able, expressing our appreciation for the good wishes.
Down at shore level, Ohrid wraps around the lake with numerous waterfront cafes and a lengthy pedestrian only shopping street leading away from the lake.  In addition to souvenirs, clothing, groceries, and the usual shops, Ohrid has more than its share of jewelry stores selling baubles made with "Ohrid pearls."  Though it's difficult to ascertain the "real" story, legend has it that in the early 1900s, a Russian visiting Ohrid discovered that Lake Ohrid was home to a type of fish whose scales could be made into pearls through a very special, very secret process, which he sold for a nice price to a couple of local merchants.
We're no experts, but can the oyster be wrong about the authenticity of these baubles?
Of course, they can't disclose the process (more closely guarded than KFC's secret recipe), but ground shells and fish scales and some kind of liquid in a mysterious Russian bottle seem to be involved.  Two families are said to be the keepers of the secret and claim that all "the other" shops are selling cheap fake pearls from China and Turkey, not the "real" Ohrid pearls, which must seem pretty bogus from the oyster's perspective.

Though we've enjoyed a couple of days in Ohrid, even without purchasing any "pearls," tomorrow we'll leave Lake Ohrid and pass Lake Prespa on the way to the town of Bitola.

Two-Day Stats
    •  Started in:  Berat, Albania
    •  Ended in:  Ohrid, Macedonia
    •  Miles driven:  112
    •  Miles walked: 10.87
    •  Weather:  53° to 72°, rain, sunny, partly cloudy
    •  Years of wedded bliss:  45
    •  Swans on the lake:  24
    •  Street cats:  35
    •  Street dogs: 34
    •  Oldest frescoes:  11th century
    •  Shops selling "genuine Ohrid pearls":  63

Loved:  The Albania-Macedonia border runs down the middle of Lake Ohrid, so many people of Albanian heritage live in Ohrid.  Not that we don't think Macedonians are friendly, but we had numerous positive interactions, which led us to assume those persons were ethnic Albanians.

Thankfully, Ohrid is missing the large tourist groups we've seen in some places.  Most locals we chatted with said they see just small groups and most tourists come from Turkey and the Netherlands, both of which feature direct flights to Ohrid.

Learned:  We've certainly learned a lot about Macedonian history, and we're pretty puzzled about why Greece is putting up such a fuss.  No doubt we'll learn more in the upcoming days.

More Photos from Ohrid
Our practice with the Cyrillic alphabet helped us find UniBank to withdraw local currency.
What is it about swans that makes them so romantic?  Or was it just because it was our anniversary? 
A wonderful lakeside boardwalk 
Shopping in the rain 
Better weather today for visiting Samuil's Fortress
Ohrid's small marina
Several parks in cities we've visited have these electric cars for youngsters to drive.  
Memorial to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, brothers who invented the Cyrillic alphabet,
influenced the cultural development of Slavs, and
were declared equivalent to apostles in the Eastern Orthodox church.