I caught the aroma while pedaling up a hill in the vertical village of Brajcino, in southwest Macedonia. Snapping my head to the left to locate the source, I spied a woman out of the corner of my eye, stirring whatever was in a wide enamel pot.
Could it be? As much as I hated losing momentum, I had to stop and see.
A few hours earlier, at our adorable stone guesthouse in Ljubojno, one village down the road, my wife and I had sampled our first homemade ajvar (EYE-var) — a rich roasted-red-pepper spread popular across the Balkans. We’d been served it at breakfast with a basket of fresh, crusty bread. While I’m usually not one to indulge in garlicky dishes with my morning coffee, I could not stop plastering thick layers of the condiment on slice after slice. I’m so glad I did, because it turned out to be the best we tasted all week.
We were on a layover day during a bike tour around several mountain lakes in Macedonia, a fascinating, struggling country that has at various times been ruled by the Romans, Slavs, Bulgarians, Serbs and Ottomans and has been at odds with Greece for decades.
At breakfast, our indifferent driver, who shuttled our luggage and grudgingly pointed out a minimum of sights, had displayed a rare burst of enthusiasm when describing the ritual of making ajvar in her homeland of Bulgaria.
“Families get together and cook the entire day — you must stir and stir for hours, and your arm gets really tired,” she said with a bright smile. “This is the time of year for cooking, when the peppers are ready.”
Indeed, on our first two days of cycling, we’d passed house after house festooned with rows of drying peppers like red dangly earrings.
Since hearing our driver’s reminiscences, I’d been on the lookout (sniff-out?) for an ajvar cooking session and was thrilled to have perhaps found one.
“Hello,” I said to the woman, who I saw had a sheltered stove area set up outside her house. I wondered how I would pantomime my question, since I’d encountered few English speakers in this region.
Thankfully, not only did Divna Kostovska turn out to be one of them, but she also rents rooms and cooks traditional dishes for travelers, meals that might include a portion from this huge batch of what she confirmed was ajvar.
“I thought I smelled the peppers several times today,” I told her, watching as she stirred in wide circles. Buckets of freshly plucked tomatoes, peppers and a large pile of white beans drying in the sun surrounded her.
“That’s because we have time to cook because it’s a free day,” she said, referring to the Sept. 8 holiday celebrating the country’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
When I complimented her plump tomatoes, she handed one to each of us.
“Here, taste,” she said, watching as Selina and I bit into the ripened globes, leaving little puddles of juice and seeds on the pavement.
Kostovska said that soon she and her family would harvest their apple crop — orchards blanket this region around Lake Prespa — hoping to sell some 25,000 apples for export to Russia, Iran and Iraq.
Brajcino, like its neighboring villages, has lost much population to emigration. In a country whose unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent, many people leave in search of economic security. Others stay put, eking out a living farming and, in some cases, catering to curious travelers such as us.
This leisurely day of poking around on our bikes was one of our favorites. We visited the border at a gated road to nearby Greece, closed since the 1960s but still guarded (we know because we were shouted away); gestured our way into what turned out to be — we think — a private mausoleum, if we translated the Cyrillic signs correctly; and followed empty dirt roads in search of a lakefront beach that apparently doesn’t exist, but along the way we saw some unexpected wildlife. Selina spotted a lynx, and I did a double take when I saw a pelican, a shorebird I later learned is common here. The day ended with a stunning sunset over mountains ringing the lake and then a “fresh catch of the day” dinner: a trout plucked from the on-site aquaponics farm at our pension, Stara Cesma.
The tour itself had gotten off to a rough start. I’d arranged our trip through BikeTours.com, an American company that acts as a broker for local operators around the world. I’d wanted to sign on with a Macedonian company, but the only time frame that worked for us was with a Bulgarian outfitter (with which BikeTours.com has since parted ways). I figured that would be fine, despite what I’d read about some nationalistic antagonism between the countries. I figured wrong. Our guide, within our first five minutes together, expressed her disdain for Macedonians and the country she’d be leading us through. To add to our unease, the two other people who had signed up had canceled at the last minute, so it was just us and Ms. Bulgaria. Luckily, we had an excellent guidebook and a keen interest in this landlocked mountainous country the size of Vermont.
Our first night was spent in Krushevo, one of the highest towns in the Balkans, at about 4,400 feet, where Macedonians ski in the winter. We visited its two best-known sites: a shiny, modern memorial to Tose Proeski, a famous Macedonian pop singer who died at age 26 in 2007, and a surprisingly shabby monument honoring the still-
recognized 1903 uprising against the Ottoman Empire, when the “Republic of Krushevo” became an independent state for all of 10 days.
In the evening, we toasted with local Skopsko beers and watched the sky dim from the hilltop patio at the Hotel Montana Palace (we stayed at a much smaller inn), which looks over the town of some 5,300 people. Although the hotel was billed as four-star, its backside was derelict, with crumbling stairwells and peeling walls — a condition we came to recognize as common, especially in areas with holdover Communist-era buildings.
That evening we ate bowls heaped with what became our addiction — the iconic Shopska salad, similar to Greek salad, with fresh and chunky tomatoes and cucumbers smothered with grated, salty white cheese. The bill came to $12 for a juicy burger cooked with cheese in the middle, grilled potatoes, two large salads with perfect tomatoes and large Greek olives, a basket of just-baked bread, a beer, and two glasses of outstanding Macedonian wine — and that wasn’t even our cheapest meal of the week.
The next day, our first of cycling, we found ourselves amid fields of tobacco, one of Macedonia’s main exports. It was harvest time, and we passed garlands of leaves tied into small bundles to dry. Some hung under homemade wooden shelters while others were strung like necklaces against building walls. The riding itself was mostly on rural roads, but on this day and others we had to share some stretches of highways with fast-moving cars. Overall, road riding here felt as safe, or unsafe, as it does in much of the United States, though the cars are much older on average and spew more exhaust.
We spent the night in the city of Bitola, which has a delightful, bustling historic town center. Just outside town, we toured the amazing Heraclea Lyncestis, a once-thriving Roman settlement along the Via Egnatia, a trading road built by the Romans in the 2nd century B.C. Only a small percentage of the ruins have been excavated, but visitors can see a basilica foundation, a Roman amphitheater, architectural elements and two very impressive mosaic floors. Sadly, the treasures are not well explained, maintained or protected, but viewing them in any shape was impressive.
From Bitola we cycled south to the Lake Prespa region on an ascending mountain road, partially paved with century-old cobblestones and with next to no traffic. We stopped at bushes heavy with sweet blackberries, plucking here and there until we’d had our fill. From our road looking down on smatterings of villages, we could see church crosses and mosque minarets as well as hear church bells and calls to prayer — daily reminders here of the fragile relationship between Macedonia’s Slavic-speaking majority, who are traditionally Orthodox Christians, and the Muslim ethnic Albanians, who account for nearly a quarter of the population.
As we coasted down from the top, we came to the border of Pelister National Park, open since 1948 and noted for its ancient molika pine trees and abundant wildlife. Here it was particularly painful to see what we confronted every day in Macedonia — roadside litter and piles of dumped trash.
After spending the next two days in relative seclusion, I was curious to reach our final overnight spot at touristy Lake Ohrid, where both the lake and historic town are protected by UNESCO for their environmental and cultural significance. The lake is deep and huge — about 948 feet deep with about 62 miles of coastline, part of that in Albania. It’s also one of Europe’s oldest lakes, dating back 3 million to 5 million years.
First, though, we had a full day of cycling and some mountains to climb, as we set out to conquer the same peaks we’d leisurely admired during sunsets over Lake Prespa. Our hosts at Stara Cesma, bless their hearts, had prepared a hearty meal for our challenge: deep-fried piroshki stuffed with meat and peppers, served with homemade tartar sauce. Though not the usual athlete’s breakfast, the heavy snacks fueled us back around the lake and up the 2,350-foot climb, with grueling grades of 6 to 10 percent. On the way up, we passed the creepy Hotel Evropa, a massive abandoned property whose lake view was its sole remaining amenity. As we climbed above the tree line, our hard work was rewarded with stellar sights of Lake Prespa and surrounding villages. Finally, from the windswept pass at 5,144 feet, we had our first look at Lake Ohrid, giant even from so high up.
Once lakeside, we were in tourist country. We passed patio cafes thick with cigarette smoke, souvenir kiosks and rows of gift shops in the striking town of cobblestone streets and terra-cotta-tiled roofs. Along with the lake, Ohrid’s treasures are found in its architecture and many Byzantine churches with frescoed interiors. The most photogenic is the 13th-century Church of St. John at Kaneo, perched on a small lakeside cliff, where we elbowed our way to the overlook above it. We also visited the 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater and the Tsar Samuil Fortress, built in the 10th century A.D., probably atop an older fortification.
Our final day of riding took us back into the mountains, as we followed a snaking line of water that grew from a creek to a wide river, passing remote settlements dotted with crosses and minarets. Our guide picked us up in Debar, clearly energized to be soon heading back to Bulgaria. To her credit, she didn’t follow the lead of some other drivers heading to Skopje as they passed on blind curves with no-passing lines, a fearful sight we’d witnessed earlier from our bikes.
Checking out the center of Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, after a week of cycling reminded me of stopping off in Las Vegas at the end of a hiking trip — a whiplash switch from serenity to spectacle. Skopje’s leaders have controversially overhauled the main square to add faux neoclassical buildings, hundreds of statues and an Arc de Triomphe knockoff. Fortunately, the sights on the other side of the Vardar River, which divides the city, are more authentic. There, the popular Old Bazaar area, dating to the 12th century, is a pleasant jumble of cobblestone streets and Ottoman architecture now filled with restaurants and shops drawing locals and tourists.
We had an early flight the next morning, so we headed for a restaurant near our hotel that we’d read served great traditional food. After a long search, we found it closed — for good. Changing course, we came upon Nadzak, a restaurant whose outdoor tables fill up a street corner. We called the bounty from this unremarkable-looking place our Macedonia miracle — perfectly grilled kebabs served with a huge bowl of the second-best ajvar we’d had, and fresh charred bread. For dessert? Shopska salads, of course.
Diane Daniel is a writer in Veldhoven, Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
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Village guesthouse includes basic rooms and Macedonian dishes cooked to order. Rooms from $30.
Kej Marsal Tito 112, Ohrid
Among the nicer waterfront hotels, at the end of the town wharf. Lakeview rooms from $68.
Nikola Vapcarov 10, Skopje
Modern, four-star hotel in central location. Rooms from $103.
Braka Miladinovi Br. 14, Ohrid
Serves traditional Macedonian dishes and has a patio that overlooks an amphitheater, the city and the lake. Entrees from $5.
Marshal Tito 88, Bitola
Take a break from tradition and try some of the country’s best pizza. From $2 a pie.
Orce Nikolov 105, Skopje
A neighborhood favorite that specializes in grilled dishes. Entrees from $5.
Bukovska St., Bitola
Partially excavated ruins of a settlement dating to the 2nd century B.C. that includes an amphitheater, mosaics and more. Admission $2, plus $5.50 to take photographs.
Kaneo Plaosnik Pateka
The exterior view from above is more famous than the frescoed interior. Admission $2.
Tsar Samuil Fortress
A centuries-old fortress atop Ohrid, with views of the lake and surroundings. Admission $1.
Three-hour walking tour that covers all the highlights. Meets 10 a.m. daily at the entrance to Memorial House of Mother Teresa (Macedonia Str. bb, Skopje). Free, but tips welcome.
Bicycling in Macedonia
I recommend the nine-night Discover Macedonia: Biking guided tour by BikeTours.com, which includes lodging and many meals. Tour is $1,700.