Sunday, 10 November 2013

Ghost Villages of Mariovo (Macedonia)

Simon Raven and Chris Raven head to the Mariovo wilderness in search of ghost villages, gold mines, buried treasure and century old French cognac.

Golden sunlight across the hills of Mariovo, Macedonia. (Photo © Chris Raven)

By Simon Raven

It was during a road trip to the Western Balkans when I first heard about the legend of Mariovo. It was the peak of summer in Macedonia, and we’d set up camp beside Lake Prespa on the far side of the Mt Galičica National Park. Whilst feasting on watermelon in the late afternoon, a car approached our quiet spot and a friendly local guy asked if we minded sharing our space with his family. Setting up a picnic table in the shade with his wife and daughter, they'd kindly invited us to join them for some food. Eating delicious fresh Ohrid trout and tasting strong Macedonian Rakia, Goran talked excitedly about his career as a Sports Producer for the Macedonian equivalent of the BBC. Between mouthfuls of fish, he recommended places for us to visit in Macedonia. His personal favourite was Krusevo, a pretty ski town in the hills, but it was his description of a region of ghost villages and gold mines called Mariovo that immediately captured our imaginations.

French war cemetery, Bitola.
(Photo ©  Chris Raven)
Travelling through the glorious lush green Macedonian countryside the following morning, we past beautiful meadows and picked small wild plums from trees growing at the roadside. We quickly reached the bustling city of Bitola, and nudging our way through the traffic we saw colourful 18th and 19th century townhouses, high rise apartment blocks and a number of mosques. Asking a shopkeeper for directions, we turned right at the Clock Tower (Saat Kula) and soon reached the outskirts of town and a large war cemetery. Small metal crosses painted blue, white and red, in the colours of the French flag, marked the graves of the thousands of soldiers killed in the Mariovo region of Macedonia in 1915 during the First World War.

Driving into the countryside for a few kilometres, we past a power plant close to the small village of Novaci, before branching off onto a smaller road that cut across a barren landscape of gently undulating golden hills dotted with green shrubs. Not a single car past by on the road, as we penetrated deeper into this wild region with a rugged beauty similar to the Badlands of South Dakota. Chris pointed out that Mariovo is bounded in the south by a historically sensitive border with Greece, and I glanced at the map and saw that the Voras Mountains (with Kajmakčalan standing 2,520 metres at its peak) separate Macedonia from Greece in a fortress of rock.

Derelict house, Mariovo, Macedonia.
(Photo © Chris Raven) 
Turning a sharp corner, a cluster of houses appeared below the road belonging to the village of Rapeš. Many of the stone cottages looked abandoned, with collapsed roofs and walls. A fire had completely destroyed one property leaving behind a charred mess. We photographed the faded beauty of the traditional Macedonian architecture below, and noticed some of the houses at the back of the settlement looked like they may be occupied. There were one or two cars dotted around, but no people. Continuing a short way out of town, the narrow tarmac road became unpaved. Applying the brakes and dropping down a gear, we bumped over uneven ground as gravel and stones crunched under the tyres. Weaving around the dry hills with our long dust tail trailing behind us, we began to climb steeply in altitude. With the temperature outside over 30°C, we rallied cautiously through the Macedonian countryside in our small one litre hatchback; the hole in the exhaust causing the car to imitate the sound of a light aircraft. Watching the road fall away steeply to the left, we looked down into the canyon a hundred metres below, and caught sight of a turquoise river cutting through a mass of lush green trees.

River Crna, Mariovo, Macedonia. (Photo © Simon Raven)
Reaching the bottom of the canyon, we crossed a small stone bridge and parked close to the river. Folding the map out on the hood of the car, we discovered we were stood on the banks of the River Crna. I followed its meandering course with my finger through the Mariovo region all the way to Lake Tikveš in Macedonia’s wine region, approximately 100km’s north. Deciding to explore the river canyon on foot, we followed a path that wound its way down river. Fighting our way through the overgrown forest, we spotted bright pink carnations peeking out of the thick green foliage, and saw crabs, frogs, butterflies and birdlife in abundance on the banks of the crystal clear river that bubbled with trout. Hearing a shriek overhead, we looked up above the steep rocky wall of the canyon and watched a large brown eagle soaring overhead in the deep blue sky. Continuing along the river, a Hermann's tortoise made its way across the path. It didn’t seem particularly concerned by our presence, so we squatted down and watched as it pushed its way through the dry leaves. It raised its head and looked up at two inquisitive giants, before disappearing very slowly into the forest.

Simon Raven with wild Hermann's tortoise.
(Photo © Chris Raven)
After a refreshing swim in the river, we rejoined the unpaved road and fought our way out of the canyon in a dust cloud. With the car exhaust sounding noisier than before, we paused at the summit and looked out across a new vista of dry plains and strange cratered hills. Sharp rocks dotted across the landscape rose like tombstones out of the earth. Driving further on, we saw signs of humanity in the shape of a long dry stone wall that followed the road. For centuries the twenty-five ghost villages in this region were once wealthy sheep-herding centres. War and Tito’s nationalisation program had killed them, forcing people to seek work in Bitola, and other parts of Macedonia.

Continuing to climb in the repressive midday heat, we mounted a particularly steep hill and felt the car begin to judder. I glanced down at the dashboard and noticed the needle on the temperature gauge had risen to danger level. We skidded to a halt in the shade of a lone tree. Steam bellowed from beneath the bonnet, as the water in the radiator began to boil aggressively in the intense heat. Waiting for the engine to cool, I took a walk along the dry stone wall and studied the jigsaw puzzle of rocks. I'd found one rock to be loose, and managed to wiggle is free. Peering inside the deep cavity, I began to wonder what the workers might have looked like, and tried to imagine the faces of the soldiers and pioneers in search of gold who may have past by. During the First World War, French and British troops fought against the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians in this region and were slaughtered in their thousands. Recalling what Goran had told us on the banks of Lake Prespa, about how it was rumoured people had found gold and century old French Cognac left by the troops in this region, I gingerly explored the cavity in the wall with my hand before sliding the rock back in place.

Returning to the car, we topped up the radiator with fresh water and made it up the hill without any further trouble. Spotting a narrow track forking off to the right across a field, we studied a rusty signpost that was speckled with pot marks from where someone had shot it repeatedly with a rifle. Curious to know what lay at the end of the track, we began to drive cautiously across a field. The pathway appeared to have been heavily used in the past, and we zigzagged from left to right in a bid to avoid damaging our deteriorating exhaust. After about 2km, I slammed on the brakes when I saw an old pick-up truck approaching us at speed in the opposite direction. Chris threw me a look of concern, and I glanced over my shoulder and realised there wasn’t any room to turn around. The truck mounted the bank and pulled up alongside us. With loud music blasting from their car stereo, the three local men sat in the front stared at us vacantly.
  “Ghost villages this way?” Chris smiled, pointing down the dusty track.
  The old guy driving, who looked cross-eyed and stereotypically rural in a red checked shirt and baseball cap, turned to his buddies for help. The young guy in the middle leaned forward.
  “Where, you go?” he asked.
  “We’re exploring,” I replied.
  The kid frowned, and the fat guy sat next to him elbowed him in the ribs and began to laugh.
  “No problem, we’ll turn around,” Chris grinned, pointing over his shoulder.
  All three men began to laugh and, feeling embarrassed, we thanked them and continued down the track until we reached a section of the track wide enough to reverse the car.

Photographer Chris Raven with the Corsa hatchback, Mariovo, Macedonia.
(Photo © Simon Raven)
By the time we reached the main road, the pick-up truck was nowhere to be seen. Agreeing it might be a bad idea to go wandering off into the hills, we decided instead to drive to the next abandoned ghost village on the map. Enjoying the journey, as we bounced around inside our small car, we eventually reached a plateau and admired the stunning view of Mt Kajmakčalan and the Voras Mountain range on the horizon. In the foreground we could see the five centuries old settlement of Staravina to our left, and a few kilometres further on was Gradesnica, the largest village in the region with 80 inhabitants. Driving to the entrance of the first village, we past a derelict church and crawled along the main street along a row of spooky abandoned houses. Old rotten post boxes stood glumly at the rusty gates, waiting for mail that would never arrive. Turning a sharp bend we past an old farmhouse, and saw a large black dog in the road. It barked ferociously at us. In the field to our left a large herd of grazing sheep with thick woolly coats suddenly appeared in view. Surprised to see life out here, Chris fired a few shots out of the window with his camera. We eventually reached the end of the village and saw a car parked on the drive outside a house. One or two houses to the left of the track also appeared to be occupied. Not wishing to intrude, or freak anybody out by our sudden appearance in this quiet forgotten corner of Macedonia, we spun the car around and made our way slowly back through the village.

Passing the same old farmhouse, I began to fantasise about moving out here; renovate one of these beautiful old abandoned cottages and spend the rest of my days hunting for buried treasure, French Cognac and forgotten villages locked in time. As we turned the final corner and headed back towards the main track, I squinted in the bright sunlight as we approached a military jeep parked at the roadside. Two men in uniform stepped out into the road and flagged us down. I noticed they both had their hands on their guns. We climbed out of the car, and smiled nervously. The older of the two officers, with deep lines in his face and shortly cropped grey hair, spoke to us sternly in Macedonian. He was tough with a military physique, and I wondered if he might have seen action during the Bosnian War. He asked for our passports and searched the inside of the car. Then he ordered his rookie colleague to make a call, an identity check. We waited patiently while the older officer eyeballed us. He spat on the floor, and I got the distinct impression he would quite like to give us both a good hiding. The rookie finished his phone call, and the older officer said that we had to turn around now and head back to Bitola. We obediently nodded our heads to show we understood, and climbed back into the car. They watched as we drove off down the dirt track.

Despite feeling slightly shaken by the experience of being grilled by the Macedonian military, the journey back to Bitola turned out to be quite eventful. First we were stopped in our tracks by an extremely large supersized beetle, approximately 10cm in length, and moments later by a suicidal Hermann’s tortoise relaxing in the middle of the road. Crossing the River Crna in the beautiful warm light of the setting sun, we weaved across the rocky plains with pink quartz, granite and shale twinkling like a billion stars across the hillsides. We may not have found gold or treasure during our time in the Mariovo wilderness, but spending time in this fascinating and beautiful region of the Western Balkans, we’d discovered something much more valuable…a hidden gem.

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