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Feature 24 Aug 16

Secrets of Macedonia’s Colourful South

There is much more to Macedonia than Lake Ohrid. From the bustling casinos of Gevgelija to the calming blue waters of Lake Dojran, the area bordering Greece is a land of surprises.

Nemanja Cabric
BIRN
Belgrade
Lake Dojran. Photo by: dojran.gov.mk

From the town of Gevgelija, a haven for gamblers and kafana lovers, to the refreshing Lake Dojran or majestic Mt Kozuf, the border area between Macedonia and Greece has much to offer.

Some 550 kilometres down the E75 highway from Belgrade, a fascinating variation of the Balkan ambience beckons. Instead of apples and plums  - the usual fruits found in Serbia - pomegranates, figs and Fuji apples hang in bunches in front of houses and orchards.

Moreover, the grape for rakija here is yellow and often has a typical Hamburg aroma, which is unthinkable in, let’s say, Montenegro. The proximity of the Greek border makes this area also a place of transit. It all adds up to an interesting mixture of urban and rural life and of agriculture and tourism.

However, driving on the local roads is not something to be done in haste. Besides the holes and bumps, there are trucks, tractors and cyclists - and not a few carriages pulled by horses or donkeys. Not to mention the rocks on the road.

But the patience is more than worth it, and the biggest gamble around is certainly not the road.

Welcome to Vegas

The town of Gevgelija was once the southernmost point of Yugoslavia. Some 15,000 people lived here, mainly from agriculture. The warm climate and fertile soil, as well as silkworms, were once the source of the town’s prosperity.

Casino in Gevgelija. Photo by: gevgelija.gov.mk

Today, much of the population of Macedonia’s Las Vegas, as it is known, works in two big casinos owned by foreign investors.

Visitors from Greece, as well as other foreigners travelling through, stop by to try their luck. The casinos have their own hotels, restaurants, parking lots, spas, bars and offer various services, often for free, as long as one keeps on throwing the dice.

The fact that the town now attracts gambling tourists has changed its rural feel. These days, this can only be felt on Thursdays, the market day, when villagers and traders from the surrounding areas bring their fruit, vegetables and other products to town.

Besides the usual fish or barbecued meats, the restaurants or kafanas of Gevgelija serve tasty salads, made of freshly picked vegetables from local farms. Together they make a perfect snack, a meze in the local language, which goes nicely with a sip of rakija, which the locals often simply call zolta (yellow).

The trick in this town is to take small nibbles of food while drinking slowly and discussing politics, sports and history - perhaps another influence of the Mediterranean.

Climb every mountain

Around Gevgelija there are numerous picnic sites and resorts, the most famous of which is the 2,000-metre-high Mt Kozuf, which has a natural mineral spring, Smrdliva Voda, some 850 metres up, and a ski resort near the summit.

The forests around the ski resort are filled in autumn with blueberry pickers but a few tourists are still there, lurking in the restaurant located at the bottom of the ski slopes, which are closed by now.

Mt Kozuf near Gevgelija. Photo by: Ski Resort Kozuf

The ski resort in Kozuf is still in development, and although there are some ten tracks and a brand new lift with six seats, the resort hotels have yet to open. Real tourism is still in its early stages here, despite the beauty of the mountain, with its thick pine forests intersected by cold, rapid mountain streams, waterfalls and several-metre-deep ponds - perfect for cooling down in the peak of the summer.

Still, for those who wish to explore it, the mountain offers some 70km of marked hiking paths, and some extreme cycling paths are due to open, which will draw more people throughout the year. The two hotels, with around 300 beds in total, are in the finishing phase, while recently a new road was built all the way to the resort.

Stones’s throw from Greece

Lake Dojran gets its metallic blue shine from the reflection of the slopes of Mt Belasica and the snow that remains on the high peaks for the most of the year.

Besides the mountain, from the Star Dojran on the very border with Greece, one can see villages on the other side and a train rushing towards Thessaloniki, which is only some 50km further south.

Sunset over lake Dojran. Photo by: dojran.gov.mk

Once a town of some 2,000 families, a significant transit place in the Ottoman Empire, it was destroyed almost down to the ground in the Balkan Wars and the First World War, when it was cut in half by the so-called Thessaloniki Front.

Today, the Municipality of Dojran is divided in three areas – Star (Old) Dojran, Nov (New) Dojran and Nikolich.

Since the Fifties, the people who resettled the ruins of Star Dojran started developing tourism, but then the lake dried up in the Nineties as a result of over-use of its water for farming. Today, however, the level of water is back up – good news for the fish that the lake was once famous for in Ottoman times.

Only about one kilometre from the border with Greece, Dojran is a fine stopping place for swimming, even during the autumn, for dining in restaurants or by the beach, or for walking under the maples and watching the fisherman in their boats.

From Star Dojran, which offers simple but cheap accommodation, one can easily reach Mt Olympus in Greece, the  of Halkidiki peninsula, and - when returning home - the international airport in Thessaloniki.

The town of Nov Dojran. Photo by: dojran.gov.mk
Church near Gevgelija. Photo by: gevgelija.gov.mk
Old monastery in Dojran. Photo by: dojran.gov.mk
Dojran traditional dishes. Photo by: dojran.gov.mk

 

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