I've been meaning to write this blog post since I came back from Macedonia last year, but life got in the way. The other reason for the delay was that I worked on a documentary project whilst I was there and I wanted to complete that body of work before posting any of the Macedonian images. The project I worked on will hopefully be ready for viewing in a month or so, but in the meantime I thought I'd present a selection of images that don't fit in with the project but that I liked. I have included them in this post along with some information on travelling and photography in Macedonia with the Fuji X cameras.
I don't like writing too much about gear, but the experience of travelling with the Fuji X system is great. I remember when using Nikon that my travel kit used to weigh around 10kg. It was cumbersome and wasn't exactly subtle. Now my travel kit fits in a small bag and weighs around 2kg at most. At the time of this trip my kit was the Fuji X-T1, Fuji X-E2, Fuji X-100s, Fuji 18-55mm, Fuji 55-200mm and Fuji 35mm f2. I ended up using the X-T1 and 18-55 combo for most of the trip. The 18-55mm kit lens is super sharp and well worth keeping in your bag. It's sharp enough to be a main workhorse lens, with only the construction letting it down a little.
Sian and I didn't know much about Macedonia before travelling. We chose it as a destination because the flights were cheap and it was somewhere we hadn't been before. The country is in the Balkan region and borders Greece, Albania and Slovakia. Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia and still has plenty of communist influences, however as it makes a push for full membership of the EU it is increasingly looking to Greece for inspiration. There is some dispute with its neighbour, as Greece does not recognise the name "Macedonia". The name comes from an Ancient Greek region that geographically may not have been where current Macedonia sits. History is also disputed as Macedonia have claimed Alexander the Great as one of their heroes. He came from the ancient region of Macedonia. The formal name for the country is The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, I will be referring to it as Macedonia for simplicity. The clashes of influences makes for an interesting mix of architecture and culture, especially in the capital, Skopje.
The public transport in Macedonia is ok but limited as it basically centres around Skopje and the lake resort of Ohrid. There were parts of the country that we were hoping to visit that were a bit difficult on public transport so we decided to hire a car. Driving in Macedonia is really easy and the roads are wide. Some of the mountain roads were a little tight, but most of the time you could fit two cars through. Although you do miss things whilst concentrating on driving, it was really nice to be able to pull off the road and stop any place we saw something interesting.
Despite the name, The lake and town of Ohrid is a really beautiful and relaxing place to be. Most flights from the UK fly into Ohrid as it is the main holiday destination in the region. The lake itself is one of the world's deepest and oldest lakes and when looking out it feels more like an ocean. Its a lovely place to relax and take in some of the culture of the region. Apparently in the summer it can get incredibly busy, but in early May it was pleasant and not too hot. The town itself is not huge and has its fair share of usual tourist shops and cafes, but with a bit of exploration you can uncover some lovely areas. For street photography it will probably keep you busy for a day or so. There are plenty of trips around the lake and you can even take a ferry into Albania. We didn't do that on this trip but I am hoping to go back.
After three days enjoying the Lake we collected our car and drove to the capital, Skopje. We took the scenic route through one of the mountain ranges and stopped at a few places along the way. I was a bit concerned about driving through the mountains but it was very easy. We stopped at the St. John the Forerunner Bigorski Monastery in the Mavrovo National Park. It was a beautiful setting although the light was a bit rubbish for pictures. It was quiet and tranquil, again I was thankful for my Fuji gear that allowed me to photograph quietly in this situation.
St. John the Forerunner Bigorski Monastery
On arriving in Skopje we promptly got lost. The road of our Airbnb had a similar name to a road 2 miles away and we spent ages on the wrong road trying to find the flat. In the end we stopped and asked directions from some people looking at us curiously. Luckily for us they spoke good English and helped us contact the guy at the Airbnb to find out where the flat was located. They offered to drive us to the location, so we set off in convoy and when we arrived they helped us with introductions. We were touched by their kindness.
Throughout this trip it became apparent that the Macedonian people are very welcoming and friendly. Most will stop and help you if needed. At one point, in the latter stages of the trip, our car became stuck in a low ditch. Luckily the first person to drive past stopped to help. He spoke excellent English and we tried to move the car with no luck. In the end it took 8 of us, a tractor and a lorry to move the car (surprisingly there was no long term damage). All in all about twenty people stopped to help and offer support. My only regret was that I didn't capture the moment on camera.
The entire city of Skopje appears to be in the process of being renovated. Many of the soviet style buildings, especially in the centre, are in the process of being replaced with more ornate ones that are Greek in style. Lots of faux marble pillars and multiple statues, all recently erected. It makes for an interesting back drop.
Just before we arrived in Skopje, there had been protests over Government spending. The protestors had thrown paint at the newly installed monuments to protest the expense. The action was effective at bringing attention to the protestor's concerns and the paint-splattered statues added another dimension to the city, even for people unfamiliar with the city's politics. No protests took place whilst we were there, although we did notice the police presence at times.
Skopje is surrounded by mountains. Mt. Vodno overlooks the city and has a large cross on the top which lights up at night. You can take a cable car up to the top of the mountain for a closer look at the cross and great views over the city and the surrounding landscape. It is quite an interesting structure and we spent a couple of hours wandering the top of the mountain. Strangely there were also few bedraggled cows up there.
After Skopje we made our way back to Ohrid via the winery at Popova Kula (well worth the cost, we stayed the night here) and a stay at Villa Dihovo near Bitola. I would recommend Villa Dihovo as base to explore Bitola and the surrounding mountains. Its a nice little lodge which operates a pay what you feel policy. The only thing that has set prices is the wine (made at their own winery). All the food is homegrown and organic. It was quite the experience and worth an excursion. You get welcomed in by the owners and really made to feel at home.
When we first arrived there, they were having a family day and a group of musicians were during the rounds from house to house in the village, which of course I had to capture.
My experience of photographing in Macedonia was a pleasant one. I have heard that in some rural parts people are suspicious of photography as some believe it steals the soul. I did not experience any issues. Shooting with the Fuji system helped as it is pretty unassuming and not as threatening as a full DSLR kit. I also think I capture more intimate moments with the Fuji because I always have it with me, where as with a DSLR I may have been tempted to leave it at the hotel on some occasions.
I would recommend Macedonia to anyone, it is a beautiful country with a diverse landscape and enough interesting places to visit. The people can be a bit cold to begin with, but are helpful and welcoming ones the ice has been broken. English is not widely spoken outside of Skopje and Ohrid but that is to be expected and it is easy enough to get by. For me the best thing about Macedonia was that there were not huge amounts of tourists. We quite often found ourselves the only people in a museum or on a mountainside on a nice sunny day. It felt like an easily accessible adventure.
Please get in touch to ask any questions or share your stories in the comments.