October Books 4) Macedonia

4) Macedonia: The Bradt Travel Guide, by Thammy Evans

It’s always a pleasure when someone you like writes a book you like about a subject you like. I’ve only known Thammy for a couple of years, but her husband is one of the two or three people still involved in the Balkans who I got to know when I first went out there in 1997. Her book is perhaps the first guide book ever written about Macedonia; I’m sure it won’t be the last. She rightly concentrates on the capital Skopje, its immediate surroundings, and the resort town of Ohrid on the lake of the same name; but she also devotes time to the rest of the country (broadly, the rest of the south-west, the rest of the north-west, the north-east and the south-east).

I’ve done less travel in Macedonia than she has, tending to yo-yo between Skopje and Ohrid; but on my first visit in 1997, I did a long tour taking in Štip, Strumica, Bitola, Gostivar and Tetovo, and during a lull in the 2001 fighting I participated in what in retrospect was a very bizarre trip down the western side of the country, through Tetovo, the Sveti Jovan Bigorski monatery, Debar and Struga, ending up with a prudent detour home through Prilep as the fighting intensified on the other road. (I also visited the Bektashi Shrine in Tetovo a few weeks ago.) Part of the thrill of a book like this is to plan for things I must go and see next time I am fortunate enough to be in the country; the stone age observatory near Kumanovo sounds particularly intriguing, and I want to get a better idea of what my grandfather was up to in the Lake Doiran campaigns of the first world war. Even around Skopje, which I thought I knew pretty well, there’s more stuff to discover – I’ve seen the sarcophagus of Goce Delčev in the courtyard of Sveti Spas on several occasions, but somehow never discovered the next-door exhibition about his life; nor was I aware of the grisly detail that the revolutionary hero’s head was lost shortly after his execution.

In her chapter on Lake Ohrid, she rightly extols the virtues of the special trout found only there. Alas, as she and I discovered over dinner in Skopje last time I saw her, you can’t get the Ohrid trout any more; they are under environmental protection, and simply not being sold in restaurants. At least, not in the restaurants I know of.

Slightly surprised that Gostivar is not one of the towns described in detail; it’s no less interesting than many of those that are. Also if I’d been on the editorial team I’d have used the more usual English names of some of the historical figures – Emperor Basil II, for instance, rather than Vasilie/Vasilius/Basilius, and Bohemund of Tarentum rather than Boemund of Tarent. Lazar Koliševski’s name is misspelt on one of the two occasions it is used. Few readers need be bothered by this kind of thing. Anybody fortunate enough to be going to Macedonia should buy the book.

Edited to add, May 2007: The second edition is now out, with an extra 80 pages and most of the points I note above addressed (including especially Gostivar). Even more strongly recommended.

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