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Friday, September 30, 2016

9/23:Skopje: Boating, Caving & Hiking in Lake Matka

Steven came down with a bad cold all of a sudden last night so we decided to take it easy in the morning so he could rest. I thought about taking a bus up to the Millenium Cross but spent the time  instead writing one of the posts. We walked to the bus station and got the # 60 bus to Lake Matka at 1:30. It’s a manmade lake that was made by damming the Treska River in 1937 and lies in a steep ravine of the Treska Valley. 

It was supposed to have been just a 30 minute drive but it ended up taking more than double that because of bad traffic. Since it’s so close to the city, it's one of the favorite weekend destinations for Skopje citizens. The area is famous for its many mountain hikes that put Lake Matka on the to-do list of the more active visitors. The area is also home to several monasteries that cling to the mountainsides, each one with its own astonishing history. 
As we began walking up the canyon, it felt like we had been transported back through Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon with its rugged mountains and river running through it.

The water was the clearest emerald green imaginable.
The dam:
The rather frightening list showing how long particular items will take to decompose.

What lovely wedding photos these must have been but how uncomfortable too, traipsing on the narrow path in a full length ball gown. 

I loved the reflection of the cliff and the dam in the lake.

We shortly came to St. Andrew Orthodox Church that I went into alone so Steven could rest up outside. I think he was also becoming ‘iconed out’ and needed a breather from them for a bit which I certainly understood.

The Church, built in 1389, was dedicated to St. Andrew, the first Apostle. It has fabulous medieval frescoes that were some of the best remaining from that period. 

We got one of the hour long boat cruises up the canyon that only cost about seven bucks each and included commentary. However, that didn’t help us one bit as it was all in Macedonian! I was lucky that I was able to snag a front row seat and thus had gorgeous views all the way up! 

The skies were just the clearest blue imaginable which contributed to the fantastic views and made it so easy to take decent photos.

A number of the tourists on the bus from Skopje rented kayaks and canoes and saw the amazing canyon that way. If Steven had felt better and we had started earlier in the day, we might also have considered doing that too but not in the mid afternoon.

Absolutely vertical cliff face in this spot.

We saw some trees just beginning to change from a rich dark green to golden yellow. We could only imagine how even more beautiful the colors would look a little later in the fall with all the trees an absolute riot of color.

Twenty minutes later, we all got off the boat as we had come to the point where we could climb up a hill high above the canyon to get access to Europe’s largest underwater caverns, Vrelo Cave.
The view of the canyon was stupendous from high above it.
The entrance to the cave and the map showing its lakes.
Lights in the cave were run by a portable generator that must have been low on fuel or had a faulty connection as the lights were intermittent at best! Steven had the flashlight you had given him last year for Hannukah, Natalie, so that came in very handy yet again.
The cave had many stalactites including a large ‘Pine Cone’ named due to its shape. Think that's another duh moment!
The marvels of nature: The colors and shapes were magnificent. 

One of the underwater lakes in the cave:
Steven looked so good even though he felt so lousy.
Recently Italian divers have plumbed the depths of the lake accessible through the cave here.

Seeing my hair in this photo appearing so 'blond' meant it was well past time to dye it!
When we saw the boat dock, we knew the cruise up the canyon was almost over.
We decided on the spur of the moment to follow the example of another couple who had asked to be dropped off on the other side of the lake. The boatman who all of a sudden could indeed speak English, told us to hammer the gong when we were ready to have the boat come back for us!
The boat returning to the dock on the opposite side:
Our goal was to hike to St. Nicholas Monastery somewhere up the mountain. But we sure didn't know how far it was or the difficulty of the climb when we began the hike. In retrospect, that sounded pretty stupid.
We hiked up to St. Nicholas Monastery which turned out be one of the steepest hikes we’ve been on in many years. Beechwoods, the small pink flowers at the lower elevations, were just exquisite.

What a perfect day for an early autumn hike. We were so thankful it wasn’t any hotter though as that would have been miserable. 
We got to a point where we’d been hiking uphill the entire time and wondered whether we should keep going or cut our losses and turn around and go back down. There were no distance markers so we had no idea how much higher up the monastery was, plus Steven was feeling lousy. He said we should just continue on since we had come ‘this far.’ So, on we went and fairly soon we were finally rewarded with a view of St. Nicholas Monastery. We were so happy but felt deflated when we realized it was closed.
The date of construction of the church is unknown. The first mention of it was in the 17th century, during Ottoman rule. It was deserted in the 1700s, found roofless in 1816 and revived, then abandoned again in 1897.

View from the open door of the WC: Who would want a door when there was this stupendous view anyway?
While we were at the top drinking in the gorgeous views, we chatted with three people who had spent the last three hours hiking all the way from the Millenium Cross in Skopje. They were still hoping to get a boat or a kayak down the lake to see the cave.

Views of the monastery:

I climbed up these steps only to realize that the railing hung loosely and wasn't attached to anything. Thank goodness I hadn't tried to hold on to it for support.

The Macedonian flag was painted on the side of one of the buildings.

What a huge sense of accomplishment we both had knowing we had reaced the top and hadn't thrown in the towel when the going had gotten tough on the hike up the mountain.

Climbing the mountain peaks in Matka Canyon is a very popular activity beginning about Easter time and ending in November. These must have been some serious rock climbers as they were starting out about 4:30 in the afternoon and they would have little sun left to get down the mountain in a short period of time.

The temperature dropped a lot on our hike down and we were both relieved we had thought to bring our sweater/fleece as we needed them then. 
Hitting the gong calling for our boat ride back across the lake!
What great service as we only had to wait a minute or two before our ‘boat taxi’ or should that be ‘taxi boat’ arrived?!

Seeing the trail map, we noticed then that we had been on a Red Hiking Trail which was designated for experienced hikers. No wonder it had been challenging! Alexander and Cory: I am sure you would have breezed up and down like mountain goats but we were a lot slower than that!

We had to wait for a while for the bus back to Skopje and were pretty tuckered out when we got back to the hostel around 7. 

When I think of Skopje, I shall remember the city’s fabulously excessive monuments and statues, the partially underground Sveti Spas Church, the Color Revolution and its unfortunate paintballs, the exquisite Stone Bridge and idyllic Lake Matka.

Posted from Berat, Albania on September 30th, 2016.

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