“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” – William Shakespeare
Though I love the energy and cultural offerings characteristic of the world’s largest cities, I am most at home in natural settings. During my childhood, I’d go ‘on safari’ in my backyard, passing away hours hiking and hunting for fossils and critters. It comes as no surprise then that during our travels to *Macedonia, I was eager to escape the southeast European nation’s hectic capital city of Skopje to visit the serene Matka Canyon, which is only 30 minutes’ drive from Skopje.
It was approaching the late afternoon hours when our zestful guides from Macedonia Experience, Ljupco and Aleksandar, picked us up from central Skopje. We rode through a countryside composed of rolling verdant hills and dotted with cherry-red poppy flowers and the minarets of mosques. Having been hosted by Ljupco the night before at a wine tasting, we’d learned all about life in the Macedonian countryside, which apparently teems with homemade fig and walnut marmalade, lokum (similar to Turkish Delight treats), and baklava. Ljupco explained that rural dwellers still often welcome guests with a dollop of marmalade and a glass of fresh spring water, a tradition that goes back centuries.
Given our short time in Skopje, and the stubborn cold I was battling, we wouldn’t be able to go on some of Macedonia Experience’s signature excursions – namely a 14-kilometer hiking trip from Skopje’s Millennium Cross to the Matka Canyon, a butterfly spotting walk, their active tours, or their ethnological excursions to meet villagers. Nevertheless, we were eager to visit the Matka Canyon, a natural escape that’s so popular with Skopje residents, especially on weekends.
Swapping honking horns for a symphony of chirping birds, we arrived to our wooded retreat. Shawn and I made a short stop into a tiny, centuries’ old Eastern Orthodox church, reminiscent of those we’d seen in Macedonia’s spiritual center of Ohrid. The brick structure’s interior walls were adorned with bold frescoes, which were darkened by the smoke of candles. We lit slender ones, placed them inside, and then joined Ljupco and Aleksandar outdoors.
Hopping into a small boat near the church, we headed off to the Vrelo Cave, about three kilometers away. On the way, we passed a canoeing couple, rugged rocks on which some trees grew, and lush spring foliage. The air was cool and invigorating. We learned that matka means ‘womb’ in Macedonian.
The cave, discovered in 1982, is 30 meters deep, and maintains an even temperature throughout the year. Inside, several bats awakened by the group of visitors flew overhead, while the rest of the colony slept among the stalactites. The acoustics are so good inside the cave that in 1995, a philharmonic performance was held there. I wonder how the bats responded to those vocalists’ crescendos?
An underwater portion of the cave is attracting interest from scientists, some of whom think it’s the deepest in the world. So far, it only holds the title of being the deepest in the Balkans, and the second deepest in Europe. Its water exits into the river at the rate of 2,000 liters per second.
As light was becoming increasingly scarce, we began our boat ride back to the canyon’s entrance, soon learning that our boat’s driver and trip hosts were not only skilled at entertaining visitors, but also rescuing them. On one of the rugged rock formations, we saw the figure of a young man, gently waving at us. Our boat’s pilot approached the land’s edge, to hear the traveler shout out that he’d fallen a considerable distance from a path and that he needed help.
Our new boating companion was a Japanese traveler on a ‘round the world adventure, who was visibly shaken, and mildly scratched, having been disoriented at the water’s edge for several hours. Shawn’s knowledge of Japanese came in handy, helping to comfort the traveler. We shuddered to think what would’ve happened if we had missed him.
By now, the river had become still – almost glass-like, reflecting the rugged silhouette of the canyon’s rocks. Mist had descended throughout the valley, lending a mysterious air. Wanting to soak up our tranquil surroundings a bit more, we stopped at the restaurant situated on the water’s edge, chatting with Ljupco and Aleksandr over tea and coffee, before returning to the hustle and bustle of Skopje. The Matka Canyon had been just the natural escape for which we’d been yearning!
Благодарам./ Many thanks to Macedonia Experience for hosting us for this wonderful, refreshing day trip. The natural wonders and fresh mountain air were wonderful, as was your company, and the cultural and historical tidbits that you shared with us during the journey.
These words, experiences, images, and opinions are entirely my own. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.
*In this piece, I simply use the name Macedonia to refer to the country known as the Republic of Macedonia or FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia), depending upon one’s perspective. Some controversy exists between Greece and Macedonia relative to what the latter nation should be called. To add further confusion, a Kingdom of Macedonia existed in ancient times, which encompassed territories from present-day Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Today, there is also a region in northern Greece called Macedonia. For more on the issue, see this 2009 Washington Post article, Feud Between Greece, Macedonia Continues Over Claim to Alexander the Great.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.