Read, Write, Run, Roam


The Amazing Race

 I can’t believe no one told me about this last summer: The Ajvar 5k just outside of Washington, DC!

Good news (for me): I am not the only person around here obsessed with ajvar. There is an entire race devoted to the ruby goodness. Okay, so it’s actually a fundraiser for needy children in Macedonia, but runners get a jar of ajvar at the finish. Helping kids, getting a little exercise AND receiving fine European foods?  DONE.

Next year’s race is scheduled for September 8th. You can bet I’ll be there–unless I’m lucky enough to be in Macedonia running around Lake Ochrid instead.

Not a runner? You can still help sponsor the event. A donation as little as $5 will get you an honorable mention as a “Friend of Ajvar.” Though really, who ISN’T a friend of ajvar?

For more information, click on the race Facebook page HERE.



Balkan beats banned from Macedonian buses

Okay, so it’s not Serbia, but I thought this article was too good to pass up. From the Associated Foreign Press:

SKOPJE — Public transport bus drivers in Macedonia’s capital have been asked to replace turbo folk melodies popular throughout the Balkans with classical tunes and easy listening music, officials said Friday.

After numerous passenger complaints, managers of Skopje’s public transport company JSP decided to equip new Chinese-made double-decker buses with about 400 song-playlists prepared by Macedonia’s prominent DJs.

“Our passengers complained demanding the music be changed. I know that we cannot satisfy everyone’s taste, but I believe most of them will be happy with the choice,” manager Miso Nikolov said.

No turbo folk? I can’t imagine this in Belgrade. Listening to turbo folk is a god-given right here, like smoking and nursing coffee for two hours. For those who don’t know what turbo folk is, it’s traditional Serbian (or Balkan) music set to a techno beat. There are tons of examples, but here’s one from Ceca, Belgrade’s arguably most famous turbofolk singer.

I don’t know whether I’m proud, embarrassed or indifferent that I (1) know this song and (2) no longer consider turbofolk a “change the station” moment. I’m pretty sure that we don’t have any music on Belgrade buses, but if we do, I’m very sure that there’s some turbofolk and that it’s here to stay.

You can read the full AFP article HERE.

(Kinda) Church on Sunday: A question about Orthodoxy

I haven’t had much luck photographing churches lately. Most of the churches on our Balkan Bonanza tour didn’t allow photos, and even in London cameras were forbidden in places of worship. Yet there’s one kind of church that I can always photograph, despite the fact that I can’t explain it: the roadside “altars” (shrines?) in the form of a church.

Can anyone explain what these are? Do they mark a site where someone has died? Are they simply a way of expressing religion? Or is there some other explanation? I might write about churches every week, but I must confess my complete ignorance when it comes to these roadside wonders.

They remind me of spirit houses in Thailand, but I’m certain that they don’t play that role in Orthodox Christian nations. I don’t have many photos to show as examples (we’re usually past them before I can whip out my camera) but I do love to look at them. I’ve seen in them in Greece, Macedonia, and occasionally in Serbia. Some have tiny bouquets of flowers or crosses inside. They have a dollhouse quality that I find appealing, though I’m sure they play a more serious role than religious dioramas.

 What do you say, readers? Anyone care to enlighten me on what role these tiny churches play in the Orthodox religion?

The Devil is in the Details at Osogovo Monastery, Macedonia

[Note: We were in Macedonia several weeks ago, but I waited to write about this Church on Sunday until I could research the place a bit.]

Our last stop in Macedonia was one of the most unique sights we’ve seen to date. After swooning over gorgeous lakes, visiting monasteries with peacocks and eyeing beautiful rural landscapes, we stopped just outside the town of Kriva Palanka for a date with the devil-at Osogovo Monastery.

Most people go to church to avoid meeting Satan, but that’s not possible at Osogovo, where the Dark Prince peers out from the frescoes adorning the outside of the church.


He looks so pleased with himself, doesn't he?











It’s unusual to see frescoes on the outside walls of churches and monasteries, but even more unusual to see a Judgement Day theme. People were burning in hell, disfigured animals were torturing townfolk and  the village was on fire. Is it just me, or is someone saying there are a lot of sinners in Kriva Palanka? Maybe we should have spent more time there…

Even the cherubim looked serious. I’d be angry too, if only my head made it to heaven.

I don’t know why Osogovo has such an unusual theme. According to Macedonian Wikipedia and Google translate, the frescoes were the work of painter Dimitar Pogradiškog Antonova, who worked on them from 1884 – 1945. (Though that might be his life span rather than the length of time he worked on the frescoes.) The icons may be painted in a Bulgarian style, but my “Iconographic schools of Eastern Europe” book seems to be missing. AGAIN.

Osogovo dates back to the 12th Century, but the original church was destroyed. The one pictured here is from the 19th Century. There is also a smaller, older church on site that features traditional frescos, similar to the interior of Osogovo. While pretty, it’s a bit boring to walk inside and see frescoes and paintings that speak to the history of the church. The interior is also quite dark, foiling icon lovers and church bloggers trying to take photos on the sly.

It is no longer a functioning monastery (the last monk died in 1967), but Osogovo has a simple, 80-room hotel for pilgrims and morbidly curious housewives. Despite the hellish rain (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the mountain setting was serene. A monastery is an odd place for a date with the devil, but a perfect place for Church on Sunday.

Church on Sunday: The Heartbeat of Sveti Naum, Macedonia

image source:

If Family Feud featured a “Most important Macedonians” category (and I’m SURE they would), Sveti Naum would be in the top 6 answers. He and his contemporary, the better-known Saint Klementi, founded the country’s first important literary school and translated Greek Orthodox texts into the slavic language. Sveti Naum may not be as famous as Macedonian Michael Stoyanov (oldest brother on TV’s Blossom) but he’s pretty close.

remember him?

In 900, Sveti Naum built a monastery overlooking Lake Ohrid and the impossibly clear River Drin. The monastery became known as a treatment center for the mentally ill and a peaceful place for pilgrimages. It’s still quite peaceful, but now the monastic rooms for rent have turned into an upscale hotel, the river features waterside cafes, and peacocks roam the grounds. We were there to see a bit of history-and let’s face, it, peacocks. They’re pretty cool, for birds. Macedonians seem to think so too since they’re on the 10-denar note.

We wanted to see the real thing, so we made the pleasant 40 minute drive from the town of Ohrid. Sveti Naum can also be reached by boat, which might be more picturesque. When we parked by the car entrance, we met a dubious “parking attendant” and walked through a gauntlet of souvenir kiosks before reaching the outer grounds of the monastery. It was a disconcerting welcome to an ancient place of worship. Yet the sight of Sveti Naum makes it all worth it.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The main church is quite small. Additional chambers were added over centuries, making it feel like a tiny labyrinth. The abbot was concluding a service when I arrived. I didn’t know if I could walk in or not, so I stood by the entrance to peer at his white and gold robes, listen to his chanting, and inhale the incense fumes drifting out of the church.

Image source here

Taking photos is forbidden. I was alone in the church for a short period of time but decided it was better to simply enjoy the experience than to furtively snap pictures. (Maybe I’m getting soft.)  The faded, dark frescoes have a spiritual quality that would have been hard to capture anyway. Many of the saints depicted were now blind, as their eyes were scratched out by the faithful who believed that the plaster could be used in potions to improve eyesight.

Sveti Naum is buried here, and his remains are in an antechamber filled with icons. It’s said that if you press your ear to his coffin, you can hear the muffled sounds of his still-thumping heart. The only sound I could hear was the odd mewing of peacocks outside; but I didn’t have to hear a thing to know that Sveti Naum was the heartbeat of Macedonia.

Survey says, it’s a Macedonian experience I’m glad we didn’t miss.


Church on Sunday: Sveti Jovan, Macedonia

Ohrid supposedly has 365 churches-yep, one for every day of the the year-so it was hard to select a mere few for CoS posts. I thought about covering an obscure church, just to be different, but since Macedonia is relatively undiscovered I thought I’d pick a showstopper: the church of Sveti Jovan (St. John the Theologian) in Kaneo, Macedonia.

Sveti Johan sits on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid. The architecture looks unique due to the architect’s Armenian and Byzantine influences. The church is estimated to be well over 500 years old, and in that time, has probably been photographed a million times. I took this photo, but a google search for Sveti Jovan will yield hundreds of similar images. Most of the images are only of the exterior, because taking photos inside is strictly forbidden.

The church is tiny. No more than 20 (small) people could comfortably fit inside. Upon paying a nominal entrance fee the attendant gave us two candles and, with a wave of his hand, ushered us inside.  We stepped out of the bright sunshine, inhaled the scent of beeswax, and craned our necks to spot the numerous 13th century frescoes.


Images from

The frescos are heavily damaged, but you can still trace the outlines and colors. The sheer size and number of frescoes in the small space made me feel as if I was standing in a tiny, seaside jewel box. St. Jovan may not be as grand or historically important as other Ohrid churches, but it’s certainly worth a peep-and a picture.

An open letter to the urban planners of Ohrid, Macedonia

Dear Ohrid urban planners,

Lake Ohrid, as I wrote earlier, was a lovely surprise. You helped retain the charm of the Old City with (I presume) regulations on the type of buildings that can be built along the cliffs surrounding the lake. You kept the cobblestone streets as a testament to history, and a challenge to stilettos. You approved a delightful wooded path between St. Klementi and St. John. There was a photo opportunity at every turn.

Because I enjoyed it so, it is with a heavy heart that I recall our first morning in Ohrid, when we decided to enjoy an espresso by the port. We sat at a cafe and noticed the completely incongruous jumbo television parked at the end of the pedestrian avenue. The soundless commercials distracted us from the view of the lake and passerby, but we decided to ignore it.

And then the sound turned on at 10am. Loud commercials for BMWs and Tikves wine overwhelmed the sound of children’s laughter. Heavy bass pumped out of the speakers as we were given an unsolicited weather report. We drank our coffee quickly and left as soon as we could.

Urban planners, Ohrid is known for its history and natural beauty. Why slap a huge TV right in the middle of it? I expect this at a New Jersey strip mall, not at a prehistoric lake. The mere three commercials being played on an endless loop make me think that this venture is not even profitable. It’s certainly not helping nearby cafe owners. They are probably putting a hex on you for driving out the morning business and forcing them to hear about Skopso beer a thousand times a day. Please, for the sake of visitors, peaceful views, and sane cafe workers, get rid of this awful sight and sound. I’m sure we can sell it to an American city for the jumbo TV’s intended purpose: proposing marriage in a tacky and tragic manner.