Sunday, October 28, 2012

Macedonia Part I: St. Spas Hike in Vishni

I had done some Google research on hiking in Macedonia, and found that information was scarce. After an hour or so I found this blogger and spent some time reading his posts. The hike that stood out to me was in the small town of Vishni. It was described as a relatively short distance, leading the hiker through woods along a brook and finally ending at the 15th century cave church of St. Spas, which was in the side of a rock face in a canyon. How can you read that description and not want to go there? I showed it to Bobby so he could try and get a GPS bead on it, and then floated the idea to Tiara, Scott, and Malwine, who were all in. We decided to leave early Friday morning for Macedonia, stop in Vishni for the hike, and then continue on to Ohrid. After an early morning in the car a hike would be a nice break, and we could kill some time before check in at our hotel.

Since it was a three day weekend we opted for a rental car over a bus to save driving time, and so that we had freedom to do things like go on hikes in Vishni. We had been warned about the awful, winding, death coaster that was the highway from Tirana to Ohrid. I won’t lie, it wasn’t great. There were many switchbacks, and 90 degree turns around blind corners with nothing between you and the valley save a flimsy metal guardrail. In some areas said guardrail was mangled and bent, and inevitably beside this damage was a marble memorial to some poor soul who had sailed over the edge. This was, sadly, a frequent sight along the drive. Scott did the driving and the main fear came from watching drivers ahead of us passing one another on blind curves, on hills, and just generally engaging in the kind of behavior that gives you a one way ticket over the edge of the mountain.

About an hour outside of Tirana

Let's not die, okay? Deal.

We made it safely out of the mountains and into the valley. Our first view of Lake Ohrid was on the Albanian side, and it made us giddy with joy. You could tell we had been nature-starved by the way we stumbled into the sunshine like prisoners just released, gulping in the air and smiling and saying “It smells so clean!” The lake was massive, and could have passed for the sea at a glance.
Hello. Is it me you're looking for?

Me being a mom taking a group picture. Where are the corsages?

We headed to the Macedonian border, which we hit about three and a half hours after leaving Tirana. We stopped to buy “you’re taking a rental car out of the country” insurance, which cost 40 Euro. Getting into Macedonia was quick and easy, entailing no more than a cursory passport check and a disinterested inquiry as to what was in our bags. The answer given- clothes- didn't warrant a check for accuracy, and we were waved on through.

Bobby was our navigator, having meticulously researched the roads and downloaded them into his GPS. We rarely used it in America, but it proved to be invaluable on this road trip. All the little towns encircling Vishni were on the GPS, but unfortunately, Vishni proper was not. We found our way to Shume, from which we could theoretically reach Vishni. We drove up and down the tiny roads of that tiny town, stopping periodically to ask a local “Vishni??” with a quizzical I’m lost look and a shoulder shrug that we hoped communicated “I need your assistance in telling me how to get to Vishni”. Going off of finger pointing and hand gestures from four different people we found a one lane dirt road overgrown in the middle with grass. I think this video really says it all about how lucky we were to have found Vishni:

Yes, that’s right, we randomly found a German speaking man in Macedonia and we happened to be traveling with our dear German friend, Malwine, who had joined our entourage at the last minute. Armed with legitimate back roads knowledge we continued on our way. The road we had been directed to was paved, but only about one and a half lanes wide up a mountain. Slowing down and peering around corners got us on our way without a head on collision. So far, so good. We rolled into Vishni and almost immediately there was a roadside sign describing the town and the St. Spas hike specifically.

Scott studies the map

Tiara explores the local pretty old things
A very short distance from the map was a sign pointing the way-

We cross referenced about 3 different sources to be able to understand that this pointed the way 

We turned right onto another gravelly dirt road, not sure if we were going in the right direction. We didn't notice it until we were on our way out, but the trail markers start at the main road. If you want to do this hike, look for the red and white stripes on the power line poles.

I will be right here, waiting for you

They start from the main road at the sign pictured above, and will lead you all the way to the church. We didn't notice the markers until after we had parked (note- you just park any old where, just try and stay off of trails and out of the way of the farmers) and started off in the general direction of where we thought the hike might be. This hike starts in the middle of a little farming neighborhood, so yes, you’re in the right place if you’re tromping next to someone’s field as they till the land. Here’s the neighborhood we walked through.

Macedonia, just stop being so charming, okay? It's so obvious.

Shortly afterward the hike opens up into this big field, and you start to see the trail proper. I think it would take a herculean effort of obliviousness to miss this cross + rock combo.

I'm sure this has nothing to do with the church we're looking for.

But... where's the traffic circle? I'm so confused.

Thank you, marker painter person. 

From here, it was smooth sailing. The trail was well worn and cleared of brush, and there were frequent red and white striped trail markers. They looked as though they were very recently painted.

The hike out is predominantly flat or downhill, interspersed with a few wooden bridges. It’s a really beautiful hike, with mossy rocks and thick stands of trees. The brook was dry at this time of the year, and hiking in mid-October was perfect weather- sunny but not hot, with cool breezes.

We're not in Tirana anymore

The last portion takes you through steep switchbacks followed by a stone staircase, as you climb up the side of the rock face to get to the church. The view of the canyon from the top is really nice.

Yay, stairs!

From the first landing of the staircase, looking up to the entrance of the church

The picture I posted of the roadside map gives you a good overview of St. Spas, and most googling yields the same info. Apparently her relics are kept in a church in Vishni, and once a year an unmarried girl is charged with washing the relics with wine and hiking out to the church to place them on the altar. She then spends the night there guarding them, and returns them the next day. This is said to impart a blessing on the girl so that she can find a husband.* I'll leave you to decide whether or not a husband is a blessing.

The church door was held shut with wire, but not locked. The entire exterior was clean and preserved, including all the railings and the little balcony in front of the door (which are apparently newly installed for hikers), so it seems like the town is maintaining it diligently. Or at least all those love-lorn young girls are maintaining it in hopes of reeling in those blessings.

We went in to explore and to check out the frescoes, which were almost completely faded away with the exception of two determined arcs of haloed heads clinging to the craggy ceiling. I’m always awed by the age of such things, having been born and raised in such a young country.

There was a small pile of offerings in a mix of currencies sprinkled on the altar, along with half melted candles and a cross. On the opposite side of the room a broom and a rag spoke to a caretaker, or perhaps a squatter. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but given the logistics of creating a church out of a cave the size was understandable. Small windows high up on the wall let in some weak light, and the air was damp and cave-cold. It was easy to imagine worshipers trekking out into a much wilder wood centuries ago to seek refuge and pray.

Thar's a pitcher up on them walls, ya'll! 

What's that? You want a washed out, over flashed picture of the altar? I have just the thing.

After we’d had our fill of the church we headed back down. The stone steps are quite narrow and steep, and in a few short sections there are no handrails. I told my friends that someone had once told me “When you’re going down stairs, all you should be doing is going down stairs.” This is good advice.

Steep, narrow, stone. Qualities I love in a good staircase on the side of a mountain.
For me, this hike hit all the right spots for what we needed it to be- it was beautiful, short, not too strenuous save the portions of uphill/stairs, well-marked and maintained, and it took us somewhere interesting. One can’t ask for much more out of a hike. If you are in Macedonia with access to a car, a GPS, a German speaking friend, a total lack of shame in asking random strangers questions, and a keen sense of when a car might be coming around a corner on a one-lane mountain switchback, this is the hike for you.
In all seriousness though, I think there was probably a less roundabout way to Vishni, and once you get there hike is clearly marked from the road once you know what to look for. Perhaps taking a local taxi would be useful?  I have looked for buses to Vishni** with no luck, but that doesn't mean anything because information on Balkans travel is often sparse on the internet.

* No stats on the efficacy of this approach are available at the time of writing.
**Visni in the local language

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