Jan 14, 2015

Jan 11 - 12: Resen to Bitola

In the morning I hit snooze on my alarm several times in spite of my resolve to get an early start. After a breakfast cobbled together from the supplies I was carrying, I spent more time than I should have flipping through the channels looking for either a weather forecast or an English news report. It was 8:30 when I handed my room key to the proprietor and headed out.

According to my GPS, the main road between Resen and Bitola makes a wide loop in its approach to the pass in the next mountain range, while the secondary road takes a more direct approach. (Old roads, laid down for horse power instead of internal combustion, are quite often the better routes for walkers.) The Via Egnatia guidebook would have led me across several kilometres of snowy farm trails before connecting with the cobblestone road through the Pelestra National Park, so I followed the road out of Resen until it intersected with the older route. The road out of Resen led almost directly south, and with the warmth of the morning sun I'd soon rolled up my sleeves. I'm sure the passing motorists thought I was mad.

Once I reached it, I was a little apprehensive to see that the secondary road had not been plowed, but there was a good set of tire tracks with bare road showing, so I went ahead. At the next junction about 100 m higher, the lovely clear tracks veered back towards the main road, ‎but there were still two sets of tire tracks cut into the snow, which by this time was about 20 cms deep. (After gaining this much altitude and walking into the shadow cast by the surrounding peaks, my sleeves were buttoned down again and I'd added an extra layer.)

My earlier apprehension changed to dismay when, at around the 1200 m level, I saw where the last of the vehicles had done a three-point turn and headed back down the mountain. The snow was now closer to 30 cms deep than 20, and all I had to follow was a single file series of footprints which had been laid down by at least three people before me. None of these tracks were fresh, but it seemed as if the most recent set of footprints was leading upwards. My fear was that I would walk for another hour, only to find that the hikers or hunters had turned back, just as the vehicles had done.‎ At this point, I'd been following the trail for 90 minutes, so I didn't relish the idea of backtracking. Onwards!

The footprints continued, although the snow was so deep I had to change my gait from my normal forward stride into a side-to-side waddle as I carefully trod in the packed steps of those who had gone before me.‎ At one point, the prints I was following were crossed by animal tracks. LARGE animal tracks. Each paw print was about the length and width of my hand, although the heel was narrower. The bear had been walking up the wooded slope, but when it came across the trail I was following, it took the same path for a dozen metres or so before veering off the trail uphill again. I feel quite confident in my ability to fend off a wolf or two, but a bear is another matter entirely.‎ Thankfully, that was the only indication of four-footed wildlife I encountered, aside from a few wolf tracks that meandered along the unplowed road for a bit.

Finally, I cleared the top of a hill and saw ahead of me a collection of buildings, and a church set somewhat apart from them. Hallelujah! This was the Diavato Pass, at an altitude of 1280 m. (The church is dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos.) The collection of buildings below had temporarily concealed the snowplow which is stationed there. I walked into the sunny lee of the main building‎, slung off my pack, and retrieved my food from my pack. At that point, a man came out and invited me inside with the offer of tea.

Aleksandr lives at the pass during the winter months, tasked with keeping the road between Resen and Bitola open. As was the case the day before, my knowledge of Macedonian proved to be greater than his knowledge of English, so our conversation was pretty basic. Still, he was most gracious, and interested to hear of my travels. 

After refreshing myself and warming up a bit, I took my leave and started walking downhill.‎ This time I took the main road, since it was very sparsely travelled and was clear of snow. Once the old road cut down below me, I could see that it was not at all clear, and was entirely free of tire tracks. The two roads ran more or less parallel to one another for the next 22 kms, and once we'd lost enough altitude for the snow on it to vanish, I crossed back to the old cobblestone road.

The late afternoon sun was deliciously warm, but with a high mountain range to the west of me, I was soon walking in shadow again. It was a very peaceful walk, broken only by birdsong and the occasional bout of aggressive barking from the gorgeous monsters left by their owners to guard the homestead. One especially magnificent and formidable looking dog followed my progress along the fenceline until it came to a hole in the fence and darted through to my side, barking and growling ferociously all the while. I wheeled around, shouted,  and leveled my walking stick towards the creature in a threatening manner. It dove back through the hole to the safety of its own territory, from whence it continued to serenade me. (I really don't want to hurt any of God's good creation, but I will defend myself if attacked.)

One drawback to these long isolated walks is that it's rare that I can replenish my water. When walking along the road in the lowlands, cafés are not hard to find, and a glass of water normally accompanies an order of coffee. By 2:30, I'd finished the last of my water, and by 3:30 I was becoming quite thirsty. (Pro tip: by the time a person experiences thirst, they are already slightly dehydrated.) 

Dusk was nearing when I saw a man walking towards his parked car beside his isolated farmstead. I turned off my headlamp, and mustering all the Macedonian I could recall, I asked him for some water. He called off the dogs and beckoned me to follow him inside. (I've been barked at for the past 1400 kms, but it's only in Greece that the big dogs are not necessarily tied up or fenced in.)‎ He produced a glass and a 1.5 litre bottle of water, and indicated I should help myself. As with Aleksandr, my host was monolingual, but his offers of food and a ride into town were very clear. I thanked him, and explained that I wanted to walk. He also asked where I'd be spending the night.

Ten minutes later, Vasil pulled up alongside me with his car and insisted that I get in.‎ I accepted the ride, which led to meeting his son-in-law and wife and having tea at his home, which led to the offer of dinner, which led to the offer of a room for the night. Vasil and Trianka's children are grown and out of the home, so they have rooms to spare. 

It snowed overnight in Bitola, but the morning dawned bright and clear. After breakfast, Vasil went out to brush the 5 cm deep blanket of snow off his car, and I tried to give his wife some financial compensation for their hospitality. As I expected, she refused, and I knew better than to even suggest such a thing to Vasil. From their home in the foothills overlooking Bitola, he drove me down to the foot of the main pedestrian thoroughfare. Conveniently, this is also where the museum is located - the museum my friend in Ohrid had identified as being the best in the country.

It was almost noon when I re-emerged. It was too late in the day to begin walking, ‎so I headed up Shirok Sokak (the main pedestrian street) looking for a hotel. There were several along the street between the museum and the river, and I settled on a very nice, modestly priced one near the museum. After unpacking, I set out to explore the centre of the old town. If I'd been more systematic, I'd have found the church of St Demetrija. Instead I just wandered, people watching and poking down laneways. I made a point of eating lunch before heading to the grocery store, so I limited my food purchases to the basics. I never did find the laundromat I'd been told about, so when I returned to the hotel I washed some clothes in the bathroom sink. I wasn't able to get online using the hotel WiFi, and rather than composing an update to send later, I spent the evening watching TV. It was a very pleasant surprise to find Kurusawa's "No Regrets For Our Youth" showing. No subtitles or dubbing, but since I'm familiar with the movie I was able to enjoy it anyway. I got to bed later than I'd planned, but I knew that the walk to Florina was a relatively short one.

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