We've spoken with a lot of people here in Macedonia. It's rare that we pass a day or even an afternoon without pleasantries that turn into drinks or an invitation for future drinks with a local. In this time, we've been asked what religion we are and - just yesterday - "do you believe in god?" Taken aback by both questions, we didn't have ready, assured answers. What we did know - and were happy to report - was that we'd visited a lot of places of worship in their wonderful country. What had brought us to most of them, however, was a different kind of worship.
Sometimes, you just need a destination to define your journey. Macedonia is a beautiful, wonderful place to hike. You'll stumble upon any number of things in a short period of time. There are over 50 lakes here and 16 mountains over 6500 feet. But what you'll stumble upon most often, are churches. The tourist information available for the country focuses on its monasteries and churches. And why not? They are plentiful and old, picturesque and historic. For us, a forest chapel is like a waterfall - except that you can't hear it from a ways away. It's that place to arrive at which defines your last hour or two or three as a journey to a remote place.
Arriving there, right then, you feel a part of a living history. You think about how the hike you just took as a nature joyride was a commute born out of necessity for the small chapel's congregation. It being placed that far outside of the main village was just a part of its beauty and purpose. When I reach churches like this one, in Brajcino, I feel like there's no way it wasn't placed here in order to give every single worshiper this magnificent lookout point. To worship nature on the way to mass - I like to think, as a part of mass.
Inside one of the remote churches in Brajcino, we found candles recently blown out and the matches used to light them. There were unused ones in a box for the use of any visitor. This was not shuttered or forgotten, it was clearly still in use. People all over the country tell us about how their town used to have multiple churches, "one for each family." In Prilep, Hristijian remarked that he had never been to his friend's church before - just two blocks away from his. In Macedonia, it is not only your faith that is personal and held dear, it is also the physical place of your worship.
Macedonia became its own country in 1991. For many, an important step to national and cultural independence was the archbishopric of Ohrid's break away from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1958. The churches of Ohrid are steeped in history. Above, the interior of the Church of St. Sophia, built sometime between 800 and 1000 AD. It was one of the first houses of worship constructed after the official switchover to Christianity. Of course, it was turned into a mosque for a while during Ottoman rule. All the churches were. We visited the 'cross mosque,' which is literally a mosque with a cross on top. "The only one in the world!" (They've never been to Eger, Hungary). For us, all of these houses of worship were wonderful trail markings on a path around the lake. Exquisite blazes.
In Prilep, the mosque has seen better days. It is ruined and unlit at night. The inside appears to be a favorite peeing spot according to our noses. The clock tower nearby is topped with a cross. Ruined churches and mosques have a sadder feeling to them when within a town or city. Out amongst grass and old stone walls, their decay feels natural. It feels less like neglect and more like the sign of times gone by.
There are countries that have felt more religious than Macedonia feels. In
some, women wore headscarves, in others, roadside shrines dotted the Is
and crossed the Ts of the countryside. Here, it's just a part of landscape. A church pops up in a field the same way god pops up in conversation. We will leave here with memories of long sweaty hikes and the cool stone churches at the end of them. And at least half a dozen prayer cards in our backpack.