Ohrid is the kingdom of Zastavas.
This is Part 6 of our swift adventure with the Dacia Logan, you can also read Part 1: Romania, Part 2: Serbia, Part 3: Bosnia & Herzegovina, Part 4: Montenegro and Part 5: Albania. Leaving Albania in mid-afternoon, we head east towards Lake Ohrid which forms the border with the Republic of Macedonia as it was still called when we visited last year – since February 2019 it is now to be referred to as North Macedonia (more on this shortly). Having been in 3 countries within in a single day and with our total count up by 2, we have finally caught up on our delay and are now at 6 countries in 6 days. Looking good so far!
Flag of North MacedoniaOur itinerary in North Macedonia (note Google Maps still inaccurately refers to it as FYROM).
As this is a somewhat race against time, the only North Macedonian area we will be able to stay at is Lake Ohrid to the southwest, arguably the most photographed spot in the country so we’re still making the best of a short period. We’ll then head north to drop into Kosovo in Prizren, then retrace our steps back to drive along the capital Skopje then east towards Bulgaria. North Macedonia is home to just over 2 million inhabitants in an area of 25,713 square km. The name “Macedonia” first appeared with the ancient Kingdom of Macedon (808 – 168 BC) which annexed the territory of present-day North Macedonia during the 4th century BC under the rule of Alexander the Great. This territory has since been under Byzantine, Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serbian rule, was part of Yugoslavia after World War II and peacefully seceded in 1991 to create the Republic of Macedonia. One main element that has characterised this country over the past three decades is the extreme sensitivity over its name, and its very recent renaming into North Macedonia in February 2019. Given that by 2007, 118 countries (61% of all UN member states) had recognised the Republic of Macedonia under that name (and not FYROM, see further down), this is how I had described it here on BSCB for the past few years, and I will now move on to North Macedonia – just allow me some time to update all sales data articles! Let’s take a quick history lesson to understand how it got to the point when the country had to rename itself which remains a very rare occurrence globally.
Background behind the country’s naming dispute with Greece, including (top right) the flag of the Greek region of Macedonia and (bottom right) the previous flag of the Republic of Macedonia (1992-1995) both featuring the Vergina Sun, a symbol used at the time of Alexander the Great who ruled over both present-day territories.
The country is part of the larger region of Macedonia (grey line on the map above) which also includes Greek Macedonia composed of East, Central and West Macedonia totalling 2.4 million inhabitants over 34,177 square km (green area above), the Blagoevgrad Province in southwestern Bulgaria and small parts of Albania, Serbia and Kosovo. At the creation of the country in 1991, its Republic of Macedonia naming was disputed by Greece because of its ambiguity with the adjacent Greek region and due to historical and irredentist concerns related to the promotion of a United Macedonia. In 1993 the country was only able to enter the United Nations under the provisional description the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and Greece vetoed its European Union accession talks. The country’s government was also accused by Greece of appropriating symbols and figures that it considers part of Greek culture – a process called antiquisation – such as the Vergina Sun (see two flags above) and Alexander the Great, born in present-day Greek Macedonia but who also conquered and ruled the approximate territory of present-day North Macedonia. An example of antiquisation is the renaming of the Skopje-Petrovec Airport to Skopje-Alexander the Great between 2006 and 2018. The dispute escalated to the highest level of international mediation, involving numerous attempts to achieve a resolution. It ended in June 2018 with the agreement to rename the country Republic of North Macedonia – keeping in mind the population remains divided about the decision sometimes seen as bowing to Greek pressure – resulting in the withdrawal of the Greek veto which means North Macedonia can now start talks for joining the EU.
Now that we have cleared the most contentious issue that has hampered the country for the past three decades, we can enjoy the historic town of Ohrid and its namesake lake, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The centre of town is almost exclusively pedestrian and therefore an almost impossible challenge to park in, my attempt at reversing up in a discouragingly steep alleyway betrayed the pushiness of our faithful Dacia Logan’s engine, but I got there in the end. The atmosphere in Ohrid is again very different to what we experienced before, making this adventure more fascinating by the day. It once had 365 churches, one for each day of the year, and its Orthodox influence is mixed with a turkic vibe linked to a community that settled here in the 15th century. Its main pedestrian artery is packed full of tourists at night but stroll further to the waterside and it’s all bucolic and picturesque. The walk from the old town to the Church of Sveti Jovan gazing out towards the lake takes you through wooden pontoons built on the water right next to a cliff in what is quite a unique experience. The water is crystal-clear, the sun golden, the air crisp. Ohrid is indeed one of the gems of the region.
Zastavas and Yugos of Ohrid.
Now onto what this site is all about after all: cars. And the North Macedonian car park brings a telling first observation: the strong heritage of ex-Yugoslavian Zastava and Yugo models is back in an overwhelming way and for the first time since Serbia. I even spotted two now-rare Zastava 750, a bright red one pictured in the series above, something I didn’t even manage in Serbia. This is a very interesting indication of where North Macedonia’s affinities remain today as car brand ownership can often be read as indicators of national and political influences. Indeed, Zastavas disappeared as soon as we entered Bosnia & Herzegovina – even when travelling in Republika Srpska – and didn’t reappear in Montenegro even though it also used to be part of Yugoslavia and seceded peacefully. We had to wait until North Macedonia to see them again. Confirming that trend, Serbian-made Fiat Punto are also common.
Fiat Punto and Daewoo Matiz in Ohrid
A more surprising sight in Ohrid is the frequency of the Daewoo Matiz which was more of a best-seller in Romania than in Serbia, but looking further into this we can find traces of this popularity in the fact that its successor, the Chevrolet Spark, was #1 in the country in 2007. An interesting element regarding licence plates is that in June 2018 the country’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced that the government was changing the country’s license plates labelling from MK to NMK to reflect the country’s new North Macedonia name. However given this change was still very fresh when we visited in August 2018, I did not get the opportunity to spot any new license plates.
Ohrid old and new car landscape
Regular new car sales data has been available for the country for a while now – annually without interruption since 2011 and monthly since 2016, but its results are for the most part dumbfounding when looking at the Ohrid car park where new vehicles remain rare. I’m guessing that a majority of new sales occur in Skopje which we won’t have time to visit unfortunately, but the blatant discrepancy remains notable. In essence, the fact that the VW Golf was #1 here from 2011 to 2014, the VW Passat in 2015, Dacia Duster in 2016 and 2017 and Citroen C3 in 2018 doesn’t translate in the least into an increased frequency of these nameplates here in Ohrid.
Ohrid Taxis and mysterious USA license plates
I will end this report by mentioning an enigma that remains unsolved to this day: the surprising frequency of vehicles with US license plates roaming the roads of western North Macedonia. What started as a one or two random occurrences in Albania escalated to a good dozen examples in or near Ohrid. The most probable explanation in my view is these are grey market used cars imported into Albania and then sold into North Macedonia, but it would then mean there should logically be more in Albania, not here. If anyone living in this region is able to explain this phenomenon please comment on this article!
Next stop: Kosovo. Stay tuned!