Showing posts with label Macedonia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Macedonia. Show all posts

Saturday, August 28, 2021

North Macedonia | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery


I only indulge in two kinds of alcoholic drinks—airag (fermented mares’ milk) and wine (please don’t get me started on Low-Life Beer Drinkers). Airag is found throughout Inner Asia but is perhaps most common in Mongolia, with Övörkhangai Aimag arguably being the Airag Capital of the World. As for wine, I drink only wine indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. 

During my last three months in Mongolia I had not been to the countryside, where the best airag is found, even once, and none of my usual sources brought any airag to my Hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, so I had not been able to partake of this stimulating and healthy (it is jam-packed with vitamins and minerals) beverage. And there is no wine indigenous to Mongolia (I am not counting a dubious Mongolian-produced wine made from unidentifiable “fruits”), so basically I was on the wagon for three months. 

I am now in Macedonia, however, which boasts of a number of indigenous wines. “Indigenous” can mean a number of things. It can simply mean locally grown wine, regardless of the variety of grapes used to make it. Macedonia produces all the usual suspects where wine is concerned—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc., but all of these varieties of grapes originated outside of the Balkans and have been replanted here. I am not concerned with these. Macedonia also produces wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, of which Macedonia is a part, including Vranac, Žilavka, Temjanika, etc. Not being a stickler in these matters, I am willing to drink wine made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula, if not necessarily Macedonia. However, Macedonia also has at least one wine made from a variety of grapes which originated within the current boundaries of the country and is reportedly grown nowhere else. This is truly an indigenous wine and one of the most interest to me. 

Eager as I am to further explore the city of Skopje, I decide I first better visit one of Macedonia’s famous wine districts and continue my research on indigenous wines. My attention focuses on the Tikves Wine District south of Skopje and more particularly the town of Demir Kapiya at the southern end of the district, not far from the  Macedonia-Greek border. The Popova Kula Winery in  Demir Kapiya produces a number of wines indigenous to the Balkans and at least one indigenous to Macedonia and also has an on-site hotel and restaurant. I had been here before in the summertime but was eager to visit again in late fall when I hoped it would be less crowded and I could concentrate more fully on my researches. I book a room for five nights, thinking to this will be enough time to complete my studies and effect a wine cure. 

The bus for Demir Kapisa leaves the Skopje bus station at 11:00 a.m. The four-lane turnpike south travels along the Vardar River, first passing through a scenic Veles canyon before emerging out into the rolling hills of the Tikves Wine District, which covers about 2000 square miles and is on roughly the same latitude as the Bordeaux region in France, the Tuscany region in Italy, and the Napa Valley region in California; in short ideal wine country. About forty-seven square miles of the area is actually covered with vineyards, which are maintained by thirty-seven different wineries.

Vardar River and the Veles Canyon south of Skopje (click on photo for enlargement. Photo by Корисник:Македонец.
Tikves Wine District shaded in red
Vineyard-covered rolling hills of the Tikves Wine Region in summertime
After stops at bus stations in the small cities in Veles and one other town whose name escapes me at the moment we finally arrive at the outskirts of Demir Kapiya, a sleepy little town of 3,725 inhabitants, where I am unceremoniously dumped off at a parking lot. I hike into town and track down a taxi to take me to the winery, about a mile and half away. 
Demir Kapiya. Photo by Rašo.
We don’t need your passport,” the receptionist at the winery inn tells me. “We still have your ID information from your last stay.” When I was here the last time, in the month of August, the place was packed—I wanted to stay a day or two longer but was unable to extend my reservation—but now I am the only guest. My spacious room has hardwood floors, a sitting area with a table and chairs, a balcony with a great view of the vineyards in the foreground and the mountains to the south, and, most importantly, a large desk with adequate lights. I settle in and begin my researches. 
Popova Kula Winery Inn and Restaurant
View from my balcony in summertime
Vineyards in summertime
Grapes in summertime

Sunday, January 3, 2021

North Macedonia | Tikves Wine District | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery | Prokupec


It is my fourth day at the Popova Kula Winery, a Thursday, and I am still the only guest here. I checked on the internet and discovered, however, that this coming Saturday night the place is full-up with no rooms available. Luckily I am checking out Saturday morning. Incorrigible misanthrope that I am, I have been enjoying the solitude. Meanwhile I am continuing my investigations of the local vintages. The winery produces eleven different kinds of wine:
—Stanushina
—Vranec
—Prokupec
—Cabernet Sauvignon
—Merlot
—Sauvignon Blanc
—Temjanika,
—Chardonnay
—Zilavka
— Muscat Ottonel
—Muscat Hamburg
Stanushina, Prokupec, Vranec, Temjanika, and Zilavka are made from grapes indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula; these are the only varieties I am interested in. God forbid that I should come to Macedonia just to drink Cabernet Sauvignon or—horrors!— Merlot! 

According to archeological findings, grapes has been grown and wine produced in the area of Demir Kapiya for at least the last 3600 years. The modern history of viniculture in the Demir Kapiya area began in 1927 when King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (1888–1934) built a winery here to produce wine for the exclusive use of his royal family. Experts assured the king that of all possible locations in his kingdom, which covered a good part of the Balkan Peninsula, including modern-day Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, this area was the most fertile and best suited for growing grapes and producing wine. He named the property the Winery of The Queen Maria in honor of his wife, Maria Karadjordjevic. The king hired the best vintners available and the winery was soon producing wine of extraordinary quality. Unfortunately King Alexander Karadjordjevic was unable to enjoy the fruits of his vineyards for long. On October 9, 1934, during a state visit to Marseille, France, he was assassinated by Bulgarian revolutionary Vlado Chernozemski.
King Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia (click on photos for enlargements)
The subsequent history of the winery is a bit hazy, but apparently it continued producing wine in the decades thereafter, except during the world wars and various local upheavals.  After the Second World the Royal Winery, along with other wineries in what was then Yugoslavia, were nationalized. Over 30,000 families who owned small private vineyards continued, however, to supply grapes to these wine making facilities. It was these people who are credited with  maintaining the high quality of local viniculture during the following decades. After the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the emergence of the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia as an independent country most if not all wineries were privatized. The royal winery in Demir Kapiya was privatized in 1994 and is now known as the Royal Winery Queen Maria. The current winery has an on-site restaurant and rents out rooms, apartments, and for high-rollers the former villa of Queen Maria Karadjordjevic.
King Alexander and Queen Maria
The Popova Kula Winery is built on lands that once belonged to the Royal Winery. Construction of the winery itself started in October of 2004 and was completed in August of 2005. Construction of the winery restaurant and hotel was not completed until 2009. The name of the winery, “Popova Kula”, means “Priest’s Tower”. Apparently during the time of the Roman Empire an important road ran through the grounds of the current winery. A large tower served as a checkpoint on the road, and this eventually became known at the Priest’s Tower. This original tower was eventually torn down, but the winery has erected a new 55-foot high tower its honor. This tower has become the easily recognizable symbol of the winery. 
Popova Kula Winery

The “Priest’s Tower” of Popova Kula
Curious about this Roman road, I went down to the lobby and questioned the receptionist, a charming woman in her thirties. She in turn questioned one the local workmen who happened to be handy, and this guy said the Roman road in question was the famous Via Egnatia dating to the time of the Roman Empire, which ran from Durrës in what is now Albania east 696 miles to Constantinople, right across the heart of the Balkan Peninsula. This was certainly intriguing. I had already visited numerous cities and towns on the old Via Egnatia, including Thessaloniki, Kavala, and Kastoria in Greece and Orhid in Macedonia but I was under the impression that the old Roman road passed through the Balkans a good bit south of Demir Kapiya. The receptionist called the local wine museum and the woman at the museum suggested I stop by for more information. So I hiked a mile into town and found the museum, a modest two-room establishment in downtown Demir Kapiya. The woman in charge informed me that the Roman road through Demir Kapiya was not the Via Egnatia itself but a side branch of the main highway. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to discover that Demir Kapiya was in fact linked to the hallowed Via Egnatia. I harbor the sneaking suspicion I have traveled this road in a previous lifetime. 
The Via Egnatia in red. The northern extension in green may be the one that passed through Demir Kapiya.
Via Egnatia near Kavala. Photo by Philipp Pilhofer
After trekking a mile back from the museum to the winery I retire to my balcony to sample the wine of the day; in this case Prokupec, a wine apparently indigenous to what is now Serbia but also grown in Macedonia. 
Prokupec

From my balcony can be seen the Iron Gate, a gap in the mountains through which the Vardar River flows. The Iron Gate marks the southern boundary of the Tikves Wine Region. It also gives its name to the town just to the north—Demir Kapiya, which in Turkish means “Iron Gate”.
View from my balcony. The Iron Gate is the gap in the mountains in the middle of the photo. The town of Demir Kapiya (Iron Gate) is in the foreground.
A view of the Iron Gate from Popova Kula vineyards
Another view from my balcony

Halfway through my first glass of Prokupec my thoughts drifted, perhaps inevitably, to the Persian Poet Rudaki (858 a.d – 941 a.d.), the favorite poet of the Samanids of Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekistan. The Elton John of his Age, at one point Rudaki owned two hundred slaves who attended to his every need, and a hundred camels were necessary to carry his baggage when he traveled. His verses, it was said, filled a hundred volumes; he reportedly wrote 1,300,000 couplets. Almost all of his work has been lost. Unfortunately, the poet came to a bad end. He may have fell under the sway of the Ismaili Sect, considered heretical in the domains of the Samanids, and he eventually fell out of favor with the court. His lament:

Who had greatness? Who had favour, of all people in the land? 
I it was had favour, greatness, from the Saman scions' hand; 
Khurasan's own Amir, Nasr, forty thousand dirhams gave, 
And a fifth to this was added by Prince of Pure and Brave; 
From his nobles, widely scattered, came a sixty thousand more; 
Those the times when mine was fortune, fortune good in plenteous store. 
Now the times have changed--and I, too, changed and altered must succumb, 
Bring the beggar's staff here to me; time for staff and script has come!

He reportedly died in abject poverty. Perhaps in his final days he repeated one of his couplets:

Were there no wine all hearts would be a desert waste, forlorn and black, 
But were our last life-breath extinct, the sight of wine would bring it back.
Rudaki
A white wine, Zilavka, that I tried earlier. It is also indigenous to the Balkan Peninsula. I am not a big fan of white wine,  but this one was not bad at all.  It was flirtatious but not presumptuous; sassy, without being impertinent. 
Another view of the winery

Thursday, December 13, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje | Stone Bridge

Macedonia Square with statue of Warrior on a Horse (Alexander the Great, but don’t tell anyone). Click on photos for enlargements. 
The northeast side of 435 foot-long and 250 foot-wide Macedonia Square faces the famous Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, across the Vardar River.  The 241 mile-long river, which drains at least two-thirds of the country and divides the city of Skopje into two parts, finds its source only about eighteen miles to the northwest of Skopje, near the Kosovo border, but loops far to the south before heading north to Skopje, picking up many tributaries along the way, including the sizable Treska River (home of the famous Matka Canyon resort area), which flows into the Vardar 4.5 miles upstream from downtown, and has already grown into a sizable stream by the time it flows through the city. The river continues on to the southeast and crosses the Greek border near the town of Axioupoli, where is suddenly takes on the Greek name of Axios River, before flowing into the Aegean Sea west of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The meaning of “Vardar” is much debated, but the name it probably based on an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning “Black Water”. 
The Stone Bridge
The Kameni Most, or Stone Bridge, across the Vardar, has become a symbol of Skopje and is found on the city’s coat-of-arms and on the city flag. 
Skopje-coat-of-arms
According to an historical signpost on the bridge itself, the Kameni Most was built by order of Ottoman Sultan Murad II during the years 1421–51 on the foundations of an earlier bridge dating to the sixth century when current-day Macedonia was part of the Byzantine Empire. Other sources suggest, however, that the bridge was by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror between 1451 and 1469. Perhaps both sultans had a hand in its construction. As for the earlier bridge, the historical record is unclear, but since it was built in the six century, it is interesting to speculate that it was constructed during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565), who was born in the village of Tauresium (now called Taor), twelve miles southeast of current-day Skopje. In any case, as part of the Skopje 2014 Project an imposing 16.5 foot-high white marble statue of Justinian sitting on his throne has been installed on the bank of the Vardar River just a hundred feet north of the bridge. It was made in Florence, Italy, reportedly at a cost of over just over one million euros.
Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565)
Justinian

Justinian is perhaps most famous for building Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (Istanbul), to this day one of the world’s most magnificent edifices (it was first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum), and for marrying the notorious ex-prostitute Theodora
Interior of Hagia Sophia
“Glory to God, Who has deemed me worthy of fulfilling such a work. O Solomon, I have surpassed thee,” Justinian reportedly said when entering the newly completed Hagia Sofia for the first time. History does not record what he said after entering Theodora for the first time. 
Four of the twelve arches of the Stone Bridge

The bridge built by the Ottomans was heavily damaged during an earthquake in 1555 and eventually repaired. Further repairs and renovations took place in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, with the last update in 1994. In 1944 Nazi troops who had invaded Macedonia rigged the bridge with explosives, intending to destroy it to cover their retreat, but this plot was foiled and the bridge survived.The current bridge, 702 feet long and twenty feet wide, consists of columns of huge stone blocks divided by twelve semicircular arcs.
View downstream from the Stone Bridge, toward the Bridge of Civilizations in Macedonia, also known as the Eye Bridge.
View upstream from the Stone Bridge. Another pedestrian bridge is under construction.
About two-thirds of the way across the bridge is a column containing a mihrab, or prayer niche, apparently pointing in the direction of Mecca, dating to 2008, although there may have been an earlier version.
Prayer niche on the bridge
A bit further on, on the other side of the bridge is an historical signpost marking the spot where the illustrious Karposh, the Christian leader of an anti-Ottoman uprising in 1689, was executed by the Ottomans. The northern end of the bridge debouches onto Karposh Square, named after the Macedonian freedom fighter.
Sign indicating where Karposh was supposedly executed
Northern end of the Stone Bridge debouching onto Karposh Square
Statue of Karposh
Statue of Karposh
Statue of Karposh

Sunday, December 9, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje | Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia


At the northern end of the famous Stone Bridge across the Vardar River in Downtown Skopje, in Karposh’s Rebellion Square (more on the illustrious Karposh later), and just in front of the apartment building where I am staying, is the charming Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia.
View of the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia from the window of the my apartment (click on photos for enlargements)
Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia 
Mother and Child
Mother and Child
Pregnant Mother-to-be
Fountain Pool
The pool of the Fountain of the Mothers of Macedonia. The fountain is apparently turned off in wintertime. Is it just my imagination, or is the fountain pool shaped like an enormous Vulva?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

North Macedonia | Tikves Wine District | Demir Kapiya | Popova Kula Winery | Stanushina


I Mentioned Earlier that I drink only wines indigenous to the place I happen to be at the time. At the moment I am staying at the Popova Kula Winery in the Tikves Wine District of Macedonia. In addition to making wine from the more famous varieties of grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc, all of which originated outside the Balkan Peninsula and have been replanted here—the winery also features several wines indigenous to the Balkans. It also features one wine indigenous to Macedonia itself. This wine, known as Stanushina, is made from a variety of grapes which originated in the Tikves Wine Region of Macedonia and to this day is grown nowhere else. The Popova Kula Winery claims to be the only winery in Macedonia—and thus the world—to make wine from this grape. This is a truly indigenous wine, and sampling it is the main reason I have come to Demir Kapiya. 
Stanushina (click on photos for enlargements)
A bottle of regular Stanushina (there is also an aged-in-oak-barrels version) cost $4.43 at the winery store. Although the weather is cool—in the 50ºF—and rainy, with surprisingly strong gusts of wind sweeping down the Vardar Valley, I retire to my balcony with the wine and an assortment of walnuts, figs, and dried apricots that I bought at the Old Bazaar in Skopje. I am perfectly comfortable in a Mongolian Cashmere sweater. The wine is light scarlet in color, fruity and flowery, with a mouthful of cherries and hints of strawberry and raspberry. As often happens when I drink wine—especially light, fruity wine, my thoughts turn to Omar Khayyam (1048 a.d. – 1131 a.d.). Most famous in the Occident as a poet—he is the “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou” guy—in Persia itself he is best known as a Mathematician and astronomer. 

As I started on my second glass of Stanushina I began to recall quotes and poetry by Omar Khayyam:

Drink wine. This is life eternal. This is all that youth will give you. It is the season for wine and roses. Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.
So much wine I will have drunk that its perfume
Shall stream from my tomb once I am laid to rest.
And when a true believer passes by
The aroma shall overwhelm him with drunkenness.
 A glass of wine is worth more than the entire kingdom of China.
Before death springs upon you unannounced 
Make sure to ask for the finest of vintages.
Something in my third glass of Stanushina triggered thoughts about the legend involving Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, who was the vizier of the Seljuq Empire from 1064 a.d. to 1092 a.d., and Hassan-i Sabbah (1050 to 1124), the Nizari Ismaili who founded the notorious sect of the Assassins. According to the legend—admittedly the historicity of this tale has been questioned—the three men while still young swore a pact of eternal friendship, vowing that if one of them rose to prominence he would help the other two in whatever way he could.  Nizam al-Mulk achieved achieved power first by becoming vizier of the Seljuq Empire. He then offered both his friends important positions in the Seljuq government. Hassan-i Sabbah accepted a government post but Omar Khayyam declined, preferring instead to stick to his study of mathematics and astronomy and to his devotion to women, poetry, and wine. Nizam al-Mulk eventually decided that Hassan-i Sabbah had become too powerful and was threatening his own position in the Seljuk court. He then engineered a plot to have Hassan-i Sabbah removed from office and disgraced. Hassan-i Sabbah never forgave Nizam al-Mulk for this betrayal. Years later, after he had organized the Assassin sect at Alamut in Iran, Nizam al-Mulk was the very first victim of Hassan-i Sabbah’s trained assassins. When I was in Iran I visited Alamut and also the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan. Unfortunately I was unable to visit the tomb of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur. I was still ruing this omission when I finished the bottle of Stanushina.
Entrance to the tomb of Nizam al-Mulk in Esfahan, Iran

Sunday, November 25, 2018

North Macedonia | Skopje

When residing in Mongolia I usually do not break out my winter coat until temperatures fall to –10ºF or colder. Until then a down jacket is usually sufficient. A few days ago the temperature dropped to –16ºF. As I was digging out my winter coat a thought hit me. Instead of breaking out the winter coat why not just head for warmer climes? I checked the weather in various cities and discovered that it was a relatively balmy 62ºF in Skopje, Macedonia, a city that I had visited before and found quite appealing. I immediately booked a Flight On Turkish Airlines to Skopje. The plane left Ulaanbaatar at six o’clock the next morning. After an eleven hour flight (including a one hour layover in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) I arrived in Istanbul, where I spent the night in a hotel near the airport, and  early the next morning caught the one hour and fifteen minute flight to Skopje. From the airport I took a taxi to my hotel in the Stara Charshiya, the old bazaar quarter of Skopje. 
Macedonia, in the middle of the Balkan Peninsula (click on photos for enlargements)

Macedonia, a former province of Yugoslavia and now an independent country, is officially named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, an unwieldy name that pleases nobody. Attempts to change the name are now underway (more on this extremely contentious issue later). Located in the heart of the Balkans, Macedonia—most people use the shorthand name—is surrounded  by the countries of Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece and covers 9,928 square miles, making it slightly bigger than Vermont and slightly smaller than Massachusetts. Put another way, sixty-six Macedonias would fit inside the borders of the state of Alaska, and sixty-one within the borders of Mongolia. The population is roughly 2,100,000, with 507,000 living in Skopje. About 65% of Macedonians are Christians; 35% are Muslims. As of 2012, the country had 1,842 churches and 580 mosques. The vast majority of the Christians belong to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which became autocephalous, or self-ruling, in 1967 and is not officially recognized by any of the other branches of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—for the moment.
The city of Skopje is divided into two parts by the 241 mile-long Vardar River, which drains at least two-thirds of the country. The Vardar starts only about eighteen miles to the northwest of Skopje, near the Kosovo border, but loops far to the south before heading north to Skopje, picking up many tributaries along the way. It has already grown into a sizable stream by the time it flows through the city. The river continues on to the southeast and crosses the Greek border near the town of Axioupoli before flowing into the Aegean Sea west of the city of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The name “Vardar” is probably based on an ancient Proto-Indo-European word meaning “Black Water”.
Center of Skopje. The Stone Bride can be seen in the middle.
The boisterous Varder River
The Stone Bridge connecting Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje, to the Old Bazaar, where I am staying, is the oldest bridge in the city. The 702 foot-long, 20-foot wide bridge was built by order of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror between 1451 and 1469 on foundations of an earlier bridge dating to the time of the Roman Empire.
The Stone Bridge
One of several pedestrian bridges across the Vardar
Statue in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. It is generally thought to be a statue of Alexander the Great, although that is not its official name. More on this later . . .