Macedonia? Why not? There’s something glorious about being a tourist in a place that attracts so few. The country’s abundant viticulture and vast national parks have somehow been overlooked by tourists in favour of more glamorous Balkan countries such as Croatia, but slowly the nation is edging away from the shadow of Yugoslav rule. One of Macedonia’s main proponents of tourism is ex-footballer Pece Cvetkovski. Having played for the local team – as well as FK Skopje, in the capital, and in Denmark – Cvetkovski is something of a celebrity in these parts, and he invites guests to stay where he grew up, at Villa Dihovo, near the city of Bitola, in the southwestern reaches of the landlocked country.
Sounds remote. Yep. Don’t bother with trains, either; Balkan buses are more comfortable, and they run frequently from Skopje. Care hire is also a doddle (about €120/HK$1,000 for three days) and petrol is dirt cheap. About 7km from the unremarkable city of Bitola, you’re likely to be bowled over as soon as you reach Villa Dihovo – literally – as Cvetkovski’s snow-white sled dog will no doubt jump up in excitement as you step out of the car, perhaps causing you to stumble into the meticulously planted organic vegetable garden. Eek.
Organic vegetable garden?Cvetkovski is a certified producer for the Slow Food organisation, which promotes clean eating, using only organic vegetables and very little meat. Macedonia, by the way, is still one of the biggest producers of organic food, so it’s common for residents to have kitchen gardens. Home-cooked food served in Villa Dihovo’s comfy dining room makes for a wonderful return after a long day’s hiking in the nearby Pelister National Park. Favourites include stuffed, dried and spiced rezha peppers, foraged mushrooms and the tavce gravce, a Macedonian dish of high quality beans baked in tomato sauce. Burrow underground, into Cvetkovski’s natural wine cave, to choose a bottle for dinner, at the suggested price – or “donation” – of US$10.
Can we take a bottle up to our room? Absolutely. Cvetkovski also brews his own (surprisingly, very good) beer and he’ll no doubt give you a few of those to see off upstairs, too. There are only a couple of rooms at present, and they’re decorated like a folklorean dream: wooden ornaments and rickety bedsteads forged from tree trunks stand opposite a window framing views of the national park. There’s blissfully little else to do other than eat, sleep and wander the grounds, performing a vegetable roll-call from one plant bed to another.
Wait, what’s that about a national park? Well, other than the Slow Food and the general feeling of abandon that comes with being in a Macedonian country house in the middle of nowhere, Pelister National Park is the main reason people stay with Cvetkovski. After a short but dramatic drive up the foothills of the Baba Mountain, the host (who offers lifts everywhere) will leave hiking guests by the unashamedly 1970s Hotel Molica. Be sure to stop in for a drink and a gawp at the fabulous throwback block-green interiors and mini indoor lake. Park hikes last anything from an hour or so to a long, full day, and take in lofty panoramic views of Christmas tree firs on mountain sides that fold like layers of icing off into the distance. The ultimate hike leads you to natural lakes atop the mountain.
What are we looking at, price wise? One night at Villa Dihovo is €40, and for dinner and drinks, Cvetkovski asks that you “pay what you like”. A cookery school is scheduled to open at Villa Dihovo in time for the summer, as will additional rooms. Guests are encouraged to stay for two or three nights, and take part in foraging and fishing trips.