Friday, March 07, 2008

Culinary (and Other) Delights of Macedonia's Tikvesh Wine Region

In this engaging travel piece, the author recounts a summer expedition into Macedonia’s wine country, and a trip down the country’s ‘other’ lake - Tikvesh, which is also the general name for the entire dry and dusty region of south-central Macedonia where the country’s best wine is cultivated and where life still moves to an age-old bucolic village rhythm.

A sunny summer day’s breeze opened the gates of something that turned out to be a most pleasant surprise - my discovery of an isolated but stunning expanse of land, water and the past in south-central Macedonia. A trip organized for international expats living in the country took us to Lake Tikvesh, an area relatively unknown even to many of us Macedonians, and well off the beaten track for most occasional tourists to this Southeast European country.

Lazy Lake Tikvesh meanders northwest from the Mariovo hills to the Tikvesh vineyards.

Although few know it, the long, snaking Lake Tikvesh is Macedonia’s biggest man-made lake. It is located 12 kilometres southwest of the town of Kavadarci on the River Crna, or 3 kilometres from the village of Vozarci. The lake, which was built in 1968, is some 30 kilometres long and traces its long and narrow course southwest from Mt. Kozjak, where the River Crna widens to create it.

An idyllic boat trip from the northern Kavadarci side of the lake took us on an hour-long tour all the way across to the other end of the lake, from where the River Crna feeds into it, flowing down over the mountains above the vast Mariovo plains. The constantly-changing features of the terrain remained vivid throughout our voyage, with the landscape changing from the gently undulating vineyards of the southern slopes of the Tikvesh wine region to arid, semi-desertified rock hills, and finally to the lush forests that predominate on the lake’s lower half.

The whole area of Lake Tikvesh, I found, is particularly rich in fauna. The lake is simply bursting with fish; the most remarkable is the sheatfish, a legendary type of catfish that can reach up to two metres in length. The wider rocky region of Tikvesh also plays host to 23 endemic species of predatory birds (17 of which nest in the area), making this region an ideal spot for anglers and bird watchers alike. Specifically, the endangered predators present in the Tikvesh National Reserve are the Shot-toed Eagle, the Griffon Vulture, the White Egyptian Vulture, and the Bearded Vulture.

Indeed, because of all these natural rarities, the Macedonian government has officially designated some 10,000 hectares of untouched forests in the Tikvesh region as a protected national reserve.

Aside from the fantastic nature, my interest in cultural heritage was piqued when we came across a small bay at the southern, Mariovo end of the lake, where a truly wonderful collection of art was hidden - early medieval Orthodox frescos painted on remote rocks high above the lakeshore. In a similar vein, for me the lake’s biggest attraction came further on the southwestern shore, in an area only accessible by boat. Here, directly above the lake, I encountered the Polog Monastery with its church of St. George, a significant monument of culture dating back to the fourteenth century. Richly decorated with frescoes, the church is assumed by historians to date back ultimately to the ninth century, as its architectural style is very similar to that found in the churches of Ohrid.

The medieval Church of St. George stands guard over the lake.

When we finally made our way back up the lake to the Kavadarci shores, it was time to venture out to taste what culinary delights the Tikvesh area had to offer. The chief two among these, I soon found, were Lake Tikvesh’s delicious fish and the area’s top quality wines.

Out of the many restaurants in the area, we choose a small family-owned restaurant in the village of Vatasha, adjacent to the town of Kavadarci. It turned out to be an excellent decision. Vatasha is a peaceful village located in deep forests on the shores of the river Luda Mara; the name literally means ‘Crazy Mary,’ because in the past high water levels in spring have caused dramatic flooding in the whole area. For Macedonians, Vatasha is most famous for its World War II memorial, which commemorates the 1943 massacre of local Macedonians by the Bulgarian occupying army. Another must-see site in the village is the medieval church dedicated to the Mother of God.

Our little restaurant was delightfully located amidst the tranquility of Vatasha’s lush nature, and we were serenaded by the sounds of water bubbling from nearby springs. Instead of opting for the well-known premium quality wine produced by Tikvesh winery or something from the smaller but also excellent Bovin, Povardarie or Dudin, we accepted our convivial hosts’ offer of the genuine homemade wines of Vatasha - and we were not disappointed!

Indeed, it was truly the drink of the gods that we discovered in that remote village restaurant. And it perfectly matched the catch of the day, carp from Lake Tikvesh. Interestingly enough, the locals distinguished their homemade wines according to gender- mashko (masculine) and zhensko (feminine) reds, perhaps hearkening back to some primeval time when wine had archetypical relations with religion, customs and fertility rites. Yet even in the modern age, we discovered that in keeping close to the earth the Tikvesh people really know how to keep the old traditions of vinecraft alive.

How to describe the tastes we enjoyed on that balmy summer’s afternoon? Both the ‘male’ and ‘female’ wines were exceptionally flavorful, the former having a more strikingly edgy taste, while the latter seduced one’s senses with its charming mellowness. Both were notable for their fruitiness and deep color; long after our glasses had been drained, deep, dark red stains remained, running down the edges. These colorations attained almost the status of ink, very much evidencing the wine’s deepness and intensity of taste. The singular quality of these local masterpieces cannot easily be described. Since such concoctions of course cannot be found in stores, we felt lucky to be able to savor them there at their point of origin, in an overlooked but extraordinary little corner of Macedonia’s heartland.


When to Go

The ideal time to visit Tikvesh is the last week of September, when the town of Kavadarci hosts the annual Wine Fest, which celebrates winemaking in one of Europe’s oldest winemaking regions (wine production in the Tikvesh region dates well over 2,000 years back).

How to Get There

The Tikvesh region (including Lake Tikvesh, the town of Kavadarci, the village of Vatasha and so on) are located conveniently just west of the major north-south E-75 highway that connects Skopje with Greece’s northern port city of Thessaloniki. Tikvesh is approximately a one-hour drive south from the capital, and about a two-hour drive up from Thessaloniki.

Ideally, a visit to the Tikvesh region can be combined with a trip to one of Macedonia’s best preserved ancient towns - Stobi, located just 15 kilometres north of Kavadarci, and perhaps some of the local vineyards, where premium Macedonian wines can be sampled and purchased. Also adjacent are the Vitacevo Plateau and the Mariovo plains, which with their unspoiled nature and centuries-old ghost villages remain perfect getaways for hikers, romantics and adventure-seekers alike.

Note: for organized visits to the Tikvesh National Reserve, contact the Management of the Tikvesh National Reserve by email at: e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or by phone at +389-(0)43-411503 and +389-(0)43-411603.

Reders interested in the Tikvesh area’s diversity of wildlife can contact Mr. Tome Lisichanec from the Wild Flora and Fauna Fund of Macedonia at: +389 (0)75 541-874.

Finally, wine-tasters interested in visiting a small local winery can make arrangements by calling +389 (0)70 218-531; ask for Marjan.

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