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Text: Tom Owen | Photography: Matt Grayson
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the nation of Yugoslavia began an immense programme of monument-building – erecting huge, space-age structures up and down the country to commemorate military milestones in the Second World War. The word “spomenik” means “monument”, but is used outside of the countries that once made up Yugoslavia to specifically refer to these futuristic, brutalist war memorials. They were symbols of national pride, tangible objects around which the identity of a newly formed country stitching together numerous ethnic groups could coalesce.
To learn of the existence of these monuments is to be instantly fascinated. They exert a powerful pull on the mind, gigantic artefacts from a vanished world. There is something so beguilingly alien about them that we had to go and see them for real.
Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia, is said to be the most complete example of a brutalist city anywhere in the world – due mainly to the fact it was almost totally rebuilt in a short window of time, overseen by one Japanese architect. When we decided to plan a bikepacking trip to visit some brutalist spomeniks, it made sense to start in Skopje. Given North Macedonia (known as the Republic of Macedonia from 1991 to 2018) is a tiny country, just 213km across at its widest point, “why not do a lap?”, we thought.
“Lapedonia” was born.
Some of the spomeniks in North Macedonia are easy to find. They have been added on Google Maps as places of interest. They are usually the better-maintained ones. Others don’t benefit from a digital pushpin, but can clearly be made out on Street View. Yet others have neither. One, as far as we found, simply does not exist any more.
In our quest to hunt these spomeniks, we discovered awe-inspiring structures in remarkable settings and underwhelming piles of fallen-down stones. We ran away from a bear, got hit by a car, and pushed the definition of ‘road cycling’ to its screaming, tortured limit.
North Macedonia is wild, there’s no other word for it.
North Macedonia has wolves. Loads of them, in fact. More per square mile than any other country in Europe. Only the feckless or wilfully careless would knowingly camp in a secluded part of a vast national park away from human settlements in a country overflowing with wolves. It’s lucky then that we didn’t find out that statistic until after we got back.
What we were worried about that night was the bear.
With the first day’s big climb into the Mavrovo National Park dispensed with, we looked for somewhere to eat dinner. We were pleased with our first day exertions and confident of rolling off and easily finding a spot to sleep. One big dinner and some Macedonian reds later, we were dismayed to find there was not much flat ground in the gorgeous park – and that our available daylight was quickly dwindling. Deciding that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush, we picked a grassy, kinda-flat lay-by and decided to make camp.
Until Matt, our photographer, said, while peering down into the epic gorge below:
“Is that a bear?”
It was. A really big one. We panicked.
We had to keep going down, to try and put a few kilometres of distance between us. So trundle off we did, downhill in the deepening dark, trying hard to watch out for potholes.
Finally we found a deserted cafe, boarded up with a raised concrete patio in front. The patio had a small wooden fence around it with a gate. It would have to do. Sleep didn’t come very quickly that night.
Jagged mountains and winding roads. Dense green forests and vast blue lakes. Surly guard dogs, suicidal tortoises and surprise gravel climbs. North Macedonia has all the components for a stunning bikepacking adventure. And wolves. And bears.
The towns of North Macedonia are not up to much. Mostly they feel like border outposts, regardless of their position in the country. The dusty air of dozing insecurity. The palpable feeling of potential unrest. Everywhere on the outskirts of towns are these monolithic gutted buildings, wrecked relics of the nation’s Soviet-era past.
For the three of us, all born on the same tiny island where real estate is at such a premium that a hulk like these left empty on our shores would immediately be turned into prestige living spaces, these booming abandoned mega-barns are an entrancing spectacle. Logging mills, power plants, train yards and grain stores – every one of them an urban explorer’s dreamscape – we ride past them all again and again.
It all looks exactly like you’d imagine the outer limits of Leningrad do, if they had been uprooted from the snowy shores of the Baltic Sea and dumped into a Greek climate.
We also see a lot of shanty towns, physical reminders that this is one of the poorest nations in Europe. North Macedonia is not a member of the European Union. It has been declined entry based on concerns over its lack of proper democracy and limited press freedoms. It is poor and you can tell. Kids stare at us. Watch us eat lunch. Find it immeasurably amusing when we eat bread. They are white and we are white, but by looking at us they can immediately tell we are foreigners. Mostly they think we are American. The only words we know how to say are ‘na’ and ‘spomenik’.
A vocabulary like that only goes so far to bridging the culture gap.
The spomeniks are either urban or rural. The rural ones are neglected, but they feel more magical. In Gevgelija, an upturned egg-beater made of scorched steel juts into the sky. A frame now, it used to be plated with metal sheeting – but that was nicked for scrap long ago. In a lay-by on the way into Mavrovo, our first spomenik is perhaps the most underwhelming of the trip, a broad fresco set in concrete. In Prilep, a set of looming, pristine white chessmen – a memorial to the 700 from the city who died fighting throughout the Second World War. And in Kavadartsi a faux-wooden fort atop a hill, like something you’d find on the forest moon of Endor.
They can be bizarre, imposing, depressing and exultant – some of them are all at the same time. The endlessly surprising thing is how little people actually seem to care about them one way or another. To the average North Macedonian, they are just there.
Once, the Macedons ruled the universe. Or the part of it they knew existed.
Alexander the Great set forth from Macedonia and conquered the known world, forging ever eastward, founding cities, only curtailing his conquest when his men refused to go any further. They were homesick and refused to fight any more, wander any longer. They had reached northern India.
In certain moments, we get a sense of the country that must’ve exerted that empire-inhibiting pull upon them. To get from Kichevo to Krusevo we have two choices. To climb three peaks and drop down into the highest city in the Balkans, or take the ‘long’ way round and go on the main road. This means riding ‘past’ Krusevo to the north, then heading south, and climbing up to the town.
We opt for the three peaks. Trundle out of Kichevo after kebabs for lunch, turn off the small main road and almost immediately find that it’s gravel. The gravel goes all the way to the top of what becomes clear is a logging road. There is no up-traffic whatsoever and the only things coming down are two huge trucks off to the sawmill. The drivers roll their eyes, laugh at us, enquire about where exactly we think we’re going – but with nothing to say back but ‘no’ or ‘monument’, we just let them roll past.
It takes an eternity to get up the mountain and as soon as we crest the ridge line, a pair of barking shepherd’s dogs chase us off their patch. It’s not till we’re about 500m down from the highest point that we pause, look across the valley we’ve just entered; an idyllic agrarian microcosm.
Wheat fields carpet the valley floor. Mountains rise up on every side. We cannot see a single settlement from where we stand. An Arcadian scene that – but for a single transmitter mast – could be unchanged since old Alex first wondered what was over that next hill. I laugh out loud at the fantastical beauty of it. Giddy euphoria and the certain knowledge that nobody else has ridden a bike over this today. One ragged descent later and we are rolling on the valley floor. Flat tarmac, a gentle tail wind.
Buzzing, but parched, we luck out and find a tiny village shop. It has a payphone outside the door, possibly the only one in town. No frontage, no indication whatsoever of what it is beside a branded drinks fridge, just visible inside the doorway. We descend on it like bees round honey. We must get water!
Entering the dim and dusty room, all four sets of eyes inside settle on us. In the fridge, there is no water. No coke, or anything but yoghurt and beer. We choose beer and sit down at the same (sole) table as a man with the most remarkable mustachios I have ever seen not on the face of a silent-era movie villain. He must be 70, but his grip is like a demigod’s. He shakes us each by the hand and – seeing that we’ve bought two large beers between three – orders us a third one.
The beers prove to be our undoing. There’s nothing of any nutritional value available in the shop. Empty stomachs and endurance capabilities dulled by alcohol, we trudge like weary footsoldiers over the next two climbs – leaving behind our little valley paradise. It is a wrench to leave it and so we understand how those Ancient Macedons must also have felt when they reached India. Why go on, when it’s so nice right here?
An oncoming truck fills the whole road so I get to one side and onto the verge. I overbalance, topple over into the grass. For a moment I think of sleeping just there.
If you hit a cyclist with your car in North Macedonia, the protocol – as far as I have observed in a real-world live test – is this.
From here on, the order of play gets a bit more freeform. The blue-shirted cop will arrive and park directly on the roundabout, so as to create an obstacle around which all other road users must drive – slowing them down and allowing plenty of time to stare at the scene. A crowd of concerned onlookers will appear and hover, saying things mostly in Macedonian. The blue-shirted cop will harangue the traffic into some sort of order, while simultaneously taking three witness statements from people who didn’t see the crash.
Blue Shirt will call the station to send the One Guy Who Speaks English down to the roundabout. He needs the One Guy Who Speaks English to translate the questions he hurls in the direction of any of the cyclists, but Blue Shirt is the maestro in this situation, conducting the public like an orchestra leader, deflecting the useless salvos of information thrown his way with an irritated flick of his pen. The Stokowski of smash-ups. The Berlioz of broken bumpers.
The ambulance will arrive. Check the cyclist is ok. The cyclist will insist he is, so as to avoid losing valuable hours of cycling time in the Strumica hospital emergency room. Word will arrive on the radio that the driver has been caught. He will be fined.
The crime scene photographer will arrive and photograph the bike. The skid marks on the road. The bike again. The shattered road furniture. He will say something to Blue Shirt and all of a sudden, it is over.
“He says, ‘you can go’.”
The cyclists will say “thank you” profusely because, after all, they are British. One will make a joke and, despite insisting he does not speak English, Blue Shirt will laugh the loudest.
Surfing the elevation loss from the high mountains that make the border with Bulgaria, we are chased by a storm. It’s rolling down from Bansko, the cut-price ski resort, and heading inland. Into Macedonia. Exactly where we’re going. We have a spomenik to see outside Mitrasinci, it’s a concrete claw, reaching up to grab for the sky – like an inverted version of those arcade games where you can, with an investment of £20-£35, win a cuddly toy worth 56p. Whatever it might be reaching for, the thunderstorm is what’s coming into view.
The spomenik is not in the tiny village, it’s up on the hill that overlooks it. The spomenik itself isn’t visible from the road; it’s screened by a copse of pine trees. On the back side of the hill, a way through the trunks has been made – brutal concrete slabs are employed as steps up to the monument. At the top are some useless concrete plinths off to the corners of the flat clearing and a huge radio antenna. Then central, the claw.
As we stand there, a few fat drops hit our jackets. But not many. Most of the storm is rolling around to either side of the hill. We are in a freakish pocket of calm at the centre of the storm.
Like almost all the other ones – at least those in rural areas – this spomenik feels abandoned. No other tourists. No sign of human habitation or visitation. No plaques, nor anything indicating just what it is that we’re looking at. The 50th partisan brigade of Macedonia, the unit to which this spomenik is dedicated, was formed in 1944 when the tide was already inexorably turned in favour of the Allied forces.
Facing back towards town, we watch the lightning storm travel away from us. Into the valley, then the next valley and the next. Huge tendrils of white light thrash down from sky into ridge line.
I think about partisans, of empires, of German boys being sent to fight in these hills and being routed again and again by the hardened men who lived, hunted, and worked the land here all their lives. Men who were fighting for their home against lads who barely knew where they were. Boys from Berlin, Munich and the icy Baltic coast, thrust into a lush, green and sweltering landscape filled with snakes – barely understanding why they were there, nerves jangling with the effects of Pervitin.
I think of Alexander and his Macedons, on the furthest-flung edge of the known world. A man full of ambition to go and see and conquer more than any other in history, held back by his men who were homesick and wanted to go home to their land of green valleys and honey so sweet it crosses your eyes. I think of the home they must have left and I can still see shimmers of it today. In the heat haze over the road, in the places not filled with nightmarish concrete hulks and ragged dogs. On the vines that grow in the east and the unthinkable vastness of Lake Ohrid in the south. In the rumbling gait of the bears in Mavrovo.
As the lightning strikes again, I wonder if any of those boys had thunderbolts on their lapels.
I think lastly about my own country, tearing itself apart as it tries to come to terms with its own post-empire place in the world. Screaming its own importance as the world averts embarrassed eyes. Slamming a door closed and screaming, “And we’re never coming back…”
I think empires are stupid.
We also owe an enormous debt to the person or persons behind spomenikdatabase.org. Without their remarkable website, we wouldn’t have had the first idea about spomeniks or where to find them.