Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

On the face of it the neighbouring villages of Labunishta and Vevchani seem quite similar. But guest contributor Christopher Deliso probes beneath the surface to reveal the ethnic and cultural differences that have always defined Macedonia.

article summary —

There are, to put it simply, too few scheduled flights into the little airport that lies on the north shore of Lake Ohrid. For hours, sometimes even days at a time, the terminal building is deserted for lack of flights. The modern airport has a fine north-south concrete runway, a vast improvement on the spartan grass airstrip that long served this out-of-the-way corner of southwestern Macedonia. Choose the right day, and the flight into Ohrid is one of the finest approaches in Europe. Views of the Jablanica mountain range that marks the border with Albania away to the west, then a banking turn over a clear blue lake with glimpses of the fortress city of Ohrid on its eastern shore. Most visitors are happy to stay in this lovely corner of Macedonia - no bad choice, given that Ohrid itself is arguably the most immediately appealing small city in the southern Balkans. On a good day, travellers arriving at Ohrid's airport can be through the formalities in just a few minutes. The airport is also a fine jumping off point for explorations of nearby parts of Albania. The Albanian border, and the village of Lin, noted for its acropolis, mosaics and the hospitality recounted in hidden europe 6, are about twenty five kilometres away.

But for those in search of the extraordinary, there are communities away from the lake that warrant an exploration - places where few tourists venture, more intriguing than the studied beauty of the World Heritage architectural ensemble in Ohrid. Guest contributor Christopher Deliso, a travel writer and journalist who lives and works in the Macedonian capital Skopje, has ventured often to the neighbouring villages of Labunishta and Vevchani. Both are within two dozen kilometres of Ohrid airport: as a pair, these communities offer rich insights into the ethnic and cultural cleavages that have always defined Macedonia.

Vevchani is a Macedonian Orthodox Christian village of some 2,500 souls, with two churches. Labunishta is mainly Muslim, its 10,000 inhabitants served by two mosques. Most of the latter are however not Albanian Muslim, but ethnic Macedonians whose ancestors converted to Islam during the Ottoman occupation. Both communities were municipalities in their own right, each with its own council and mayor. In the redistricting of 2004, however, only Vevchani retained that civic independence, while Labunishta's independent status was sacrificed to political exigency.


Labunishta is perpetually in progress. We climb a narrow street crowded by unfinished red-brick houses, plastic sheeting hung over concrete balconies, dusty shops and debris littered in with sand in little clusters on the ground. Going up, we are watched by apprehensive children with smooth short hair and older men, many dressed in jeans and vinyl ribbed jackets that would look more appropriate on the backs of race car drivers.

A rooster crows from somewhere and then, as if in synchrony, the calls of the muezzin sound from both mosques, echoing over all the unfinished houses crowned by satellite dishes.

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Chris Deliso (www.chrisdeliso.com) is an American travel writer and journalist concentrating on southeast Europe, where he has been living and traveling since 2002. Chris has contributed to around 20 Lonely Planet travel guides to countries like Greece, Turkey, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania. He has covered political life in Macedonia for London's Economist Intelligence Unit since 2004, and has also published widely on travel in newspapers, magazines and websites in the US, UK and many other countries. Chris earned an MPhil with honours in Byzantine Studies from Oxford University (1999) — an experience that fuelled his curiosity in the lands of the former Byzantine Empire. Follow Chris on Substack at https://christopherdeliso.substack.com/.

This article was published in hidden europe 8.