By Christopher Deliso, Lonely Planet
Despite its partially Mediterranean climate, Macedonia in winter can be snowy and cold. No surprise then that the country's hospitable inhabitants keep warm with copious amounts of food and grog, along with carnivals marked by costumed tomfoolery.
Luckily, those traveling through southeastern Europe this winter can enjoy two of the best Macedonian carnivals within weeks of each other, because Easter (according to the old Julian calendar, which marks Macedonia's Orthodox Christian holidays) falls early in 2007.
• The Vevchani Carnival. Unique and uproarious, the Vevchani Carnival (Jan. 13-14) is a rough-hewn spectacle held in a mountainside village near Lake Ohrid, in Macedonia's southwestern corner. It developed out of pagan rituals, but later acquired Christian connotations. Like similar celebrations meant to shake off the winter blues, this 1,400-year-old gala was originally meant to scare away evil spirits and start the year fresh.
Though smaller New Year's carnivals occur elsewhere in Macedonia, none is as famous or as festive as Vevchani's. Around 3,000 people drink, dance and gape as local men parade past in costumes depicting politicians and priests, snake-charming swamis, armed desperados, sundry demon hordes and more. The metal pitchforks, hay wagons, cannons and horses these intoxicated performers dub "floats" are all refreshingly (some would say hazardously) real.
During the carnival, age-old superstitions still hold, such as the belief that one year of bad luck will afflict householders who refuse a swig of wine to the passing horde. The houses of Vevchani are open; even complete foreigners might get dragged in by the arm and seated before succulent roasted meats, homemade cheese, yogurt and an array of sauces and breads. Saying "no" is not an option. Throw in the homemade wine, raki and beer, and that warm glow necessary for braving the winter chill is guaranteed.
Vevchani is decidedly unique. When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the village itself threatened to secede. Although it was coaxed into staying, the "Vevchani Republic" still prints its own colorful currency and mock passports (they can be acquired, with signature, from the mayor).
Winding lanes, traditional stone houses and lavishly decorated churches add to Vevchani's appeal; the clear mountain air is heavy with the pungent smell of wood-burning stoves and the sound of rushing water. Bridged paths traverse crystal-clear mountain springs, their waters clean enough to drink.
• The Strumica Carnival. More sexy and salacious than the Vevchani's carnival is the one held in Strumica, a southeastern agricultural town of 50,000. It too has pagan origins and, as can be attested to by some of the more titillating costumes, has not entirely lost its ancient associations with virility, fertility and ruddy bucolic health.
The five-day carnival coincides with the beginning of Orthodox Lent (Feb. 17-21). It was originally associated with Trimeri, a three-day period of Christian fasting for engaged girls. Such piety has long gone out the window, but the tradition partially lives on: Costumed processions visit the homes of engaged women, where each must guess which of the masked men is hers.
The carnival opens Saturday night with a masked ball. The next day, Prochka (the "Day of Forgiveness" in Orthodox belief), is reserved for a children's carnival. Partygoers prepare on "Clean" Monday for Tuesday's all-night merrymaking in the town center, when the streets are filled with music, drinks and costumed carousers. Wednesday is reserved for women to visit one another's homes (and, more generally, for the nursing of hangovers).
The Strumica area has rich cultural offerings, such as the sublime 11th century Byzantine monastery of Veljusa, the Roman thermal baths at Bansko and the sylvan waterfalls of Smolare and Kolesino.