In 2011 I had my first solo trip abroad, to the country of Macedonia. There I spent time with some of my online friends. The next year I was invited back for their wedding, and so in the summer of 2012 I ventured back to Macedonia to partake in a traditional Macedonian wedding.
Before heading to the wedding, I needed to buy myself a new suit, and find a way to transport it without it getting too wrinkly. I also had to arrange some sort of present. It would also be my first wedding that I had ever participated in, being the youngest in the family. So it was very exciting for many reasons. I was dreading the part about having to wear a suit for a full day in temperatures of upwards of 35-40 degrees however!
After fixing all the requirements from home, it was time to hit the road. I arrived in Macedonia a week prior to the marriage, and was scheduled to stay for a week after the wedding as well. I was going to stay at the home of the coming groom and bride, as they had already moved in together. On my arrival in Skopje, I was picked up by the coming groom and another common friend. As it was my first time in Skopje (having flown into Thessaloniki the previous year), we had a small city tour seeing the central square, with the giant 27m statue of a warrior on a horse that totally isn’t Alexander the Great.
Then we drove on to Bitola, where we joined up with coming bride and her family. The days leading up to the wedding was of course very hectic as all the last preparations had to be done. So I did my best to just stay in the background and not interfere too much. I would hang out in town, Bitola – the second largest town in Macedonia, both on my own and with other friends I had made the previous year.
The first tradition I became witness to, that is very unlike anything that happens in Denmark, was that the house of the couple getting blessed by a priest. This happened on a regular afternoon a few days before the wedding. The parents of the couple turned up at their house, along with the couple and me. The priest started off by preaching a bit in Macedonian, then going around the whole house spraying a bit of holy water in every room, and on the bridal couple in the end. Finally we had pieces from a special bread that was provided. All of these ceremonies were with the purpose of blessing the new couple and blessing them with wealth in the future.
The next thing to happen was the very familiar bachelor party, which is held very much in the western tradition, that the bride goes out with all the girl friends and the groom goes out with all his guy friends for one last night of fun.
I of course went with the groom and many of his friends, many of whom I had already met previously. We started out the night with a shared dinner, where plenty of beer and other alcoholic beverages were consumed, songs were sung and fun was had. Eventually we moved out to a internet cafe where contests in DOTA-2 was held. Eventually we moved back out to a bar and ended up meeting up with the other bachelor party group.
In the last remaining days, there was a franctic travelling back and forth between both pairs of parents to make the last preparations, learning the wedding dance, meeting and greeting friends and family that had come from afar etc. It was a very interesting time.
The night before the wedding we had a big get-together with several couples of common friends, and new people I had never seen before, including a couple who was coming all the way from America to participate in the wedding, and who I would be staying with on the wedding day and night. We had a great dinner before the big show was to kick off the coming day.
The wedding day began with me being picked up by the brother of one of the brides best friends, and his girlfriend. I had met both of these people the night before at the supper. We drove together to the house of the brides parents, where the bride was currently at, until the official wedding party would move over there later. But we were only there to pick up the brides best friend, the sister to the guy that had picked me up.
Because now the first part of the day was about to kick off! In Macedonia, the wedding party starts off in the morning with everybody congregating at the house of the grooms parents, where the groom is “woken up”, and then a big breakfast is served. A live band also participated, playing cheerful traditional music and making sure the atmosphere was always celebratory. The feast was very extraordinaire and there was excessive amounts of drinks, fruit, sandwiches and other light snacks. Along with the entire apartment being filled to the brim with people. Macedonian weddings are huge!
After a while of staying inside, the party moved outside on the parking lot attached to the building, and started dancing the traditional oro chain-dance, which would happen over and over again during the day. After having danced, sung and celebrated a bit more at the grooms place, the whole party moves over to the brides place. This occurs in a long convoy of cars, where the grooms car is leading the pack, and is decorated prettily. The whole caravan will honk like crazy the entire way through town, making sure that the party is spread everywhere they go.
At the brides place, more guests and neighbours joined the party, and once again the oro was danced out front before entering the building. The parents of the bride came down to welcome the guests, and watch the celebrations.
When entering the home of the bride, she must remain hidden in a separate room, and nobody can see her yet. She is dressed up in her bridal dress, but must first be “bought” free from her father by the groom. Until this point, only the bridesmaids are allowed to see and assist the bride. Although this is merely a play on the old ways, and no transaction actually happens, it is still a nice little performance for the guests. The groom is supposed to go knock on the door to the brides room and make his offer. The offer will be rejected a few times until finally his offer is accepted and he can go “rescue” his bride. The bride is then walked out and showcased to the entire congregation of people, which at this point had absolutely filled up the apartment.
From then on the party just continues onward, with another very extravagant lunch prepared by the brides family. Plenty more drinks, songs, dancing, anecdotes and celebrating. The groom was eventually also “tested” and accepted by the sister of the bride, as a way to give him the blessing of the whole bridal family. This included a few small slaps across the face.
Eventually the party must also move on, to the next part of the day – the official ceremonies in which the actual marriage occurs. The first stop is at the city hall, followed by the church ceremony. But of course not before dancing another round of oro!
At the city hall, the mayor welcomed the couple, and held a speech for them. As it was entirely in Macedonian I actually have no idea about what was said, but undoubtedly just the usual official blessing, and talking about the new life awaiting them as husband and wife. In the end both the couple, and a handful of witnesses signed the official document. It was also here the official wedding photos were taken, in a moment of privacy where the couple sneaked off with the photographer, while the rest of the party continued dancing the oro and having fun.
At the church, we had to wait a bit, because another wedding was taking place, and it was a bit delayed. This time was spent by everybody in a form of nervous/excited anticipation. The Macedonian orthodox church is much like the other orthodox religions decorated with a lot of gold on the inside. But these churches also only have a few seats for the elderly, which means mostly everybody most remain standing throughout the entire ceremony.
Most macedonians remains fairly religious, even among the younger people. But my friends were not religious in the slightest, and so this long church ceremony was a drag for them, even going so far as to look at me several times with eyes telling just how bored they were with the whole religious thing happening.
During the ceremony, the bride and groom are both crowned with golden crowns, which is put on them by their bestman/bestwoman. They are also all blessed several times throughout the ceremony, and at one point there’s even thrown candy on the floor around the priests and the altar, that the kids will then scramble to get their hands on. All meanwhile the ceremony is still going on! It is rather unique, and something like that would definitely never happen here. Beyond that, there’s just a lot of religious preaching, again, entirely in Macedonian, so I mostly remember this part of the day as quite a drag, although the end of the ceremony where rings are exchanged and the kiss is given is always special.
The day ended off with a giant party at a fancy restaurant where around 200 people were present. Including both near family and friends, distant relatives that the couple hadn’t talked to in years, distant friends, and the foreign people that beyond me included the before mentioned couple from the US, and family from Sweden. The first long while is dedicated to everybody being able to get an official photo taken with the new husband and wife. With 200 guests, most in pairs, it does take quite a while to get through everybody.
After that, the official welcome to the party occurs where the bride and groom will do a big entrance, while everybody else is clapping them on. Then a big extravagant dinner was served. I don’t actually remember what was served, just that there was plenty of food to go around, and that it was delicious.
The rest of the party evolved much like any other wedding party; Lots of drinking, lots of dancing, lots of singing, celebrating and taking pictures. I was heartily invited out multiple times to participate in not just he oro chain-dance, but also just more traditional dancing, and even had a swing around with the bride at one time. During the night, the father of the bride, who I had only known as a quiet and slightly shy guy, mustered the courage to make a big speech to his daughter, and new son in law. It was of course entirely in Macedonian, but judging from the reaction of the crowd, it was a great and moving speech. And of course there was also a big wedding cake!
Towards midnight the bride and groom danced the official wedding dance which culminated in the DJ starting to play modern pop music and the dance floor exploding with the youth, dancing in the typical way rather than the oro that had been very popular up to this point. Everybody was having a blast for the rest of the night.
Eventually I left with the american couple (actually, the woman was macedonian but had moved to the US), to their place which was located in a block across from the apartment of the brides parents. There I crashed on their couch after a long day, barely managing to undress.
The next morning we were to meet up at the brides parents place, and the newlyweds were already sitting eating breakfast as I walked through the door, still unshowered from the night before, looking like a mess. Something which put a big grin on everybody’s faces.
The rest of that day was just spent relaxing, and for the newlyweds to settle into their new role. But also to open up all the gifts, and take care of the payments for the party etc.
One very succesful and interesting wedding it was!
After having had one day to settle down, the next steps were already being taken in the life as husband and wife. Some of the gift money they had gained was to be used to for new furniture, and so I joined them on a trip to the town of Prilep where a big furniture outlet was located. We also had a small city-break here, as it was my first time visiting the lovely city. We walked around the city center, and saw some of the main sights of the town, although there weren’t a lot. The most notable thing in the Prilep surroundings was the presence of tens if not hundreds of small drying-houses where tobacco leaves hung strung up on long lines being dried. This region is a flat and fertile part of the Pelagonia valley.
We had a traditional dinner at a restaurant in Prilep, before returning back to Bitola in the evening, with new furniture ordered, and a day trip richer.
Near Prilep there is a monastery up in the mountains, that is one of the main sights of the area, and while we did drive past it, I wouldn’t have the chance to actually venture up to the monastery until my next trip to Macedonia the following year.
After Prilep, we ventured out on what would be a small honeymoon (in which I was then also included, awkwardly), although the proper honeymoon would come later after I left.
We took a 2 day trip to the beach town of Leptokarya in Greece, where the grooms parents had rented a place where we could stay, all of us, including a few more family members that I had met at the wedding. The newly weds and I stayed in our own little apartment block, each of us having our own room. Leptokarya is ideally located, right next to the sea, but also with Mount Olympus as a backdrop. It was my first proper visit to Greece, and so it happened that I had a small vacation during my vacation.
We spent the time in Leptokarya just relaxing on the beach, swimming in the sea and walking around looking at all the tourists that flocked the area.
Finally we returned back to Macedonia and Bitola after a few relaxing days. It was also inching closer towards the end of my trip. Most of the new friends I had made at the wedding were still in town, and I wanted to have a big goodbye dinner for all of us (one advantage of Macedonia being very cheap, haha!). So it was quickly arranged that I would host a goodbye party the next day evening, where we would be a total of 10 people.
Prior to the goodbye dinner, on my last evening, we decided to spend the last day at the Ohrid lake, one of the most well known and most visited places in all of Macedonia. It is a splendid lake, which offers a cool get-away in the landlocked nation. Furthermore it is also one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. We were there during my first visit the year prior as well, and it was pretty much required to go there during a trip to Macedonia.
And so we went and spent the last day together just relaxing and reminiscing about the things that had occurred during my trip. All while being in marvelous natural surroundings. Lake Ohrid truly is one of the most pristine places in Europe, one that is sure to attract a large number of tourists in years to come, as a great alternative to the overcrowded Adriatic coast in Croatia. The town of Ohrid also features lovely small houses, and a well preserved old fortress giving splendid views of the lake.
Along the lake-edges there’s also a plethora of monasteries that offers even more splendid and pristine views of the lake. It is highly recommended to go here! Beware tho that during the weekends in the peak of summer the Macedonians themselves flock here, so it can be a bit crowded, at least at the good beaches.
Returning in the evening (Bitola is just a fairly small drive away) for the big farewell dinner. The dinner was a big success, and we all had a grand time reminiscing about the time spent together, the future to come etc. In the end I ended up paying just ~50 euros for the food and drinks for all 10 of us. Now that’s competitive prices!
And so my second journey to Macedonia, one that included a very special window into the daily life of the people, and being welcomed into a family with open arms, being included in the most important moments of my friends big day. Spectacular!
This is what I value from traveling, being able to meet new people and cultures, and be included in the daily day life of a place, rather than just being an outside spectator.