Wine-Stained Memories At the Oldest Winery In Macedonia—Kitten Included

The last time I crossed the border and into Macedonia I came through Bulgaria. It was a grey, cold, and threatening rain. As with the Kosovo crossing, the Macedonia officers at that Bulgarian border station wouldn’t let me in without insurance. It was Sunday, and they suggested I wait a day or head south and go to Greece. Very helpful. They challenged me, but I finally got the insurance and crossed.

Today it’s sunny, the roads are better, and it takes just over an hour to find the Royal Winery Queen Maria in Demir Kapija. It’s close to the Popova Kula winery where I stayed during my 2016 Nordic and Eastern European adventure. The Royal Winery Queen Maria was not open to the public. New owners just took over the property which today they tout as the oldest winery in Macedonia.

To be sure, like elsewhere I’ve traveled in search of lost vineyards and forgotten farms, the Romans grew grapes and made wine here starting in the third century. After World War I when Macedonia was part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Aleksander Karađorđevic inherited the throne after his father died. He later married Princess Maria of Romania. Together they built a royal property near the dramatic Demir Kapija gorge where the fertile soil is ideal for grape growing and winemaking. It is here he envisioned making the highest quality wine only for the royal family. He named the property after his wife, Maria. And just a few years later, with a vision for a unified state, he changed the name of the kingdom to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

The Royal Winer of Queen Maria is a massive complex which includes several buildings for wine production, a restaurant and retail store, and six luxury apartments. Colorful peacocks roam the grounds, and visitors giggle and clink glasses on the patio off the restaurant. Fortunately for me, the hostess tells me an apartment is available, and it’s less than forty euros. Just up a short knoll from the apartments, construction workers make concrete in wheelbarrows while others move building materials down the driveway. They are amid new construction of what will be a luxury hotel with some twenty rooms.

The primary parking lot for the apartments and the winery is about 150 meters from my room. I convince the hostess to let me ride and park my bike outside my room. It’s a single story structure with three rooms, each with an outdoor patio with chairs. Inside is a massive living room, a large bedroom with a king-size bed, and a well-appointed bathroom. I park on the terrace outside my room and remove the straps from one of my black Ortlieb duffels and pull it off the pannier. Just then it occurs to me before I unpack the bike, that this is an idyllic setting to take a photo of my bike “Doc” in front of my room.

So I place the duffel back on top of the pannier but decide I need not tie it down with the straps. I grab my Canon DSLR and take a few steps back to frame the shot. Just as I lift the viewfinder to my eye, my bike teeters and tips over, crashing down on the nice stone terrace. The duffel tumbles off and also crashes down on the stones. Shit, it’s that kickstand. It’s just a little too upright, and the stone terrace where I parked is uneven. I must have nudged the bike just enough when taking my camera out of my top case that it slowly gave way.

As I grab the duffel from off the terrace, I sense and hear a sound of something broken, like glass. Unzipping the duffel, I get a whip of an unmistakable aroma—good wine. I frantically pull out my clothes, all neatly packed in Eagle Creek Pack-It Cubes. Red wine is everywhere, and so are chards of glass. This is a disaster. My clothes are soaked in red wine. So I hope all the cubes and pull out the wine-stained clothes. I’m screwed. At least this is the end of my trip. I run to the hostess and ask if there is a washer on the site that I could use. It’s late, and all the housekeeping staff left for the day.

I notice a water spigot behind the three-room complex. I use it to clean out the inside of the duffel. It’s waterproof, so it holds the water. I shake the duffel to collect all the glass shards. Once satisfied I didn’t cut a hole in the duffel and clearing all the glass, I go about the horrible task of washing my clothes. The sink is too small, so I disrobe and get in the shower with several pairs of underwear, pants, shirts, and socks. I still have the bar of soap that Stanka gave me when I was in Zagreb—she insists it’s a miracle cleaner for clothes—wine-stained and all. I rub the bar on the wine-drenched clothes. My bathroom smells like a winery. I rinse, rub, and twist and repeat with all my garments. Then, I go about finding places to hang dripping clothes.

This is not how I wanted to spend my first few hours in Macedonia. What a nightmare. Though at least I got to take a shower.

It’s about this time I hear from Mahsa, a fellow motorcycle rider who has been exploring neighboring Albania with Gerard, an Austrian guy riding an older BMW. Ever since I crossed the border into Croatia, we’ve been communicating and trying to figure out if we could make our paths cross. I try to convince them to meet me here at the Royal Winery, but the distance is too far. So we agree to meet tomorrow in Lake Ohrid, Macedonia’s most famous tourist destination which it shares with neighboring Albania.

Keep in mind I’m carrying about a case of wine on my sensible and modest 650cc motorcycle. Yeah, I know. Stop being a pack mule and drink or gift some juice. But I cannot. It’s a flaw or my belief that good wine is a story and to be shared. Yet everywhere I stop people share wine with me. So I only hope I can share some of this wine with Mahsa and Gerard, and perhaps with Panos in Athens. I strapped six bottles to my seat, I stuff two bottles in each of the Ortlieb duffels and a tuck a couple of bottles tucked into the Jesse bags. The lone bottle that saw its death today? Sadly it was an Albanian red blend from Cobo. It kills me as that was the last bottle of Albanian wine of the small collection. I’m tempted to head back and see my friend Flori Uka outside Tirana, but that’s a dream. I’ve got a flight in a few days. It’s a countdown.

At dinner later in the evening, I meet a young couple from the Netherlands. Dining at the table next to me they are indulging in a wine experience with a paring of Queen Maria wines with each dish. I take a more modest approach to my meal and insist my server pour me the best for the two courses of my indulgent. While playing with my phone, lamenting my wine disaster and the realization that my journey is winding down, I notice a small kitten climbing up the leg of my neighbor Netherlanders. They shoo the cat away again and again.

With some encouragement and the loathing and lonesomeness of missing my feline “Dar” back home, I coax the little cat to my table. Soon it’s purring on my lap. She is so tiny. I’m in love. My weakness for the feline is on full display. After dinner, the couple invites me to share the new bottle they just ordered. The lady, chilled by the cooling night air, wants to move inside to the bar. They invite me to join. I convince the server to let me bring in my new-found friend the cat.

For the next several hours, we power down two bottles of wine and endless glasses of Rakija. We’re having a great time and the server who extends closing time well beyond two hours joins us in drink after drink. It’s well after two in the morning when we finally bid farewell—but all agreeing to meet for breakfast in the morning. They have reserved a tour in Skopje and tell me they will be up and leaving by ten in the morning.

With the cat still purring and cuddling on my lap, I cradle her in my arms and take her to my room. I don’t know where her mother is, and according to the server, she is a “barn cat” don’t worry. That doesn’t work for me. I take that cat into the warm luxury apartment that several hours earlier was the site of a wine-drenched disaster. The cat nestles next to me and sleeps on my pillow the whole night.

The next morning I admit I am slow, hungover — too much Rakija. I take longer than usual to pack my motorcycle. All the while, the cat watches me. By the time I make it to the restaurant for breakfast, it’s noon. When I ask about my friends from the Netherlands, the hostess tells me that moments ago, the guy asked to extend their stay for one more night, explaining that his wife wasn’t feeling well. Good to know I wasn’t the only one with the hair of the dog—or maybe in my case, the cat.

I order a plate of prosciutto and feed the cat. I ask the server to reserve the remaining cured ham and to attend to the cat. I hand him a stack of euros with his promise that he will buy food for the cat and treat her as part of the Royal Winery family. I know she will and one day I’ll return to find that cat—grown and happy—and hopefully with love, if I could, I would’ve packed her into my bags. After all, I’m lighter with one less bottle of wine. Again, that’s a dream. At least I feel better about my loss by helping a stray cat.

Off to Lake Ohrid. I should be there before sunset.

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