The majestic Mount Vodno holds a special place in my heart. It lies just to the southwest of Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia. I visited the capital often in the latter half of the 1990s, and even lived there for a short stint. I was an aid worker in a time of war. Kosovo is just 15 km to the north. On my busiest and most tiring days, the hiking trails and breathtaking views of Vodno would call out to me for respite. It was an opportunity to breathe fresh mountain air and enjoy the quiet solitude of nature. I hiked those trails often in my free time to relieve stress and to recharge.
My job was to coordinate volunteer teams coming from around the globe to help during the refugee crisis. I met so many loving and caring people, from small church teams to Peace Corps volunteers. And then, one day, somebody truly special came along. Her name was Jennifer. I still remember the first time I met her that summer. She had tied her dark hair back, and she wore comfortable, loose-fitting clothes. She arrived dressed for work in our warehouse. Her eyes were tired from the long transatlantic flight, but there was an infectious energy in the way she talked and carried herself. I just had to get to know her better. I remember telling myself, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, but I sure would like to marry someone like her!”
I would often take my volunteer teams around town during their free time to experience local culture. Jennifer’s team was keen on hiking Vodno. My heart leapt. The leisurely, meandering hike along crisscross trails leading to the summit provided me many opportunities to enjoy her company. Even in a small group, I found plenty of alone time with her, walking beside the cool rivulets trickling down the mountainside. Vodno’s name comes from a Macedonian word meaning “watery.” Jennifer displayed a gentle, but strong grace that the flowing water of the mountain reflected and amplified. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was carrying my heart away with her streams.
Fast forward to 2015. The war is now a distant memory. Yes, the war is really over. The Balkans are a very safe and fascinating place to visit! Jennifer and I were married in October 2000. We returned to Vodno in January this year with our two children as we reconnected with dear friends. The city had grown – immensely! I hardly recognized parts of it, but Vodno still stands tall, watching over Skopje and the environs, much as I remembered. It was winter, and large patches of ice and snow clung to its craggy mountainside. There would be no hiking for us today. We chose to explore by car.In 2000, the Macedonian Orthodox Church installed the Millennium Cross on the top of Vodno, commemorating 2000 years since the birth of Christ. It stands 66 m (217 ft) tall! We had planned to take the cable car, newly refurbished in 2011, from the halfway point up to the Cross. The ride would have taken approximately 7 minutes. However, we came on a local holiday (Epiphany) and apparently, many other people had the same idea! We avoided the crowds and adjusted our plans to visit the nearby Church of St. Panteleimon instead. It provided beautiful scenic views of the surrounding nature and ethnic villages, and even the perfect spot for an impromptu snowball fight!Our hearts are still knitted together with the people of the Balkans. Mount Vodno stands as a symbol of our love for each other, and for the peoples of these great lands. Why not plan a trip to Skopje and experience Vodno for yourself? The hiking trails are perfect for day trips to the summit and the Cross. The variety provides something for every skill level, from leisurely strolls to strenuous workouts. Each season provides a new experience. The summers can be hot, with temperatures reaching to 43 C (109.4 F). Winter temperatures can plummet as low as -15 C (5 F). The moderate and breezy climate of spring is my favorite, with the flowers in bloom! The Millennium Cross and cable car ride are also still on our must-do list. Thankfully, we now live in the region and will have many opportunities to return throughout the year.A visit to Skopje and Vodno is well worth a spot on your bucket list! You will find the people of the Republic of Macedonia to be warm and hospitable. You may even make friends for life, as we did. The local cuisine will propel you into gastronomic paradise. A bit of over indulgence at the lunch table makes a perfect excuse to hit the hiking trails to work off those extra calories!
I am forever thankful for that day of hiking back in the summer of 1999. It changed my life. Let me leave you with a pair of stanzas from a song named, “A Page Is Turned,” by Bebo Norman. This song, more than any other, has provided the soundtrack for our fond memories of Mount Vodno and our love that blossomed there.
Beneath the air of autumn, she took him by his hand
And warm within the ardor, she took his heart instead
And high upon the mountain, he asked her for her hand
Just for her hand
A page is turned in this life, he’s making her his wife
And there is no secret to the source of this much life
When the grace that falls like rain is washing them again
Just a chance to somehow rise above this land