When I checked in to my apartment in the North Macedonian capital of Skopje, the landlord mentioned that the following day was a public holiday. He explained that a ceremony, involving hardy souls plunging into the freezing Vardar River, would be taking place in the city, and that it’s something I might like to have a look at. He was right.
Later that day I did a little research as to why the aforementioned hardy Skopjens would choose to dive into the Vardar’s icy depths. Turns out January 19th is Vodici, or Epiphany, for Orthodox Christians, and the day marks the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan by John. The Baptist, that is. As part of Vodici rituals, priests in Macedonia throw a cross into lakes and rivers, and people (mainly blokes) jump in after them. It’s believed that whoever retrieves the cross will receive good luck and blessings for the year ahead. That’d be worth a little frigid discomfort I reckon.
I also found out that in more recent times, the cross-diving ceremony has been blighted by some un-sporting and un-Christian-like behaviour. In one town, a female ‘winner’ had the cross snatched out of her hands, with the bandit high-tailing it home with ‘his’ prize. And in Skopje, participants shunned the traditional ‘Le Mans start’1, and entered the water before the cross was thrown. Refusing to leave, the priests had to give them a ‘get out or we’re not throwing the cross’ ultimatum to force them back onto the bank.
So with the expectation of seeing a cultural, sporting and potentially controversial event I walked into town on the morning of the following day. Although the sun was out it was below freezing, and as it turned out the landlord had given me a bum steer2. I was there about two hours early, and he had also sent me to the wrong bridge. Not knowing this at the time, and even though I was the only dickhead hanging around the river in sub-zero temperatures, I decided to wait a while and see if anything happened. I walked downstream past several more closely-spaced bridges which were similarly quiet, then reached the last in the series of inner city Varder crossing points. There was a little activity here, with a stage being set up and police cordoning off a section of riverbank. Things were looking up.
Having plenty of time on my hands, I ducked off for a slice of burek (the ubiquitous spinach and cheese filled pastry treat), and when I got back, a crowd had started to gather. A bunch of TV cameras had set up on platforms to catch all the action.
Thats your burek, right there
The police had a rubber duck3 in the water, and had strung a safety line across the river. More police wearing wetsuits and life jackets were stationed on the bank with some paramedics. I assumed that some of the blokes swimming for the cross get swept away by the current and need to be rescued.
Budget cuts in the Skopje Water Police budget meant no outboard motors
I found myself a spot, and noticed a group of men gathering on the bank by the bridge. They were dressed like athletes, and as the crowd started to take up all the vantage points, they began stretching and warming up. There was one bald bloke who ditched his shirt early, and even stepped into the water at one stage to gave himself what I assumed was an acclimating splash. With the crowd, the athletes, and the first responders the Vodici Ceremony looked like it was going to provide some action and drama. From a church on the northern bank, a procession of clergy made its way to a stage on the bridge.
Then, to my surprise, the bald bloke led all of the participants into the river prior to the toss of the cross. Arm in arm they took up positions beneath the bridge. It all looked very controlled and gentlemanly. Was there going to be another standoff between the cross grabbers and the priests? Or was the Le Mans start dead? I was also surprised to see that the water was less than waist-deep.
Then, after all the build-up, the moment arrived. The priest stepped to the railing holding the cross, the participants stood in the freezing Varder, arms around one another, the bald bloke with his arms aloft. The crowd held its breath, then…
Well, to behonest I have to say it was a bit of an anti-climax. It seems like once the cross hit the water, one of the participants simply moved forward and picked it up. No contest, no biff, no theft. I’m not sure why the cops felt the need to have a safety line in the water when there was bugger all current, the water was waist deep, and there was no swimming involved. A group hug and it was time to leave the river, towel off and slip on the tracky dacks4.
Still, I’m glad I went along to the Vodici Ceremony. Travel is about new experiences after all, and amongst the crowd, with a tum full of burek, I enjoyed witnessing this tradition in the middle of ancient Skopje.
For more on Vodici in Macedonia, click here
1‘Le Mans start’ refers to the way that the Le Mans 24 hour motor race in France was traditionally, well, started. The competitors’ cars would be lined up on the pit lane side of the track, whilst the drivers would wait on the other. When the French tricolour was dropped to mark the start of the race, the drivers would run across the track, jump in their cars, crank them up, then weave off through the chaos. Tops.
2Being given a ‘bum steer’ is an Australian expression meaning to have been given incorrect information, either by mistake or intentionally. I’m sure in this case it was by mistake
3Australian slang for an inflatable rescue boat
4Australian slang for tracksuit pants
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