A cosy republic in the Balkans, Macedonia is taking traveller bucket lists by storm; and why not. An astoundingly beautiful country that is home to breath-taking clear blue lakes, culturally rich towns, world class wine and a tag of one of the world’s friendliest countries, here is a Macedonia travel guide with something for everyone to enjoy and discover.
Skopje in the north is the capital city. The history of the area means there’s an opulent amalgam of Ottoman Islamic architecture, Byzantine domes and rather kitsch neoclassical buildings from the recent makeover of the communist-era city centre; but it all adds up to a fascinating fusion. Unlike the elegantly assured capital cities of Western Europe, Skopje has rugged edges to juxtapose with the friendly people, and makes a good starting point to explore this country’s charms.
Popular with visitors, Daut Pasha Hammam an erstwhile Turkish bath house, and now a popular art gallery sits at the entrance of the Old Bazaar of Čaršija, the old town part of Skopje. After admiring the 15th-century Ottoman building that houses the relatively modern artwork, your Skopje tour guide will encourage you to spend some time perusing the faded delights of the lively narrow market streets. Traditional craftsmen ply their trade next to restaurants selling traditional Cevapcici (bite sized beef sausages), bric-a-brac stalls, clothing shops and fruit and vegetable sellers. Stop midway at a teahouse or choose an outdoor table for food on the go. Parts of the market have been modernized which makes for a nice combination of old and new, ensuring there’s enough of interest here to spend a good part of the day.
The Stone Bridge connects the old town with the new and it’s beautifully lit at night. Cross the River Vardar to find the controversial modern fountains, statues and buildings created as part of ‘Skopje 2014’ – the revitalisation project of the city that has attracted divided opinion on its aesthetic values. While newly-built baroque may not be to all tastes, the development has brought in visitors regardless if they marvel or balk at the sights.
There’s an emerging bar and nightlife scene too. Try Chillin’ for good Wi-Fi and coffee in the daytime or DJs at the weekends. Beer and snacks can be found at Piazza Liberta and Ch2pter Bar is a slice of style with a terrace perfect for summer evenings.
In the southwest of the country, sits Ohrid, a picture-perfect town and a place of outstanding natural beauty on the banks of Lake Ohrid. Ohrid has become a popular alternative for those looking for a Mediterranean climate without the expense of the Italian lakes. It becomes understandably busy in July and August, so your Ohrid tour guide would advise you to book outside of these months for a more peaceful time and a less crowded swim in the surprisingly warm lake.
The tranquil monastery of Saint Naum, perched on a cliff overlooking the lake can be reached by a rowing boat trip in 30 minutes, and visitors will be greeted by the sight and sound of peacocks parading around the grounds. The remains of St. Naum are in the courtyard, and it’s said if you put your ear to his coffin his heartbeat still can be heard– children especially love this, even if it’s thought to be water dripping from an underground pump that creates the spiritual illusion.
The Bay of Bones museum is an authentic re-creation of a settlement of small houses built on stilts in the water and adjoins a reconstructed Roman fort, allowing visitors to experience life in ancient times. The most interesting part of the visit is reserved for keen divers who can explore the artefacts and archaeological treasures on the bottom of the lake from the dive centre located there.
Galicica National Park, situated between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa offers hiking trails, thousands of plant species, spectacular views and plenty of photo opportunities.
Mavrovo is the largest of Macedonia’s national parks and can be found in the north-west, bordering Albania. The lake there is artificial and its construction in 1953 caused the Church of Saint Nicholas to become half-submerged in water, making it an unusual tourist attraction. Around this incredibly scenic area is where Galicnik lies; a picturesque hillside village famous for a traditional wedding festival held over a weekend every July, bringing the music, food, costumes and folklore of old Macedonia to the streets.
Mavrovo’s Zare Lazarevski Ski Centre offers very well priced skiing and snowboarding in the winter months. A popular resort, it has pizzerias, bars and hotels and most importantly, good tracks with the option of night skiing.
Once more important than the capital, Bitola is a small city near the Greek border. Its buildings have a definite European grandeur, and the main street Shirok Sokak is pedestrianised, lending itself to a café-culture lifestyle. By European standards, food and drinks prices are low, so eating out several times a day is affordable and it unsurprisingly becomes a social hub in the evenings as friends socialize at the many coffee shops and bars. A wander around the city and the shops of the old bazaar makes for a pleasant day.
Just 2km south of Bitola lies Heraclea Lyncestis, an ancient city that now is home to the most impressive archaeological ruins in Macedonia; so expect it to be busy with tourists in high summer. The remarkable mosaics make the trip more than worthwhile, and booking a local Bitola guide who could expand on the historical importance of this once very significant town is highly recommended.
A short taxi ride away from Bitola, the small ski resort of Pelister is best suited for strong skiers and snowboarders due to its almost 4000 feet vertical descents. In summer, the area is abundant with flora and fauna and is favoured by families and groups enjoying pleasant walks or more arduous hikes through its lush forests.
For the adventurous in search of even more high-octane experiences, Macedonia has some of the cheapest paragliding opportunities in Europe, and views over the lakes are incomparable. Mountain bikes can be hired for just a few Euros, there are rock-climbing opportunities, white water rapids for kayaking, horse-riding excursions and caving tours available aplenty.
Wine buffs will enjoy tours of the Macedonian vineyards, most notably Popova Kula with its on-site hotel and restaurant, Bovin Winery in Negotino and Stobi with an archaeological site nearby. The country after all has enviable grape growing conditions with a Mediterranean climate that the same latitude as Bordeaux, Tuscany and Napa Valley.
Macedonia caters to sun worshippers, culture-seekers, wine connoisseurs and adrenaline junkies alike, and with its popularity becoming more widespread, it’s time to visit this incredible country before the mainstream finds out how extraordinary it really is.
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