Macedonia

A love letter to (North) Macedonia

Macedonia is an absolute favourite country of ours and one of the first that we travelled to together. We barely knew anything about it, had essentially no preconceptions and had met few people who could even find it on a map, let alone who had travelled there. Macedonia is small country in the Western Balkans which has historically been under Byzantine, Bulgarian, Ottoman and Serbian rule, finally gaining independence in 1991 from socialist Yugoslavia. The addition of “North” to the name is a result of Greece taking umbrage with the name Macedonia, due to a Hellenic claim on historic Macedonia and also because some Greeks also themselves to be Macedonians but not from the country of North Macedonia. The dispute was resolved with the geographical specification, and Greece stopped blocking Macedonia’s ascension to NATO and EU candidacy.

Matka Canyon

The landscape is primarily mountainous, with wide, fertile valleys in between. The four seasons are very much present here: cold, snowy winters and hot, sunny summers with ample rainfall and plenty of farmland means that the produce grown here is exceptional. Groceries you buy are mostly grown on small farms and if you eat in a rural restaurant, the vegetables are often home-grown: you can really taste the quality. The favourable conditions also lend themselves to viticulture, and it is no coincidence that one of my favourite countries also produces the best wine I have ever tasted. It doesn’t matter which bottle you buy, whether it is from one of the main producers such as Tivkes, or homemade in a local monastery, the wine is always delicious. We don’t drink much anymore but we make an exception for a glass of Macedonian red wine.

Skopje at night

As you can imagine from such a past, the country is fascinating from a historical perspective; Roman ruins are scattered throughout the countryside and you find them in the most unexpected locations. The famous Byzantine emperor, Justinian, who is credited with developing the fundamental principal of the legal system that one is innocent until proven guilty, was born just outside Skopje. Unfortunately, there is a lack of funds for the preservation of some sites so you often find little information available. In addition to ruins, there are also many beautiful Eastern Orthodox churches painted incredibly colourfully inside. In Skopje particularly you find examples of socialist era architecture (not to everyone’s taste but I am personally quite fascinated by it).

Mavrovo National Park

I can’t write a post about how much I love Macedonia without mentioning the people; Macedonians are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Wherever you go, in restaurants or cafes, on the streets or in the mountains, we had many wonderful interactions with people. Generally, everyone speaks excellent English but even if they don’t, they make it work somehow and made sure we felt at home. The good nature of its people makes Macedonia a very safe country; even in Skopje kids play on the streets. You can feel totally relaxed there even walking around alone. We found that drivers are generally also very polite.

The main attractions which Macedonia is known for (which you will find plenty of information about online) are:

  • Ohrid; a little gem of a town famed for once having 365 churches on the banks of it’s namesake lake. Definitely worth visiting, although in summer it is touristy.
  • Bitola; nearby to Ohrid, it is a bubbly and sociable small city with a famous street lined with cafes. Very popular in the summer and has good events. Outside is the Roman remains of the Heraculea Lycentis.
  • Skopje; port of entry for many people and the capital city. The city is divided geographically and ethnically; the oldest and most charming part of the city is home to the ethnically Albanian Muslims where you will find shisha, Turkish coffee, Ayran, mosques and Albanian cuisine. The grand squares and modern, swanky quarter of the city is the ethnically Macedonian part where you will find your big statues, fancy bars and hipster coffee shops. Outside of Skopje is the oft frequented Matka canyon; tourists heading here can kayak, hire a boat or walk along the canyon. I personally wouldn’t recommend kayaking as we saw a few people getting rescued as their kayaks sank… The hike is very beautiful and it’s not that hard.

That’s all for now but see Part 2 of this post for a more in depth review of our highlights from this wonderful country.

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