Hiking,  Macedonia

A love letter to (North) Macedonia: Part 2

A necessary Part 2 to A love letter to (North) Macedonia.

The previous post ended up being longer than intended due to an outpouring of appreciation from me, so here is the second part!

Vodno Mountain – you can’t miss the mountain behind Skopje and you shouldn’t! It offers a great view of the city and a lot of hiking possibilities. The area Kisela Voda is a nice quiet neighborhood and you have access to both the city within 20 minutes walk (or 5 minutes taxi for about 3 Euro) and the mountain right behind you. It’s a good location for a longer stay. It’s possible to drive or get a bus halfway where there is a cable car taking you to the top (Milenium Cross Cable Car). The top is covered in paths for walking and you can even go as far as Matka Canyon and then catch a bus back to town (check out AllTrails or your preferred hiking app for routes as they’re not on Google Maps). Vodno Mountain is a great spot to watch the sunrise, sunset and see the city skyline at night. There are little shelters at various points so you can bring a picnic and drink wine whilst the sun goes down.

Skyline view of Skopje city in Macedonia at night with the city lights contrasting against the dark sky
View from Vodno Mountain

Behind the Fortress on top of a hill you will find the Museum of Contemporary Art. Whether or not you’re interested in modern art, the location offers an outstanding view of the sun setting behind the city, with the river curving around the stadium and the mountains providing a dramatic backdrop. Probably there will be a few arty teenagers up there too drinking beers but they don’t bite.

NATIONAL PARKS and HIKING

Macedonia is one of the most mountainous countries in the world and offers four national parks: Sharr Mountain in the North which crosses into Kosovo, Mavrovo in the West and in the south, Galicia and Pelister. We found that there wasn’t a huge amount of information readily available online for hiking in Macedonia. Most of the time for us, it was a case of just going and finding out what was there.

In terms of hiking apps, AllTrails is useful for finding paths but there are no mapped routes for Macedonia. The website WikiLoc is not so user friendly but people have used it to map trails and it could be useful: The Best Hiking Trails in North Macedonia | Wikiloc.

We did a couple of hikes:

  • Titov Mountain in Sharr National Park

This is a popular route and offers exceptional views of the mountains. The air was fairly hazy on the day we went in August but we still got some great shots. It starts fairly high up at 1800m but from there it’s a further 1500m to the top. The weather is not to be underestimated! It was 30 degrees in the valley but coat temperature at the top.

The starting point is Popova Shapka, a village 73 KM outside of Skopje. There weren’t any shops open when we were there so bring water and snacks! The trail is well signposted and easy to follow – here is a link to it that I created on AllTrails. We found the hike relatively gentle (considering the height) except for the last part which was a bit painful! Afterwards, we recovered with a meal at this incredible Albanian restaurant Parajsa E Sharrit. I can even remember the bread now.. It was so good! They also have this creamy dish with paprikas in it… It’s a must-try.

  • A 20km circular walk from Ohrid city to Galicia National Park

Route here. This is the perfect hike to enjoy a panoramic view of lake Ohrid and the town below. It’s a gentle ascent so perfectly manageable even in the heat. There are a few villages along the way however none of them had a shop or restaurants when we were there.. Be prepared! For water, there were a couple of fountains in the villages but no other springs. We managed to bring a stray dog with us for this hike and he followed us for the whole 20KM! I think he was a bit exhausted after and questioned his life choices.

View of Ohrid from halfway up the mountain. The sky and lake are blue and the houses look very small
Ohrid Lake and Town

On the day we were in Mavrovo National Park we didn’t find any hiking routes! We drove around Lake Mavrovo in a loop then back to Skopje which took about 3 hours in total. There were some nice views of small villages and the lake but it wasn’t the most interesting trip. There is a beautiful church though!

*Check out Macedonia Revisited for a 2023 update*

Golden fields of grass contrast with the blue of the lake and sky. In the distance, the shining gold domes of an Eastern Orthodox church are visible
Mavrovo Lake

We did intend to walk but we couldn’t find a path despite there being one on the map. This may have been our fault rather than the lack of path but there has been a lot of recent building work (Mavrovo is a ski resort in winter) so that might have been the problem.

If you are wanting to hike in this region, check my post on Mount Korab, Macedonia’s highest peak. For further hiking, I’d suggest staying somewhere like Galichnik or near the village of Rostushe, where a lot of trails start from. It’s a bit far to drive from Skopje and back in a day comfortably if you want to do a long hike.

Pelister National Park is just outside Bitola. We have it on good authority from a local taxi driver that Hotel Molika is well worth a visit. However, our plans to hike in this national park went out of the window when we ended up drinking too much delicious wine at Ciflik Winery (where they also serve excellent food) and stayed up very late at a summer festival in Bitola with some local guys we met!

ANCIENT SITES

There are a few sites nearby Skopje you can make into a great day trip (route here):

  • Bargala Archaeological Site
  • The Stone Dolls
  • Kokino Ancient Observatory

It’s quite a lot of driving for one day (5 hours) but you see a lot! If you head East beyond Shtip, there is the ancient city of Bargala. It’s in a very beautiful rural location but, as of last time we were there, there’s no information just the ruins. When we visited, there was a village festival going on with traditional music and dancing.

Heading northwards, the village of Kratovo is worth a visit and a good place to stop for lunch. Located on the steep sides of an ancient volcano, it’s a village with an interesting past. A historically wealthy mining town, it changed hands many times due to the various warring dynasties in the area.

A little further north, a detour off the main road takes you to the Stone Dolls. This geological phenomenon comes with a fairytale that seems to be told in various forms at similar sites around the Balkans (see the Stone Wedding in Bulgaria). It doesn’t take long to walk around the site (20 minutes) but if you like interestingly-shaped rocks and folk stories, it’s a nice stop.

5 meter high stones in a bubbly formation which could be an abstract figure
The Stone Dolls

Finally, close to the Serbian border, is Kokino Ancient Observatory. This is a fascinating hilltop site, where carvings have been found which line up with the sun at the solstices and equinoxes, and various other proposed astrological events. The site has been dated to 1800 BC, based on archeological findings there. There are footpaths and plenty of signposts with information in English which explain the carving of the rocks and what they mean. The walk from the carpark to the top takes about 25-30 minutes. Watching the sun set from the top of this ancient place really transports you back in time. The surrounding countryside is very barren, mainly rocks and some woods with very few houses. It didn’t require much imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of our ancient ancestors, feeling the spiritual connection with nature.

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