Hiking,  Macedonia,  Recent

Macedonia Revisited

We all enjoy countries for different reasons; sometimes we have special memories there. Perhaps we found the beauty of the nature or the elegance of the cities particularly charming. Sometimes you visit somewhere though and you feel moved. This is how we feel about Macedonia. It’s a small country with a great deal of heart.

Macedonians, in general, love their country but for obvious financial reasons, a high percentage work abroad in western/northern Europe or further afield. That’s not to say that everyone wants to stay in Macedonia; one young waiter we spoke to in a café couldn’t wait to leave. People in Skopje, he says, are worst. His dream is to move to the UK. Whether he’ll rediscover his love for his motherland over there remains to be seen.

Despite the distances involved, many expat Macedonians drive home for their holidays. We’ve even seen US and Canadian license plates on several occasions! The border crossing from Serbia took us over an hour; we saw one or two Serbian vehicles and no Macedonian. The rest were Italian, German, Swiss, Belgian, Swedish – you name it.

Our friend Greg came to stay with us for this trip. It was his first time in the Balkans and we’d sold him Macedonia so hard, he came all the way from New Zealand to visit. Being able to share our enjoyment of the country made us appreciate it all over again, and, even better, we got to discover more new places together!

A Road Trip through Mavrovo National Park

We spent a very action packed weekend, setting off on Friday morning at 5.45 to hike Mount Korab, the highest mountain of both Macedonia and Albania (read about it here!). We then set off in the direction of Ohrid, driving south through Mavrovo National Park, around Lake Debar and along the river Black Drin.

The scenic route to Ohrid… with optional hike up Korab!

If you have access to a car, it’s route I’d highly recommend doing. The national park is full of beautiful mountain scenery, canyons, lakes and rivers. Had we had more time, I would have loved to stay a bit longer in the south of the national park. There are plenty of hiking routes to explore and also a very well reviewed horse riding place – which I’m keen to do one day!

Whilst driving through the town of Debar, we came across the most beautiful monastery. It was glowing in the sunshine, painted blues, reds and yellows with the sparkling turquoise of lake Debar behind. Of course we had to make a break here! A nun found us outside marveling at the building and eagerly welcomed us inside, inviting us to sit down and drink a coffee. Guests, she explained, are gifts from God.

After we finished our coffee, she told us a little about the monastery. It’s currently undergoing renovations (and they’re doing an incredible job!). The monastery dates from the 1800s but was built over the site of an older church, from 16th Century. It’s a particularly important site for believers as the church guards a relic, part of the hand of St George, after whom the monastery is dedicated.

Waving goodbye to the nuns, we wrapped up the final section of our journey, ending in the beautiful town of Ohrid. We’d visited the lake town last year, shortly after COVID restrictions ended and it had been much quieter then! After our day in the mountains, our senses were somewhat overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of people in the streets. Not only was it Friday night but it was the last day of a festival (Ohrid Calling). Not feeling the draw of the lively town that night, we found our beds pretty quickly!

Monastery of St. George the Victorious

Off the beaten track: Hiking in Macedonia

One wonderful thing about Macedonia is that there are loads of hiking routes available. Straying from the main routes, however, will often mean you’re hiking through a field wondering how they plotted the coordinates for the route (did they strap a GPS to the back of a sheep?). It can be pretty hard-going for the ankles and knees! Perfect, if you like to discover somewhere relatively unvisited by other hikers, where you’re almost certain to be alone except from a few sheep or a farmer.

It was on one of these routes that we had what one local described as “literally the most Macedonian moment ever”. Whilst heading down a particularly ankle-breaking stretch of field, we spotted a shepherd and his son in the distance with four enormous sheep dogs. As we’d recently had a rough encounter in Greece with dogs, we were just working up to walking the long way around when the shepherd waved us over. I approached pretty gingerly but the dogs were totally chilled.

We went over to say hello, exchanging words in our respective languages, aided by a lot of hand gestures. Before parting, they gifted us a big bunch of mountain tea they’d collected on the way up and made sure we found the path leading back to the village safely. We were left, not just with mountain tea, but with the warmth only the kindness of total strangers can bring.

About Balkan Sheep Dogs…

Having had numerous terrifying encounters with enormous sheep dogs, I decided to do some research into what you’re actually supposed to do. There is a special breed of sheep dogs in this region, called the Šarplaninac. They are huge because you need to be big if you’re going to ward off bears and wolves… The consensus is:

  • Be aware when you’re walking near a flock of sheep (you can usually hear bells from a long way off)
  • If they start barking and come over, call for the shepherd (as we established, they are super friendly and language isn’t important)
  • Don’t panic, they’re doing their job and won’t actually attack unless provoked.

We have had no scary encounters with sheep dogs in the Balkans apart from one incident in Greece. That turned out absolutely fine but it was certainly not enjoyable to be surrounded by huge barking dogs!

Our Further Recommendations…

The Bay of Bones

This ethnographic museum is a partial reconstruction of a site dating back to 1200 BC situated on the shores of Lake Ohrid. Particularly atmospheric when a storm is brewing…

Each building had a trap door to the water. At that time, there were so many fish in the lake, you can just let a basket down and back up again and it would be full. They tied a rope around their children’s ankles to stop them falling in.

Heraclea Lyncestis, Bitola

This ancient Roman archeological site features many incredible mosaics and remains of my favourite ancient road, the Via Egnatia.

Many buildings remain, including a bath house, basilica and of course, an amphitheater. They now have an augmented reality app so you can see what the whole building would have looked like!

No matter how much time we spend in Macedonia, we always seem to leave with a list of ‘things to do next time’. And we have no doubt that there will always be a next time because it’s a just an awesome country to visit! If you’re thinking of visiting Macedonia, check out my other posts about it:

Travel notes for future

Kodzhadzhik is a Turkish village near the Albanian border. The grandfather of Mustafa Kemal Attaturk was reputably born in the village and there’s a small museum dedicated to him here.

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