It takes a worn passport, and quite an adventurous spirit, to explore the underrated corners of the world. The casual traveller, for better or worse, will open a travel brochure, browse through the familiar menu, and set off to a world-renowned destination. Luckily for you, we’d like to expand this brochure, add another colourful page, and introduce you to the Republic of Macedonia.
Hidden away from popular travel routes, this small country is located at the centre of the Balkan Peninsula. The name issue is somewhat of a political crisis, so you’ll also find it under the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or North Macedonia as of recently.
It is the only Yugoslavian nation state that circumvented the conflict during the early ’90s, and it is one of the most hospitable places in the world. This guide will walk you through 10 of the most popular places in Macedonia, teach you how to get there, what to expect, and what to pay attention to in order to enjoy a royal vacation.
1. Skopje – the capital city
Arriving in Macedonia, you’ll first find yourself in Skopje. This is the biggest administrative and business hub, and home to nearly one-third of the entire Macedonian population. The biggest airport is located just outside the city, and both the biggest railway and bus stations are minutes away from the centre. Needless to say, this city is the opening gate to Macedonia and a proper attraction by itself.
Skopje is an eclectic mix between the modern and the old, bearing witness to a colourful cultural influence throughout the centuries. Being part of Southeastern Europe, it has seen a garden variety of conflicts between nations and empires, radically shaping along. Part of the city reflects the Ottoman past, and the cuisine is definitely a kaleidoscope run wild.
Make sure to visit the Kale Fortress, the Old Bazar, the town square, and the new controversial architectural undertake spreading along the river Vardar.
Dubbed by some the city of kitsch, mainly because of this colossal architectural project, Skopje displays a line of baroque buildings, monuments and fountains, lined up in a staccato sequence. Many foreigners, however, seem to enjoy the spectacle.
2. Canyon Matka
Ask any seasoned traveller who already knows about Macedonia, and they will tell you that everything that is worth seeing is located on the periphery. Canyon Matka confirms this pattern more than any other place.
With steep cliffs and crystal green water flowing for miles on end, this site will take your breath right away. There is a moderately challenging hiking trail stretching along the canyon, plenty of adventure opportunities to explore, and perhaps the largest cave complex in this part of Europe.
Though Matka is the first stop on your journey throughout the countryside, you’ll quickly notice a recurring theme – Macedonia is the perfect stage where breathtaking nature and religious heritage wed together. Matka will introduce you to 3 different monasteries, and you’ll see this archetypal pattern over and over as you discover other corners of this small country.
At the end of the day, as you retreat from your adventurous exploration of the canyon complex, kayaking and hiking, you can have a sip of Macedonian red. Enjoying the sunset, you can dine on the terrace and have a panoramic view of the entire canyon entrance.
Towering above the capital, Vodno is the recreational spot that is servicing more than 700,000 people. The best part, however, is its general proximity to the centre of Skopje.
In less than half an hour, you’ll find yourself forgetting the urban jungle at the expense of being immersed into this scenic collage. The hiking trails cut left and right, taking you on a moderately challenging trip through a dense green forest. You can hike, cycle through the woods, or board the cable car and enjoy the view without breaking a sweat.
There is a giant metal structure of a cross sitting at the top. This symbolizes the Christian devotion, where you can enjoy the widest panoramic view capturing Skopje from one end to the other.
4. The Marble Lake near Prilep
Following the main highway from Skopje to Pirlep, you can park near the village of Belovodica and head up the mountain for a short hike. Thirty minutes in, and you’ll arrive at your destination.
What lies ahead is a spectacle to behold. A grand amphitheatre, carved out of white marble, towering over a crystal blue pocket of water.
You can climb the blocks, swim down the lake, and enjoy the warmth of the sun as it reflects from this monumental structure of nature. Needless to say, this is one of the most underrated places in this part of Europe.
5. The Vineyards along River Vardar
While we recommend Sopot, most of the others will do a fine job as well, reminding of the Old Italian vineyard. Here you can taste all sorts of Macedonian wines, and enjoy the golden sunset while gazing over a field of grapes.
Other notable Wineries include Tikvesh, Stobi and Popova Kula. Most of which are within close proximity to one another, and relatively near the town of Prilep. If you have the stamina, you can combine a visit to the marble lake with a lazy afternoon at some of the vineyards.
Catch the sunset, have a sip of Macedonian red, and arrange a surprisingly affordable accommodation in a traditional Macedonian ethno apartment.
The cost of living in Macedonia is incredibly low, which might tempt you to stay a while longer, exploring even more corners of the country. There are so many places to discover, and even more experiences to be had.
6. The Mavrovo region
Located deep within the national park, the village of Mavrovo rests right next to a beautiful lake. Here you can taste traditional Macedonian food, farm to table, and gaze at postcard worthy panoramic views.
The sunken church is an attraction in and of itself, and if you catch low tides you can even walk inside and explore the interior.
If you are the adventurous type, you can opt in for an afternoon of horseback riding, or heart racing paragliding flights in tandem.
Berovo is the air spa of Macedonia. Hidden deep within a dense pine forest, it is close to one of the most picturesque lakes you’ll ever find.
The town is also a place where you can taste the best traditional Macedonian food. The menu is super affordable, and it is a true sacrilege to head back home without ordering every single dish.
Make sure to try Tavce gravce, Stuffed peppers, Turlitava, Selsko meso, Pastrmajlija, and of course Ajvar. You can also enjoy Macedonian white cheese, and the strongest alcoholic beverage, Rakija.
Known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, Ohrid was home to 365 churches. Filled with different monuments of the Macedonian religious past, it is still the spiritual centre of the country. The town is especially charming and vibrant, offering plenty of opportunities to enjoy beach life on the Ohrid Lake.
If, however, you are a culture aficionado, the menu is even longer. Small churches are located all around the city, and you can often attend an art exhibition or a classical music recital in one of them. Make sure to visit the church of Kaneo and the church of Plaoshnik.
9. The Bay of Bones
This reconstructed settlement is located on the shore, and it will take you 15 minutes to get here driving from the centre of Ohrid. Opening your imagination, it is truly a sight to behold.
With numerous panoramic views along the road, the drive there is even more satisfying as it follows the coast of Lake Ohrid. Once there, the settlement will take your breath away.
10. Monastery of Saint Naum
As the frosting on the cake, this monastery complex is one of the most captivating destinations that you’ll ever discover. Give yourself another 15 minutes following the road from Ohrid to the Bay of Bones, and you’ll pay lip service to this place for years on end.
The monastery complex is located next to a large pond network of underwater springs, and you can take a raft circling the entire area.
Whatever else might be said, the Macedonian vacation offer is quite colourful and equally charming. Exploring this corner of the world is a true privilege, as many people are unaware of its existence. The tasty cuisine, the breathtaking scenery, and the rich historical background are only part of the reason why you’d love Macedonia. Add super affordable prices, and friendly people who are eager to show you around, and you will insist to come here year after year.
Contributed by Slavko Desik who is a writer and editor at Discovering Macedonia. He is exploring this wonderful corner of the world together with his beautiful wife, writing about adventure opportunities, the cultural scene and the unforgettable gourmet experiences to be had.
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