If you throw away the list of popular destinations and look beyond crowded islands, renaissance architecture, and densely populated mega-cities, a world of discovery awaits. Secluded from the rest of the world, small and seemingly insignificant countries do have a lot to offer. The guide below is a true testament that you can have an adventure on a budget, and certainly where you least expect it.
Hard to point on the map, Macedonia is a tiny country located in the very centre of the Balkan region. Due to geopolitical insignificance, though, you probably never heard about it.
But if there is a single thing that you need to know about Southern Europe, it is the colourful geography blessed with diverse yet forgiving climate. And although tiny, Macedonia is the archetype of the Southeastern European landscape. A lot of picturesque valleys, crystal blue lakes, densely forested hills and formidable mountain terrain…
But it’s not only the breathtaking scenery that makes Macedonia an attractive tourist destination. From observing cultural heritage to enjoying gourmet bliss, you will find yourself becoming a lifetime promoter.
So let’s start from the beginning…
The capital city of Skopje
Nestled in between several mountains, the city of Skopje commands attention. As the business and administrative hub of Macedonia, it is the residence of one-third of the entire population.
Noticeably changed throughout the years, it resembles a proper metropolis. With access to most of the services and products you’ll expect to find in western countries, Skopje is a wonderful place for enjoying a prolonged vacation. Affordable unlike any other city of this magnitude, it will give you plenty of opportunities to enjoy a restaurant meal, indulge in its vibrant nightlife, and explore every corner of the urban jungle.
Culturally influenced throughout the centuries, it blends ottoman architecture with socialist modernism – a sight so rare, that it is possibly one of a kind.
The Old Bazar is where most of the Ottoman influence can be felt, so definitely spend some time walking around the small alleys. Family workshops that run generations back, combined with artisan jewellery, leather products, and peculiar cuisine will densely dot the areal map.
Towering above the city, a medieval fortress, magnificently preserved, is open for visitors. The Kale Fortress, once a formidable prison, is now a tourist attraction that spans across several hectares of secluded land, in the very heart of the city.
The cost of living is ridiculously affordable, so experiencing the full scope of Macedonian culture won’t burn a hole in your pocket. It takes a while to convert the value of the Macedonian Denar, and get used to it, but even after a week or so, affordable prices are going to surprise you.
Transport is very affordable, and the bus network is covering the entire city. People are surprisingly friendly, and it seems as though everyone is speaking English. That being said, never be afraid to ask for help while navigating the streets of Skopje.
The food in Macedonia
Before tying our metaphorical shoes and heading deep into the countryside for an off-road adventure, allow me to familiarize you with Macedonian cuisine.
The main speciality of this region is organic produce. Macedonians love vegetables and combine them in almost every recipe. The delicious red pepper mash everybody is talking about is called Ajvar, and tasting it for the first time is a sensory overload of another kind.
Shopska Salad is a true testament of Macedonian ingenuity, or how these people are very skilled in coming up with something so tasty while combining just a couple of ingredients. The same can be said for Tavce Gravce, which is perhaps one of the most popular recipes.
Also have a taste of Stuffed peppers, Turlitava, Makalo, and certainly Pastrmajlija. All of them native to the Macedonian region, they are part of a century old tradition to combine Slavic food with ottoman influence.
As for alcohol and wine, make sure to have a sip of Rakija – a beverage so strong that it will knock you off your feet when taken on an empty stomach. Macedonian wines are very affordable, yet surprisingly sophisticated in taste. If you are a wine aficionado, this is a true heaven-on-Earth.
Discovering the colourful Macedonian countryside
If you get here during the summer season, there are more adventures waiting than anyone can possible go through. Starting with the visit of several vineyards, you will feel a deep serenity and surprising lack of noise. They resemble the Old Italian vineyard, taking you away, even though briefly, from civilization.
Next on the list is the small village of Mavrovo, where you can enjoy collecting tea while hiking across breathtaking mountain scenery. The beautiful lake is surrounded with hills all across the shore and these are connected by an asphalt road that is ideal for cycling. Experienced or not, you will enjoy the ride that goes 33 kilometers all the way around the lake.
There is also the mysterious water submerged church, which is a postcard-worthy attraction. As for the super adventurous type, a horseback riding tour will take you from Mavrovo, all the way up to the village of Galicnik.
Departing Mavrovo, you should definitely go and visit the small town of Berovo. Located all the way across the country, it is home to another beautiful mountain lake, and delicious traditional Macedonian food.
For those of you who embrace the adventurous spirit, definitely go and see the natural observatory of Kokino. You can camp there throughout the night and enjoy a colorful sky filled with countless of constellations to observe.
Ohrid – a town unlike any other
Resting on the shore of Lake Ohrid, the town is a regional sensation. Filled with churches and monastery complexes, it is where Macedonian nature meets the centuries old religious heritage.
The panoramic views over the lake command attention right away. It will take you a week at least to enjoy Ohrid in its entirety, visiting every lookout, every beach, and every cultural site. My advice, if you are staying longer, is to schedule Ohrid for the end of your vacation, a week before you pack your bags.
Visit, of course, the lake springs, the monastery of Saint Naum, and the church of Kaneo – perhaps the place from where you can take the perfect picture of the lake, as it blends with Macedonian religious tradition.
Now that you know about this tiny corner of the Europe, it is time to spread the word, tell your friends, and maybe pack your bags for the unforgettable yet affordable vacation. Macedonia will be here waiting.
This is a guest post. Slavko Desik is the editor of Discovering Macedonia, where he details every corner of this small country, bringing it closer to everyone who is willing to take a walk off the beaten road. Investing time, together with his wife and friends, the goal is to promote Macedonia, as the perfect alternative to popular tourist destinations.