A product of the many provinces of Yugoslavia when that country sagged and collapsed in the 1990’s, it’s easy for a country like Macedonia to escape the attention of all but most seasoned travelers and most knowledgeable academics. However, this nation should be on the radar screens of more international wanderers, for the value it provides compared to countries in the west, given its dramatic natural vistas, rich back history, rich cuisine and its ease of exploration, all for a very reasonable price.
Walled off by geography, relative obscurity in promotional circles, and its status as a backwater until the Iron Curtain was lifted, life moves at a lumbering pace here, making it a refreshing change of pace from the go-go-go way of living in more economically advanced nations.
The fact that this place also sits at the intersection of where Albanian, Turkish, Greek and other Mediterranean people have traded, lived and ruled in the past (including one of the most notorious conquerors of the ancient past, Alexander the Great) means that this pocket-sized nation is a goldmine of culturally-attuned travelers, making Macedonia a place to put the top of off-the-beaten track destinations to hit in Eastern Europe.
Currency: Macedonian Denar
Languages: Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Serbian
What To Do
Starting off in the capital Skopje, be certain to cross the Stone Bridge over the Vardar River, which has been around since the 6th century. First constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinan, it has crumbled and been re-built many times, be it by hand of man or nature (via earthquake). Some stone blocks remain from the very start of the bridge’s history, which also has included some dramatic human events from over the centuries, as Karposh, a leader of an anti-Ottoman rebellion in the 17th century was executed on this bridge, and the Nazis in World War II set explosives designed the blow up the bridge (they failed, fortunately).
While Orthodox Christians make a majority of citizens in Macedonia today, Muslims compose a significant minority in the region due to the Ottoman incursions of the past centuries. One historic site revered by local worshippers of Islam is Arabati Baba Teke, an Islamic monastery which is considered to be one of the most intact surviving one of its kind in Europe.
Founded by a student of a former bureaucrat within the Ottoman Empire who gave up his comfortable post to live the threadbare life of a monk, this monastery may be in a state of disrepair at present, but it is slowly being refurbished by local Muslims. Featuring gorgeous flower gardens and a magnificent fountain in addition to the religious structure itself, this place is well worth visiting.
One of the most hallowed Christian institutions in Macedonia is the Church of St. Panteleimon, located in Gorno Nerezi. This 12th century church was built in tribute to a couple within the Byzantine emperor’s family. The frescoes within are celebrated examples of life in Macedonia in the Middle Ages, and the design of this church has also been immortalized on the 50 denars bill, which gives testimony to the importance of this place to many Macedonians.
Those looking to trek or ski amongst soaring mountains need only to make their way to Mavrovo National Park, which contain’s Macedonia’s highest peak, Mount Korab. Discover karst fields, refreshing waterfalls, a picturesque church half submerged by water in one of the park’s lakes, and hike between aromatic pine and birch trees in the summer, while winter brings excellent skiing/boarding for those looking to get their stoke on completely new!
Finally, Macedonia’s most celebrated lakeside getaway is also one of its biggest tourist attractions. Lake Ohrid is noted for its numerous churches, as well as its beaches, both popular and remote. You can either live it up with the young party set near town, or get out to more secluded stone or sand beaches further out into the countryside – the choice is yours!
What To Eat
While Macedonia borrows a lot of dishes from its Balkan neighbours (not surprising given its small size), it does possess several dishes that it proudly calls its own. The one food that is generally considered to be Macedonia’s national dish would be Tavce Gravce, a bean-based meal that takes the aforementioned ingredient and combines with onions, two kinds of pepper (red and black), salt, oil, and parsley. While it can be eaten as is, some Macedonians will combine it with their choice of meat to give it a carnivorous flavour.
Another dish served as a main course here also includes Turli Tava, which is a vegetable and meat stew that contains potatoes, rice, okra, eggplant, carrots, and various bell peppers, and can have either pork, beef or lamb, depending on the group consuming it. This hearty dish is particularly enjoyed in the winter months, but can be found year round throughout the country.
When dessert rolls about in Macedonia, a favourite sweet treat of the locals often is a pastry called Kenafeh. This pastry contains cheese within its doughy folds, and is soaked in a sweet sugary syrup to it give it a taste that can only be described as heavenly!