Mountains? Check. Beaches? Check. Cheap beer? Check and check.
Macedonia was pretty much the only country to separate from Yugoslavia without conflict, even though some of its old borders got redefined in the process. It’s population is mainly Macedonian, although almost a quarter are Albanian due to the large number of refugees that fled to Macedonia in the late 90’s in the height of the conflict in Kosovo. The main language is Macedonian, which is pretty similar to Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian.
If you’re looking for off-the-beaten path experiences, Macedonia’s got you covered: with just 510,000 international arrivals in 2017, it is the 5th least visited country in Europe. Due to being one of the poorest countries in Europe as well, your travel budget is not going to take a great hit: On average, I spent 22 euros per day in Macedonia.
First of all, what’s up with the name?
Macedonia, also known in the UN previously as FYROM (an abbreviation from Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia – so imaginative), has long been at odds with its Southern neighbour over its name. A Northeastern region in Greece shares the same name, and the area has a lot of significance to Greeks: Greece’s second city Thessaloniki is located there, and it’s also considered the birth place of Alexander the Great. (Macedonians also claim this honour but honestly, who knows.)
While it might seem insignificant at first glance, the name debate has had a strong political impact on Macedonia (the country). Greece long blocked their attempts to join the EU and NATO, claiming that the name implied “territorial ambitions”.
After a referendum last September and a ratification of the results in January, Macedonia will change its name to North Macedonia. Last week, Macedonia was finally able to sign the NATO accession agreement.
Where to go in Macedonia?
While small, Macedonia has a lot to offer: peaceful lakeside holidays, high-adrenaline hiking adventures and cityscapes. Even though the country is still relatively undiscovered, it already has an established backpacker route, working transportation infrastructure and a plethora of great, cheap hostels that usually cost 10 euros per night or less, and come breakfast included.
Oh, and it’s also very much a safe place to visit, if anyone’s mum asks.
High season in Macedonia: June to August, with a peak in July
Shoulder season: April and May; September
Off season: November to March
Even though Macedonia is a landlocked country, you can still get some beach time on one of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe. During summer, Lake Ohrid becomes packed with Macedonian tourists, but the shoulder season is a lovely lull for those wishing to enjoy the peaceful nature around the lake in the best company – alone.
Most visitors to the lake stay in the town of Ohrid known for its lovely old town, monasteries, fortresses and lively waterfront area full of restaurants and pubs. I decided to stay in Radožda, one of the villages around the lake. It’s connected to the nearby town of Struga with a minibus that runs a few times a day but more than anything, it’s the perfect place if you’re looking for a local experience over a touristic one. FreeFlow Hostel opened there just last summer, and it is genuinely one of the most welcoming, comfortable hostels I’ve ever stayed at.
In Radožda, the sunrise comes to you: the picture below was the view from the hostel dorm balcony.
The capital of Macedonia is a surprisingly lively place to visit. About half a million people live there, meaning it’s home to a quarter of the 2 million inhabitants of Macedonia.
It’s probably most well known for its staggering multitude of statues. It’s absolutely wild – no one knows how many statues there actually are, but the city is nicknamed “the city of a thousand statues”. If you google “statues in Skopje”, the first search result is titled “Statues of Skopje, One of the Most Pointless Tourist Attractions Ever.” The statues are a part of a government project from 2009 (finished around 2014) to attract more tourism to the city, although many locals are kinda pissed off that the government decided to sink millions into statues instead of, you know, useful things like trams, roads or businesses. But at least they’ve got a big ass Alexander the Great statue now. Which, due to disputes with Greece, is called “A man on a horse”.
Statues aside, my favourite sights in Skopje are actually a little bit outside of the city. Skopje has probably the cheapest cable car in all of Europe (120 dinar / 2 EUR) that takes you up the Vodno mountain and to the Millenium Cross. At 66 metres, it’s the biggest cross in the world and visible everywhere in the city.
While this spot is an excellent way to catch some views, you can continue straight from there to the Matka Canyon. The 16 km / 4 hour hike is not very challenging until you have to descend into the canyon (that part is steep as hell!), and it is easy following the route with just Maps.me.
There are a few busses back to Skopje once you get to the bottom of the canyon; check the timetables beforehand unless you want to get stuck there or pay for a taxi all the way back to the city.
Oh, and the Skopje Old Town is small but very, very photogenic.
If you’re looking for some day hikes, Macedonia’s second biggest city Bitola is a pretty good launching pad. I did two day hikes around the area: First to Prilep, about an hour north from Bitola.
From Prilep, it’s a pretty easy one-hour hike to Marko’s Towers (Marko kuli), the ruins of an old fortress above the town. I spent half a day there just sitting, eating oranges and listening to podcasts.
On my second day, I took an early taxi into the Pelister national park. It’s only 5 euros and worth it if you want an early start. The whole reason I had come to Macedonia was to do some hiking, but after my friend had warned me of -13C temperatures in the Northern national parks, I decided I couldn’t do an overnight trip.
TOP TIP: If you’re planning to hike in Macedonia, come from May to August. In late September, it’s already getting cold; and even during the hotter summer months, the higher elevated national parks are not likely to be unbearably hot.
The 21 km trail to Pelister (2601 m), the highest peak of the Baba mountains, is a little tricky to ascend. Following a rocky trail, it requires some light rock-climbing and can be slow going. Once you’re coming down from Pelister, though, the trail isn’t too technical or hard. Once I got down to the road, I intended to walk to the nearest guest house to call for a taxi but I managed to hitch a ride with some super friendly Macedonians before getting there.
I had way too little time in Macedonia, and I fully intend to go back with my beat-up little tent and sparkling new hiking boots at some point. But maybe at a time when I won’t freeze to death.
Would you visit Macedonia? Have you been yet?