The Republic of Macedonia – to use its full name – has been in the news lately as the migrant crisis overwhelming Europe spills across their borders. It’s a shame, in a way, that the country has only come to many people’s attention in such circumstances, as it deserves recognition in its own right for being a great holiday destination. Often overlooked in the region in favour of the more photogenic Croatia, Macedonia has much to offer the traveller who makes their way to this neck of the southeastern Europe woods. Once part of the former Yugoslavia (it declared independence in 1991) this landlocked – sandwiched between Albania, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Kosovo – Balkan nation offers mountains, lakes and ancient towns with Ottoman architecture, making for a complex and fascinating history. It’s had its far share of troubles – most notably in 2001 when it was on the verge of civil war – but now enjoys relative stability.
Despite its tiny size (a total population a little over two million), Macedonia packs in a surprisingly large amount, from a buzzing capital city (Skopje) to ancient fortresses, skiing in the winter and alpine hiking trails. It can also boast 50 lakes and 16 peaks higher than 2,000m, making it ideal for anyone with a sense of adventure and yearning for something a little bit different.
My favourite place:
It’s fair to say that I was blown away by Macedonia’s unexpectedly spectacular mountain ranges, taking in sublime scenery featuring anything from waterfalls to forests smelling of sweet pine. In the winter, it’s all about the skiing and, from what I was told, the slopes offer some marvellous off-piste fun. We made a trip to Mavrovo National Park, the country’s biggest ski resort just one hour’s drive from Skopje, and found gorges, plains and Macedonia’s highest peak, Mount Korab (2,764m), which sits on the border with neighbouring Albania. The resort might not rival those of Italy or France but the views are stunning all year round. Go in the spring and you’ll be rewarded with lush greenery and the freshest air you can imagine.
I loved Skopje, with its appeal of eccentricity and modernity, and evident desire to become a hip city. An extensive – and expensive – makeover during the past five years has seen it dubbed “Europe’s new capital of kitsch” with a gaudy style of baroque meets Las Vegas. The redesign included hundreds of statues and excessive monuments, my personal favourite being the 22m-high Warrior on a Horse complete with a fountain and musical light show. Look beyond all this, however, and discover the authentic city and one of the best value breaks in Europe. Skopje’s old town is charming with quaint shops and paved pedestrian streets. Take a walking tour, as we did, and see the impressive Tvrdina Kale Fortress and the striking Stone Bridge, which takes you over to the Old Bazaar, where you can browse Bezisten, a covered market. A visit to the Sultan Murat Mosque, built in the 15th century, is also a must. If you have time, go to Lake Ohrid in the south of the country. At 300m deep and three million years old (making it Europe’s oldest), the lake was made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. Wherever you go in Macedonia expect a warm Balkan welcome. Don’t be surprised to be invited into a stranger’s house for a Macedonian coffee and syrup cake, and a chat (if you can’t speak the language, don’t worry, as hand gestures and lots of smiles will get you through).
Chances are you won’t speak the lingo, which can be frustrating, but simply download a translating app before you go or rely on good old Google Translate. Outside Skopje, the more rural areas can be basic to say the least and the food can be hit and miss.
Snap up some jars of the local honey – it’s delicious and cheap. In Skopje’s bazaars bag some handmade quilts and embroidered textiles. Best buys in Ohrid are the region’s famous pearls, found in necklaces and other jewellery.
Where to stay:
Hotels in Skopje can be expensive but there are other options, such as private rooms and a thriving Airbnb scene (a website offering local rooms and apartments around the world). Those on a budget can try one of the many hostels. Book ahead for busy summer months (July and August). For Lake Ohrid, try the elegant four-star Hotel Aleksandrija right on the bank of the lake.
1. Wander the Old Bazaar in Skopje
2. Ski or enjoy the view at Mavrovo National Park
3. Take a boat trip on Lake Ohrid
4. Check out the Sultan Murat Mosque
5. Try syrup cake with Macedonian coffee