Rarely featured on travel magazines, and therefore shielded from anybody’s view, Macedonia is a hidden gem waiting to be explored. It is a place where cultural heritage meets breathtaking countryside scenery, in what is arguably one of the most affordable traveling destinations.
The Mediterranean climate, bringing more than 300 sunny days within a year, adds a layer of warmth – the weather, along with breathtaking scenery, creates an energy bonanza – one you’ll be paying lip service for years on end.
And without ample prelude, and giving too much away, Macedonia will exceed your expectations. People here are welcoming, eager to share and promote this diverse destination, and it only takes a couple of days to see why.
Arriving in Macedonia
Flying, driving or boarding a train, it doesn’t really matter – all incoming traffic is likely to enter through the capital city of Skopje. And while you might expect this to be a problem, congestion isn’t really an issue – nearly half of Macedonia is situated in this administrative, educational and business hub, and it relies on modern infrastructure strong enough to welcome an ever-increasing number of tourists.
A perfect mix of old and new, traditional and modern, Skopje is a kaleidoscope run wild. Located surprisingly close to breathtaking nature scenery, it is a gateway to outdoor fun, as much as it is to Macedonia itself.
Fifteen minutes separate the center of this large city, from the foothills of Mountain Vodno – 1000 meters tall and densely forested hill, where locals take their cup of fitness. The cable car can take you all the way up, providing an unforgettable panoramic view of the city. But you can earn this reward as well – hiking trails count in the dozens, each being unique in its own way.
The mountain also features paved biking trails that can satisfy the beginner and seasoned enthusiast alike. They cut through scenic forest areas, making you forget the close proximity to the urban jungle.
Vodno, of course, is only the prelude to the main outdoor site near Skopje, Canyon Matka. Separated less than 25 minutes from the center, it is still one of the most exciting places you can find on the European continent.
The canyon stretches for more than 6 miles, with steep cliffs on both sides, and crystal green water in between. The hiking trails will have your camera snapping pictures left and right, and the still, breathtaking river, is reserved for kayaking and inexpensive boat rides.
Near the end of the canyon, a cave complex is bringing tourists from all parts of the world, and challenging divers to explore the uncharted depths. But don’t you worry; there is a lot of underground space to explore even if you prefer to stay away from water.
Ending an adventure, you can visit the restaurant and taste Macedonian food while enjoying the panoramic view of the canyon.
Entering the Macedonian countryside
Being a small country, Macedonia has your transportation problem solved. Leaving Skopje, you are only an hour away from Kokino. The Stonehenge of the Balkans, Kokino is a sight to behold.
If you are smart enough to time your visit just so it fits within the summer months, you can easily arrange for a local guide who will assist with observation equipment and setting up a tent. Kokino is one of the oldest observatories in the world, where the stars paint a beautiful collage you’ll definitely enjoy.
Very close to Kokino, are two ethno resorts where traditional Macedonian food meets traditional Macedonian music along with ethno architecture. The prices are surprisingly affordable, and the experience truly unforgettable – which brings me to Macedonian cuisine.
Food here is a religion. Centuries of ottoman rule, mixed with heavy Slavic influence, have produced some of the tastiest dishes you’ll ever enjoy. Macedonians are famous for their organic and high quality produce, which makes every dish a colorful blend of tasty ingredients.
Do make sure to try Ajvar (otherwise known as the caviar of the Balkans), Tavce Gravce, Stuffed peppers and Turlitava.
As for wine and beverages, ask for Macedonian rakija, and feel free to sample Vranec.
Deep into the countryside
Macedonian wineries resemble the Old Italian grape plantations, and provide for a scenic overload of another kind. After you leave Kokino, head south to central Macedonia, and visit the wineries of Stobi, Popova Kula, and Tikvesh.
From there on, head west towards the village of Mavrovo. Located deep within the Mavrovo National Park, it allows you to enjoy nature at your own leisure, with surprising lack of noise and without manufactured emergency to search for the next destination.
The Mavrovo Lake is circled by 27 miles of paved road, excellent for biking and sightseeing. You will be able to take pictures of the submerged church nearby (definitely a postcard-worthy attraction) and enjoy nature for the entire length of a day.
The road then, takes you upwards to the village of Galicnik, commanding attention on its own. You can also book a horseback riding tour, which takes you from one village to another, occupying the better length of your day.
Heading down to Ohrid
Finishing your journey, the only logical destination before leaving Macedonia behind, is the town of Ohrid. It is located on the shore of the Ohrid Lake, providing a garden variety of sightseeing opportunities that dwarf everything else in significance.
As spectacular as the rest of Macedonia is, Ohrid easily outranks the countryside nine ways to Sunday. It is the shiny ribbon that ties everything together.
Do visit the monastery of Saint Naum, The church of Kaneo, and Plaoshnik. All of them offer truly remarkable architecture, conveniently located at some of the best sightseeing places from where you can enjoy the view of the lake.
With 365 churches, one for every day of the year, Ohrid has earned its name as the Jerusalem of the Balkans. Now, although dozens are still in use, many more are turned into art galleries, classical recital podiums, and artisan workshops. If you are after the cultural vibe, this here is a true image emporium.
Wrapping up your journey, you can visit the lake springs, or book a dinner on a raft while reminiscing your unforgettable vacation.
Folding up this letter, I hope I gave Macedonia the extended treatment it deserves. And with more articles like this one dotting the map, hopefully, this wonderful destination will become widely recognized and frequently visited.
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About the Author
Slavko Desik is a writer, editor, and co-founder of numerous online startups. He is an avid fitness junkie, who enjoys the outdoors and loves to spend time in nature, visiting new places and attractive but mostly unexplored destinations. He also writes for Discovering Macedonia – trying to promote one of his favorite countries. Follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SlavkoDesik
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