Here’s a bit about a trip I took last April with Black Hummus Diaries through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (soon to be Northern Macedonia), Albania, and Montenegro. I really love Northern Macedonia a lot, more than I thought I would. Here’s my happy Macedonia face (disregard the shitty facial hair, I was lazy).
I simply wish to reminisce about the trip, and hopefully, give you lovely readers the urge to come to these wonderful little nations. So here is what I’d recommend for a first time Macedonia adventure. Enjoy and please like, comment, and subscribe if you feel!
Let’s begin in Skopje, the bizarre capital of Northern Macedonia. From its eclectic New Town to the straight out of the Ottoman Empire Old Town, Skopje is absolutely worth a few days of exploration. So, what to do?
Oogle at the Statues
Northern Macedonia has been trying to join the EU and NATO for the past few decades. It’s been a frustrating process since Greece keeps blocking their acceptance due to the problem of their name, as ‘Macedonia’ also happens to be the name of the second largest region of Greece (yes I know it’s a little more complicated than that but we’ll keep it here). Regardless, Northern Macedonia has been pouring bucket loads of funding into their new quarter of the capital, erecting statues of national heroes and artists wherever there’s a free plot of land. Above, you can see the monumental statue of Alexander the Great piercing the air. His statue is about the same height as the surrounding buildings. In Skopje, it is completely feasible to run into a statue while staring at another one. It’s bizarre, to say the least.
In a way, Northern Macedonia is setting up this glittering facade to show the EU and NATO delegates how mighty and culturally influential the nation is. It feels a bit like a little boy showing off his rare Pokémon cards to his non-caring teenage brother. It’s equally adorable and endearing, and almost impossible not to walk around with a dumb smile on.
But all of this monument building is something I can completely understand. For a nation that has been independent for less than three decades, it must be difficult to create a national identity. Especially with raucous cultural neighbors like the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians. Northern Macedonia has more or less been overshadowed by a greater empire since the dawn of civilization. The Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, and Yugoslavs have all been through here, leaving the national image of the country a bit confused. Northern Macedonia is testing out its own personal history, one that isn’t Greek or Serbian or Albania: one that is uniquely Northern Macedonian. They’re still in the process of finding out what it means to be North Macedonian, and for that, I respect them and their overuse of statues.
Get Lost in the Old Town
Just across the river from the behemoth Alexander the Great is a quiet Old Town straight out of the Ottoman days. A walk through Old Town Skopje feels much the same as a walk through a quiet street in any old Turkish town, but with a few differences. Buildings are no taller than a few stories as streets wander and flow with no proper reasoning.
The call to prayer still rings five times a day like everywhere else in the Arab world, but the shop signs are all in Cyrillic and the old Christian men drink tea with their Muslim neighbors. The Skopje of today is wonderfully integrated, and the Old Town is the perfect place to wander around aimlessly for a few hours.
Tea shops will sell a cup for US$.50, or perhaps a thick sugary black Turkish coffee for the same price which can be enjoyed alfresco under the trees next to a mosque. Catch up on some postcard writing, or just listen to the old men discuss old man things.
Time moves slowly on this side of the river, almost as if it is locked in a time portal.
This is an ideal place for people in search of good food as well. Head to any shop nearby for kebapi or head to the Old Town Bazaar, which has been selling some of the freshest local produce since the 12th century.
Climb Mount Vodno
Well, climb is a bit of a stretch. But it definitely did get my sweat going. We stayed at Hi Hostel Skopje, which was fairly far from downtown but very close to Mount Vodno (the owner is fantastic as well, and there’s a comfortable garden to enjoy a coffee and a book). The hike goes through some nice mountainous paths, and most of the time a cute stray dog friend will guide you up the well-trodden path.
We came in the Spring, which made for some excellent blooming moments.
I love a good picnic, and just about anywhere on this hike is perfect for it. We stopped about halfway up for a breather and a beer. We parked right below the gondolas because I get a certain odd satisfaction from waving like an idiot at passing strangers. Northern Macedonians are extremely friendly, and more than willing to wave back.
There’s also an abandoned bunker for those in need of a photo shoot.
Next let’s go to Ohrid, a spot that cannot be missed in Northern Macedonia. Ohrid, even after almost seven months, still feels like a dream to me. One should travel to Macedonia simply to see Ohrid. It’s a luminous, picturesque city and UNESCO Heritage site. It’s been around for centuries, and every little corner is perfect.
There are regular buses running from Skopje, and some buses coming from Tirana. We took the bus from Skopje, which was a great ride. I’ve heard rumor of buses coming up from Northern Greece as well. The roads are decent enough and the views are excellent, so don’t be afraid to hop on the bus for a cheap trip to paradise.
We spent several perfect days here staying at a great and cheap Airbnb apartment with a patio facing Lake Ohrid. The city is this perfect mixture of Swiss mountains, Italian lake beauty, and North Macedonian kindness.
Christianity has a stronger hold in Ohrid, and one could spend days just wandering through churches.
But of course, the postcard must-see is St. John’s. Come at sundown and stay a while for a bit more photo taking privacy.
The water of the lake is a fine turquoise blue, and the summer months yield great swimming. It was still a bit too cold for a dip in April, but that water was tempting.
The old town is adorable and filled with small restaurants and bars. Everything is very cheap in Macedonia, and the locals are fantastic. I want to return as soon as possible and see what else the country has to offer, but Skopje and Ohrid are excellent places to start.
Thank you for joining me on this little side journey down memory lane. I’ll be doing a few more memory lane posts, but I’ve got new content coming your way in about two weeks time. Thank you for your awesome support!