Mess-a-what?

When I told friends and relatives that I was visiting Macedonia, most of them confessed they had never heard of the country before. Honestly, neither did I until about two weeks before we set foot in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city. Larry and I picked the little heard of country within the Balkan Peninsular to travel to by virtue of its closeness to our original travel destination, Turkey, for which we had already bought our air tickets to. We had to take a rain check on visiting Turkey because it was in a bit of a political turmoil then. Turns out, Turkey was actually quite safe to travel to, but Macedonia – although the plan B, the wet weather contingency plan, the back up, the filler – proved to be a great travel destination in its own right, worthy of being a plan A. We’re glad to have travelled to this low-profile Southeast European country, and I guess we have the Taksim Square protesters to thank.

Here are five reasons why you should put Macedonia on your to-go list:

1. Lake Ohrid

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If you go to Macedonia and miss Lake Ohrid, go back. In a country with more than 50 lakes, this one’s the queen of all lakes. Its crown, the peaks of Galičica National Park that flank the lake and the hills of Ohrid Town, is adorned by timeless gems – an abundance of beautiful ancient churches, a charming old town and Roman ruins. At the heart of all that, Ohrid’s true crowning glory, is a transcendent body of water that at dawn sets the stage for fishermen going through a set of well-rehearsed actions, at summer’s midday beckons with the promise of insatiable respite, and in the evening, catches sunset’s every hue and brushstroke. Nobody goes to Macedonia without making room for Lake Ohrid in the their itinerary, a lot of room.

Tip: Many buses leave Skopje for Ohrid everyday. Buses are comfortable and reliable, and the journey takes 3 to 4 hours.

2. Ancient Orthodox Churches

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Even for the non-religious, there’s something about being in a place of worship several centuries old – a swirling concoction of awe, bewilderment, reverence, humility, and calm. Ohrid has a high concentration of ancient, well-preserved Byzantine churches, some of which still wear beautiful frescoes. St. Jovan Monastery at the edge of a cliff is the most photographed church in Ohrid and the atmospheric site makes for a wonderful lookout point over the lake at sunset.  You could also take a boat ride across the lake to St. Naum Monastery where, if you’re lucky, you could witness a traditional baptism, or one of the resident peacocks fanning out its tail feathers in courtship. If you have more time in Macedonia than I did, travel to Prilep to visit Zrze Monastery. It sits atop a cliff and is reportedly stunning, understandably so; anything that requires the effort and is worth the risk of being built precariously high should darn well be.

Tip: If visiting St. Naum, visit the nearby sleepy village, Trpejca. Dine at one of its lakeside restaurants, go for a short hike to a lookout point offering breathtaking views of Lake Ohrid, or take a dip in the lake where there are finally no or few other tourists. Or do all three. Taxis can send you to Trpejca village from St. Naum and arrange to pick you up in a few hours to take you back to Ohrid.

3. Old Bazaars of Skopje and Bitola

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Some phrases never fail to win me over as soon as I come across them in any travel article or guide: cobbled walkways, winding lanes, getting lost. Put together all three phrases and that’s the old bazaars you’ll find at Skopje and Bitola. At these old bazaars, or Čaršija, the cobbled walkways take you past local eateries, cafes, teahouses, traditional crafts shops. These craftsmen are a dying breed. Therein lies the beauty of the opportunity to meet a tinsmith in his old shop, walls blackened by soot like the tips of his fingers, or a shoemaker who takes 1 month to make a pair of Opanak, traditional peasant shoes made with tanned leather. While the Čaršija at Skopje has been restored and is a beautifully preserved slice of Ottoman history and architecture, the one at Bitola is more organic and still serves more locals than tourists. Both are lovely to lose yourself in for a few hours.

4. Balkan hospitality

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The Balkan hospitality is not a myth. Our first taste of it was in the old bazaar of Skopje where a traditional shoemaker kept us in his shop for nearly an hour and captivated us with amazing life stories from his childhood and youth. Further down the road, we were invited to tea by a band of secondhand goods traders who entertained us with their endless bickering, teasing and butt-slapping. The rest of our trip offered up many more intriguing conversations and free tea. Our most memorable moments came from our taxi ride from Trpejca village to Ohrid where we shared the cab with strangers. Our initial fears of awkwardness of being kept in a confined space with people we didn’t know were quickly quelled as barely a few minutes into the ride, our taxi had become filled with hearty laughter. Amongst other topics, our fellow passengers, a Macedonian children’s book author and a Serbian artist both middle-aged, proclaimed their passionate loyalty to Serbia’s national tennis hero, Novak Djokovic (and his toned body), gave lukewarm approval of my idol, Roger Federer out of courtesy to the world’s best tennis player ever, and booed when my husband showed support for Nadal.  We had such fun trading jokes and getting to know each other that when time came for us to be dropped off, we could hardly bear to part. Our new friends insisted on paying for our cab ride, exchanged contacts and hugs with us before we parted ways reluctantly.

Tip: Visit Macedonia with an open heart, wear a smile often, and you’re likely to be well taken care of by warm and kind locals.

5. Gastronomical delights

Ohrid, Macedonia: (Jun 2013)

Ohrid, Macedonia: (Jun 2013)

I arrived at Skopje sick to the bones. The first thing I sank my teeth into was so good it perked me up instantly. Burek cured me. Fluffy, flaky pastry that gives way to feta cheese remedies colds, or at least is so beautifully tasty you’d forget you were sick. Burek with ayran, a yoghurt drink, makes for perfect breakfast food, but I’ll eat it anytime of day, if not for other mouthwatering choices. In Macedonia, I discovered newfound respect for beans. A baked beans dish, Tavče gravče (pronounced tav-chay grav-chay) is prepared and served in traditional earthenware that gives the flavourful beans baked with onion and red pepper an earthiness. It is perfect comfort food especially on chilly days.

We had shopska salata every day during our trip and whenever available, we ordered Ajvar as another side to our main course. The shopska salata is Macedonia’s staple salad featuring a mix of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and grated sirenje similar to feta cheese. Ajvar, also a sort-of salad best eaten with bread, is a sweet and spicy red paste made from roasted peppers and tomatoes that’s appetising and addictive (be warned). For us, these sides often stole the show but some mains held their own. Skara, grilled meats, hardly go wrong and in Ohrid, be sure to order crispy fried breaded plasica (a type of small fish) and pan-grilled trout.

Tip:

  • For amazing and inexpensive seafood at Ohrid, try Letna Bavča Kaneo. It is situated on the shore of the lake so views and atmosphere are great as well.
  • While Ohrid trout can be found on menus, the fishing of Ohrid trout is actually prohibited in order to help preserve the species unique to Lake Ohrid. Please do not feed the demand; restaurants serve other types of trout as well.
  • If you’ve had a taste of Ajvar and can’t have enough of it, you’d be happy to know that you might be able to find Ajvar sold in jars at local markets. We found some at Ohrid.

 

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