Travels in Macedonia
Macedonia is bordered by Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania. It has a surface area of 25,713 square kilometres and a population of 2 million. It is very mountainous, much of the country is covered in forest, there are 3 national parks Galicica, Mavrovo and Pelister and the beautiful Lake Ohrid.
Fault lines also run through the country causing many earthquakes. The capital, Skopje was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1963.
Brief History of Macedonia
Macedonia is rich in Greek, Roman and Ottoman influences. It spent 500 years under the rule of the Ottoman empire. This only ended after the Balkan wars in 1912 and 13. Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece formed an alliance to drive the Ottoman Turks from their lands. They were successful but post war boundaries saw Macedonia divided up between the other powers, most going to Greece and Serbia with a small section going to Bulgaria.
After the 1st World War the Serbian section became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which changed its name to Yugoslavia in 1929. In 1945 it became one of the 6 republics of the Yugoslav Socialist Federation. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, Macedonia declared its independence on 17th September 1991. It wasn’t affected by the wars which raged through the other republics.
Greece objected to the use of the name Macedonia; they believed they had a monopoly on the name and that Macedonia might try to reclaim Greek Macedonia. This wrangling over the name continued until 2019 when it was agreed by both sides that the name would change from Macedonia to North Macedonia.
2001 saw an uprising by ethnic Albanians. There were some skirmishes but civil war was avoided and a peace deal brokered which gave a greater recognition of Albanian rights
Travels in Macedonia – Lake Ohrid
I took a minibus from Tirana to Lake Ohrid. It was a beautiful drive following a river through the forests and mountains.
The services were also a lot better than motorway services in England, with a very scenic view.
Then it was onto the border. The customs official boarded the bus and took our passports. The minibus then pulled into a shed, where all our bags were searched. The Macedonian border was easier with just an individual show of passports. For me it was like travelling in the old days, I was the only non-local on the bus and no-one spoke more than a couple of words of English. I was almost dropped off at a roundabout in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately the driver realised I was trying to get to Lake Ohrid and I was then taken to a petrol station where they called me a taxi.
Lake Ohrid is 3 million years old and is one of the oldest lakes in the world and also one of the deepest. It is 34km long, 14km wide and 300 metres deep.
The town of Ohrid is the largest town on the lake’s shores. Along with the lake it is a UNESCO world heritage site. With cobbled streets, lovely churches and a fortress it is a lovely base for a few days.
A Boat Trip on the Lake
Small boats and larger passenger ferries offer tours of the lake. I didn’t have a plan, I went down to the harbour, there was a boat leaving in 3 minutes so I jumped on it and got back six and a half hours later. The boat firstly sails past Ohrid old town and then past all the beaches, forest and mountains which fringe the lake.
The 1st stop was the Bay of Bones. A little bit of a macabre name. In the water here they found the remains of a bronze age settlement with lots of artefacts, ceramics, tools and some of the original wooden pillars which supported the village, which was built over the water, like a bronze age Venice. They also found many animal bones, hence the name.
It was decided to re-create the village, it would be a museum on the water. The houses have been re-created meticulously inside and out. There is also a small museum on the shore, containing some of the artefacts found, with a very friendly curator who is happy to answer any questions. It is very interesting, in a lovely spot and has become a major attraction for locals and tourists alike.
The Monastery of St. Naum
The boat then sails to this beautiful monastery. St. Naum helped St. Clement in creating the Cyrillic language and spread Christianity across the region. He performed many miracles and when he died aged 80 he was buried in the monastery. Legend has it that if you put your ear to the coffin you can still hear his heartbeat.
The original monastery was built in 905. It was re-built in the 16th century. It is lovely to wander around the grounds, where you will be joined by several peacocks who have made the monastery their home. There are also lovely views of the lake.
There is a lovely park with fountains next to the monastery. There are also forest trails leading from here, where you pass small churches and arrive at the springs which bubble up from underground into the lagoon. Small boats also make a 20 minute trip to the springs.
The monastery to also next to a very beautiful beach and the river and beach are lined with fish restaurants and shops. I stopped for a drink at the beach. As there were no free tables, 2 women asked if they could join me. They were from Struga, a village near Ohrid. They had recognised me from the boat. They ordered coffee and we chatted for 10 minutes before they left. When I went to pay my bill I found that the women had paid for my drinks, a rum and coke and a beer. How kind, I’d only known them for 10 minutes.
On the return journey I was chatting with a mother and her 2 daughters and laughing a lot. We ended up having a photo shoot using one of their hats. Macedonia is so friendly.
Things to see and do around Ohrid
The Church of St. John at Kaneo
This is probably the most photographed church in Ohrid. A lovely Orthodox church set on a cliff overlooking the lake, such a pretty spot. I got up at 6.30am to get to the church for sunrise. It is a lovely walk through the old town, then along a walkway by the lake and past the town beach. I was the only person there, it was so peaceful and the light so beautiful. A perfect start to a day. On the walk back I chatted with a very friendly fisherman. The only words of English he knew were ‘hello’ and ‘fish’ , that’s one more word than I know in Macedonian, I can only say thank you. Fortunately he had caught a lot of fish.
A couple of days later I went back to the church for sunset. Again it was very beautiful. Some young locals were having a party in the forest near the church and they invited me. They had brought a speaker and set up a little cocktail bar. I got a cocktail and headed down to the beach with a couple of others. It was lovely with the moon shimmering on the water.
Then it was back to the party for more cocktails and a some dancing. I was teaching a few people a bit of salsa. I then had a young guy telling me about his girlfriend problems; he’d met a girl and he thought things were going well, but now she won’t take his calls.
Next it was a girl musician who sings opera and studies in Holland. She is very lonely and doesn’t know what she is going to do as it’s difficult to make a career from music. She also doesn’t know how to tell her family that she likes girls as they are very conservative and wouldn’t react well.
It was lovely to meet more locals and have a dance and a chat. I find it very easy to fit in here.
The Church of St. Clement and Panteleimon
A Byzantine church which sits on a hill overlooking the lake, it is the most sacred building in the region. St Clement arrived in Ohrid in 893 and built a church on the site of an old Christian basilica and dedicated it to St. Panteleimon.
During the rule of the Ottoman Turks the church was demolished and a mosque built in its place. Only the foundations remained. In 1942 excavations began and the remains of the church were found, along with St. Clements grave.
Reconstruction of the church began in Dec 2000 and was completed in August 2002.
Saint Clement was the most important discipline of Saint Cyril. He is revered here as he invented the Cyrillic language and taught many students who spread Christianity and the new alphabet to other countries.
He translated all the texts into the new language and opened the 1st Slavic university. There is now a project to reconstruct this. I was shown around by a volunteer caretaker who was very knowledgeable and very enthusiastic.
I learned a lot about history and about Macedonian wine.
There is a dispute as the whether the empire Samuel or Samuil ruled over was the 1st Bulgarian Empire or the Macedonian empire. It was a huge area covering several countries and its capital was the fortress at Lake Ohrid.
King Samuel ruled from 997 – 1014 and was a great strategist, winning many battles. However, at the battle of Kleidon in 1014 his forces were defeated by a Byzantine army led by Basil the second. Samuel managed to escape but 15,000 of his men were captured. They were all blinded except every 100th man, who only had 1 eye removed, so they could lead the others home. When Samuel saw his blinded men he dropped dead of a heart attack.
There is not much surviving of the original castle structure, with the exception of the walls and from these are spectacular views of the lake.
Travels in Macedonia – Beaches
There are many beaches dotted along the lake shore. The beach at St. Naum is one of the loveliest.
There are also beaches within walking distance of Ohrid Town.
Potpesh Beach on the way to the Church of St. John is a pretty little beach with a good restaurant.
Cuba Libre Beach also has a bar built out over the water with sunloungers and parasols. It is a lovely spot for a cocktail and a swim.
National Park Galicica
This lovely national park is 30kms from Ohrid Town. I went there to hike the Magaro peak trail. This is a walk of 8.5kms and the peak is 2255 metres high. The first part of the walk is through a forest.
Once you get above the treeline there are spectacular views of both Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa as well as Albania. I went with a local guide. It was a lovely walk and we had a picnic at the peak. Good walking shoes are a must as it can be a little slippery especially after a shower. It can also be a little windy at the top so a lightweight jacket is also recommended. It is a beautiful walk.
Where to Stay in Ohrid
I stayed at the Villa and Winery Mal Sveti Kliment
Situated in the old town, this has picturesque views of the lake I spent a long time looking at the views and they were wonderful to wake up to.
I caught a local bus from Ohrid to Skopje. It was a beautiful 3 hour journey through mountains and forest. Skopje is the capital and is certainly an interesting city. I stayed on a boat hotel in the heart of the city, by the Old Stone Bridge and main square.
There are huge statues everywhere and buildings designed to look like classical Roman or Greek. This was all done as part of the 2014 project.
The 2014 project
This was initiated by the previous prime minister Nikola Gruevski and cost 684 million Euros of public funds. His aim was to restore national pride by rebuilding the city to reflect its history, to attract more tourists and to give the city a more neo-classical feel.
In the huge central square sits and enormous 22 metre high statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, surrounded by lions and dancing fountains. Lining the river are new museums, government buildings and an enormous Greek style national theater, which many believe was a little dig at Greece.
There are over 100 statues dotted around. New bridges are lined with statues of important historical figures, as well as artists, composers and writers. It completely divided locals and tourists. Some think its kitsch and over the top. It is certainly eye catching and I loved it.
The project was never completely finished. A wiretapping scandal led to early elections with an almost drawn result. The ruling party failed to form a government and so the opposition came to power in an alliance with the Albanian party.
All work on the project was stopped. There sits a half-finished bridge, next to which was going to be a huge ferris wheel similar to the London Eye. Finished buildings sit next to unfinished ones. Nothing is being maintained. It is uncertain as to what will happen to all the statues and buildings from the project, including my wonderful boat hotel. The current government opposed the project and have just secured another term in office.
One of the most famous statues is of Karpov and is situated on the bank next to the Old Stone Bridge. Karpos was a miner and resistance fighter. He led the 1st uprisings against the Ottomon Turks, won many battles and inspired many people. He was eventually caught and impaled on a wooden stake and left on the old bridge for everyone to see. It took 3 days for him to die.
The Great Earthquake of 1963
Skopje was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake on 26th July 1963. It hit at 5.10am and the clock on the railway station is still stopped at that time. 1,100 people were killed, 3-4 thousand were injured and 200,000 were left homeless.
Almost 80℅ of the city was destroyed. The earthquake measured 6.1 on the Richter scale. The 1st journalist who saw Skopje from a plane said it looked like it had been bombed.
Many countries sent aid. President Kennedy and the USA sent prefab houses and tents. President Kruschev of Russia sent aid and visited Skopje personally. The UK charity War on Want launched a public appeal which provided materials and building frames for 1560 dwellings. The UK government sent Nissan hits, put up by the Royal Engineers. Sweden and Finland sent prefab buildings.
Romania built a new clinic which is still called the Bucharest clinic. The UK government provided a £500,000 loan to help with reconstruction. It also donated 20 red double decker buses. These double decker buses are still in service all over Skopje, as every year an order is placed for more.
The original buses were built by British Leyland and the conductor had to assist the driver as lookout, as the steering wheels were on the other side, as in the UK they drive on the left.
Later in a bid to restore the Arts, Pablo Picasso donated a painting to be displayed in the New Contemporary Art Gallery, which has been built by a donation from Poland. The new Concert Hall was built with donations from 35 countries.
Mother Teresa was born in Skopje on August 26th 1910. Her birthday name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu and her parents were Albanian. Aged 18 she joined an Irish order called the Sisters of Loreto and in 1931 left for Calcutta, India.
At first she taught at St Mary’s High School but the extreme poverty she saw forced her to ask permission to leave the school and devote her life to working among the poorest and destitute in the Calcutta slums. She wanted to care for those nobody else was looking after. She was soon joined by volunteers.
I traveled with someone in Sri Lanka who and had helped Mother Teresa in Calcutta. In 1995 she was aware the Novel Peace Prize. She died on 5th Sept 1997 and was canonised in 2016.
The Memorial House of Mother Teresa
Her childhood home is no longer there, a plaque marks the spot where it stood. This house is a memorial to Mother Teresa and contains lots of information about her life, as well as lots of photographs and personal items.
Quotes from Mother Teresa
“Not all of us can do great things
But we can do small things with great love”
“Peace begins with a smile”
Travels in Macedonia – Other things to see and do
If you want to escape the city, Mount Vodno offers lots of hiking and walking trails. To get there you can catch one of the red double decker buses halfway up the mountain to the base of the cable car station and then catch the cable car to the top.
I waited at the bus stop having asked an old lady if it was the correct stop. No bus. Another lady came along, she didn’t speak much English but I got the gist I was at the wrong stop. She led me to the right bus stop. It was about 15 minutes walk and she held my hand as we crossed every road. At one point I thought she was walking me all the way to the base of the cable car.
She took me to the bus stop. I thanked her profusely, she shook my hand and left. She didn’t speak much English but I understood that she was going to work at the hospital. So kind, to go out of her way for me. After a few minutes of waiting at the bus stop 2 old ladies approached me. They didn’t really speak English either but I got the gist that because of Covid 19 the no. 25 bus wasn’t running. They stopped a man who spoke better English and he explained that neither the bus nor the cable car were in operation.
So instead of a 20 minute bus journey and a ride on a cable car I ended up hiking the whole way to the top. The man had given me directions and as it was Sunday there were a few locals out walking too, although a lot of them were coming down. Had I known I was going to hike I would set off much earlier and not been hiking when the day was at its hottest. Still it was a lovely walk, the first part through the forest. There were various trails of varying degrees of steepness. By trying to follow a very fit local I ended up on the steepest.
I arrived at the base of the non-functioning cable car. Here was parking, a bar and restaurant and lots of locals having picnics. I decided to hike the rest of the way to the top through the forest. At times the trail crossed a paved road but I stuck to the forest, it was more scenic and in the shade.
There were many trails but I figured if I kept just going up I’d be okay. I did go a little astray at the top and a wrong turn put me on a different path going in the wrong direction. After asking some fellow hikers I was soon back on track and arrived at the 66 metre high Millennium Cross on the summit.
The whole of Skopje lay below me, fabulous panoramic views, to the other side were lovely views over the forest.
At the top there was also a shop, picnic tables and little loockout areas where you could sit and admire the views. I met a very friendly local couple who took lots of photos and videos of me and with me. I found a path that went straight down, a little steep in places. The hike had taken me 4 and a half hours with just a few minutes rest at the top and it felt great.
The Old Bazaar
Walking around the maze of streets in the Old Bazzar gives you the feeling that you have stepped back in time. It is the 2nd largest in the Balkans and was more reminiscent of Turkey than Macedonia. Everywhere there are craft shops, a street of gold shops and the wonderful smells from the spices and kebab meat cooking on the grills and spits.
It is a lovely place to wander around and sample some local food at one of the many small restaurants. It does feel like you are in a different country and is a complete contrast to the huge squares, statues, neo-classical buildings and modern shopping streets of Skopje.
Not far from the Old Bazaar is the fortress. A lot of the buildings were destroyed by wars and then again by the earthquake of 1963. It does have a bit of a neglected feel. However the walls are still in tact and from here there are great views over the city.
The biggest square in the country. Dominated by the huge statue in its center, and home to many other statues and a great shopping street. There are many restaurants and bars surrounding the square. It is a perfect place to watch the world go by and watch the children have an enormous amount of fun dodging in and out of the jets of the dancing fountains.
Holocaust Memorial Center
I very much wanted to visited this, having heard such excellent reports. Unfortunately, it is currently closed due to Covid 19. There is a very moving statue outside.
Look at the Statues
Just wandering around and look at some of the over 100 statues.
15 kms outside of Skopje lies the beautiful Matka canyon, covering an area of 5,000 hectares. It is around 30 mins drive and can also be reached by taking the no. 60 bus. A taxi costs 10 Euros and there are also many days trips running to the canyon.
The canyon was carved by the Treska river. In 1938 a huge dam was constructed creating a lovely lake. The dam was not damaged in the earthquake.There are many options at the canyon. There are 10 caves and a lovely boat trip will take you to the Vrelo cave, full of stalactites and stalagmites, including the aptly named Pine Cone.
There is beautiful scenary en-route. Kayaks can also be rented. There are many hiking trails. It is also possible to hike to the canyon from the Millennium Cross on top of Mount Vodno. This hike takes 5-7 hours.
Ancient churches and monasteries are also found in the canyon, here they could worship in secret, especially under Ottoman rule. I visited the convent, still home to an order of nuns. It is commonly known as the Monastery of the Uterus and is a very important in the Orthodox religion.
The day I visited was an important date in Orthodox calendar and a public holiday. There were many people at the monastery and even film crews ready for the important service.
St. Andrew’s Monastery is on the site of an old inn. After a battle in 1389 King Marko and his brother Andrew stopped at the tavern. Whilst the king waited outside with the horses, his brother entered the inn. Here he was murdered by a group of Turks.
The king killed everyone inside. He buried his brother here and ordered for a monastery to be built on the site dedicated to his brother.
Next to the church is a restaurant.
Mavrovo National Park
Halfway between Skopje and Lake Ohrid lies the country’s largest national park covering 73,000 hectares and home to the highest peak. It looks more like Switzerland than Macedonia with lovely wooden chalets. It does operate as a ski resort in the Winter and is where many Macedonians have holiday homes. In the summer there are lots of hiking trails and activities on the lake.
One of the most famous sights is the Old Mavrovo Church or the Church of St Nicholas. Built in 1857 it was submerged in 1956 by the building of a dam. However, half of it still rose out of the water. The locals say That Nicholas and God’s power will not let the church disappear completely.
When the water levels are low, as they were when I visited, it completely re-appears and it is possible to walk out to it.
A new Church of St. Nicholas was built in 1996 on higher ground. Inside are beautiful icon and frescoes.
I hiked up through the forest past the ski slopes. It was very beautiful.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Senigallia boat hotel. It was fabulous. In the perfect spot on the river next to all major attractions, with fabulous views and wonderful sunsets.
It is also a restaurant and is regarded as one of the best in Skopje. What made it even more special though were the staff. So friendly and kind and all so incredibly helpful. They helped me with many arrangements.
Where to eat and drink
As I’ve already said, the Macedonia Square has many restaurants and is a lovely place to people watch.
The Senigallia has a lovely restaurant with excellent food and fantastic views and lovely staff. One evening I was asked to join some friendly locals.
The riverbank is lined by many excellent bars and restaurants, all different.
Macedonia is a wonderful country, beautiful lakes, mountains and forests and full of very kind and friendly people.