A FEW THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO…
- While many of the Macedonian words are pronounced in the same way as much as the Balkans (“dobra dan” to say good morning and “fala” to say thank you), the words are written in Cyrillic so don’t expect that you’ll be able to actually read anything in an attempt to navigate directions or menus.
- Hiking in Macedonia is VERY DIFFICULT without a guide. See above. And below.
- There seems to be a bit of tension between the Balkan countries. Macedonians don’t seem to like Albanians very much and Macedonia and Greece have a bit of a naming dispute. Try not to be partial to one country or another and really listen to the locals story’s – you may learn something.
WHEN WE WENT…
May – June 2017
WHERE WE WENT…
While researching the best places to visit in Eastern Europe I found a blog post that was written in 2013 that gave an absolutely glowing review of Macedonia. She said it was the cheapest of all of the Balkan countries and far less touristy as well. So even though it wasn’t on our radar previously, it was a close enough bus ride from Tirana so we decided to check it out.
An earthquake in July 1963 destroyed 80% of the city of Skopje and left them with very few historical monuments. Reconstruction conducted in the years following turned Skopje into a modernist but grey city. A highly controversial project titled “Skopje 2014” was adopted to give the city a more monumental and historical aspect in an effort to transform it into a proper national capital. Several neoclassical buildings that were destroyed in the quake were rebuilt and the streets and squares were refurbished but there were other countless statues, fountains, buildings, bridges, and hotels that were added as a result. The project has been highly criticized because of the cost to taxpayers. We talked to several locals who believed that the project was initiated to launder money between politicians and the construction companies (they would say that a hammer may cost $1 but for this project the construction companies charge $10 and give that $9 back to the dirty politicians).
Who knows for sure but what has resulted is quite a sight to behold. There are giant, incredibly ostentatious statues and fountains placed seemingly randomly all over the main square area including a large Arc de Triumph replica in the middle of a parking lot and a lady diving in the middle of the river. The main square is a fantastic place to wander around, oooing and awwwing at the majestic fountains and statues, many that have paint thrown on them as a protest by the unhappy locals. There is also an old city area that comes alive around 8pm when the locals put on their best attire to drink Turkish tea and smoke hookah while being harassed by gypsies looking for a handout.
We stayed in a lovely Airbnb spot conveniently located close to the main square and a popular street lined with restaurants. We had a cheese-stuffed burger patty and a particularly delicious Macedonian salad that we’ve been unable to since replicate at DM Restoran. It seemed to be a locals spot and a fun group of young gents bought us shots of something terrible and then made jokes about us getting shot in random countries in Europe (maybe the sarcasm language barrier didn’t quite transfer correctly?).
Other than that our lives were quite normal in Skopje. Nick got a ridiculous 100 denar (~$2 USD) haircut that was VERY Eastern European (he had to recut the front himself because I couldn’t take him seriously) in the market and I got shellac on my fingernails and toenails for ~$35 USD at an upscale salon where multiple people fawned over me. We found it to be a very lovely, livable city with awesome locals who genuinely enjoyed getting to know us.
One of the “must-do” activities that we read about was to take a short trip out to Matka Canyon which is a fairly short cab ride that should cost around 600 denar ($11-ish USD) via taxi. That seemed way too easy for the Wandering Wheatleys. So instead, we opted to take a bus up to the cable car at the Millennium Cross and then hike the 8-ish miles down to Matka Canyon. We figured it was pretty much all downhill and it would be a fun adventure right? Wrong. The hike started out great – there was pretty highly trafficked trail that went by several nice picnic areas. We saw two signs that were pretty confusing but managed to ask one of the locals to point us toward Matka and took the path that she pointed toward. The trail got smaller but it was well marked with small target-looking circles painted on various rocks and trees lining the trail.
We both clearly remember the last trail marker that we saw. It was painted on a small rock in the middle of a fairly open area where we saw at least one trail shoot off to the left and one continue straight ahead. We felt quite certain that the trail we were on was the right one so even when we didn’t see another trail marker for quite some time, we weren’t worried about it. We figured we’d be able to find the actual trail without too much trouble. The trail did seem a bit strange – it teetered off and we found ourselves walking in a grassy area next to some small farm houses and then finally after about a mile or two we came upon a strawberry farm. We shouted to one of the workers “MATKA?” and pointed to a small trail to the right and they responded “of course!”. So we figured that was the right trail.
Long story short, we ended up tromping around in the forest that was overgrown with sticker bushes so every step felt like thousands of needles poking our arms and legs. We would find well-trodden trails that we would follow for a while and then they would teeter off into nothing – no trail, nothing. After a few hours of this we started to feel utterly hopeless. It was around 4pm and I was feeling a bit concerned that we would be spending the night in the woods. So we turned around and followed what appeared to be a cow grazing trail as it was a mess of mud and cow pies and we were sliding around and covered in filth. FINALLY we reemerged and found ourselves back in the exact same place we started – right next to the strawberry farm. We found a dirt road and followed it to a small town where they were very confused as to what two dirty foreigners were doing there. We located a bus stop, met a bunch of new friends, and finally at 6pm and after 15 miles of hiking, we were on a bus on our way home.
We never made it to Matka Canyon and we didn’t really care. We were filthy and starving and exhausted. Lesson learned: FOLLOW THE TRAIL MARKERS! They are everywhere along the trail. If you walk 20 feet without seeing one, you’ve gone the wrong way and need to turn around!
From everything we read about Macedonia, there were 3 main areas that were recommended to visit; Skopje, Lake Ohrid, and Bitola. And Bitola was described as being a nice town to people watch and eat baked cheese. Who doesn’t love cheese? So we planned to stay 2 nights and didn’t really have a clue what we would do. Our (stinky cigarette smoke and cat pee smelling) hotel was located quite close to a lovely pedestrian street called Sirok Sokak that is lined with coffee shops and is bustling with people at all hours of the day. We did some shopping, had some coffee, and ate our baked cheese at a bustling restaurant called Kus-Kus all on the same day that we arrived by bus from Skopje. And since we had accomplished all that we knew to do in the town, we weren’t really sure what to do with our remaining time. We read that you could take a short 15-kilometer taxi ride to National Park Pelister for only 350 dennar (~$7 USD) and do some nice nature walks. Our legs were still sore from our Matka Canyon mishap but we figured that would be better than spending another day shopping.
On that note – the shopping in Bitola is REALLY good… and everyone there wears pleather.
We had our taxi drop us off at Hotel Molika as that seemed to be the jumping off point for most of the hikes we found. The hotel was dead – no cars in the parking lot and no people anywhere. We figured the hotel was closed and were surprised when we gave the front door a tug and it actually opened. A nice man at the front desk gave us a very unhelpful map and pointed us in the direction of the trail head.
Considering the unlikelihood of catching a convenient taxi back to town, we decided on a hike that would lead us along the historical trail in the park and down to a small town only 3.5 miles from Bitola. We hoped to be able to catch a taxi or a bus back but figured worst case scenario we could walk it. The hike was nice enough but incredibly confusing. The trail looks quite clear on all of their trail maps but in life there are loads of trail intersections that point to destinations not written in English. And it started raining, and then hailing (and we figured out why no one else was in the park that day). Nick used his expert trail-finding skills (gps) and we slide in the mud down to a restaurant on the side of the road offering spectacular views of the small town of Dihovo where we were able to call a taxi.
Most of the fuss I had heard about Macedonia prior to our trip was centered around the “crown jewel of Europe”, aka, Lake Ohrid. We took a taxi from Bitola to Ohrid for 1600 denar (~$30 USD). Everyone, including our taxi driver, had gone on and on about how amazing it was. And when we finally caught a view of the lake it really was quite spectacular. We stayed in the Villa Jordan which was set back a bit from the boardwalk along the lake but it had a very lovely and inviting pool and the most comfortable bed that we’ve encountered to date. We spent our first day in Ohrid basking in the sunshine at the pool and then had a walk along the boardwalk to the Church of St. John at Kaneo for sunset. The church is quite lovely and probably the most photographed landmark in Ohrid, or all of Macedona for that matter, so every other tourist in town was there as well.
The next day we were up at 5:00am to have an early sunrise photo session at the Church of St. John. Thankfully we had it all to ourselves. From there we decided to head uphill to the Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon where they are currently building a giant, regal-looking university, and then further uphill to Samuel’s Fortress. Unfortunately we’d gotten such an early jump on the day that neither spot was open for business yet (note to self… check the hours prior to visiting landmarks that have giant locked gates). So we headed back down the hill to grab a cappuccino and figure out how to spend the remaining 12 hours of our day.
All along the Lake Ohrid boardwalk are touts trying to get you to take a boat ride in a variety of boats that range from tiny-fishing-will-is-stay-above-water-boat to lavish-leather-seats-16-pontoon-boat. We had written a boat ride off in our minds thinking that it would be too expensive and not all that interesting (plus we are pretty jaded from that many many boats we’ve hired in all of our travels). That is until we got approached by Hey Bobby. He had us at “hello” and for about 600 denar (~$11 USD) we got a 30 minute tour of the city from the lake. Hey Bobby told us of his CNN feature (his 10 seconds of fame starts at minute 3:15) and forced us to drink shots of rakia which is disgusting but he believes it cures any and all ailments. He also offered us “healthy cigarettes that are like breathing in the fresh mountain air” which we politely declined. The boat ride was just “meh” (as we anticipated) but the Hey Bobby experience was pretty entertaining. By the time we finished our boat ride we realized it was only 11:00am even though it felt like we’d been awake for a lifetime so we had no choice but to head back to the pool for some R&R.
In determining the best way to get back to Albania we found a tourist agency with direct minibuses leaving Ohrid at 5:00am every morning. So we booked a bus to Vlores for the next day and felt tortured that of the two nights spent in Ohrid we only got to enjoy our lavish mattress for about 8 hours in total due to our early morning adventures. In hindsight, if we had wanted a more relaxing trip we definitely could have holed up a bit longer in the amazing Villa Jordan for morning cappuccinos by the lake and afternoons at the pool. Lake Ohrid may not be the “crown jewel of Europe” but it was certainly a highlight of the Balkans.
We actually really enjoyed Macedonia, even though it wasn’t nearly as cheap as we’d been led to believe. However, we have a lot of time and it was easy to get to. Would I take a plane trip halfway around the world and use my allotted 2 weeks per year to vacation there? Probably not. So if you’re in the Balkans and have some extra time, definitely stop off and most definitely see Skopje. That city will likely change drastically in the next 10 years. But don’t make an entire vacation out of it…