Breathtaking Balkans: Exploring Macedonia

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Breathtaking Balkans: Exploring Macedonia

The Republic of Macedonia is regarded as one of the world’s oldest and most culturally rich civilizations. For travelers, “this landlocked country, which sits in the center of the Balkan Peninsula, is paradise. Each town throughout the country holds a different opportunity to celebrate ancient traditions and the spots between—with some of region’s highest peaks and deepest waters—is heaven for adventure travel. And, at the end of each day, explorers will enjoy superb domestic wine and absolutely the freshest cuisine.

Skopje, the capital city, has both ancient and modern sites and a population that hovers around 500,000. Since most towns are much smaller, Macedonia’s untamed natural beauty remains a secret. Traveling alone or in a group, a trip to this region is inexpensive and easy to navigate. Make sure to experience these five activities from tourism operator Macedonia Experience during your next European excursion.

1. Fill Up on Traditional Foods

Whether you’re beginning a day of exploring or ending a long night of partying, Macedonia boasts some delicious dishes. One of the country’s best-known delicacies is moussaka, a casserole oozing with layers of eggplant, potatoes and red meat (often green peppers and tomatoes, too). Another favorite is burek—a thin, flaky pastry filled with a combination of onion, potatoes, feta, spinach, ground beef or lamb and a side of homemade yogurt for dipping.

For those avoiding lamb and red meat, check out Kaneo on the breathtaking shores of Lake Ohrid. This Mediterranean restaurant serves up plentiful helpings of fish caught right outside of its walls and colorful salads with the fresh tomatoes and peppers the country is known for.

2. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

If you’ve been wanting to take an athletic route through the historic hills of Europe, Macedonia is the place to do it. There are multiple races throughout the summer months, like the Tour de Galicica bike race through Galicica National Park in June. Trail running events are also popular—and you’ll have continual photo ops in the Sharr Mountains, a range that connects the country to Albania and Kosovo. Jeep safari tours are a great option for large groups and often offer scenic rides to remote villages.

And one of the best parts of Macedonia is that you can view its incredible terrains from more than just the ground level. Take a dive into Lake Ohrid (pictured at top), one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. Under the serene waters you’ll see paleolithic settlements scattered among the sandy banks that date back an estimated 2 million years.

Don’t feel like getting wet? Opt for a tandem paragliding adventure through clear skies to get a aerial view of the Balkans. You’ll spend anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour coasting by mountains like Jablanica.

3. Explore Matka Canyon

Photo by Jason Rogers/Flickr CC BY

Treska River flows southwest out of the Vardar River, eventually tapering off after flowing through a total of 82 curvy miles. This vast river flows through many different lakes, including Lake Matka (pictured above), which is cradled in one of Macedonia’s most popular destinations for tourists and locals, Matka Canyon. Just 20 minutes outside of the busy streets of Skopje, this serene getaway offers endless hiking, self-guided kayaking trips, and boat rides to the canyon’s caves. If you look around from the stone-paved paths carved into the canyon’s walls, you’ll see churches and monasteries tucked into the hills. There’s also a restaurant next door if you want to eat wonderful local dishes or drink a glass of wine.

If you’d like to see the area on two wheels you can also rent a bike from a local company for about $30 a day or a boat for about $6 a person. Whatever your medium is, a visit to Lake Matka is a must.

4. Celebrate Wine Country and Drink Local Liqueur

The longer you spend in Macedonia, the more you’ll notice groups of friends shouting, “Na zdravje!” as glasses clink. The ritual is an important part of dining, as is rakija, the schnapps that is more than likely in their glasses. This brandy is often made at home with locally harvested ingredients ranging from walnuts to plums. Mastika is another common drink that resembles rakija, but is made with spices from mediterranean trees. Grab a glass and join in the toast which loosely translates, “To your health!”

Fruit brandy isn’t the only thing that stems from the region’s rich soils. In the southeast town of Kavadarci, you’ll find Tikves Winery, where over 50 different wines are produced. The winery is the oldest in the surrounding area of Tikves Lake, which is the heart of Macedonia’s famous wine country. These rolling hills are home to grapes with an ideal sugar concentration, which might explain why people have been making wine here for over 2,000 years.

If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, the country’s most popular brew is a 4.9% lager-tasting pils called Skopsko. Now owned by Heineken, the beer is highly regarded by many locals and has been around since 1924.

5. Be a Tourist, See Skopje

Municipality of Skopje.jpg
Photo courtesy of Municipality of Skopje

Downtown Skopje has recently gone through a drastic reboot—this bustling part of the city has been labeled “Vegas-like” due to the bright lights and newly erected statues. One example is a prominent 72-foot depiction of Alexander the Great that stands in Macedonia Square.

However, if you walk toward the northeast corner of the city, you’ll find its most well-preserved sector: Old Bazaar. As one of the Balkans’ largest bazaars, the streets are filled mosques, galleries and museums housed by Byzantine and Ottoman architecture dating back to the 12th century. Whether it’s jewelry, souvenirs or authentic food you’re shopping for, you’ll find it here.

Beyond this neighborhood you’ll also find the Museum of Contemporary Art. Closer to center, you can visit the Memorial House of Mother Teresa, near the site of where the famous nun was baptized.

To see the city from a different perspective, catch a bus in Skopje to Mount Vodno. A cable car will deliver you to a breathtaking view next to Millennium Cross, pictured above, a religious metal sculpture bigger than the Statue of Liberty. You can ride an elevator up the cross for a better view, or stay behind for a snack or beer at the mountain’s restaurant … either way, this adventure costs a mere $4.

Top photo by Klovovi/Flickr CC BY

Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist based in Athens, Georgia, with a small budget and a big appetite for the world.