Stunning scenery, beautiful historic sites and friendly faces are what you can find almost anywhere in Northern Macedonia. During both of my recent trips to the country, I was in equal measures surprised by the how wonderful many of its sites are – from the ruins of Marko’s Fortress in the dramatic hills over Prilep to the bustling Bitpazar market in Skopje – and shocked by how little I knew about them.
Unfortunately, a lot of coverage of North Macedonia revolves around botched Skopje 2014 facelift, the (recently resolved) name dispute and the country’s constantly challenged sense of identity, rather than its intrinsic diversity and charm. In a way, most of what is presented as its largest problems is what makes it a quintessential Balkan country, in the best possible sense, and an exciting place to visit, especially for those interested in Balkan history and politics.
Due to its peculiar history, Macedonia is the only one in the whole region where a fixed sense of identity and set historical narrative have not had the time to simplify (or obliterate) the complex history and competing identities which used to be part of the whole region. It is a country where cities do not market themselves with the usually empty boast of having mosques and churches next to each other, or that they are at “the crossroads of East and West”; this rich mix and coexistence of layers of diverse histories – from Alexander the Great and Emperor Dušan to Ataturk and Goce Delčev – is so intrinsic to Macedonia, that these forced contrasts would simply be jarring as in Macedonia they blend in a unique whole.
You don’t often get cities like Bitola where classical ruins, late Ottoman city core and modern town seamlessly blend. Even Skopje’s new buildings – as kitsch and wasteful as they certainly are – have a strange charm to them, especially considering that they are standing next to an ancient fortress, a labyrinthine old town and some of the most impressive brutalist buildings you will ever see.
Even if you are not a history buff and enthralled by the questions of identity and how a small nation managed to crave a place for itself despite claims of all of its neighbours on its territory and history, Macedonia is sure to thrill you. Its many mountains, canyons and lakes offer breath-taking sceneries and adventures . And then there is its lovely food and wines…
Unfortunately, in my two trips I haven’t done justice to all that Macedonia has to offer (most importantly I skipped Kruševo, Veles, and Matka canyon) but I will certainly be going back.
Ohrid’s ancient churches and Icon museum
Skopje’s unique architectural and cultural mix
Marko’s fortress in Prilep
St Naum Monastery
Bitola’s town centre
Mavrovo National park St John Bigorski Monastery
Tetovo’s painted mosque
- Grilled bieno sirene from Bitola
- Simit-pogacha from Skopje’s old town
- Trout and eel from Ohrid
- Tikveš’s excellent and very affordable Vranec