“Why would I choose Macedonia over nearby Greece or Albania, both of which are much easier to get to?”
That was the challenge laid down by one reader when he commented on our blog post last week. So we accept the challenge. Why go to Macedonia?
What’s in a name?
Similar in size to Massachusetts and Wales, Macedonia is a country in the southern Balkans that would dearly like to cut a dash on the international tourist circuit. So far, so good… or perhaps not.
US readers may remember those full page ads in the New York Times a few years ago where the Athens government protested that its northern neighbor used the name Macedonia. So to pacify those ruffled Hellenic feathers, the international community dubs the country (at least when Greeks are in earshot) the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or “FYROM” for short).
Cut through the politics surrounding the name, and the Republic of Macedonia is keen to welcome visitors.
But why Macedonia rather than Greece or Albania? If you are a dedicated culture-vulture, Macedonia arguably packs more into a small space than any of its neighbors. It is the juxtaposition of a rich Orthodox Christian tradition with a lively Islamic heritage that underpins Macedonia’s appeal.
Then there are other inviting aspects of local culture, such as the Torbeshi and Vlach communities in the hills, and Europe’s largest Roma settlement at Suto Orizari, and dedicated followers of European minorities can enjoy a Macedonian feast. Suto Orizari, for example, could be a good magnet for culturally sensitive travelers.
Throw in great fresh salads, superb wines (especially the hefty reds) and you have many key ingredients to make the Republic of Macedonia a first-class destination.
True, you’ll find that same engaging cultural combination, particularly the mixed Christian and Islamic heritage, in Albania (though certainly not in Greece). But Macedonia captures that religious variety better than Albania.
The sheer density of fine Byzantine art and architecture in Macedonia is dazzling. Sveta Sofia church in Ohrid (pictured, above right) boasts subtle frescoes that give a beautiful tutorial in 11th-century ecclesiastical politics, when the Great Schism divided the Christian Church into its two principal branches, viz. Latin (or Western) and Greek (or Eastern).
The monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski (St. John the Baptist) has a world-class carved iconostasis. And whether it be in the crumbling monastery at Treskavec (so desperately in need of renovation) or at the tiny church perched on the cliffs by Lake Ohrid at Kaneo, Macedonia offers rich insights into the Orthodox tradition.
A rich Islamic tradition
Yet frescoes and icons, no matter how splendid, may not induce you to travel to the Republic of Macedonia. For us, the country’s huge appeal lies in other pilgrim trails which meld Byzantine glory with other aspects of culture. One day, the Macedonian government will wake up to the reality that the country’s mosques and Muslim culture may be a trump card.
Visitors to Macedonia who take the trouble to visit the country’s Islamic communities will begin to appreciate the various strands of Muslim belief in the country. This is a chance to see something of the Bektashi community, a relatively small sect often regarded as part of the Sufi tradition, which has a number of tekkes or lodges across the country.
The city of Tetovo is a good starting point, where you can see a very fine mosque (pictured, left) and a Bektashi tekke. Curiously, the Bektashis blend elements of Christian religious practice into their own faith, such as venerating the tombs of the dead. There are even examples of shared shrines in Macedonia where Christians and Bektashi converge on the same sacred spaces (though not, perhaps, always for the same reasons).
How to get there
The main airport at Skopje (named after Alexander the Great in a move that does nothing to appease neighboring Greeks who also assert ownership over Alex) has regular flights from Zürich, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Ljubljana and Belgrade. Wizz Air launches four times weekly connections from London on June 19.
The country’s second airport at Lake Ohrid reopened this week after a period closed for refurbishment. This spring and summer, Ohrid will benefit from direct flights from Ljubljana (Adria), Belgrade (JAT) and Amsterdam (ArkeFly).
The Bradt Guide to Macedonia
There are excellent train connections, with this summer’s schedules showing direct trains to Skopje from eight other countries. However and whenever you visit, take along Thammy Evans’ Bradt Guide to Macedonia. Her handling of the cultural complexity of the country is superb.