Why Travel to Macedonia? The Macedonian Question

Posted in: Macedonia

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Ohrid, Macedonia
The main shopping street in Ohrid, Macedonia. Photos ©hidden europe

“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).

Ohrid, Macedonia

Sveta Sofia church in Ohrid

Cut through the politics surrounding the name, and the Republic of Macedonia is keen to welcome visitors.

Macedonian variety

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.

Byzantine style

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.

Tetovo, Macedonia

The painted mosque in Tetovo

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.

Bektashi beliefs

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.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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5 thoughts on “Why Travel to Macedonia? The Macedonian Question”

  1. Well,I stayed in Macedonia for 3 years and all I can say it is a great and amazing
    place to visit. Friendly people,really delicious food and very tasty wines!
    The enviroment is tremendous as well! You will love it if you are not snobbish.

    Reply
  2. Great to hear that you are bound for Macedonia. You’ll find it hugely interesting. Bus services are the best option for travel between main centres. Trains are limited, but there are useful rail links from Skopje to Prilerp, Bitola, Kocani and Kicevo. For Tetovo, although there are thrice-daily trains from Skopje, bus is the best option. Prices for journeys by train and bus are very cheap. Unless we totally missed it, we don’t think there is a bus from Skopje Airport into the capital. Bizarre! So you’d need to take a taxi for that short hop.

    Food is excellent and really great value. Superb salads which cost next-to-nothing (often eaten as a starter by Macedonians, but really a meal in itself). Hotels are patchy and we found prices surprisingly high, particularly where the hotels had given themselves star ratings which they really did not deserve. Too many hotels charging €70 to €80 for a room that in other Balkan countries (or for matter also in Poland, Slovakia or even more rural parts of Germany) might cost only €40 to €50.

    Plenty of pensions (private rooms), some of which can be superb value. One on the shores of Lake Ohrid that elicit great reports from folk we met offered lakeview rooms for just €15.

    No doubt as independent travellers start to arrive, the hotels will sharpen up their act and use dynamic pricing to attract discerning travellers. At the moment, lots and lots of hotel rooms that just remain empty for most of the year.

    Reply
  3. Brilliant, a few friends and I are convinced. We’re heading to Skopje in July on a direct flight from London Luton. We want to travel independently, just to get the feel of the place. Can anyone advise about train services? And any thoughts on hotel prices and meals? Guess we’d be looking for mid-range pensions / hotels and ditto for restaurants.

    Reply
  4. many questions, one macdonia

    We found this article by chance, and it pleases us greatly. Our country does not feature so often in the media, and it is good to see such a nice review. Yes, there are many questions we Macedonians must answer as we try to attract visitors. We are less 100% Orthodox than sometimes we pretend. And we are, as the article says, quite varied with many Muslims. Many questions, true, about our cultures, our tolerance (or not) but only one Macedonia.

    Reply
  5. Timeless Drifter

    Question answered! In addition, any place not attractive to mobs of tourists carries its own appeal. But, maybe that’s just me.

    Reply

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