Macedonia: View From the Mat

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Now, you may be thinking to yourself, where the heck is Macedonia and why would I want to go there?  Both interesting questions that I am excited to answer for you. I headed to Macedonia as a side trip from Turkey and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip!


To anyone over the age of twenty, Macedonia (mas-i-DOH-nee-ə), was previously known as a state within Yugoslavia from which it declared independence in 1991.  Now, officially the Republic of Macedonia it is a country located in the central Balkan peninsula in Southeast Europe just north of Greece, east of Bulgaria and south of Serbia. Due to a dispute with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" became a member of the United Nations in 1993.


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Given this interesting history and geographical location, Macedonia is not surprisingly a blend between ancient Greek culture and the more modern influence of socialism in Eastern Europe.  Think Alexander the Great in Eastern Europe during World War II - ugly communist style architecture and ancient greek ruins? I know, I know,… this is a place I should go?  Well, in my opinion, Macedonia is a hidden gem of Eastern Europe and has earned its well-deserved title of “living museum."  A country full of national parks, ancient ruins and hones and generous people from cab drivers to young adults on the streets who want to tell you about their country, Macedonia is a must-visit to anyone who likes to explore.


The capital of Macedonia is Skopje, an eclectic and fun city that feels like the smallest-big city in Europe.  It is easiest to start your explorations of Macedonia here, arriving by plane at the fairly new and modern Alexander the Great Airport via direct flights from Istanbul, Vienna, Zurich or Rome.  Travelers from the US and most of Europe are not required to have an entry visa and will move through immigration quickly.  At the time of my visit, Macedonia was not part of the European Union although they were an “official candidate.”  Regardless, it was one of easiest immigrations processes I have ever encountered!


Credit cards are widely accepted throughout Macedonia.  However, it is still helpful to use cash whenever possible, especially for taxis, buses and restaurants.  Avoid exchanges at the airport and head into town.  ATM are readily available, especially within the city centers.  Since they are not part of the EU, Macedonia has its own currency.  One dollar is about 57 Denar.  But even so, Macedonia is easy on your pocketbook.  The average restaurant meal in Macedonia for two people only costed us about $1000 Denar or about $18.


The hotel situation in Macedonia is still pretty under-developed.  But that hasn’t slowed the impact of the internet and freedom on hospitality.  We decided to test out AirBnB and more traditional B&Bs on out two visits through Skopje.  The locals are incredibly proud of their country and we were well received at our AirBnB apartment (of which there were many choices throughout the city!).  At first a bit frightened by the communist architecture (think tall gray box), we were surprised by the beautiful view of the city.  This was the view from my yoga mat each morning we spent in Skopje:

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From My Mat: Skopje

Skopje


Skopje has plenty to explore and it appears that the government may have gone on a building spree maybe to attract the tourists that have yet to come?  New government museums tower over the riverside areas downtown. But one museum is reserved for Skopjes most famous and revered past residents, The Memorial House of Mother Teresa.  On the other side of the river heading into the old quarter, you will find the newly constructed (supposedly opening later this year) Archaeology Museum, the Museum of Macedonia (fascinating, yet empty when we visited!), and the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of Macedonia.  The size and scope of each of these museums was amazing given the lack of visitors!  In most cases, we were the only ones visiting and the lights were turned on especially for us!  What a treat!


The locals were amazingly friendly and proud of their country.  We decided to look for a bit of nature and after asking around we were directed to hiking trails and a beautiful canyon just outside of the city.  Hopping in a cab, we made our way to Canyon Matke, a natural area of around 5.000ha located 15km south-west of Skopje. Walking along a beautiful trail carved into the canyon walls along the Treska River, we visited the adjacent St. Andrew's Monastery and took a boat to explore a nearby cave.


A View From the Mat wouldnt be complete without some insight into the yoga culture of the country.  Knowing that yoga is quite popular in Hungary and Poland, I was curious to see if it had made its way a bit further east.  Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any yoga classes during my visit.  However, I did find out that yoga has an interesting history in Macedonia that is quite intertwined with modern medicine.  In fact, yoga instructors are trained as medical consultants and have been working in Macedonia since before independence and as early as the 1980s.  I expect that yoga classes will become more common in the near future.


Wine Country

Knowing that we wanted to explore as much of this tiny country as possible, we decided to rent a car.  Not something I would normally do in Eastern Europe… but given the lack of trains and the public transportation, we decided to give it a go.  We were so excited to find that not only was the GPS detailed and accurate, but the roads and signage were better than any we had seen in Eastern Europe and gas stations were easy to locate.  And, without a car, we would have missed many gems along the way!  For example, when traveling from Demir Kapija in "wine country” back up to Skopje, we stumbled across ruins right next to the highway.   In Kratovo, we wandered through Roman-era coliseums, even-older Jewish temples and more modern Turkish ruins as grand as anything you may see in Greece, Turkey or Italy.  Although we were the only visitors on this beautiful day, the tour guide manning the site explained to us that the current archeological research has proved that all the pass periods have left their traces in this area: the Paeonian, Ancient Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, the period of Samuil the Turkish as well as the early Christian period.  Just one of the many jewels that we found scattered all over this country.


Greek

Getting the rental car was an easy process as there are many (including Western favorites like Hertz and Avis) rental car agencies at the airport.  Armed with our GPS and a detailed map we picked up at a bookstore in Skopje, we headed south and west towards Ohrid, an ancient lakeside village and popular Macedonian vacation destination.  Majestic Ohrid is absolutely Macedonia's prime destination, with its atmospheric old quarter (including an ancient Greek theater being set up to use for the annual music festival!) with beautiful churches along a graceful hill, topped by a medieval castle overlooking serene, 34km-long Lake Ohrid. Nearby is Galičica National Park (one of the best kept national park secrets in Europe), secluded beaches and the tranquil monastery of Saint Naum with its beautiful peacocks.  Again, AirBnB didn’t fail us as we navigated the cobblestoned streets of the old-city to find our accommodations on a hill overlooking Lake Ohrid, 300m deep and three million years old and shared by Macedonia (two-thirds) and Albania (one-third).

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From My Mat: Ohrid

From Ohrid, we headed east and north, exploring along the way and spending one night in wine country.  Then, on our second visit to Skopje, the night before we departed from Macedonia, we decided to check out the more traditional B&B scene.  We found a lovely guest house located on the hills just on the outskirts of town called Villa Vodno.  A lovely, family-run “boutique hotel,” Villa Vodno is a quiet place to get away from the more noisy downtown area while still having quick access to the surrounding hills and hiking trails.  We ventured out on a quick hike our last evening before heading to the airport early the next morning.  


Macedonia is a small country and can be full explored in seven to ten days.  It reminds me of certain areas of Greece or Turkey that have not yet been overrun by tour busses or guided trips.  It truly is a “living museum” and if you keep your eyes open, there are ancient wonders around every corner!

 © CommonFate 2015