Zdravo and greetings from North Macedonia! 💜
This past week I explored the capital city of Skopje and the lakeside retreat of Ohrid in North Macedonia. The temps were over 100 degrees Fahrenheit on most days, and I literally felt like I was melting. 😂🔥
In all seriousness though, aside from the actual heat, Macedonia is a country that is constantly in a heated debate with its neighbors.🔥 And since Macedonia is opposed to violence, and prides itself on the fact that it was the only country to separate from Yugoslavia without shedding a single drop of blood, Macedonians have been making a lot of changes to appease everyone else around them. ☮️ The largest change being the country’s name. When they first separated from Yugoslavia back in 1991, they called themselves Macedonia. This upset Greece though, considering this name sounded like their ancient kingdom of Macedon. As such, they became “North Macedonia” in the hope of distinguishing themselves as different. And although there is no “South Macedonia”, it is implied that the southern half is occupied by Greece.
I did notice a lot of Greek influence in the architecture and cuisine in North Macedonia as well.
That’s not the only heated debate either.🔥 Macedonia also has a giant statue of Alexander the Great in their capital, whom they claim is Macedonian, yet Greece claims is Greek. Yikes! 😬
They even a heated dispute over their flag. 🔥The flag originally had a Vergina Sun symbol, which was seen by the Greeks as their national solar sign, so the Macedonians replaced it with eight rays of red and yellow to represent their own sun.🌞
Heck, even their Slavic language is currently under debate by both the Bulgarians and the Greeks for its existence and distinctiveness. So many heated disputes!🔥
Anyway, despite these massive changes to their identity, including country name, flag, and local icons, Macedonians remain incredibly proud of their nation and its culture, history, and traditions. 🇲🇰
In addition to things like traditional folk music and dress, Macedonia has many remnants of ancient civilizations. They have a fortress dating back to the VI millennium BC and their historic lakeside city of Ohrid has been nicknamed the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.”
Now, because the area has also been conquered by so many civilizations, you’ll notice an eclectic influence in the architecture, religion, and cuisine. For example, the Ottoman Turks ruled this region for over 400 years, and you can find lots of Turkish cuisine in their restaurants, like simit, burek, and kebab.
My favorite burek shop was this little hole in the wall in Skopje, where one slice costs around 80 cents. Your options are ground meat or cheese. Both are delicious as a breakfast, lunch, or midnight snack. Yum!
Here is the mosque in Skopje with the Millennium Cross in the background. It’s one of the top 5 largest crosses in the world!
Speaking of religion, Mother Theresa was born in Skopje and is an icon of Macedonia. There is church here in her name with four mounds representing the four times she returned to the country to visit.⛪
You can also find her statue in the city center and a plaque at the place where she was born. 🛐
Now, speaking of statues, Skopje has the largest number of monuments that I’ve ever seen! 😮
And because there is such an mishmosh of monuments, with both famous national figures and many nonsensical unrelated sculptures as well, Skopje has been aptly nicknamed, “The Capital of Kitsch.”
Why so many monuments? In 1963, Macedonia suffered a catastrophic earthquake, which destroyed over 80% of their buildings. As a way to memorialize the event, the clock at the national museum is forever stuck on the time when the earthquake hit- 5:17 a.m.
This investment was very controversial and caused a seriously heated debate. 🔥 Instead of being grateful for these monuments, the citizens were livid. After having their homes destroyed, and barely making enough money to survive, the last thing they wanted was a bunch of statues. The Macedonians showed their obvious disgust by throwing paint on many of the sculptures. Anyway, I can only hope that this investment has long-term gains for tourism and economic development. 🤞
Personally, despite the obvious misuse of government funds, I was captivated as I walked through Skopje- especially at night. At this time, the whole city center was buzzing with locals and foreigners enjoying the cooler temps after the blazing heat of the day. 🔥
One of the only touristy things I did here was go on a free walking tour. My walking tour guide was so quiet during the tour that I couldn’t hear anything he was saying, which was a shame. The best thing to come out of the tour was a sample of burek.
I did hear him say that one of the monuments in Skopje was originally naked, but the community made the artist put underpants on him. The artist was not happy with this, so he put a shouting face on the undies. 😂
I also heard him describe Skopje’s incredibly unique elevator store. You can customize the lifts with different colors, themes, and music! 🎹
Other than that, I barely caught a word of what he said, and spent most of my time watching the hilarious street dogs following us. One kept barking at bikers and digging up plants in the park. Hah! 😂 The city does make sure these dogs get their vaccines and sterilization, and marks them with an ear tag.🐕
Here was another dog swimming in the fountain! With these hot temps…I was tempted to join him! 😂
Dining out is so cheap here. We went to this lounge called Kantina where I had mushroom risotto, and they had chicken tenders and burritos. Each entree cost less than 3 USD!
These two were on a long-term trip around the world, but they were hanging out in a Skopje for a while, since they lost their credit card during their travels, and they were having a new one shipped to them. They spent their days here hanging out in the city and at the local gym.🏋️
Accommodation: While in Skopje, I stayed at Hostel Mickitos and The Yard. Both had clean facilities, a large common area, and air conditioning. I arrived on a public holiday when everything was closed, but luckily one of the neighbors in the community used their cell phone to call the hostel owner to come down and get me. 📱
To get to Skopje, I took a bus from Ohrid, which took about three hours and cost about 7 USD.
The bus station in Skopje was near the old post office, which had some interesting Brutalist architecture.
Now, as a great way to beat the heat, I’d suggest heading to the lakeside town of Ohrid. 🔥
As the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the country, it is one of the only places in the world that is renowned for both its historical and natural beauty.
Now, one of the heated disputes in Ohrid is what to do about the influx of tourists during the summers.
I mean, it’s no surprise why tourists are flocking here. Flights, accommodation and food are all incredibly cheap compared to Western Europe, and Ohrid’s gorgeous historical city and endless lake access makes it ideal for a summer beach escape. 🏖️
Environmentalists are worried though, that increased tourism is slowly destroying the area’s natural resources. For example, the government plans to drain marshland in the future to make way for a new marina and luxury accommodation.
I guess it’s something that I only discovered AFTER visiting. That being said, UNESCO warned that if the damage continues, it might put Ohrid on an “in-danger” list, which could limit the number of visitors to the area.
What to Do in Ohrid:
Now, the must-do in Ohrid is to wander the historical city center, which is filled with Ottoman architecture, Orthodox churches, tourist shops, an open-air theater, and Samuel’s Fortress, which was the capital of the first Bulgarian Empire. 😍
Highlights for me included the Robevi House, which is a museum showcasing beautiful 19th century woodwork and lots of ancient artifacts, and this handmade paper shop, where they use a Gutenberg Press to create lots of unique prints with folk art and Cyrillic writing as souvenirs.
On one afternoon, I strolled down by the water and enjoyed some fresh seafood. After a late lunch, I watched as the sun slowly set above the church of St. John the Theologian.
For optional recommended activities, I met a girl from D.C. who decided to do some paragliding over the lake.
I had already done that before in Mexico, so while she was there, I decided to hang out at Cuba Libre Beach Bar for coffee and music, while these old Macedonian ladies who chatted with me about their family in Michigan. So cute!
Aside from the fresh local seafood, one of top recommendations for cheap eats is Dr. Falafel. Apparently, it was a secret recipe given to a local by an Israeli visitor. I found it authentic and delicious!😋
I enjoyed it with this family I had met when I was in Albania a few weeks back. While we were eating, they told me how they went to drop off their rental car in Tirana and somebody tried to get into their vehicle with a crowbar! Apparently, they called the rental company and asked about informing the police, but the company said no. They soon found out that almost every rental car in Albania is stolen from somewhere in Europe, so they can’t report it or it’ll get confiscated. Crazy! 😮
Anyway, as another alternative activity, the mom told me about this boat tour she went on for 10 Euros. They visited St. Naum Monastery and the Museum on Water, which showcases how life was like for the villagers centuries ago. 😊
Accommodation: While in Ohrid, I stayed at Point Hostel, Sunny Lakes Hostel, and Old Town Hostel. My favorite of the three was definitely Point Hostel. They were clean and modern, and they had plenty of common space. Although Old Town Hostel had new dorm rooms, they had nowhere to cook and eat meals. As well, Sunny Lakes was quite dirty and more of a party place.
Getting there: To get to Ohrid, I took a bus from Elbasan in Albania. The bus was 15 Euros, but it drove directly to Ohrid. Many buses drop off in Struga, and you have to pay for a taxi, so be sure to double-check your final destination.
Money: Macedonia has its own currency called the Denar. I loved the 10 notes, which were decorated with a colorful peacock.
I also think I’ve become an expert at using every last bit of foreign money when leaving a country. 😂 I stopped at the grocery store to pick up snacks for the bus ride and only had a few pennies left over. Score!