North Macedonia (Macedonia until February 2019) and officially the Republic of North Macedonia, gained independence in 1991. It was previously a constituent state of Yugoslavia. The majority of the residents are ethnic Macedonians, a South Slavic people, but Albanians form a significant minority, at around 25%. It’s described as an ‘upper middle income’ country.
North Macedonia is a landlocked country with mostly rugged terrain, framing a central valley formed by the Vardar river. The mountains are said to be scenic (this is promising) and there are three large lakes on the southern borders, bisected by the frontiers with Albania and Greece.
The region has had a turbulent history, having been ruled by the Paeonians, the Macedons, the Persian Achaemenid Empire. the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Serbs and the Bulgarians before being established as a constituent state of communist Yugoslavia in 1945; so the historical sites are likely to be diverse.
North Macedonia, however, is perhaps most well known for arguments about its name. Ancient Macedonia included what is now Greek Macedonia and the Blagoevgrad Province in southwestern Bulgaria. However, the name disappeared over the years and was revived only in the mid nineteenth century, with the rise of nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. There was much dispute, about both name and territory over subsequent years. Eventually, in 2018 (after my visit), Greece finally agreed that the state could be known as North Macedonia. (See below.)
Demir Kapija - North Macedonia Wine Country
We’re running late from Nis and Serbia. We were supposed to visit the even older, Hellenic ruins of Stobi, as well as the ruins of Mediana, but it isn’t to be. The traffic is slow, due to a proliferation of roadworks (mostly sponsored by the EU) even though we take an unscheduled diversion into Kosovo to avoid them.
Demir Kapija is famous for the long ravine, carved by the Vardar, some caves, and wine. The mountains in North Macedonia definitely count as scenic, and our hotel is nestled in a large vineyard at Demir Kapija. There is a very noisy, very touristy wine tasting dinner – and local dancing with audience participation – oh good.
Stobi and its amazingly preserved mosaics has to wait till the next day. It was an ancient town of Paeonia, later conquered by Macedon, and finally developed into the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia Salutaris. So several empires have left their mark - and it's a huge site to wander.
The main draw at Stobi, other than the mosaics, is a massive Roman amphitheatre, large enough to seat an audience of 7638 people (yes it’s an odd number, but that’s what they say), watching the gladiators face the lions. Much of the marble seating has been purloined. There are several basilicas, Little and Big Baths, vestiges of streets, plenty of houses, including the House of Psalms and the main town fountain.
Our itinerary says that our drive to Bitola will provide views of ‘extraordinary, wild and unique beauty’ in Mt. Galicica National Park, and across to Lake Prespa. I will have to take their word for it, as it’s too misty and rainy to see anything. Bitola is a good place to stop. It's another ancient city. It has a fine church with an imposing tower and several mosques, of course, and a mainly open air bazaar.
Our outdoor restaurant lunch is a great place to sample local delicacies. Ice cream is as much of a highlight in Macedonia as it was in Serbia. But here it’s fried in batter and breadcrumbs, as indeed is much of the food, including the olives. It’s quite good fun trying to guess what you’re going to bite into.
Ohrid, North Macedonia
Ohrid is sunny and beautifully restored and not like its name at all. It is the cradle of the Slavic written language and literature, where the Cyrillic alphabet was created by the brothers Cyril and Methody. The epitome of continental holidays, there are cafes and restaurants, boat rides on the lake, a vibrant market, lots of ice cream, more ruins - and churches. Ohrid is known as the 'City of 365 Churches'. Most are beautiful. From the obligatory fortress you get great views across the town and lake and down to the iconic ninth century St. Panteleimon Monastery and the tiny Jovan Kaneo Chapel. These demand to be photographed from every angle (and the water). Lake Ohrid is considered to be one of the oldest lakes and biotopes in the world.
Our little boutique hotel is foot access only, mainly because it’s up a very steep hill. The road is littered with shops. The most interesting bookshop is filled with propaganda about Macedonia’s ongoing tussle with Greece. Greece refuses to allow use of the name Macedonia and therefore UN recognition of the country, on the grounds that it’s Greek and at least in part, a Greek territory. The pamphlets make a very compelling case for the fact that it isn’t and that Greece as a name and, as a state, is a very recent construct. Fascinating reading.
Mavrovo National Park
Through the National Park of Mavrovo, the largest of the Country’s three national parks. It has mountains, deep canyons, lakes, dense forests, the highest waterfall in the Balkans (with a vertical fall of approximately 120 metres), alpine bogs and karst scenery with caves. (We can actually see some of the scenery today.) There's also another monastery to visit. The Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery, in the Radika river valley, has some amazing bright frecoes.
To Skopje, the capital city of North Macedonia. The territory of Skopje has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC. Today, there is an old Turkish town, with bazaar and bridge to wander. But the talking point is the dramatic facelift being applied to the modern quarter. Somewhat surprisingly, this part of Skopje is very reminiscent of Vegas. There are grand marble buildings, huge museums and ornate bridges over the Vardar, and statues illuminated in bright colours abound. There are also bars that sell respectable cocktails. I love it.
Next stop, Kosovo.