Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
It’s a beautiful spring morning and I’m standing next to a tremendous fountain that holds a statue of Alexander the Great. He towers above me on a rearing horse, sword raised, while dozens of jets of crystal-clear water shoot like fireworks into the sky above.
The fountain stands in the center of a main square lined with cherry blossom trees. Young couples sit with coffees and shopping bags on benches and a stone bridge stretches over a glistening river towards a colossal government building, so immaculately white I have to squint to look at it. The scene is breathtakingly beautiful and one that could easily belong in Barcelona, Paris or Rome. I am, however, standing in the middle of a city that just two months ago I’d never even heard of.
I’m standing in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of North Macedonia, a tiny landlocked country north of Greece that shares borders with Albania, Bulgaria and Kosovo. Part of the former Yugoslavia, the country’s history is steeped in political unrest. In fact, the country is still resolving disputes with two of its four neighbors — Albania and Greece — but for now, the fighting has ended and in its place, an intriguing and culturally rich republic has arisen.
I spent some time exploring the country, chatting with locals and soaking up the culture. Here’s why Macedonia should be on your travel list for 2019.
Skopje’s Nightlife Is Poppin’
Macedonia may be slightly shaken from its turbulent history, but that doesn’t mean the youngsters don’t know how to party. I was struck by the charged atmosphere on a Friday night in Skopje. Many young people live in Debar Maalo, an area a short walk from the city center. Here the streets are lined with palm trees and the neon-signed, low-rise bars are full of locals keen to welcome the weekend.
Bobby is a 27-year-old 3D artist. Born and raised in Skopje, he’s seen his country change drastically over the last 10 years, including the party culture. “Nightlife here is the best. The clubs are open from 9 p.m. to 5 or 6 a.m. The clubs are small but they’re always jam-packed with people. It’s like New Year’s Eve every weekend.”
Bobby recommends heading to Epicenter, Minus 1 and Sector 909 for your big night out in Skopje.
Accommodation Is Unbelievably Cheap
While in Skopje I stayed in a private room in an Airbnb. It had a balcony, an en-suite and an infinite supply of cake. The apartment belonged to a Macedonian lady named Rosa. It had been her birthday the previous day, so when I arrived a slice of beautifully succulent orange cake was laid out with cherry blossoms flowers on my balcony table.
During my travel in Macedonia, I stayed with Rosa for three days and each time I returned to my room, a new slice of orange cake was laid out on the table. “If you need anything, anytime, you just let me know,” Rosa repeatedly told me. And all this was for just €8 a night.
The Surrounding Nature Is Breathtaking
Macedonia may be landlocked, but it still has a surprising number of watering holes to cool down in. One of the country’s best-known attractions is Lake Ohrid. The expansive lake is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest, and it hosts one of the most diverse ecosystems of fish in the world. The UNESCO-protected site is home to the pink-fleshed Ohrid trout which, although once endangered, has now repopulated with such gusto that you can now enjoy one for lunch completely guilt-free.
One of the upsides to a country being so tiny is that you can cover a lot of ground in only one day. I took a tour to Matka Valley, a canyon just outside the capital. The water here isn’t blue — it’s turquoise. We caught a boat along the canyon, surrounded by lush greenery and jagged peaks, to one of the largest underground caves in Europe.
After Matka Valley, we stopped to check out the Byzantine art at St. Pantlejmon Church and drove on to Vodno Mountain to catch a cable car to the Millennium Cross. The 360-degree panoramic view of Macedonia was one of the most breathtaking displays I’ve seen. All of this was for just €22.
The People Have Hearts Of Gold
“The people are the best part about Macedonia,” Bobby says. “The people here are very warm and positive. We’re a very small country, some people don’t have much, but they’re still kind and generous. It’s our culture.”
He’s right. Just like Rosa and her endless supply of orange cake, locals welcomed me to the country by offering whatever they had on them at the time; usually raki, which Macedonians seem to have in constant supply.
Raki is a home-brewed aniseed spirit that is illegal in many countries due to its DIY (unregulated) nature. Nevertheless, it’s consumed by the bucketload in the Balkans. One day when driving through a national park we came across a bridal party in the middle of the road. The proud father of the bride signaled for us to stop. Beaming, he passed a bottle of raki through the car window and refused to get out of the way until all of us had done a shot.
Macedonian Food Will Fill You With Joy
The food is really good in Macedonia and, like everything else, is an extremely good value. Novica is a 20-year-old electronic engineering student from Macedonia. He tells me, “Anyone who goes to Macedonia needs to try Ajvar. It’s our traditional dish made of minced peppers and eggplant. It’s delicious.”
Many of Macedonia’s cities have beautiful Old Towns with tons of family-owned restaurants. Because of its distance from Western Europe, the market isn’t saturated by high street chains so you’ll have no trouble finding local cuisine.
I had a gorgeous meal in a traditional Macedonian restaurant one Saturday evening. The food is the kind that warms you from the inside out. Casseroles served in thick orange crockery, potatoes boiled and then baked for ultimate crunch, tasty herbed sausages, moussaka and mixed vegetables and local Skopjan wine — all for about €5 per person.
Like any country recovering from conflict, Macedonia is still a little rough around the edges — but that’s all part of the charm. Some of the buildings are in varying levels of disrepair and I did come across quite a few (very friendly) stray dogs. That said, the transformation the country has undergone in the last 10 years is incredible. It has a lot to offer visitors — just make sure you get there before the rest of the world finds out about it.