This week’s dream: Exploring forgotten Macedonia
Macedonia is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets, said Margo Pfeiff in the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-five years after it gained independence from Yugoslavia, the landlocked Balkan state remains a developing nation, its roads still plied by Soviet-era cars. But it’s a safe, inexpensive place to visit, and “best of all,” with tourism in its infancy, the country is still “charmingly unpretentious and warmly welcoming.” Earlier this year, I spent a week in this Vermont-size nation, hiking, kayaking, and biking across its “wildly mountainous” landscape. The journey afforded me a chance along the way to peer inside Macedonia’s “exotic melting pot” of Eastern and Western cultures.
The capital city, Skopje, proved to be “a fascinating jumble of cultural experiences.” Because a long history of invasions and occupations has littered the 2,500-year-old city with Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Yugoslav architecture, “it was easy to stroll through the centuries.” A new complex of government-backed neoclassical buildings is remaking a section of the city in faux grandeur, but on the outskirts of town, I found real history in a 2nd-century Roman ruin that stands in a field of red poppies. Later, after scaling Skopje Fortress’s 6thcentury walls, I browsed the Old Bazaar— instantly my favorite neighborhood. Lured on by the aromas of kebabs and sautéed leeks, I wandered happily past carpet shops and teahouses where locals had gathered to chat.
Later, joining a Macedonia Experience group tour, I hiked into nearby Matka Canyon. We stopped at an exquisite monastery filled with frescoes before venturing into Vrelo, one of the canyon’s 10 caves. In Ohrid, a small lakeside city that’s one of Europe’s oldest settlements, I poked around the maze-like Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, I came upon a Roman amphitheater that now features summer concerts instead of gladiator fights. When the sun set, I walked to Ohrid Lake, where purple jacaranda trees line the turquoise shore. At a family restaurant built out over the lake, I savored a dinner of grilled trout as the water “splashed gently beneath the planks under my feet” and music drifted from another café. “No crowds, no pressure to leave— Europe just doesn’t get any better than this.”At Skopje’s Hotel Duvet (duvet.mk), doubles start at $115.