Exploring forgotten Macedonia
Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Macedonia.
Macedonia is one of Europe's best-kept secrets, said Margo Pfeiff at 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' 6th-century 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."