I didn’t know what to expect when I touched down in North Macedonia. I just knew that Lake Ohrid was a stunner and there was a long-running dispute with Greece over use of the name ‘Macedonia’. It’s far from a melting pot of Lonely Planet-carrying or fanny pack-toting tourists, but for me that made it all the more interesting.
What’s it like to travel during times of COVID?
In some ways different, in others entirely the same. While physical distancing, mask-wearing and sanitising were the name of the game in Luton Airport, on the flight there were only two real changes. Firstly mask wearing was compulsory and secondly, you were encouraged to leave your seat as little as possible. Lucky for me, there were just 25 people on my flight to Skopje so we all had plenty of space. At the time, North Macedonia had no restrictions on people arriving from the UK. Just clear immigration and you’re through!
Exploring Lake Ohrid
Zooming straight from the capital, I jumped on a 3 hour bus to the country’s jewel – Lake Ohrid. While this historic town by one of Europe’s oldest lakes might have been the single reason for North Macedonia to be on a tourist itinerary, in September this year, I was probably the only South Asian person during my 5 days there.
A town of centuries-old churches and one of Europe’s oldest lakes
Lake Ohrid was my perfect getaway for many reasons.
- It’s cheap. I ate at several restaurants serving local fare and the bill was £3-5 per meal on average.
- The glittering, pristine lake. Ohrid is as beautiful, enchanting and moody as you see in the photos. It shimmers in the sun, is ominous when it rains and for an islander like me, soothes the soul. It’s easy to rent a bicycle and circumnavigate the whole lake in a day (will involve crossing into and out of Albania). The lake’s waters are also disbelievingly clean. This is in part due to old water being drained by the river and replenished by several underground springs.
- A glimpse into history. Ohrid is an ancient settlement and you see remnants of all layers of the country’s history here. Centuries-old amphitheatres, Byzantine-era churches, the old bazaar, Ottoman-era houses and the fortress on the hill are all part of the town’s fabric. Ohrid was once called the Jerusalem of the Balkans – it had 365 churches; one for each day of the year.
- Views for miles. Whether it’s to read, sip a latte (for less than a £1), walk by the lakeside promenade, or climb to a clifftop church for sunrise, the views won’t disappoint.
St John at Kaneo Church
Look at any postcard of North Macedonia and chances are they’ll feature this 13th century clifftop Orthodox Church. Located on a headland with the lake surrounding it and forests above, it’s possibly the best place to see sunrise. I trudged through cobblestone streets of the Old Town at 5.30am bleary-eyed to sit at the lookout point above the church and see the sky changing colour from night to day. The photo doesn’t do justice to what I saw: but the bottom line – it’s completely worth it. The walk to the church on a boardwalk along the lake is also a treat in itself. If you ever need a place to come and just stare at the lake and breathe – this wins, hands down.
One of the best spots for panoramic views over Lake Ohrid, Tsar Samuil’s fortress is probably Ohrid’s most imposing landmark. With some of the fortress towers and gates still standing, it’s a portal back into the 10th century. A time when Ohrid was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire with Tsar Samuil at the helm. Throughout history the fortress was destroyed and rebuilt several times, and today it bears marks from all historical epochs – when Ohrid was ruled by the Romans, Byzantines, Slavs and Ottomans.
Church of Saints Clement and Panteleimon
Some archaeologists believe this was the place where the first students were taught the forerunner to Cyrillic script. Interestingly, Macedonian is written in Cyrillic rather than Latin script, and is closely related to Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian.
#AdminInfo: Most churches in Ohrid have an entry fee of 100MKD
Venturing across the lake to St Naum Monastery
The best part of visiting a lake is to enjoy the water. Since swimming wasn’t an option given the weather, I excitedly awaited a 2 hour boat trip across the lake to St Naum Monastery. On a clifftop near the Albanian border, the little Orthodox church in the monastery goes back to 905AD. Looking at the stone and frescoes inside, it’s easy to feel transported back in time. Legend has it that if you press your ears to St Naum’s tomb, you’ll hear his heartbeat. While St Naum used his miraculous power to cure people of their spiritual illnesses, I’ve no doubt that the clear spring water of the Crn Drim springs was also equally healing.
After lunch overlooking the lake at either the restaurant near the monastery or the restaurants by the sandy beach at the foot of the monastery (supposedly a great place to swim), I wandered down to see the Crn Drim springs. I’d highly recommend a row boat trip around the magical springs while the sun is still up. It’s one of those rare places where the water is so clear, you can see straight through it.
#AdminInfo: Entry fees to the monastery = 100 MKD/1.6€
One thing I didn’t have time to do?
Sample the wine. Wine making in this region goes back over 3000 years and continued during the times of the Kingdom of Macedon and Roman Empire. Red wine dominates with Vranec (pronounced “vranetz”) being a popular favourite.
North Macedonia’s Cultural Identity
I wrongly assumed most of the country’s inhabitants were Orthodox Christians of Slavic descent. While the majority are indeed so, five centuries of Ottoman rule has left a substantial community of other ethnic groups – particularly Albanians (who make up 25% of the population) and Turks. As a result about a third of the country is actually Muslim.
While at the Mother Teresa Museum, I asked the curator what the dynamic was between the two communities (Albanians and Slavic Macedonians). “There have been historic tensions between the two communities which culminated in the 2001 conflict. Today, it’s mostly on the political stage that tensions continue,” she explained. “On a personal level, friendships are unaffected.”
Balkan-Mediterranean with rich Roman, Greek and Ottoman heritage. North Macedonia’s multi-faceted national identity is a tribute to its varied past. The Byzantine control in medieval times transformed into influence of the First Bulgarian Empire close to the 10th century. Ottoman rule then began at the end of the 14th century for 500 years before being brought to an end by the Balkan Wars (1912-13) resulting in the region of Macedonia being divided among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. After WWI, the Serbian part of Macedonia was assimilated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which then became Yugoslavia). With the collapse of Yugoslavia, Macedonia (a constituent republic), declared its independence in 1991.
Skopje: The country’s kooky capital
A strange mix of architecture
Surprisingly, half the capital feels like a wonderland of pretentious buildings and ornate fountains, punctuated by statues every few metres. Don’t be lulled into thinking all of this is ancient. In fact it’s barely a decade old.
This was a result of the highly controversial Skopje 2014 project financed by the government. Hundreds of millions of euros were spent on giving the capital a more classical appeal by constructing faux-neoclassical buildings. Following the narrative of nation-building and promoting Macedonian identity, the former PM has perhaps justifiably come under considerable criticism for spending €500 million on what can be described quite aptly as a vanity project instead of solving more urgent problems – like the nation’s high unemployment rate (nearly 30% at the time). It does make it an interesting (though perhaps slightly bizarre) place to visit.
#TopTip: For the best view of the city, I’m told you should go to Hotel Arka in the Old Bazaar and grab a coffee at the top floor cafe and sit on the terrace outside and drink up the views (it was sadly shut when I visited)
The influence of the Ottomans
On the other side of the Vardar River is a miniature Istanbul – Skopje Old Bazaar. Going back as far as the 12th century, you see the Ottoman influence all around you in the old marketplace – the maze of narrow stone streets filled with cafes serving plentiful cups of Turkish tea, the call to prayer reverberating from the white marble mosques’ loudspeakers, hammams converted into art spaces, hole-in-the-walls selling baklava by the piece, and barbers offering haircuts for less than £5. Today it’s widely associated with the city’s Albanian population.
Watch out for ‘Opanci’ – or traditional peasant shoes made of leather and lacking laces – in the bazaar
What’s in a name? Republic of Macedonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or North Macedonia?
Ever since gaining independence from Yugoslavia in the early nineties as the Republic of Macedonia, it has struggled over international acceptance of its name. In large part this is because of heated objections from Greece over use of the name ‘Macedonia’. Greeks viewed this as an implicit territorial claim to their northern region bearing the same name. As an EU and NATO member, Greece had veto power at key junctures in North Macedonia’s bid to join both organisations.
After several rounds of difficult negotiations, the Prespa Agreement was signed in June 2018. It was agreed that the country would change its constitutional name to North Macedonia. And with that, Greece lifted its veto to North Macedonia’s accession to NATO & EU. As of March 2020, North Macedonia joined NATO and has started membership talks with the EU.
The decision was met with a significant outcry from the local population. It always strikes me how you can have the most interesting conversations when you least expect it. A taxi driver explained how he (and most people) feel upset and angry about the changing of their country’s name. “It’s like you were born Sasha and suddenly someone decided to call you Tom. How would you feel about that? We’d much rather keep our identity rather than playing politics to join the EU. I’ve spoken to my cousins in Bulgaria and so far they’ve not experienced any real benefit from joining the EU. All I will see is more rules and laws that make life more restrictive. We really enjoy making homemade wine; that will become illegal once we join the EU.” While I felt his frustration about the changing of the country’s name, I couldn’t help but also wonder whether his dislike for the EU was biased by his inability to produce and sell his homemade wine.
Food & Drink
I was determined to find vegetarian local cuisine in North Macedonia. My quest to be vegetarian on my travels started in Ethiopia where I had 13 hour cross-country bus journeys. It somehow was a safer bet when a good working loo wasn’t nearby. Turns out apart from Pitulici (a Macedonian crepe made of water, flour and salt that’s layered with sheep cheese and baked in an oven) which is a bit harder to find, there are 3 veggie staples in most local restaurants:
- Shopska salad. This might become your best friend – a simple salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, heaped with grated sirene cheese.
- Tavce Gravce. Translated by many restaurant owners to me as ‘baked beans’ – it is so much more than that. Butter beans with red peppers and onion mixed with herbs and cooked in a clay pot in an oven has a delicious end result.
- Ajvar. Some people joke that Macedonians eat just ajvar. Truth be told, it’s a pretty appetising thought. There’s an ongoing debate on whether ajvar tastes better with or without aubergine, but in Ohrid it seemed the strong preference was with. It’s made with Macedonia’s famous red peppers, aubergine, and garlic typically roasted over a wood fire before being made into a paste. Best eaten with roasted bread and cheese, it’s definitely a meal in itself and one I had multiple times during my stay.
Life in my world isn’t complete without pudding, and so I went in search of Sutlijas, the local answer to rice pudding. Sitting outside on a street in the Old Bazaar gobbling a portion at the Mado Prom Sweet Shop, I realised how similar in taste and consistency it was to custard. It was while researching this Balkan treat with a friend that I learned how rice pudding features in many cuisines universally – whether that’s Kheer in India, Arroz con leche in Cuba or Rizogalo in Greece.
I travel on a budget and was pleasantly surprised by what good value restaurants in Ohrid were. Whether it was eating at Via Sacra by St Sophia’s Church (a clear favourite of my Airbnb host), having pizza in Cosa Nostra in the Old Town or going to the cheaper Ottoman quarter in the Ohrid Bazaar (where the streets are lined with Macedonian marble) to have more traditional fare, I ended up paying around £3.50-5.00 per meal. My best value meal was at Vkusno Salim Usta where I paid £3.40 for a Tavce Gravce, ajvar, fresh bread and tea. And since I can’t resist a sweet treat, I ended up visiting Antep Baklava almost every night for some pistachio baklava (1 piece = £0.40).