Fragmented into tiny nation states, the Balkan Peninsula is home to some of the most captivating Slavic countries. Once part of the mighty Yugoslav federation, these are now independent states, unique in so many ways. At the center of the region you’ll find Macedonia – the home of two million people, breathtaking nature, and rich cultural heritage.
Bathing in sunshine, the Macedonian landscape welcomes travelers from all around the globe. The prices are ridiculously affordable, and there is a garden variety of places to visit and things to enjoy.
The focal point, though, is the perfect blend of the natural and spiritual – an archetype so prevalent, that it repeats continually across the entire region. You’ll find rustic monasteries hidden within scenic mountain terrain, in the most unlikely places.
The capital city of Skopje has a rich cultural menu to offer as well, but most of the heritage is to be found along the Macedonian countryside adventure. Allow me, therefore, to lead the road and show you a number of magnificent places.
Culture in Skopje
As an important geographical landmark, Skopje has always been the center of this region. Territorial conquest, therefore, brought one cultural influence after another. This resulted with diversity, which is now the heritage of this proud city.
The strongest influence, by and large, was the Ottoman rule. The Turks controlled this land for five centuries, bringing with them many customs, religion, clothes, and part of the oriental cuisine.
The Old Bazar, now a living testament to the past, offers recollections of this era. With artisan workshops, small traditional restaurants, and more jewelry shops that you can count, it takes you back a couple of centuries.
Towering above, is the magnificent Kale Fortress. Once a well-guarded prison, it is now a tourist attraction.
The Turks have left a lot of significant buildings, such as mosques and public baths, all now a living testament to the past. There is also a theory that the stunningly preserved aqueduct originates from the Ottoman era, though some claim it is the work of Romans.
Nevertheless, it is a site worth visiting. With over 50 arches still remaining, it stretches for nearly 300 meters in the middle of nowhere.
Moving on, the city of Skopje, though less famous for its religious heritage, has a number of monasteries located on the periphery. Make sure to visit the monasteries around canyon Matka, where the blend between nature and spirituality is so strong that you will enjoy the sense of serenity and calm.
The canyon is a wonderful location for kayaking and sightseeing, so outdoor aficionados would love it as well.
The wine making tradition has been part of this culture for many centuries back. Resembling the Old Italian vineyard, the Macedonian wine facilities are a sight to behold.
Hidden deep into the countryside, you can find the wineries of Stobi, Tikvesh, and Popova Kula. They offer guided tours and accommodation, so definitely book your stay if you want to enjoy the countryside for a while longer.
The religious holidays connected with the wine making tradition and the start of the harvesting season are always celebrated with traditional Macedonian music and food.
The Mavrovo-Galicnik Region
Following the mountainous belt on the west, you’ll get to the small villages of Mavrovo and Galicnik. Located on Bistra Mountain, these are the weekend retreats of Macedonia, two hours away from the capital of Skopje.
Unique in so many respects, they give you a glimpse of traditional Macedonian architecture, customs, clothing and food.
Several monasteries are dotting the areal map, and many cheese farms are scattered along the mountain. A horseback riding tour, that is ridiculously affordable, will take you from one significant place to another, making it a day to remember.
If you are here during the month of July, note that the Galicnik wedding festival is one of the most attractive cultural events in Eastern Europe. It is here where traditional Macedonian clothing is on full display.
The entire region is popular for outdoor activities as well, so you can enjoy the crystal blue lake, or cycle around it finding one lookout after another. At the very bottom of the trail, there is the submerged church which is a postcard worthy attraction on its own.
The Small Town of Berovo
Located on the eastern side, Berovo is a wonderful air spa with some of the most stunning forest scenery. The lake, hidden deep between pine trees, is a real sight to behold.
Berovo is known for its delicious food, and rustic monastery, and it is one of the most important stops along the way when discovering the Macedonian cultural heritage. Being on the other side of the country, it is a logistical hurdle to put it in your schedule, but the experience is well worth it.
Besides, transportation in Macedonia is very affordable.
The Town of Ohrid
The focal point of the Macedonian cultural tour, Ohrid is one of the most frequented sites in the entire region. Known for its churches, monasteries and heavenly nature, it is a place you don’t want to miss.
The lake offers plenty of activities for those interested in outdoor fun, and countless of panoramic views for those who want to sit back and relax.
Visit the monastery complex of Saint Naum, the church of Kaneo, and Plaoshnik. You’ll be captivated with the architecture, and serene setting provided by heavenly nature, regardless of where you turn your head towards.
Make sure to visit the lake springs, for a truly surreal nature setting, and the Old Bazar along with the Samuil fortress, in order to witness the cultural heritage.
Ohrid is also known for traditional jewelry workshops, where you can find the Ohrid pearl, as well as the art jewelry of filigree. Oh, and do not leave without visiting the Bay of Bones!
Events to attend
If you are here near the end of the summer season, you are in luck. While July hosts the Galicnik wedding festival, the month of August will have both the Ohrid Summer Festival, and the Struga Poetry Evenings.
The one is a spectacle of classical music, combined with notable cultural landmarks such as the church of Saint Sophia, and the Ohrid amphitheater, and the other is the most renowned poetry gathering in the world, just 15 minutes away from the town of Ohrid.
If you decide to stay for a while longer, the month of October hosts one of the most prestigious Jazz festivals in the world as well.
Folding up this guide, I hope that you will one day have the chance to discover Macedonia, enjoying the full scope of the cultural and rewardingly spiritual adventure. It is a place of heavenly nature and welcoming people that has a lot of stories to tell, without putting a hole in your pocket.
Slavko Desik is the editor and writer at Discovering Macedonia, where he shares lengthy and practical guides for enjoying this amazing country. Together with his wife, he is trying to document the Macedonian experience, capturing one frame at a time.