When I think of countries that I know I’ll visit eventually, Macedonia (now North Macedonia) would never have made that list. In fact, a year ago, if you’d asked me what the capital of Macedonia is, I might have been able to guess, though I couldn’t have told you with confidence how it’s pronounced, but I definitely would never have guessed that this time next year, I would have been there.
After our long drive through Albania, we arrived in Macedonia in the evening, skirting the beautiful Lake Ohrid (pronounced Och-rid, like “loch” in Scotland) as the sun set until we got to our hotel along the shore of it. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to relax by the lake though – we were going out to a Macedonian cultural dinner!
I was a little worried as you never know with “cultural” nights whether they’re going to be awesome or blatantly there just for tourists and a quick buck. My verdict? It was a lot of fun, we were all up all dancing by the end, and the food was really good! It was the second to last night of the tour, so it was a great way to end it.
However, my pictures of the dancing all came out like this (because traditional dancing is pretty frantic!).
On our way back to the hotel, the entire tour started singing (by which I mean screaming) Bohemian Rhapsody! Don’t worry, we were on the bus; not terrorising the residents of Ohrid!
The next morning, we were off to one of the best sites on the lake: St Naum Monastery, down by the Albanian border. While Lake Ohrid is predominantly in Macedonia, much of it is also in Albania, and where we had come in from the north of the lake, we were now going to meet up with Albania again at the south of it.
St Naum has been overlooking Lake Ohrid since 905 AD, but it was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 15th century and rebuilt some time in the 16th century. Now, it’s one of the most famous sights in Macedonia.
I hadn’t been planning to go inside, but it quietened down shortly after we got there, and we all decided to do it. It’s only a couple of euros, and it feels a little worn down inside, but I quite liked that. It gave it a charm.
A small room contains the tomb of St Naum himself, and you can kneel down, put your ear to the rug covering the tomb, and listen out for his muffled heartbeat! It’s said that if you can hear it, it will bring you good luck. Very eerie, because I think I could hear something!
One of my favourite things about this place was all the peacocks! (And this great sign warning you about them.)
We even saw an ALBINO one.
That said, two seconds after I took this photo, two girls chased it around and around trying to take a selfie with the poor thing. Sadly, I saw that happening a lot in my short time there, but this was the last straw and I had to walk away.
Back on “lake level”, we spotted a boat on the shore and I deemed it a perfect photo opportunity.
Almost immediately, a man appeared and offered us a ride on it for €5. If only we had come down ten minutes earlier, we would have jumped at the chance! Sadly, we were cutting it a bit fine for the time we needed to be back on the bus, though I kind of wish we had just done it anyway. At worst, we would have been about five minutes late. Hindsight, eh?!
Next stop was the small town of Ohrid itself, and we had a walking tour lined up.
After yesterday’s disappointing tour, I was pleased that our guide today was cracking jokes within the first minute and giving us a fascinating history of quarantines in the churches during the times of plague. People would have to spend 40 days in quarantine, and it was one of the earliest examples of this method of stopping the spread of disease.
Ohrid is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and within two minutes, it was easy to see why. The old town oozes charm with its cobbled streets and rustic buildings, and there are historic churches everywhere you look (it’s said that there are 365 – one for every day of the year – but I’m not sure what the actual number is).
Ohrid is also really hilly, and I don’t know how much I would have explored without the tour, so I was really glad we had that along with the history.
Near the top, we stumbled across a Greek amphitheatre, which is actually in regular use even today with concerts and shows, particularly during festivals in the town.
From there, we ended up taking a walk through a forest, culminating in the best view in the entire town.
After getting our fill of the views of St John’s overlooking the colourful blues of Lake Ohrid, it was time to head back to the old town where I was glad that we’d have some free time to retrace some of our steps, find some souvenirs and grab some lunch and drinks by the water.
We took the path down to the water to walk along the boardwalk back to the midst of the old town, and as we wandered, I couldn’t help but think I could easily spend an entire week here. It was so relaxing, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lake this clear before!
It felt a little bit like we’d found a secret paradise, with quiet bars and restaurants overlooking the lake and souvenir shops only selling handmade wares.
In fact, Ohrid has its own unique pearls which make a perfect souvenir. Nobody really knows the secrets behind the pearls, except that they use the scales of a fish only found in Lake Ohrid.
Macedonia is also one of the cheapest countries in Europe, making it a really cheap holiday destination, and I won’t be surprised if Ohrid starts making it onto people’s radars sooner rather than later. The only thing stopping it exploding right now is that although it has an international airport, it’s limited, and you’d probably need to take a 3 hour bus from Skopje instead. And how many places even fly to Skopje?
So for now, Ohrid will remain our little secret, but if you get the chance to go, ABSOLUTELY do! It’s like a dream!
That evening, we were headed to the capital of Skopje (“scope-yay”) and we arrived early enough to do a little exploring in the dark.
I had no idea where we were as opposed to where we would want to go, but it turns out we were in the old bazaar, which is the perfect place to explore.
How beautiful are these minarets lit up?!
It was a very brief introduction to the city centre, but we had most of the next day to really bite our teeth into the place, and of course we had a trusty walking tour to get a quick history lesson of the city.
In the daylight, the first thing that struck me was the sheer number of statues.
This is actually one of the most famous features of Skopje – after 80% of the city was destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 (leaving a whopping 200,000 people homeless), the city decided that they would invest in making the city an attractive place to be… by building an absolute shitload of statues.
It was a controversial move, and it’s estimated that the renovations have cost in the region of $700 million (US dollars), including over 40 monuments in the city centre. I’m inclined to agree – that is ridiculous.
Especially when they are SO BIG. Like, imagine the biggest statues in London. And then imagine that every statue in London is that huge. And they’re everywhere. (Okay, I know there are a lot of statues in London, but these ones are erratically placed; at least London’s ones fit in.)
The monuments are even bigger and more prominent and numerous in the centre of the city, between Macedonia Square and the Old Bazaar.
Skopje is… a weird city. It feels disjointed, which I feel is summed up perfectly by this photo.
Skopje’s biggest claim to fame is that it’s the birthplace of Mother Teresa – the building at the forefront is the Mother Teresa Memorial Building, and behind it the Orthodox Church.
And yet parts of the city feel like they’re trying to be beautiful. It’s just that unlike Belgrade and Sofia, buildings like this one below are few and far between, which makes them more noticeable when they do appear, but equally they feel like they’ve been plonked there instead of being part of the aesthetic of the city.
After the tour, we had some time to check out the Old Bazaar. Even better – we were practically the only ones there! On a Sunday morning, we pretty much had the streets to ourselves.
In some ways, it would have been nice to see the streets bustling with locals, but I loved how pretty these lanes were.
Interestingly, there was a huge mix of Albanian and Macedonian language here. There were also Albanian souvenirs in quite a few shops, and weirdly – perhaps not that weirdly as I have to plead my ignorance regarding the history or current relationship between Macedonia and Turkey – there were also a lot of things like this…
Many people leave Skopje feeling indifferent to the city, but I quite liked it and all its quirks. I really liked the bazaar. I’m not sure about all the statues but they certainly make the city unique!
And people seemed genuinely interested in talking to us. In one gift shop, the young lad behind the counter relished the chance to practice his English, and asked where I’m from, and asked me some things about Scotland. He helped me look for good postcards, and took an interest in where we’d been. It felt like I’d found a new friend, and not that he just expected something in return for his friendliness. I ended up buying postcards from him, of course.
I liked how rustic Macedonia was, and how nothing felt like a corporation. It was all small shops and indie sellers and home-grown restaurants. In fact, this was true for most of the Balkans.
And with that, our tour parted ways – some people were off to Greece for three more days, and the rest of us were headed back to Sofia where the tour would end.
And now I’m off to dream of a holiday in Lake Ohrid.
Macedonia (sorry, NORTH Macedonia…) – I think I like you!