Macedonia. A speck on the map, north of Greece and once part of the former Yugoslavia. A landlocked country with mountainous peaks and valleys, deep basins, lakes and rivers. Its greatest treasure: its warm, hospitable, and at times wonderfully temperamental, people. Until recently, Macedonia’s bigger Balkan brothers and sisters have claimed much of the spotlight, but now this feisty nation is ready for center stage.
Both geographically and culturally, Macedonia is a gateway between the East and the West, with Christian Europe on one side and the mystical Orient on the other. A melting pot of ethnicities and cultures, Macedonia is surrounded by Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo and Serbia. It claims a population of just over two million: descendants of Macedonian and Slavic tribes that settled the land as far back as the 5th century A. D., and smaller ethnic groups that include Albanians, Turks, Romas (Gypsies), Serbs, Bosnians and Croats.
The modern Macedonian state was founded on August 2, 1944. On January 31, 1946, the country became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It would not be independent again until September 8, 1991, when it separated from the former Yugoslavia. After gaining its independency, Macedonia found itself the poorest of all the former Yugoslavian states, but recently it has taken steps to bolster its economy by implementing economic reforms such as flat tax rates to attract foreign investments, and by heavily promoting tourism.
Skopje, the capital, with a population of just over a half million is an old and historic city that was coveted by various empires for its vital trade route. Unfortunately, much of the city’s historic charm was destroyed by a deadly earthquake in 1963. Today, perhaps it’s greatest claim to fame is the fact that Mother Teresa was born there. After the earthquake, the city was rebuilt and it is now a vibrant mix of old and new, with countless restaurants, cafés , hotels, nightclubs and casinos.
Though hotel standards in Skopje have yet to rival those of Dubai or London, there are still gems to be found, such as the Hotel Arka or the Stone Bridge Hotel — both of which offer five-star amenities and pampering. Outside of the capital, small, delightful accommodations are dotted across the country, as are ancient healing spas, some dating back to the Ottoman empire. Though it must be noted that these spas concentrate more on remedial therapies than luxurious regimens.
Macedonia’s diversity extends to its food—a combination of Balkan and Mediterranean, with a heavy Turkish influence. A traditional meal may start with Tarator, a cucumber yoghurt salad, or Pindzhur, a relish made from tomatoes, green peppers, aubergine and garlic. Sometimes walnuts are also added and the relish is served with fresh bread and feta cheese. In the countryside, one is likely to stumble upon a small restaurant, where the grinning and hospitable owner welcomes newcomers to sit among the locals and sink their teeth into a Burek, a thin flaky pie usually filled with ham, cheese, spinach and minced beef, or fillings that vary by region. A main course could be Selsko Meso, a favorite with the locals because of its easy preparation: minced meat balls, smoked meat pieces, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and various spices, all baked in a clay dish and often served with a topping of cheese and cream. The country is also dotted with many crystal clear lakes that allow for fantastic fresh water fish dishes.
Of course, a good meal ought to be accompanied by fine wine. There are three main wine making regions in Macedonia: Povardarie (Central Region), Pchinya — Osogovo (Eastern Region) and Pelagonia — Polog (Western Region). The three regions are further broken up into 16 districts. The largest and best known is the Povardarie (Vardar Valley) region where about 85% of Macedonian wines are produced.
Well-known grape types that produce Chardonnays, Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots are all grown alongside indigenous grapes such as Vranec and Stanushina. When experts are asked to describe Macedonian wines, the most common response is “fruit-forward style”. Many find Macedonian wines to be pleasant and delicate with a flavor that lingers on the palate. Local travel tour operators offer various one-day and multi-day tours to different wineries.
If Macedonian wine is a palate-pleaser then its traditional Turkish coffee delivers a jolt. Finely ground roast coffee beans are mixed with sugar and cold water and then added to hot water and brought to the boil once again. A long-standing custom is that an extensive conversation should accompany coffee drinking. Because Macedonians believe there is always much to discuss, guests are offered three servings: the Ozguldum (welcome) coffee, the Muabet (conversation) coffee, and Sikter (farewell) coffee. A visit to two or three homes in a single afternoon can make for a sleepless night.
For the active or adrenaline-seeking tourist, Macedonia’s vertiginous mountain ranges and blue lakes offer a wealth of activities: trekking, paragliding, skiing, mountain biking, rock climbing, canoeing, and more. The country also has an extensive hunting tourism program. Some game parks will help visitors organize all the paperwork and details needed for permits. Accommodations are often in comfortable hotels or lodges that have the necessary creature comforts such as satellite TV, central heating, telephones and others. The game parks have a variety of big game that include deer, mouflon, chamois, wild boar and even bear. Small game includes hare, partridge, pheasant and wild duck.
The reasons to visit this small nation with a big heart are endless. A few days will prove what many are coming to realize: Macedonia moves to a different rhythm that catches hold, and is difficult to let go of.