The Balkan countries in southeastern Europe are popular places to travel right now. Croatia has long had a reputation for being a top beach destination but now more travelers are waking up to the fact that the whole area has much to offer, from majestic mountains and pristine rivers to old bazaars and impressive archaeological sites. One destination, which is still considered fairly off the beaten track, is Macedonia, a small country with a rich history and beautiful nature. If you’re looking for an interesting Balkan destination with fewer tourists, Macedonia makes a great choice. Here are the top five places to visit in Macedonia.
The capital of Macedonia, Skopje has a lot to offer foreign visitors. In 2014, the city went through a huge renovation, involving the construction and reconstruction of bridges, museums, government buildings, and monuments of famous Macedonian historical figures. Probably the most famous of these monuments is the Warrior on a Horse statue and fountain in Macedonia Square, which is famed for its ivory reliefs and bronze figures. The statue is believed to be Alexander the Great, although this has never been officially confirmed. Other monuments to check out include: Mother Teresa, who was a Skopje native; Porta Macedonia, a triumphal arch commemorating Macedonian Independence; and the Warrior Monument, thought to depict Philip II of Macedon.
Across the river from Macedonia Square, you will find the Old Bazaar, one of the largest in the Balkans and where traders have been hawking their wares since the 12th century. As well as being a great place to pick up bargains, the bazaar also has cultural and historical significance. Ottoman and Byzantine architecture are both present and there are several active mosques and churches in the area.
Other points of interest in Skopje include: Kale Fortress, sitting on the highest hill in the city and offering great views; the Aqueduct, probably built during Byzantine times and still with 55 arches standing; and City Park, which has an array of monuments and places of interest, including the zoo and a children’s amusement park. Skopje is also well known for its cafe culture; pretty much every street has several cafes with excellent and cheap coffee and tea.
Set against the background of Lake Ohrid and often called the ‘Jewel in Macedonia’s crown’, the town of Ohrid is known as the spiritual heart of Macedonia because of its 365 churches – one for every day of the year. As well as having important historical significance as one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, it is also an area of outstanding beauty. The town was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1980.
The lake itself is more three million years old and contains over 1,200 species of plants and animals 200 of which do not exist anywhere else on the planet. New species continue to be discovered. Because of this, the lake has been referred to as the Balkan Galapagos and the Museum of Living Fossils. There are plenty of beaches around the lake to enjoy; as a general rule, the further out of the town you go, the better the beach.
Ohrid is a town full of churches, but there are some of particular importance that you shouldn’t miss. Possibly the most impressive is the Church of St John at Kaneo, most notable for its scenic location on a cliff overlooking Kaneo Beach and also for the beautiful frescos in the dome. The church itself dates back to before the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century and there is evidence of Armenian influence in the architecture, particularly in the roof design. Other churches of significance are: St Bogorodica Prelivlepta, with a number of interesting frescos throughout the building; and the Church of St Sophia, which dates back to the 11th century in its current construction. It has a small square in front that served as the main forum in ancient times.
Other things to see in Ohrid are: the fortifications, parts of which have survived from the 3rd century BC; the traditional architecture of the houses and other buildings, built by the Turks who settled in the town and which are unique to Ohrid; and the Antique Theater, the only one existing from Hellenistic times in Macedonia.
Bitola is known in the country as being the most architecturally beautiful of all Macedonian towns and cities. The town has a more European feel than others in the country owing to Bitola being a seat of consuls during the 19th century. They brought European culture with them, in turn influencing the local aristocracy, who built townhouses in the style of the day, Neoclassicism. It also serves as the jumping off point for Pelister National Park, located in the Baba Mountain massif and one of the most southern Balkan mountain areas, which has an alpine character. As well as being a popular skiing resort, the park is home to an incredibly diverse range of flora and fauna.
Bitola is also the site of Heraclea, an ancient Greek city founded by Philip II of Macedon and later ruled by the Romans. Only a few of the remains have been unearthed; you can see a theater, a courthouse, two basilicas, and baths. The main draws of the site are the mosaics of the big basilica from the 5th century.
The old bazaar may not be as large as the one in Skopje, but it is very well-kept and has numerous small squares and fountains, making for a pleasant shopping experience. A stroll down the Dragor River with its many attractive buildings, such as the Bitola University Dean’s building, is also worthwhile.
Prilep has a rather strange claim to fame; it is known for being the city of the most famous Macedonian tobacco. All around the city are tobacco fields and if you visit during the summer or fall, you will be able to see the tobacco drying out everywhere. Prilep was the capital of the medieval kingdom of King Vukasin and his son Marko in the 14th century who have both been immortalized in Macedonian and Serbian folk legends as the monarchs who kept out the Turks; when Marko died, the Turks invaded and took control of the area. Due to its history as a medieval capital, the city is home to a number of churches and monasteries as well as the fortress that stands on the hill overlooking the city.
As the center of the Vlach minority, a Romance ethnic group native to the Balkans, Kruševo is notable for its unique architecture. Vlach housing is built of stone in the back and has a front ‘bondruk’ construction of wooden columns and beams covered with white plaster. There is almost always a well in the ground floor and the main facade is usually blue. It is also known as one of the centers of the Ilinden Uprising at the beginning of the 20th century, a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. A museum exists in the town, which gives information on this important event in the country’s history. Aside from the architecture, another point of interest is the Nikola Martinovski gallery; Martinovski was a local-born artist and is considered one of the most important contemporary Macedonian painters. The gallery is located in the house where the artist was born.
Visitor numbers don’t reflect whether you should visit Macedonia or not. If you are interested in history and culture, Macedonia makes the perfect destination.