Chanoy Honeymoon: Skopje and Ohrid, Macedonia, January 2016

Note – photo gallery at the bottom of this post.

I’m not going to lie, we were a little bit disappointed when we walked around Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, on our first day. K summed it up best later when he said, “On reflection, the reason we didn’t enjoy our time in Skopje was because it felt like a bad theme park where everything was too artificial”. It means that when you walk into the ‘Old Town’ of Skopje, it’s as though you’re walking onto a bad movie set of what an ‘old town’ in Eastern Europe should look like. When you walk through the city centre, you see neo-classical buildings all around which look as though they were built two centuries ago, but were actually only built in the past five years.

It’s like a bad Warner Brothers theme park – Eastern European World, designed for people who only want a sterilised version of the country. Once I did some research online, this artificiality began to make sense – there was a ‘Skopje 2014’ building project which has built over 100 monuments and buildings in the past five years alone, spending more than €560 million of taxpayers money on the beautification of the city.

Considering the standard of living in Macedonia (where workers earn the lowest monthly wage in all the Balkan countries), the money could have been used in better ways than to create a statue or monument on every second street corner. As a tourist, I don’t need to see another statue every fifty metres, and I imagine that locals would want their money spent in more productive ways as well! It’s sad to say, but I would venture to say that Skopje is one capital city in Europe that I would feel comfortable in skipping – it’s not somewhere I feel a need to visit again in the future.

Ohrid, a smaller township in the south-west corner of the country is a different matter. Situated on the banks of Lake Ohrid, one of the most ecologically unique water systems in Europe, it’s a perfect example of what Macedonia is really like without the gross over-beautification projects led by overzealous governments. While it can be quite touristy in the summer with its ample opportunity for water-sports on the vast lake, it’s a beautiful area to visit in the winter as well if you manage to luck out and have some beautiful sunny (albeit cold!) days as we did.

With over 350 churches in the immediate area – one for every day of the year as locals told us repeatedly – as well as some great hiking and climbing opportunities to get to nice vista points for a great lake view, Ohrid offers a quieter and more laid-back atmosphere for travellers who want to travel outside of the ‘big smoke’. We spent a glorious afternoon walking along the lake, stopping and sitting occasionally to watch some local fishermen and kids feeding the seagulls. We climbed up to some of the Roman-era buildings that still sit on the top of the hill – the fortress and the amphitheatre. We watched the sunset on the end of a pier in a secluded beach. It was a wonderfully relaxing day, free of the need to rush around and tick things off our ‘to-do’ list.

Our stay at Ohrid also gave us the opportunity to meet a wonderfully welcoming Macedonian family. We heard about an annual festival at a nearby town – the Vevcani Festival which celebrates the start of the new year (by the Orthodox calendar) with a parade through the town, with revellers wearing masks and costumes. Though it was cold and snowy that day, we decided to go anyway, and ended up meeting a lovely Macedonian lady called Angja at the Struga bus stop. Through a language barrier, she managed to tell us that she would take us on the bus with her to Vevcani as she was going there as well.

When we got to Vevcani, she told us “Come, coffee. My brother’s house.” We followed her to her brother’s house where we were introduced to her whole extended family who welcomed us with open arms, fed us home-made bread, biscuits and dolma, and offered us warm home-made rakia. We watched the Vevcani festival parade with them as it went past their front door, then went back in to have lunch with their family. We didn’t leave until it was getting dark, as we were having so much fun with the whole family! It was the kind of wonderful travel experience that you often hear others talk about – the chance meeting with a stranger who invites you home to meet their whole family, and you end up as friends for life.

So while I wouldn’t rush back to Skopje, Ohrid is definitely somewhere I would love to visit again – perhaps in the summer next time so we can try some activities on the lake when the water’s a bit warmer! It would also give us the chance to catch up with Angja and her family again – and have more of their delicious home-made bread and biscuits!

(We ate a lot of burek in Macedonia, plus other oily pastries and fast food (like our meal at Fast Food 7) are the standard here. Photos below. We also dined at Sushi Co in Skopje as a fancier meal, and Dr Falafel in Ohrid for a slightly healthier quick meal.)

Review: Dr Falafel, Ohrid Macedonia

While we spent three nights in Ohrid in the south-west of Macedonia, we actually only ate out once, at Dr Falafel. We’d intended on eating out more often, but two things happened: 1) our Airbnb apartment had a decent kitchen – after not having a kitchen in Skopje, we wanted to cook some healthier meals at home; and 2) we met a lovely Macedonian lady one day who invited us home with her for a home-cooked lunch. More on that wonderful day in a real Macedonian home in my next blog entry!

For now though, a quick recap of our meal at Dr. Falafel, a quick-stop shop on Ohrid’s pedestrian street offering what must be the only wholly vegan-friendly menu in town. This is no mean feat when meat is a prominent part of the Macedonian diet and most restaurants offer only variations on grilled meats with any salads being a small, over-dressed side salad.

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The menu is quite small and specialised, offering only variations of falafel and hummus. One serve of falafel is 80 dinar ($2.05 AUD). One serve of hummus is 120 dinar ($3.07 AUD). Hummus and falafel together is 150 dinar ($3.84 AUD). Hummus, falafel and a drink is 180 dinar ($4.60 AUD). It’s not the type of menu that will break the bank! Each meal comes with a complimentary serve of fresh salad as well (so fresh that we saw the owner prepping the cabbage coleslaw as we sat eating our meal!), so K and I both ordered the meal deal.

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The homemade hummus has a strong garlicky flavour, and is served with a liberal amount of herbed and spiced olive oil – so much so that it pools in the middle of the hummus which makes it all the more tastier to dip bread into. The falafel is freshly fried right in front of our eyes, coming to our table as perfectly sized deep-fried balls of spiced crumbly chickpea goodness. K called these the best falafel he’s ever had – they were just the perfect consistency and held together really well compared to some of the dry falafels you may have had before.

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Each meal comes with a small side salad – nothing fancy, just shredded and lightly dressed cabbage, beetroot, carrot and lettuce. Keeping it simple, fresh and healthy, with the lightest of vinaigrette dressings.

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Dr Falafel also offers a home-baked loaf of soft white bread to go with your meal (one loaf between two people). I thought this was delicious – the bread was dense while still being quite spongy meaning that when you dipped it into the olive oil-infused hummus, it could really ‘grip’ the hummus for a great hummus to bread ratio.

This isn’t the place for you to visit if you want typical Macedonian grilled meats, or a big menu with lots of choices, or even a fancy extended meal. However, if you want delicious, cheap food that’s a little bit lighter and healthier than your usual ‘fast food’, Dr Falafel is one of the best choices you can make if you’re visiting Ohrid in Macedonia.

Dr Falafel is located at 8 7-Mi Noemvri (Beginning of Ohridska Carshija) in Ohrid, Macedonia.

Review: Fast Food 7, Skopje Macedonia

Macedonia is the country where we had what is by far the most unhealthy street snack in the whole world – a deep-fried burek wrapped up in a bread roll. Welcome to Carb City! Population = my clogged arteries. Unsurprisingly, the most unhealthy meal we had was also in Macedonia, in the capital city of Skopje.

When I started Googling local eats in Skopje in the hopes of finding the hidden gem of eateries, the name that kept popping up again and again as a local favourite was Fast Food 7. It’s not particularly highly rated on Tripadvisor, but local blogs constantly talked about it as the place to visit in Skopje with lines of locals crowding the shop at almost every hour of the day. Given that it was only a ten minute walk from our Airbnb apartment, we headed there for a takeaway lunch one day.

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The shop is located opposite the Greek embassy in the west side of Skopje city, far enough out of the centre that it’s rarely reached by tourists. There’s only three or four tables inside, so there’s an expectation that most customers will either eat outside on the few benches, or like us, take their food away to eat at home.

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As promised by the local blogs, the shop was absolutely packed when we get there. There were ten people ahead of us in line, which gave us ample time to inspect the menu, conveniently displayed with accompanying pictures for those of us who can’t read Macedonian. It’s all burgers and fries here – and unlike McDonald’s with their twenty different burgers, Fast Food 7 only offers a handful of options to their customers.

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We struggled with trying to decide what to order, until we saw the hotplates. There’s two burger fillings we could immediately identify – hamburgers and chicken breasts, so that’s what we decided to order. Keep in mind that a ‘hamburger’ here in Macedonia is not a 100% Angus beef patty, or whatever you might be used to in Australia. A hamburger patty here is made of a mix of beef, pork and lamb mince, spiced to accentuate the rich full-bodied flavour of the meat.

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The ladies have a pretty good system going on here – one lady overlooks the grill, and two others take and assemble the orders. Now when you order a ‘meal’, the picture on the menu looks as though you get served with a burger, fries on the side, and a drink. It’s a bit deceptive – here at Fast Food 7, they’re famous for serving the fries inside the burger itself rather than on the side.

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So if you order a hamburger, the hamburger patty is placed in a large fluffy white bread bun, topped with a squirt of ketchup and mayonnaise, topped again with a generous serving of salty french fries, topped with a shake of dried oregano, and topped again with more, slightly spicy ketchup. It’s a real monster and near-impossible to eat with just your hands, which is why they provide you with a few plastic forks so that you can eat the fries first before tackling the massive bun itself.

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This is what it looked like when we got home – an absolute mess! But, it was a delicious mess – the mix of sauces is perfect for the fries, and the subtle taste of dried oregano is genius. I don’t know why we don’t use oregano more regularly with all our fries, as it’s the perfect herb for enhancing already tasty crunchy fries. The hamburger patty was delicious as well – the mix of different meat minces may sound strange, but it’s surprisingly effective and more-ish!

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We didn’t need to eat dinner after this enormous burger – each burger is seriously big enough for two people, even for big eaters like K and I. I fell into an intense food coma after this meal, and spent the rest of the afternoon curled up in a foetal position on the couch, crying and cursing myself for what I did to my body. I wish I was joking.

I can see why Fast Food 7 is so popular with the locals – they offer filling, delicious food at an amazing price (370 denars for both meals or $9.50 AUD). Service is quick and friendly even with a language barrier, and the servings are beyond generous. I’d highly recommend trying to tackle a meal from Fast Food 7 if you ever visit Skopje…if you’re brave enough!

Fast Food 7 is located at Borka Taleski in Skopje, Macedonia.