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.)