While I do like to do my research before visiting a country, I was struggling to find much on the small landlocked Balkan nation of Macedonia. Other than a recommendation during my travels to visit Lake Ohrid and knowledge that the country’s capital was Skopje, I was mostly flying blind. This country really is quite low-key and it’s only by visiting Macedonia that you get a chance to find out what a fun, intriguing place it is.
I think in part why so few people tend to travel to Macedonia, is that it simply hasn’t been put on their radar. This is a real shame as I do feel that does manage to meet many tourists’ needs, despite its underdeveloped tourism infrastructure. Sharing my stories and photos of my time in Macedonia has been a lot of fun because of the responses they’ve gotten, from travellers getting a chance to see what the country is about, to local Macedonians being glad to see their country promoted. In the hopes that I can further encourage you to give visiting Macedonia a try, here are 9 useful or fun things to know about travelling to the country.
1. A “Hidden Gem”
I generally avoid using phrases like “hidden gem” or “off the beaten path” because I do think they’re overused when people take travel. Also, probably a lot of the places I write about qualify. Either way, know that when I say the Republic of Macedonia is a hidden gem, I mean it. While more and more of the Balkans is becoming popular with tourists (think Croatia), Macedonia seems remarkably unaffected. Sure, there’s decent tourist numbers at Lake Ohrid and to a lesser extent Skopje, but that seems pretty much it.
So that’s the hidden, but what about the gem? Well Macedonia is home to a range of interesting sights and things for tourists from landscapes, to historical and cultural landmarks. There’s the “Pearl of Macedonia” in the gorgeous Lake Ohrid, to the rugged hills outside Prilep. The country has plenty of gripping historical sites, like Heraclea Lyncestis or its numerous medieval fortresses. Then there’s all the wonderful cultural insights you’re able to find, from the tobacco production in Prilep, to countless bazaars, to the intriguing remnants of its communist past. Macedonia has plenty to offer those who choose to visit it.
2. Entry and Visa
The Republic of Macedonia is not part of the European Union, nor is it part of the Schengen Area that allows free movement between countries, something many EU countries currently benefit from. This could make it a challenge to visit but it isn’t too bad. In effect, if you’re from an EU member country, valid ID is all that’s needed while if you would normally fit under the Schengen Agreement, then you have upto 15 days visa free. For visa information, here is one place to start.
Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Macedonia, our minibus was stopped and we walked up to the border guard booth. One by one, we had our passports checked and then we simply met back up with our bus. Couldn’t have been more straightforward.
3. Getting Around
Sticking with my general rule of thumb for the Balkans, I went bus all the way during my stay in Macedonia. I honestly don’t know if there is an operating train network presently, but I was content with the decent bus network. As would be expected, Skopje and Ohrid have the most connections but there are enough that you shouldn’t find getting about too hard. Bus fares are dirt cheap (see #5), running between 3-8€ depending on distance. Information can be found online at Balkan Viator, but it always pays to check at the station as I encountered the occasional discrepancy.
Another way to get about, at least short distances in share taxis which are quite common in the Balkans. I only took the one in Macedonia from Ohrid to Struga and while it was more than the bus fare, it was quicker and I got to have a nice chat with the driver about various things. It seems to be that they wait near bus stops to gather fares, so that’s really my only advice for finding one.
4. Friendly People
I don’t think I can overstate this enough: Macedonians have to be some of the kindest and friendliest people I have met in Europe. I’ve already shared how my arrival into the country was met with the utmost kindness in: Warmest of Welcomes in Strumica. But it really didn’t stop there. Everywhere I went, the people I met were always happy to help in whatever way they could. Perhaps it was because they were grateful for having a tourist there, who knows.
At one point, I stumbled into what turned out to be a man’s yard to take a photo in Prilep. Rather than getting upset, he began to chat with me and this willingness to chat was constant. From the taxi driver to Struga who was happy to tell me about sights to see and the economy, despite having 3 other passengers in the car; to the school kids in Tetovo who were keen to practice their English; their was a genuine desire to connect and share their country which I think is something that often gets suppressed by mass tourism. If I remembered nothing else about the country, it would be the hospitality of the people.
5. Super Cheap
It’s generally fair to say that Eastern Europe and the Balkans are the cheapest regions in Europe. I always loved the value you could get in countries like Bosnia Herzegovina or Bulgaria. And yet, Macedonia beats them all. I’ve yet to encounter a country as affordable to visit as Macedonia. Even in the resort town of Ohrid – while more expensive than everywhere else I went – was still reasonable compared to anywhere in Western or Central Europe.
To put things in perspective, I only once spent over 10€ for dinner in my time there. Coffee usually runs around 40mkd (0.65€) and spacious rooms at nice guesthouses and hotels came to around 25€, which is generally unheard of. If you’re looking for a budget getaway in Europe, Macedonia has to be at the top of your list.
6. The Two Macedonias
This one is a little bit politically contentious, so I’ll do my best to explain this as carefully as possible. Basically, it comes down to a naming dispute over the name “Macedonia” between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece. After breaking free from Yugoslavia, the country was named the Republic of Macedonia, rather than simply Macedonia. This is because Greece has a region also named “Macedonia” and laid claim to the title.
The name “Macedonia” comes from the ancient kingdom of Macedon, home to legendary figures like Alexander the Great. Both countries trace their heritage partly or wholly to this kingdom, hence the struggle for the name. Nowadays it has become fairly common to refer to the country as the Republic of Macedonia or just Macedonia, but this is still quite contentious. So just be mindful about what you call where when around Greeks or Macedonians.
When it comes to the language of Macedonia, it shouldn’t be of any surprise that they speak Macedonian. This slavic language has quite a few similarities with its Balkan neighbours and yet is still very much its own language. As such, it’s not the easiest of languages to swiftly pick up by English speakers. Thankfully, I was quite surprised to find quite a number of people who spoke conversational English and not always younger people. So English actually may be enough to get by, although when in doubt there’s always hand gestures.
The real hurdle for tourists is that Macedonia uses the Cyrillic Alphabet. While probably best known for its use in Russia, cyrillic is widely used throughout Eastern Europe. After time in both Bulgaria and Macedonia, I got halfway decent at reading cyrillic even if I had to sound it out one letter at a time. It will take some getting used to, but to help you start the following letters are the same as they are in Latin: ‘A‘, ‘E‘, ‘K‘, ‘M‘, ‘O‘, ‘T‘. Also, the following translate easily: a cyrillic ‘P‘ is latin ‘R‘, ‘C‘ is ‘S‘, ‘H‘ is ‘N‘, ‘X‘ is ‘H‘. So for example, you now know the first 4 letters of ‘HOTEL’ in Cyrillic are “XOTE”. Good luck with the rest!
Now, a few basic phrases to help you get by include Zdravo which means ‘Hello’; Blagodaram or Fala for ‘Thank you’; Ve Molim for ‘Please’; and Da and Ne for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.
8. You’re Australian? Meh.
As an Australian in Europe, you tend to get a decent reaction when people find out where you’re from (ok, maybe not in the UK). Whether it’s a “Wow!” or “So far away!”, it’s generally a nice and positive response. Which makes the Macedonian response rather amusing. From my experience, Macedonians are pretty apathetic to Australians. This seems to be because they often know people who have emigrated to Australia and see plenty of Australians return to Macedonia to visit family. Basically, don’t expect to feel special simply for being an Aussie in Macedonia.
9. The “Macedonian Pour”
This one might seem obscure and requires an explanation of an Australian custom but I found it quite fascinating. So, in Australia when we drink beer we generally like it with not too much head, different from say Belgian or German drinking custom. This means angling the glass while pouring. Possibly nothing infuriates an Australian more than someone pouring beer into a straight glass.
Now to my point. The Macedonians have a rather unusual, but effective way of pouring beer. The first time I encountered it in Prilep, I was a little alarmed. The waiter lowered the bottle to the glass sitting on the table, but rather than immediately pouring, he hooked the lip of the bottle on the rim of the glass. He then pressed downward, using the bottle to tilt the glass, resulting in a well poured beer. Sometimes it’s how we do the little things differently that I found particularly fascinating.
What other things would you like to know before visiting Macedonia? Have you visited Macedonia and have other insights to share? Please share them in the comments below.
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