North Macedonia – A perfect Backpacking Destination
Most people in Scotland couldn’t even point this country on a map, despite the fact it’s north of Greece. It was recently renamed to North Macedonia for political reasons. There is also a region in Greece named Macedonia and there is a dispute over the geographical homeland of Alexander The Great. The government of this country had a referendum over the decision to join NATO and rename the country to North Macedonia. This was done in order to improve relations with Greece and despite the vote being overwhelmingly in favour of this decision. The turnout was lower than 50%, most people in this country simply refer to it as Macedonia.
Getting to North Macedonia by Plane
Getting to Macedonia wasn’t exactly a fun experience, I booked a flight on Wizz Air and in true budget airline fashion. The only flight I could get was from London at 10PM. I was also flying from London Luton. Which is easily the worst airport in London and the flight was delayed by an hour. This meant I had to stand in a queue for an hour to wait to board the plane.
Once I arrived in Skopje airport, the immigration queue was abysmal, there were only two immigration officers working. One family seemed to have been held up in the line for 30 minutes for some reason. Once I came up to the booth, I was asked random questions about my reasoning to visit this country which completely caught me off guard. Although I did get let in without any problems.
Landing in North Macedonia in the Middle of the Night
I had arrived in Skopje around 4 in the morning and I made the sensible decision to organise a taxi through Booking.com. I arrived at the hostel and it was pitch black, the doors were unlocked and I decided to make my way in it seemed the owners of the hostel were asleep. I spent the next few hours sleeping on the couch in the living room and at around 8AM, the owners finally got out of bed.
I was expecting them to freak out at the fact that some random guy was chilling in their living room. However, they welcomed me with open arms after I explained I had booked to stay in the hostel. They even let me go to my room for a quick sleep and at 12 I got out and decided to have a look around Skopje.
The streets of Skopje are characterised by a lot of graffiti on the buildings and unfortunately a lot of litter as well. There is a lot of housing that has been made since the country’s independence. Also a lot of communist architecture from when it was part of Yugoslavia. In knowing this you’d get a vibe that this city is unsafe, however I did not feel in any danger during my time in Skopje.
An ATM Ordeal
Despite this, I did have quite a dreadful experience on my first day in Skopje. What happened was I needed to get some Denars out of an ATM. It seemed that the ATM didn’t seem to work properly when I put my card in.
The ATM asked me if I wanted to cancel the transaction. I pressed yes, however the card wasn’t out enough to be able to pull it out easily and it ended up getting swallowed. I went into the bank explaining to the man working there what happened. He opened up the ATM and got my card out, yet refused to give it back to me. He said he’d give it back if I told my bank to send an email to an email address he had written on a piece of paper.
He was also being hugely unhelpful, he refused to let me use the bank’s wifi, so I went into a travel agent and explained what happened. They were miles more helpful and let me use the wifi so I could call my bank. It took some time to get to someone on the bank’s helpline and I explained what happened and went back to the bank.
Giving my phone to the man working in the bank. The man on the phone explained to the other man that it wasn’t possible to send this email for security reasons. This made him feel ticked off. Eventually, he gave up and got me to sign a document in Cyrillic and eventually gave my card back. I found this situation to be hugely stressful situation lasted about 50 minutes, but thankfully I got my card back.
Boiling in Skopje
That brings me to say that the weather in this country during the summer is inhospitably hot, during midday it was over 35 degrees. Which made it torturous to walk around during the day.
Backpacking in Skopje
Furthermore, in the centre of Skopje, it feels very offbeat. You can see a square with a statue of Alexander the Great surrounded by modern buildings. Furthermore, Skopje even has even a recreation of the Arc de Triomphe. Across the bridge, there is an Ottoman style Bazaar, which definitely worth visiting. It is where you can buy all sorts of things which isn’t just tourist tat. Also, it’s a good place to eat some grilled meat for lunch.
This city feels like a fusion between the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Not only that, but also Yugoslavia and a fusion of Albanian and Slavic cultures. You’ll see a Macedonian Orthodox church and on the other side you’ll see a Mosque frequented by Albanians. Macedonian Cyrillic and the Albanian language can be seen on signs and as someone who can read Cyrillic. I found this an interesting aspect of my visit.
Exploring the Fort in Skopje
Furthermore, beyond the Old Bazaar on top of the hill. I was one of the very few tourists making a visit up to the fort and it was scorchingly hot. This fortress was first built over 1000 years ago and it is completely free to visit.
You can also get decent views of the city from the fort. I also went to the Museum of the Macedonian struggle which was a very interesting visit, this museum is focussed on the historical events which shaped this country. With wax recreations of historical figures such as Tito and Lenin.
Eating at a Kafana
While visiting Skopje, you should definitely go to a kafana to have local food, a kafana is pretty much a Balkan pub where you can have local food, drink beer or rakija and vibe to traditional music. I definitely recommend paying a visit with a few friends and enjoying ćevapi with some beer and it is fantastic value for money.
Exploring Matka Canyon
A really scenic place you can go to near Skopje is Matka Canyon. Unfortunately it isn’t exactly easy to get to, but I was lucky enough to have met a couple from Zagreb with a car who agreed to take me there.
It was very early in the morning when I got there, however it was definitely worth it as we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves to walk through. It’s worth mentioning that before walking through the canyon. I saw some stuff related to socialist Yugoslavia before hiking across the canyon.
If you plan to go to Matka Canyon, make sure you watch your step as there aren’t many protective railings. Make sure you wear some shoes appropriate for exercise and also some water. Unfortunately, I would say that Matka Canyon isn’t looked after properly as there is litter and graffiti left on the rocks of the canyon. Despite this, it’s definitely worth walking through.
The people in Macedonia are definitely hospitable and helpful. I explained to the owner of the hostel I was staying in that I needed a way of getting to Lake Ohrid, she sorted me out with a ride-share to get me there. I didn’t realise the driver would be coming at 9AM to pick me up while I was still in bed. I had to hastily put my clothes on and get my backpack on, delaying them by 10 minutes.
Taking a Ride Over to Ohrid
For the price of a tenner I was able to be driven from Skopje to Ohrid sharing the ride with someone else. The three hour journey had some crazy scenic views, it seemed there was a road toll every 10 minutes. Furthermore, the driver wouldn’t stop making phone calls and the window of the driver’s seat wouldn’t open properly.
Once I got to Ohrid I was able to get to my hostel easily and was amazed by this place. One of the most photogenic churches I have possibly ever seen with the view of the lake makes this place worth visiting. This church is called the Church of St John at Kaneo and it is one of the most iconic buildings in Macedonia.
If you’re into the history of this town, you can visit the Robev House which belonged to a wealthy family. This house dates back to when Ohrid was part of the Ottoman Empire. The house is kept as a museum in a decent condition and has knowledgeable guides.
Relaxing in Ohrid
The food in Ohrid is quite good, I had gyro for lunch which is one of my favourite foods. The food was very good value for money. Furthermore, I tried something called the Hajduk kebab which was beef with bacon inside of it. Despite the staff at the restaurant being very terse, the food was good. I really enjoyed walking around the town of Ohrid as the views are extremely scenic. Especially in the evening when the lamps would turn on.
The architecture of the houses around the town are like nothing I have ever seen before. The Orthodox churches and mosques are nice to look at. I spent my last evening in this country having a laugh with the people at the hostel.They came from Serbia, England, Germany, Netherlands Canada and even a local guy working at the hostel joined in on the banter.
My Thoughts on North Macedonia
In conclusion, it has to be said that North Macedonia is a great country to visit. I’d say it’s great value for money, for example a pint is only around £1.50 and a decent ćevapi is £5 at most. Despite the grime of graffiti and litter being a common occurrence. It still feels like a scenic place as Ohrid, for example is a very picturesque place. If you are British like me, you don’t need a visa to visit. However, once you check in to a hostel or hotel, it is required to report your details once you check in.
It also felt very safe, as not once was anyone trying to scam me in places frequented by tourists. There was not any sign of crime at all. What surprised me about Macedonia is multiculturalism between the Macedonian and Albanian people.
I saw many houses with Albanian flags hung on the walls and there were many mosques around the place. When I was in Ohrid, there was a mosque next to the hostel I was staying in. I was woken up by the call to prayer early in the morning. I didn’t expect this before going to Macedonia and found it very interesting.
If you enjoyed reading this, be sure to check out: