Road Test: Macedonia
Last year, I had the great privilege of visiting Macedonia where I spent a magical week travelling the country on a private tour with my two great friends (one a Macedonian-Australian and another a Scottish-Australian first time visitor to Macedonia). We were hosted by Jane (pronounced Yah-neh) and his fantastic driver, Dean, from Macedonia Experience. The trip was so much better than I ever expected and I've been raving about it to everyone who will listen ever since returning home! If you love food, fun people and great scenery but you don’t love crowds of tourists, jump this destination right up your list.
When we arrived in the capital, Skopje, we were instantly impressed with this dramatic city. We started off strong with a great dinner at a much-loved local restaurant that serves traditional dishes like Ćevapi (minced meat shaped like small sausages and cooked on a wooden charcoal grill: note everyone orders at least 10 each….don’t even bother trying to order 2 or 3 per person or you’ll be laughed out of town!). This was also our first experience of Ajvar which is made from roasted red bell peppers (capsicum), garlic and sunflower oil and is delicious served on EVERYTHING. My favourite way to eat Ajvar is on chargrilled toast sprinkled with salty white cheese (like fetta) but Ajvar will appear at almost every authentic meal in Macedonia, breakfast, lunch and dinner… because it’s awesome. This was the first of many amazing meals in Macedonia. We stayed in a new boutique hotel in Skopje, The London, which is right near the better-known Marriott in a very convenient and central location.
Next day, Jane hosted us for a walking tour of the old city of Skopje and this was our intro to his encyclopaedic knowledge of the region’s history and politics which was absolutely fascinating, especially when delivered with Jane’s sharp sense of humour. We enjoyed yogurt and baked yumminess including cheese filled Burek for breakfast from a favourite spot in the old bazaar. The old bazaar is the best place in town to grab a souvenir or two. Its streets are lined with jewellers and 'antique' shops selling trinkets, carpets and other textiles, and relics of the Yugoslav period. There are many shops selling Macedonian silver filigree pieces. The woven leather shoes strung up outside shops are called opanci, an example of traditional Balkan wear often worn in traditional folk dancing performances. Then we tasted our way through the food markets, packed to the brim with smiling faces and incredible produce from fruit and veg, to spice mixes to honey and endless varieties of cheese.
Afterwards, we met with Dean and headed to Matka - one of Europe’s oldest and deepest canyons where we took a boat trip out to explore one of the stalactite caves. Amazingly we had the place almost to ourselves. Anywhere else in the world, this kind of attraction would be mobbed! Then we enjoyed lunch in a local organic summer garden at Shishevo (brilliant food, veggies grown on site, family run, loved it).
Our journey then headed into the mountains and villages of Western Macedonia. The drive to Galichnik was incredibly scenic. Seeing Vasko leading his horse riding group across the valley towards a shepherd and his sheep and gorgeous sheepdogs as we drove by was so fabulous that it seemed it had been staged for our benefit. Jane can organise day or multi-day horse riding tours as well as cycling excursions, hiking and parasailing, plus winter skiing. Lunch of wild boar, salad and the most amazing white cheeses (made on-site) was simply fantastic as was hearing from the adult grandson of our hosts, Marko, about his life spread between the capital and his family’s traditional hometown. Hearing about his grandparents, the last remaining inhabitants of this once thriving town (and our hosts for lunch), who now get snowed in for winter and have supplies delivered by the grandchildren who hike through snow to check on their grandparents was almost unbelievable. Just go and meet these people and hear their stories for yourself. Seriously. This kind of travel is so much better than visiting a country and never getting under the skin of a place.
In the late afternoon, we checked into our gorgeous hillside cabin in Jance before we met Tutto, our charismatic local host. Tutto is the pioneer of the slow food movement in Macedonia and he took us through a traditional Macedonian cooking class (with a special Tutto twist which we indulged in for our dinner - possibly over-indulged!). Wine, Rakia, more Rakia (from Tutto’s personal stash), a tour of Tutto’s house, plenty of local gossip...and lots of laughter. At one stage, I could hear an unfamiliar sound ringing out and was somewhat shocked to discover that it was a home-made contraption that was powered by the flowing water of the river and that it was to keep the wolves and bears from attacking the local sheep …. Whaaaat!? Are they pulling my leg? Clearly, we’re a long way from home.
In the morning we headed off to Lake Ohrid with a stop at an elegant monastery. Lake Ohrid has a great vibe with waterside restaurants pumping out cool tunes and people swimming and boating. And there were no crowds! Heaven. Just great food, drinks, music and such a chill vibe. I could have easily spent a week there. Cobblestone streets, ancient ruins, local art galleries and artisan stores...fab. In the evening, we enjoyed an authentic and unpretentious home-cooked dinner prepared by a local family out on their lakeside terrace. The next day, we took a private speedboat trip to St. Naum, a beautiful church overlooking the lake. After a chance to look around, we cruised back across the lake to Trpejca, a quaint little fishing village where we had a simply stunning fresh bbq fish lunch and we lazed in the lake drinking wine. One of my favourite memories of Macedonia.
Next stop, Bitola with a visit to Heraclea archaeological ruins on the way. Strolling the Bitola promenade, checking out the local pazar (the old Turkish market place) and generally taking in the very different architecture was sensational. Apparently, it’s stunning in the winter snows too! Later in the day, we headed to Dihovo to take part in a bee masterclass before enjoying dinner at an old farmhouse, hosted by two brothers from the village. Connecting with local families, sharing their favourite family recipes, drinking the home-made wine and sharing stories into the night was priceless. Note, if you say you would like a small snack, you will be served a monumental feast for a small army in Macedonia, such is their generosity and love of food.
The following day, we headed to Treskavec which is a monastery located up in the clouds. Meeting Father Kalist, the monk who lives here with the wolves (!!) and bears (!!), was a trip highlight and hearing his story was very inspiring. Don't miss this! The setting is mind-blowing and the monastery itself is very special but it's Father Kalist who elevates it to an extraordinary experience.
Onwards we journeyed to Tikves, Macedonia’s wine region where we were joined by the sensational Ivana, Macedonia’s leading wine connoisseur, European wine judge and author of Macedonia’s first wine guide. Ivana took us through wine tastings of local varieties (some indigenous) at Stobi (where we also had a great lunch) and Kamnik (with its stunning, architecturally-designed wine tasting space with views over the vineyard). Ivana, is absolutely brilliant and you must meet her. Don't go to Macedonia and miss out on a day with Ivana.
Arriving back in Skopje in the early evening, we settled in for a happy/sad final dinner together, with lots of buzzing Macedonian live music of course.
As always, it's the people that really help you get to know a place and the introductions made by Jane to his friends throughout the journey made the interactions such a joy. No weird touristy meet and greet going on here. Just authentic people, real stories, personal insights and a great cross-cultural exchange.
Jane is incredibly knowledgeable and loads of fun and made our trip something we'll all remember warmly forever. Big, huge, giant thanks to Jane and Dean of Macedonia Experience. I just wish I could do it all again.