Marvels of Macedonia
Skopje, the quirky, statue-strewn capital of Macedonia, is one of the main hubs of the country's tiny but growing tourism sector. It's also something of a misleading gateway to a place brimming with splendid natural attractions, historic sites and delicious cuisine
Landing in a foreign country after a red-eye flight is always disorienting, but especially so in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia and one of the largest cities of the former Republic of Yugoslavia. In the half-hour drive from Alexander the Great airport, jagged mountainous horizons gave way to stark, Soviet-era apartment blocks and ancient minarets, and, as we neared the centre of town – rather puzzlingly – a gleaming building that looked startlingly like the U.S. White House.
Stuck on a main road crammed with Yugos (yes, those old Yugoslavian-made beaters widely known as the worst car ever made), I turned my head and caught sight of what appeared to be the Arc de Triomphe.
As I stared around in wonderment, my driver chatted about how the Skopje Brewery makes the best Coca Cola in the world and his thoughts on the U.S. election.
"In Eastern Europe, we like leaders little bit crazy," he said, turning to grin at me. The next morning, as I blinked up at one of the many massive bronze statues positioned around Macedonia Square in the centre of town – a nine-storey-high rendering of the ancient king Philip of Macedon, giant fist raised in triumph – on the start of a walking tour, my group leader explained that all of these curious constructions were part of a reported billion-dollar bid to attract tour-ism.
He was drowned out by the booming chimes of a nearby clock tower; I sneaked a peek at the time on my phone – 8:25 – and it occurred to me that I might not get my bearings here after all.
Though Skopje's fascinating weirdness has indeed made it a focus of Macedonia's emerging tourism sector, it makes a poor introduction to the rest of the country. Compared with some other former Yugoslav republics, the industry in this landlocked state is still a relative blip – in 2015, Macedonia welcomed fewer than 500,000 foreign visitors, or less than 4 per cent of Croatia's nearly 13 million – but it's steadily growing as word gets out about its splendid nature, historic sites and unspoiled, authentic vibe.
We started with a strolling breakfast of flaky cheese-and-spinach-filled pastry called a boureq, tart drinking yogurt and lamaxhun, a traditional flame-grilled pita spread with spicy tomato and meat sauce and stuffed with fresh vegetables in a wrap, in the capital city's green market – one of the largest covered bazaars outside of Istanbul.
From the market, we headed directly to Matka Canyon, a stunning gorge about a 20-minute drive out of the city. With its clear turquoise waters flanked by soaring limestone cliffs, Matka Canyon is one of Macedonia's most-visited attractions, but this translated to just a few tourists waiting to catch the dinghy that putters through those surreal waters to a cave filled with stalagmites and bats.
On the ride back, we pulled over to a grassy bank, unpacked a spread of olives and several types of salty sheep's cheeses. Igor, our driver, grilled a lunch of chicken and sausages, procured from the market that morning.
While traditional cuisine was the theme of my Intrepid Travel tour though Macedonia, it's also a key to the country's culture. Locals love to tell visitors how they ran McDonald's out of the country in 2013, a story I first heard before even setting foot in Macedonia from my airplane seatmate, a Toronto-born and -based college student of Macedonian descent, and one that was repeated several times through my trip; to this day, each city has its own Ottoman-style souk, where locals stock up on spices, produce, cheese and meats on market days.
At the halfway point of a hike to Duf Waterfalls in Mavrovo, one of the country's three national parks, we were greeted by a friend of our guide who poured hot, strong "mountain tea" spiked with thyme and ironwort, and offered plates of what turned out to be the best baklava I've ever tasted – because Macedonian hospitality means you're always getting fed.
"Did you make this?" I asked, as I helped myself to a second piece.
"I do not make," he laughed. "My mother make."
Already stuffed from an inappropriate amount of baklava (the secret, I learned, is butter; Greeks mostly use olive oil) we moved on to Hotel Tutto in the nearby village of Jance. Tefik Tefikoski, or Tutto, as he's known, the hotel's proprietor, is the founder of the Macedonian chapter of the Slow Food movement.
He led us around an old stone terrace to a long outdoor table set with peppers and pomegranates for a cooking class. After traditional shots of rakija (a fruit brandy) to begin our meal, Tutto passed around bouquets of mint and lemon balm, and gestured to the surrounding hills and streams as he explained the ingredients used in his beloved cuisine. In fall, the time of our visit, that means mushrooms; holding up a platter of huge porcinis that had been picked the day before, he asked if we were willing to wait an hour or two for the new haul. When we agreed, Tutto beamed.
Autumn here also means peppers: Market stalls literally overflow with green, yellow and red ones, every apartment balcony and house exterior is festively strewn with lines of crimson capsicums drying for paprika, and the scent of roasting peppers wafts through the villages.
We'd already discovered ajvar, a smoky-sweet roasted red pepper dip which was served at nearly every meal of the trip; Tutto set out plates of the stuff with fresh bread for dipping, along with plates of cheese pie, chopped roasted peppers bathed in olive oil and vinegar, and a dish of peppers and cherry tomatoes cooked with olive oil, butter and whey.
We feasted as he explained how ajvar is made. It takes five kilograms of peppers to make a single jar, he said, and after the peppers are roasted, they're set in a pot over fire and stirred continuously for four or five hours – slow food, indeed.
Sitting in Tutto's open kitchen with glasses of traminec, the local white wine (a muscat grape whose Macedonian name means "incense" for its intensely fruity and floral aromas), my new favourite food tasted even sweeter. But Macedonia's awesomeness goes beyond home-style cooking: Just outside of Bitola, we visited the spectacularly preserved ruins and frescoes of the fourth-century BC city of Heraclea Lyncestis.
And when the eating got to be too much, we hired a guide to take us up to Magaro Peak, a steep hike that is littered with hundred-year-old bullets and land-mine shrapnel left over from the First World War, when it was the scene of intense fighting between the French and Bulgarians (it's rumoured there's a cave somewhere up there that contains 2,000 bottles of cognac).
We returned to Skopje on our last night with plans for one final feast, but found ourselves unable to eat anything more.
Instead, we wandered back among those giant statues, pausing at the largest of all, a towering rendition of Alexander the Great that appears to dwarf its neighbour, a brand-new five-star Marriott. It was one last glimpse of the city's wonderful quirkiness – and as I now know, the gateway to so much more.
The writer was a guest of Intrepid Travel. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
Newly launched, Intrepid Travel's 10-day Real Food Adventure in Macedonia and Montenegro offers numerous insider experiences such as a Tutto's Slow Food demo and cooking class and tours and tastings in Macedonia's burgeoning wine country with an award-winning local wine writer, as well as visits to historic sites and monasteries. From $2,740. intrepidtravel.com
Intrepid's tour kicks off in Skopje, which requires a connection. The quickest, most direct route is on Austrian Airlines with a stopover in Vienna. austrian.com
The tour concludes in Kotor, Montenegro, which is about a 1 1/2-hour drive from Dubrovnik Airport.