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Nestled between Albania and Greece is the naturally beautiful, historically rich, and welcoming nation of Macedonia. Or should we say, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Once known as a territory of ancient Greece—as well as the Ottoman Empire’s, Serbia’s, and Yugoslavia’s—the modern people of Macedonia adamantly pronounce their autonomy today, a peacefully-won independence only just declared in 1991. This diverse mix of cultural influences left behind a fascinating blend of Ottoman and European architecture, uniquely delicious food and wine culture, and a complex national identity.
Macedonians are also deeply proud of their heritage—although sometimes it does clash with neighboring Greece. For example, Alexander the Great, ancient king of Macedonia, is a hotly contested national icon. Since Macedonia was part of Greece’s empire at the time, Alexander is often touted as a Greek hero. But Macedonians fiercely claim this local legend as their own.
Although it is one of the poorest countries in Europe, Macedonia is rich with natural treasures, including three national parks. Soaring mountains encircle the horizon, 53 lakes shimmer throughout the land, and lush valleys and mysterious caves beckon explorers. One of the most famous and beloved of these natural wonders is sprawling Lake Ohrid, crystal-clear and rimmed with quaint fishing villages and majestic mountain ranges. Still largely undiscovered by the tourist circuit, Macedonia is a traveler’s dream—an undiscovered gem off Europe’s beaten path.
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A sublime mix of the very old and the new, Ohrid beckons visitors with an array of delights. Its charming Old Quarter is packed with buildings from across the ages—Byzantine structures, a medieval castle, and modern restaurants and lakeside cafes. In a city of 365 churches, the most famous is St. Sophia—one of the largest medieval churches in Macedonia—which today houses an impressive collection of art and architecture from the Middle Ages. It is no wonder Ohrid was named a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site.
But it is the glittering jewel of the city which also earned Ohrid the title of UNESCO Natural Heritage site—dazzling Lake Ohrid. The crystal clear lake is one of Europe’s deepest and oldest, estimated to be around three million years old. Along its shores are the remains of some of Europe’s oldest human settlements, and beneath the surface more than 200 unique aquatic species thrive. Ringed with mountains and picturesque beaches, the lake is a magnet for pleasure-seeking locals and travelers alike.
Another of Ohrid’s jewels is an actual one: the renowned Ohrid pearl. Prized for their bright glow and rich luster, the method of crafting these fine gems is a carefully-guarded secret known only to two families in the city. Some believe the signature glow is achieved using an emulsion of prismatic fish scales from a species found only in Lake Ohrid. Whatever the secret is, the pearls have been fervently sought after by stars and royalty alike for generations.
The perfect way to wind-down after a day exploring the literal and figurative gems of Ohrid is to pull up a chair at one of the local cafes and sample one of Macedonia’s traditional liquors, such as rakija or mastika, and enjoy the serene atmosphere.
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Bay of the Bones Museum
Jutting out into the southern half of Lake Ohrid’s brilliant turquoise waters, the Bay of the Bones Museum offers an opportunity to step into the life of Bronze Age Macedonians. Reconstructed from the remains of a settlement found within the lake, the Macedonian government created the harbor site to offer a special glimpse into the region’s distant and fascinating past.
Archaeologists determined the site was once used for the cult rituals of a people whose beliefs have since faded with time. More than 20 small huts, made of wood and plastered with animal fat, hold relics from the settlement’s past—including ceramic plates, fishing nets, weavings, knives, and other tools.
As you walk between the huts, with their dried cows’ skulls and pitched and conical roofs made of straw and twigs, it’s hard not to appreciate the simple ingenuity of primitive people. The story of ancient Macedonians is still unfolding—the Bay of the Bones Museum offers an intimate look at a simpler time, and you can begin reading that story amid the serene beauty that is Lake Ohrid.
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Macedonia’s capital city is undergoing a metamorphosis. Almost completely leveled by an earthquake in 1963—and for decades before and after a part of the Soviet Union—Skopje’s people and government are working to preserve the past and welcome a bright future.
The country of Macedonia has changed hands many times throughout history, from the Greeks to the Byzantines and the Ottomans, and has undergone several occupations and rebirths in the early 20th century. To get a panoramic taste of Skopje’s varied past, the Old Bazaar—once the second largest in the world—brings craftsmen and vendors together for everything from traditional Macedonian clothing to Turkish Delights, a family of traditional desserts made of starch and sugar.
Connecting the bazaar to Skopje’s central square, the Stone Bridge has itself weathered many ravages of time. Constructed in the mid-15th century, the bridge has survived invasions, earthquakes, and was even narrowly spared demolition by the Nazis in 1944. Like the city of Skopje, the Stone Bridge is a symbol of endurance under fire.
While known as the birthplace of athletes and emperors, perhaps Skopje’s most famous native was revered humanitarian Saint Mother Teresa. Her former home is now a memorial, detailing her life in the city and across the world.
Throughout the ages Skopje has seen many things. This, as its vibrancy will prove, has only made the city stronger. As evidenced by the myriad statues, architectural styles, and rivers, the city is one thing above all else—a crossroads.
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With walls adorned in vibrant yellows, pinks, and greens, and festooned with floral flourishes, city scenes, and orange sunbursts, the Šarena Džamija (Decorated Mosque) in Tetovo truly lives up to its name. Unlike traditional Ottoman mosques, Šarena Džamija’s eye-catching design was not achieved with ceramic tales, but rather with paint and glaze made from more than 30,000 eggs. And that’s not the only way this mosque breaks with convention.
When Šarena Džamija was built in 1438, most new mosques were financed by sultans, beys, or pashas. But Šarena Džamija was different. Two sisters, Hurshida and Mensure, provided the funds not only for the mosque, but also for a hammam (Turkish bath) and an inn across the river (both of which have been lost to time). The sisters even financed an octagonal türbe (tomb) in the mosque’s garden courtyard, which is where they chose to be buried. Other unusual features that the sisters selected for their mosque include a gently-sloped roof instead of a distinctive Islamic dome, as well as a depiction of Mecca among the painted decorations—perhaps the only illustration of its kind in southeast Europe.
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Outdoor enthusiasts and history-seekers alike will find much to discover in majestic Matka Canyon. Verdant cliffs rise from glimmering Matka Lake, the oldest manmade lake in Macedonia, giving swimmers and kayakers a most impressive view. Certain times of the year, hikers can admire the lush plant life—20% of which can only be found in Matka—and may encounter some of the canyon’s 77 indigenous species of butterfly. The most adventurous can explore some of the canyon’s ten caves, ranging from 65 to 577 feet deep, and containing natural wonders like stalactites and stalagmites.
Matka Canyon is home to manmade sights as well. Dotted along the canyon is an array of medieval monasteries, historic churches, and old fortresses that can be viewed as you hike any of the many trails. One of the most famous is St. Andrew's Monastery. Built in 1389, it is adorned inside with extremely well-preserved frescoes.
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A symphony of colors and flavors define the comforting appeal and quiet allure of the city of Tetova. Known for its hospitable nature, Tetova is home to warm and welcoming locals and an enticing local cuisine. Known for its unforgettable culinary specialties, Tetova boasts distinct flavors and dishes, including Burek—meat and onions rolled in pastry, which closely resembles a handheld pie. Rakija is another staple that is popular throughout the Balkans. This strong drink, fermented with fruits like plums, can consist of up to 45% alcohol.
The red-roofed city is also geographically magnificent as it is surrounded by verdant mountains and is located along scenic stretches of the Pena River. The Šarena Džamija Mosque, located near the river, is one of the city's most striking sites. The mosque was originally constructed in the 15th century and was later redesigned in the 19th century. Today, the mosque's design is equally as vibrant and colorful as Tetova's culture.
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Get the Details On Our Macedonia Adventure
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Small Group Adventure
Days in Macedonia
Find the Adventure That’s Right for You
Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.
Activity Level 1:
Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 2:
Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.
Activity Level 3:
Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.
Activity Level 4:
Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
Activity Level 5:
Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.
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