When I was four years old, my family moved from Athens, Greece to Lausanne, Switzerland so that my father could pursue a career opportunity. Thinking that it would be a fun adventure, my parents decided to drive to Switzerland through Yugoslavia. All I remember from that mid-1970s road trip was seeing lots of mountains. However, last month, I had another opportunity to explore more closely Macedonia (also known as the Republic of Macedonia or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – FYROM) and what was most surprising to me was how many options there are for adventure travelers.
Our first stop was in Skopje, which is a walkable city filled with very ornate (as well as very new and expensive) monuments that attempt to explain its complex history. For example, the main square, filled with fashionable cafes and neoclassical architecture, boasts monuments to King Samuel (Bulgarian Emperor), Alexander the Great, and Philip of Macedonia, among others.
A short walk away, the Old Bazaar (second largest after Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar) and Kale Fortress along with other sculptures that depict the revolutionary struggles of yesteryear round out the scene. If it sounds over the top, it is, especially given that there were nightly (peaceful) protests by citizens who were objecting both to allegations of corruption and to the immense cost of these projects. Their form of protest was to throw paint onto the monuments.
The next day we traveled 10 miles outside Skopje to Lake Matka for some good hiking, rock climbing and kayaking. We took a short hike from the access road to the rock climbing area, and then hiked down to Lake Matka, but if you want to avoid renting a car and wouldn’t mind a long day’s hike, you can trek to Lake Matka from Skopje using the Vodno Mountain pass from Millenium Cross. There’s also a number of restaurant options at Lake Matka to fortify yourself for the trip back.
The following day we traveled by car (then jeep) to a lodge at the base of Mt. Ljuboten, which is one of the most famous peaks of the Shar Mountains and which borders Kosovo to the northwest and Albania to the northeast. This is a vigorous, day-long hike but well worth it for the views and a hearty meal afterward consisting of boar and deer and vegetables, at the Mountain Hut Ljuboten!
Thereafter, there was a short visit to Mavrovo National Park, for some caving at Gorna Slatinska before arriving into the Lake Ohrid region for the AdventureNEXT conference. Lake Ohrid is a lovely town, usually reserved as a summer destination. I participated in a Treasure Hunt tour which allowed for me to better understand the town’s Roman and Byzantine roots. Essentially, we solved riddles and performed various stunts (i.e. archery, coloring) to better discover this pretty town.
For those who are looking for an adventure destination that out of necessity support local businesses, Macedonia should be overlooked.
Note that this ATTA conference aimed to bring together the countries and companies of the Balkans in order to discuss the prospects and future of adventure tourism in the region. For example, one of the agenda items focused on how to stimulate the local economic impact of tourism throughout the Balkans. (Full disclosure that this trip was sponsored by Macedonia Experience and that I was a speaker at this conference discussing the ROI of Sustainable Tourism.)