The story of North Macedonia starts with Alexander the Great, one of history’s most successful military commanders. Alexander created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to Northwestern India. But, apart from a few souvenirs in the shops and a giant statue in the center of Skopje, nothing in North Macedonia makes you think about warfare. Instead, the country is all rugged mountains, quiet lakes and mysterious, tiny, churches and monasteries. It’s harder to imagine a more peaceful place than this.
North Macedonia was once part of Ancient Greece, and used to share its name with a Northern Greek province. Without being drawn on where Greece begins and Macedonia ends, the ancient kingdom of Macedon dates back to 808BC. Skopje, the capital, is said to be seven thousand years old.
Alexander’s empire didn’t last very long after his death around 323 BC, and the rest of the history of this landlocked country, which is surrounded by Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece, includes a long list of invasions from the neighbors. The country was ruled by about everybody around, from the Ottomans, to the Greek, Romans and Bulgarians, before finally becoming an independent state in 1991.
Its long, turbulent history is what makes a visit to North Macedonia so interesting. Everywhere you go, there is this mix of different cultures and influences. The country represents the Balkans in the truest sense, with all its Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Mediterranean influences. Only in North Macedonia will you find so many Christian churches – the city of Ohrid was once notable for having 365 of them, one for each day of the year. Next to this, thanks to its membership of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century, there are also a number of remarkable mosques, including the multi-colored Painted Mosque dating from 1495 and said to be one of the most resplendent specimens of Islamic architecture in the world. The same goes for the food – all the best Greek and Turkish dishes are mixed with more European tastes.
Jewel in the Crown
We arrive at glittering Lake Ohrid, a lakeside resort and UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered the jewel in North Macedonia's crown and it etched out a place for North Macedonia on the tourist map. Ohrid is considered to be one of the oldest and deepest lakes and biotopes in the world.
Neighboring countries always knew that this is a beautiful place for sun and culture, but the rest of the world has just recently discovered Ohrid, making it one of Europe’s last undiscovered places. While a young generation tour leaders enthusiastically tell the stories of the old monasteries in English, other North Macedonians are clearly not so used to foreigners in their country and also take pictures of the foreigners.
The church we visit is called Naum's Church of the Holy Archangels (AD 900). It was destroyed by the Ottomans in the 15th century and reincarnated as the Church of Sveti Naum when it was rebuilt between the 16th and 17th centuries as a multidomed, Byzantine-style structure on a cliff. Inside the tiny structure, Macedonians put their ears to the tomb of Sveti Naum to hear his muffled heartbeat. Then it’s to the monastery walls for inspiring lake views and to the restaurant for Greek food.
Like elsewhere in the country, Phoenicians, Macedonians, Romans and Christians all left their mark on Ohrid. We walk the ramparts of the 10th Century fortress of Tsar Samuil, built over the 4th Century BC fort of Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. Centuries later, in 2002, a gold funeral mask and glove, possibly dating from the 7th Century BC and now in the Gold Room of Ohrid museum, were found nearby. There must be many more ancient treasures under the ground of this remarkable country, criss-crossed over the centuries by royalty, pilgrims, peasants and merchants. No wonder curious visitors are now following the archaeologists and historians to these old places. In Ohrid, one can even take diving lessons to explore the archaeological treasures under a reconstructed bronze-age village, called the Bay of Bones Museum.
The rest of North Macedonia is a stomping ground for adventurers. Tourist infrastructure is scant, but locals are helpful. Mountains are omnipresent and walking trails blissfully quiet. The national parks of Mavrovo, Galičica and Pelister are also cultivating some excellent cultural and food tourism initiatives; these gorgeous regions are underexplored. If you want to get off the beaten track in Europe, this is it. Life moves to a different rhythm here, amidst the sprawling grandeur of rich historical ruins and idyllic villages that have remained practically unchanged for centuries.
When visiting its ancient buildings and astonishing nature, you can’t help but wonder why Alexander went so far from home to conquer other lands, when there was so much to see on his own shores.
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