Set at the heart of the Balkans with around 80% of its land as mountains and hills, Macedonia is an ideal destination for bagging some challenging peaks and brushing up on your Balkan history. The country offers a rich mix of cultural and historical heritage whilst also boasting an impressive collection of National Parks, extensive mountain ranges and stunning alpine vistas, all of which are explored on our new ‘Off the Beaten Track – Macedonia’ trip.
The trip begins in the country’s capital, Skopje, where old meets new in a city which is developing a new identity. In the new section of the city we visit Mother Teresa’s memorial (unknown to many, she was born in Macedonia), walk the shop lined boulevards and photograph Macedonia’s version of the Arc de Triomph. Crossing the Vadar River over the famous Stone Bridge - a symbol of Skopje and the main element of the coat of arms of the city - we have time to revel in the charm of the old Turkish section of the city, which, dotted with hammams, mosques and pretty squares, is the ideal place to stop for a strong coffee and a sit down.
Outside of the capital, there’s no time to sit down as Macedonia offers trekkers and walkers three National Parks to explore – Mavrovo, Galicia and Pelister - and an 80km long range of mountains known as the Shar Planina, which extends as far west as Albania and as far north and northwest as Kosovo, passing through Macedonia en route. Fortunately we have the chance to visit all of these areas, with the exception of Pelister, which we experience instead in liquid form - a welcome glass or two of its Tikves wine serves as an ideal post walk refreshment.
It is in the Shar Planina (or Shar Mountains), that we bag our first summit of the trip, Titov Vrv - the highest mountain completely in Macedonia at 2748m. This is a challenging walk, especially the final pull to the summit, but the views which greet us are a more than fitting reward and no-one can resist a photo of the neighbouring Kosovian mountains. Having warmed up we proceed to tick off a further three peaks – Mount Medinica (2163m) and Mount Golem Krchin (2341m) in the Mavrovo National Park and then, on our final day of the trip, Mount Magaro (2255m) in the Galicia National Park. With each peak we are offered different terrain, varying flora and fauna and new views to capture.
Of course, a trip to Macedonia would not be complete without a visit to Lake Ohrid and, despite the rain which has arrived; we are not disappointed by this million year old lake and the pretty town which sits on it, whose history spans from Byzantine times right through to the present day.
Trekking in Macedonia, you could be forgiven for temporarily believing that you were in the Italian or Swiss Alps; the splattered snow patches, the wild flowers, and the turquoise blue lakes, however, we only need to tot up the number of people that we have passed during the week - 3, possibly 4? - to remind ourselves that we are far from the alpine crowds in a country which, steeped in history, is still very much untouched and undiscovered.
In fact, it’s fair to say that, in Western Europe, Macedonia has only just begun to register on the traveller’s radar and many still make the mistake of only dropping in as part of a ‘Balkan Discovery’ itinerary. But, this is changing and the buzz is evident; everywhere we go there is a sense of excitement and promise. This excitement is conveyed constantly on our trip; through the eagerness of our guides to share their knowledge of Macedonia’s culture and nature, through the friendliness of the locals, and, of course, through the copious amounts of domasni (home-cooked dishes) we are served at each meal!
And when the history is as flavoursome as theirs, the natural landscape as stunning and the food as rich and varied, it’s very hard not to get caught up in the excitement. Just don’t forget to set your alarm; it’s an early start for the next summit…!