With its secluded location north of Greece, east of Albania, and west of Bulgaria, Macedonia boasts a rich and enduring culture that has been shaped and, yes, sometimes tested, by its geography and its history. Today, it is one of Europe’s best kept secrets, where deep-rooted traditions blend with some of the Balkans’ most dramatic mountains and sweeping valleys that give rise to rivers that flow to the Aegean, the Adriatic, and the Black Seas. Macedonia is, by all accounts, a breathtaking spectacle of natural and cultural beauty. All this in a nation that’s not much larger than the U.S. state of Vermont.
Intimate in scale yet vast in its beauty, Macedonia is best explored in a Discovery Tours small group. As we hope you will soon find out for yourself on our new Majestic Balkans trip.
Skopje: A Stunning Capital Where East Meets West
The nation’s capital of Skopje wears its pride with the aplomb of any European cultural center. Ottoman Turks ruled here for 500 years and vestiges of their culture are everywhere, lending the city an “east-meets-west” atmosphere. Its historic centerpiece, the Kale—kale means “fortress” in Turkish—overlooks the city. In its heyday, one renowned writer visiting in 1660 remarked that “one cannot see so much refinement and art” as he saw here.
Much of that era’s flavor also seeps through the stone lanes of the Turkish Bazaar, known locally as Čaršija. Home to some 30 mosques and a number of historic caravansaries, its stalls are brimming with colorful carpets, handmade crafts, carved dolls, and all the traditional makings of Macedonia. With its vast collection of historic architecture, it is perhaps Skopje’s most significant area of cultural heritage. Nearby, one of the 20th century’s greatest humanitarian figures, Mother Teresa, was born in 1910, when the city was part of Albania.
Stobi: The Pompeii of Macedonia
Macedonia has been occupied and ruled by many empires throughout its history. Another city you will visit paints a fascinating picture of the region’s early past. The ancient site of Stobi was home to the Paeonians, believed to have been allies to the Trojans. When the Persians invaded in the 5th century BC, they exiled the Paeonians to Asia, which eventually opened a door for Philip II of Macedon to conquer the area around 355 BC.
Some 200 years later, the Romans moved in to establish their new province of Macedonia Salutaris. They made Stobi its revered capital. Today, its incredibly preserved remains—a grand amphitheater, a palace, basilicas, baths, residences, and more line ancient stone streets. Like Pompeii, Volubilis, or any other surviving treasure, it provides fascinating insight into life in the Empire.
Remarkably, this ancient land provides an ideal environment for a rich viniculture. The most common wine you will see, and perhaps drink, is Vranec, a lush red. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes are also grown here. And for a unique wine tasting experience, be sure to sample Stanušina Crna, a high-quality wine not known outside the country. You will have the chance to sip and swirl at a local winery after your visit to Stobi.
Ohrid: A Lakeside Jewel of Culture and History
Lake Ohrid straddles the Macedonia-Albania border. With its red-roofed houses and hilltop fortress overlooking pristine waters, the lake’s namesake town and its surroundings may remind you of Italy’s Lake Como. Ohrid and Lake Ohrid hold a rare distinction of holding UNESCO World Heritage status as both Cultural and Natural Sites. And it’s easy to understand why.
When the 17th-century Ottoman traveler Mehmed Zilli traveled through scenic Ohrid, he observed that there were 365 chapels here, one for every day of the year. Whether legend or fact (today there are far fewer), the reputation stuck and Ohrid is still known as the “Macedonian Jerusalem.” The Church of St. Sophia is one of the most important in the nation, boasting splendid medieval architecture and beautifully preserved frescoes dating as far back as the 11th century. One of the most dramatic remaining ecclesiastic centers is the Monastery of St. Naum, perched on a rocky upwelling beside the lake. But the most dramatic site of Ohrid is the Fortress of Tsar Samoil; its ramparts look out over the lake as if still searching for invaders approaching by boat. Ancient Greece, too, left its mark in Ohrid, in the form of an open-air theater tucked between two hills.
Discovery Tours is pleased to bring our small groups to the cultural and scenic heart of Macedonia, long a crossroads of culture, commerce, and—today—discovery. We hope you will join us on our new Majestic Balkans itinerary!