Macedonia, “ahem”, sorry, North Macedonia, is a small Balkan country situated directly east of Albania. Along its southern border lies Greece (a dispute with Greece is the reason why the country is now called “North” Macedonia), Bulgaria comprises the eastern border, Serbia lies to the north, and Kosovo to the northwest.
A former state of the-now-defunct Yugoslavia, Macedonia gained independence from that fallen republic in 1991 when the massive toppling of communism occurred all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, (though Yugoslavian communism/socialism was very much its own form of government and was not aligned with Stalinist communism).
Macedonia is the only country to have peacefully gained independence from Yugoslavia. Read that again.
It’s an ancient land with so much fascinating history that I don’t think I’ll even bother to offer the Coles Notes version. I mean, it has so much to study that professional historians could, and do, spend entire careers on this area alone. So, for all you aspiring history buffs out there, this place is a jackpot. And subsequently, a hotbed of cultural bickering and unending political tug-of-war.
North Macedonia (let me just say that while in Macedonia you’ll never hear it called “North” Macedonia, and will probably be corrected if you do – I prefer not to use it) is populated by… well, the numbers are just a guess really, there’s been no official census taken for many, many moons. Apparently for political reasons that I’ll let you discover on your own should you choose to visit one day.
Anyhoo… It’s assumed that ethnic Macedonians comprise the major percentage of the citizenry, with ethnic Albanians making up quite a significant minority. However, depending on what local you talk to, it’s estimated that the significant Albanian minority is anywhere from 25 to near 50 percent. But, again, no recent census numbers are available, and most of the numbers I heard were offered by locals with definite political biases. Other ethnic groups living in Macedonia are Turks, Serbs, Bosniaks, Aromanians, and Romani.
A bit of an aside here, concerning Romani people in the Balkans, as the issue has been brought up in a few ex-pat groups and by other people with little or no right to opinions on the matter.
Romani people (Not Romanian people!!! A huge difference) are referred to as gypsies by pretty much everyone in the Balkan countries I’ve been to, and Balkan people really don’t seem to care about a few woke westerners who take offence to it, or the fact that some Romani do too. I’m not even sure they’re aware.
Everywhere I’ve been in the Balkans, Romani people and Balkan Egyptians are called gypsies. They’re usually poor, they’re second, or third, or fourth-class citizens, and that’s how they’re treated. Right or wrong, that’s the way it is. So before anyone with no real idea about this issue decides to voice their opinion, try living in the Balkans for at least a few years. Then maybe your views will have some validity. They won’t, ever, to anyone, but at least you’ll be able to argue your points from a more educated position.
But enough of all that. On to the wondrously fantastic, surprisingly amazing, great time we had, staying for three months in a country we really had no idea about before we went there. Any expectations we may have had were wildly exceeded.
So, how do I love Makedonija? Shall I count the ways? Indeed I shall.
Even though my dear, bestess lady and I arrived in Macedonia in the middle of winter, we received anything but a cold shoulder.
Coming to Macedonia from Albania, where people are so outwardly welcoming (I mean, open arms and huge smiles as you’re invited into strangers’ homes for conversation and food), anything less than hugs and Raki might seem aloof or unfriendly. But no, although Macedonians (I’m not writing “North” anymore, sorry Greek Macedonians, I mean no offence) are not as exuberantly accommodating as Albanians, they were almost all awesome to us. Exceptionally so.
Macedonians are indeed a bit more hesitant than Albanians at first, but equally as warm and friendly with a bit of time. The only real issue I had in Macedonia, people-wise, was from a pushy gypsy kid I eventually just told to piss off, and he was only a kid, so not really an issue. Everyone else was solid gold.
As it was winter, we decided to skip the beautiful summer town of Ohrid, with plans of returning for the full experience in better weather. Bitola was our first destination. Upon arriving in Bitola, we dragged our many heavy suitcases through the snowy streets to Hotel Robevski, which is located on Ulica Shirok Sokak, the main walking thoroughfare of Bitola.
We initially booked the King Petar suite for two days but loved it so much we stayed for a week while hunting for something more long-term. We were treated like gold.
We did eventually find something for a month, through Aries Property Management, where we were, of course, treated very well by everyone at the office. Or maybe we were just treated like a couple of odd Canadians by their standards, but to me, it seemed special.
The apartment was cozy, very affordable, modern, and our landlords were so accommodating and nice that it was almost sad moving on to Skopje afterwards. The lady we hired to clean our place once a week was also wonderful, as well as good at her job, and perfectly bossy like a Balkan mom should be. What a sweetheart.
Because it was full winter, most of our time was spent indoors while in Bitola, so there’s not really a tonne I want to say about it right now. Heraclea Lyncestis (A historian’s wet dream, I won’t even start. Google it now!), was unfortunately closed when we walked there. We stood outside the fence and gazed forlornly through the bars of what seemed like a prison in reverse, and took in the epicness from outside the joint. I just called Heraclea “the joint”. I’m going to hell. We’ll be back, Heraclea, oh, we’ll be back!
So, after writing three-quarters of a page about a town I’m not including in this post, and I could easily write more (even the ladies at our favourite grocery store were so wonderful that our interactions could take a few paragraphs), I’ll tell you now to stay tuned for our next visit to Bitola, as well as Ohrid, when those places are bumpin’.
Anyway, we hired a driver through Plus Transfers Skopje to take us from Bitola to, you guessed it, Skopje. Dragan, a Macedonian of Serbian descent, arrived on time, directly to the correct address, helped us load up, and off we went. Dragan, like many Balkan people, is a walking, driving encyclopedia of all things Balkan, and the drive was less an A-to-B taxi-ride than south to north info-tour of Macedonia. He’s an excellent driver, a smart man, and we really hit it off. So much so that we hired him again two months later when we moved from Skopje to Shkoder, Albania. But that’s another story. If you book with them, let them know we sent you to get a good deal! PlusTransfersMK
We arrived in the heart of Skopje to what was to be our home for the next two months: the Dali Apartments at 3A Luj Paster Str., Skopje. Right across the park from the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia, and less than a minute from Macedonia Street, a walking-only strip of numerous shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants. Macedonia street is the main thoroughfare, leading from Dame Gruev in the south to Macedonia Square at its north end. After the square, Macedonia Street turns into the Stone Bridge path and leads to the Old Bazaar, which is something to behold.
Don’t forget the Skopje fortress (Kale Fortress)… even prettier at night.
The Dali apartments are works of art, replete with their own interesting bit of history.
The place was originally built to be the family home of the artist/architect and his wife and kids, but for reasons only known to those involved, the family left Macedonia for Australia, and the home got converted into individual rental suites, for which I am personally thankful.
The place took sixteen people five years and five months to complete, and when you’re inside the building it’s not difficult to see why. For extensive reading and many photographs, please visit www.rogermacconstructions.com. You can find the PDF for the Dali Apartment Project here. There is also a PDF for Roger Pijano, another epic undertaking. Though the website is pretty rough, these books are well worth perusing, even if you never go to Skopje.
The Infinity House, Skopje.
We stayed in the Purple Suite for the first month, which was actually quite run-down and dusty, but beautiful and interesting all the same. When the Infinity Suite on the top floor came available, we moved upstairs for the second month. Although there were a few minor issues (nothing in all the Balkans works perfectly), our stay was amazing.
We enjoyed the onset of spring in the Infinity Suite, watching the trees bud, the grass sprout, and the birds zip about doing their spring things in the sun. Living in a habitable art piece during my favourite season of the year imprinted memories I’ll surely carry with me for the rest of my days. Experiences like that remind me why I trot around the globe, and they inspire me to continue.
Now on to a very crucial aspect of any culture, and one which I never fail to address: food and drink.
In the Balkans, most of the food is good, everywhere, so for somewhere to stand out means that they do an exceptional job. Which, in Skopje, they all do. We ate no crappy food in Skopje and drank no crappy wine. Even the crap wine is decent. If you have time, a must-do is the Stobi Winery Tour. Their Stobi Makedonsko Crveno wine for €2.50 a bottle became a daily staple. I’ve had €100 bottles that weren’t nearly as smooth.
What became our go-to place, Amigos Restaurant and Bar, on Macedonia Street, which was very close to our home, makes absolutely excellent Macedonian versions of Mexican food and drink. Everything either of us had there was stellar. And the service, oh my god, the service. It’s second-to-none.
I’ll go more in-depth about Macedonian service in a bit.
Another favourite eatery of ours is called Pelister (also a nice hotel). Again, epic. Their beet and yam chips (crisps for you Brits) are ridiculously delicious. How? I don’t know, but they are. Everything else is amazing too.
Want more traditional fare? Yes, you do. Then go to Old City House and eat anything. Drink whatever house wine is on as well. You won’t be disappointed. Fancy a bit of nomadic internetting and yet more stupidly scrumptious snacking? But of course! The Public Room is for you. Burgers from heaven and cocktails to match in a setting with a large space to work or lounge for hours, a digital nomads dream.
Feel like staying home and ordering in? We often did. Call or message Klikni Jadi, even in the later hours, and they’ll make sure you get the best in the city. They even stopped to pick up beer, wine, and snacks for us. The best delivery service we’ve ever, ever experienced anywhere. Ever! The best! Always happy to help us find whatever we needed.
Klikni Jadi delivers all day and into the night, and you get service with a big, genuine smile. They always seemed surprised by, and slightly reluctant to accept, my monetary tokens of appreciation. Which every single person I dealt with well deserved.
Klikni Jadi. The rest of the entire world needs to see how it’s done. Macedonian service. Second to none. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we found paket.mk. The amazing grocery delivery service with wholesome ingredients, for such a low price you will feel like you’re robbing them. Please do tip them well!
The total bill for all of this (including beer & wine) was €52.56!
There are restaurants everywhere in Skopje, and, as this post is running away, I’ll just say that you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with any dining decision. The Old Bazaar has many places worth trying, not to mention other things to explore. Go there for a meal every once in a while. You’ll find a more Albanian and Turkish/Ottoman flair. In food and architecture. And the service! The service!
The Old Bazaar.
I must say that Skopje has the best day-to-day shopping in my current experience of the Balkans. Ramstore Mall will sort out most daily needs, with a deli to die for in the grocery store. Pharmacies abound in the city, kiosks, auto shops, wine stores, everything you might need. A person shouldn’t lack for much of anything in Skopje.
This wonderful city also has green spaces everywhere, with an impressive number of massive parks. Interesting neighbourhoods like Debar Maalo (the bohemian quarter). It has gyms and fitness outlets to match any on earth, bicycle and walking paths, football stadiums and fields, history, music, culture, well…. everything a good city needs.
Another aside that I find rather interesting, Skopje is home to a giant American embassy. Nine acres of prime real estate atop Gradiste hill. It’s quite an impressive installation, and not without its share of controversy and resentment from some locals. However, the reason for its existence, and the politics of why it exists and how it came to be, are not the focus of this blog piece. That in itself could, and probably does, fill a volume of its own somewhere. I just found the sheer size of the place to be surprising.
The giant, daunting ‘Merican Embassy
I think Macedonia (North Macedonia), is my second favourite Balkan country (I’ve been to five thus far), with Skopje being my favourite Balkan city. Albania is still the top spot on my ultimate Balkan destination list, but Macedonia got me in a different, more cosmopolitan-but-still-down-to-earth way.
It has no coastline, a lot of it is dirty, it’s not rich, it has corrupt politicians (what country doesn’t), it’s not that big, and it has blatant social issues between the ethnic peoples there. But I don’t care about any of that. The people are indescribably… cool. They’re proud without being arrogant (take a lesson Serbia and Montenegro). They’re also helpful, skilled, intelligent, funny, and they make such good food. And wine.
I could go on, and on, and on, and… you get the idea, about Macedonia, Skopje in particular, but this silly piece is now well over two thousand words and you’ll abandon this mission if the text doesn’t end soon. I know you will. Analytics don’t lie. So after one last note, it’ll all be over.
The last note? Notice how I didn’t mention anything about statues when describing Skopje? Really! Not a word. It’s because that seems to be the main focus of other bloggers when doing their three-day tour of the city. I think too many bloggers, in general, write a lot of generic, location-specific fluff because they think it’s what’s expected. Then they offer the expected opinion concerning that fluff, with no real cultural experience or context. I don’t care about the “statue” controversies, they’re none of my business. And I prefer to keep it that way.
The statues are there, most of them are actually kind of neat, way over-the-top, but neat, and life goes on. I found more important things in Skopje to focus on. And to love. It was easy. But here are a couple anyway.
Loving the Balkans? Read more here.