Republic of Macedonia
The Republic of Macedonia, (Macedonian: Република Македонија, Republika Makedonija) (accepted in the UN under the provisional reference the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), is a landlocked country in the Balkans. It is bordered by Serbia and the disputed region of Kosovo to the north, Albania to the west, Bulgaria to the east, and Greece to the south. The constitutional name of the country is the Republic of Macedonia and it is usually called simply Macedonia, despite the disambiguation concerns of the neighboring Greeks in the Greek province Macedonia and the official provisional name the country has under UN.
While easily accessible from all points abroad, and boasting all the amenities of the Western world, the Republic of Macedonia remains one of Europe’s last undiscovered countries: a natural paradise of mountains, lakes and rivers, where life moves to a different rhythm, amidst the sprawling grandeur of rich historical ruins and idyllic villages that have remained practically unchanged for centuries. The majority population is Slavic and Orthodox but there is also a significant Albanian Muslim minority. Therefore, one can expect a wonderful mix of architectural and ethnic hertitage. The country represents the Balkans in the truest sense, consisting of a fascinating mix of Slavic, Albanian, Turkish, and Mediterranean influences.
Macedonia is a country with many ethnic minorities. There is still some ethnic tension between Albanians (who form the majority in the northwest) and Macedonians, so this is a subject best avoided. It almost came to civil war a few years ago. Constitutional cultural autonomy was granted and things have greatly improved avoiding the disaster that was Serbia.
Macedonia has warm, dry summers and autumns, and relatively cold winters with heavy snowfall.
Macedonia is covered by mountainous territory marked by deep basins and valleys. There are three large lakes, each divided by a frontier line, and the country bisected by the Vardar River.
Macedonia is blessed with outstanding natural beauty. Do not miss a trip to one of the large lakes, Pelister Mountains, Shar Planina in the West, and the fascinating rolling hills and mountains of the East with its rice fields.
Macedonia is dotted with beautiful Orthodox churches, monasteries, and Ottoman mosques. The territory of the Republic of Macedonia has a proud history. Being under the Ottomans for 500 years caused legendary Macedonian revolutionaries such as Goce Delcev, Nikola Karev, and Pitu Guli to lead uprisings to free Macedonia. Macedonia has been part of many countries, but until its incorporation into Yugoslavia by Tito in 1945 it was never acknowledged as an administrative "state." Macedonia prospered under Tito's rule, especially when the capital Skopje was rebuilt after a severe earthquake in 1963 and the Yugoslav government invested heavily in the subsequent infrastructure rebuilding. This may explain why many Macedonians are somewhat nostalgic for Tito's Yugoslavia.
International recognition of Macedonia's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 was delayed by Greece's objection to the new state's use of what Greece considered a "Hellenic name and symbols." Greece finally lifted its trade blockade in 1995, and the two countries agreed to normalize relations, despite continued disagreement over the use of "Macedonia" in the name. Greece is now the largest investor in the Republic of Macedonia.
Macedonia's large Albanian minority (about 25%), an ethnic Albanian armed insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia in 2001, and the status of neighboring Kosovo continue to be sources of ethnic tension. There were also tensions during the last parliamentary elections on the 2nd of June 2008, although they happened between supporters of the two biggest rival Albanian political parties.
Republic of Macedonia has two international airports, the main airport in the capital Skopje "Alexander the Great Airport" (SKP) and another in Ohrid "St.Paul the Apostle Airport" (OHD). There are around 150 flights in a week from different European cities to Skopje. Macedonian Government currently awarded one Turkish Airport Operator Company (TAV) to construct a brand new Terminal building in Skopje Airport and is estimated to be finished less than two years. Another option to travel into Republic of Macedonia is to fly to Thessaloniki (SKG) or to Sofia (SOF) and get a taxi or bus from there. However, crossing the border usually takes extra time. A taxi from Sofia to Skopje, arranged through the taxi desk at the airport costs €160 (although you may be able to negotiate with an individual driver for a fare closer to €100). If you fly to Thessaloniki, you can go by public bus (24/7) for 0,50 EUR to the train station and catch a train from there (14 EUR oneway).
A cheap way of traveling to or from Macedonia might be the Balkan Flexipass.
Be sure your Green Card (International Insurance Card) has an uncanceled "MK" box. Try to get a good map of the Republic of Macedonia and/or try to be able to read Cyrillic letters. Although most street signs are printed in Cyrillic and Latin letters it can be helpful to have a little knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, especially in small towns.
There are bus connections from Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Turkey to Skopje. In addition some buses, those operated by Drity tours at least, run from Tirana to Pristina via Skopje (don't expect them to wake you up or stop anywhere near Skopje bus station though)
In Skopje there are two bus terminals. Most buses come to the new terminal, but some connections (for example to Pristina) are serviced by the old one, which is located at the city center. If you need to change the terminals, you need to walk to the stone bridge over Vardar and cross the bridge (about 2.5 km) or take a taxi.
At both terminals you will be constantly nagged by taxi drivers, who will try to convince you to use their services. Unless you have too much money to throw away, you shouldn't take their advice. The taxi is likely to be heavily overpriced, especially for foreigners, while the buses are cheap, clean and safe.
There are plenty of boats for charter around Lake Ohrid and will show you the whole lake for a cheap price.
If travelling by car, be sure your tires are good enough. Especially in spring and autumn, weather in the mountains (Ohrid, Bitola) can differ significantly from the weather in the area you're coming from. You shall be aware, that even if the roads are bad, there is a toll charge which can be as much as 1,50 EUR for 20 kms bad road (Eg from Kumanovo to Skopje).
National trains are slow, but they are nonetheless a nice alternative to hot, crowded buses in the summer. The main train line runs from Skopje to Bitola and Skopje to Gevgelia. No trains run to Ohrid.
Taxis are perhaps the most common mode of transport in Macedonia amongst tourists. Most will usually charge a flat rate of 30 denars (in Skopje 50 denars) with the extra kilometres added on. Be careful when negotiating the price of the fare beforehand. Within city limits, prices over 100 denars are considered expensive even though the amount only converts to a few American dollars. Macedonian urban cities are much smaller in comparison to most western developed countries and would only take approximately 10-15 minutes to travel from one side of the city to the other by car. In Skopje, the capital and largest city, this should work out to an amount of about 100-150 denars.
A general exception to this rule is during peak tourist seasons particularly in the town of Ohrid. The summer months are the most profitable for many small businesses in Ohrid (and for some businesses, the only profitable months) including taxi drivers. For this reason many drivers will charge up to three times the flat rate for the same distance. Most taxis will insist on driving for no less than 100 denars which can be heard as "sto denari" or a "stotka" (slang term for a one hundred denar bill). Generally this is excessive but you can either negotiate the price down to 80 or even 70 denars to be reasonable, else simple bargain hunting is all that is required. During the peak seasons it is possible to find drivers willing to go as low as 40. Never feel pressured to take a taxi that seems overpriced.
While many young people speak English, many do not, so a phrasebook is handy. Speakers of Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene should have no problem getting by. German is also very useful, especially among older Albanians, and Dutch might be useful in Ohrid.
Republic of Macedonia is full of markets and bazaars well worth a visit. The bazaars of Skopje, Tetovo, Ohrid and Bitola are the largest selling anything from dried peppers to fake designer sunglasses. While much of the merchandise may not be worth buying, there is normally a good selection of shoes, fruit, and vegetables of good quality, depending on the season. Merchants are generally pleasant and welcoming, especially to westerners, who remain something of a rarity outside of Skopje and Ohrid.
Ohrid is famous for its pearls and there are dozens of jewelers in the old town that will offer good products at decent prices. The Macedonian Orthodox paintings in old Ohrid are also worth a look.
Tipping is not seen as essential, but it is always welcomed.
The official currency of Macedonia is the denar, however, many Macedonians quote prices in €. Most cities have ATMs where you can withdraw money with cheap commission rates, although there are also plenty of banks and exchange booths where you can easily change money. Do not change money on the street.
If you are on a tight budget, try one of the Skara (grill) places. There are quite a few up-market restaurants serving better quality food on the waterfront, but these cater to tourists, so don't be surprised by a rather sizeable bill at the end of your meal.
Typical Macedonian food resembles the food of the southern Balkans, meaning loads of grilled meat (known as skara). Side dishes usually have to be ordered separately. The Republic of Macedonia is also famous for its shopska salata a mixed salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and grated sirenje. Sirenje is a white cheese similar to feta cheese. Usually Macedonians will translate the English cheese to sirenje. Another local speciality is ajvar, a red paste made from roasted peppers and tomatoes, which is either used as an appetizer or side dish. Another typical local dish is tarator which is comparable to the Greek tzatziki. It is made of yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic and it is served as a cold soup.
The Republic of Macedonia, being landlocked, does not offer a great variety of fresh fish. A notable exception is Ohrid, where fresh fish from the local lake can be enjoyed. If you have no objections to eating endangered species, the Ohrid trout is a local delicacy.
Rakija is a strong grape brandy that has the best claim to be Republic's national beverage. There are also many breweries which brew surprisingly good-tasting beer. Macedonians boast the largest winery in the Balkan area—the Tikveš (Tikvesh) winery in Kavadarci. Red wines are usually better than white ones. Try "T'ga za Jug"—Macedonian favorite red wine made from a local grape variety called Vranec. The local beer market appears, in Skopje at least, to be dominated by Skopsko, a drinkable, if not entirely distinctive, lager.
Being the national tourist attraction, Ohrid is obviously more expensive than any other destination in the Republic of Macedonia. Note that hotel prices are very expensive throughout the country and charge double rates to foreigners. It is therefore advisable to stay in private accommodation. If someone does not ask you at the bus station, you can always consult one of the many travel agencies in and around the center. If you do opt for private accommodation make sure you see the room first and then decide. Payment is normally made in advance and should cost no more than €10-15 per night per person in peak season and half that during the rest of the year. Note: finding suitable accommodation in July and August is not easy, so try and book through a travel agent in advance.
When visiting Lake Ohrid, staying in nearby Struga as opposed to the more popular Ohrid is a wise alternative for the price and tourist-trap conscious.
Republic of Macedonia is a safe country. Driving is not ill-advised, but it's recommended for foreigners to try and use taxis and public transport wherever possible. As in all countries, keep an eye out for pickpockets and all valuables safe. Hotels and most private accommodation will offer a safe to store valuables and cash in.
Most people are very friendly and hospitable.
Water is safe to drink and there are public drinking water fountains in most public places. It is advisable to wash all fruit and vegetables.
As with any other country, use caution when eating red meats at restaurants. Although Macedonian cuisine typically revolves around grills ("skara") there are some restaurants that do not use proper or clean methods of cooking, which if practiced in many Western countries would be seen as a violation of certain health regulations. Bad restaurants can be spotted easily; they will probably not look very appealing and will not have many customers. However, the vast majority of restaurants in Macedonia serve good quality food.
It is not advisable to refer to the country as FYROM (fee-ROM). Republic of Macedonia is directly transliterated from the Cyrillic as Republika Makedonija, and is pronounced roughly how it would appear to an English speaker: "reh-POO-blee-kah mahk-eh-DOHN-ee-yah".
Touchy topics are Macedonian-Bulgarian, Macedonian-Albanian, and Macedonian-Greek relations. Most Macedonians can hold strong political opinions regarding their neighbours and won't shy away from expressing their views in most cases. Politics often finds its way into conversation over a cup of coffee. To keep from upsetting your hosts or new-found friends avoid topics such as the 2001 war against the NLA, Macedonia's partition during the Balkan wars and Macedonia's pending membership into the European Union or Nato. Don't worry about talking about the Communist period or about Josip Tito.
With the current situation in Kosovo, be very careful when talking about politics, as there is also a significant Albanian minority here. Ask as many questions as you'd like (within reason), but don't make any statements. Best to keep in mind that roughly one in four people you see on the street are likely to be Albanian, with far higher percentages in the west, and tensions are at times high between the Macedonian and Albanian communities. In short, keep your political opinions to yourself.