The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), that’s the name of the country I am referring to and that’s the hidden Balkan gem that I had been to. Popularly known as Macedonia, one of the newest countries on the world map, it has been mired in controversy with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia and hence was forced to resort to that longish official name. And having just finished my Greek trip couple of weeks back I thought it absolutely necessary to write about my trip to Macedonia, way back in September 2012.
This trip was with a bunch of my college friends (from IIM Lucknow) and interestingly a part of our study tour. We flew from New Delhi with Turkish Airlines with a long layover in Istanbul. Now here is an important tip for anyone travelling with Turkish Airlines – the airlines provides a free City tour of Istanbul (including entry fees and meals) with the cost of Visa being borne by the traveller. If you have a valid US, UK or Schengen visa then you can get the Turkish visa on arrival else you will have to get it in advance from the consulate. Both ways of the trip, however, I had to spend my layover time at the Ataturk Airport itself. Back in 2012, the airport didn’t have a free WiFi service, you could buy a pack for hourly use though. It has plenty of cafes and restaurants some of which provide free WiFi if you dine there. It has a great ‘Bazaar’ as well to shop everything that you might get at the Istanbul market outside, fill your bag if the airport is the closest you can get to Istanbul.
We reached Skopje by evening and our final destination for the 2 week stay was a town called Tetovo, about 40 odd kms from capital Skopje. After a long immigration check (we seemed to be the only people at the airport at that hour) we got on our bus to reach the town of Tetovo. Most travellers will be staying in Skopje to I won’t get into details about Tetovo, although I must add that it is a lovely town with some of the friendliest people on the planet.For most part of the trip we had 3 local students with us – helping us understand as much of the local history and culture as possible and also taking us around to some of the most beautiful places in Macedonia. There are quite a few places to go around in Tetovo itself including the 15th century Šarena Džamija mosque, a grand piece of Ottoman architecture. The picture on the right is the ornate ceiling of that mosque which even after 500 years looks as grand as any can be. Other places of interest are the Arabati Baba Tekḱe, one of the finest surviving Bektashi tekes in Europe and the Leshok Monastery. And if you want some fresh fish grilled for dinner, just head up on the mountains where there are some fabulous restaurants to choose from.
Having gained its Independence from Yugoslavia in the 90s and coming out of the Socialist state, you would find that most of the country is still under construction. The central square at Skopje was almost getting ready when we were there. It is a must see place, full of life and vigor and dotted with shops and cafes; you will know you have really arrived in Europe when you are there. The market nearby is bustling with local eateries and pubs as well as a host of shops selling what tourists love to buy the most – souvenirs. Its a wonderful walk across the bylanes leading upto the square and then just standing right there near the fountains and see the crowd come to life or maybe sit at the river bank and just stare at the sparkling river just flow through. Oh and the most historic place that you will get to see only in Skopje is Mother Teresa’s Memorial house, and it is right in the middle there, just a few minutes walk from the central square. I had earlier talked about how friendly I had found the people to be. Well here is an example. When we reached the Memorial, it was closing down but when we said that we were from India and more specifically from Calcutta, the lady was so ecstatic that she setup a private tour for us immediately. And that was followed by a small gathering of everyone who was present there. It was almost surreal to visit that place (I am a Loretoite and Mother had a deep association with the Sisters of Loreto). To see Mother’s bed, the dining table where she would have eaten her many meals and ofcourse her Nobel certificate is an experience of a lifetime.
So once you think you have soaked into the revelry that Skopje has to offer and drunk enough of the local beer (Skopsko is a must try when you are in Macedonia), you have to head out to Lake Ohrid, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Natural and Cultural richness. Its about 170 kms south of Skopje near the Albanian border and its clear blue water is sure to take your breath away. The church of St John at Kaneo overlooks the lake and is one of the most beautiful churches in Macedonia, a fine specimen of Byzantine and Armenian architecture. And just when you feel that you have exhausted your visual senses, all you have to do is walk around the Ohrid town through its cobbled streets or simply sit on the banks of the lake and stare at its vastness.
Overall, Macedonia was an exhilarating experience for me, not just because it was my 30th birthday the day I landed in Skopje but also because it is still such a virgin beauty. Macedonia is unique in itself, it is probably the only nation where I have seen crowds of young people huddled together in cafes cheering for their favorite football team with a cup of coffee (instead of clinking beer mugs). And ofcourse, not to mention that their coffee is to die for. And before I sign-off, a quick tip for all the ladies out there (and some of the men too because I don’t want to sound overtly sexist here) shop for some fabulous footwear at brilliant price at the Il Cammino’s and pick up a silver filigreed butterfly brooch at the local market, because the locals think it is good luck.
So good luck to you, now and forever !!!