September 2021: North Macedonia is a new country and until the early 90’s it was part of the communist Eastern bloc nation of Yugoslavia. It wasn’t until Yugoslavia collapsed with the fall of communism that the nation of North Macedonia was borne along with six other countries in the Balkans. Although communism no longer exists in North Macedonia, it’s legacy is still apparent in the remaining communist buildings, monuments and by the mix of ethnic groups and religions living in the country from other areas of Yugoslavia like Serbs, Croats, Christians, Muslims, etc. North Macedonia also has a large Albanian population.

Recently in 2018, North Macedonia changed it’s name from Macedonia.  This was because of a feud with it’s neighbor Greece over the claim to the name Macedonia, The trouble began with who could claim Alexander the Great, who 25 centuries ago was the leader of one of the world’s largest ruling empires that extended all the way from Egypt to India and Tibet. Alexander the Great came from the Macedonia region and both Greece and Macedonia (now North Macedonia) claimed Alexander the Great and the name Macedonia. In the end it doesn’t matter because ancient Macedonia-Alexander the Great’s Empire- ruled over both modern day Macedonia and Greece. Nonetheless because of this argument, Greece prevented Macedonia from entering the European Union and NATO. A compromise was eventually reached between the two of them in 2018. Greece was able to keep the name of it’s northern state-Macedonia, while the country of Macedonia changed it’s name to North Macedonia.  Finally both sides have managed to find some common ground, at least at the surface, and have moved on from the naming dispute.

North Macedonia was the last country in the Balkans that I needed to visit and it just so happened that there was a direct flight to it’s capitol Skopje from Warsaw, Poland on LOT Airlines. So we took the morning flight to Skopje, and I arranged for a vehicle and driver to pick us up at the airport. I wanted to spend more time in country but no matter how I re-configured our trip I could not squeeze out more than a day in North Macedonia. We had to be in Crete the following evening to meet our friends and this meant that we had to travel overland from Skopje to Tirana, Albania in one day in order to catch a flight from Tirana, to Athens the following morning. As it was there were no direct flights within the next few days from Skopje to Athens, Greece. Maybe the lack of direct flights between each other is another casualty of the tensions between the two countries because there seemed to be a lot of direct flights between Greece’s other neighbor, Albania and Athens but not between North Macedonia and Athens.

 

 

How to Get there?

Map of North Macedonia

Skopje 

 Day 1: We arrived late morning to Skopje airport on what I discovered half way through the Polish Airlines flight was a Boeing Supermax. I couldn’t help but to feel slightly uneasy since the Supermax was is the plane that was grounded the year before because of technical faults that caused the two planes to plummet from the sky.  We didn’t plummet from the sky but there was a lot of turbulence as we descended into Skopje over the mountains. Once we landed we met our Albanian taxi driver, who was driving a Mercedes-a make of vehicle ubiquitous to Albania. We immediately set off on the long drive with the intent to see as much as possible along the way. We started by driving around Skopje to see the giant monuments especially the one’s of Alexander the Great. in 2014 Skopje built dozens of giant statues throughout the country in order to attract tourists. It really is one of the most monument heavy capitols that I have visited.  

Beyond the flashy new monuments was the more grimier communist bloc apartments, a legacy from when North Macedonia belonged to the communist country of Yugoslavia until it’s collapse in the early 90’s. It looked like their were efforts to polish over the drabness of these apartment blocks. 

One of the Many Giant Statues Found in Skopje. 

Communist Block Apartments in Skopje. 

 Totovo Painted Mosque

After Skopke our second stop was in the Muslim town of Totovo to see the Painted Mosque. The mosque was originally constructed in 1438 during the Ottoman Empire and it’s interior walls are adorned with an incredible display of decorations. The paintings were supposedly made from thousands of eggs in order to give it a different kind of look and shine compared to other paintings. We stood inside the mosque for about 30 minutes admiring the paintings while a few worshippers prayed in the background. The cover photo shows Paula inside the painted mosque looking at the decor. 

Totovo Painted Mosque

Totovo Painted Mosque

Lake Ohrid

After visiting a muslim town, we continued on over a mountain pass to the alpine lake-Lake Ohrid-known for it’s old christian monastery found along it’s shore.

It was Sunday and traffic lined the road heading back to Skopjke.  Evidently many people from the capitol vacation at lake Ohrid to escape the heat of the summer and the it was the end of August-the end of summer vacation time for many.

The lake is huge and extremely deep. it is known as the deepest lake in Europe at 1000 feet deep. It is sorrounded by mountains with one mountain being a national park and the home to wild animals such as bear and wolves. Lake Ohris is shared between North macedonia and Albania.

Lake Ohrid

Local Man Relaxing on Lake Ohrid

We stopped in the town of Ohrid but it was way too busy and full of Macedonian tourists to enjoy. So we set off to visit the Monastery of St. Naum further along on Lake Ohrid’s shore hoping to find more solitude. 

St. Naum Monastery 

We arrived at the monastery of St. Naum established when Bugaria ruled the area in 900. The area was like a tourist carnival. Even though it is still a working monastery the peace you usually associate with monasteries was replaced by hordes of selfie taking Macedonian tourists. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. Evidently 5 years prior the govt developed the whole area and built shops and restaurants to attract more tourists. The area was stunning tucked away beneath the mountains and next to a beautiful spring feeding into the lake. This is definitely a place I wish I had visited before it was developed.

The interior of the monastery was incredible. Luckily we had it nearly to ourselves at the end of the day. The murals inside were old and beautifully decayed. St. Naum’s tomb was inside and we observed a few people kneeling on his tomb with their ear placed on the tomb. Evidently St. Naum was a man of the people and the tradition is to out your ear to his tomb in the hope that he will whisper blessings to you. Paula tried this but St. Naum decided not to whisper anything to her.  Paula also bought a cross from the monk selling souvenirs outside the church and he gave her a free prayer scroll.

Tomb of the Monk of St. Naum

Inside St. Naum

Tomb of the Monk of St. Naum

Monastery of St. Naum

After St. Naum we drove passed the village where our driver grew up. He was borne in the village and later moved to Albania where he trapped for the next few decades along with all Albanians under one of the worlds most ruthless and paranoid communist dictators-Enver Hoxha. Our driver recounted a story of how once he accidentally came across Hoxha and his security goons when he was a boy riding his bicycle. Hoxha greeted him good morning. Crossing the border to Albania was easy and we didn’t even need to exit our vehicle.

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