A few weeks ago, I sat with several of my oldest students at a café in the basement of the Faculty of Education in Bitola, Macedonia.
Normally, we would be having class at the time, and I'd be telling my students something about current events or culture in America, as I would every week. But on this day, these students were the only ones who showed up. I never really knew how many students I'd have from week to week. Since there were only a handful of them, I decided that I'd treat them all to coffee - their lucky day! And as each of us sipped our machiattos (the cheapest in town), one of my students asked me if I think Macedonia is a place that foreigners should visit. Without hesitating, I said yes.
After all, I told my students, Bitola was my home for nine months as I worked as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. For that reason, I said, the city holds a very special place in my heart. Such a sentimental answer didn't satisfy my students, though - they wanted more. They wanted to know exactly which cities and which parts of Macedonia were my favorites in addition to what I thought foreigners would find most interesting.
I looked back over the last nine months trying to decide where to start my answer. It made most sense, I thought aloud to my students, to start with Ohrid, the most visited city in the country. Though very touristy, Ohrid is worthy of the attention it gets. Filled with ancient churches, the old city - dating back to the fourth century B.C. or later - is set against the backdrop of stunningly blue Lake Ohrid, one of the deepest and oldest lakes in Europe.
Though a beautiful city throughout, the real gem of Ohrid - and really of Macedonia in general - is the small church of St. Jovan at Kaneo. The paved walk from Ohrid's old town to the church is a picturesque one, hugging a rocky hill and passing high above the lake. I found it easy to lose myself in the expanses of the view of the water below, but when I came around the final bend of the path and saw St. Jovan from a distance, it was always impossible to look away. The church is one of the most recognizable images of all of Macedonia, standing sublimely against the blue of the lake.
I've visited Ohrid - and St. Jovan - four times now, and it seemed like each time I visited everything seemed prettier and prettier. Given all of this, then, I didn't need to spend much time explaining to my students why Ohrid is the Macedonian city that most tourists visit - its beaches, its nightlife in the summertime (or so I'm told - unfortunately, that's something I'll miss out on), and its vast collection of history and natural beauty make it a worthwhile trip.
Next, I told my students what I thought about Bitola, my beautiful home. Though it's the second biggest city in Macedonia with more than 90,000 people, it feels much smaller than that. There are only a few historical sites of interest in the city (especially when compared with the plethora of sites in Ohrid), although Bitola does have a significant amount of history displayed in its fanciful and decorated architecture. The city also has the most well known street in Macedonia; called Shirok Sokak (or, wide street, in Turkish), it's a long pedestrian-only street flanked by old stately and colorful buildings.
Bitola is also where you can visit Heraclea, the ruins of an ancient city founded by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father, in the fourth century B.C. The site boasts some well-maintained structures and mosaics, and if there aren't too many other visitors during your visit, an employee there will be happy to give you a tour of the site in English. The view of the surrounding mountains from the top of the ancient theater is worth the price of admission alone. Not far over the hill is a lesser-known part of Bitola that tour guidebooks unfortunately choose to exclude: two old World War II-era planes standing like guardians on a hill overlooking the city, the view from which is truly excellent.
Bitola is the fanciest city in the country, and it's customary for citizens to dress up in their nicest clothes even for something as routine as coffee in the afternoon. Actually, coffee is one of the necessary Bitola experiences. On any given day, you might see all the cafés along Shirok Sokak full, especially on warm sunny days. If you're lucky to spy an open seat at a café, take it. Order your coffee, and ?????????! Enjoy! With its nightlife and cafes along Shirok Sokak, Bitola has a character that makes it unique from the rest of Macedonia.
Aside from Ohrid and Bitola, I decided on small Kruevo as the third stop of any essential visit to Macedonia. Kruevo is a tiny town way up in the mountains - it's actually the highest city in Macedonia, and one of the highest in all of the Balkan peninsula - and the views of the Pelagonia plains far below are breathtaking. Like most cities in Macedonia, Kruevo has a good deal of history; the city was the site of the short-lived independent Kruevo Republic, declared following an ultimately unsuccessful rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in 1903. A large monument was erected to honor the heroes who died in the rebellion.
Nestled high up in the mountains, Kruevo is at its most beautiful during the winter, when the roofs of the well-preserved traditional houses are covered with snow. Kruevo is quieter and feels different from most Macedonian cities, probably because of its sense of isolation of being alone at the top of a mountain. It's a perfect snapshot of Macedonian architecture a century ago.
Macedonia's capital, Skopje, gets some attention from travel guides as a city worth visiting as well, but in my several visits to the city, I never really found anything that made me want to stay more than a day there. Of course, there's more shopping to be had and a better selection of restaurants and cafés than in smaller cities. There's also an impressive stone bridge that separates the old and new parts of the city overlooked by an old fortress, but ultimately, I said to my students, I would recommend that visitors to Macedonian spend more time in the smaller cities.
Unfortunately, Macedonia's public transportation is not the most efficient in Europe. To visit some of the less-connected parts of the country almost certainly requires you to have a car, or at least to spend a sizeable sum on private transportation. If you're able to do so though, the rewards would be vast - Macedonia has many remote churches, monasteries, ruins and national parks just begging to be explored.
Macedonia has a lot going for it recently, in terms of international attention. It was named in the New York Times "31 Places to Go in 2010" article, though the article really only mentioned Ohrid, and made no mention of cities in the rest of the country. The country was also featured in the May edition of CNN.com's I-List. Certainly, Macedonia's international profile is growing, and as the country continues to develop and display everything that it has going for it, this profile will only get bigger.
This was but a brief overview of some of my favorite parts of Macedonia, and though Macedonia is a small country, there's certainly a lot to see. Unfortunately, there's a lot that I left out, from the country's enthralling costume festivals in Vevchani, Prilep or Strumica, to Lake Prespa, the "other" equally beautiful but less touristy lak), to the lesser-known eastern part of the country.
But, my students asked, why should someone come to Macedonia when they can go to more famous places like Rome or London or Paris? There are a couple of reasons. First, it's cheaper here. So much cheaper than a place like Rome or Paris, in fact. A coffee at a café will set you back 60 or 70 denars, which is about $1.25. In Rome or Paris? 3 or 4 euros, probably. The second reason is that Macedonia offers a different kind of experience than what you get with those kinds of cities. Macedonia really is a country at a crossroads, with its communist past behind it and a more developed (more Western?) future in front of it. Macedonia is not yet in the European Union or NATO, because of a name conflict with Greece, but is a candidate to join in the coming years. And when it does join, changes are likely, whether good or bad. But for now, many Macedonians are happy with where their country is, and it's that proud character, that mix of ancient history, Yugoslav architecture and post-communist development that makes Macedonia unique from the usual stops in Western Europe.
And, of course, I said, as I checked my watch and realized that class time was almost over, there's the local hospitality here that only adds to Macedonia's appeal. Locals won't be shy to talk to you and ask you where you're from or what you're doing there. Need directions? They'll be happy to point you the right way, or even walk or drive you there. Or maybe they'll even invite you into their home or to join them at a café for a coffee or a rakija, Macedonia's national drink. Macedonians are proud of their friendliness, and if you spend some time in the country it's not difficult to see.
Our coffee now long gone, my students listened as I concluded that indeed, Macedonia is a place that people should visit. It's small, and maybe expensive or difficult to get to, but every bit worth the effort put into it. That much I've learned over the last nine months, I said.
If you would like to discuss anything about Macedonia with me, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll get back to you as soon as I possibly can. Believe me, this article only scratches the surface of what I've seen and done over the last nine months. I have so much more to say.