It's kind of difficult to put any sort of label on Macedonia.
Their two iconic historical figures are Alexander the Great and Mother Teresa. How about that!?! So yes, it's a land of contrasts!
Even seasoned travelers like me have no idea what to expect when it comes to Macedonia. Indeed, it's not a country that conjures up images the way France, Italy, or Spain do. Only a small portion of backpackers head out West after a usually brief stint in Bulgaria, and I was asked by most people why I was going there. Good question, I suppose. Simply because I had never been there and a Macedonian stamp in my passport would look good!
I have a feeling that, like me, most travelers don't know what to expect when they climb aboard that coach at the Sofia main bus station. For a while, it's obvious that you are still in Bulgaria. One only has to look at the ads on the highway to realize that. Scantily clad bombshells pose to advertize such unlikely products as tires, tools, and -- I kid you not -- hot water tanks. It took me three times to realize that the sexy model wearing lingerie was leaning against a hot water tank in the ad. You gotta love Bulgarians! God knows I do!!! ;-)
However, the closer you get to the border, a different kind of scenery captures your attention. If you close your eyes for a second or two, you could almost swear that you're now in Switzerland. The forested hills and the mountains serve as an undeniably spectacular backdrop. Sadly, most of the country seems to be woefully undeveloped in that regard. One can only hope that the government will invest in that sector, or else allow private corporations to do, for Macedonia appears to have what it takes to rival with Switzerland and Slovenia for the great outdoors.
Most people would be hard-pressed to find Skopje on a map, travelers included. In Ohrid, you meet a lot of people coming from there, while a great number of backpackers are arriving from either Albania or Greece. Inevitably, you'll hear a lot of tourists tells you not to bother with Skopje and just use it as a base to catch a bus or a train elsewhere. They say that the capital isn't worth it. You may remember that a lot of backpackers were saying that about Sofia when I was making my way through Bulgaria.
True, Skopje is no jewel like Prague, Budapest, or Dubrovnik. It's not a gorgeous city with tons of postcard worthy sights. Which doesn't mean that there aren't some beautiful things to see in Skopje. There are. Though nothing special comes to mind when you think of Skopje, you don't have to dig deep to appreciate the Macedonian capital and enjoy your stay. It's a lively place with a good vibe. Sure, there is not enough stuff to occupy someone for a week . But you can spend a rewarding couple of days there, no question.
One of the main problems in the city at the moment is that the South Bank and the waterfront have been turned into one immense construction site. Some may not think much of Skopje now, but in a few years it will boast a riverfront that will take a backseat for no one in the Balkans and the rest of Eastern Europe. Trouble is, right now it's all scaffoldings, cranes, machines, and workers. Nothing kills the atmosphere of a city main square and pedestrian drags the way cranes and scaffoldings can. Hence, Plostad Makedonija, which is more or less the heart of Skopje with the Stone Bridge and the big statue of Alexander the Great, doesn't strike you the way it should.
The funny thing is that on the South Bank, it definitely feels like other big cities such as Sofia and Bucharest. Cross the river via the Stone Bridge into Carsija, and all of a sudden the Ottoman past can be seen everywhere, be it in the architecture, the food, or the shops. The main attraction is doubtless the Tvrdina Kale fortress on top of the hill. There are a few mosques and churches worth visiting, chief among them Sveti Spas, an underground church.
All in all, I spent three nights in Skopje. If you are planning on going, you must book a bed at the cozy Shanti hostel. Colorful, with lots of character and personality and an attention to details, this is the perfect home away from home in the Macedonian capital. Peter, Tanja, and the rest of the staff are very friendly and helpful. And at about 15$ a night, breakfast included, you can't ask for much more than that!
I then made my way to Ohrid, the country's most popular destination. Situated on the shores of beautiful Lake Ohrid, the town is perched on the hillside. It boasts a small but picturesque old town, a medieval castle overlooking the city and the lake, and numerous churches, including the Church of Sveti Jovan at Kaneo -- the country's most photographed structure. You have to be careful, for Ohrid is the kind of place where you can take root if you don't move on. The café, bars, and lounges on the waterfront are great places to spend an evening till the wee hours of the night. Book at the Sunny Lake hostel if ever you are headed that way. Gyoko is a cool host and the place boasts a nice backyard and a chill-out balcony.
As was the case basically everywhere in the Balkans, Macedonia offers great value. A three-course dinner with half a litre of beer will set you back about 10$ or 15$ in a nice restaurant, less if you go to smaller establishments. If you are looking for a place to go on vacation this summer and you wish to get more bang for your buck/pound/euro, the Balkans are the place to be.
As I mentioned, Skopje is in the process of getting a great makeover, but don't let that prevent you from going. Macedonia nevertheless has a lot to offer and you'll get a more genuine experience if you go now. The country is full of potential, so I figure it's only a question of time before investments are made and tour groups start roaming the Carsija and every lookout around the mountains is filled with camera-flashing Korean tour groups following a lady with an umbrella. Visit it while it's still rough around the edge. It will be more rewarding this way. I was surprised, but the level of English was better than in Romania and Bulgaria, so it's all good!
Oh and you know those people who say Macedonian girls are more beautiful than their Bulgarian counterparts? They lie. . . :P
So go ahead and give Macedonia a shot! Skopje is a major bus and rail hub, so you can get there and away relatively easily. And transportation is rather cheap, so there's no reason to skip it! Add it to your itinerary and you'll thank me later!