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When telling most people of my travels to Macedonia the overwhelming response I receive is, where exactly is that? It's not a very popular country among European destinations, actually only being a sovereign country since the fall of Yugoslavia in 1992. But the country is rich in culture, history, and beautiful scenery, and absolutely worth a visit if you're in that part of Europe.
Macedonia has ancient roots that stretch all the way back to Alexander the Great. Alexander and his father, Phillip II, built their kingdom of Macedonia up to become a Mediterranean powerhouse, which would eventually bring Greek culture to every corner of the known world.
The irony of this current title is the country is far from its ancient demographic and geography, making the name a bit deceitful. Today the country is mostly made up of Slavic and Turkish peoples, with a much closer connection to Russia, Eastern Europe, and Turkey rather than Greece; in fact the Greeks despise the Macedonians largely because they feel the newly adopted name is wholly unfitting and untruthful.
Makedonia, or Macedonia in the common tongue, is a landlocked country in the Balkan peninsula. The country has a few major cities but is relatively sparsely populated with a population of around 2 million. The capitol city is Skopje (pronounced skopee) located in the north of the country. The country has such a turbulent and chaotic past that even its official name is marred with complexity and misunderstandings. For example, the official name of the country is The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM, but if you ask a native it’s just Macedonia. This is because Greece, fearing a new “Republican Macedonia” would not have the country claiming former territory back that stemmed all the way back to ancient times; people in this part of the world can hold a grudge a looong time. I actually witnessed this clear contempt right off the bat when I attempted to cross the border from Greece, as it was cheaper to fly into Thessaloniki and drive up to Bitola where I was undertaking an archaeological dig. The border patrol between the two countries is so bad that not only are you, the driver, and the car thoroughly searched but the cab driver had to lie and asked me to lie to say he was my personal hire and did not work for the archaeological field school. In fact, Greeks do not refer to people from this country as Macedonians, but rather simply call them Skopjeans (after their capitol).
Wherever you go you realize pretty quickly you're in a second, or maybe even in some places, a third world country. Shanty towns and homes abound, poor road upkeep, lots of gypsy kids etc etc., This economic depression isn't all bad because their currency, the denar, is about 60:1 to the US dollar which makes thing very cheap for visitors. I was spending money continuously and living like a king, and only spent a couple hundred bucks the entire trip. However, the country isn't entirely developing. There are some really nice modern parts, especially in the bigger cities, as the country is experiencing growing pains from trying to shed its shackles from the former Yugoslav and adopting western values.
Religion in Macedonia is confused at best. You’ll have Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim churches all on the same street. You’ll see a mosque converted into a church, a church converted into a mosque, it’s all a bit complicated, but very interesting and entertaining.
Skopje- capitol, official political and administrative center of Macedonia. Skopje, or Scupi in Roman times, is the county's largest city, with over a third of the total population. It's a vibrant cultural hub with plenty to do and see. Historic sights range from abundant museums to fortresses and statues from the Greek and Roman to the Byzantine to the Ottoman Turks and beyond. Nightlife in the capitol is diverse, with a large emphasis on casino's. If you're a city person then it's definitely worth a visit, if you're looking for more history, natural beauty and local culture then I would stick to the south and west of the country.
Bitola- A vibrant city in the southwestern part of the country, which serves as a rich cultural, commercial, and educational center of the country. The city is in clear recovery from the former USSR days, and has an interesting mix of the new and old. Despite the poor conditions for many of the cities inhabitants, you still feel a very upbeat vibe from the populace. Bitola has a great deal of beautiful historic sights, including the ancient Greek town of Heraclea Lynkestis, which is found be found at the southern end of the city just a ten minute walk from the city center. If you're looking for a fun night out then you need not stray far as all of the city's nightlife is on a single strip dubbed simply 'the Golden Line'. People in this city are fun and friendly so don't be shy to open up!
Ohrid- A beautiful city on the shore of Lake Ohrid, in the southwest. Once called the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans' for having 365 churches (one for each day of the year) this ancient lakeside town is overflowing with picturesque houses, churches, monuments, and great views of the beautiful nearby lake. The town was renown for being a spiritual and educational center, and remnants of that tradition are still strong. I believe the city has one of only a few remaining papyri workshops in Europe. Most of the historic sights consist of churches, many more than you'll care to see. But make sure to see the church of St. Kliment on the shore of Lake Ohrid, it is absolutely stunning.
Stobi- Ancient Greek then later Roman town rich in ancient monuments and artwork that give historians a great insight into ancient life. This is a major sight for the country and if you're a lover of history I highly recommend making a stop here. It's quite big so you could easily spend a few hours here if you chose. Amphitheater's, statues, and houses filled with mosaics abound in the ancient city.
Heraclea Lynkestis- Originally Greek town founded by Phillip II, the father of Alexander the Great, located on the outskirts of Bitola. This ancient site is nestled at the foot of a mountain on the edges of Bitola. It's a smaller site than Stobi, but still very neat, with a large amphitheatre. This is where I conducted my archaeological field work while staying in Bitola. It's an active dig sponsered by a company named Balkan Heritage. If you're interested in archaeology and looking for a good field school I would highly recommend going one of these field schools, they're a blast and you learn a lot.
Do some Hiking- Macedonia is a very mountainous region, and has some truly beautiful landscapes to offer. The sparsity of inhabitants in many parts of the country make the opprounity to hike and explore the countryside abundant.
Check out a bazaar- One of my favorite things about developing countries are their old time bazaars, or market places. Bazaars are where the locals used to do all their shopping before the modern supermarkets. These market places are full of bizarre souvenirs and colorful folk, and always cheaper than modern stores, so if you're looking for something cultural and cheap then make your way to the bazaar.
Make it to one of the great historic sights-like Stobi or Heraclea.
Drink some absinth with the locals- A must do whenever in Eastern Europe, and they reallly love their absinth here. You may frown upon the green fairy, but if you take it in small quantities you should be just fine. Macedonians like to drink and they like to party so if you're looking for it just go where all the people are.
Dress up in a toga- Although this may seem a bit patronizing given that the country isn't Greek in any sense of the word, it's still a funny scene and a good time.
I try to keep my hubs to the realm of the academic and professional, however I had such amazing experiences in this country that I felt the need to share some of those stories with the world.
The reason for my travels to Macedonia was for an archaeological field school located in an ancient Greek city called Heraclea Lynkestis (actually founded by Phillip II, Alexander's father). While I was a diligent and attentive archaeologist during work hours, I did my best to explore the wider culture and get into some trouble in my spare time.
So, my experiences here were many, but I’ll just share some of the funnier and more entertaining ones with you. The craziest and most outrageous experience that first comes to mind is my dealings with a lion. Yes, a lion. Not a wild one like you would see in Africa, this one was in a cage!!! Ya I know it doesn’t sound too scary, but think about this; it’s a zoo in a 3rd world country….ahh yup not the safest thing in the word. So anyway being the courageous, adventures, (some might say foolish man) that I am I approached the lion cage, which is literally just metal bars with no barrier at all you can walk right up and pet them, and got a wee bit too close trying to snag a picture. The two lions were lying down so I figured they were you know, calm. So I sort of got real close and bent down to peak inside the cage. And much to my astonishment these lions were not calm. Within a blink of an eye they jumped up and swiped at my head. I only had time to make a quick jerk reaction and leaned out of the way within inches of their claws…but they got my hat. I was wearing a fedora after coming back from the dig-site, and one of the lions just clipped my hat with its claws and snagged it off my head. Don’t believe me?
My brush with the lion of death story is hard to beat, but this one is pretty funny. I'm not sure what it was but for some reason I kept finding myself in front of the camera while I was in Bitola. I was filmed on three separate occasions by different news/travel companies. I was able to find one of the clips of me on Macedonian T.V. I found it quite entertaining. Skip to 2:13.
This last story has to deal with my dig, was where I spent most of my time. The site is called Heraclea Lyncestis located just a 2 mile walk outside Bitola, and dates back all the way to Phillip II, Alexander the Great’s father. The site had been excavated since the 1970′s, where they uncovered a roman amphitheater. Our field school’s organization had recently reopened digging here and usually did two week and one month field schools. Each group just carries on from the last so as to continuously excavate. It’s hard work, considering Macedonia in the summer gets well into the upper 90s (which is why I was wearing a fedora). Unfortunately, my grid only produced some pottery and a lume weight, which was used for weighing various textiles. But the area next to me found about a dozen roman coins! Anyway toward the end of the excavation I got a bit bored because we weren't producing great finds, so I began to wander away from the site looking for trouble. And funny enough I found it. I kept noticing this old Macedonian man wheeling a barrel full of some plant that I couldn't really make out. One day I decided to check it out and sure enough this guy's got a nice little operation going behind the excavation sight hidden away. I would have talked to the guy, clearly a local and poor, but I couldn't speak Macedonian and he couldn't speak English. Random but funny story.
If you’re ever near eastern Europe definitely swing through Macedonia. It’s an interesting place filled with ancient historic sites, beautiful landscapes, lively people and cheap currency!