Has anybody heard of Lake Ohrid? Macedonia shares one of Europe's largest and deepest lakes that very few people have ever heard of. The country is a minnow on the tourist trail compared with Greece next door. The ease and cost of travel between the two countries allows for an easy trip in a largely unexplored region of Europe. To make life really interesting, we took our nine-month-old baby and used public transport.
Macedonia hit the headlines recently with the dispute over its name with its nearest neighbour, The impasse has resulted in Macedonia being officially renamed as the Republic of Northern Macedonia in an agreement between Macedonia and Greece, which itself has a region called Central Macedonia. The Greeks have stalled Macedonia's EU and Nato aspirations due to the country's name and its use of Alexander the Great, a mythical Greek figure. The warrior king is revered in both states, but Greece worries about territorial ambitions by Macedonia on the Central Macedonia in Greece. The impasse may even result in the government in Skopje changing the state's official name. Even the airport was renamed Skopje International Airport, replacing Alexander the Great Airport.
Our first stop in the region was Thessaloniki in Greece. The journey took three hours from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, where we had landed. The main highway to the border with Greece was formerly known as “Alexander of Macedonia” and renamed Friendship Highway during the recent détente with Athens.
We took an early bus to avoid any border queues during the summer holidays. Thessaloniki is a gritty, bustling port city with a vibrant social scene. When the boiling day comes to an end, the city comes alive at night. The promenade acts as a thoroughfare for families and couples to enjoy the balmy evenings and is bookended by the White Tower and the ferry port.
The ferry takes you to two of the local beaches. The journey takes an hour to reach Perea, which is 17km away. The crystal-clear waters and seafood restaurants on the sand were excellent. We spent two days at the beach, savouring the renowned Greek sunsets from the ferry with an exhausted baby sleeping soundly in her pram.
One would be mistaken in thinking Thessaloniki, far from the tourists’ islands of the south, would show signs of the financial crisis. Cafes and restaurants offered great value and organic food markets showcased fresh Greek produce. The Ladadika district, known for its nightlife and restaurant scene, is conveniently located a few streets behind where the ferry docked so we ate en route to our hotel on the pedestrianised and cobbled streets.
Once back in Skopje, we headed for Lake Ohrid. The capital's central station is easily navigated, with each side of the station containing travel agencies selling bus tickets. The hawker taxi drivers are not as competitive as their Greek counterparts, but haggling is advised.
The lake has several cities situated on or near the shore, and takes three hours by bus from Skopje. We stayed in Ohrid and took advantage of its location to enjoy the lake's calm, warm waters. Lake Ohrid is shared between Macedonia and Albania and covers 358sq km. It is hugely popular with domestic tourists but there are relatively few foreign visitors.
At the heart of Ohrid lies the old town, which contains numerous restaurants that attest to Macedonia's Ottoman past, with flavours from Turkey and the Middle East. The aptly named Gladiator restaurant, funnily enough, looks over the amphitheatre that hosts concerts in the summer months. Tables can be reserved on the narrow wooden terrace overlooking the amphitheatre, with the lake in the background. The cobbled streets of the old town host several bars that back on to the water. In the evenings, local families and tourists head back to the lake to enjoy a respite from the summer heat.
‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’
There are several beaches nearby and plenty of family amenities. The town, once referred to as the 'Jerusalem of the Balkans' in the 17th century due to the number of churches it used to have, still packs a punch for the history-minded tourist. The Monastery of Saint Naum is a quick boat ride away or a 15-minute walk. A tour of the lake, which takes all day, stops at the Bay of Bones and the natural springs at the southern tip and the monastery of Sveti Naum. The springs feed Lake Ohrid with its clear waters filtered through from Lake Prespa. The hills surrounding Ohrid can act as a good a base for hikes in the Galicica National Park, with miles of trails. Buses run frequently from Ohrid to Galicica.
Skopje city centre has been transformed as result of a five-year, multi-million euro investment project to create a space for its citizens and tourists, completed in 2015. Dominated by a 22m statue of Alexander the Great, Skopje’s main square is encircled by neo-classical buildings. The square leads you over the river to the Old Bazaar district. Ottoman-style lanes and alleyways were packed with restaurants with locals and the occasional foreign tourist.
The city’s new accessibility allows you to eat traditional Turkish kebabs in the bazaar surrounded by mosques, to very quickly finding yourself in a quintessential European square searching out a bar. We ate on the main thoroughfare at Carpe Diem and had three courses and three drinks each for €25 in one of the Skopje’s more expensive restaurants. It’s very simple to eat well for just a fraction of that price.
Macedonia, while slowly catching up with its neighbours on the tourism front, offers incredible value and breathtaking scenery away from the usual summer crowds.
We flew with Turkish Airways via Istanbul from Dublin. Two adults and a baby return cost €885.
Buses between Skopje and Thessaloniki can be arranged through simeonidistours.gr/en
Thessaloniki: AD Imperial Palace from €85 per night, which included a buffet breakfast.
Skopje: Alexander Square Boutique Hotel from €75 per night. The hotel is around the corner from river-side bars and restaurants in Skopje. A perfect location with big spacious rooms and helpful staff.
Ohrid: Hotel Denarius costs from €60 per night and includes breakfast. The hotel is slightly west of the centre, but across from the lake and has numerous access points to the water. Locals sunbathe on the grass verandas opposite drinking coffee, beer or having a chat.