Monday, July 4, 2011

Macedonia's Top 20 Travel Destinations

For a small Balkan nation Macedonia comes packed with some major visitor attractions. The lakeside magnificence of Ohrid is rightly regarded as the country's main tourist draw, but there's much more to be seen and experienced in this most southern Slavic state. Try trekking up to Treskavec monastery on a peak near Prilep or exploring rustic mountain villages like Galičnik and Malovište deep in the countryside. Nothing is very far away in Macedonia, though the public transport network takes some patience and careful planning to use effectively. Here are my top twenty recommendations for Macedonia - go and see them now before large numbers of tourists from outside the Balkans start to discover them.

1. Ohrid - A place of exceptional historic and natural beauty, Ohrid ranks among the most impressive sights in the Balkans. For Macedonians the town is a place of immense religious importance, while foreign tourists are drawn to the quiet cobbled streets and ancient stone churches and monasteries that sit silently on the hills and cliffs above the shimmering surface of the lake. The old fortress of Samoil commands the highest point above the town, and its huge walls provide exceptional views of the surrounding mountains and across the lake to the distant Albanian shore.

2. Pelister National Park - Found in the south-west corner of Macedonia, this park contains soaring alpine peaks and several pristine mountain lakes. The highest point is Mount Pelister (2601 metres) which offers superlative views of Lake Prespa from its slopes.

3. Mavrovo National Park - A large park along the western border with the country's best ski resort in the lakeside town of Mavrovo. An extensive network of hiking trails goes from north to south, passing through several small mountain villages which have carefully maintained many of their centuries-old traditions (see #8 for an example).

4. Sveti Naum Monastery - Sitting just a stone's throw from the Albanian border, the Sveti Naum Monastery is one of the most important orthodox religious sites in Macedonia. The church at the centre of the complex was originally founded in the year 900, and Saint Naum's remains are buried in a tomb inside. Arriving by boat from Ohrid is the most unique way to get there, and the views of Ohrid are spectacular on the return journey.

5. Bitola - Once the most southern city of Yugoslavia, today Bitola is a bustling centre with a lively old town district and bazaar area, with a series of minarets dominating the skyline.

6. Lake Matka - A green lake surrounded by a deep canyon just a short distance from Skopje. A series of steep hiking trails link several monasteries and churches with memorable frescoes.

7. Skopje - The Macedonian capital and largest city, with its new and old quarters linked by a stone bridge over the Vardar river. Minarets surrounding the old bazaar and fortress contrast starkly with the modern socialist-era structures across the river, particularly the bizarre central post office building. The city is currently undergoing a major renovation and facelift to bring it into the 21st century, while simultaneously aiming to remind people of the city's ancient past; a huge statue of Alexander the Great has been placed in the central square, much to the dismay of Greek nationalists.

8. Galičnik village - A small mountain village in Mavrovo national park with well-preserved folk traditions and architecture. The village is famous for its wedding festival held each year in July, where one lucky couple are married according to ancestral customs with colourful costumes and dances. Couples from all over Macedonia enter a competition to be selected as the bride and groom of the festival.

9. Prilep and Treskavec Monastery - A mountaintop monastery lying a few kilometres north of the city of Prilep. It's a long climb up the steep trail, but well worth it for the views at the top of Mount Zlato. The main 14th-century church has an impressive collection of frescoes. The city of Prilep also contains a number of historic churches and a clock tower.

10. Malovište village - A historic village founded by ethnic Vlachs (Aromanians) found in Pelister national park. The hillside settlement features traditional stone houses which are among the finest examples of folk architecture in Macedonia. A gentle river runs through the centre with several old stone bridges to stroll across.

11. Vevčani village - A centre of Macedonian culture in the western part of the country, with many well-preserved churches and examples of traditional regional architecture. The carnival held in the village each year in January is one of the most important traditional festivals in the Balkans.

12. Heraclea Ruins - The ruins of an ancient city founded in the 4th century by Phillip II of Macedon, today located just outside the modern city of Bitola. A Roman theatre, baths and two early Christian basilicas with impressive floor mosaics can be seen.

13. Galičica National Park - Located between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, this rugged mountain region offers excellent hiking with superb views of both the lakes from the higher peaks and ridges.

14. Sveti Jovan Bigorski Monastery - A hilltop orthodox monastery in western Macedonia whose name means Saint John the Baptist Monastery in English. It was first built in the 11th century and was destroyed several times by the Ottomans throughout history. It's possible to stay overnight within the monastery complex in rustic accommodation.

15. Tetovo - A city in the north-west of Macedonia which is considered the most important centre of Albanian culture in the country. A fortress and numerous mosques dot the central skyline.

16. Stobi Ruins - Probably the most important archaeological site in Macedonia, originally settled by the anicent Paeonians and later a Roman settlement. The foundations of baths, fountains, a theatre, basilica and palace can still be seen today.

17. Lake Prespa and Golem Grad Island - A large lake in the south-east corner of the country surrounded by arid, mountainous terrain. Golem Grad island sits in the middle of the lake near the Greek and Albanian borders and has several ancient church ruins to visit connected by hiking trails. It is reachable by boat from the village of Konjsko.

18. Kruševo - At 1350 metres above sea level, Kruševo is the highest town in the country and its mountainous position also makes it the centre of the nation's top ski area. The town is of great historical importance to Macedonians, and there are plans to fully restore the historic district to its 19th-century appearance.

19. Struga - A quieter alternative for a place to stay on the shore of Lake Ohrid compared to the tourist centre of Ohrid town, Struga features several old churches and mosques, a historical bazaar district and several fine beaches along the lakefront.

20. Kratovo - A picturesque small town in the north-eastern part of the country which is best known for its series of stone bridges. A few kilometres from the town in the village of Kuklica there is a 'stone town' of over one hundred unusual natural stone pillars to explore.

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