Sometimes, vaults of natural beauty are to be found at the least suspecting places. Traveling over areas few people would genuinely consider, opens up a plethora of discoveries.
If you ever wanted to enjoy spectacular nature scenery aplenty, and a pleasant Mediterranean climate on the cheap, visiting some of the Balkan countries is a valid idea. Its territory is covered with magnificent mountain formations, descending steeply into lush and picturesque valleys. Several countries sit on the shore of the Adriatic Sea, and therefore offer some of the most spectacular coastal towns you’ll ever come to appreciate.
But the Balkans, as any other underdeveloped territory, provides a series of difficulties as well. Most of the countries constitute what was once the mighty federation of Yugoslavia. With diplomatic relations heavily shaken by the post Yugoslavian wars, they’ve come a long way to rebuild their nation states, now autonomous and independent countries.
If you enjoy green pastures, and scenery that resembles the Swiss Alps, do visit Slovenia. Croatia is a heaven for those who enjoy Ancient coastal towns, and Montenegro offers a garden variety of spectacular beaches along the shore. Serbia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Macedonia, offer an unmatched gourmet experience, abundance of tradition, and some of the most picturesque mountainous regions of the territory.
Supposing you are a fan of outdoor activities and enjoy discovering new cultural experiences, I’m going to cover the least popular destination of the pack. One, however, that is among the most affordable places in the entire world, and where you buck can take you a long way in enjoying food, music, wine, and nature – Macedonia.
Why is Macedonia such a desirable destination?
Located where mountain formations meet southern valleys, the country is an outdoor paradise. It has to offer a very diverse landscape filled with breathtaking valleys, crystal blue lakes, and mountain terrain that commands attention.
On top of this colorful palate, Macedonian food is widely renowned, as is the music and people’s hospitality. The prices, to say it mildly, are literally a non-issue.
Macedonia, for a long while, has been known as the only country that left the Yugoslavian conflict peacefully. But while other nations rebuilt and prospered, it kind of stayed in place. Being denied membership to the European Union and NATO, it is not a fairly desirable destination for long term stay, or doing business.
The tourism sector, however, has experience a boom. Though largely insignificant on the map, and generally forgotten, the country has managed to invite tourists only by word of mouth.
How to avoid being scammed in Macedonia?
Like any other small country with a struggling economy, Macedonia will have you going through hoops. Whereas western nations allow you to arrange a hustle free holiday, in Macedonia, you’ll have to work a bit and polish the edges.
People, though hospitable, are hardly professional, which means you’ll have to invest some time in communicating things through.
The majority of the country is well versed in English (I’m Macedonian, if that counts), and communication is straightforward – at least on a level to comprehend one another.
And even though the country is super affordable to stay in, citizens are likely to try and squeeze you out for a handful of dollars more. While crime is a non-issue, you’ll have to remain vigilant, and watch for hidden costs, intentionally miscommunicated offers, and people who seem to be getting out of their way in order to accommodate you – especially when they learn that you are a foreigner.
Taxi drivers, as anywhere else, are especially industrious when it comes to scamming you for a handful of dollars. If you can, try to catch the shuttle bus from the airport, or negotiate a transport fee upfront. If you leave the meter ticking, you’re likely to travel several times across town before reaching your destination.
The safest way would be to call a dispatcher, and use a legitimate taxi company, as opposed to stopping the first cab you come across. Taxi Global and Taxi Panorama offer a call back service, so you don’t even have to spend credit on the phone – just ring once, and they will get back to you in a second.
If you are planning to stay longer, learning the bus routes can save you a ton of money. A single direction ticket (though unavailable to be purchased separately, due to recent changes in transport policy), will cost you half a dollar.
Try exchanging money upfront, and use the local currency of Denar. It is daunting to make the calculus over and over, and convert prices, every time you are making a purchase, so avoid paying with foreign currencies altogether – that’s one of the easiest ways of being scammed.
The hospitality industry, more than any other, will have you waiting for the change, sometimes for minutes on end, so it’s best to pay right to the Denar.
As for booking accommodation and tour arrangements, make sure to find a company that has an internet presence. These are far more professional and unwilling to risk their integrity and reputation, in order to squeeze an additional buck. Others – do tend to avoid.
A final warning would be to arrange your stay during the spring and summer, since the winter season comes with air that is heavily polluted, and infrastructure that is equally unbearable.
Now that you are warned against few of the most common obstacles standing in your way to enjoy Macedonia, let’s take a tour around the country.
The capital of Skopje is where you are probably going to arrive. It is quite a large city – nothing short of a metropolis. My advice is to stay there a while longer, and discover the province one day at a time, always returning to Skopje. The longest car drive will take you 3 hours from one end to the other, so there is no need to arrange different accommodation calls.
Do visit the Canyon Matka, the natural observatory of Kokino, and the small town of Berovo. Each one is a true testament to the colorful diversity that Macedonian landscape has to offer.
A longer stay can be arranged in Ohrid, where the crystal water of the lake is supplemented with breathtaking views, and century’s old religious tradition.
You’ll enjoy the delicious and affordable Macedonian food as well, tasting recipes that were culturally influenced by the Ottoman Empire, Greece, Slavic cuisine, and other neighboring countries. Mixing everything together, each dish is a masterpiece of its own.
It will take you a while to enjoy and discover Macedonia in its fullest, so make sure to arrange your stay for at least two week or so. Arrive between June and September, and have a wonderful vacation you’ll be paying lip service to for years on end.