Macedonia: Visiting the North, Land of Balthazar
Exploring Macedonia: A Rich Tapestry of Balkan and Mediterranean Life
By Oscar Davis
North Macedonia is one of the most underrated and under-exposed nations to visit in eastern Europe. Nestled
between Bulgaria, Kosovo, Albania, mainland Greece and a stone’s throw from the picturesque Greek islands, it also happens to be one of the most astonishing and veritable melting pot of cultures.
Roman and Ottoman
A fusion of Roman and Ottoman history, North Macedonia is a country with a fascinating back story.
More recently, the nation was part of the former Yugoslavia before the subsequent conflicts in the 1980s led to the break-up of the alliance.
Interestingly, North Macedonia was just one of six nations to successfully gain independence while avoiding conflict.
Balthazar, the King of Macedonia
One of the first things that may spring to mind about this nation, if you are up to speed with your history, is its association with Balthazar. Balthazar is commonly referred to as the King of Macedonia in biblical terms.
He was one of the Three Wise Men, handing the gift of myrrh to Jesus himself.
There have since been many interpretations of Balthazar in popular culture. He’s been portrayed as a demon in Gavin Rossdale’s 2005 horror movie Constantine, and as a magical showman in Balthazar’s Wild Emporium, one of the most popular slot games online. Balthazar is also featured as the God of War and Fire in the popular online role-playing game Guild Wars
Yet there is so much more to North Macedonia than Balthazar, as we’ll explore in more detail below.
If you are seeking a European country that can be explored on the tightest of budgets while boasting ample outdoor scenery and activities, North Macedonia should be right at the top of your hit-list. It is home to a location that was nominated to become one of the seven wonders of the world.
Underwater Cave Vrelo
Cave Vrelo is the world’s biggest underwater cave by depth (approximately 330 feet). Its closeness to the magnificent Lake Matka makes this an ideal day excursion – all of which exists just 15 kilometers from the nation’s capital, Skopje.
The tale of Skopje
A quarter of the country’s two million-plus population resides in Skopje. It’s a city that’s been rebuilt multiple times following periods of war and several damaging earthquakes. Skopje is unlike many other capital cities in the Balkan region.
While the likes of Zagreb, Belgrade and Sofia only rose to prominence as recently as the 19th century, Skopje has a rather more ancient backstory. In fact, the first signs of life in Skopje date back to the 6th century and the initial stages of the Byzantine period.
Its iconic stone bridge is one of the most popular places to visit to understand the heart of life in Skopje. This modest bridge, built over 550 years ago, is one of the biggest symbols of city life here, connecting the Old Bazaar to the newer Plostad Makedonija.
In a GoNOMAD article, freelance travel writer Anne Marie Dimech called Skopje ‘the unfinished city’ with so many monuments under construction and the many statues of men on horseback. Here is how she described it.
The old soul
Thankfully, this ill-conceived development is soon forgotten as the old part of town is reached. Skopje’s old bazaar (Stara carsija) is the legacy of 500 years of Ottoman rule in Macedonia, and finally reveals a bit of the soul of the city.
Yes, there are parts that have been taken over by rows of dingy, dodgy-looking bars blaring out offensive music, but for the most part, it still feels refreshingly authentic.
By this, I mean that rather than a tourist amusement park, it looks like a place where a Skopje resident might plausibly spend a morning shopping and running errands. While there are some souvenir shops, the majority of the shops sell household goods, clothes, shoes, jewelry and wedding dresses.”
Many people believe you can get a real sense of local culture through a country’s cuisine and dining traditions. Dining in North Macedonia may not have the pomp and ceremony of the French, but what it lacks in grandeur it more than makes up for in hearty, wholesome fare.
It’s a warm experience eating with the locals here, in the bustling restaurants known as ‘kafanas’. The meals are exceedingly good value too. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish on a menu that will set you back more than $3. During the day, you’ll often see locals kicking back with a coffee and a burek, which is a pastry snack filled with cheese, meat, or vegetables.
A versatile destination all year round
In terms of timing your visit to North Macedonia, winter wouldn’t be a bad move. Mavrovo becomes a hotspot for locals and tourists alike in the winter, with its snow-capped ski resort and majestic lake. Mavrovo is equally beautiful in the summer months too, appealing to those who enjoy getting out on foot with forest trails.
With accommodation unlikely to set you back much more than $30 a night, it’s fair to say that North Macedonia offers the full package for budget-conscious travelers keen to get an authentic taste of Balkan life.
Oscar Davis is a freelance writer who travels frequently to the Baltics, from his Liverpool home base.