Beautiful countryside. An intrinsically rich culture. Warm and kind people. Macedonia has all this and more, as BikeTours.com president Jim Johnson discovered while on tour there last fall. Take a look at his travel journey, and then consider exploring this ancient, remote, and stunningly beautiful Balkan country yourself on the Discover Macedonia bicycle tour.
How I met Macedonia
I was part of a group organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association and sponsored by United States Agency for International Development to help develop sustainable tourism in the Western Balkans. To fit in our full schedule, we experienced much of the country by van. Along the way, we sampled a number of activities including cycling, hiking, horseback riding, and even paragliding.
We started our tour curious and excited. We ended it moved and amazed.
Europe of old
It was Europe the way much of the continent must have been centuries ago: untouched nature, villages practicing centuries-old traditions, people open and welcoming to guests from afar. All that in a setting of soaring mountains (16 of them topping a mile high), vast forests, and more than 50 crystal lakes. And in a country barely a third the size of Massachusetts.
Due to its location, a crossroads of sorts, Macedonia presents a mix of Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Greek history in a setting that feels both Balkan and Mediterranean. As we describe it on our tour page, “it is a land of hospitality, mixed cultures, splendid wines, and delicious cuisine. With nearly 300 sunny days each year and ideal temperatures, Macedonia is the perfect place to be.”
We crossed the border between Albania and Macedonia by bike, pedaling to the Monastery of St. Naum, a complex dating back to 905 A.D. Our hotel on the monastery grounds was newer but still historic and full of Old World charm.
We traveled by boat across the crystal-clear waters of Lake Ohrid to the town of the same name. The town of Ohrid, built primarily from the 7th to 19th centuries but with history dating back 5,000 years, is one of Europe’s oldest human settlements. We had too little time there. As I wandered the streets, a new wonder seemed to reveal itself at each turn: ancient monuments, Byzantine churches, a medieval fortress, a Roman theater, and again and again views to the turquoise waters of the lake.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
It’s no wonder that UNESCO named the “Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid region” a World Heritage Site. As UNESCO states, “this city and its historic-cultural region are located in a natural setting of exceptional beauty, while its architecture represents the best preserved and most complete ensemble of ancient urban architecture of the Slavic lands… The town’s architecture represents, with its old typical streets and houses and its particular atmosphere around old squares, the best preserved and most complete ensemble of ancient urban architecture of this part of Europe.”
The next day, we transferred by van to the mountaintop Treskavec Monastery, where we met Father Kalist, an Orthodox monk who captivated us with tales of the historic site, once a temple for Apollo. Our next stop was Krushevo, at 4,429 feet, the highest town in Macedonia, where we enjoyed a short hike. The last stop of the day was Mavrovo National Park, home to Macedonia’s highest peaks. At the Hotel Tutto in Janche, where we overnighted, we learned about building techniques using local materials and enjoyed a feast featuring local foods. And then we danced, learning steps from Tutto himself, and toasting our hosts with local wines.
An outdoor paradise
The park nearly overwhelms with outdoor options by horse or by bike, on foot, and even in off-road vehicles. Along the trails and back roads, we encountered shepherds tending their flocks that occasionally became fluffy roadblocks. Our guides explained traditional cheese making, which we enjoyed during lunch in the mountain village of Galichnik: kashkaval, a local yellow cheese, and belo sirenje, a local salt-brine white cheese.
The tour ended in the capital of Skopje, which Lonely Planet aptly describes: “Easygoing Skopje remains one of Europe’s more unusual capitals, where constant urban renewal has made the city a bizarre jigsaw puzzle whose Turkish old town, ancient fortress, communist-era centre, and contemporary building spree combine to create a multifaceted city that never fails to surprise.”
Especially for you
Local tour operator Ride Macedonia customized the “Discover Macedonia” bike tour especially for BikeTours.com, incorporating the best of a local tour operator’s road bike, mountain bike, and hiking tours. The portion on roads took up most of the tour and allowed us to experience a significant amount of area. The mountain biking, most on easy, non-technical forest roads and wide trails allowed us to visit remote villages. The hiking tool us to off-the-beaten-path natural treasures.
After nearly three decades of bicycle touring around the world, this tour easily made it to my Top 10 list!