The Republic of North Macedonia is topping the pols as Europe’s rising star in adventure travel. On a mountain biking and foodie trip there, I discovered its special kind of magic. Mountain Biking Macedonia
What defines a magical place? I’d say magicians for starters. And Macedonians are remarkably skilled at pulling rabbits out of hats, so to speak.
Want to go canoeing? Take a cooking lesson? Have a massage after a long day on the bike? “I’ll call someone,” our guide Jovan would say, and in a flash, someone would appear in pinafore, or pull out a paddle, or set up a massage table in the orchard garden of our B&B accomodation.
Macedonians were doing pop-up before pop-up was a thing.
And anyone who loves bike journeys as much as I do knows, the bits on the side are just as thrilling as the main event of riding trails with stunning backdrops.
The Republic of North Macedonia, being 80 percent mountainous and blessed with vast natural lakes, guarantees all the basics of a rewarding bike journey for sure. A warm Mediterranean to snow-covered alpine climate adds another layer of diversity. And because its small, it packs a ridiculous amount of easily accessible adventure opportunities: swimming, kayaking, skiing, rock climbing, fishing, scuba diving, paragliding, biking, horseback trekking and golf, to name a few.
Skopje is an interesting place to get a sense of its history. Defiant blocks of communist era eyesores are chunked together with an elaborate Ottoman-era old town.
Some go to visit the birthplace of the great humanitarian and Nobel Prize winner, Mother Theresa. Others (to the astonishment of many Macedonians) want to explore the kitsch side of this capital; a bewildering display of extravagant neoclassical statues commissioned by the government in a misfired campaign to make “Skopje and Macedonia great again”.
I arrived in the middle of the “colour revolution” when crowds would gather each evening to shoot at these enormous “erections” with paint guns in protest.
Joining a revolution was not part of my Macedonia plan. But a peaceful march with the locals was a great way to see the city and one of those random travel experiences that sticks with you long after you’ve returned home.
Wider Macedonia is a different story entirely. Authentic, organic and natural spring immediately to mind. A group of local tourism businesses recognised what is truly special in this landlocked nugget of the Balkan Peninsula, and between them they carefully curated experiences that highlight the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the region.
“People can earn extra tourism income from their own lives,” said Alex Jovanoski, owner of Velodrome Bike Tours. I headed out with mountain-bike guides Jovan and Goran, to sample the off-road trails of Galicica National Park – one of three in Macedonia – which offers a mix of old village roads, dirt double-track and narrower goat trails.
Over the days, the landscape switched between lake vistas, dense beech forest and a wilderness where the clouds shifted in fast-forward, changing the landscape in a blink.
If there’s an epicentre to this adventure wonderland, it has to be Ohrid, where a natural and a cultural UNESCO heritage site of “outstanding universal value” sit side by side.
Ohrid is one of the world’s rare ancient lakes described by UNESCO as a “natural phenomena that has continuously existed for at least two million years”. It’s also home to 200 endemic species not found anywhere else on the planet. Sitting humbly on its shores is the heritage town of the same name and the Bay of Bones, one of the oldest settlements in Europe.
Past empires have left a food legacy fit for the fussiest of foodies – a grand meze of Mediterranean and Middle East dishes compete for attention at every meal, while “organic” and “locally grown” are as common as muck. Macedonians say the unpolluted air, soil and water – especially in the rural and mountain areas – is what sets apart their flavour-popping dishes. And it seems almost everything is turned into their national tipple, Rakija – a strong spirit washed down with any meal.
In the mountain village of Elshani, it doesn’t get much homelier than Risto’s guesthouse, where the multi-tasking Anita cracked jokes while giving a cooking lesson. This is the kind of place where the hospitality is so warm you’ll want to wash the dishes afterwards, which we did.
But the surprises were the standout for me. Even after a long day riding, they kept coming. One evening we pulled into the 9th century Monastery of St. Naum (Sveti Naum), which sits on a rocky cliff near the border with Albania. “Get your passport,” Jovan insisted. “We’re going to finish the day with a beer and cake in Albania.”
We followed a single trail to the border and 30 minutes later we were tucking into a slab of Tri-lece; a sweet three-milk speciality from the Ottoman era. Of course you can you get this cake in Macedonia too, but as Jovan said, “it’s better in Albania.”
On the way back, I thought there might be a chance to pick up a bag of Macedonia’s most famous fruit – the Ohrid cherry. “No, they’re not in season,” Jovan shouted.
“Wait,” he said pulling up his bike. “My grandmother preserves them – I’ll call her,” he said.
“Magic!”, I replied.
More info about Mountain Biking in Macedonia
Trails in Ohrid, Galicica National Park and Pelister National Park: Contact Jovan Jovanoski – Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Trails in Mavrovo National Park: Contact Marko Bekric at Galichnik Mountain Bike Adventures – Email email@example.com
Five other top experiences in Macedonia
1) Be a bear ranger
Macedonia is one of the few areas in Europe where brown bears wander free without borders. Spend five days trekking in the forest with park rangers. Learn about bear behaviour and how Macedonia is connecting tourism, local people and conservation to protect bears and other wildlife.
To join a bear conservation trekking adventure Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Go to a traditional wedding that everyone’s invited to
Every year on 12th July, the tiny mountain village of Galichnik attracts people from all over Macedonia for their traditional Wedding Festival. Everyone’s invited -tourists included. For a special experience, stay in the cozy B&B home of Borka and Pavla, a legendary couple who are the only permanent residents of this summer holiday village. During the summer season, their homestay is the perfect base for exploring Mavrovo National Park.
For accommodation and more info email: Marko Bekric email@example.com
3) Visit a ‘forbidden Island’
Golem Grad is not really forbidden but it is highly protected. This uninhabited island of global scientific interest is known for its endemic flora and fauna, significant birdlife and high concentration of ancient ruins. The island, which can only be reached by boat, is definitely one for the nature-cum-history lovers and the kind of place you imagine a T-Rex could stomp up at any second.
More info at: http://eden.mk
4) Spot a Lynx in one of Europe’s oldest National Parks
With over 500 kilometres of mixed-use trails, Mavrovo National Park is a peaceful wilderness known for its panoramic views, extensive beech forests, alpine meadows and pristine rivers. It’s also home to the critically endangered Balkan Lynx. But with only 45 or so wandering between Macedonia and Albania, you’ll be very lucky to see one.
For Mavrovo trekking and horseriding contact firstname.lastname@example.org and see www.macedonia experience.com
For Mavrovo Mountain Biking contact Marko Bekric – Galichnik Mountain Bike Adventures email@example.com
5) Dive in The Bay of Bones – Ohrid Lake
“The museum on the water” in the bay of Bones is a village reconstructed from the archaeological remains of a stilted bronze age settlement. Uncover ceramics and artifacts, which tell a story of a civilization that exited thousands of years ago. The Bay of Bones is aptly described by a journalist colleague as “the coolest diving spot you’ve never heard of.
More info at: www.macedoniaexperience.com