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28 February, 2013

Discovering Macedonia

The Stone Bridge Skopje
The Stone Bridge
By Len Rutledge:
I am gazing at a huge statue of a warrior on a horse in a fountain in the middle of a square. Behind, a street leads to the Stone Bridge which was built in the 6th century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Past the Stone Bridge I can see a stone castle which locals tell me is built on an ancient fortress-like structure ... built long before the Roman civilisation came into being. This is Skopje, capital of the Republic of Macedonia. It has been ruled by Romans, Ottomans and the Yugoslav conglomerate before Macedonia's independence and has been twice rebuilt. Once in the 17th century when destroyed by and Austrian general and again after a devastating earthquake in 1963. It is a wonder that anything old remains at all. 

Statue Skopje
Statue of warrior on a horse
My wife and I have little knowledge of the city so it is a pleasant surprise to find there are many things to see. We soak in the scene from the central square of the new town then ... explore further. We find that the museums, churches, markets and art galleries all have appeal. A visit to the Skopje Museum housed in the old railway station is interesting and we see the clock still stuck on the time the 1963 earthquake struck. 

Our next stop is at the City Art Gallery set in what used to be the largest Turkish bathhouse in the Balkans. Walking the winding cobbled streets and the Old Skopje Bazaar we mingle with the locals. They are buying bread, shoes and clothing while we look at strong Turkish teas, cheap jewelry and tourist souvenirs.

The Mustafa Pasha Mosque with its tall minaret is nearby reminding us that the city was under Ottoman Rule for centuries. Not far away is the Sveti Spas church with its giant wood-carved altar. 

Memorial Plaque from Mother Teresa
Memorial Plaque Mother Teresa
We are surprised to learn that although she was born to Albanian parents, the woman who became respected as Mother Teresa was actually from Skopje. There is a marker where her house used to be, a small statue and a new memorial house museum.

Macedonian cuisine has both Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences. Spicy stews are popular and are always eaten with bread. Many meals include feta cheese; roasted peppers and zelnik, a flat pastry with cheese, leek or spinach filling. We are fortunate one lunch time to eat on the terrace just in front of the main square at Pelister restaurant. One night we go to Stara Kuka in a nicely restored traditional 19th century Balkan house and eat in the courtyard. Both meals are excellent.

I have little experience with the nightlife here but there is certainly a huge emphasis on casinos, many of which are associated with hotels. There are bars, discos and nightclubs in the downtown area and there are plenty of coffee shops selling Italian and Turkish coffees well into the early morning hours. The best hotel in the city is probably the hotel Aleksandar Palace but it is a few kilometres from the central area. If you need this level of accommodation you may be better off at the Stone Bridge Hotel or the Holiday Inn in the city centre or the Hotel ARKA in the Old Bazaar area. Down market there is something like 60 places to choose from. 

Sophia Church Ohrid
Sophia Church
The tourism jewel in Macedonia is Ohrid. It was made a UNESCO site in 1980 and since then the city and adjacent lake have become a major destination. The town is one of the oldest settlements in Europe but it has had the Ohrid name only since 879 A.D. Ohrid is most famous for its ancient churches, basilicas and monasteries but it is a great place to wander as well even if you don't go into any of these. 

The 11th century Sophia church is the oldest and inside there are some wonderful 11th century frescoes. The 13th century St .Bogorodica Perivlepta is also worth seeing and it contains several important frescoes and a world famous icon gallery in its courtyard. Both were used as mosques during the Ottoman period.

We take a small path through the woods to Samoil Fortress. It has 18 towers and 4 gates and walls up to 16 metres high. On the way back we stop at an ancient theatre which was built by the end of the third century BC and had about 4.000 seats. Only part of the original still exists but performances are still held here. 

Beach Lake Ohrid
Beach Lake
One of the things we most enjoy is walking the lake shore in the town. There are some cute little beaches and a long promenade so you have the best of both worlds. Costs here are probably a little higher than in some other areas of the country but frankly most things are attractively priced for visitors. Some of the rural areas are still quite poor and we see some villages which are clearly struggling. Tourism is helping the country but it appears the benefits are not evenly spread.

Macedonia's second biggest city, Bitola, was once a centre of diplomacy. The stately old architecture goes back to when the town was a centre for international diplomats to the Ottoman administration. Bitola's beginnings date from the 4th century B.C when the town was named Heraclea Lyncestis. It was a busy town during Roman times and continued to grow until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 518 A.D. The remains are situated 2 km south of the present-day town. There are dazzling mosaics, an ancient theatre and Roman baths. 

Len Rutledge
About the author: 
Len Rutledge was born in Australia but has lived in eight other countries. He has been travel writing for 40 years. During that time he has written thousands of newspaper articles, numerous magazine pieces, more than a thousand web reviews and over 25 travel books. He has worked with Pelican Publishing, Viking Penguin, Berlitz, the Rough Guide and the Nile Guide amongst others. 

His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award and other recognition. He is the author of the Experience Guide series available as ebooks from 

He previously also wrote Enjoying the Charms of Dublin for this blog.

You can read more about the author and follow his blog on his website Len Rutledge.

Photo credits: all photos by Phensri Rutledge

Freya - Holiday Nomad, a Travel and Photo Blog


  1. I hope Penang will be in your topics in the future.

    1. I sure hope to make it to Malaysia one day. In the meantime you are always welcome to write a guest blog :-)

  2. The photo of the warrior on horseback is great! Love how it shows the old and new mixed together in Macedonia. Fantastic!

    1. Hi Maria, thanks for stopping by :-)

  3. Hey Freya
    A very inspiring post!
    Such an accomplished writer and traveller. It was a joy to read!

  4. Seems like Macedonia is a great city to visit. Lovely pictures, especially of the stone bridge and the horse rider.

    1. Yes it looks like a wonderful place

  5. I would love to visit Macedonia - we have a lot of family there and will definitely go someday. I've heard great things about Ohrid.

    1. It looks really beautiful indeed

  6. Nice page indeed. Thanks a lot for having what you've got in here. Impressive indeed. We all have our own experiences. It definitely teaches all the lessons we need to learn! Traveling provides an education in life that you cannot obtain in any other way. so keep the travelling, it gets the creative mind flowing!

  7. I want to visit Macedonia : we now have a lot of family members at this time there all of which will undoubtedly head out at some point. I've truly seen great things about Ohrid. Pleasant Pleasant page indeed.

  8. Awesome post and really like the pictures of Macedonia. Great work Freya and waiting for your next post for some other exciting adventure.


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Freya - Holiday Nomad