One Week in Macedonia

We have made our way out of Albania and have walked across the border into Macedonia, a country that is just as beautiful as the rest of the Balkan nations we’ve visited. It’s also got just as complicated a history. Moving around in this part of the world is a stark reminder that borders change all the time, and almost never peacefully. Almost. Macedonia is one of those rare nations that voted themselves into statehood. The people voted in a referendum in 1991 that officially separated them from Yugoslavia. Huzzah for peaceful transitions.

There was only one glitch. See, there’s a province in Greece called Macedonia. Alexander the Great was born there. Macedonia, the newly minted country, claims to be the birthplace of Alexander’s dad, Phillip II of Macedon. The Greeks think the name belongs to them, the Macedonians think otherwise.

This disagreement was exacerbated by Macedonia’s choice of flag. Can you tell the difference between the Greek province and the Macedonian nation’s flags?

“Of course you can,” say the Macedonians. “Ours is the one with the starburst that Phillip II of Macedon used.”

“Posers,” exclaim the Greeks. “The province of Macedonia has been using this symbol since forever.”

Alas, the Macedonian’s would eventually have to change their flag to something less… Macedonian. It’s all very confusing and I’m not going to be able to do justice to thousands of years of geopolitics in one blog post (and a couple of made up quotes). Even the U.N. is threading a needle, officially recognizing the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Put that on your letterhead.

Still, all two million of Macedonia’s residents are deeply proud of their country. There are loud rallies every night in the town squares, complete with patriotic songs and chants and flag waving. The new flag and the old one! They love that they are their own place now. Independence is exciting.

Here’s where we went:

This beautiful lakeside town is host to some of the most boisterous patriotic rallies in the whole country. Their sound system is mighty. We could hear everything perfectly no matter where we were in the town. The rallies were blessedly over by 8:00 pm every night.

The view of the lake from our hotel room. Photo by Ryan.
The beautiful architecture of the Serbian Orthodox Church was captivating. Photo by Tricia.
Red poppies grow wild all across the landscape. Photo by Tricia.

Zrze Monastery
On our way north we stopped in at a wonderful monastery on a clifftop that hosts a 14th century church with beautiful frescoes. A monk met us in the gardens and walked us around, then he made us tea from the wild thyme that grows in the hills.

The Zrze Monastery in Macedonia. It’s about the most tranquil place you can imagine. Photo by Ryan.
One of many exquisite frescoes in the old church. Photo by Ryan.

Skopje is difficult to describe. As we mentioned earlier, folks here are REALLY proud of being an independent nation. The capital city is positively bursting with patriotic statuary. There are statues everywhere. Massive ones.

A massive statue and fountain dedicated to Phillip II of Macedon. Photo by Tricia.
Another massive fountain and statue, this one for Alexander the Great. Photo by Tricia.

Skopje is kind of a bizarre place. I’m glad I saw it. It’s like the Las Vegas of statuary art.

Macedonia itself is worth a stop if you’re moving through the Baltics. We rented a car for the full time we were here. It wasn’t overly expensive and the country is small enough that the car rides were only a couple of hours at a time. It will be fascinating to watch this country grow and mature. It is full of wonderful, friendly people.

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