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Travel & Holidays in later life

MINI SWITZERLAND OF THE BALKANS

Jose Carreras opened the 2005 Ohrid Summer Festival in the Roman amphitheatreFor a long time after Yugoslavia fell apart in 1990, the most southerly Republic of Macedonia was off the holidaymaker map. 

As Croatia made its come-back, the Kosovo problem meant that Macedonia couldn't return to the days of regular charter flights from the UK to Lake Ohrid for 7-day holiday packages.
But, as Reg Butler discovered, tour operators have now re-discovered Macedonia.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Visas are not required for EU passports. 

Currency is the denar - MKD. Most hotels quote exchange rates in euros, which are readily accepted in bars, restaurants and many shops. 

Macedonia does not have a National Tourist Board, but leaves information and promotion to individual communities. Try these websites: www.ohrid.com  for Ohrid information.
www.exploring
macedonia.com 
for general background.

The only up-to-date dedicated guidebook available is "Macedonia: the Bradt Travel Guide". It has far more detailed coverage than any of the former Yugoslav books.

These two companies offer tours: Explore Worldwide Ltd and tucantravel

Travelsphere escorted holidays

 

Macedonia's trump card is Lake Ohrid, protected by UNESCO for its environmental and cultural importance. The lake is the most beautiful in the Balkans, surrounded by mountains and looking across to Albania. It's like Switzerland in miniature, but much less built-up. 

The resort of Ohrid is packed with history, churches and festivals. The highlight is a seven-week Summer Festival which starts mid-July every year and includes performances at the 2000-year-old Roman amphitheatre. 

I was lucky enough to be there when Jose Carreras was performing, and got a ticket for a memorable show that started an hour late, at 10 pm. The performance stretched till half past midnight because Carreras went on giving encores.

The Festival has been held annually since 1961. In the same year the Balkan Folklore Festival was launched, and takes place early July every year. 

Nearer the next booking-up season, it's worth asking your travel agent to find which companies are including Macedonia and Lake Ohrid in their brochures. And then aim for July or August to catch the Festival season.

Ohrid was a favoured town with entertainment even in Roman times. A garrison guarded this strategic point along one of the most famous Roman roads - the Via Egnatia which linked the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea. 

In the amphitheatre, some of the stone seats have carved Roman names - probably for the season ticket holders or subscribers of 2000 years ago! 

St Clement's monastery church overlooking the town of OhridIt's a hilly town, with a 10th-century castle perched on a walled site dating from 3rd century BC. Many Orthodox churches were built between the 9th and 14th centuries, when Ohrid was a major religious centre for the Slav peoples - a Balkan Jerusalem.

Several churches resemble museum art galleries, decorated with ikons, woodcarvings and richly coloured Byzantine frescoes. 

In 1395 the Turks came, and built the Lower Town which still keeps to Turkish-style architecture. Traditional first-floor bay windows lean out from houses along the steep narrow streets. 

Much of the centre and waterfront is pedestrianised, giving added pleasure to the shops, restaurants and open-air cafes. Well-planned walking trails encourage you to explore the ancient city. 

Ohrid is neatly placed for access to the two largest of Macedonia's National Parks. A road to the north, along a breathtaking sequence of rivers and lakes, leads to Mavrovo National Park of forested mountains with sheep pastures above the tree line.

A well-established ski centre functions as a winter resort, but summer packages are now being developed. You can fish, go trekking, mountain-biking, climbing or game-spotting for brown bears, wolves or deer.
Boat trips take visitors to where 45 springs bubble up to reach Lake Ohrid
South-east of Lake Ohrid, over a superb mountain road across the Galicica National Park, is Lake Prespa. Local fishermen row visitors round a peninsula to Golem Grad island, close to the official lake border with Albania to the west, and Greece to the south. 

The entire area is a paradise for birdwatchers. As a wildlife reserve it's an undisturbed haven for about 200 bird species, of which 62 are Protected Species. 

There is no official crossing-point between the three countries, but birds don't need passports. Anywhere in Europe, it's hard to get further off-trail than in this tiny corner of Lake Prespa. 

Excursion prices are modest. Likewise for food.   

Fast food is not part of the local vocabulary. Macedonia grows all the usual Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. The country's position on a trading route between Asia and Europe has blended into a great variety of local cuisine. 

Worth trying are the sheep and goat cheeses, the lake fish - especially Ohrid trout - and the lamb and pork. For anyone who believes in good locally-grown organic food, a trip to Macedonia should be flavour of the year.

The country also has a long tradition of wine-making thanks to the Romans, followed by the dedicated medieval monks who kept their monastery cellars well stocked. 

Several charter flights serve Ohrid, otherwise visitors fly to the capital, Skopje, a totally modern city, rebuilt with international aid after a huge earthquake in 1963. 

Lighting a candle before a typical fresco in St John the Baptist monatery in Mavrovo National Park New public buildings were designed by international architects and 17 new suburbs built. Some are named after the capitals of countries which helped with donations - Oslo, Athens, London etc. 

The layout of the original Old Bazaar - the largest bazaar in the Balkans - has been preserved, and monuments restored. That's where I found my best buy in Macedonia. It was a short-back-and-sides at a traditional barber shop - 1.30 including the standard tip. 

Consider these alternative Balkan destinations

DUBROVNIK -  Star city of the Adriatic

ISTRIA makes a come-back


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Macedonia: the Bradt Travel Guide - The best possible choice, written by an author who thoroughly knows the country and its variegated culture.


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