Macedonia? As I was invited to the AdventureNEXT Balkans conference and the possibility of exploring this small Balkan country I didn’t hesitate long and said yes. Several days of hiking, climbing, mountaineering, caving and paddling adventures were to be had, and big smiles and wide views to be experienced.
Skopje, the capital
I arrived late in the evening in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and was lucky enough to share a ride with three fellow AdventureNEXT attendants to the hotel. While I was travelling since 4 am of that day I didn’t feel like hitting the hay just yet, and so I went with James and Bernard to explore the centre a wee bit. Unknown to the outside world there were daily peaceful demonstrations in Skopje, called the colourful revolution. The signs of these could be seen on the dozens of monuments in the centre, as the demonstrators threw colourful bombs on them. We walked past the river to the central square and then on a more busy street back to the hotel, where I finally felt tired enough to hit the hay.
The next morning I went off on my own to explore the city more. There’s an old castle on a hill overlooking the city, which made for a easy first destination. The entry to it is free and you get some nice views towards the centre and the hills behind it, as well as the distant mountains which we would be exploring a bit later on. After that I took a look at the Mosque Mustapha Pasha, which was a beautiful building. While I am anti-religious I really like Mosques with their Minaretts and their calls to prayer. They are beautiful structures and the people one meets there are in my experience always friendly and kind, much unlike what mainstream media would like you to believe about Moslems.
I wandered downwards towards the Old Bazaar of Skopje, where plenty of shops offered their goods for trade. Impressive was the street of gold, where one jewellery store was to the next and I was just left but wondering: Who has the money to buy these things, or are they cheap? As I’m also not really into gold, silver and diamonds I didn’t find out and just strolled on through the narrow streets of the Old Bazaar. Delicious smells from small restaurants wafted through the air and I was reminded by my stomach that it might just be time to eat. After I changed some Euros into the local currency I found a nice restaurant which served a delicious plate of kebap and salad. The old gentlemen was friendly and warm, and even when we didn’t share a common language we were able to communicate with hand & feet and I got what I wanted.
With a belly full of good food and after a coffee I went on to explore the city more - the large square where pompous classical music was blarring out of hidden speakers, and then I wandered over the old Stone Bridge and was pondering for a moment if it would be possible to still take a hike up the hill next to the city. But the clock was late and I was about to meet my fellow adventurers, so I headed back to the hotel. After a dozen introductions we went for another exploration of Skopje, and much to my amusement it was almost identical to the round I made on my own in the morning. This time, however, we had our guides along who were able to tell us a bit more about the buildings, structures and monuments. It was very interesting, and if you like to explore old cities then Skopje is definitely worth a visit.
Hiking, climbing and paddling at Matka Canyon
Matka Canyon is a mere 40 minute bus ride away from downtown Skopje so I already was fearing it’d be overrun with visitors who wanted to escape the city for the weekend. However, it was happily not the case! Our bus dropped us off at a bridge which crossed the river and then we hiked on a fine singletrack trail up into the mountains. It was simply lovely hiking with great views and lush green flowers & plants along the track. We glimpsed views into the canyon and also towards our destination up on the hill, where we would be climbing in the morning.
As we arrived up on the hill a beautiful old & small monastary welcomed us and there was already quite a bit of activity from local climbing club members - there was going to be a climbing festival there this weekend from the Macedonian Alpine Club, and after us a steady stream of climbers arrived throughout the morning. Our guides set up a top rope and everyone was encouraged to go and try the fairly easy route, and almost everyone made it to the top 30 m higher up - even those who were climbing the first time in their life! I was eager to get some more climbing in and did one more route on a nice arete, but then it was sadly already time to move on as we were scheduled to go paddling.
The packs came back on and then it was happily just downhill until the shore down in the canyon. We rang a bell which resulted in a boat coming over to pick us up and ferry us over to the other side, where we quickly changed into clothes which could get wet - as we were going to be paddling for an hour in sit-on-top kayaks. I paired up with Avery, a fellow Journalist, and soon we were finding our rhytm and navigated our kayak over the turquoise waters of the Matka Canyon. After an hour of paddling through the steep canyon we arrived at a cave which some of us went in, but as I didn’t bring any shoes & didn’t fancy walking through bat poop I waited outside. Just as we set out to paddle back we could hear the distant thunder in the mountains, and so it meant faster paddling in order to not get soaked and electrocuted by lightning.
Obviously we made it out alive, and as we were back on the shore it was time for lunch - at 17 o’clock! We had a short transfer to a local restaurant which served delicious vegetables which were grown in the garden behind the house and while we munched our starters a Gipsy Brass Band entered the local and set off to play for us. It was a great atmosphere as these passionate musicians played their instruments, and many of us felt the beat and one saw wipping feet. Well fed and feeling tired after a day of hiking, climbing and paddling we drove back to Skopje. As the next morning we would transfer to another area of the country it meant packing up - happily I travelled light!
Standing on a summit and watching into Kosovo
In case you didn’t know: I really do not like the transportation part of travelling. Bus and train rides as well as flying are pretty boring and a utter waste of time for me, and riding in a bus on small mountain roads which wind up the hill in serpentines is about the last ting I really want to do. Alas, this was what was in store for us this morning. We rode for several hours to Staro Selo where we transferred into 4 x 4s which shuttled us up the mountain to the Vila Ljuboten. This, happily, marked the end of the first transportation part of the day, and from here on we’d be using our own feet to move.
After sitting for over three hours in a bus and car moving my feet in the mountains was exactly what I wanted, and happily also Tim, Matthias, Avery and Bernard felt that way. We set at a good pace off from the hut, with the goal being the summit of Ljuboten. Alas, in a big group the speed goes down pretty quickly, and so the five of us made a break-out and went ahead. Soon we reached a sign post & decided it’d be just the right thing to do to wait for our guides and the rest of the group, and ask for permission to go ahead to the summit.
Upon reaching us the guides gave us permission to make a summit attempt, and with the weather being a mixed back and a thick layer of snow on the ridge to the summit we weren’t sure how far we would come, so if our attempt would be crowned by success was unsure. For starters it was easy hiking until the upper snow field, and as a group of Macedonian mountaineers were just coming down from the summit we decided that we could also try it. The ridge towards the summit of Ljuboten falls pretty steep off towards the left, and just slightly less to the right, so it was careful hiking upwards.
We were surprised how easy & short it was in the end to reach the summit. We smiled and enjoyed the views as we stood on the broad summit shoulder: Down into the clouds towards the north we looked into Kosovo, and down towards the south we could see far into Macedonia. The clouds were racing around us, it was windy and there was thunder in the distance, so after a summit selfie we carefully proceeded to descent. The snowy ridge demanded concentration when going down, but as soon as we left the snow behind it was fast & easy hiking again. We soon met up with the rest of our group which were waiting further down for us, and then we decended together towards the Vila Ljuboten and again a rather late lunch. After such a fine hike the food tasted amazing, and while the Macedonian kitchen often felt like it was the same the natural ingredients and fresh mountain air made this probably one of the best meals I ate in Macedonia.
Caving with bats at Makedonski Brod
After that tasty lunch we had another bus travel section, and we arrived at dawn at our next hotel close to the Mavrovo National Park. I slept in a beautiful apartment overlooking the village, but the real treat was definitely waking up and seeing the mountains from my window the next morning. Sadly instead of going to explore the surrounding mountains and villages on foot we had another transfer that morning, but happily it wasn’t too long. We arrived at the basecamp of the Macedonian Caving Society, and after dressing up in our red overalls and helmets we were off to the Gorna Slatinska cave with our guides.
Now I’d lie if I didn’t say that I was thinking Meh about the caving before we entered the cave. I was not really excited about the whole caving thing, but what followed really was my favourite part of this Multi-activity trip. The Gorna Slatinska cave is around 400 m long and we needed with our group of six around 45 to 60 minutes from one end to the other. Those 400 m under the earth were just fantastic, with stalagmites and stalactites which grew over hundreds of years, small chambers and tight spots which one needed to squeeze through and then small climbs to get up or down. And of course the bats. I’d go as far as saying that Batman is my favourite comic character (Rorschach from Watchmen being a close second), so being in a cave with bats was just a very cool experience. There were hundreds of bats of all sizes flying around us, or hanging sleeping from the ceiling. As we exited the cave and the sunshine was again shining on us I had a huge smile on my face. I would do this again in an instant as it was just such a outlandish yet inspiring experience, so if you’re not too afraid of tight spaces I would urge you to go and explore the Makedonski Brod caves!
Well, after I looked a last time into the mouth of the cave which I just had exited we walked the short distance back to the basecamp, where one of the guides was already busy at the BBQ grill. While the other group went to explore the cave we were having a beer and chating excitedly about the experience, and as our friends were back we shared a delicious feast of vegetables, beans, chicken and meats before we headed onwards to Ohrid and the AdventureNEXT conference - that, however, is another story for another day!
Getting there & accommodation
Turkish Airlines flew me from Helsinki via Istanbul to Skopje and I need to say as far as airlines go they do a very good job. Punctual, friendly and with full service (yes, that means a 3-course meal in economic class as well as an “open bar”) I really liked my flights with them. They have their own Chef on board which apparently cooks for the business class passengers, but who then also would happily help out in the back of the plane.
The trip I was on was organized by Macedonia Experience which I found a friendly & professional outfit. The guides knew what they were doing (always good when setting up anchors for climbing, paddlling, moving in the mountains and caving) and looked after evryone in the group. We had a condensed version of their normal Multi-Activity Trip and the normal tour you can book is longer and more relaxed. If you don’t want to go off exploring by yourself but rather have someone who has taken care of everything, give them your business.
In Skopje we stayed at the Hotel Duvet which was central, clean and friendly. I liked the breakfast terrace overlooking the city towards the hills, and the rooms were pretty big (in case that’s important to you).
The Vila Ljuboten at the foot of the mountain of the same name also offers very basic rooms, so if you want to stay up in the mountains that would be a good place.
Hotel Tutto in the Mavrovo national park has great rooms and apartments overlooking the valley, and their breakfast & dinner is also fantastic. If you’re into slowfood, herbs and spices this place is well worth checking in to, as the owner has a wealth of knowledge in this area and is happy to share it.
Disclaimer: I was invited to Macedonia as part of the AdventureNEXT Balkans conference. This does not influence the article as I maintain full editorial control of the content published on this site. Read the Outdoor Blogger Codex for more information on blogger transparency.