The Tiny Heart of the Balkans: A Weekend in (North) Macedonia and Kosovo

Given a four-day break from classes and the onset of the cold and darkness of a Swedish winter, an excursion outside the country was in order. And due to quirks of migration and airline economics, Malmo Airport offers flights to a random collection of Eastern European cities for very low prices. One of these cities is Skopje, Macedonia. Or as I should say, North Macedonia, as in the months before I visited the country agreed on a name change in order to remove Greek opposition to North Macedonia’s candidacy for the EU (I will return to this later). North Macedonia was an ideal country for this short trip, as it is geographically small enough to hit all the main sites in a short period, but not so packed with attractions to demand multi-day stays in multiple cities. It is also a significant change of atmosphere from the development of Sweden, with much lower costs.

As the capital of North Macedonia, Skopje is the heart of political and cultural life in the country. Its cityscape is fascinating, despite a dearth of meaningful historical relics – while the city boasts a large castle and scattered other relics such as a Roman aqueduct, the significant destruction caused by the 1963 earthquake led to redevelopment of most of the city, with only a small Old Town area remaining. The city center nonetheless is reminiscent of major central European cities such as Budapest or Vienna, with grand avenues, ornate building facades, and a plethora of grandiose sculptures – but this all dates to 2014. In order to move the city on from the blandness of the Communist-era 1963 architecture and assert a renewed Macedonian nationalism, the government implemented a massive city redesign five years ago, creating a false (though likely more attractive) cityscape, though one marred in part by the polluted river at its heart. Given that the concept of Macedonian nationalism is nebulous and the history of a Macedonian state has many historical gaps – and the true heritage of Macedonia’s most famous son, Alexander the Great, is hotly contested between North Macedonia and Greece – the monuments and museums are disproportionate to the country’s current influence, but the attempt to create a shared history is illuminating in the context of current geopolitical disputes. Nonetheless, changes in political focus led to a retreat from nationalism for the higher dream of EU admittance – a dream harshly dashed shortly before I visited by French opposition to allowing North Macedonia (and other Balkan states) to progress within the EU membership stages. This setback was not welcomed by the Macedonians, even those of liberal bent who were unconcerned with the name change, as all viewed it as a betrayal of agreements, a waste of money already spent, and an impediment to economic or political progress – for more details on the political situation, this is an interesting article.

Returning to my trip, the mountainous nature of North Macedonia offers many opportunities for outside activities, and the warmer Mediterranean climate allowed me a quick kayaking trip in Matka Canyon, outside of Skopje, right when I arrived (though in the down season, there were no other kayakers sharing the water). Exploring Skopje itself was relatively quick though, as the next morning I caught a bus to cross the nearby border into Kosovo.

While both Kosovo and Macedonia experienced turmoil in the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, Kosovo suffered much more heavily, and was more in the public consciousness due to the US’s role in peacekeeping and air support for the Kosovar Albanian rebels against Serbian rule (which has caused great appreciation for the US in the country, I passed a Bill Clinton gymnasium in one small city). Kosovo was devastated in this war, with 90% of the population displaced and tens of thousands of deaths. Despite two decades of peace, Kosovo remains the poorest country in Europe, with enormous amounts of outmigration to wealthier countries – it’s also the youngest country in Europe. And while governed by the local Albanian population, Serbia and its allies refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent country, limiting its diplomatic and economic options (it is not a member of the UN). Between its geographic and political isolation, small size, and historic violence, Kosovo is not at all a popular tourist destination save for dedicated Balkan travelers. Yet it certainly offers its own charms. The focal point of my trip (well, the only point, as I spent only one day) was the city of Prizren, Kosovo’s second largest and most historic.

Like Skopje, Prizren is centered around a river with a stone bridge, a collection of Ottoman mosques and inns, and a castle on the hill overlooking the city. However, without the growth and cosmopolitanism spurred by the political importance of Skopje, Prizren is far more laid back, with a vibrant café culture and a surprisingly large art scene. It has few specific tourist attractions, though is an interesting base to hike in the mountains or transport oneself back to the Ottoman era, a feel more pronounced in the mostly Muslim city. Despite the language and religious differences, cuisine is still largely the same as in North Macedonia, with an overwhelming emphasis on grilled meat.

After a night in Prizren I returned to North Macedonia to travel down to the “Macedonian Riviera” in Ohrid. Skopje is actually very close to the Kosovo border, so the international trip to Prizren was shorter than from Skopje to Ohrid, though the infrequency of buses forced several extra hours in transit.

Ohrid is extremely picturesque, located on a hill overlooking Lake Ohrid, one of the largest lakes in the Balkans. Long a population, cultural, and religious center for the region (once called the Jerusalem of the Balkans), Ohrid boasts many churches dating back to the medieval era, with ruins from Byzantines and Romans before and a large old city area. The surrounding landscape is also dotted with churches and monasteries, most prominently the Sveti Naum monastery at the south end of the lake near the Albanian border. Ohrid is North Macedonia’s most popular tourist site, but while apparently it gets quite crowded in the summer months, by November mostly only locals were around, giving me almost sole access to the impressive scenery.

Ohrid was also only a day trip, though unlike Skopje and Prizren I could certainly have spent more time there. But its airport also had direct flights to Malmo, making it the perfect final destination for this short adventure, as I needed to be back for a workshop the next day.

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