Before visiting Macedonia, I had a rough understanding that there is a bit of an issue between them and Greece. I think I’ve got a slightly better handle on one of the main contentious topics, although I’m probably a little biased hearing it from the Macedonian perspective. Anyhow, as briefly as I’m able, here’s why Macedonia and Greece don’t play nice in the sandbox together…
Once upon a time, there was a land called Macedon. Geographically, it was located about halfway in what is now Greece and about halfway in was is now (the country) Macedonia. In Greece, part of this land is referred to as a state or province by the name Macedonia. Also, once upon a time (much more recently), there was a land called Yugoslavia, a Soviet republic. Inside Yugoslavia, there was a province called Macedonia. When Yugoslavia started breaking apart in the early 1990s, Macedonia was one of the first to claim independence. Macedonia was the only country to in the Balkans to gain independence without any bloodshed. From the beginning, Greece seemed to take exception to them existing as an independent country at all under that name. They already had a state with that name. The people within that Greek state speak a similar language to what is spoken in Macedonia. Some people might even say that Greek Macedonians are an oppressed minority. So there’s the name issue as best as I’ve got it.
But then you have this other issue: King Alexander… or Alexander the Macedonian, or Alexander the Great (as most people would know and as the Greeks would have it). Greece claims Alexander was Greek, and Macedonia claims Alexander was Macedonian. Here’s the salient cliff notes: King Philip II was Macedonian. Philip had a first son with a Macedonian woman, but later married a Greek woman named Olympias who became the mother of Alexander. Philip was killed. Philip’s first son was also killed, leaving Alexander in position to assume power and start invading countries and all the “great” stuff and such. When Alexander invaded places, while he referred to his soldiers as fellow Greeks, he also claimed to be taking places over in the name of Macedonia. And I think those are the high points: Macedonian father, Greek mother, born and died in ancient Macedon. Here’s the rub though… the area where he was born is part of the Greek state of Macedonia, not the country. So I suppose there are arguments to be made on both sides. I don’t know though, I’m a fan of the underdog, and Greece seems to have been a little douchey to Macedonia…. I really want to side with them on this. Greece even threw a tantrum because the original Macedonian flag had a stylized depiction of the sun that was used on Alexander’s soldiers’ shields and ultimately pressured them to make a new flag. Kind of a dick move, although the new flag is cooler in my opinion. So, if you want to visit Macedonia, you’ll earn brownie points hating on Greece a little.
We really enjoyed our visit to Macedonia. There is a massive public works going on with construction absolutely everywhere. It seems like maybe they’ve overextended themselves in places, but in others you can tell that things are going to be really nice if everything continues to progress for the next few years. Compared to our starting point of Bulgaria, Macedonia definitely has a more exotic and Mediterranean feel. You can see the Ottoman/Turkish influences a little more throughout the people, buildings, and food. I’m not going to state a preference for Macedonian kebaps, but I will say for certain that they are distinct from what we were seeing in Bulgaria. Driving through the countryside, the land is impressively fertile… all sorts of fruits and vegetables growing in real abundance…. Apples and grapes and corn and cabbage and peppers all over the place. There seems to be a better connection between the season and what is served (as there should be).
For such a small country, we packed a lot into a very short visit. The land size is deceptive. Macedonia is actually one of the most mountainous countries in the world (maybe THE most, depending on your rules). We spent our arrival day in the capital, Skopje and toured the old town, Kale Fort, Mother Teresa house, and Alexander Square. We stayed at the Hotel Senigallia in Skopje, which was a mockup of a huge wooden boat on the river flowing (rapidly) through town. The lodging was a unique and charming experience, with the flowing water outside your “cabin” sounding like heavy rainfall all through the night. Our second day was VERY long, starting early and ending after midnight. We drove to Heraclea Lyncestis (Roman ruins) and the town of Bitola and spent a few hours. Afterwards, we continued on to Ohrid, a beautiful lakefront town with little villas and spring-fed streams. There are 365 monasteries in Ohrid, but we only visited a couple of them. We also visited the old fort and old town there as well. It’s an absolutely beautiful little town and shouldn’t be missed. Unfortunately, that was all the time we had in Macedonia, carrying on to Kosovo with an early morning bus.