Living in Thessaloniki, I quickly learned of the rivalry between the people of northern Greece and the country of Macedonia (or officially the Former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The very new conflict is over an ancient topic, the Macedonia people.
When I arrived in Thessaloniki, I was surprised by all the Macedonia references around the city. The bus station is called the Macedonia Bus Station, there is a large hotel called the Macedonia Palace, a university in the city is called the University of Macedonia, etc., etc. The list goes on. I was confused. Macedonia is a country located just north of here, right?
“They are trying to steal our history and our culture.” This was the view of George, a Greek guy in his mid-30s who I met at a Couchsurfing meeting. After meeting more Greeks, I realized this is a pretty typical view. “They claim Alexander the Great to be theirs, when he was born just outside of Thessaloniki.”
Macedonia, outside of the country’s name, is also a region that also encapsulates northern Greece. Technically, both Macedonia (FYROM) and parts of Greece are truly Macedonia. However, it seems that both sides want to claim it for themselves and aren’t planning on sharing.
Chika and I decided to take a weekend trip to Macedonia, as it is very close to where we’re living and we were curious to see a bit of the country. Leading up to the trip, I found out that Greeks don’t even call the country of Macedonia by its name; they prefer to call it Skopje (sko-pya), the capital city of FYROM. I honestly think I offended many people when I said we were heading to visit Macedonia!
For our 2 nights and 3 days away, we decided to visit Bitola and Ohrid, both in southwest Macedonia.
Getting from Thessaloniki to Bitola and Ohrid
Although very close to the border, getting to Bitola was not easy. Unfortunately, there is no public transportation in between the cities of Florina (Greece) and Bitola (Macedonia), separated by about 30 miles of flat land and the border stop. After doing some research, I found the best way was to hire a taxi driver who would make the border crossing for 27 euros each way. On Tripadvisor, I found a taxi driver named Dimitar and scheduled for him to pick us up in Florina. We had to take a 3 hour bus ride from Thessaloniki to Florina first, so it turned out to be a long trip. Everything went smoothly, though, so we were happy with paying a bit of money to avoid a longer trip going the other way into Macedonia.
From Bitola, we immediately took a bus to Ohrid. We knew that Ohrid was much more popular and was supposed to be really nice on the lake, so we decided to head straight there to see what it’s all about.
We got settled into our hostel and then took a walk around. Lake Ohrid was surprisingly beautiful with clear water, surrounded by green mountains, and with views of Albania in the far distance across the lake. Ohrid’s old town lays out along the shore of the lake, its small, windy roads making their way up the hill and giving great views. Compared to Thessaloniki, it actually felt like fall in Ohrid. The air was crisp and cool, meaning that we could wearing jeans and jackets and feel good. Thessaloniki still felt like late summer in early October, so this was a nice break.
Ohrid used to be known as the Jerusalem of the Balkans, having 365 churches at one time (one for every day of the year). Today, only a small fraction of those churches are still around. In 1980, Ohrid and Lake Ohrid were accepted as UNESCO Cultural and Natural World Heritage Sites. Ohrid was a town dating back to Phillip II’s rule of the Macedon Empire in the 4th century B.C.
On our full day in the town, we walked along the lake on the coast until we ended up at the 13th century Church of St. John at Kaneo, the most picturesque of all the churches in Ohrid and up there with one of the best located churches I’ve ever seen. Built by itself up on a cliff overlooking Lake Ohrid, the St. John at Kaneo church has a special view and tranquility. It’s almost as if this ledge on the cliff was formed just for this church. From here, you can see the surrounding mountains and the very blue waters of the lake. The leaves outside the church were just starting to change colors, creating an incredible site.
Walking through the small streets of the old town, we visited several other Byzantine era churches and also the Antique Theater, the only Greek theater in Macedonia. There are others, but they were built later on in the Roman Empire times. It’s the kind of city where slowly wandering is the best way to explore. You never really know what you’ll run into, but you know it’ll be great. We had just one day in Ohrid, which we really enjoyed, before moving on to visit Bitola.
We arrived in Bitola late afternoon and tried to find a hostel. Between the lack of cheaper accommodations, the stress of finding a place, and the lack of beauty in Bitola, it was a bad start. Immediately, we regretted leaving Ohrid to come to Bitola. I had read that it was supposed to be nice and likable, but we saw differently, especially when compared to Ohrid. Bitola does have a nice pedestrian walkway through the city center, where restaurants, cafes, and bakeries line the street. Other than this, however, there isn’t much at all!
I had read in the guide book about a small town just 3 miles outside of Bitola called Dihovo, located very close to the Pelister National Park. Our last day in Macedonia, we took a taxi to Dihovo from Bitola ($3 one way) to see what we could find in the area. After arriving, we realized that we should’ve planned for more days if we wanted to do some hiking. Dihovo is a small town in a valley, pretty far from any nice hikes. We walked along a small road up to Nizhepole which brought us closer to the national park, but we were still far enough away with too little time to do much. Instead, we walked around Nizhepole, a small town that seemingly never really gets tourists. It was cool to be in this small Macedonian mountain village that is rarely explored by outsiders.
We then made our way back to Dihovo and stopped at a place mentioned in the guide book. Called Villa Dihovo, it’s one of the view guesthouses and restaurants in the village. Run by Peter, a former international soccer player, the guesthouse is family owned and offers unique pricing, accommodation and food prices do not have a price. You pay what you want. The only set prices are those for their home brewed beer and home-made rakia (moonshine). You decide on the price of everything else. They have a large garden where they get most of their food and drinks.
We stopped in just for lunch, and we were served salad (where the tomatoes and onions were grown in the garden and the cheese locally made), sausages made from local livestock, and a home-made soup. It was a delicious meal, made and served by Peter’s mother. My only regret is that we didn’t spend at least one night in the villa! This visit to the Villa Dihovo definitely redeemed our decision to spend a day in Bitola.
A short weekend, but visiting Ohrid and Dihovo was a great way to spend an early fall weekend. This area is the most visited part of the small country, and we’re happy to have had the chance to see it. Ohrid lived up to its name, and Dihovo was a nice surprise to end our weekend trip!