15 Things to be aware of when backpacking and hitchhiking in Macedonia
1) Mostly stress free, especially if you’re from Europe
One big advantage of backpacking and hitchhiking in Macedonia is that the visa situation is easy for many. Check out the information below (or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia) to see if you are one of the lucky ones..
ⓐ No visa – 90 days
EU citizens and citizens of the following countries do not requite a visa to enter for up to 90 days:
Albania, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Barbados, Belarus3, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, El Salvador, Georgia3, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iceland, Israel, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia2, Mauritius, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro1, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, San Marino, Seychelles, Serbia, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey1, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay, Vatican City
1 – For citizens of Montenegro and Turkey the maximum permitted stay is 60 days. 2 – For citizens of Malaysia the maximum permitted stay is 30 days. 3 – For nationals of Belarus and Georgia holding normal passports travelling as a tourist either individually with "vouchers" or in a travel group organised by travel agencies.
ⓑ Visa free but only for business
Citizens of the following 4 do not require a visa if their passports are endorsed “business”:
Belarus, China, Georgia, Mongolia
ⓒ Need approval from Ministry of Internal Affairs
In addition to a visa, the following nationals also need approval from the Macedonian Ministry of Internal Affairs:
Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, Burundi, Cameroon, China, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, Yemen
Food & Drink
2) What cuisine to expect
For those familiar with standard Balkan cuisine, Macedonia should pose few surprises with its culinary options. Expect lots of grilled meat (skara; especially widely available in the whole region – ćevapčići) and salads (esp. shopska salata) comprising of cucumber, tomatoes, white cheese and peppers common in both starters and mains. With meats, beef, chicken and mutton are extremely common and pork less so (due to its increased price and the large Muslim population) and be sure to try the national dish Tavče-gravče which is prepared in a clay dish with fresh beans and can be found in almost all restaurants in Macedonia. Foreign influences also play their part and the Ottoman influence can be spotted in the deserts and the ubiquitous meze (a variety of cold & creamy vegetable spreads) whilst the growth of Italian food can be seen by the increase in pizzerias in the big cities.
3) When & where to eat and the lost art of breakfast
The cheapest restaurant in Macedonia is a skara (grill) and the first port of call for the hungry budget traveller. Restaurants catering to tourists (esp. in Skopje & Ohrid) are invariable more expensive and best avoided. For those used to a western style breakfast, prepared to be disappointed, as the locals normally survive on a cup of coffee and bread with jam, but this is changing slowly and in the larger cities more options are becoming available. It is still advisable however, to try to find accommodation that offers breakfast as outside the cities it can be difficult to find. Macedonians typically take their main meal during the day but again this traditional way of doing things is under threat.
4) What to drink and make sure to buy early
It is very important to note that it is forbidden to buy alcohol from shops & supermarkets after 7p.m. in the winter and 9 p.m. in the summer. This rule is enforced by supermarkets but there is usually a shopkeeper willing to bend the rules as long as you don’t flaunt it to all and sundry. Although, all being said, it is wise to stock up early if you are planning to drink on the streets at night.
As for what to try, Macedonia is the Balkan’s largest producer of wine and the common red ‘T’ga za Jug‘ is both economical and extremely popular with the locals. Rakija, an extremely strong grape brandy, is the hard stuff of choice and the drinkable if not spectacular Skopsko beer dominates the lager market.
5) Hotels – expensive and double the price for foreigners
Rather annoyingly the state-run pre 1990’s communist style hotels that can be a cheap sleep in other parts of former Yugoslavia, are not a budget friendly option in Macedonia. The buildings tend to be poorly maintained with extremely basic facilities and most frustratingly of all, foreigners are normally charged much more than native Macedonians. Also, the heating is normally turned off between April and October and they can get very chilly. In short, stay away!
6) Why not stay in a monastery?
Monasteries in Macedonia offer accommodation at excellent prices (sometimes half that of a hotel) and the chance to stay in some unique surroundings. Booking is potentially tricky however, as very few of the inhabitants speak English and native Macedonians tend to book up all the spaces early. If you speak no Macedonian (or have no friend to help you) go there early as the staff may leave early after the pre-bookers have arrived. Additionally, once you have arrived you need to collect a registration card from the inn staff and register yourself at the local police station as, unlike in a hotel, it will not be done for you.
7) Private Accommodation, Hostels & Camping
In the main tourist destinations it is advisable for the budget traveller to find private accommodation. This can normally be achieved by either walking around the bus or train station or heading for the main square with rucksacks in tow and somebody will approach you offering a bed or apartment. Normal rules apply – be sure to see the room first, and pay no more than 10 – 15 € (at very most). Hostels are also an option, mostly in Ohrid and Skopje, and usually include breakfast at comparable prices to private accommodation. Camp sites can also be found but they tend to be difficult to access without private transport and the quality is very mixed. Wild camping, while technical illegal, is also an option and many locals still do it, just be sure to find somewhere out of the way and remember to clean up after yourself.
8) Expect variation to the east and up high
On the whole Macedonia experiences a mild continental climate characterised by relatively cold & humid winters (-3 – 3°C) and warm & dry summers with temperatures effected by elevation (i.e. the higher you are the colder it is) (av. 20–25 °C). In the places of highest elevation, mainly in the west and south, a mountainous climate exists so expect long & snowy winters with short & cold summers. On the eastern borders long & dry summers and mild & rainy winters are the norm, with very little to differentiate spring & autumn.
Transport & Hitch-hiking
9) Travelling long distances
As always, we here at HitchHikersHandbook.com would recommend the easiest and most interesting way to get around – hitch-hiking, but if you need a break from this intensive form of travel then what are your options in Macedonia? Well, the bus network is relatively well-developed and the most common form of domestic & international transport but be warned that most do not have heating and have been known to break down. Additionally, few have on-board toilets so make sure to go before you leave. The train network in Macedonia is limited, with Skopje to Kičevo through the north-west and to Bitola in the south the main routes. Note – there is no train connection to Ohrid. Train information can be found here (n.b. in Macedonian).
10) Avoid getting ripped off by taxis
Taxis is general are much cheaper than in western Europe with most charging a flat rate of 30 / 50 MKD with 30 MKD added for every kilometre you travel. Within a city, paying over 100 MKD can be considered excessive so make sure (as much as possible) of the price before you start your journey. The exception to these rules are Ohrid where during peak season taxi drivers will attempt to charge up to three times as much and will definitely not go below 100 MKD regardless of the journey length, and journey to and from Skopje airport. To avoid paying exorbitant rates book with an established taxi firm in advance or haggle until you think you have reached a fair price. Never get in a taxi that you are not comfortable with as there are always other drivers who may give you a more reasonable price.
Macedonia naming dispute
11) Macedonia, the Republic of Macedonia or FYROM
The name Macedonia is a controversial thing. Greece believes that the name Macedonia, and all the cultural heritage attached to it, is Greek and they oppose the use of the ‘Republic of Macedonia’ without a geographical qualifier (i.e. Northern Macedonia). Furthermore, they accuse Macedonia of appropriating the symbols and figures that are historical part of Greek culture (e.g. Alexander the Great). The term FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) is used by international organisations, supposedly until a more permanent solution is found, but is rejected by Macedonians themselves as insulting. With no compromise in sight, the naming dispute will seemingly run and run.
12) What to speak and bring a phrasebook
Macedonian is the official language of Macedonia and is spoken by almost everyone in the country. 25% of the people speak Albanian as their first language and are concentrated in the north-west (the areas bordering Albania) and the capital Skopje. While some young people in the urban centres speak some English, many do not, so a phrasebook is highly recommended if you are planning on exploring the country fully. Speakers of Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian and Slovene will have few problems as the languages are almost mutually intelligible and Russian and German is useful especially when dealing with the older generation.
13) One of Europe’s cheapest travel destinations
Macedonian denar (MKD) are divided into denominations of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000 and 5000 for notes and 1, 2, 5 for coins. The cost of travelling in Macedonia is very cheap when compared to western Europe, slightly less than the other former states of Yugoslavia and comparable with its eastern neighbour Bulgaria.
Current exchange rates
Health & Safety
14) To drink or not to drink and other safety concerns
The debate about whether to drink the tap water in Macedonia rages on and contradictory advice is plentiful. In truth, drinking the water is not going to kill you but may take a little time to become accustomed to. As for other safety concerns, generally speaking Macedonia is a safe county in which to travel baring the odd pickpockets, especially in touristy and crowded areas. One annoyance however, is the persistence of young beggars, particularly along the riverside in Skopje, who can be intimating. Simply duck into a restaurant or shop if you are unable to shake them off.
15) The ethnic problems and how to avoid offending people
The ethnic problems bubbling under the surface in Macedonia become evident the more time you spend in the country. Relations between the Macedonian majority and Albanian minority are fraught and as a foreigner it is almost always best to avoid giving an opinion as you will be sure to offend somebody. At all costs avoid talking about the 2001 civil war with the NLA. Other touchy topics include Macedonian-Greek and Macedonian-Bulgaria relations as some locals hold strong views about their neighbour states that are not always very diplomatic. As a general rule, ask questions but offer no statements.
Written by: Jon