Travelling to foreign countries really changes who you are. Through the people you meet, the experiences you encounter and the new found appreciation and value you gain for your own life.
But the biggest blessing of all is calling your friends, family.
From travelling around the South, standing by my best friend at her wedding and a few hiccups on the way (missed flights, wrong accommodation, you know the drill).
I pushed through my culture shock and preconceived expectations, and am glad to say that it is a place I was soon calling my second home.
I had the honour of being asked to stand by my best friend at her wedding as her bridesmaid in Bitola which is her home town in Macedonia, in July this year. So I did what any normal person would do (after I accepted their offer of course). I Googled the word ‘Macedonia’ because I had absolutely no idea where it was.
I soon learnt it was a small country in the Balkan region of Europe, bordering Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria and the excitement of a European summer and holiday planning soon kicked it.
After having first-hand experience travelling to Macedonia from Melbourne, here are my top five suggestions.
I had never experienced culture shock before until I travelled to Skopje.
This is where I spent my first day in Macedonia and the language was unfamiliar, it was extremely hot and some streets were beautiful with lots of history and really old worn down buildings while a few hundred metres down it would portray a real image of poverty.
It was a really confronting experience and it wasn’t until a few hours later that I felt comfortable walking around the unfamiliar streets and engaging with the predominantly locals, who lived in the city centre.
But I found that once you passed the poorer areas of the city which are quite confronting, there is so many beautiful buildings and history to be experienced. The main city centre is where we spent a majority of our day.
We purchased Kozinjak, which is sweet bread that is a famous Macedonian dish. We walked around the main square which had old historical statues of Alexander the Great, as well as thousand-year-old ancient ruins.
We also went shopping in the old town and decided that Macedonian fashion was very far off from how we dressed in Melbourne. They wore lots of bright colours, like blue, orange, red and pink and everything had a diamanté or crystal on it and was tight.
My friend and I spent the day trying on their clothes and getting an understanding of their culture before we called a taxi and began our three hour car ride to Bitola.
Tip: It is a huge advantage to travel with somebody who knows their way around.
We travelled here purely for a day trip to have lunch at my friend’s relative’s restaurant. The restaurant was overflowing with greenery and looked like it was out of a fairy-tale.
The first thing I saw after walking down the wobbly cobble stone stairs, was a humongous pond with dozens of blue and orange fish swimming around. I then walked through a large area of garden, with small trees and large well-kept bushes, overflowing flowers hanging from pink garden pots and bright red roses.
To get to our lunch table we had to walk over a cute little white painted handmade bridge that was built over the pond, where the smell of fresh crisp air and flowers followed. Resen is a small town in Macedonia’s Southwest will just under 9,000 inhabitants, who are, in my experience, very humble and welcoming people.
The food is also very fresh. We ordered the traditional Ćevapi which is a mincemeat based sausage dish, that the restaurant owners made from scratch in their kitchen. I also had the traditional Shopska salad, which is tomato, cucumber, peppers and onion topped with the ingredient Macedonians put in every dish… Sirene cheese.
Described as Macedonia’s most ‘seductive destination’ on Lonely Planet, Ohrid is probably the most beautiful town I have ever visited in my life. The town is surrounded by a beautiful crystal blue lake, that has a strong calming tranquil feel to it, especially when you swim in its icy cold waters.
The lake is one of 28 sites listed on UNESCO’s Cultural and Natural World Heritage sites.
The town has such a happy positive energy to it, especially in the summer time. The main street is filled with traditional houses with red tiled roofs, buzzing with tourists taking photos by the lake and at every corner walking down the ancient cobble stones of the main street, you catch a glimpse of one of the 365 churches and monasteries Ohrid is known for.
One for every day of the year.
I climbed up a hill to visit the famous Church of St. John at Kaneo. The church had tints of the same red tiles that filed the town, and had a main entrance surrounded by round pillars and was situated to overlook the whole lake. It was extremely dark inside the main area, and only around five metres in length and width.
The smell of essence was very overwhelming and everything inside, including the dozens of images of Christ, was gold. But you could feel the history when you walked around and felt a spiritual connection to the church and the lake.
Struga is definitely a town worth visiting and is only an hour’s drive from Bitola. I didn’t get to experience much of the town but went to the Hotel Izgrev Spa and Aqua park.
I spent the day going on a large waterslide that was about 50m high, and felt like a little kid every time I screamed down the slide and splashed into the water. I alternated between this, and ordering a fruity cocktail at the large pool side bar and laying on a tanning bed.
What I loved most about the Aqua park was that you could sit on the edge of the Luke-warm pool and get a 180-degree view of Lake Ohrid. I really enjoyed Struga because it was so relaxing and calming and gave me a day to wind down, especially after the wedding.
The Saint Jovan Bigorski monastery
Travelling to this monastery proved to be a bit of an adventure. This is where my friends decided to have their wedding ceremony, which was a 3.5-hour drive from the town we were staying in.
So we all woke up extra early the day of the wedding (which also happened to be the morning after the Hens night) and hopped onto a bus on an empty stomach and three hours sleep, to travel to this monastery which seemed like a lifetime away.
Especially after the bus broke down and we hitchhiked on the side of an unknown Macedonian highway, which I can now tick off my bucket list.
Two buses and several hours later we finally made it to the Orthodox St Jovan Bigorski monastery, and it was (almost) worth the trouble of getting there. The monastery was first built in 1020 and rebuilt in 1743 by Monk Ilarion after being destroyed by the Ottomans.
The monastery is fully equipped with a two fountains filled with fresh mountain water, a dining room, tower and old charnel house, that you can walk around and visit.
The views are absolutely exquisite and so picturesque. You can walk around the whole monastery and get views of the deep green Mountain Bistra and the crystal blue river banks of Radika.
Inside the monastery, you feel transported in history. In the middle of the room was a large round chandelier, at least two metres in width, in the shape of a crown, that was covered in jewels.
The mass, even though it was in Macedonian, felt really special and it was so interesting watching how another culture celebrates and performs religious sacraments. The priest placed large gold crowns on both the bride and grooms head and everyone stood up and surrounded the newlyweds, making it a really intimate ceremony.
The dim lighting and strong smell of essence made the experience even more special. And what topped it off was that the bus didn’t break down on the way home!