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Be among the first to visit a 'new' country: Welcome to North Macedonia

It is an ancient land, but as of February it has a new name, giving travellers seeking a cool passport stamp a novel reason to visit. 

Be among the first to visit a 'new' country: Welcome to North Macedonia

Tables in North Macedonia overflow with grilled meats, vegetables, cheeses and breads – and excellent local wine. (Photo: The New York Times)

The world has a newly named country, North Macedonia. And that is good news for regional relations and travellers, who are visiting the south-eastern corner of Europe in growing numbers. 

In February, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” – as the United Nations referred to the Balkan country during its admittance in 1993 – officially became the Republic of North Macedonia.

For many who know this nation in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula simply as “Macedonia”, this may seem like semantics. It is not. Macedonia agreed to change its name to resolve a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece, and, in return, Greece said it would drop its objection to the neighbouring country’s entry into the European Union and NATO. Greece had long opposed the name “Macedonia”, saying it implied territorial aspirations over the northern Greek region of the same name.

For travellers, the end of the dispute means a new passport stamp and a novel reason to discover this nascent, yet ancient land, which is about the size of New Hampshire and borders Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.

Dense with old-world culture, rustic gourmet cuisine, mountain chains, remote villages, and some of the oldest and deepest lakes in Europe, the country is a synapse connecting traditions on the crossroads between empires – Greek, Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman – where the Occident and Orient have long found middle ground.

The hope is that the name change will, in part, inspire a publicity makeover.

A NEW FUTURE

“What the agreement does, in my opinion, is take away our philosophical boundaries,” said Alexandar Donev, Macedonia’s former director of the Agency for Promotion and Support of Tourism. “It takes away the word ‘former’ from our name, and stops defining us as something we were in the past. It sets us free to be present with a much clearer and positive vision for our future.”

Donev is now the owner of Mustseedonia, a sustainability consultancy and travel operation that leads eco-adventure tours. He sat at a cafe on a bistro-lined street in the Debar Maalo neighborhood of North Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, a city with a millennia-old heart where business meetings often turn into multicourse, three-hour lunches.

“Our physical strengths and the cultural experiences that we’ve been perfecting for centuries – like our food, wine and traditions – have never been in question,” he said.

The crux of the issue between Greece and North Macedonia – once a republic within Yugoslavia from the end of the Second World War until 1991, when it declared independence – stems from the fact that Greece has its own province named Macedonia, which borders the country of North Macedonia. The Greeks have long argued that an independent nation of the same name on its northern frontier represented a territorial threat.

"My main hope and feeling is that North Macedonia’s name change represents a positive sense of freedom for locals and travellers alike."

The accord, which quelled those territorial tensions by adding the geographical determinant, North, was the culmination of many years of UN-mediated negotiations that had intensified in recent months amid hopes by Western governments that a breakthrough would allow newly named North Macedonia to join the international alliances and would stabilise the western Balkans.

ONE OF THE OLDEST HUMAN SETTLEMENTS IN EUROPE

Kocho Angjushev, North Macedonia’s deputy prime minister, said the country is already seeing an uptick in favourable publicity, which he believes increases its economic potential.

Arguably, this positive surge is coming at the right time for the nation – just before tourism high season, which traditionally extends from late spring into the autumn. The timing also dovetails well for travellers to discover the Balkan region, one of the continent’s burgeoning cultural and adventure destinations.

A microcosm of the region, North Macedonia stuffs the entire gamut of Balkan experiences into its small size. Travellers sleep in nomadic shepherd settlements and huts during multiday hikes. They dance in nightclubs until the early morning hours. And they stumble upon traditional festivals in villages, where horn-and-drum rhythms pulsate and tables overflow with grilled meats, vegetables, cheeses and breads – and excellent local wine.

A dream for do-it-yourself adventurers, North Macedonia’s mountains run down its western edge and form the border with Kosovo and then Albania before reaching Greece. Along the string of peaks, three national parks and the enormous Lake Ohrid dominate the landscape. In 1980, UNESCO inscribed the Ohrid region, where centuries-old Orthodox Christian monasteries perch atop hills overlooking the water, as “one of the oldest human settlements in Europe”.

Further north, just off Skopje’s main square, travellers can embrace the city’s historic diversity in the Ottoman-era bazaar, known as Carsija (CHAR-she-yah). Here, cobblers, jewellers, cafes, wine bars, markets, souvenir shops and restaurants share street space along the tangle of flagstone pedestrian avenues winding through the district.

“My main hope and feeling is that North Macedonia’s name change represents a positive sense of freedom for locals and travellers alike,” said Donev, the tour operator. “By working to ease tensions with a neighbour, we are setting a clear message and example to visitors, citizens, the region, and the world about the power of compromise and understanding. Love of one’s country is important, but why should love stop at a border?”

By Alex Crevar © The New York Times 

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