My article on the Mountains of Macedonia from the Autumn 2018 edition of the Mountain Training publication, “The Professional Mountaineer”:
Ask people their favourite European walking destinations and it’s unlikely Macedonia will receive a single mention. Yet this sparsely populated Balkans republic has much to offer the adventurous hill walker. Innumerable peaks rise to over 2000m, many lending themselves perfectly to long day walks in seemingly endless, pristine wilderness.
In terms of both access and interest the western half of Macedonia is our favoured destination, being home to the major mountain massifs and two international airports. The capital Skopje and the lakeside town of Ohrid make the best bases from which to explore.
For the first time visitor, the following walks give a good taste of what Macedonia has to offer:
Most visitors to Macedonia end up in Ohrid, a picturesque town nestled on the shore of Lake Ohrid, one of the world’s oldest lakes. Galičica (‘Galichitsa’) is the name of both a National Park and the mountain range it encompasses. It runs the length of Lake Ohrid, dividing it from its twin to the east, Lake Prespa. At the southern end of the range lies Magaro. At 2255m its summit is the highest point in the National Park, yet it offers one of the easiest and best walks in the area.
Magaro is separated from the rest of Galičica by the only road to pass over the range, which provides a convenient start point to this marvellous half-day excursion. The route begins in cool beech woods then climbs a rocky runnel, before levelling out at an impressive amphitheatre, surrounded by towering white cliffs. The circular route to and from the summit follows the rim of these cliffs, up via grassy slopes and down via a dry gully. En-route, you’ll stumble upon WW1 earthworks and probably marvel at the incongruous radio wave reflector – a throwback to communist Yugoslavia looking like a huge advertising hoarding stuck half way up a mountain. From the summit it’s possible to see both Lakes Ohrid and Prespa in one sweeping panorama. Come here in spring and wild crocuses will be in bloom.
Drive west from Skopje on the E-65 motorway to Tetovo and a long chain of peaks soon fills your horizon. These are the Šar Planina, or Shar Mountains and form Macedonia’s border with Kosovo. The highest peak, Titov Vrv (Tito’s Peak, 2747m) sits near the middle of the range and a walk to its summit, complete with old watchtower, is one not to be missed.
Titov Vrv is accessed from Popova Šapka, a ski resort in the hills overlooking Tetovo. The ‘tourist’ route takes a well-marked trail rising steadily for 12km across the flanks of intervening peaks to pop out at a col below the final summit. Fit parties should save this route for the return as there is a much better approach: Head straight up the hill behind Popova Šapka. This is Ceripašina (2531m) and its grassy, domed top is reached after a couple of hours’ uphill toil. From Ceripašina, a great undulating ridge stretches south west to Titov Vrv. This rollercoaster ride dips and climbs for around 10km, crossing unnamed summits to the conical Bakardan, before dropping steeply to the col mentioned earlier. If you’re lucky you’ll see alpine chough up here.
After the final climb to Titov Vrv, it’s some relief to know that it’s downhill all the way back! Return to the col and take a moment to look at the lie of the land: Bakardan, Titov Vrv and sister peak Mal Turčin rise around a grassy cirque in almost perfect symmetry. Locals call this triumvirate krunata, the crown. A grassy path leaves the col for the flanks of Bakardan, leading easily and directly back to Popova Šapka.
Straddling the border in a wild and remote corner of Mavrovo National Park, the majestic, sprawling Korab (2764m) is the highest mountain in both Macedonia and Albania.
An out-and-back journey to the top begins from a remote border police outpost at Strežimir, reached after an ‘entertaining’ hour’s drive up a badly rutted dirt track. A path leaves the wooded slopes around Strežimir for open hillside and steadily winds its way upwards. So far views have been limited. However as you crest a spur, suddenly there before you lies one of the finest views in Macedonia. Left, across a deep-cut valley lies the Kabaš ridge – a line of jagged teeth just aching to be climbed. Ahead lies Kobilino Pole, the mare’s field, a vast grassland plateau punctuated by wild flowers and scattered flocks of sheep. At its head totter the immense, crumbling crags of Mal (little) Korab. The main summit, Golem (big) Korab appears as an unassuming grassy lump from here. The path continues, flanking around Kobilino Pole before striking upwards. It’s not until the last few metres that the summit reveals its true character, as the ground gives way on three sides to reveal towering cliffs and a tightrope ridge crest leading precariously to two lower summits. Views are expansive, into the depths of Albania and Macedonia. The summit tower on Titov Vrv is often visible on a clear day.
Many trails in Macedonia are marked with red/white flashes on rocks or trees, but few are maintained outside the popular areas so be prepared to hunt around for the correct route. Detailed 1:25k maps are available but obtaining them is difficult and shrouded in bureaucracy. More readily available are various 1:40k tourist hiking maps (poor quality, limited detail but better than nothing). Scans of 1950’s Soviet 1:50k maps can be found online. Nowadays we use open source GPS mapping in conjunction with whatever paper maps we can get our hands on.
Macedonian mountains offer relatively easy walking, typically through oak and beech woods lower down, becoming grassy and rocky with altitude. Summits generally comprise well weathered limestone and trails tend to stay clear of dangerous terrain. The biggest problems likely to be encountered are a lack of shelter and water. Even in the spring, temperatures can hit 30 degrees so make sure you and your party are well equipped to deal with the heat and full glare of the sun. Take plenty to drink and start early to take advantage of the cooler morning air. Mountain areas are typically remote and help is rarely a phone call away so it’s wise to leave details of your route with your lodgings. Local weather forecasts a day or two before a walk are reliable in our experience.
Macedonia is home to brown bears and wolves but you are unlikely to encounter them. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to make your presence known: talk loudly, particularly when entering wooded areas to ensure any beasties have time to run away. Also beware the indigenous Šarplaninec sheepdog. Trained to defend the flock from bear and wolf attack, they are likely to see you as a threat. If you find yourself wandering into a flock of sheep out on the mountain, just ensure the shepherd sees you before his dogs do!
When to visit:
May to October offers the best period for mountain walking, although July & August can be too hot.
Unless joining an organised walk or employing the services of a local guide, a car is pretty much essential to get around in Macedonia. If taking a group out, most towns will have at least one taxi driver with a ‘kombi’ (minibus), who can be hired by the day.