The Balkans are associated in the common imagination with bloody conflicts, but in recent months a series of events challenged this notion. After years of grandstanding and disputes two Balkan countries finally agreed on... a name. Greece accepted to stop referring to its northwestern neighbour as Skopje, the name of its capital city. Said neighbour, for its part, agreed to stop calling itself Macedonia, recognising that there is a Macedonia in Greece, too. Thus, the republic of North Macedonia was born.
Plenty of people in both countries are unhappy with the compromise. Many Bulgarians are, too. Bulgaria never had a problem with Macedonia's name, but it has hotly opposed the idea that there is such a thing as a Macedonian nation and a Macedonian language, insisting instead that both are in fact Bulgarian.
Politics aside, now you can visit a country with millennia-old history and a brand new name, a short drive from Sofia.
Kokino prehistoric "astronomical observatory"
Your first encounter with the ancient heritage of North Macedonia will be soon after you cross the border at Gyueshevo-Kriva Palanka. The Kokino Megalithic Observatory is a spectacular prehistorical site used for astronomical observations as early as 4,000 years ago. Even if your imagination struggles to comprehend how the rough rocks might have calculated when the summer or the winter solstice would be, the place has an ethereal feel of being extraordinary.
Skopje, North Macedonia's capital, is an obvious stop. The city gained notoriety with a recent programme that crammed the centre with quirky neo-Baroque buildings and sculptures of mythical, imaginary and real historical figures of Macedonian history, many of whom are a part of the Bulgarian, the Greek and even the Roman past as well. There is also a triumphal arch modelled after the one in Paris.
The triumphal arch in Skopje was inaugurated in 2012, to celebrate the 20 years of Macedonian independence since the country's break from Yugoslavia
The rest of Skopje is a delightful mixture of the old, the new and the odd. Charming traditional houses surround an over-restored fortress. The Albanian part of the city has the best preserved Ottoman market in the Balkans and some quaint fashion and goldsmith shops that bring you back to the 1990s and before. The ruined Old Railway Station is a poignant reminder of the devastating earthquake that turned to city to ruins in 1963. The remains of an old Roman aqueduct are preserved just outside of the city, close to what is the Balkan's largest Gypsy neighbourhood.
Diversity defines North Macedonia's countryside as well. Its hilly landscape is the home of atmospheric medieval monasteries and fortresses, surviving in different stages of either dilapidation or over-reconstruction. These include Treskavec Monastery and Markovi Kuli fortress near Prilep, St George Church in Staro Zagorichane and St Jovan Bigorski Monastery. Beautiful mosaics are the showstopper in the ruins of ancient Stobi while Muslim heritage is best experienced in Tetovo where the picturesque Sharena, or Colourful, Mosque and one of the largest Dervish compounds in the Balkans live.
Young Albanian girls. Albanians are the largest minority in North Macedonia
And there is the heritage from the times when the country was a Socialist Yugoslav republic. In the 1970s-1980s a number of monuments and buildings were built in the characteristic local combination of brutalism, futurism and sheer eccentricity. The best place to see it is the Macedonium, a concrete sci-fi structure near Krusevo that commemorates the 1903 Ilinden Uprising against the Ottomans.
Ohrid is a maze of medieval churches and 19th century mansions scattered around the UNESCO-listed Ohrid Lake. The medieval St John-at-Kaneo Church is the most spectacular: a red, doll-house like building overlooks the lake and the mountains. The influx of tourists to the nearby Monastery of St Naum has ruined the solitude of the medieval abode, but the peacocks in its yard and the church where one supposedly can hear how St Naum's heart beats from his tomb remain impressive.
Macedonium Monument near Krusevo
Rich wildlife and stunning nature define North Macedonia's other great lake, Prespa. Recently, it became famous for one more thing. On the border with Greece, in 2018, the Greek and the Macedonian presidents signed the agreement that resolved the name issue between their countries. The meeting ended with a shared lunch on the Macedonian side of the border, and here one can hardly disagree: regardless on how the country is called, its Chevapi, baked beans, Ohrid trout, Zholta Rakiya and Tikves wines are, well, divine.
An old Ottoman bridge connects the Christian and the Muslim parts of Skopje
Treskavec Monastery was built in the 12th century and has preserved frescoes from the 15th century. It was recently restored after a devastating fire gutted everything but the church
St John-at-Kaneo Church at Lake Ohrid