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The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia resides on the Balkan Peninsula, next to Greece, and is a surprisingly diverse place. This proud, diminutive landlocked nation is a place of intriguing cities, vineyards, mountains, lakeside beaches and ancient ruins. However, due to a sketchy public transport network, it is best explored by car, especially the southern tourist meccas of Ohrid and Strumica.
Most Macedonia highways are tolled, even those in poor condition. Signage can be confusing and is represented in the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, so a good map and GPS is advised. The use of dipped headlights in the daytime and the carrying of a warning triangle are compulsory.
Driving licences: either a UK licence or an International Driving Permit are good for driving legally here though the newer UK picture licences are fine by themselves.
Which side does Macedonia drive on: the right.
Motorways: 74mph (120kph)
Rural areas: 49mph (80kph) or 62mph (100kph)
Built-up areas: 31mph (50kph)
Alcohol limits: Macedonia has a lower tolerance to drink driving than the UK, with a permitted alcohol level of 0.05 per cent compared to the UK’s 0.08 per cent limit. There are severe penalties for infringers.
Driving age: 18 years to drive, but 21 years to rent a car. Drivers of hired vehicles must have held their licence for at least two years.
Seatbelts: all passengers are to wear them, while children under 12 years have to sit in the rear.
Mobile phones and GPS: drivers can talk on a mobile phone or operate a GPS system via a hands-free kit only. Police regularly watch out for violators.
Cost of fuel in Macedonia: both petrol and diesel are considerably cheaper than they are in the UK, especially diesel.
Car hire and fuel payment: some filling stations accept credit cards though the country is mostly a cash society, so having local currency to hand is a good idea. On the other hand, international car hire suppliers all accept credit card payment. Notify your credit card company prior to travel if you intend to use your card here.
Insurance: major car hire firms typically rent vehicles with fully comprehensive insurance. Additional insurance such as collision damage waiver is usually extra.
Traffic and parking: park in secure places in Macedonian cities as car theft is a risk. It is best to avoid driving in Skopje or Bitola, where locals often double park. Traffic peaks in the cities during morning and evening rush hours.
Rail travel to Macedonia is sketchy, with the most useful connection for tourists being from neighbouring Greece. However, services have been suspended on occasion and are not reliable. Train enthusiasts might consider the Balkan Flexipass, which allows for unlimited first-class travel through Macedonia and neighbouring Balkan nations for between 5 and 15 days from £140. Domestic rail travel is cheap and better than bus travel though trains are typically slow and only serve main destinations, such as Skopje, Bitola and Gevgelia.
Taxis are cheap by Western European standards. They are metered, although drivers may quote a flat rate in a city during peak season. The starting rate is typically under £0.65, with fares increasing every kilometre travelled. Even in the capital, fares for short rides shouldn’t run over £2. Prices are typically double in the large cities of Skopje, Bitola and Ohrid. Although Bitola is sizeable, Skopje is the only place that warrants extensive taxi use.
Buses serve all destinations within Macedonia and are a better alternative to trains away from the main destinations. Travel first class to be sure of working air conditioning and better facilities.
Alexander the Great Airport or Skopje airport is the main gateway. It is located 20kms southeast of the Capital city of Skopje and receives direct flights from London. Buses into the city cost around £1.30, while taxis can cost up to £20. Ohrid’s St. Paul the Apostle Airport is the country’s secondary airport and a gateway to the southwest and the beaches at Ohrid Lake.
Many visitors come to Macedonia for Skopje and its charming old town. Main sights here are the centuries-old Mustafa Pasha Mosque and the Church of the Holy Saviour. It’s best to park outside town and take in the pedestrianised alleys on foot.
The other must-see is UNESCO World Heritage Ohrid, a stunning, small city on the banks of the sublime Lake Ohrid in the southwest. There are Byzantine churches and art galleries aplenty here, as well as beaches.
To the east is the other major centre, Bitola. Though not as charming as Ohrid, it is worth visiting on a loop from Skopje to see the impressive ruins at nearby Heraclea. Pelister National Park is a popular side trip from Bitola.
Other worthwhile stops are the central mountain town of Kruševo, noted for its Ottoman-centric museums and skiing base; the archaeological sites near the eastern town of Štip; and vibrant Strumica in the southeast, renowned for its hiking, waterfalls and the Strumica Carnival in March.
Those with more time could drive to Mount Korab on the Albanian border for fantastic hiking and a look at the Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery.
Macedonia is continental, with hot summers and cold winters. It shares the same weather as northern Greece, meaning there are plenty of sunny, hot days from April to October. Rainfall is minimal and quite uniform, while ski resorts get good snow from November to March/April. Summer temperature averages in July and August are 23°C (73°F), although you will regularly see highs in excess of 37°C (100°F). Nights are cooler in lofty areas of the country.