North Macedonia qualified for the European Championships – the country’s first time making it this far in a major tournment in history. The team lost 3-1 to Austria in their first match; 2-1 to Ukraine in their second game and will play against the Netherlands on June 21. To mark the occasion, here are 25 things you did not know about the Balkan country.
1. That’s ‘North Macedonia’ to you
The country has had some controversy around its name, with Greece also laying claim to the title of Macedonia for one of its northern regions, much of which fell within the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. The dispute was a hot potato, which is why Macedonia was officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – or FYROM for short. All this has been resolved now with the addition of ‘North’ to the country’s name.
2. It’s high
There are more than 50 lakes and 34 mountains higher than 2,000 metres. It has the fifth highest average elevation of any country in Europe (741m), behind Andorra (highest), Switzerland, Austria and Turkey.
3. And old
Without being drawn on where Greece begins and North Macedonia ends, the ancient kingdom of Macedon dates back to 808BC and was ruled mostly by the founding dynasty of the Argeads, though modern-day North Macedonia most closely relates to the ancient kingdom of Paeonia, north of the kingdom of Macedonia. Skopje, the capital, is said to be seven thousand years old.
4. So old in fact, that…
There are said to be parts of the cross on which Jesus was crucified in the foundations of three monasteries in the country – St Bogodorica Prechista in Kichevo and St Jovan Bigorski and St Georgij Pobedonosec in Debar. Across the country there are nearly 1,000 churches and monasteries, while the city of Ohrid was once notable for having 365 churches, one for each day of the year. It has been accordingly nicknamed the Jerusalem of the Balkans.
5. But it has just one Unesco site
Ohrid is the country’s only Unesco World Heritage site. The city and its lake (Lake Ohrid) are counted as both cultural and natural inclusions, one of only 28 sites around the world to be marked as both.
6. NASA is a fan
Kokino, to the north of the country, is one of the world’s oldest observatories, as recognised by NASA and dating back to the 19th century BC. It is inscribed on a Unesco “tentative” list of protection.
7. It has a saintly daughter…
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, recently made a saint by Pope Francis, was born in Skopje in 1910, though she was Albanian by ethnicity at the time of her birth. Today, there is both a statue of her and museum dedicated to her life.
8. …and a great son
Alexander the Great, the once-king of the Kingdom of Macedonia was the world’s first conqueror, who extended an empire across Greece and Persia to India and Egypt. On an awkward note, his legacy is also claimed by Greece, which is why…
9. This giant statue is slightly mysterious
The hugely controversial statue in Skopje’s central square is officially named ‘Warrior on a Horse’ though most observers believe it is meant to depict Alexander the Great. Whatever it is called, it is monumental at 28 metres (92-foot) high, weighing 30 tons and costing an estimated €9.4 million. And it is hard not to feel its size is disproportionate.
10. It has its own St Tropez
“Trpejca, a small sleepy town on the banks of Lake Ohrid, is known as the St Tropez of Macedonia,” writes Telegraph Travel’s Adrian Bridge, who visited two years ago. “God knows why, but it is very pretty.”
11. And prides itself on its peacocks
At the southern tip of Lake Ohrid, the St Naum Monastery visited by Adrian on his trip, which dates back to 910AD, also had the unexpected bonus of a pride of peacocks roaming the grounds.
12. It has a country within
“The village of Vevčani high in the hills to the north of Lake Ohrid is famous for its springs, its appeal to artists - and for the fact that briefly following the break-up of Yugoslavia it declared itself the independent Republic of Vevčani,” writes Adrian. “The village – population 2,500 – still likes to think of itself as a separate entity, with its own passports and currency. And if you drink enough Vevčani wine, you can become an honorary citizen.”
13. Macedonia Two Flags
That’s what the other European states call it in the playground. The country’s current flag has been in use since 1995 and displays a golden yellow sun with eight rays extending to the edges, but in 1992-1995 a smaller sun occupied only the centre of the fabric. It will be of little surprise to learn that the flag change came about due to the usage of a symbol, the Vergina Sun, that annoyed the Greeks, as they claimed it was historically Greek.
14. It kept the peace
FYR Macedonia was one of the only countries during the break-up of Yugoslavia to remain at peace throughout.
15. No need for a visa
British passport holders do not need a visa to visit (for up to three months). The Foreign Office says that most visits to the country are trouble-free.
16. Its capital has been shaken up
Capital Skopje has been hit by at least two devastating earthquakes in its history, the most recent of which was in 1963. The magnitude 6.1 quake destroyed 80 per cent of the city and killed more than 1,070 people.
17. It boasts cave behemoths
Cave Peshna is said to have one of the biggest entries in the Balkan region and resemble Helm’s Deep from Lord of the Rings.
18. And a gigantic cross
Skopje is home to the world’s fifth biggest cross, in the 66-metre high Millennium Cross, built to mark 2,000 years of Christianity in North Macedonia. It sits atop Vodno Mountain in the city and can be reached by cable car.
19. Poets love to hang out there
Struga is the site of the annual Struga Poetry Evenings where, since 1961, one of the world’s largest gatherings of poets takes place each year. Its own award, the Golden Wreath, has been bestowed upon the likes of WH Auden, Ted Hughes and Allen Ginsberg.
20. It has its own Elvis Presley
Toše Proeski, dubbed the “Elvis Presley of the Balkans”, was one of the region’s most successful pop stars. He was killed at the age of 26 in a car crash in Croatia, but his spirit lives on in his home town of Kruševo, still visited today by his fans.
21. And a wedding party of sorts
This bizarre array of stones is said by legend to be a petrified wedding party – formed some 50,000 years ago. Found in Kuklici near the city of Kratovo, one can make out (at a push) the bride, the groom, the best man and the maid of honour.
22. The Ottomans left behind some pretty neat history
Thanks to its membership of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century, there are a number of remarkable mosques, including the multi-coloured Painted Mosque, built in 1495 and said to be one of the most resplendent specimens of Islamic architecture in the world.
23. It has three national parks
Macedonia boasts three national parks, of which Mavrovo is the largest. It was founded in 1949 and takes in the artificial Lake Mavrovo, as well as the highest mountain peaks in the country, allowing for skiing and snowboarding in the winter. “Mavrovo’s impressive forests contain more than 100 rare species of trees, and its rugged hilltops are rich in wild herbs and teas that can be easily collected by hand,” says the tourist board.
24. Football’s alright…
But handball is where it’s at for Macedonian sports fans (NB. not actually as popular as football). In 2002 Skopje’s Kometal team won the EHF Women’s Champions League European Cup. The national team is still yet to qualify for an Olympics, but apparently it’s real popular. On the subject of football, the North Macedonian team qualified for the 2020 UEFA Championships for the first time in history.
25. No one knows what flavour its national drink is
The Macedonian cuisine, owing to its geographical position, is inspired by Mediterranean, Turkish, and to a lesser extent, Italian, German and Eastern European. Tavče gravče, a multi-beaned stew, is seen as the national dish, while mastika, a liqueur seasoned with mastic, otherwise known as “Arabic gum” is its national drink.