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North Macedonia road trip in winter with cat skiing

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We went on a North Macedonia road trip in winter with cat skiing in February 2024. In North Macedonia we could go skiing as well as exploring more of the Balkans. With a rented car, we spent two nights in the capital Skopje, before driving to the skiing resort of Popova Sapka. We had planned four days of alpine skiing, but this year there was not enough snow to operate the ski lifts. Instead we drove south to lake Ohrid, before returning to Popova Sapka for two days of cat skiing.

In Skopje we joined a free walking tour, through the old bazaar area and the newly renovated center. Our guide explained that residents prefer the name Macedonia for their country, rather than North Macedonia. The name change is part of Macedonia’s path to join the European Union and comes from disputes with Greece over the region’s history. The dispute involves Alexander the Great, and the flag of Macedonia.

The statue Warrior on a horse is a reference to Alexander the Great

Much of the historical parts of Skopje were destroyed in an earthquake in 1963 while Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia. In the early 2000’s, a renovation of the city center started. New public buildings and statues in neo-classical style now dominate the center around the river Vardar.

The old bazaar area is the most atmospheric part of the center with many restaurants and small shops. Skopje was an important trading city of the Ottoman empire and enjoyed a wealthy location on important trade routes. Shops with gold and jewelry are abundant today, and our guide explained that it is a tradition to mark important life events with gifts of precious metals. As an example, the first tooth of a baby is celebrated, as this was considered an important milestone in earlier times of high child mortality rates.

We stayed at Bushi resort in Skopje, which is conveniently located in the bazaar area. We enjoyed the indoor pool and spa, as the weather in Skopje was unusually rainy. Our guide claimed that Skopje has 300 days of sunshine per year. Despite the rain, we enjoyed the days in Skopje. The city is not overwhelmingly large.

But the mountains were calling. We left Skopje and drove west towards the skiing resort Popova Sapka. On the way, we pulled in to visit the Matka canyon. It is a deep canyon with a dam and a hydro-electric powerplant. Two tour agencies operate boat tours on the lake beyond the dam. We opted for the longer tour that includes a visit to Vrelo cave. According to the guide, the cave system is the second-deepest cave in Europe. The cave system is flooded, so it is only a small, upper part that can be visited.

Matka canyon

We had partly sunny weather and enjoyed the short boat ride through the canyon. The river has cut a deep canyon through the mountains, and for every turn, a new panorama appeared.

We continued towards Popova Sapka and passed Tetovo. Our walking tour guide had warned us that the most crazy Macedonian driving happened here. We experienced no drama. But the traffic was slow, despite double lane streets. That was partly because one of the lanes was consistently used for parking, often also double parking.

Snow chains are mandatory in Macedonia, and Sixt had left a set in the trunk of our Skoda Karooq. As we started ascending towards Popova Sapka we could see a bit of snow on the side of the road, but the road had no snow and good grip all the way to the top. We parked in front of Hotel Scardus and debated what to do.

Before leaving Skopje, the hotel manager had called to tell us that the ski resort was closed, and that we could cancel the reservation if we wished. We had decided to go despite this, to evaluate options. We could see people around the hotel dressed up for skiing, and we asked them about this. They explained that the ski lifts were indeed closed, but that a tour agency offered guided cat skiing and ski touring. We found a guide from Shar Outdoors, and they had cat skiing spots available for the last two days of the four days we had planned in Popova Sapka. We happily accepted that. It turned out that Shar Outdoors used Hotel Scardus as their base. We had randomly chosen the hotel that enabled us to go skiing after all. How lucky!

Lake Ohrid

Instead of waiting two days in Popova Sapka we drove south to Lake Ohrid. The lake and town of the same name is a popular tourist resort and must be busy in summer. The town has a pre-Roman amphitheater and old city walls that surround a historic center with winding streets below the imposing castle. There are churches and mosques everywhere, and it was a very pleasant town to stroll around and to have a coffee at one the many lakeside cafes.

Church in Ohrid

We stayed a night at Hotel Tina Sveti Stefan, and used the morning the drive south to the picturesque St Naum monastery at the south end of the lake, close to the Albanian border.

St Naum monastery

After a short visit to the reconstructed iron age village in the Bay of Bones, we drove north again. The driving was slow, as most of the driving was on a half-finished highway.

Bay of Bones

We checked in at Hotel Scardus again and had an evening safety briefing with cat ski guides from Shar Outdoors. They were very professional and took avalanche safety seriously. We were equipped with a backpack with an airbag that inflates in avalanches, and also a radio transmitter. The guides checked the function of the equipment every morning before starting. We rented freeride skis and boots.

The “cat” belted vehicle that took us into the mountains

The weather was perfect, and with the snow cat, the guides took us to areas with deep powder, where we could free ride. Only around 50 skiers are allowed on the mountain a day, because it is a natural park. We felt like having the mountain to ourselves. We heard from other tourists that Macedonia is a good place for cat skiing, and one of only a few places in Europe where it is possible.

N ready for freeriding. Equipped with the backpack containing an airbag for avalanche safety.
The Shar mountains

Free ride skis are wider than alpine skis to give better control in the deep snow. It was our first time cat skiing, and it was a good experience. Another first, was dog-sledding in Norway.

While our car was parked at Hotel Scardus, we noticed that a tire was flat. The rental agency could not help, but a Shar outdoors guides called one of their mechanics, and together they fixed the flat tire. It was the day before we had to return to the airport, and without their help we would have been in trouble.

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